Over the years, I’ve worked with many different clients with many different challenges. Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to learn and gain leadership insights from every matter I’ve had the opportunity to tackle. The insights below represent a few of my greatest takeaways.
The weight of it all
I don’t know any leader who is perfect. Though I know many who try to be. For every leader, some things come naturally. Other things are a struggle. Despite every leader’s best efforts (or perhaps because of them) to be a constant source of vision, inspiration, focus (…the list is endless), they’re prone to stumble from time to time and they may wobble under the enormous weight of expectations placed upon them by others. Ask any leader about their biggest fears and among their long list will be the fear of disappointing others. The paradox of it all! No good leader intends to disappoint, and yet every good leader is, ultimately, disappointing. Knowing this and, more importantly, accepting this provides the bedrock every leader needs to bear the weight of it all, stand back up, dust themselves off and, above all, keep moving.
The case for loyalty As I’ve read the headlines from Washington this week, I’m reminded that where we place our loyalties says a great deal about who we are and what we stand for. Troubling to me is the zero middle-ground, I’m right, you’re wrong world we’re living in—the intended impact of manipulating personalities who have absconded with the idea of loyalty, and are hell-bent on turning it into a calculated game of cat-and-mouse. Where loyalty was once believed to be a primary virtue, it’s fast becoming an organizing strategy to divide and separate. And that’s a shame. Just like our trust in and respect for others, the gift of our loyalty shouldn’t be taken for granted–and we shouldn’t take the loyalty of others for granted either. Whether we’re a leader in an organization or a spouse who has taken an oath, loyalty is fundamental to healthy, high-functioning human relationships. Giving our loyalty to a worthy person who has earned it and expecting it in return doesn’t make us a tyrant or a narcissist. Only a tyrant or a narcissist (and there are plenty out there) would seek to weaponize our loyalties or twist them for personal or political gain. I for one am wired for loyalty and find no shame in it. And, when I’ve earned it, I believe it’s reasonable to expect it in return.
When the truth is what anyone says it is, is it really true? When they use their truth as a tactic to discount, diminish or degrade others, does it make what they’re saying actually true? When the truth is intentionally manufactured then labeled as the truth when, if we’re being truthful with ourselves, we know it’s not, should we believe it anyway? When they manipulate and riddle the truth as a scheme to confuse and bewilder, should we join the fun? Here’s the truth about the truth: It’s real, not fake. It exists forever. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it heals. It always exposes us for who we really are. The truth knows no boundaries. It’s incapable of being persuaded by convenience. It can’t be bent by politics or forces of personality. The truth has real power. Whatever the truth actually is, it’s up to each of us to insist on finding it, then have the courage to tell it.
The responsibility is ours
We often refer to those we elect to hold an office as our “elected leaders”. We make this reference because we get caught up in the momentum they generate as a result of their carefully orchestrated campaigns, polished talking points and promises for a better tomorrow. We signal our approval by casting our vote, placing in them our faith and confidence that they will do the hard work of leadership. Along the way, we learn that “elected” and “leadership” have nothing to do with one another. Once in a while, a true leader comes along. Much of the time, though, we end up with politicians whose first priority is their own re-election. So, what are we left with? We are left with our own convictions and our own voices. We are left with a personal responsibility to lead, make a difference and, above all, not be hijacked by politics. Whether we make the choice to be a leader in our organizations, in our communities or beyond—the point is, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to lead. The responsibility is ours.
Making our way home
I recently went back to my hometown. It’s an idyllic mining town perfectly preserved in the heart of California’s Gold Country. As a kid, leaving Grass Valley was my primary ambition. I wanted nothing to do with it. At my first opportunity, I left, promising to never, ever look back. We’ve all heard the expression: “never look back”. It’s an idiom often used to frame an exciting future or a world of awaiting possibility—a way to inspire us to prevail and persevere, despite life’s most determined headwinds. We hear stories of personal triumph and, at their core, is the romanticized idea of never looking back as the basis for personal success and dreams come true. Fortunately, with age comes wisdom and the ability to see the idioms for what they are—and what they aren’t. Here’s the truth: never looking back is nothing more than a point of view with good intentions. Life teaches us that adopting a ‘never look back’ mantra doesn’t propel us. It actually holds us back. Never looking back makes it impossible to recognize our dreams and ambitions once we’ve achieved them—and so we spend years searching…and feeling perpetually shortchanged. We all have a hometown. We all started from someplace. That place, where ever it is, is part of our unique DNA. Intentionally making our way back home from time to time adds to our perspective. Appreciating our starting point is the only way we can ever fully appreciate how far we’ve come.
The great paradox of leadership
We can’t simply borrow our way to leadership. What we borrow is never ours. Sooner or later, all things borrowed must be returned. Once we’ve returned the many ideas, frameworks, and techniques we’ve collected over time, what we’re left with is the responsibility and solitude we need to develop our own critical thinking, make our own meaning, and become our own leader. We’re left with the opportunity to make borrowed ideas even better for those who might borrow from us. Leadership is a demanding, yet generous ambition. It demands that we stand on our own two feet, both firmly planted in our own values, our own sense of integrity and our own beliefs. It demands that we dig deep to find the courage to exemplify our own convictions and our own point of view, not the convenience of someone else’s. The great paradox of great leadership is that to do these things and others—and do them well—we must first be a willing borrower in order to become the leader we’re meant to be. We must then be generous so that others may benefit as they make their own way, become their own leader and cause their own difference.
What the hell just happened in Oregon?
The headline in Rolling Stone Magazine captured it well: Runaway Senators, Militias and Koch Money: What the hell just happened in Oregon? It could have happened in any state given the boiling-hot wedge that divides right from left. But it happened in my state, so it literally hit home. Setting personal politics aside, what happened in Oregon calls into question the meaning of leadership and what’s possible when leaders actually lead. When minds are closed, and backs are turned; when we are unwilling and uncooperative, we squander our responsibility as leaders. This is true in business. And it’s true in politics. Leaders—whether they lean right or lean left (I really don’t care)—don’t play games. They don’t threaten with handcuffs. And they don’t volley back with threats of bodily harm. Being a leader is hard work and it’s a tremendous responsibility. What happened in Oregon wasn’t leadership. What happened was a mockery of it. Both sides played games and accomplished nothing as a result. This cannot be the new normal. Let’s find our way back to doing the hard work of leading. With the right intentions, leadership is a kind, just and generous servant. Its reward is a middle ground that has the power to serve us all.
Action is patient
There is no such thing as a difficult decision. Most of the time, an objective perspective will quickly reveal exactly what needs to be done. What’s difficult about decisions—especially the big ones—is finding the courage to take action once they’re made. It’s easy to sit on a decision—meandering for weeks or even months, what-iffing it from every possible angle, the whole while only delaying the inevitable and the discomfort we imagine. We second guess our thought process and wonder whether the consequence of taking action outweighs the consequence of taking no action at all. We shop our decision with the wise ones whose opinions matter most. Sometimes we game this step, important as it is, by selectively choosing those we seek out, knowing full well the stand they will take—one that will bring us more ease than unease or one that will help us feel good rather than bad. Regardless of the gyrations and the time they take or the purpose they serve, the decision that came so quickly is worth nothing without action. Action is patient. You can take it now or take it later. It doesn’t care. Ultimately, it’s the only decision that matters.
The Void is every leader’s rite of passage. The Void is that drifting Major Tom space that exists between all that you’ve learned and all that’s left to learn. On one hand, the Void is exciting—imagine all the new ideas, insights and wisdom waiting in the wings planning that perfect moment to latch onto you! On the other hand, the Void is confounding, bewildering and mind-blowing. Any leader with mostly gray hair is likely navigating the Void at this moment. They know they’re in it when they hear words that once felt concrete in their definition—important words like transparency and trust—but now can feel charged and, at times, even weaponized. When leaders find themselves floating in the Void, feeling wobbly or a little unsure of things that once felt sure, the key is to keep moving through it by staying curious, open and willing to go the distance. Leadership is a glacial, ever-evolving proposition. The ordinary leader you are today pales compared to the extraordinary leader you will be a year from now. The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is how you spend your time…in between.
A leader’s art
Leadership is more art than science. It’s not a skill. It’s a talent. It’s not a position, it’s a calling. It’s not a box to check as “done”—a leader knows “done” is not an option. Every leader’s tour of duty is an uncertain and lonely journey fraught with trial and error. And through the many trials they endure and because of the many errors they make, every leader who aspires to be a great leader considers no other choice but to remain in motion, despite the halting headwinds that would argue otherwise, believing fully that doing so is wholly worthy of such effort. The dogged demonstration of this type of perseverance and strength of conviction reveals the unique art every leader has the potential to create. A leader’s art is revealed in the quality of examples they set, the values they stand for and the difference they make.
The gritty rogues
Fully truthful conversations are rare and unmistakable. They’re real and unrehearsed—free from franchised techniques aimed at calculating the perfect way to land a certain point. They’re unencumbered by nebulous meanderings leaving the other person wondering about subtext. Just the naked truth shared with another, without expectation of a specific outcome. A world like this would be much simpler—where the truth wasn’t obscured or didn’t need decoding to understand; where people weren’t judged for telling it or evaluated on how well they told it. Often the unvarnished, un-curated, courageous truth is claimed only by those gritty rogues who won’t be held hostage by the possibility of a bad landing or the likelihood of unfavorable optics. Instead, they tell it fully, with good intentions…and simply let it land.
Our dizzy patterns
We walk away from a disagreement shaking our head in bewilderment. We then pull others into the fray, seeking their validation and affirmation. This gives us temporary comfort until the next disagreement inevitably occurs—one, of course, where we’re certain we’re right and more than certain they’re wrong. Then the same well-worn, dizzy pattern plays out yet again: Where can I find validation and comfort? Who will assure I’m right? And around we go. We can avoid the dizziness and stress that exist in most human relationships by doing a quick mental step-back. Stepping back only takes a moment, but we have to have the will to do it. Ask yourself: What perspective are they coming from? What perspective am I coming from? Most disagreements happen because we’re having different conversations: One is logic-based. The other is emotion-based. And while neither is right or wrong, neither can connect—they can only bounce off one another. When we take time to recognize the other person’s starting point, we’re more likely to understand them and find a way to actually connect. When we don’t (or refuse to), all that’s left is our bewilderment…and our dizzy patterns.
The brilliant ones with the superpower
I once believed adults had all the answers. It was one of the reasons why, as a kid, I couldn’t wait to be one. I used to imagine what it would be like to have all the answers and to know absolutely everything about everything. In my kid mind, being an adult was an unbeatable superpower that dwarfed all others. All I had to do was wait a while and, I, too, could lay claim to the brilliance of adulthood. As leaders, we often burden ourselves with the same silly illusion. We imagine our brilliance as being a leader who knows it all and has an answer for everything. Somewhere along the way, we got it in our heads that knowing it all was the price of entry—a minimum standard that must be proved each day once we achieve leader status (whatever that is). The truth is every leader knows they don’t know it all. Few have the courage to admit it. Even fewer know how to act on it. Those who do are the only true adults in the room—the brilliant ones with the superpower.
Shut up, already
Just shut up. I know that’s not a polite expression and it’s certainly not greased with political correctness. But sometimes, as leaders, we just need to.. shut up… and give ourselves the space to listen, observe and take it all in. Only through listening and observing can we really ever know what’s important to know about our people, or ever really understand the nuance of what’s going on inside our organizations and why. When we’re doing all the talking…droning on and on…we’re usually not adding value. We’re simply cluttering the moment with our words. Oftentimes the greatest value a leader can add…is to not add anything at all.
Many Groundhog Days Ahead
Taking time to notice and understand our default derailleurs as a leader is the only way to avoid them in the first place. When we’re stressed or tired or feel threated or angry, often our reflex is to react. While our reactions are unique to each of us, they all set the stage for some legendary (and sometimes cringe-worthy) office lore. If you’ve ever had a mini-meltdown in front of your team, you know that post-meltdown feeling in the pit of your stomach. If you’ve ever said something you wished you could take back, you know you never really can. There are very few, if any, do-overs as a leader, but there are countless Groundhog days on the journey ahead that will present the same or similar situations. Each one giving us the opportunity to respond rather than react.
Respect your elders
In our lives, there have likely been—or will ever be—only a tiny few who have ever risen, or will ever rise, to the status of Elder. I’m not talking about people whose hair is grayer than our own or those who out-distance us in years. I’m talking about that rare handful of unique souls whose life experience reveals to us their life’s journey and the wisdom, insight and perspective they’ve thoughtfully gathered along the way. It’s as though they intentionally curated everything they ever learned or endured, imagined or overcame, then meticulously placed all of it safely aside to share only with us at just… the right…moment. Every interaction we have with a true Elder brings with it a generous offer of enlightenment and knowledge that only they can impart—and perhaps only we can hear. To grow as leaders, we have to be intentional in our efforts to recognize the Elders in our lives. They’re rare. We must be determined to seek them out. Once we find one, the rest is simple: Put down your Smartphone. Ask a meaningful question. Then…listen.
Birth. School. Work. Death. This song by the alternative rock band The Godfathers describes our shared lot in life in four predictable, absolute stages. The “…everything in its place and there’s a place for everything…” part of me is drawn to its undeniable, straightforward simplicity. There’s a certain sense of relief in the sequence that makes letting what will be will be…easy to accept, not push back and simply go along with. We’re born, we go to school, we work…and then we die. We have no ability to influence the journey, right? But then the “…wait, there’s gotta be more…” part of me can’t help but feel leery of its absoluteness and, at the same time, emboldened by its challenge. The truth is, each of us moves through the same four stages. And we can work these stages however we choose if we’re willing to make doing so our priority. Birth: We can begin anew–if we choose. School: We can learn–if we choose. Work: We can add value–if we choose. Death: We can put an end to the choices we make that hold us back–if we choose.
What’s taking shape
Bad behavior in organizations is a big responsibility. It presents itself in many forms. Sometimes it’s blatant and may even cause a few jaws to drop when it happens. Other times it’s harder to detect, leaving some to scratch their heads and wonder, “Did THAT really just happen…is SOMEONE going to do something about this?” The impact of bad behavior that’s left unaddressed is always the same. It’s disruptive and, every time it’s overlooked, it buys back the credibility of leadership. It undermines all that’s good in an organization’s culture—and that’s a risk no leader can afford. Gruenert and Whitaker said it best: The culture of an organization is shaped by the worst behavior its leader is willing to tolerate. Leaders don’t tolerate the intolerable. They don’t ignore what clearly shouldn’t be ignored. They know they’re the chief stewards of their organization’s culture. They’re vigilant in watching over (and taking action on) the truth of what’s taking shape.
Our need for importance
Our need for importance has both a dark side and a bright side. We’ve all struggled when our need for importance has been tampered with—by others or by ourselves. For example, when we’ve been wronged by another after having treated them right. When we’ve been overlooked, but really needed to be seen. When we’ve been lazy, while watching others take action. We’ve also experienced the glow of knowing we’ve made an important difference rather than simply being a witness to it. For example, when we’ve received a sincere compliment without fishing for it or when it’s clear our ideas have merit and are worthy of consideration rather than being discounted or dismissed. Our need to feel important is not something we can escape. We must take time to understand how we express this need and how others experience it. This is particularly true if we aspire to be a leader. A colleague contrasted the dark side/bright side tension perfectly: A leader must ask themselves, “Am I too good to be important or am I too important to be good?” The difference between the two is not only clear, but…important.
Reviving from failure
Once again, our flag flies at half-mast. A wise man once said the greatest pride in life is to revive from failure. I would add to this that the greatest failure in life is to choose the same failure over and over again. Yes—we need failures in our lives—big ones and little ones. They are the corner stones for our learning, personal growth and wisdom. Embracing our failures doesn’t mean tempting them—it means being humbled by them. One of life’s greatest misfortunes is to actually acknowledge our undeniable failures by simply brushing them aside with our thoughts and prayers. We are not leaders when our rote response to failure is to simply lower our flag for a fleeting moment of contrite reflection. We are leaders when we have the courage to take those necessary actions that help us to revive from failure and then fortify those actions with a personal resolve to never, ever repeat the same ones again. Anything less would be a redundant disgrace.
Doing our best to make sense of it all
Organizations are complex and don’t always make sense. We demand transparency—then participate in anonymous culture surveys. We expect accountability—until someone has the nerve to hold us accountable. We welcome feedback—as long as we agree with the feedback we receive. We expect honesty—but prefer our own truth over what’s true for others. We…the list goes on. Organizations are complex and don’t always make sense because we are complex and don’t always make sense. And yet, despite the complexity and the head scratching it brings, it’s important we do our best to make sense of it all rather than turn our backs and walk away
Spend time with a teacher
If you want to spend time with a true leader, spend time with a teacher. Most are the embodiment of selfless service who have the ability to see the unique potential in every kid and then make it their personal mission to develop it. I recently had the opportunity to spend time at a middle school shadowing its principal and vice principal. I met extraordinary teachers and had the opportunity to see them in action. I was reminded that teachers don’t show up just to teach anymore. They can’t. Our schools have become an essential social safety net for so many kids who lack the basics that most of us take for granted—like food and shelter. Our teachers are often the only source of stability in many kids’ lives. They are the adults who care. They are the leaders who are relentless in their commitment to putting their whole heart into shaping their student’s minds, their identity and sense of self-worth. My day at the middle school reminded me that we need more good teachers–they are among the best investments a society can make. And we need a system that enables our teachers to do their best work every day. Our kids depend on it.
Entrenchment vs. enlightenment
It’s a tangible feeling to be divided—to hunker down in our own sense of absoluteness. The irony of it all is that their absoluteness exists only because our absoluteness exists. One would be unrecognizable without the presence of the other. It’s a perfect disaster of division. I feel this way. You feel that way. I’m right. You’re wrong. So we dig in. We mobilize. In doing so we take comfort in seeing ourselves as… more right and see them as… more wrong. In time, we become masters at rationalizing the beliefs that cause our behavior. We surround ourselves with like-mindedness because it makes us feel better about our own minds—especially when our minds are made up. We see this playout in our political system. In our offices. Sometimes even in our families. It’s hard work to open our minds if we’ve chosen entrenchment over enlightenment. And yet I think we can all agree it’s worth the effort.
Sharing the stage
On a recent trip to the city, I reflected. There are many ways a leader passes her baton. We know this to be true in life—and we can see evidence of it in the built environment as well. At 61 floors and 1,070’, Salesforce Tower leaps to center stage, bringing a new level of energy and ambition to San Francisco’s storied skyline. A few blocks away, the iconic 48-floor, 853’ Transamerica Building stands watch. The wiser, more experienced of the two, she has generously stepped aside, but certainly not out of sight, willingly shining the spotlight on a new leader her example inspired. That’s what leaders do. They set the stage. Then, in time, they invite others to step onto it. All the while inspiring the best and brightest within us.
When we create our own disappointment
When was the last time you were disappointed? An hour ago? Yesterday? The day before? Many of us experience degrees of disappointment a couple times a day or several times a week. Our friends, family and co-workers are great sources of our disappointment, right? Maybe. But a more likely truth is that we’re our own source. And we can be quite masterful at setting ourselves up for it. For example, whenever we give of ourselves, whether in word or deed, with the expectation of something in return, chances are that familiar feeling of disappointment will come crashing back—over and over again. It’s the unwanted gift that just keeps giving. Certainly, having expectations of others is not a bad thing. Just not all the time. All the time can be exhausting and…disappointing.
Work your formula
Everyone needs a formula. A few days ago, a friend was scrambling to finalize a presentation she was making the next morning. She said she felt like she was back in college, cramming for an exam the night before, opening the text book for the first time just hours before the test. I had seen her present to large and small groups many times before—flawlessly. I reminded her of this. Her response got me thinking. She said she was pretty confident the presentation would go well, but that if she didn’t go through her usual routine before making it—it might throw her off. What she said made a ton of sense. She had a formula for success—one that gave her confidence and assurance. And she was working it. Everyone needs a formula that’s uniquely their own. Not one that’s copied from someone else. Not one that is “trained”, but rather one that’s ingrained and reliable. One that might have some quirks that are hard to explain—and certainly don’t need to be. Whatever your formula is…work it!
Take care of the cobwebs first
In July of ‘74, gas prices had leaped from .38/gal to .55/gal. Cars stood in long jagged lines waiting for their fill. Odd/even license plate numbers determined eligibility for gas which was often only sold during certain hours. That summer, I was 10 and the proud CEO of a thriving lawn mowing business. Every lawn was $2.00, no matter the size or how long it took. One Saturday as I was getting my mower shined up, my dad asked if I had considered raising my price. “Why?” I asked. His response landed hard. “Gas ain’t free.” By the time I rolled up to my first job, I had made an executive decision: I would raise my price immediately. After finishing, I knocked on Mrs. Hansen’s cobwebbed screen door. It flew open with one hand and $2 in the other. Heart pounding, I announced the new price was $4. “What the hell for?” she asked. As I began explaining the gas situation, she shook her head: “Here’s your $2. Don’t come back—I’ll mow the damn lawn myself.” I walked away confused. Mrs. Hansen was clearly upset. And I had never been fired before. Would she call my dad? It was years before I grasped the lesson hidden in this wonder-years experience, but it’s one that still serves: If you’re going to raise your price, at least add value by offering to take care of the cobwebs first.
Why not getting to know people is good for your relationships
It’s been a while since he shared the perspective with me, but his advice is still one of the best life lessons I’ve ever learned. A friend and I were catching up after a few months of not having seen one another. The last time we spoke, he was pretty shaken up over the loss of a relationship. At that time, he swore he was done—no more relationships for him. Or so he said. On this occasion, though, as we were catching up, he shared that he was over the moon—he had met someone else and things were…different. Surprised by the turnabout, I asked him to tell me what was so different. He said, “I promised myself I would never, ever get to know her.” This made no sense to me. He explained that in his last relationship, he assumed he knew everything there was to know about his partner. He was wrong. The point is this: The moment we assume we know everything there is to know about the people in our lives—whether they’re our partners, our family members, our friends or our colleagues, we become complacent and lazy. We stop asking questions, we lose interest and simply assume there’s nothing else to learn about them. By never, ever getting to know her, my friend was giving some solid advice: Stay curious. Ask questions. Assume nothing.
I often take choice for granted. I’ve come to expect…choice. I assume the same is true for you. For the most part, I’ve made good choices. I’ve also made many I’m not proud of—choices I would never make again if I had a second chance to make them. But that’s the thing about choice. We only get one shot at any choice we’re about to make. At any given moment we have both the responsibility and the privilege of our choices. We choose to spread gossip or not. We choose to give back or be stingy. We choose to give of our ourselves or simply take from others. We choose to forgive or hold a grudge. We choose to lie or tell the truth.
Q: If the choice you’re about to make had a second chance, would you make it again?
Tomorrow is patient
As leaders we don’t always get it right. We’re reminded of this every day—when a discussion derails, a decision backfires or an important detail is missed. The good news is that, as bad as any day or any leadership moment may feel, tomorrow is always waiting patiently in the wings. For any leader, tomorrow is a reliable and willing partner, eager to share yet another opportunity, another challenge or another decision that needs to be made. So, for today, all we can do is show up prepared by the wisdom of yesterday’s teachings and make every effort to do our best. As leaders, we should expect nothing more of ourselves than to simply do our best—and most certainly nothing less.
Inspiration + focus
Discernment is a gift. Our ability to recognize the difference between two things, while at the same time appreciating their interdependence enhances our critical thinking and helps us make better decisions as leaders. One of the most important responsibilities a leader has is to develop and communicate a laser-focused vision and mission for his or her organization. I find the two are often conflated or moored by blurry definitions. Discerning the difference between the two before starting the vision/mission conversation in your organization is key. Skipping the discernment step will always lead to the same outcome: Ambiguity. Consider this: An organization’s vision and mission both have specific roles they are meant to play in helping a leader bring clarity and cohesion to his organization: Visions inspire. Missions focus. Inspiration + Focus—when mixed together, they become a leader’s most valuable tool in moving his or her organization, and the people in it, forward.
Anchors and propellers
We all have our stories. Each of them serves a selfish purpose when called upon. They’re our trusted advisors and happy to spring to action when we need them. At any given moment—whether we’re at home, at work or simply moving through the routine of our lives—we intentionally seek them out to justify an action we took or one we’re about to take. They help us to rationalize our behavior and sometimes demonize someone else’s. They’re among our most guarded personal possessions, thoughtfully curated and endorsed by decades of reinforcement and preferential evidence gathering. Ultimately, our stories reveal themselves in two forms: Anchors and Propellers. Some hold us back. Others move us forward. Our willingness and ability to discern this important difference makes it possible to re-think, re-construct and re-tell. Stories that propel us and those around us are far more valuable and worth our personal time and energy than those that seek to hold us back and keep us from realizing our full potential.
Leaving our marks
I struggle with graffiti. Not street art, which aims connect and inspire us as a community—but the vandalism left behind by a misguided index finger and a can of spray paint. The mark it leaves is durable. It’s hard to ignore and it’s not easy to erase. So it got me thinking. Every day, as we do our best to journey the many twists and turns of our busy lives, we leave an enduring mark in the lives of others. We leave a mark on our families, our friends and our co-workers. We leave a mark on the myriad strangers we brush past each day as we rush to whatever’s next—do we nod and say hello? Or do we look right through them as though they were invisible? The marks we leave are uniquely our own and entirely ours to make. Whether we’re the vandal with a spray can or the stranger who says hello, our marks are durable. They’re hard to ignore. And they aren’t easy to erase. Knowing this, it makes sense that we leave them with care.
The bright, thin line
Each day, in our business and personal lives, we have many interactions with others. Some interactions are remarkable. Others are unremarkable. The remarkable interactions linger and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes we’re left stunned by what we just heard or observed. Other times we’re left uplifted and inspired by another’s grace and decency. Both experiences are remarkable, but for very different reasons. A bright, thin line separates one from the other. A friend of mine describes this unmistakable distinction as…too important to be good, or too good to be important. Let that roll round in your head for a moment! From time to time, each of us can find ourselves standing on the wrong side of the thin, bright line. The good news is, it’s up to us which side of the line we plant our feet.
It’s not a position. It’s a mindset
How do you define leadership? It seemed like a great place to start a two-day program I was facilitating called Leadership at All Levels. The response it drew from one participant was swift, heartfelt and direct: “I don’t know why I’m even here. I’m not a leader.” Then others in the group piled on with similar sentiments on the question. “I don’t make decisions–so how would I know what leadership is?” Only five minutes into the program and we were…in it…deep. The group’s pointed questions surfaced the core point of the whole program before I’d even turned the first page of my notes. Here it is: Leadership isn’t a position. It isn’t a title on a business card. It isn’t tenure in a company. It’s a mindset–a way of doing and a way of being. It happens at every level of an organization–not just at the top. We don’t need a corner office to prove we’re one and we don’t need anyone’s permission to call ourselves one. We lead when we take initiative. We lead when we make time for others. We lead when we listen.
The liberation of perspective
There is always a different perspective worthy of our time and consideration. When our minds are both willing and open, we’re able to escape our self-affirming stories, our comforting biases and many reasons why (or why not). When we make it a priority to seek it out, listen to it and give it an honest chance, the liberation of a different perspective makes our best decisions possible. Without the wisdom that comes from perspective, any good decision we make is nothing more than good luck.
Gradually, they become
Change is messy. Getting it to stick is packed with nuance. At the first hint of change, an organization’s culture can be a worthy opponent—one that should never be underestimated. Its job is to stand guard. To dutifully protect the way we’ve always done it, or the way that makes us feel safe, secure and comfortable. Though the headwinds of an organization’s culture are a powerful force for any leader who sees a different path and has the courage to take it, in time, it can be convinced. When a leader has the perseverance to lead the way, and the willingness to slog through the swamp with her people, the headwinds that initially seemed impossible gradually dissipate. The nuance: Cultures evolve. They don’t change. Gradually…they become…
Pay it forward
It’s the second time it’s happened in the last 30 days. Somehow, I’m on a roll where I’m losing my wallet–I seem to be getting really good at it. Both times a good Samaritan went out of their way to reach me and let me know they found it on the ground outside my office. One even personally delivered it to my house. The other tracked me down through Facebook. The point is twofold. First: There are good people in the world (and it’s important to be one of them). Second: Gratitude feels good (and it’s a worthy virtue). Acts of kindness like these happen all around us, all the time, every day. Let’s not let them be overshadowed by the grind of our lives or the busyness of our days and be mindful that feeling grateful is a good reminder of how important it is to stop…and pay it forward.
Try something different
Think about the last few meetings you were in. At any time, were you inspired? Were you curious? Were you even interested? If the answer is no, no and no. Then it’s fair to say something needs to change. Your time is too valuable to waste. The next time you find yourself in a meeting struggling to mask that nagging, ever-present yawn or wiggling yourself awake while silently pleading for it to finally end, try something different. Rather than placing all the responsibility for a great meeting on its leader, take responsibility for asking an interesting question. In an instant, that glacially paced meeting won’t seem so bad. You might even leave inspired.
When the mood strikes
Today it’s funny. Yesterday, nothing was funny. Have you ever been in a lousy mood, but weren’t quite sure why? That was me. After the mood from hell became apparent–to just about everyone–I tried to fake a good mood–I made small talk, acted interested in conversation, became overly agreeable. All this did was make matters worse. I just felt..frustrated AND moody… and kept demanding of myself to make a darn decision: am I in a good mood or a bad mood? This self-imposed ultimatum got me thinking. Who would actually choose a bad mood? We work with people and their moods all day long. I bring mine. You bring yours. We toss our collective moods into the ring and, more often than not, they mix well and it all works. When they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. With some perspective, we’re able to see them for what they are–they’re just moods. The good news is that, tomorrow, yesterday’s bad mood will likely give everyone a good laugh, including yourself. The next time the mood strikes, give yourself some space…and choose it. Good or bad, we’re all human. Whatever your mood, it will pass.
The price we pay
The world doesn’t work like it used to anymore. At 53, I’m reminded of this every day. Whenever I reach for my reading glasses, grab hold of anything solid for help to stand, or brace to cushion the force of a sneeze, I know the world is…different. Not bad. Just…different…than it once was when such precautions weren’t necessary. Despite the annoying aches and pains and the need to work harder and harder at the gym just to maintain, the good news is that, with age, a new world emerges–one that works if we let it. Life brings with it valuable experiences each day. When added together over time (and when we put our glasses on to see them for what they are), these experiences become the insight, perspective and clarity we need to show up with unique confidence and ease. We’re able to accomplish things we weren’t capable of before. We relate to the world and the people in it in a different way than we once could. If age is the price we pay to earn this level of thinking and being, I’m happy to brace myself…and pay it.
Cedric Porter was an Episcopalian minister in Nevada City, California. He was also my grandfather. Though I didn’t know him well—I was four when he passed—family lore has made him a familiar presence throughout my life. A few years ago, I read through several of his sermons. Some he had handwritten with his impeccable penmanship, others he painstakingly typed with a typewriter that had a faulty “t” key. Though each was remarkable, one in particular, written in August of 1957, caught my attention. I committed a portion of it to memory and have since inscribed it on the entryway wall of our office. In his own words: “The strength of any organization is but the strength of the ideals that motivate it. Its influence is only as great as the constancy with which its members endeavor to uphold those ideals and to make them a part of their daily living.” He packed a lot into these two sentences. For me, three words rise high above all the others: Ideals. Strength. Influence. In that order. Gradually, organizations earn their strength and influence. Neither comes easily. And neither can be taken for granted. In fact, both are fragile. Yet, with enduring ideals, an organization that is both strong and influential becomes the reward. If you ask me, that’s a reward worth striving for.
A wake up call
I had a wake up call today. It was one of those cringe-worthy moments many of us as leaders have had when the truth of how we show up floods in like a tidal wave. I approached one of my team members and quietly said, “I’d like give you some feedback.” Her reaction told whole story. Without hesitating, she picked up a pen, took out a pad and, and with a look of dread and disappointment, said, “Uh-Oh.” She was certain she had done something…wrong. Why else would I give her feedback? The twist in all of this was that she hadn’t done anything wrong at all. In fact, she had done everything…right and I wanted her to know. This wake up call had me reflecting on how I spend my time as a leader–more specifically–the quality of the time I spend. As leaders, we’re afforded only so much time in a day to make a difference. Wake up calls–in whatever form they take and within whatever context they occur–are welcome reminders of how important it is to make it a priority to spend the time we have more wisely.
The value of hope
It’s been a while, but the conversation still rattles around in my head. A friend and I somehow landed on the topic of beliefs. She asked me what I believed in. I began sharing some of my beliefs. I shared that I believe in being a decent person. I believe there aren’t important people and unimportant people. I believe we often sell ourselves short when it comes to embracing what we’re really capable of. The next belief I shared brought her to a full stop. I said I believed in hope. She was floored. HOPE? REALLY? YOU BELIEVE IN HOPE???!!! THAT IS SOOO WEAK! The conversation didn’t last long after this. I was surprised by her reaction. And she was surprised by mine. Was I really getting into an argument about hope? Yes–I do believe in hope. I believe without hope the world is truly and literally hopeless. As a business owner, I can tell you, having hope from time to time has served me well. As a human being, hope has been a welcomed companion in my life’s journey. I have hope for my friends. I have hope for people I don’t know. I have hope that my next meeting will go well….Yes. I do believe in hope! I believe in its humility. I recognize, though, that hope alone is not enough. Hope, mixed with personal will and accountability, in my opinion, is a good combination.
Take a stand
When was the last time you took a stand on a matter that had some risk associated with it? We saw evidence of this today when Edward Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods–one of the nation’s largest sports retailers–immediately ended sales of all assault-style rifles in its stores. Arguably, this decision demonstrated personal courage and conviction–whether you’re for guns or against them. There’s a bigger lesson here for each of us who aspire to be strong leaders–it has to do with having the fortitude to make a hard decision and the courage to take action on that decision. No waiting periods. No floating the idea to assess the potential penalty to be paid. No handwringing over certain blowback. In our own organizations, being willing to take a stand and hold your ground is not always easy–but, at times, necessary. It’s easy to confuse being unmovable on a particular matter with being unmovable as a leader. Think about it–there is a difference. Sometimes, you just have to say…this is where I stand…and be okay with it.
Find your grit
Got Grit? It’s one of the most important characteristics any leader or entrepreneur needs in order to cause their vision to come to life. One step forward may often be followed by two steps back…or even three. But, for the leader with grit, two or three steps back isn’t seen as a reason to quit. Two or three steps back is simply a welcomed opportunity to better prepare for the big leap forward.
Shake things up a bit
Five-year-olds are among the most hopeful, bold and visionary beings I’ve ever been around. Ask a five-year-old what he wants to be when he grows up…”an Astronaut.” Ask another and she’ll tell you with absolute resolve…”the President.” How is it that these incredible young minds can be so clear? So intentional? So unreasonable? So unconstrained? How can we not respond with anything less than our total assurance and belief that, he WILL become an Astronaut? Or that she WILL become president? As leaders, we would do well by taking a lesson from a five-year-old’s playbook. Shake things up a bit! Ask yourself what you (and your organization) might accomplish if you risked being truly bold and visionary.
Think for a moment about the office politics at play in your organization. Every organization has some level of politicking going on–it’s a byproduct of any human system. We play the part of office politician whenever we get that feeling in our gut that something needs to be said–when the words teeter at the tip of our tongue–when we clear our throat and begin to say the words, but stop ourselves just in time–and say…nothing. Instead we choose to stoke the fires of the stories we tell ourselves, or the stories we tell our coworkers. Think of it this way: Office politics is an individual choice. Your choice. The next time you get that feeling in your gut, rather than hold back, say the words. Create the space for your words to be heard in a constructive way. Don’t use your words as weapons. Say the words because you care more about the team than you do about being a politician.
No leader is a finished product
When it comes to leadership, none of us is a finished product. Learning to lead is a lifelong journey with no destination or end point–just lots of twists and turns along a winding road. If we keep our minds open and approach the practice of leadership with a spirit of curiosity and a desire to make a difference in the lives of those we work with…eventually we get better at it. If you’re the type of person who believes being the best leader you can be is important, then you’re well on your way to becoming an even better leader tomorrow than you were today. The journey is worth it.
Old school industrialist vs. iconic ingenuity
What an accomplishment this week achieved by SpaceX. The successful Falcon Heavy launch and its safe return represents an exceptional milestone and, perhaps, the beginning of a new era in space exploration. What a contrast to watch this amazing display of iconic ingenuity and determination along side what, sadly, continues to unravel at Amtrak. I don’t know Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s new CEO. I do know he has his hands full–and I can only imagine the pressure he’s under. Last summer, during an interview on CNBC, he was asked about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop plans–the system that would make travel between LA and SF possible in 30 minutes. Anderson shared that, while he didn’t think it (the Hyperloop) was possible, he was glad there were people who dreamed about things like this. He went on to describe himself as more of an old school industrialist who is more concerned about cashflow and return on invested capital. This is a critical leadership moment for Anderson. The future of Amtrak is in a free fall. Great leaders become great because they’re willing (and able) to dream. Spreadsheets won’t help Amtrak. A leader with a vision and the courage to set that vision into motion will.
When leaders drive hard, then drive off
Years ago, a good friend and colleague shared a point of view I thought was compelling. He said, “…Leaders often drive hard, then drive off…” Over the years, I’ve shared this thinking likely hundreds of times with clients of my own. It paints a vivid picture of what often happens in organizations going through change or simply working hard to implement their strategic plans. One of the most important responsibilities a leader has is to co-imagine (emphasis on “co-“) the future and then endeavor to inspire the collective heart and mind of his or her organization–to enthusiastically tell the story of the important role their organization will play in the world or in their community. As leaders, it’s easy to get wrapped up in our own stories of what’s possible. It’s a lot harder to take the time to actually bring our people with us on the journey forward. It’s okay to drive hard–in fact it’s a good thing. While we’re driving, we just have to remember not to leave our team behind, lest we risk arriving alone.
If Your Challenge had a Voice and Could Talk
Every leader faces tough decisions. Some are big and the stakes are high. Others maybe not so big, but still important. The next time you find yourself struggling to make an important decision, or you find yourself staring at the ceiling at 2AM wondering what to do, ask yourself this simple question, “If this (situation or challenge) had a voice and could talk, what would it say it needs most from me right now?” The answer this perspective-building question reveals will likely come quickly and clearly.
Should I ask or Should I Tell?
One of the most important things a leader needs to ask themselves at any given moment is this: Should I ask, or should I tell? Knowing the difference between the two and which would be most effective given the dynamics of the moment or the challenge at hand is often what separates a good leader from a great leader. Many times, the right question well-timed is tenfold more valuable than the right answer too soon.
A Sliver Bullet
It’s not uncommon to have some tension with a co-worker. Maybe they said something that triggered a reaction in you. Maybe you said something that triggered a reaction in them. Sometimes the tension lingers on and on…for months or even years. In our work with organizations, we’ve found there’s a tool that can fix useless, energy-draining drama like this. With practice and when used with good intentions, it’s a silver bullet for cutting through layers of organizational muck–a way to squash it once and for all. And everyone, even you, has this amazing tool at their disposal. This miracle tool is communication. Nothing gets fixed without it. All it takes is the will to use it.
In every organization there are always at least two cultures at play: the leadership culture and the employee culture. The most effective organizations are those led by leaders who recognize this universal truth and make it a priority to understand the composition of their gap and then work to keep it as narrow as possible. Take some time to reflect on what’s contributing to the leadership/employee gap in your organization–those gap-creating dynamics that are keeping it from realizing its full potential. Get clear on the range of steps you can take to narrow the gap. Get focused on right ones to take. Then get moving. Lastly–your goal is not to eliminate the gap because there will always be one. Your goal is to keep it as narrow as possible.
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