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

Month: April, 2012

Reflections on Leadership: Of Leadership and Civility

It has been suggested that in a polite society (and perhaps in such a format as this) one should never discuss politics or religion. But such a prescription, intended to avoid conflict, fails to recognize the central roles these matters play in our lives. We have managed to become a society, far from polite, that doesn’t discuss such topics. Instead of discussion, many resort to simply, rebuking, and demonizing even the most thoughtful of those who disagree with their particular from of doctrine, be it political, economic, social, or theological. While both civil statutes and case law may limit how such discussions can play out in education and business, they have done nothing to stem the tide of vitriol. The time has come for genuine leaders to create an environment of civil discourse mutual respect, while remaining faithful to their own convictions.

Before answering the question, “What is a leader to do?”, let’s first attempt a definition of leadership. In this case, let’s define a leader as one genuinely interested “fixing problems” rather than “fixing blame.” Many commentators, social activists, politicians, and theologians today, seem more interested in attacking the messengers of variant beliefs rather than thoughtfully examining and debating their merits. Such positions are not reserved for any particular faith, political party, social change movement or cable network. When they exercise in such conduct they are simply “playing to the crowd” or “preaching to the choir.” They are not leading. Additionally, a leader is one who recognizes the heterogeneity of 21st century life and longs to create a culture of respect within it. For our definition, leaders are those individuals who want to foster respect and protection those who are different from themselves. They do so in the hopes of receiving the same in return.

With this limited definition in mind, what is a leader to do? Volumes might be written to answer such a question but for the moment consider that leaders must do four things to promote a culture of civil discourse; they listen well, demonstrate respect, and re-engineer solutions.

Listening seems to be a lost skill in our culture today. Regrettably, many seem to have mistaken listening with complicity or “giving up ground.” Any successful businessman or woman knows the value of active listening. To act effectively, one must first understand. To treat disease, a proper diagnosis is required. Too often would be leaders have concluded they hold the solution to a problem without investing time into hearing divergent opinions and proposals. Leaders remain open to change considering it an essential part of their character rather than a flaw within it.

Demonstrating respect is an essential component of leading well. It is the active part of listening. When genuine leaders listen, they will, no doubt, hear things with which they disagree. In such times they do not assail the “ignorance,” character, or intentions of another. They actively and genuinely acknowledge the concerns, grievances or perspectives of the individual. Even when that individual is incorrect, disrespectful, or acting from selfish motivation, the leader chooses to rise above the personal shortcomings of another refusing to be drawn into the morass of personalizing the matter.

Finally, genuine leaders demonstrate a willingness to reengineer solutions. They have a strong sense of “I could be wrong.” When it comes to solutions they have themselves set in place they are willing to learn they were wrong. In doing so, they welcome refinements and outright abandonment of what is not working. Their sense of confidence allows them the liberty of humility. Leaders will allow for the possibility that not only is the solution misguided, the definition of the problem has been as well. Their willingness to change is a tangible demonstration of the respect and listening “skills” noted above.

There is an allegory told about three blind men touching different parts of an elephant. The tale is meant to illustrate how individual experience limits our perspective. One holds the tail, one the trunk and another touches a leg. When asked what they are each holding the one with the tails says, “It is a coarsely braided rope.” The man holding the elephant’s trunk says, “It is a great serpent.” The last man says, “It is the trunk of a tall tree.” While each man is wrong, each clearly has a good rationale for his answer, despite the fact each is touching the same animal. One wonders what a debate from these three men might sound like were it conducted on Capitol Hill, a cable network, public park or place of worship. Absent an ability to listen, respect, and re-engineer their perspectives, each would walk away unchanged. Yet the elephant would still be an elephant. Genuine leaders won’t walk away ignorant to the possibilities created from different perspectives. They will not be like these blind men. In this season whether one celebrates Easter, the Passover, or not at all, regardless of faith or political belief, let us all hope and pray for leaders who can see.

Keep the Faith!

Reflections on Leadership: What Not to Do

Effective leadership, like good wine, often comes from surprising places. It shows up to produce a memorable vintage when the right combination of warm days, cool nights, and rain meet with optimum harvesting time. It seems almost haphazard, yet when it emerges, it produces positive memories and, properly consumed, makes one feel warm all over. Regrettably, the wrong combination results in either a sharp, acrid, or watery, tasteless sort of thing that is remembered, but only for the disappointment and discouragement it produced. When would-be leaders miss the mark, they can produce the same kind of experience for their clients, peers, community, and employees.

For a moment, and with respect to the April Fool’s Day publication of this discussion, let’s consider Leadership: What Not To Do.

Treat every moment as a teachable moment

Some leaders cannot resist the chance to demonstrate their wisdom and mastery of every conceivable subject. Somehow, they believe their job is to show the way, and their expertise, in every matter. Such hubris, likely bred by insecurity, stifles creativity and diminishes individuals. Such men and women rarely grow other leaders, unless it is to produce their own “star” pupil at whom they can point and say “See. Look what I did.” Like a parent whose child receives a “91” on a math exam, they seem to always be asking, “why not better?” breeding insecurity and frustration in the child. Effective leaders don’t treat every moment as a “teachable” moment.

Fail to acknowledge legitimate critiques

Leaders who fail to listen to the honest and legitimate critiques or their company, personal performance, or effectiveness will soon find themselves like the Emperor with No Clothes. He will wander “naked” into the fray of a challenge, project, or opportunity exposed to unknown risks. Acknowledging honest critiques of process, organizational, or performance shortcomings is not a weakness. Nor is it a sign of disloyalty. Like listening to the results from an annual physical, it allows for corrections that can improve organizational health and performance. If you would lead, learn to listen, acknowledge, and reward constructive candor.

Forget to say please and thank you regularly

Common human kindness and decency are often forgotten in today’s business climate. With high unemployment and the wearisome demands of industry and commerce, it is easy for leaders to take the attitude “Where else can they go to work?” and forget their team members lives are filled with as much uncertainty and stress as their own. Their team members, generally, want to do a good job. They do not need to be thanked for every little thing they do. Nor do they expect a syrupy sweet “please” at every turn. Yet in this day of limited compensation growth and upward mobility, a phone call, and email, or dropping by to say “thank you” and “good job” are powerful motivators. When leaders elaborate on specific performance, rather than just a general reflection, team members find themselves buoyed to continue the battle. Effective leaders make the effort to say please and thank you and in doing so create relationship capital with their teams.

Accept poor performance

Most members of your team know when they are falling short of a goal. The leader’s job is fairly simple. Not easy mind you, but simple. He or she must get the team member to do more or less of something or do it better or differently. The leader’s job is to diagnose the shortcoming properly, treating the cause, not the symptom. He or she must have the courage to challenge the team member to reach the goal without adding to the discouragement probably already present in the individual. Failing to act the says neither the goal, nor the person, really matters. It tells other team members that are achieving the goal their efforts really do not matter so much either. In the end, if coaching, challenging, cajoling, and disciplinary efforts don’t work, leaders must have the courage to part ways with the team member incapable of meeting the goal. Demonstrating that courage builds clarity of purpose in your team.

Take yourself too seriously

The puffed up leader unable to laugh at his own shortcomings or with others on his team is a miserable soul. He is a carrier of despair, and sometimes, “proverbially” heart attacks and ulcers. For his own sake, this leader must learn the difference between taking his responsibilities seriously and taking himself seriously. These leaders brighten a room just be leaving it! In its place, a little talk about the kids, vacation, sports, or other interest with team members keeps the team loose. Anyone who has ever participated in a competitive sport knows the value of staying loose. Effective leaders don’t take themselves too seriously.

On this April Fool’s day, give a little thought to “what not to do.” And, as always, keep the faith!