It really should not be this difficult

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”  - Albert Einstein

“Recognizing power in another does not diminish your own.” – Joss Whedon

“As a general rule…people ask for advice only in order not to follow it; or if they do follow it, in order to have someone to blame for giving it.” – Alexander Dumas

“Of all the forces in the universe, the hardest to overcome is the force of habit.” – Terry Pratchett

“If a person can build a fence around himself, he is bound to do it.”  - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I wanted to begin with this collage of quotes to place context to my observation that we tend to make things much more difficult than they really need to be.  I am fascinated by this because there are so many things we cannot control, you would think that the last we want to do is create our own set of problems that could further exacerbate an already challenging project.

Over the last 10 days, I have seen the following:

  • Lack of communication that has lead to frustration and will require additional investments of both time and money as a result
  • Spur of the moment decision making without discussion with others involved which could negatively impact the chances for long term success of the project
  • Making decisions based on assumptions/personal opinions and, to make matters worse, avoiding/ignoring actual available data
  • Overall lack of concern for others involved in the process
  • Abandonment of duties once it was clear the project was not going to meet expectations
  • Failure to establish any metrics of success before beginning
  • Taking shortcuts to save money resulting in total expenditures greater than those budgeted originally
  • Avoidance of post project discussion /blaming others for lack of commitment

While all of these are significant issues, the most dramatic impact has been on the human beings involved in the process.  The challenge now is to try to shift their focus from failure to success and get back to the business of helping others as that is the primary mission of the organization.  It will not be easy as they do not feel valued right now given recent events and it will take time and effort to heal these wounds.

It is quite amazing to me that there are still leaders (and I use that term loosely) in organizations who do not realize that the only sustainable competitive advantage of any business is people.  Obviously that knife cuts both ways because people (all of us) are  emotional, opinionated, stubborn, quirky, and a myriad of other things…but we also do amazing things are willing to go above and beyond what is required or expected when we feel appreciated, respected, and valued.

All we have to do is realize that with every interaction we have with others there are only 2 options...build up or tear down.  Which would you choose?

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Filed under Looking in the mirror, Real Life, The Human Condition

pursuing contentment

What are we all looking for?  Do we really know what “we” want?  I would challenge that often we are so busy pursuing things that we fail to stop and question the pursuit itself.  We are taught from a young age to achieve, strive, and win…so often at the cost of our health and happiness.  I am not condemning the idea of striving for something better…just think we should be clear on our individual and collective definition of “better”.  I think William Henry Channing said it better than I ever could…“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”

When will you be content?

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Has your canary stopped singing?

When is “business as usual” not “business as usual”?  No one wants to be an alarmist but when must you?  I suppose the bigger challenge is how to do it constructively so people will listen?  It was probably easier in the coal mines when the canary died…that meant there was a build up of carbon monoxide and it was time to get out!  I am betting no one said, “We had canaries die before and nothing happened.”  When the singing stopped, people got out.

The core issue here is goes all the way back to Isaac Newton and his 1st law.  I believe his law applies to both objects and people because we all tend to avoid change unless acted on by an outside force.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the we tend to base our decisions on what “has been” and usually only look at data points that support our current worldview.  Hence the challenge with change…why change if we are doing all the right things?

We can also bring Mr. Darwin into the conversation because of his often mis-quoted line about survival of the fittest.  Sometimes folks want to say the strongest survive and others want to focus on the most adaptable.  Truth is Darwin never said this but we can still find insights from the thought.  We try to simplify things down to sound bites but the assumption regarding adaptability is what we should focus on…the need to adapt is driven by an ever changing environment and that brings us back to the canary.

It would be great if we had our own unique business canary that could warn us when our environment was changing and was no longer safe.  Perhaps then we would acknowledge that our business strategies were flawed or possibly out of date?  Would we be more prone to act if the canary swooned when it saw the most recent cash flow statement?

“A canary, a canary, my kingdom for a canary!” (This bastardization of Shakespeare’s Richard III works on multiple levels…)

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leadership worth it’s salt

Salt is a curious thing.  Hundreds of years ago, the Romans would pay soldiers in salt.  It was called a salarium and this is where we get the word salary from today.  It is even mentioned a number of times in the Bible, most notably in Matthew 5:13 when Jesus is talking about men being the “salt” and “light” of the earth.

In today’s world it is mostly a spice used in cooking.  Funny thing is that there are many different reasons to use it and depending on when it is added to dishes, the results can vary dramatically.

The one constant is that a little goes a long way (most of the time) and this can also be said for leadership.  I think we can all agree that there are few things as distasteful as something that is too salty.  One of the benefits of salt is that it can, when used correctly, accentuate the natural flavors of the dish.  In my opinion, this is exactly the same approach we should have towards leadership.

The best leadership is the type that no one notices.  By no one, I mean both those inside as well as outside the organization.  Leadership should be looked at like a catalyst that accentuates the natural talents of the people within an organization.  It should not be able to be singled out as the cause of anything (good or bad).  Leaders should be the subtle spice that brings the plate to life but does not overshadow the natural flavors of the main dish.

The challenge here is ego.  There is much to read about leadership today.  You can find hundreds of books, blog posts, articles, tweets, etc. regarding styles and methods of leadership and the greater majority of them are solid and well researched opinions.  If you were to distill them all down, much of the discussion is really semantics.  Each person has different words to describe many of the same concepts & applications…they are all variations on a theme (more or less).

The person who revolutionized organizational leadership was Jesus.  He was the architect of the “flat organization”.  Up until Jesus, only the high priests could go behind the curtain and talk to God.  When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was torn.  This meant that everyone could now talk to God…hence a flat organization.  Jesus’ message was also one of love and this is (as John Wooden said) the center of leadership.  Leadership is about other people, not the leader.  It is about putting other’s needs in front of your own and doing what it necessary to ensure their success.  If leaders would focus on the people, the people would take care of the business but too often leadership looks at people like a means to end instead of an end in themselves and this leads to problems (too salty).

Leadership is not glamorous.  Leadership is not a job you get promoted to.  People should not seek a leadership role to make more money.  Organizations should not promote people to leadership roles because they are great in their particular field.

You must have a heart for leadership.  You must genuinely care for the people and be willing to sacrifice part of yourself to help them become who they were meant to be.  The greater the leadership role you have the less it is about you.  You cease to exist because it is all about them.  You find ways to do the things that matter.  You have meaningful 5 minute conversations that are worth 4 hours of “work”.  You inspire self-motivation in others.  You worry less about your work and more about your team because they are your work.

Leadership is like salt; use it sparingly because a little goes a long way.

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How “Spiky” are you?

(It is funny to me how one thing leads to another and then to an idea for a blog post…and this is no different.)  This morning I replied to a post by Jim Canterucci in his Emerging Leader group in LinkedIn which set me off on a quick research effort for articles on “followership”.  (the discussion was actually about employee engagement but it made me think about what it means to be a follower).  

I found the article, “To understand leadership, study followership” and within that article, I found this gem:

“We follow people who are ‘spiky.’ Great leaders are not necessarily “well rounded,” they have unique strengths and weaknesses which make them real.”

This really resonated with me and I thought it was a fantastic and playful way to address the fact that no one is perfect…especially when it comes to leadership.  I think sometimes we try to put leaders on a pedestal and expect far too much from them.  Leaders are people just like everyone else and they will have rough edges.

I think we ought to embrace our “spikiness” when it comes to who we are what we do.  Over the past several years, I have developed the attitude that building a team is all about finding the right “fit” and really not all that much about the specific skill sets.  I know that within each role there is a certain base set of skills required but I will always hire attitude over aptitude.  I think we can all agree that in most cases when someone does not work out with the team, it is more likely to be over personality issues than it will be actual work performance.  This is why I always spend an inordinate amount of time telling the potential team member about the people and culture.  I want them be able to be themselves and not worry about wasting energy trying to hide their “spikes”.

In fact, the role of a leader is to hire folks who have complementary spikiness…that is what a team is all about…they fill gaps.

I will let Rocky explain as he is much more eloquent than I could ever be…enjoy and, to blatantly rip off the World’s Most Interesting Man…”Be Spiky My Friends!”

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Leadership is…

I have spent the last 3 years working in two very different small businesses.  In both instances, I served in a leadership role as we designed and implemented changes to ensure the financial viability of the organizations.  In that context I have been part of many discussions with owners, team members, prospective team members, soon to be ex-team members, clients, suppliers, business consultants, business partners, prospects, and the list goes on.

In those situations, you are faced with trying to have multiple conversations with various stakeholders about why they should want to be a “part of the team”.  It becomes evident that as a “leader”, the only thing you can do is influence.  Those who believe they can “make things happen” are both mistaken and misguided because the best you can do is influence and this can be further described as disturbing the system.  (You disturb the system because each interaction you have with another person carries on far beyond just that interaction because the person takes the energy from the conversation further out into the system – like ripples caused by throwing a stone into a pond)

This means that every time you interact with someone, you impact them in either a positive or negative manner.  The one thing I am certain of is that when you are in a leadership role, there is never a neutral interaction…regardless of how insignificant or inconsequential you thought the discussion might have been.  When things are changing within an organization, every word spoken (or not spoken) and every action taken (or not taken) means something (whether it does or not).

This all boils down to a very binary decision each leader makes hundreds of times each day…do I build up or tear down.  There are certain principles I adhere to and one of my favorites is Occam’s Razor.  Several definitions are listed below.

  • “The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations.”
  • “If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, choose the simplest.”
  • “The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.”

This is why I believe that leadership is…INFLUENCE.  What naturally follows that is whether we are going to influence positively or negatively (build up or tear down).  We can speak of all of the other pieces and parts of leadership (there are far too many to mention here), but all of them depend on the relationships of the people involved and that is based largely on how people feel about their leaders.  It is not what they think about them but what they feel about them that drives behavior and performance.

Again, I am not trying to oversimplify leadership (although I think that is admirable goal) but I do believe that if we view each leadership opportunity through the bifocals of building up or tearing down we will be rewarded with better results as those who look to us for support and direction will feel better about what we are doing and where we are going.

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The wheels on the bus go round and round

The more I experience, the more I am convinced there is nothing “new” in the world…or possibly nothing new that really matters.

I love to read quotes (those who are “LinkedIn” to me would know) and two of my favorite folks to pass along are Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC- AD 65).  Let me give you an example of what I mean…

“A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”  Seneca

“Talent develops in quiet. Character in the torrent of the world.”  Goethe

These two quotes (and many more by numerous others) are essentially the same musing on the same topic and the first was made over 2,000 years ago.  I also did not select quotes at random as they speak to something that is at the core of the human experience and also points out that the challenge for us is no different than it was for ancient Romans or Germans during the Romantic period.

We can talk of innovating (Ad nauseam) but that is all just variations on themes that have been around for thousands of years.  Especially when it comes to business.  Business has always been about a person selling a product/service to another person and nothing will ever change that.  We can try to make it more complicated but it isn’t.  We can change the medium but that doesn’t change the underlying foundation.  We can try to improve on the process but still doesn’t change the fundamental skills needed for success (long-term).

Take it for what it’s worth but I am of the opinion that most revolutions are more evolutionary than they think…we change (at least we like to think so) but the issues do not.

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Filed under Leadership, Looking in the mirror, The Human Condition