Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Freedom 2

So what does freedom have to with leadership? In this context, freedom is experienced by two parties: those who lead, and those who follow. We'll talk about the latter first.

In any organization, everyone -– leaders and followers alike– - are working towards a goal or purpose. The leader typically works in light of the big picture, and the follower usually works on a piece of that big picture. Together, the followers execute the work required to put together the big picture which at first exists only in the mind'’s eye of the leader.

Now, that arrangement can take on many forms, and everyone has heard (or experienced) war stories of what lawyers currently like to refer to as "“oppressive work environments." We also dream about, and occasionally hear about, work environments where people are given the latitude to be themselves, pursue their ideas and grow as individuals. But those work organizations seem rare, and openings in them even more so. Once inside, who would ever want to leave, considering the alternative.

But why the disparity? Why aren'’t more leaders open to giving their followers the latitude they desire while they go about their work? Why is Office Space the cliche that so many of us can identify with?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, some of which are popping into your head as you read this. We'’ll try to address as many as we can in coming weeks. But here'’s a big one: leaders too often confuse structure with control, substituting one for the other.

What? OK, let me give you an illustration from my own life.

Meet Clay. Clay was my boss ten years ago. When I went to work for him, he gave me a Day Runner, explained the office approval and filing procedures, and gave me a project, adding "“if you have any questions, my office is right there, and the door'’s always open."” I was then thrown into the deep end of project management.

Clay had laid down a rudimentary structure and communicated basic expectations about my position in general and about the project in particular. He then turned me loose -– absolute freedom within the confines of the structure he had established. It wasn'’t until I wandered outside this established structure and got into trouble that control had to be implemented.

Leaders confuse control with structure when they inadequately communicate a) the elements of structure and b) expectations, general or specific, to the follower, either initially or as the relationship develops. The follower, then, is unclear as to the boundaries within which to operate. At some point, he unwittingly wanders outside of the structure that only clearly exists within the leader'’s mind. The leader then reacts by communicating what he thinks is structure to the follower.

More than likely, the follower receives this communication as a reprimand -– a form of discipline. The follower feels threatened, confused. Self esteem drops, and the follower'’s confidence pertaining to his position is threatened. "“Am I doing OK? Am I meeting expectations? Am I getting written up? Will I be fired?"”

Leaders, when structure is unclear and followers are under the impression that they might be written up for violations they have no way of avoiding, productivity plummets and the resumes come out. And yet leaders wonder why productivity is so low and attrition so high.

So why don'’t leaders change their tactics? Simply put, it takes a lot of very deliberate work, and often requires a paradigm shift on the leader'’s part, as he adopts a pro-active posture with his followers, as opposed to a reactive one. It also has no direct connection with what he thinks is the big picture he started with when he began his endeavor. I mean, who wants to spend all that time putting together a policy manual? "“Why can'’t my people just get it? It'’s not rocket science! Isn'’t it obvious what we'’re trying to accomplish here?"” If you actually started infiltrating the water cooler crowd and asking those questions for real, you may be astounded by the answers you get.

So, how are you communicating? Have you taken the time to establish a working structure? Do you wait until rules are broken to communicate them? Are you approachable? Really? Do your people know what you'’re about? As a person? As an organization? Do they know exactly what is expected of them as individuals? As professionals (or volunteers)? Do they know why they'’re doing what they'’re doing?

Give it some thought. You may think you know the answers to some of these questions, but you might be surprised.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Freedom 1

When the pioneers settled the new world, they took risks that few of us would consider today. Many of those who left their homeland died on the way, or lost loved ones to disease, starvation or exposure. When they arrived, they faced crushing hardship and great danger as they began the process of establishing a new life.

Think about it: no house or means of transportation; no streets or roads; no grocery store or job to go to; no hospitals for the sick, no police to call on in time of need; no community, no friends, no neighbors. Only you and the loved ones who managed to survive the journey.

It begs the question: what was so bad about their lives in the old world, that would move them to risk everything – and everyone – they had to begin a new life in the unknown?

Many of those who settled the new world left behind them lives of oppression and adversity as tenant farmers. They owned none of the land they worked, and continually faced the prospect of eviction from their home and livelihood in the event that they couldn’t make rent. When rumors of free land began to circulate through the hillsides and hamlets of the old world, many could scarcely believe it (remember Far and Away?).

But in retrospect, weren’t they simply trading hardship for hardship? What did the new world offer that was so compelling that it moved millions to risk all they had to obtain it?


Not even that – it was the prospect of freedom. Merely the possibility of owning their own land and being beholden to none. Even when weighed against great risk, and with no assurance of a positive outcome, the hope of freedom was enough to compel the early settlers to leave all they knew behind and move to the new world.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Don’t Fool Yourself by Leading Co-Dependants

I have long posited the notion that the test of true leadership is whether or not you can lead volunteers. I won’t go into detail now on why I believe that statement is true. There is not enough time or space to cover my thoughts in a blog, that topic is for my future book (if I ever get around to it.)

But, I do want to address the one caveat to my premise – co-dependants. Co-dependants by nature will do anything to please you, or, as in my NFP (faith based) world, God. Even if God isn’t asking for this level of validation of their commitment to Him.

Co-dependents come in all shapes and sizes and will often go to many levels of sacrifice to obtain your approval, or, some self imposed ideal of what God requires of them.

How then do you tell if you are a leader or just have a group of co-dependants following you?

1) Realize that we are all crazy (co-dependant), but some of us are crazier than others.
2) Ask your friends – your true friends.

If you don’t have any friends to ask – consider yourself crazier than most and if you are leading, it’s probably just a group of co-dependants.

So as a touch point, be wise enough to look at the folks tagging along – are they emotionally healthy? If so, you might just be a leader.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Open Door Leadership

A few years ago I engaged in an enterprise level software installation for a large not for profit organization.

I headed into the project with a team of folks with the intent of helping them finish the project. I ended up taking over the installation and thus had the perk of an office from which to function.

The environment was somewhat formal and was the typical cube structure.

My leadership style was much less formal and driven by conversation and relationship, what some call “walking the floor” leadership. But cubes are cubes and not very conducive “walking to walking the floor.’

What to do? I added some incentive for them to come into my space. I added a large bowl of candy on my desk and everyone that glanced at that bowl as they walked by I invited in for a small tasty sugar morsel.

I’ve continued this practice whenever possible and it has proved invaluable for my style of leadership – lots of conversation and relationship. As I have gotten older I have moved to healthier snacks – but the principle remains.

Open door, snacks, conversation, relationship… leadership.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Humility & Connection

Film critic Roger Ebert said “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” How you are as a leader comes from who you are as a person. And leadership is, above all, a way of relating with people. A way of connecting.

Most leaders have leverage in the form of a paycheck that they can wield over their underlings when push comes to shove. What if that paycheck wasn’t there? What if your employees were volunteers? What if they didn’t have to be there, but showed up anyway for some other reason? What might that reason be? How would it affect the way you lead?

Humility is the key.

As a leader you’re expected to be strong, resolute, confident, competent, articulate, etc. To a certain degree these expectations are justified. But no one is all these things all the time.

When dealing with insecurity about themselves or their position, many leaders will try to bluff their way through whatever situation they’re facing. Pretend to have it all together, to be something they’re not. Emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, even physically.

But no one likes a poser. No one likes a smarty-pants, especially when it becomes clear that he doesn’t know as much as he once led others to believe. You want to drive wedges into your relationships with others? Bluff. Pretend. You will quite effectively block any possibility of person-to-person connection.

People want their leader to be strong, but they also want someone they can connect with. You want to connect with your people? Show them you’re human. Learn to say “I don’t know.” Learn to ask for help. Be real. Shoot straight.

Remember, it’s not about the leader, it’s about the vision. And the vision isn’t about the leader either.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Why Leaders Don't Lead: working copy

Everyone knows Maxwell’s 21 irrefutable rules of leadership, but it ain’t happening. Why not? Here’s a partial list.

  • Insecurity - you don't know who you are.
  • Burn out - tired, bored, ?.
  • Wrong gig, not working in your area of giftedness.
  • Ignorance about what leadership actually is.
  • Pressure to be something you're not (i.e. other than yourself) – image management.
  • Self-deception - you think you're a leader when you're not.
  • Don’t have the tools.
  • Upbringing/following bad examples
  • Failure to recognize your right position as a leader.
  • You inherited a title you don't deserve.
  • You're pursuing someone else’s dream.

Where’s Your Head?

Here at Two Rules, we have a saying that can be applied to nearly all aspects of life, including leadership. Rule number one: Pull Your Head Out! Rule number two: Use It!

OK, so that sounds a little harsh. But admit it – haven’t there been times when you’re on the other end of the equation (i.e. you’re following someone else’s lead), that you wish you could give your leader that little nugget of advice without fear of repercussions? But what does it mean to pull one’s head out? Is it stuck somewhere? How did it get this way?

People engage the world around them in patterns of behavior that we acquire throughout the course of our lives, often by following someone else’s example. Parents, politicians, employers, teachers, religious leaders, loved ones, friends, family and peers – all of these set examples we observe and follow to some degree. Sometimes the example is good, and the resulting pattern of behavior is positive. But often enough the example is bad and the resulting pattern of behavior is destructive.

People often find themselves in positions of leadership purely by accident. They never set out to lead other people, but one day they realize “Wait a minute – there are people who rely on me to tell them what to do!” (Sadly, there are those who never have this little moment, but we’ll talk about that later). They just end up leading by virtue of their position.

Now, if you’re the leader of the free world, chances are you’re already aware that there are people out there who rely on your vision and direction. Indeed, their actions occur in response to your input. The same is true of the corporate CEO, the church pastor, the retail middle-manager, or the stay-at-home parent. The only things that change are the specific vision and direction, which vary by position.

Say you’re a project manager for a general contractor, and you became a project manager because you wanted to build sky-scrapers. The fact is you can’t build sky-scrapers on your own. You need to be able to communicate instructions to those actually doing the work in a way that ensures that the work actually gets done. If you’re good, you’ll do it in such a way that ensures not only the success of the project, but also that those in your employ will remain happy to be there.

Look around you – there are positions of leadership everywhere. We’re not just talking about the CEO on top of the pile – people everywhere are in positions where they require others to fulfill orders, satisfy demands and meet expectations.

Arguably, some people are better at leading than others. Maybe they have a gift – they were born to lead. There’s something about them that makes others want to work for them. They’re competent, confident, and by golly people like them.

Conversely, others clearly weren’t cut out for the job. Everyone can think of a harsh parent (even if not their own), or the boss they couldn’t stand.

Why the disparity? The demands of the position are the same, aren’t they? How is it that two different people, with equal qualifications, can behave so differently behind the same desk? Why do some people treat their subordinates badly, while others treat their people well? How is it that some people can engender loyalty in their followers, while others cause bad vibe? Natural-Born Leaders have people who produce consistently, while non-leaders wonder why their people don’t get more work done.

Think about your own life. Unless you’re a hermit, you’ll probably find yourself in a position of leadership at some point. When the time comes, how will you measure up? How then will you lead?

I was on the phone with my sister last week, and she told me that she’s been in counseling for the past 16 months. I was concerned, so I asked her what issues she was dealing with. What she told me was hardly surprising – marriage, work, childhood stuff (parents and a bratty sibling), etc. – all the same stuff I’d be dealing with if I were in counseling. Now I know my sister pretty well: she’s got a great husband; she works in a place she enjoys, doing work that challenges her; and comparatively speaking, we had it pretty good growing up. I’m not talking lots of toys or money, but we had parents who loved us (still do) and were genuinely interested in who we were as people as we were growing up. So I was interested to know what was up.

At this point curiosity was piqued, so I asked her what spurred her to go in the first place. What she told me was astonishing. She began going to counseling because she recognized a pattern of behavior where she could identify goals and objectives in various areas of her life (particularly at work), but she was unable to see them through. She had picked up scores of small, seemingly trivial habits during the course of her life which turned out, collectively, to be debilitating. It’s said that a single thread cannot restrain a person. But if that thread is allowed to wrap around the person enough times, it can bind her so tight she can no longer move.

This kind of self-awareness is uncommon, and the courage to actually act on the notion that she needed help is even rarer. But my sister was plagued with the idea “I should be able to do more with the resources I have at hand. What’s holding me back?”

Everyone, irrespective of their upbringing or life experience, has stuff in their life. Baggage. Tendencies, habits and patterns of behavior that keep them from consistently achieving objectives. Most, however, don’t have the self-awareness to realize that the biggest barrier to their ability to achieve goals and objectives is their own baggage.

We’re concerned here with what it takes to be a leader. I mean the kind of leader that people actually want to follow. For many of you, it’s time to pull your head out and do a reality check. Do you have the gift? If not, do you at least have the tools of leadership? Do you understand what leadership actually is, especially as it pertains to your life? Are you engaging in destructive behaviors that prevent you from leading effectively? Are you confident enough in who you are as an individual to deal with your stuff as you learn to lead others?

It's time to start using your head.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Delegating Vision and Passion, Is it Possible?

I was sitting with my friend at coffee on Thursday talking about vision and passion. One of our mutual friends who has great wealth and tries to help others with said wealth says, “You can’t delegate vision and passion. What are you passionate about? Go and do it.” Or, “Let me know what you are passionate about and I will help you do it.”

My wealthy friend has often run into difficult situations in trying to help others. The “others” often looking for a job, or capital, try to figure out what my friend wants to get done/see happen and match up to his desire to obtain finances/financing. He therefore deflects back to them with his “You can’t delegate vision and passion” mantra.

It makes sense at one level but I think is fundamentally flawed for two reasons. The first is a general principle and the second is a misapplication.

The fundamental conflict I see is that at the core, the leaders job is – to delegate vision and passion. What are you doing if not that? The best at reading reports, or the best at leading people? The best at choicing out options, or the best at leading people? The best at following anothers orders, or the best at leading people?

I think that my friend would agree, but the second issue, the misapplication of the concept of delegation is where he gets tripped up. You see, my friend has great wealth because of the very thing that makes it difficult for him to delegate in the truest sense. He is very intelligent, sees a lot, has many gifts and often knows exactly what he wants to see done, or, exactly how “he would do it.”

Delegation means to give it away – and he loves to be in control. I will give him credit, he knows it and attempts to minimize his controlling personality but in the long run his demon always seems to make it way back into the situation.

Maybe it’s just semantics. You might argue a better word is “impart” – A leader’s job is to impart vision and passion. Regardless, if you hold on tight, you are not leading.

Let go and lead.