Leaders: You are dinner table conversation.

Leaders are conversation at the dinner table; try not to spoil everyone’s appetite.  At the end of the day, try to make certain that no one is going home wishing that you weren’t the boss or worse, wishing that they were employed elsewhere.  ~Sony Singh

I remember about 25 years ago I was supervising someone and I have no doubt I was dinner table conversation. It didn’t help that we could not have been more different from each other. I was a young woman in a white collar position; he was a man approaching retirement in a blue collar position. I put a high value on productivity over loyalty or longevity; he put a high value on loyalty over productivity.  And that’s just the start of the list. After I had been supervising him for several months, one of the VPs at the organization was kind enough to tell me the extreme level of stress I was creating in this man’s life. He would literally get tense and upset just at the sight of me. I had no idea; but what a learning moment.

I’m not advocating that leaders should become close friends with their followers. However, if your followers are going home and spending time at the dinner table venting their frustration with you, especially to the extent that they wished they were employed somewhere else, then that really should give you pause.

In my scenario, I certainly did pause. I tried to see things through his lens or his worldview. It was hard, really hard. We were of different generations, genders, and genes (i.e., values). I tried to assure him that he was truly appreciated, something I hadn’t done nearly enough. I tried to be very sensitive to how I was coming across. But in all honesty, I don’t think his anxiety decreased until I moved on to another organization. I’d like to think that 25+ years of experience and having failed a few more times would enable me to handle this same scenario much differently today.

A client also comes to mind. This particular leader viewed herself as the one person in the organization who was willing to make tough decisions. In reality, most everyone viewed her as controlling, unwilling to listen, and rude. She too was likely dinner conversation.

Thinking about several examples, including my own, I believe that leaders become dinner conversation (in the negative sense) when they are least self-aware. It may even be when they have the best intentions, but at the end of the day, and at the dinner table, what matters is how leaders’ intentions are both perceived and received. Sometimes leaders are distracted, preoccupied, or just simply out of touch. Leaders forget to stop and think about how they come across.

Warren Bennis, author of leadership classic On Becoming a Leader said, “The essence of leaders is placed firmly in issues of character, on who we are, on self-awareness.” Other bloggers have noted and I’ll join them in saying that self-awareness is not a one-time event, or some exercise or courses we engaged in when we first accepted a leadership position. Self-awareness is an ongoing learning process that never ends. It’s those who choose to keep working at it who become truly effective leaders. After all, if we’re going to be dinner table conversation, we might as well be adding to the enjoyment of the meal and not spoiling anyone’s appetite.

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Leaders diagnose before they prescribe.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. ~Stephen R. Covey

Many years ago I was at the doctor for my annual physical exam. She believed that there was an issue with my thyroid. That was followed by six months of blood tests and numerous medication tweaks. She was not pleased with the results so she sent me to a specialist at the regional university hospital and was convinced that I had thyroid cancer. I anxiously went to the specialist. After I was examined by a resident, a fellow, and finally the attending physician I was informed that there was nothing wrong and I was perfectly healthy. Go home. What?!

Throughout this experience there was something my doctor said that was always nagging in the back of my mind. She had mentioned that she had gone through this very same thing. Covey would describe this as “filtering everything through our own paradigms, reading our autobiography into other people’s lives.”

I was reminded of Stephen Covey’s quote: Seek first to understand, then to be understood (habit 5 from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) this past week. I gave an assignment to a training group to practice conflict resolution. The second step of conflict resolution is to ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective.

While reading their homework I discovered that many had asked questions to determine what the other person had done (i.e., what steps they had taken, what process they had followed), but not why. Understanding process is not the same as understanding perspective. What’s their point of view, what’s their angle, what’s their paradigm, etc. In some cases, I believe they weren’t asking these questions because they assumed they held the same perspective, or they thought the other person’s perspective was inconsequential.

Reading the homework assignments caused me to pause and think about different conflictual situations in which I played a role. Did I really understand the other person’s perspective? In a quick review of Covey’s Habit 5, he provides some challenging questions.

  • Did I understand what was going on inside the other person?
  • Did I get inside the other person’s frame of reference?
  • Did I really understand how they feel?
  • Did I fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually?

In the case of my physician, she asked me questions about symptoms. I had none. That didn’t stop her from prescribing. Stephen Covey said, “You don’t have much confidence in someone who doesn’t diagnose before he or she prescribes.” That was true for me, I found a new doctor.

As leaders, it is so easy to read our own autobiography into other people’s lives. Hence, we don’t ask questions to really understand another’s perspective. Imagine how much a leader’s effectiveness could be impacted by fully, deeply, understanding other people, emotionally as well as intellectually?

Leaders diagnose before they prescribe.

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Genuine leaders are freaking out with joy!

Genuine leadership is not about trying to imitate another leader or striving to fit into a certain box or definition. Genuine leadership is what emerges when we are fully and freely ourselves—when we are freaking out with joy.  ~Betsy Myers

If someone titles a chapter in a book on leadership, “Freaking Out with Joy,” it’s going to get my attention, which is just what Betsy Myers did in her book Take the Lead. She begins this chapter with a story about her young daughter.

At a mere four years of age, Betsy’s daughter informed her mother that her 4-year-old social calendar was too full of various activities and she just wanted to come home from school and play, like a kid, for awhile. So Betsy and her daughter agreed that she would not participate in any activities until she was ready. At the ripe old age of six, her daughter attended a dance recital and fell in love. She wanted to sign-up for classes immediately. After signing up, Betsy took her daughter to purchase all of the various clothing and items needed for dance class. While in the dressing room trying on dance clothes, she turned to Betsy and with great enthusiasm proclaimed, “I am freaking out with joy.”

Betsy’s point is there’s a reason the academic world has had so much difficulty trying to define or determine the most effective leadership style. Effective leadership is not so much based on style, but it’s based on being real, being genuine, being who you are to the nth degree. This was true for Betsy’s daughter, who waited patiently to find the perfect fit that caused her to freak out with joy. Thinking back to my own childhood – when time seemed to pass by so very slowly – two childhood years would feel more like four to six adult years. I admire the patience of Betsy’s daughter to just wait, and “be,” and avoid cluttering her life with busyness which could have distracted her from finding what brought her so much fulfillment that it caused her to freak out with joy. What an amazingly wise 6-year-old!

Throughout my career, watching various people come and go from organizations, I’ve witnessed a number of people who, literally, counted the days until they could retire. Their work was just that, work. They missed the opportunity to find that perfect fit, their real and genuine self who would freak out with joy over the work they got to do every day.

There are leaders at all levels in an organization. They might be on the maintenance staff, a bus driver, or a CFO. What makes them leaders is not their title, it’s that they are being real, genuine, and coming to work freaking out with joy. Who wouldn’t want to follow someone like that?

Imagine for a moment an organization where people are real, genuine, being fully and freely themselves; the energy so invasive that it’s palpable. What if as leaders we spent more of our time removing barriers, obstacles, and hurdles that keep our employees from being real and genuine? What if that even meant helping employees transition to another organization where they could flourish and thrive? What if our focus shifted from employee satisfaction and retention to enabling all people to thrive?

If you’ve stayed with me this far you’re probably thinking I’m a bit Pollyannaish. But, why not reach for an organization full of the wisdom of a six-year-old who searched patiently for what caused her to freak out with joy?

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Loyola Ramblers—Six Leadership Qualities from March Madness

It’s amazing when you believe. They have believed and believed and believed, and it’s awesome to see. I just want to stare at them celebrating. ~Porter Moser (men’s basketball head coach, Loyola University, Chicago)

I’m typically not an avid sports fan. I look forward to the end of March Madness because well, it feels like never-ending madness. However, when it’s a Chicago team and the underdog, I get hooked. So for the first time I’m following March Madness and the history-making story of the Loyola University Ramblers (and of course Sister Jean!).

What’s kept me hooked on the Ramblers are the multitude of references to leader-like qualities coming from players, commentators, sports writers, and coaches. Here are six examples of the Ramblers demonstrating leadership qualities.

Leadership Quality 1: Unselfish team players

“It doesn’t really matter who it is,” Richardson said on TBS after the game. “We’ve got a ton of guys (who can score). This team is so unselfish that the ball usually finds the hot hand. Tonight, it happened to be me.” [USA TODAY, 3/24/18]

Leadership Quality 2: Listening to a mentor

“More than anything, Majerus emphasized to Moser the importance of creating the right culture, and Moser heeded his mentor’s advice with the right principles and the high-character players he brought in.” [USA TODAY, 3/24/18]

Leadership Quality 3: Confidence, not arrogance

“The number of ‘divine fate’ story lines in relation to Sister Jean have been aplenty with this team’s Cinderella run. But there absolutely is something to make of the way a team’s moxie kicks in when it plays with a confidence as if it’s destined to do something special.” [USA TODAY, 3/24/18]

Leadership Quality 4: They love each other

In interviews following the win that put Loyola into the final four the players said: “…mainly that we love each other…we believed in each other” (Ben Richardson). “We’ve been connected all year and we’ve got so much love for each other” (Donte Ingram).

Leadership Quality 5: Patience and trust

While watching the games I’ve heard the commentators say, repeatedly, “They are very patient and they really trust each other. They wait for the right player to take the shot.”

Leadership Quality 6: Influence

Their “belief” has extended beyond the team; their influence has amassed many new believers, as stated in a USA TODAY headline: Loyola Chicago, team of ‘winners’ bound for Final Four, turns NCAA tournament fans into believers.

Come next weekend, win or lose, the Loyola Ramblers have made their mark in history through real leadership.

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3 Words to Make You a Better Leader

Be curious and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up. ~Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, brilliant, and an amazing human being who thrived on curiosity. In 2015 PwC surveyed more than 1,000 CEOs and a number of them identified curiosity and open-mindedness as leadership traits that are increasingly important in a dynamic environment.

Simply telling leaders to be more curious may have little effect. It will likely require a shift, or for some a transformation, in how they lead. Many people who quickly work themselves into leadership positions are there because they can come up with fixes and solutions, and do it rapidly. They may also believe that they need to have a presence grounded in assertiveness and expertise to be an effective leader.

Sound like someone you know? Maybe even you?

Here’s the shift. Being curious means asking more questions, and asking questions that aren’t pragmatic, interrogative inquisitions. What’s the cost? Where will we get the funding? Who will be responsible? Being curious means asking questions that are based on exploration and discovery. Three simple words can transform your ability to lead from a place of curiosity instead of interrogation. Those three words are:

How might we…” also known as HMW.

A more typical approach, such as: How can we do this? How should we do that? The words “can” and “should” suggest a judgment. Can you really do it? Even, should we do it? Asking how might we do something defers judgment and allows people to suggest ideas or options more freely and likely generate more possibilities.

IDEO, Google, and Facebook have all used HMW, and it’s moved to the nonprofit sector as well. “Steelcase’s former CEO Jim Hackett points out that the goal should be to encourage the formulation of questions rooted in deep critical thinking about the particular challenges and issues of the company, its customers, its industry.” [Warren Berger, Become a Company That Questions Everything, HBR, April 30, 2014]

Returning to Stephen Hawking, The New York Times stated this about Hawking last week. “Stephen W. Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author who roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair, pondering the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe and became an emblem of human determination and curiosity, died early Wednesday at his home in Cambridge.”

I’m guessing that the word might or how might we or how might it was very common in Hawking’s vocabulary. Even in learning to live with the early onset of ALS, he must have asked himself How might I? as opposed to How can I? many, many times.

Hawking: the “emblem of human determination and curiosity.” How might you be more curious?

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