Episode 2 of Just 1 Story is now available and airing. It is titled “The Pay-It-Forward Mentor.” This episode tells the story of a man whose career and life was transformed by a chance meeting. Just 1 Story features stories of defining moments and personal leadership in the lives of people. Do you have a story that has defined your life and work? If so, consider sharing it in the second season of Just 1 Story. Click here to learn more about how you can share your story in the Just 1 Story podcast.
Uh…oh…my inner researcher has been awakened!!! You are invited to participate in the WWJD Redux Project.
In addition to my consulting work at Tenacioius Change, I also do occasional research on topics related to leadership. The WWJD Redux Project is a new project related to the topic of ethical and moral leadership. I am conducting this informal study for a possible article or other publication.
If you have a clear memory of the 1990s (though there was much to forget), you may remember that the initials “WWJD” referred to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” It entered American pop culture and “went viral” as a way to motivate Evangelical Christians, particularly youth, to “do the right thing” which was, in general, to demonstrate the love of Jesus through their actions and behaviors. As most things that make their way into American pop culture, the question became hackneyed, cliched, and even parodied. Still, it came to represent an acknowledgment of the need for a higher ethical and moral standard for people. You can find a brief, interesting article on the origins of the term here.
The WWJD Redux Project seeks to learn how people are answering that question with regard to President Donald Trump.
You can participate in four simple steps.
Decide to participate. Anyone with an opinion can participate. Feel free to share this invitation with anyone else you like. (For your convenience, use the social media
Read John Pavlovitz’s brief blog titled, “White Evangelicals, This is Why People are Through With You.”
Reflect on these two questions:
- After reading and thinking about Pavlovitz’s blog, where are you at in this moment?
- Still thinking about Pavlovitz’s blog, what WOULD Jesus do in this time?
Respond. You have two ways to respond. You can make a private response or enter into a public dialogue with others. Of course, you can do both, if you like.
- To make a Private Response: Follow this link to a private response form in my Survey Monkey account.
- To engage in Public Dialogue: Go to my posts on the Tenacious Change Facebook page (if needed search for the post titled “WWJD Redux Project Dialogue”). Then reply to the post there. If you participate in the public dialogue, please be civil and respectful. This means no cussin’, no spittin’, no name callin’, no wedgies, and no noogies – virtual or real. If you do choose the public dialogue option, at the start of your post, please tell us how you religiously self-identify using one of these four options: 1) Evangelical Christian; 2) Christian; 3) No identification; and, 4) Other – then explain what the other is.
Finally, thanks to my friend and colleague, Mark Holmgren who inspired this project with a link to John Pavlovitz on Facebook.
I hope you take a few minutes to read Pavlovitz’s blog and participate.
Thanks for your consideration and remember to be greater, by doing good, everyday. Change forward!
Some people think of me as an expert in a few things, which is okay. It is not okay, however, that I have acted like an expert in most things…if not all things on occasion.
This awareness is part of the understanding that comes with experience and maturity (which is a nice way of saying “age”). That it took me a while to arrive at this self-understanding is a bit embarrassing yet I’m glad I did. It has dramatically changed how I try to work with individuals and groups. Even more, I think it has changed my relationship with them for better.
The problem with being an expert on anything is that we imagine it comes with a license to weigh in on everything, no matter how remotely related to our actual expertise. It is even worse when we experts become leaders. Leadership implies responsibility and now, along with our license, we feel a duty to share our expertise with everyone we can, whenever we can, wherever we can, and to the fullest extent possible. Makes us great party guests, huh?
When we experts are put in leadership of a team, a coalition, a collaboration, a backbone organization, or a collective impact initiative, it becomes especially important for us to exercise self-control.
Only when we lay aside what we think we know and lay down our leader/expert role can we hear more clearly the expertise of others and the wisdom of the collective.
So, this is where Craig Ferguson’s advice comes into play. In a stand-up comedy special he performed in 2011 titled Does This Need to be Said?, Ferguson offered three self-reflective questions. In one of his best lines, he also said it took him three marriages to learn them. Besides their potential for saving marriages, they are also important questions for us leader/experts to consider before sharing our wisdom. Let’s take a brief look at each of Ferguson’s questions:
Does this need to be said? Collaboration work is full of ups and downs. There will always be a temptation for us leader/experts to step in to try to solve, explain or otherwise smooth the way. In reality, the way does not always have to be smoothed. Often it is in the process of working together, through both good and bad, that challenges are met by groups with innovative solutions which produce the best outcomes.
Does this need to be said by me? Truthfully…probably not. I’m learning that if I shut up, allow space for others to speak up while I simply listen, then if it needs to be said at all, others will say it. I’m learning there is often a difference between what I see as an issue and what the group sees as an issue.
Does this need to be said by me now? You see, when I put on my leader/expert Super X-ray Glasses I can see many things that mere mortals cannot. Further, my expertise may tell me that “this is gonna be a problem and we gotta deal with it now.” When I shut up, keep my opinions to myself, and just listen, what I have learned is: a) if my analysis is correct, then others will usually see it too, name it, and the group will address it; b) my analysis may be only partially correct and the group may feel there are other issues (which my analysis may have missed or minimized) that it needs to address first; or c) if my analysis is dead wrong, the group will move to other issues which, once resolved, tend to take care of the issue I diagnosed.
A more academic presentation of Ferguson’s three questions comes from one of my favorite organizational culture authors, Edgar Schein. In his article On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning, Schein described “suspension” as a critical aspect of productive group dialogue. “Suspension” is to stop talking and listen: “to let the issue – our perceptions, our feelings, our judgments, and our impulses – rest for a while in a state of suspension to see what more will come up from ourselves and from others” (p. 33).
More pragmatically, I have to come to call this “listening for crickets.” This is the time of year for cicadas to make their presence known. I love the sound of cicadas – for this native Iowa country boy their annual symphonies are the quintessential sound of summer. Admittedly, cicadas can be quite loud and intrusive. Crickets, on the other hand, often require us to suspend our activity and to listen quietly for their “voices.” This is what we leader/experts must also do to make sure all voices can be raised, are included, and clearly heard and understood in the collaborations we lead.
Today, I am building my expertise in listening for crickets and trying to lead by that example. In doing so I hope other leader/experts will follow and, even more, that the crickets among us will speak out and be heard. After all, listening for crickets is one of the most important competencies for any collaboration leader. Let’s get better together.
Be Greater. (Listen for Crickets.) Do Good. Everyday.
Baltimore is a city with challenges. Trials of the police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 are currently ongoing. Both this year and last, in the week before Memorial Day and in an unsettling coincidence, the city recorded its 100th homicide of the year. One television station even reported the mark was reached on the same day, May 27th. To many outside of Baltimore all of this seems a little too much like the fictional Baltimore portrayed in the popular television show of a few seasons back, The Wire. Despite both the reality and perceptions of Baltimore, there is at least one place with a deep, thriving sense of community.
The concept of “community school” has been making a comeback. Community schools are “centers of the community and are open to everyone – all day, every day, evenings and weekends.” Today this is considered innovative. In the past, particularly in rural areas, the school was the center of the community. There are still some communities, where consolidation could not take hold, where it is still true.
I attended a community school…Morning Sun Community Schools, more precisely. Morning Sun, Iowa is a tiny rural community (population 836 in the 2010 census) in Southeast Iowa, only a few miles from the Mississippi River. Today, because of school consolidation that swallowed it up in the early 1990’s, it has only an elementary school. Nonetheless, that elementary school, with 145 students, is about the same size as the whole district at the time I graduated from high school. My graduating class was 24 students, which actually seemed pretty large to us at the time.
In my hometown the school was the center of community life. The school and its grounds hosted every aspect of social and cultural life in the town. It hosted scouting programs, the local Lions and Lionesses Clubs, summer Little League, Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations, community dinners and dances, and the social event of the year: the Junior/Senior Prom. It was where we voted and received our vaccinations. It was the cultural center where band concerts, theatrical productions, and “donkey basketball” matches were staged. Okay, so maybe donkey basketball is not really a cultural event but the donkeys were pretty classy. It was the sports arena where we gathered to watch junior high and high school football, baseball, softball, basketball, and wrestling. Like today’s community schools, it was open every day of the week and it seemed like something was always happening there. Our school was the glue that held the Morning Sun community together.
In Baltimore there is another school, Wolfe Street Academy, which is doing something similar today to knit together its community within Baltimore. Wolfe Street Academy is a part of the Baltimore City Public Schools. The school’s focus on integrating academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement through community partnership causes it to stand out and bring hope to a city that too often struggles to find and hold hope. Wolfe Street Academy is a Pre-K through 5th grade school and historically has served the most recent immigrant populations. Today over 80% of its students speak a language other than English at home. Ninety-six percent of its students are from low-income households. As a community school, Wolfe Street Academy is a place which ensures students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally through a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.
Wolfe Street Academy is a success story of deep community, collective impact, collaboration, and hope that needs to be told.
Fortunately, the people at Washington, DC’s public television station, WETA, thought so too. WETA has produced How a Community School Helps English Language Learners (ELLs) Succeed, a 13-minute feature on its ¡Colorín colorado! website about the Wolfe Street Academy. ¡Colorín colorado! is a bilingual site for educators and families of English language learners.
In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit some bias about the work being done at Wolfe Street Academy. I have been there a couple of times in the past to help my spouse, Clemencia Vargas, with her students and I have been amazed and moved by what I have seen. Clemencia’s students, though, are the dental students from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry who provide oral health screening to Wolfe Street Academy. My role is typically to take pictures and otherwise stay out of the way. I see enough, though, to know this is a special place for many children and their families. It is truly a community school.
By the way, you will see Clemencia in a couple of fleeting scenes in the WETA video but you can see a longer interview with her about the dental screening program at Wolfe Street Academy and partnership with the UM School of Dentistry. When you view this video on the YouTube website you will see the interview continues with her in 11 segments total. In the additional segments she discusses the partnership with the school, the connection between good oral health and school success, and tells the story of one child whose life was changed as a result of the screening program.
The story of Wolfe Street Academy reminds us that community is defined by more than geography. Community is a place, a spirit, and a home where caring kindness wins out over rightness. May we all be so lucky to find such community in our lives and, then, welcome others into it.
Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.
What do you do when you realize the monumental project you have undertaken will have to be finished without you?
This was the question Antoni Gaudi faced when the architect realized his great work, the Sagrada Familia, would not be finished in his lifetime. Gaudi’s solution is one that is still available to us today.
This past October I traveled to Barcelona, Spain to attend the International Leadership Association global conference where I was privileged to present a paper. I also participated in a fascinating pre-conference workshop that introduced me to the life and legacy of Antoni Gaudi. It also included a tour of the Sagrada Famalia, personally guided by our workshop leader, an architectural historian who had studied the life and work of Gaudi. By no means does one become an expert in Gaudi and his work in a day-long event. I did gain from this experience, though, a deeper understanding of collective leadership and its importance for collective impact.
The Sagrada Familia was conceived in 1866 as a holy offering to God by the Spiritual Association of the Devotees of Saint Joseph. Antoni Gaudi, himself a devout Roman Catholic, was named the second chief architect of the Sagrada Familia in 1883, within a year after the building’s first stone was laid. The first chief architect resigned in a dispute with the Association. Gaudi took over the project when he was 31 years old and guided it until his death at age 74.
The Sagrada Familia became, for Gaudi, the greatest and most meaningful work of his life. Gaudi came from a poor family and he struggled throughout his life to make a living. From 1883 to 1914 he worked other architectural jobs to support himself and even to purchase materials and labor to build the Sagrada Familia. It is reported that he gave much of his earnings to the project and was even known to beg passersby on the street for contributions. In 1914, sensing the project required his full attention if it were to be completed, Gaudi devoted his full time and effort to it.
Still, this was not enough. Gaudi believed he would not live long enough to see the building completed, with good reason. In 1914 Gaudi was 68 years old and he had suffered from poor health all of his life. Chronically ill since childhood, during his conscripted service in the Spanish army as a young man he was often on medical leave. However, Gaudi did not die of any sickness. Only two weeks before his 75th birthday in 1926 he was accidently struck by a tram in the streets of Barcelona and died of his injuries in a pauper’s hospital only three days later.
Whether it was prophetic, insightful, or just plain luck, Gaudi’s realization and subsequent strategic choice in 1914 made it possible for his great work to be completed by others. Instead of continuing to focus on the actual construction of the building, Gaudi turned his attention to building the models and plans for others to follow. By the time of his death, Gaudi had finished enough that others could complete the project. Since 1926 there have been six other architects who have led the work and each has continued to build the Sagrada Familia according to Gaudi’s original concept and models. The Sagrada Familia is scheduled to be completed in 2026 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.
There are different ways to express collective or shared leadership. A common one is the simultaneous leadership of multiple people or groups. This is often how teams and collaborations work together. An Individual or group steps up to provide leadership in an area of expertise while others do the same in their areas. Another expression of collective leadership is what Gaudi did with the Sagrada Familia. Despite his deep love, intense commitment, and nearly life-long ownership of the project, he opened and prepared the way for others to continue his work. Notably, while he created the concepts, models, and plans, he did not prescribe every decision and detail for his successors. In this way, they were free to interpret his vision and similarly own the project. Yet, the collective impact represented by the completion and overwhelming presence of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is undeniable.
Collective impact initiatives that result in durable social change need to be managed through collective leadership. While the collective leadership approach may be different for each collective impact initiative, one thing is true about each one: collective leadership begins with the individual.
This is my truth about collective leadership: it is less about techniques and tactics to help us become better at collective leadership; and mostly about individual attitude and will. Even if we had none of those tools and strategies, it would still be possible to engage in effective collective leadership. Why? Because we already have the skills. We learned them as children when we wanted to play well with others. We just need to rediscover and release that inner good playmate again.
Playing well with others is a choice. Confession: it is also part of my truth that I do not always choose to be a good playmate. Even if it is an unconscious choice, it is still a choice. When my “good child” comes out to play with others in collective leadership, it is typically because I have willfully made three personal choices:
- Check ego. I do not mean “check” in the sense of making sure I have an ego. Of that I have no doubt. I mean “check” in the sense of making sure it is under control. Ego is about my right to authority. To check my ego is to intentionally lay down my right to the have the final word. This is a wholly internal process that is about changing my own attitude. After all, social change is not all about me, or you, for that fact. Social change is about creating a greater good for our world that we may not be around long enough to enjoy. If we will not check our ego, we are not yet ready for collective leadership. When we do, we are ready to move on to the next two things, which are now easier to do once we have checked egos.
- Cross boundaries. Simply put, this means I invite others to work with me – especially those who are not very much like me. I do this because I know I cannot solve social problems by myself. I do this, too, because I know diversity of perspectives, experience, and ideas will result in an even better effort. Crossing boundaries has to take us out of our comfort zones or else we have not crossed anything. It is the only way for us to come in contact with and gather the kind of robust collective impact group members we will need to be innovative and energized. Sometimes, it even means we cross into the deep space of the conflict zone, to bring in people who are our critics and naysayers, especially when we know they share our end goal.
- Share power. This is where it “gets real” for my checked ego. Once the group or team has been assembled, I need to work collaboratively with them to create the kind of space where each of us has an important and meaningful role in shared decision making and collective leadership. Power sharing in collective leadership creates ownership. Remember, Gaudi could have exerted immense power, even from his grave (which is in the building’s crypt), by including instructions on every intricate detail of the Sagrada Familia. If he had, he probably would not have actually finished even the planning before his death. Even more, his successors might have grown to resent feeling compelled to finish his great work rather than develop a deep sense of ownership of their joint project.
This week (January 18, 2016) we remember and honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. The question that opened this post is one that he seems to have been wrestling with as well just prior to his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee.
Through the collective leadership of Dr. King and those whom he gathered around him in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he found a way to ensure his great work would continue, even to this day. Today none can deny the collective impact of the civil rights movement in the United States.
I have been and remain convinced the fuel of collective impact includes collective leadership. I believe these three personal choices – check ego, cross boundaries, and share power – can and will strengthen our collective leadership efforts for collective impact.
Be greater. Do good. Every day.
I have a confession to make. I attend Tamarack’s Collective Impact Summits for very selfish reasons. I have come to experience and appreciate the annual event as a personal retreat. Okay, it is a personal retreat taking place in the midst of several hundred people. Never forget the words, though, of the world famous Anonymous who said, “Even in a crowd, you are alone inside your own head.” (Kudos to the Tamarack team for another extraordinary event last month in Vancouver!)
When I attend this Tamarack event I am in a continuous state of reflection and inner dialogue.
This dialogue is informed and shaped by the people I meet, the conversations I have, my observations, and my experiences at the event. I can appear to be busy on the outside and at this year’s event I was quite busy: I facilitated a daily “Learning Lab” consisting of ten other participants; led a workshop; was a late substitute facilitator for another workshop; and hosted a dinner conversation. Through all of this I was still alone inside my own head…and loving it!!!
In recent years my work has led me to a more intentional practice of reflection and a deeper appreciation for the role of reflection in leadership. For most of my life I have been a Quaker, a member of a group known for its use of meditative silence. However, only recently have I come to more fully connect reflection and leadership. The first point of connection was when I was conducting and writing up my doctoral research on leadership in the intractable conflict over sexuality education in the United States. In that study I found that leaders of sexual health organizations, who are engaged in the conflict, are quite reflective. They are involved in three interactive reflective processes that affect their leader motivations and behaviors, and, yet, contributes to perpetuating the conflict.
The second point of connection was about a year ago when a colleague and I were working together on a “mindfulness” curriculum for teachers at the Transylvania College in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In the process of editing the material I found myself learning more about the practice of mindful reflection and how it related to leadership in the classroom. It inspired me to learn more about both mindfulness practices and reflective leadership.
The third point of connection came earlier this year when I was trying to answer the dreaded question I get from prospective clients: “How much do you charge?” I usually want to say, “Just enough,” because, in fact, it is true. When I moved into consulting work I wanted to stay to true to my personal mission of working on behalf of nonprofit organizations, especially those that can benefit from high quality leadership and organizational development assistance but usually cannot afford the rates charged by large consulting groups. To this end I did my research and I came up with a rate that meets my needs (not my “wants,” to be sure, or else I would not still be driving an eleven year old Subaru) and which rarely gets any push back from my clients.
The process of thinking through an answer to the question of “How much do you charge?” led me, not surprisingly, to a reflection on the values I bring to my work. This resulted in the creation of the TRIBE Guarantee that I offer every client.
When we intentionally embrace mindful reflection as part of our leadership approach there are two benefits that are nearly immediate. First, we are driven to think more carefully about the alignment of our values with our leadership behavior. It pushes us to consider the things we are doing as a leader in light of who we are being as a person. It calls us to look at how we treat followers, colleagues, and those whom we are trying to help or lift up. Even more, it can help us be more present to each. Overall, mindful reflection can inspire us to more authentic leadership.
The second benefit becomes apparent when we are trying to provide leadership in a collaborative effort, such as a Collective Impact initiative. Even on the best days, it can feel like we are one of those legendary cat herders of Western lore.
On more challenging days, those in which we are running severely low on patience and good humor, reflection can save us from damaging over-reactions. Edgar Schein advocates for the practice of suspension which is a reflective process of internal listening that needs to precede response. Suspension is a particularly useful skill in those circumstances when we have been in an interaction that we perceive to be negative (e.g., disagreement, challenge, attack, etc.). Schein writes, “We have to learn to listen to ourselves before we can really understand others.”
These two benefits of reflection are related. Becoming a more reflective, authentic leader will affect our efforts in collective leadership by inspiring us to build relational trust and act more ethically in all of our behaviors. Who can say these are not good things?
Be greater. Do good. Every day.
Here we go again. It is the Quadrennial Quest for the next “great” leader of the United States. It is too bad we are fixated on a Presidential leadership model that has not worked well in the recent past and increasingly holds little hope for the future. Are we ready to embrace a different approach to leadership that is a better practice now and in the future?
It does not appear so, according to the coverage of the approximately 20 Presidential candidates mucking their way through my beloved Iowa State Fair and spouting their solutions for every issue imaginable during this past week. Yes, mucking and spouting…spouting and mucking, ad nauseam. By the way, my favorite imitation of an Iowan from this week’s coverage was performed by Republican candidate Carly Fiorina. Fiorina appeared in a photo at the Iowa State Fair in front of the famous Butter Cow dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Please. What idiot campaign aide told her THAT would be a good idea? Just to set the record straight, I’m including some random photos of what REAL Iowans look like and how they dress on the job. But I digress.
The United States, and most other countries, are locked into a mythic model of leadership known formally as the “Great Man” theory. In the 1970’s “Transformational Leadership” theory was introduced by James MacGregor Burns as an alternative way to think about leaders. Transformational Leadership became, and remains very popular, though it still retains many elements of the Great Man theory because of its dependence on a single individual to lead the way and call forth the inner leader of others.
I am convinced we will not make real progress in being greater and doing greater good until we renounce our heretical faith in the power of a single great leader. The velocity of knowledge and the complexity of our world are forcing us to consider other approaches. For me, shared leadership in a collaborative culture is more realistic and hopeful.
Recently I again observed the power of shared leadership and collaboration in action. For the past two summers I have taught “Managing for Optimal Performance” in the MBA in Economic Development program at Eastern University. It has been a small class, only three and four students, possibly because the focus on the program is on alleviating poverty which is certainly not the typical career path for many MBAs. The course is very short…barely six weeks. Yet, in that time, students are expected to design, deliver, and report out on a project that is intended to help people living at or near the poverty level. This summer’s projects included a soccer clinic for Haitian immigrant youth; distribution of nutritional information and recipes at an urban farmer’s market; a family photo project for immigrant Latin American single mothers and their children; and a “good neighbor” yard clean up and home fix-up day for a single mom recently debilitated in an accident. In all cases, the students were required to form a team of no less than four people and to use decision making processes that were inclusive and collaborative. The project reports clearly showed the depth of understanding the students’ acquired about establishing a collaborative culture and using shared leadership.
As I reflected on their project journals and reports, I found myself thinking about those things I am most likely to hear come from the mouths of leaders who really try to practice shared and collaborative leadership.
“Please.” Collaborative leaders do not just assume people will follow them because they have the title, the position, the power, or even a “mandate.” They invite others into leadership, humbly seek their expertise, and genuinely value the contribution each makes.
“How or what do you see, understand, experience, or believe about our situation?” For collaborative leaders, the perspectives of others are invaluable sources of information. They understand that many of the problems we face are so large and so complex that the better solutions are found when many eyes from diverse viewpoints are examining them.
“What options do you believe offer us the best chance of addressing the situation?” Working in collaboration means gleaning the best ideas from among the many perspectives on the situation without regard for self-interests. I know. If I had not thrown in that bit about self-interests, it would have been just fine, right? My experience has been that partners in shared or collaborative leadership often filter their ideas in order to protect self-interests. They may fear giving away proprietary information or trade secrets that can weaken their competitive advantage over competitors, who may also be their collaborators on some projects.
“Thank you.” These two under-utilized words powerfully acknowledge that a single individual alone is not responsible for any good thing that happens. These are words of humility that indicate a collaborative leader’s awareness of the role of others.
“We did it.” This is a tricky thing for a collaborative leader to say because it is so tempting to say it without really meaning it. It can merely sound like an imitation of humility, if it does not come from a genuine posture of humility. Know what I listen for? Emphasis. When I hear the word “we” emphasized too strongly, I suspect leaders are trying too hard to convince themselves and others that they really mean “we” and not “I.”
Spewing from the mouths of muckers and spouters, these same five phrases can be just empty words in a crass imitation of humility. Whether the speakers are vying for the role of President, Prime Minister, or leader of a local community change effort, we must watch and wait. We need to be on the lookout for those who reveal their collaborative nature through the congruence of consistently matching these words with a posture of humility.
Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.
Not long ago my friend Mark Holmgren posted a blog titled Becoming a Learning Organization (Part One) that got me thinking about what it takes to provide leadership to a learning organization. As Mark points out in his post, learning organizations are more likely to address complex issues and challenges effectively. To be clear, the term “learning organization” does not refer to a specific size, configuration, purpose, or structure of a group. It can refer to a multinational corporation, public agency, small social sector or nonprofit organization, and even a project team. All of these can be learning organizations. The core idea is that it is an entity that has developed the capacity to learn, change, learn some more, and then change some more to respond effectively to its environment. Mark does a great job of explaining how this happens.
Some organizations learn and change only as much as their leaders learn and change. These groups tend to have autocratic leaders that are clearly in charge and who have the first and final say in everything. Autocratic leaders are no accident. They often arise because the organization has bought into some version of the “great man theory” of leadership. Though the “great man” theory was first challenged over 150 years ago, it remains a common approach to leadership among organizations of all kinds. British rocker Bonnie Tyler asked us “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?” in her popular 1980’s hit that seemed to give voice to our need for “great men” to lead the way. However, “great men” rarely support the creation of a learning organization because it means they have to release power and control and admit they might not be so great at all. To be fair, when I began my own leadership journey, this was the first approach I learned and I have had to systematically unlearn it in order to more effectively provide leadership to organizations and groups addressing complex issues.
The decision to lead an organization that values group learning and develops the capacity to change is also a decision to move to the wild side of leadership. Part of the appeal of “great man” leadership approaches has to be that the leader’s grasp on power and control means predictability – at least for the leader. To lead a learning organization often means a willingness to embrace and endure the chaos that usually comes with complexity.
This difference can be illustrated using the metaphor of dance.[i] The “great man” approach is like being the leader of a line dance, in which the leader stands at the front of a group of people, usually all standing in straight rows, who are all facing her or him and mimicking the steps of the leader. In this situation only the leader knows what step is coming next and she/he usually executes it flawlessly while members of the group may make missteps and stumbles as they try to keep up. As a result, the leader almost always appears to be much more competent at the dance than the followers, thereby proving her/his worthiness to be the leader. Leading a learning organization, though, is more like being the lead in a ballroom dance, such as the waltz or fox trot, which moves around the floor among many other pairs of dancers. In this situation, the leader cannot see where all the other couples are or what figures (steps) they are performing nor can the leader know when another couple will abruptly cut into their line of dance. Floor craft, the art of moving gracefully about the ballroom without crashing into another couple, becomes a primary skill that ballroom couples need to learn and hone to maximize their dancing experience. In such ballroom dance, the leader often depends upon the follower to see what she/he cannot see and relinquishes control as the lead to become the follower in order to perform certain figures.
What does it take to lead a learning organization? To be certain, there are many competencies one needs to effectively lead any organization (or to lead on the ballroom dance floor) yet there are three I believe are core competencies for leading a learning organization.
The first, sharing, is the ability to step aside from the leadership role to allow others to step up to lead. Sharing asks a leader to lay down their authority, right, position, and maybe even their title, as a leader to create space for others to emerge with their own ideas, insights, authority, and leadership. Sharing means no one in the organization or group is seen as incapable of making a contribution. Sharing also asks leaders to trust that others are as committed to the organization as they are and want the same good to be accomplished, whether that is in the form of profit or mission achievement. Recently I was reminded of the power of sharing when a friend assumed a new position in a medical school that put her in charge of the clinics. The clinics had been suffering for some time with a lack of patients and none of the directors, doctors, or nurses seemed to know why or have a solution. My friend decided it was time to talk to the front desk personnel. What she learned was that the front desk personnel were aware of the problem, had creative ideas for incentivizing patients to keep appointments, and were quick to make the suggestion, even willing to adjust their own hours, to keep the clinic open in the evenings to accommodate patients’ work schedules. Most importantly, she also learned that the front desk personnel were intentionally dissuading patients from coming to the clinic on certain days when it was being supervised by a particular doctor they did not trust to provide good care. When leaders are not willing to step aside to let others step up (share), the organization cannot grow and change to meet the present challenges.
The second, reflection, is the ability to take in information (both new and old), turn off one’s “filters” (assumptions, judgments, critiques) about it, and to consider it again to glean the fresh understanding and insights it offers. Reflection is the antidote to the “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before” syndrome that afflicts so many organizations and groups. This ability, however, means nothing if a leader is not willing to consider information, whether new or old, with clear eyes and clean filters. In the case of my friend’s medical school, however, there was no information to reflect upon until someone was willing to seek it out. Sadly, you and I both know from experience that having information is no guarantee that it is going to change anything. The universe of file cabinets is populated with needs assessments, for example, that have provided reams of information on communities which have not really contributed to our understanding of the community because there has been too little reflection on the meaning of the information. Reflection is a powerful tool for any leader of a learning organization, and yet it is a tool that must be intentionally picked up and used.
The third, in my short list of competencies for leaders of learning organizations, is adaptability. Adaptability is quite simply, as the word itself suggests, the ability to adapt or change. Adaptability requires a bit of courage on the part of leaders because it often results in the disruption of systems, interruption of plans, and the introduction of chaos as the organization is pushed into change. Adaptive leaders are, therefore, courageous leaders who are willing to experiment by letting their organization or group members experiment with the ideas that emerge from the learning process. It is adaptability that can make the ride pretty wild for leaders, as well as their organizations. Other leaders in my friend’s medical school were not too sure about trying some of the ideas offered by the front desk staff. To their credit, they agreed to test some of the ideas. The experiment is still too new to know for certain how it will work but one thing is clear: if they were not willing to experiment, nothing would change and the learning would be lost.
It is more comfortable to be a “great man” leader who has control, power, and predictability but it is not always as much fun as stepping over to the wild side of leading a truly great learning organization. Let’s get wild, okay?
Be greater, do good, every day,
[i] If you would like to learn more about dance as a leadership metaphor, join me on Sunday, November 2, 2014 at 1:00 PM (Pacific) in San Diego, CA at the 16th Annual International Leadership Association Global Conference where I’ll be co-leading the workshop “Teaching Collaborative Leadership in Complex Environments with Ballroom Dance.” For more information about the conference, visit http://www.ila-net.org/.
We all have voices in our heads. They are the ideas, random thoughts, non sequiturs, and inspirations which often appear out of nowhere, even in the middle of the night, like this blog at 4:15 AM on a Saturday morning when I could be sleeping in. Fortunately, they also occur at other times of the day. I am especially good at non sequiturs at all hours.
So, there I was watching the opening ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Olympics last night (yes, this is one of those non sequiturs but it is going to make sense in a minute). I am loving the spectacle of the show and I am enjoying it so much I pick up my tablet and start tweeting. I am blathering away on Twitter for hours when, finally, a friend sends me a note: “What are you doing? What are you talking about?” I reply: “Well, the opening ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, of course. Duh!” The show ended, I went to bed and I woke up at 2:50 AM with a startling realization: I had not been using any hashtags to give my friend, or any other of my zillions of followers, the context of the voices in my head. Okay, who is the idiot now?
And, of course, that is the point! (Yes, another non sequitur but I will connect it now.) People who have followers (aka leaders) need to remain always aware of the voices in their heads. Communicating ideas, random thoughts, and inspirations clearly to others is essential. Even more, it is a core responsibility of leadership to communicate effectively with our followers and colleagues. Regardless of how creative, inspirational, and important the voices in our heads, if we do not make a focused effort to share them clearly and coherently, they flow out as a string of non sequiturs. Look, an occasional non sequitur is fine as it tests whether people are really paying attention to us. However, a steady string of them can cause people to seriously question our competence.
Here are a few lessons I learned, again, tonight on how all of us can avoid confusing our followers whenever we are wearing the mantle of leadership:
- Remember, the voices in your head are in your head only. Seems pretty basic and easy, right? It usually is until we have hit a gusher of ideas. In those moments they want out so bad we forget that others cannot hear those voices too and do not know the context out of which they flow.
- Slow down. Do not go immediately for your cell phone to call a press conference or text, email, post, or tweet any of your insights to the world. Do not call for an all organization staff meeting, video conference, convocation or write a company-wide memo. Sit with it for a while. Mull over it. Have a cup of coffee or tea. Walk around the block. Whatever you do, keep it to yourself for now.
- Write your idea as a Haiku poem. Haiku poetry is typically only 10 to 14 syllables in length. By writing your idea as a Haiku, not only will you distill it to its very essence, you’ll also make it sound very pretty. Even more, it will help you organize your thoughts and push you to communicate them more clearly and concisely. Yes, even Twitter gives you 140 characters and it does not always seem adequate, to be sure. Trust me, though, you can thoroughly confuse people with 140 characters.
- Try it out on one or two people who will not agree to any idiotic thing you say just because you are the leader. Yes, share your Haiku poetry with them. You do not have to tell them it is a poem, if that seems too risky to you. You may be worried, after all, since you are the leader, that they may judge you for taking time away from your important schedule to write poetry. You know, though, it is not such a bad idea that leaders write poetry. It models the capacity for reflective thinking as well as the wisdom to break with the insanity of a frantic schedule. If these one or two or more people quickly grasp the idea, seem warm to it, and are comfortable “kicking it around” with you, then you can share it with more people.
In retrospect, I really wish I had taken a few minutes to test my tweets instead of being carried away by the inspiration of the moment. Nonetheless, it was a good reminder of how the voices in my own head can confuse my followers – whether on Twitter or in a real-time leadership role – if I do not intentionally, thoughtfully, and clearly communicate them.
I’m going back to bed.
I love the Iowa State Fair. I’m an Iowa native and August always means the Iowa State Fair and a symphony of cicadas. The cicadas have followed me to the East Coast so I still get to hear them each year. My visits to the Iowa State Fair, though, are not annual events anymore. If I’m lucky, I get back to the fair about every five years. This was one of those years!
Even though I’ve been going to the Iowa State Fair since I was a small child, there are still things one must do every time one goes. You’ve got to see the Butter Cow which unfortunately was damaged by vandals this year. The picture seen here shows how the cow looked on the opening day of the fair when I was there. You’ve also got to walk through the midway to let all the carnival barkers have a chance to take your money. You’ve got see the Big Boar. For the first time ever I got to see the Big Boar weigh-in competition. Otis, weighing in at 1,103 pounds, was the winner though he was actually 232 pounds lighter than Reggie, the 2012 champion and record-setting Big Boar. So, why didn’t Reggie come back to defend his title, you may ask? One word: sausage. Otis is a one-time winner, too, but watch for him to appear in a deli section near you.
Speaking of food, you’ve also got to hit the myriad of food stands at the fair (I had two incredible monster cinnamon rolls and, to honor my heritage as an Iowa hog farmer, a pork tenderloin and a pulled pork sandwich).
Though there are things I have to do at the Iowa State Fair as part of the tradition there are always a few surprises. This year it was The One and Only Bandaloni. Bandaloni is a “one man band” but don’t let that phrase conjure up the wrong image for you. Bandaloni is not some quasi-talented guy on a street corner trying to make a buck by playing a ukulele, harmonica, and cymbals strapped to his knees. (He’s actually got a nearly full drum set on his back.) He’s a talented pro who sings and plays up to 12 instruments at the same time all the while strolling about and interacting with the large crowds he draws. A local television station in Des Moines did a feature on Bandaloni’s appearance at the Iowa State Fair that is worth a look.
My ingrained Iowa farm kid work ethic makes it virtually impossible for me to simply have fun watching someone like Bandaloni without finding a good reason for enjoying myself so much. The lesson I learned from Bandaloni that justified the fun I had watching him was this: Bandaloni exemplifies much of what it takes to be a good, effective leader today.
First, leaders need to multitask seamlessly. Leaders usually don’t have the luxury of doing just one thing at a time. They have to continuously juggle and balance responsibilities, expectations, and priorities. Even when they go a little off-key or miss a beat, they need to recover and keep going.
Second, leaders need to focus. Though it may seem counter intuitive, effective multitasking requires intense focus to make sure everything is being addressed with high quality. Sure, some busy leaders who are moving about wildly and without apparent reason are truly unfocused. But others, and I believe these are the most effective leaders, if you look more closely, are like Bandaloni who have no wasted effort and they make amazing music. This only happens when they are genuinely focused despite the 12 different simultaneous tasks they have to perform which may make them look a little wild and uncontrolled at times.
Third, leaders need to adapt to changing conditions. If Bandaloni had been sitting on a chair performing his act on a stage, it would have been far less impressive. Instead, he moves through the audience interacting with individuals even as he performs. To do this Bandaloni has to be able to quickly and intuitively adapt his act for any possible situation (and when you perform at state fairs you get a wide variety of situations). Leaders in the 21st century can no longer sit as the authority on the stage making pronouncements to their follows. Instead they have to be engaged and able to adapt to the different individuals, situations, and contexts they encounter.
Finally, leaders need to have fun. Bandaloni is having fun even as he is helping others have fun. This is what makes it everything work so well. The fun a leader has in doing the work of leadership conveys the sense of joy, excitement, passion, and committment she or he has. Think about it. I bet anyone you know who has those four things going for them mostly have a lot of fun doing their work…and their spirit is contagious to others.
Okay, that’s all I’ve got. After all, I was on vacation. In one last homage to summer vacation, join me in laughing, smiling, and singing along again with Bandaloni at the Iowa State Fair on August 8, 2013. Enjoy!
Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus