Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: January, 2012

Reflections on Life: Busyness vs. Meaning

“Life comes at you fast.”  It’s a simple yet profound statement.  (It’s also as great slogan for a large insurance company.)   Life is filled with opportunity to “do” an unlimited number of things.  And for some strange reason, we often seem to mistake “busyness” for “meaning.”  Far to many of us unwittingly equate having too many things “to do” with success and significance, yet we find little satisfaction in life.  We don’t intend to let it happen, but somehow it does.  Like proverbial “frogs in a pot.,” we don’t realize the water is boiling until it is too late to do anything about it.

While Thoreau said most mean lead live lives of quiet desperation, it seems like many of us are living lives of “excited misery.”  It starts before we are even aware of it.  When parents, in an earnest desire to see their children succeed, struggle to get them into the “best” and most demanding schools, enroll them in dance class, sign them up for little league and schedule them for SAT prep courses they may inadvertently set their children on this path.   There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those well-intentioned efforts.  Except that it can create a subtle message for children that “busyness is good” and the source of meaning in life.  Achievement and recognition become tools for measuring one’s life and its significance.  Those children may then grow in to achievement oriented young adults that take on more and more only to find themselves racing from school to work, to the ballpark, dance recitals and music lessons, all the while both living vicariously through there children yet dreading the lack of “margin” in their lives.  Yet we would likely admit we have far too much stress in our lives and worry about the impact it has on our health.  How then, do we escape.

Perhaps it is time to measure our lives in terms of “meaning” rather than achievement.  Perhaps it is time to measure satisfaction in terms of the quality of our relationships rather than by more temporal measures of our significance. Perhaps it is time to “do” less.  This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t give back to our communities through the Chamber of Commerce, our places of worship, or in the variety of places we can invest our lives.  It is to suggest that no man or woman ever laid on his death bed and wanted to have his awards, plaques, trophies, or other symbols of his achievements gathered around him when he passes from this life. In our last moments, most of us would prefer to be surrounded by friends and family who would gather around us to share the memories of a life invested in others.  Living today with our last days in mind is sometimes unsettling because deep inside us we know we aren’t living today the way we really want.  Life keeps getting in the way of the things we really want to do.

Ambition and achievement build many good things in this world.  And they do require sacrifice. The call here is simply to “count the costs” to make a conscience and deliberate decision about how much sacrifice is enough.  We must count the cost to our health and families with each opportunity we face “to do” something.  When we do we will find ourselves invigorated by the commitments we make and confident the legacy leave will be the one we chose, rather than one chosen for us.

Keep the faith.

One last personal note.  Like most everything else you’ll find in this place….”Physician, heal thyself!” applies here.

Reflections on Leadership: Integrity

Theologians and philosopher have debated the value and definition of integrity for generations.  In some cases, those debates have centered on the eternal consequences of their divergent definitions of good and bad conduct.  Those debates are an essential part of any meaningful dialogue about integrity. However, on this side of eternity, it seems there are several practical implications about the value of the integrity of a leader.  In short, it seems integrity is the heart and soul of leadership.

But what is integrity?  For this discussion integrity can be defined as the sum of the following values:

  • Honesty: telling the truth when no other obligation to confidentiality exists.
  • Fairness: applying the same standard of conduct, expectation, and reward to everyone, including oneself.
  • Reliability:  consistently doing what you say you will do.
  • Commitment:  a willingness to sacrifice and serve others in achieving a defined goal.

While human frailty, especially the fear it includes, can make these values a challenge to “live”, genuine leaders know their “body of work” must be based on these principles.  Their teams will grant them the grace to fail if the direction of their “walk” is rooted in these values.  And for very pragmatic reasons, leaders consistently demonstrate integrity in their roles.

Without integrity in a leader teams become distracted and ineffective.  In the absence of honesty, uncertainty sets in.  Teams become cautious and suspicious.  In the absence of fairness, they become resentful of one another and their would be leader.  When leaders are not reliable apathy or “what’s the use?” will emerge.  And in the absence of commitment, resentment will deepen in to defection from the team or even sabotage of the mission.  In truth, when any of these are in short supply, productivity falls and teams underperform.  At some point when the leader turns to see his team, he realizes no one if following and he is simply “going for a walk.”

Because integrity “feels” intangible it is hard to measure.  It is rarely recognized as a performance indicator.  Yet people instinctively “know it when they see it.” While some may place little value on it, most, it seems, are instinctively drawn to leaders who approach their roles with integrity.  The evidence to support these conclusions can be found in employee engagement surveys, public opinion polls, and in the anecdotal analysis found around the break room coffee pot.  The challenge is for leaders to invest the time in self-examination.  They must ask themselves “How is my demonstration of integrity, or the lack of it, affecting my team’s performance, engagement, and loyalty?”  The wise leader will have the courage to answer the question with the honesty it requires.

One final and personal note.  When my children were growing up I told them, “Virtue is its own reward.”  That is often the case on this side of eternity.  Integrity is frequently the more difficult path, at least in the short run.  And it can be met with resistance by those of smaller heart, mind, and character.  Live it any way!

Keep the faith.

Reflections on Leadership: The Power of Belief

No one can live or achieve beyond what he believes.  That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? It’s a simple statement yet profound, nonetheless.  For years a belief that the world is flat kept men close to shore, afraid to leave the sight of land. That mistaken belief created a smaller world, limiting it to only what could be seen. Those who would argue the “truth” of the earth’s shape were likely ridiculed for challenging what had been established, perhaps not unlike those who might contend Tim Tebow can actually remain a starting and winning quarterback in the NFL.  While the consequences of that particular belief are not so great, at least for everyone but Tim, leaders do not have the luxury of holding on to what may be errant and misguided beliefs.  To do so is to limit the achievement of those who would follow us toward meeting personal, professional, and organizational goals.

What we believe can sustain us and inspire others.  Or those beliefs can become metaphorical bars that subtly, but completely, imprison us.  In Tim Tebow’s case, it appears he doesn’t grasp the fact he is not meant to be “successful” much as a bumblebee doesn’t realize he should be incapable of flight.  Yet Tim hasn’t let that stop him from getting his team into the playoffs this season and winning his first playoff game.  Yet if leaders allow themselves to hold a mistaken belief about our ability, or that of our team, we place a ceiling on our own impact on the world.  Just as Tim would if he entered a huddle with the belief the Broncos could not win under his leadership.

The difficulty for many would-be leaders lies in identifying what one actually believes.  Asking and answering difficult questions about themselves is an essential skill for effective leaders.  In some cases, we cannot find the right questions and must simply examine our conduct to discern what we truly believe.  Our conduct is a great indicator of what we believe we can accomplish just as are the words we speak.  If our thoughts and speech are “littered” with references to difficulty, lack of resources, skills, people, education, or if we can only focus on the advantages held by others, we will find ourselves failing to attempt great things.  If our conduct reveals a lack of willingness to take risk, listen to alternative points of view, demand our own way, or excuse our performance or that of our the team we lead, we have likely become victims of our own belief system.  To paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you believe you can or you cannot accomplish something, you are right.

To suggest that positive thinking and believing will overcome every challenge is not the point.  Indeed, no matter how much a 6’7” 245 pound man (like me!) believes he can ride to success and win the Triple Crown, it will not happen.  While realism is a valuable trait in a leader, he must never use it to excuse attempting great things.  Most would never say, “it can’t be done.”  Rather, they would barricade themselves behind the thinking and speech noted above.  Genuine leaders know they examine themselves and weed out unprofitable thinking and beliefs.  They know the most important conversation they will have today is the one they have with themselves.

Keep the faith.

Reflections on Leadership: Running the Rapids in a New Year

Ask anyone who has ever been white water rafting or kayaking and they can confirm the white knuckled excitement it brings.  Running the rapids is both thrilling and frightening, and, very often, very wet.  Yet the experience is an excellent metaphor for leadership as we reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of the past year and anticipate those of the coming one.  Leadership, like kayaking in white water, is not for the faint of heart, nor the unprepared.

To lead is to anticipate.  Just as the kayaker must carefully study the river prior to entering the rapid, so too must the leader study the ebb and flow of the waters in which he or she paddles.  Finding just the right spot, or V, in the rapid in which to enter helps, though does not assure, a successful run.  To enter without study and anticipation is to invite calamity rather than success.  As leaders, we must look down the river, sometimes pausing to determine our point of entry into a challenge and how to pass through it.    Occasionally, the kayaker must pull the boat ashore and walk downstream to examine the challenge from a safe distance.  Rather than rush into the rapid in search of the exhilaration from a successful run, leadership requires the courage to be a student of the challenge before seeking its glory.

To lead is to prepare.  No wise or effective leader takes on a task without preparation. Because even the most experienced and accomplished kayakers know they cannot control the river, they prepare.  Like them, we must talk to others who have run the river before us to learn from their experiences.  Leaders must evaluate their people and their plans before heading downstream.  We must understand the skills and abilities of those who would travel downriver with us,  considering our companions passion and resolve. In preparation for the journey, the kayaker wears both vest and helmet as protection from the unexpected.  The leader’s preparation must include contingency plans and the flexibility to adapt when the unforeseen arises.  Just as foolishness and pride can lead to disaster on the river, so it can it in business, community life, and at home.

Leaders lead. Wait. What?  Anyone who would lead has some inherent understanding of this.  Leaders lead because, well, it is what they do.  It is difficult to explain as is convincing someone afraid of water of the joy found on the river. Leaders are not without fear yet they find the courage to keep running downstream.  Like the kayaker, they thrive on the sense of accomplishment from a day on the river and look forward to the next opportunity to test themselves.   To lead is to tap a reserve of courage in the face of chaos and to run your line while knowing the risk.  In the swirl and roar of the white water the leader finds his purpose.

As the 2012 dawns leaders must set aside critical time to “study to river.”  They must anticipate what is downstream.   It is a time for reflection.  A time to check our “gear.”  It is a time to ask ourselves,  what contingencies must we make?  We can and we should celebrate our successes from 2011, being diligent to thank those who helped us get through the white water of the year.  It is also a time for boldness.  For courage.  It is a time to lead.

Keep the Faith.