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The Fine (and Necessary) Art of Challenging Others

We avoid difficult and challenging conversations because we’re afraid of the negative consequences these conversations might create.  The problem with this avoidance is that the negative consequences of NOT having these conversations are probably greater than any consequences of actually having them.

Because of our avoidance we: 

  • Accept unacceptable situations and circumstances 
  • Fail to grow into deeper and more consequential relationships 
  • Spend time being angry- often unnecessarily 
  • Don’t get the full picture and proceed with our judgments based on limited information 

Let me say this very clearly – when you don’t challenge others, either on their behavior, their words, or their points of view, you dishonor them. I say this because when you withhold a challenge you are assuming the other person won’t be able to deal with your challenge, or that they are too far in the wrong to ever come to your – obviously correct – point of view.  

There’s nothing easy about having a challenging conversation, even, or perhaps especially, with someone to whom we are close. Here are a couple of ideas about how to think about and act on these interpersonal and professional challenges: 

  • Have an honest conversation yourself about your intentions. If you aren’t trying to create a positive outcome for both parties, in the long run, think again about whether you are properly prepared.
  • Consider the potential of the other person, and consider how your challenge might simply be calling them to that potential. If you believe they’re better than what they’ve shown, let them know you want to see more of the good stuff.  
  • Don’t let people get complacent. It’s easy for any of us to lost vision and drive from time to time. A challenge from you might be what the other person needs to re-energize and focus their efforts.  
  • Don’t use challenging language routinely – don’t beat the drum of trying harder, sucking it up, raising your game, or whatever other tired language you can find. Challenging conversations need to be substantive, curious, and focused on where the person is in their life and career, and not just a crack of the whip on their flanks. 
  • Be open to the revelation of your own contribution to the problem you’ve identified for them. As you challenge another person, and if you’re truly open and courageous in that conversation, you may learn a great deal about yourself and the impact of your behavior. 

I’ve been on both sides of deeply challenging conversations. I’ve been the challenger and the challenged. In both roles, I have become a better person.  

Are there risks to challenging others? Of course, especially if you’re challenging someone powerful or autocratic. But think about your legacy – will you look back at your career and lament the conversations you had, or will you lament the ones you didn’t have?

Challenging another human being can be a profound service, in some cases changing the trajectory of their lives – and likely yours as well.  

Natural Leader or Naturally Dominant?

Recently, in one of our Path Forward leadership workshops, I heard one of our students describe herself as “not a natural leader.”  

Why would someone describe themselves in this way? Even though I’ve heard people saying this about themselves throughout my long life, this hearing made me think, in what for me are different ways about what it means to be a “natural leader,” and what it means to NOT be a “natural leader.” 

I’ve begun to wonder if much of what we label as natural leadership is in fact natural dominance, and that this natural dominance looks in certain circumstances like the type of behavior we reflexively respond to as “leadership.” 

And in some circumstances, a dominant approach is what leadership should look like if we think of it as representing a strong results orientation, a willingness to take appropriate risks, comfort with being a public figure, a competitive orientation, and the ability to make the tough calls.  

And of course, a dominant style can represent some very negative leadership characteristics such as rigidity, narcissism, power-tripping, and political maneuvering. 

What we can say is that a dominant style is highly visible, and maybe that’s why we see it as “natural.” It’s right there in front of us, expressing itself in very public ways, often with what seems like effortless energy. Other less-dominant forms of leadership are quieter, less obvious, and less recognized. 

Dominance is an interesting characteristic when we consider how we react to it. We can be very uncomfortable around it but still need it or even admire it at the same time. We may resent the success or power of a dominant person while also wanting to attach ourselves to the dominant person’s influence for our own benefit. In a challenging or risky situation, we may very much welcome the strength and decisiveness of the dominant person, while also feeling like we got run over by them.  

Dominance, like all leadership characteristics, is useful or not depending on the circumstance. Therefore the problem isn’t whether or not dominant behavior exists in organizational culture, but whether or not it’s simply a default style, displayed and applied even when other styles or approaches might be more helpful.  

Dominant leadership can also be downright sexist, abusive, and immoral, but not if it’s balanced with wisdom, integrity, vision, compassion, and intellect. Dominant leadership behavior in the service of good and compassionate intentions can be very effective.  

Let’s be careful about the “natural leader” label – it may really be a recognition of a person’s natural dominance rather than a broad assessment of their leadership effectiveness. And if this dominant style is what the culture understands as leadership it may cause less dominant people to label themselves as less natural leaders when in fact they are operating – or could be operating — in more nuanced ways.   

If the culture puts too much value on the dominant characteristics of leaders it may confuse style with substance. A strong, decisive leader can be helpful to have around, but so is that person who gets things done with a different style – one that isn’t broadly recognized as “natural leadership.”  

Volunteer or comply? A huge question for leaders

For the moment I will put aside my frustrations at the people in our society who are refusing COVID vaccines, and instead I want to talk about an important leadership question related to compliance in the workplace.

Over the years I’ve heard leaders struggling regularly with the question of whether or not it’s a leader’s job to tell people what to do, as opposed to obtaining the employee’s engagement and voluntary effort to do the thing the leader desires.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard business leaders saying:

I never want to tell my people what they have to do – I prefer they use their best judgment and make their own best choices.

I just want people who come to work and know the right thing to do without having to be told.

I can lead the horse to water, but I can’t make him drink. I can recommend and encourage behaviors but I can’t make everyone follow the same rules.

I shouldn’t have to set workplace rules. All the best behaviors in my organization come from our employee’s intrinsic motivations and their understanding and embrace of our values.

Of course, from a psychological and even spiritual perspective, organizations and societies are healthiest when they come together under the banner of a shared vision and shared values, resulting in voluntary rather than compulsory compliance. I won’t argue that point, and my default is always to ask for support rather than demand it.

But this effort to create voluntary compliance has its limits, especially when a given behavior in the workplace has health or safety implications for the workers there.

Leaders have a tough decision to make when voluntary compliance doesn’t work or doesn’t work entirely. This question applies to any number of issues in the workplace such as safety rules, process requirements, behavioral norms, and legal issues matters such as sexual harassment.

Many years ago we worked as a society, through persuasion and education, to reduce cigarette smoking in our society. This effort to educate, and to appeal to people’s best judgment, was largely but not completely successful. As a result, legislation and health regulations became necessary. In the end, it has become unlawful in most cases to smoke in public spaces. What we don’t know is how many people would have continued to smoke cigarettes in our shopping malls and workplaces if the legal requirement had not been established.

So here we are with COVID. We’ve played out as far as we can, I think, the process of appealing to people’s objectivity and sense of community in order to get their voluntary commitment. Now we are in a new phase, which is the necessary establishment of rules and consequences that make it more difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to remain unvaccinated and keep one’s job.

What’s the leadership challenge in this? Other than dealing with huge disruption to one’s business, the challenge I think is deciding once and for all that, on this issue, your judgment is better than the judgment of many of your employees — that in this case at least you know better than they do what’s good for them. This recognition that you have to force people to do something they don’t want to do is a difficult one for many leaders. We hold on to the vision that we are inspirational leaders and not policemen. We like to think we can lead that horse to water and he’ll drink gratefully from the trough.

There may be sadness in this for many leaders, to have to deal with the disturbing reality that even with their best efforts to inform and inspire there may be times when they simply have to set rules and require compliance. We don’t like treating people this way, but sometimes, perhaps more often than we’d like, we must.

If an employee accuses you of taking away their personal freedoms, you might say “yes, that’s right, in this case, I am putting the need to keep us safe ahead of your personal freedom.”

If it helps to think of it this way, we all forfeit our personal freedoms every day in the interests of living in a civilized society. We can’t create a fetish around individual freedom. We drive the speed limit. We don’t hunt animals or fish for salmon out of season. We show our ID and allow our luggage to be inspected at the airport. We wear helmets when we ride motorcycles, and we fasten our seat belts. And now, in the very same spirit, we now get a COVID vaccine or accept the judgment and conditions of an employer or a society that this is what needs to be done, and what must be done.

 

 

Some important people showed up for me today

My reaction to the inaugural ceremony today surprised me. I found it extraordinarily reassuring and it brought me to tears.

When I started Path Forward Leadership 20 years ago, I established the mission of the business to be the reduction of human suffering. We live this mission by giving as many people as possible the opportunity to work with competent and caring leaders.

Even as I’ve continued to teach the idea that leaders matter – that they have a huge influence on our lives, and therefore should exhibit the highest character of anyone in our lives — I have been somewhat oblivious to or dismissive of the impact of the past 4 years on my psyche and spirit.

That was until I saw Republicans and Democrats alike, on the platform, extending respect and appreciation to one another, honoring deeply held cultural norms, and generally seeming to say, “O.K. we can do this.” When the tears showed up for me – tears of relief, mourning, and joy –they were a reminder that as tough as I believe myself to be, as world-weary and cynical as I can be at times, I also have to acknowledge the powerful impact of my relationship with my leaders on my well-being.

I didn’t listen much to the speeches or the prayers or the poems, although they had their important place in the ceremony to be sure.

What affected me instead was just watching the demeanor of the leaders who showed up – and noticing who didn’t. Just by being there, by standing when they were asked to stand, and sitting when they were asked to sit, and showing deep respect for the process and the tradition, they helped me heal just a little bit and grab on to a little bit of hope.

Sometimes just showing up –with respect, with open hearts, and with dignity, is what’s needed most. Followers always need their leaders to show up well, and today that was brought home to me in a very personal way as some of my own modest share of our collective suffering began to ease.

It’s OK to be p***** off

I sometimes have an anger problem, in that I don’t think I should be angry, so I stuff my anger in a box. I do this because I believe, wrongly, that anger is always a failure of character, that I should be in control of my life, and my emotions such that anger just doesn’t show up.

Well, it’s here! I’m p*****, and it’s too big to put in the box. I just need to let myself be p***** and then find some way to express that without making the people in my life feel like paint is being peeled off the walls.

Journaling about things – which is partly why I write blogs – is helpful. Somehow just saying “I’m angry” seems to help.

And I’ve also learned not to let people tell me “there, there, everything’s going to be OK.” Because there are some things right now that aren’t going to be OK. We may be on our way to the disintegration of our democratic system. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to die because of, well, stupidity. And my grandchildren will live in a world of environmental destruction and challenges that I couldn’t have imagined. None of that is OK.

So, things aren’t OK, and I’m p*****. This doesn’t make me a bad person.

Now, taking action is essential and helps me with my anger. Doing anything I can to fight back, or to put a balm on suffering, or to provide a sympathetic ear – all these things are ways to get me through the day without punching holes through the wall.

How are you dealing with your anger? Let me know–

How to Keep Working Relationships Vibrant During COVID

Regardless of the course that COVID takes in our world, one thing is clear: people will be working virtually more than ever before, even after we’re cleared to meet in person again.

At Path Forward, we take a profoundly relational view of leadership – that is to say, we see leadership success coming directly from the leader’s abilities to form, sustain, and grow key relationships.

Much of this relationship-building has traditionally occurred in unexpected ways – the shared ride on the elevator, the lunch table conversation, the drive-by “how are you today?” conversations, the sharing of a birthday cake.

Now, as we interact in less visceral and personal ways, I hear leaders saying, “I just can’t relate to people the way I did before – I’m concerned about our culture coming apart at the seams if we can’t be together.”

We can do things to keep things fresh and lively while we’re working with one another virtually.

  • Get up and move around. It seems to be that we’ve become LESS mobile and physically active in the virtual environment. Try to move around, even a little bit. It creates better energy that we can share with others on those long Zoom calls.
  • Be spontaneous. Use IM or even good old-fashioned email to recreate the “drive-by” scenario in the office. There are questions we can still ask virtually – “how the heck are you?” “did you see the game last night?” or “what can I do to help you have a good day today?”
  • Don’t over-rely on meeting technologies. If your day is full of Zoom meetings, your relationships may benefit from some space on your calendar, and for some communication to move to phone, IM, or some other form of communication. Some of the liveliest conversations I’ve ever had were with people I couldn’t see or hear in the moment.
  • Brainstorm virtually. Toss an idea out there, and let it percolate. Talk out loud about your victories and your frustrations, even if “talking” is different than it was before.

I think all of this comes under the category of not wasting our time just wishing things could be different than they are. And remember, all this virtual relationship-building work is building capabilities for you and your organization that will be essential even after COVID.

4 ways to deal with your micromanaging boss

Is your boss micromanaging you?

Here’s 4 ways to deal with a micromanaging boss:

  1. Be organized
  2. Anticipate
  3. Force choices
  4. Explain the consequences

 

What’s the difference between management and leadership?

There is a lot of overlap between the two. Try not to think of them as separate roles. A good manager has some important elements of leadership, and even the most creative leader has to have some good management disciplines in order to be effective.

Why do leaders fail?

What are some of the most common reasons leaders fail?

  • Were they in love with the status of their job?
  • Do they rest on their laurels?
  • Do they adapt?

Here’s a list of 7 reasons why leaders fail.

Stop using your need for control as an excuse to express your distrust in others

Trust is such an interesting thing in business. Without it, your business will eventually hit the wall and explode.   

For trust to exist between people, it must be both earned and granted.  

If you have difficulty granting trust to others, there are many possible reasons. And apart from putting you on the analyst’s couch to discover your childhood traumas, or reliving every little way the other person has “let you down” in the past, let me suggest at least one possible reason why you don’t trust people: 

Because you don’t want to. Trusting others to do things means you have to relinquish control, and you might love to be in control.

So you say you can’t trust others. Because you operate with a fear of losing control, it’s in your interest to keep people off balance – focused always on you, your whims, your undisciplined changes of direction, your second-guessing.  

Most of the people in your organization are likely worthy of your trust. Whether or not you grant that trust to them is another question. When we grant trust, we give up a little control, perhaps a little ego, and maybe a little bit of certainty. It’s well worth the sacrifice to see your people act in an engaged, creative, and confident manner, unfettered from your need to control them.  

 

 

 

The sniff test – what do you really notice about your organization’s culture?

Many years ago, when I was leading a large regional service center, my boss came to town about once every month or so for a check-in.

His name is Robin Cramp – still one of the favorite people I’ve ever met on this long career journey of mine.

On one of his visits, I greeted him at the front door, and when he walked into the lobby, he took a deep breath and said, “I love the way it smells here.”

What I didn’t immediately realize was that he was referring to his immediate, visceral response to the energy in the building. What he was saying was that as soon as he walked into the building, he noticed positive energy. He said it was something he could sense – smell – as soon as he walked in.

I laughed the comment off a bit, but over time I thought about it more and more. Is a positive culture that obvious? Can you see it, hear it, smell it in the air?

I think perhaps it is. I think even the most scientific among us would have to agree that different organizations exude very different energies. It’s not a woo-woo thing at all. When people like working somewhere, when they are respected, when their workload is appropriate, when they have what they need to do their work, when they feel the lines of communication are open, and when there is joy and a sense of accomplishment, then….. well, the place smells pretty good!

5 ways to strengthen your leadership in a work-from-home environment

  1. Rethink meetings.
    I’m hearing that people are overloaded with meetings and that there’s a lot of Zoom fatigue setting in. I’m not surprised, and I’m feeling that fatigue as well.
    Now, we need to have better meetings than ever before. We’ll cover some essential meeting principles in a subsequent blog or video, but your leadership depends so much on the quality of your meetings, so get them right.
  2. Be spontaneous.
    The spontaneity of the “wander by” or the chance meeting at the coffee machine is lost for many of us, but I think there are still ways to be spontaneous. Have pizza delivered to someone’s home. Pick up that old relic of communication called the phone and make a call. Make a video of yourself lip-synching to We Are the Champions. Send a text message of no substance at all to let people know you’re still out there. Let’s not let this get too boring – please.
  3. Make information more readily available.
    In so many client companies, we see that many of their meetings are simply to pass on information. It takes much longer to listen to someone say a sentence than to read that same sentence on a page. Verbal interaction is only valuable if there’s some interactivity involved. If you’re just trying to get information into people’s hands and heads, do so in different ways. If you don’t trust that people will read what you send them, make sure they know that this might be their only chance to see it. And, in general, think about how you share information in all ways.
  4. Maybe email needs to be rethought too.
    I think a lot of companies have given up on email as an effective way to communicate, but maybe it’s an art form that deserves to be resurrected. A good, informative, concise email might be a good idea right now.
  5. Think about new people.
    If you’re part of an experienced team of people who already know one another, then this is probably going OK for you. But as new people come into your team in a work-from-home situation, they still need to make connections. And, they will have a much more difficult challenge in learning about and becoming part of a cohesive culture than they would if they were physically present. Think about ways to get them comfortable with their co-workers. Perhaps individual meetings with each member would be a good part of their onboarding. Maybe they could make a quick video of themselves, so the team knows their circumstances, history, and interests. Perhaps you need some sort of onboarding event.

There is no reason why you should consider this current WFH circumstance as being temporary. For many of us, it may become permanent. And when COVID passes over, I might guess that less than half of us won’t have had to make some lasting changes in how we interact with one another, and how we lead. I understand the sadness and lamentations of many of you for whom in-person contact is the lifeblood. But this is what we have to work with, and maybe making the best of it now will position you very well for whatever happens next.

Don’t be surprised if a future stock job-interview question will be “Have you ever managed in a WFH environment, what did you learn, and what are your success factors in leading groups this way?”

The 100-year plan

In our leadership workshop, I will often ask our students what they think the likelihood is that their business will exist in 100 years.

Most of them, if they’re being honest, answer “not likely.” And they’re right. The odds of any business lasting more than 100 years are pretty low. It’s not impossible for a business to last 100 years, and it does happen, but it doesn’t happen often. And even if it does, there’s a good chance the business is fundamentally different than the one that started so long ago.

Why do I ask this question? It’s not to depress our students by forcing them to face into the futility of creating something permanent, nor is it to suggest that their current leadership efforts don’t matter in the long run. In fact, I ask it by way of suggesting there should be a bigger cause – a mission if you will – for any type of leadership activities or intentions.

In 100 years, your business may be gone, but your influence may indeed still be around, in ways that are more important than any specific business outcome could measure. If your leadership is strong and good, and integrous, if you strive to always benefit the lives of the people in your organization and the lives of their communities, your leadership influence might very well last for 100 years or more.

Think of your legacy as a leader in terms of the 100-year view. Your leadership should help achieve company success, but it should also transcend the limited scope of that measurement. You are, in your actions right here and now, leading people who have yet to be born. For them, your leadership may help create the possibility of a healthy family life, a healthy community, and a healthy and just culture.

Why Do People Buy Our Stuff?

This deceptively simple question is one that leaders should ask their employees, again and again.

Many years ago, I had a colleague who would call me and ask this question of me – usually at about 3 PM on a Friday. It was tempting to answer it by saying that our service was better, or our prices lower, or we had more locations, better products, or “the best people.” But he and I both knew the answers were more complicated than that.

We often think we know why people buy stuff from us, but in my experience, we are often deceived by our preferences. The things that employees or the entrepreneurs of the business love the most about their own “stuff” are sometimes the reasons they think other people love their “stuff.” And it’s sometimes hard to understand why people don’t love what you love. (Think about that friend of yours that keeps trying to convince you that “you’ll love Yanni as much as I do if you just go to one of his concerts!”)

Leaders love their companies, and they love their company’s “stuff.” But they are capable of being objective and hard-headed enough to know that it’s not enough to enjoy your “stuff.”

Maybe you own a bakery, and perhaps it makes excellent pies, and maybe you get compliments from customers that reinforce your belief in the superiority of your pies. But if making great pies was enough, there would be a pie shop on every block in your city. Because it’s not that hard to make tasty pies, just as it’s not as hard as we think to have “good people” or “good service.”

There are many reasons why people buy stuff. Being smart and thoughtful in understanding these reasons is the essence of marketing. And if we involve our employees in discussions about these questions, we usually increase their engagement, their creativity, and their sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

So, this question, which seems so apparent, may indeed be the most challenging question of all for you and your employees to ponder together.

Finding a fit between employees and their jobs and why some policemen shouldn’t be policemen.

One of the most exciting challenges in leading an organization is achieving a good fit between the skills, character, and motivations of individual employees and the job you’re asking them to do.

If someone wants a job as an engineer, we would naturally ask if they had the qualifications to be an engineer. Still, we might also ask what it is about their personality and makeup that makes them attracted to engineering as a profession. It might be because they like things “just so” or they want to dive into the details. They may be project-oriented or have a genuine passion for building things.

While there are reasons why we might be interested in having their particular engineering talents for our organization, most organizations have learned that there is much more to be gained than what shows up on a resume. One of the things we should strive to understand is the nature of their interest in a particular job and what that interest tells us about who they are and what they want to get out of the experience, other than money. Understanding their motivations and their interest in a particular job may tell us some significant things about them beyond their ability to “do the work.”

So why do people want to become police officers? I can name a lot of good reasons, and I expect that most people who become police officers do so for these good reasons. Among these might be the desire to protect and serve the well-being of others and of the community, a desire to create a safe and stable community for its residents and employers, or the desire to be part of a profession which the officer hopes will engender feelings of trust and respect from others.

There are most certainly wrong reasons to want to be a police officer, and recent events scream out the terrifying reality that some are in the job for those wrong reasons. The opportunity to carry a sanctioned firearm and wear a military-style uniform festooned with the accouterments of power is an invitation for certain people who have distorted views of the purpose of these things. There can be no doubt that the profession of police officer regularly attracts outstanding and principled individuals but also an unfortunate number who prize the opportunity it provides them to push others around, to dominate and intimidate, and to project a sense of personal power through the uniform that might be lacking in other parts of their lives.

It may also attract a small number who glorify violence, and who see becoming a police officer as their opportunity to “set the world right” as they see that right through the lens of their own biases.

I believe the question is how we ensure that people are applying for and training for these kinds of jobs for the right reasons. It’s within our power to establish standards for police work that identify problematic psychological tendencies before awarding a badge. And of course, we have to remove the protections that exist for police officers who have clearly established a pattern of behaviors that point towards them having the wrong reasons for choosing this critical profession.

Carrying a gun, driving a powerful car, and sometimes holding life in the balance are fantastic responsibilities. We thank those who hold these responsibilities sacred and who do their policing for good reasons. However, we owe it to everyone in our society to hold these people to a higher standard, in consideration of what is so obviously at stake.

Available, or Present? There’s a difference.

Many managers have bragged to me over the years about how available they are to their peers and employees. “I’ve got an open-door policy,” or “people always know they can talk to me when they need to,” or “I’m all about my people.”

Many of these people who tout these characteristics aren’t, in fact, “present” for their teammates; instead, they’re just “available.”

There is a difference. Being available can lead to effective tactical maneuvering, information-sharing, quick responses to customers, and short-term problem-solving. Being available is often a perfect thing, indeed. It means people don’t have to waste time hunting you down, and it means that things move more quickly. Being available gives employees the gift of your time and expertise. Being highly available means you take your management responsibilities seriously.

I would argue being present is more of a leadership characteristic. It suggests a real investment in the other person – a kind of radical mindfulness about that person that helps you uncover their motivations, fears, and talents. It means you’re taking the time to get in from the edges of things and into the center, where the real meaning lies. It means you aren’t satisfied with superficiality or convenience, and that you want to do the hard work of leading in the visceral way that great leaders do.

Being present for another person means that at the moment, they are the center of your attention and your intention. Striving for availability reveals a transactional purpose while trying to be present reveals the aim of achieving depth and discovery.

When we intend to be simply available to others, we are focused on sharing what we know. When our intention is on being present, we are focused instead on what we don’t yet know.

Being fully present is quite a challenge, and no one can do it 100% of the time. But it’s important to recognize even if you’re widely available to people; you might not be present in the way that drives relational depth, motivation, and mutual growth.

 

The Humanizing Qualities of the Virtual Workplace

There are legitimate concerns about the loss of human connection in this increasingly virtual world. When we’re videoconferencing, we’re looking at two-dimensional representations of 3-dimensional human beings. We’re looking at pixels instead of flesh and blood.

But my business partner Sarah pointed out to me this week that there’s a humanizing element to all of these virtual meetings as well. I agree with her.

During this lockdown, while we’re looking at small square images on the screen, we are often seeing people at home rather than in the office. There’s a connection – an intimacy if you will – that comes from that little glimpse into the person’s “other” life.

Maybe we learn a little from the pictures on their walls or the unexpected interruption from their young child. Perhaps it’s the smile we see when the person we’re conferencing with is handed a sandwich or a cup of coffee from their partner.

Maybe we see casual clothes, and we learn from the logo on their hoodie what college they attended, or what team they root for. Perhaps we see their big fat cat leap on their shoulders, or we hear a lawnmower chugging outside the window. Maybe we see our colleague hunkered down in their laundry room, or garage, or basement, as they seek some separation from the tumult of this other life they live.

And, maybe we’re seeing a more relaxed version of that senior leader, dis-attached as they are from their seat of power in the office. Perhaps we feel a little bit more equal, a little less intimidated, knowing they are in this weirdness with us, that their home life, at least from the small square we can observe, doesn’t look quite so different from ours.

Even those of us who are raging introverts long for some return to our regular social interactions. But for me, for now, I’m feeling some good warm fuzzies toward these little square images on the computer screen.

Questions: ask thoughtfully, respond objectively

I have to confess. When someone asks me anything that questions my thinking or decisions, I have to get over an immediate response of resistance before I can hear the question objectively.

I think I’m able to get over that speed bump pretty well most of the time, but the resistance is almost always there. It can show up when big questions come my way, like “what’s the mission of your business?” but also in smaller questions like “why didn’t you add more paprika?”

This has been a big part of my growth in self-awareness, to try to catch this defensiveness when it shows up, and if not eliminate it, at least get past it quickly so I can engage healthily.

When I feel attacked by someone’s questions, I’ve learned that this is mostly on me – that the question probably wasn’t intended as an attack, but I just took it that way.

I also experience this phenomenon from the other side – the side of the person asking the question. I know that some questions to my clients are perceived minimally as annoyances and, at times, as outright attacks. I know as well that once someone feels attacked, the learning stops.

Honest questions have to be a part of any good relationship, business or otherwise, so I know that they’re sometimes the best way to get to the heart of the matter, to challenge a stodgy thought process or to bring a new perspective. But my questions got me into trouble a few times, even when I asked questions that I thought were in the respondent’s best interests.  

And of course, some questions are attacks. “You couldn’t have thought of anything better than that?” isn’t a question.

From both perspectives – the one being questioned and asking the question, we must be aware that questions are freighted with potential emotions and have to be asked thoughtfully and responded to objectively.

Federal versus state control and how it relates to your business

The great debate about central versus local control

If you’re a student of American history, you’re well aware the continuous and often acrimonious debate has been raging for over 200 years about the boundaries between central authority, in the form of the federal government, and local authority as represented by the 50 states and their county and city jurisdictions.

COVID-19 is once again putting this debate on center stage. What is the role of the federal government in this? What authority should be invested in the 50 states? What is the most efficient way to plan and manage a quick and aggressive response to a national challenge?

In so many ways, businesses have the same decisions to make about how they are structured. This is true even if your organization operates out of a single location, but its certainly even more so if you have multiple locations or business entities. But the question of local versus centralized authority is one that comes all the way down to the reporting relationship between a boss and an employee.

Here are some ideas about how to approach the debate with integrity:

  1. Be aware that emotions and ego enter and sometimes even dominate these debates. I remember as I moved through my management and executive career, my ego was invested in numbers: “I have 150 people reporting to me, I am responsible for $400 Million in top-line revenue, 14 physical locations, etc….” These weren’t measurements of my importance as much as things I liked putting on my resume. So when you bring things from local control to central control, you expand one manager’s Kingdom and contract another’s. This is an obvious and regular source of conflict that often gets in the way of an objective solution. Just being aware of the emotions will help you lead yourself and others through these debates.
  2. There are obvious benefits to centralizing some services in one location as opposed to having them spread out over multiple locations. (Does it really make sense for 50 U.S. States to have 50 different procurement departments, strategies, IT systems, and supplier relationships for medical supplies? I think not.) So, in attempting to put subjectivity and ego aside, there are really only two considerations that should guide the debate:
    • What is the best structure for the customer? Throughout my long career, there has been a gradual erosion of the importance people put on having local and personalized services. Customers may want to have frequent person-to-person contact with a critical B to B salesperson, for example, but they would certainly not care about the location of a person who had to solve a billing problem or locate a shipment occasionally. I have a 20-year business banking relationship with a large bank, and I would rather chew on a bar of soap than go into the local Branch for any purpose. If I needed a large line of credit or a more complicated set of services from my bank, I would put a higher value on a personal relationship. The rule here is the customer should decide whether local presence is important, not you.  
    • The other consideration is efficiency, pure and simple. There are many advantages to running a larger team as opposed to a smaller team. A centralized group of 20 can operate much more efficiently than 4 teams of 5 in many ways. Larger teams generate advantages in cross-training, coverage in cases of illness or unplanned turnover, training, and process development. So, while your accounts payable department might be 100 miles away, they may be equipped than your smaller local Division or Department to take care of your needs.
  3. The debate should be based on processes and systems, separated as much as possible from the individual capabilities of individuals within several locations. We can’t keep accounts payable in Omaha just because there’s a person in Omaha who knows how to work the system. The performance of the system shouldn’t depend on the individual capabilities of one person in any case. If the system works well, the location from which that system is managed becomes less relevant.

In summary, the most important things about the debate between local and central control are:

  • Try to prevent it being an “or” but rather an “and.” The best solution, in the end, is probably some combination of both central and local control.
  • Let the customer dictate the need for local services, not the organization.
  • Most importantly, try to have this conversation with as much objectivity as possible. The most objective approach will often bump up against people’s natural tendency to want to surround themselves with evidence of their power. Keep egos and emotions in mind, but be persistent in the drive for the best strategy and structure. 

The cynical voice: how can we meet the deeper needs that our organizations and our world needs

Even as we optimistically try to change the world by advancing the cause of good leadership, the cynical voice – occasionally my own – will sometimes win the day.

Human beings are exasperating creatures. We say what we want and then have a devil of a time taking even the most obvious actions to meet our needs. We are obdurate without self-awareness. We believe in things we are told to believe without questioning them. We obsess about minutiae and logistics while astonishingly unaware of the human drama around us. We are too often selfish, myopic, infuriating, and downright corrupt.

With all these faults, how have we created great symphonies, altarpieces, sleek automobiles, Scotch, sunglasses, and Shakespeare? How have we overcome our banality and our petty conflicts and managed to build airplanes, dance the tango, swim the English Channel, and invent and solve the Rubik’s cube?

I wonder if leadership is at least partly to answer. Few of us have achieved anything without the presence of good leadership in our lives. Few of us would be capable of overcoming the influence of discordant and coercive leadership without falling into an abyss of tribalism, violence, or despair.

So I don’t doubt for a minute that good leadership is essential to the quality of our lives and the survival of our planet. And I know that it’s either in short supply or buried under our collective cynicism in a way that prevents it from being heard. Are there good leaders among us, but their telling of the truth and their demands on our character repels us, their weak and inattentive potential followers?

So even as I have soldiered on with the best of intentions to help people lead more effectively, there are times when that cynical voice speaks loudly – not with a shout but with an annoying certainty – saying it’s just not worth it, that human beings are wired in ways that can’t be changed. That power and money are too much for even good people to put in proper perspective as they go about their work and lives.

Teaching leadership is the act of an optimist, and over $150 Billion is spent on Leadership Development in the U.S. alone each year, so at least we know that something is missing, and many business organizations are busily trying to buy whatever it is. But buy what? I think these businesses believe when they’re buying leadership development services that they’re buying the equivalent of bug spray or whitening toothpaste.

When I stepped out of my corporate roles 20 years ago and started Path Forward, I chose to make less money than if I had stayed in the corner office. But make no mistake about it – there is a great deal of money to be made in the leadership development business. So we see a lot of money being committed, we see some smart and earnest people developing approaches to meet the need, and yes, we do see some positive impact of these approaches. But underneath it all we see a business community, and a world, that seems headed towards a multitude of brick walls. Is it a lack of leadership that’s driving our problems? Or is it that we are all so deeply flawed that we couldn’t be led even if the leaders were doing all the right things?

Sometimes I do my leadership development work in the same way I recycle plastic. It seems like the right thing to do, and it makes me feel a bit more righteous, but I know it’s not enough. Leadership Development programs probably do much more good than harm, but I believe there’s something much bigger that’s needed. Perhaps it’s a spiritual gap that learned leadership skills can’t fill. Perhaps what’s needed is an awakening of what it means to be a human being. Perhaps when we teach people to have meaningful conversations and run good meetings, we’re not teaching anything that actually touches their souls. Maybe the Leadership Development industry helps people get more work done, and get along a little better with one another, without a strong push for the real transformations we need to see in people – leaders and followers alike. Maybe what we do in the Leadership Development world is psychologically sound, but spiritually lacking. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to aspire to something more than being a good teammate or a top producer.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not throwing in the towel. I will get up tomorrow morning and try again. At Path Forward, I believe we have faithfully worked toward our stated mission of reducing suffering in the world. I can’t stop myself, you see — I want to do good, and doing some good is better than doing bad, or doing no good at all. And after all, it’s my business and my livelihood to do this work. But I will be asking myself tougher questions – real questions – about the nature of my work and my industry, and how we can meet the deeper needs that our organizations and our world needs.

And I’ll keep recycling too.