What Leadership Teams and Chili Recipes Have in Common

One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!” The challenge is to make them see that sometimes they are successful in spite of this behavior.  ~Marshall Goldsmith

One of my favorite fall foods is chili. A year ago I discovered Turkey Pumpkin Chili, which has become my favorite. As you can probably imagine, the ingredients are a bit different from a more traditional chili. The tomato sauce is replaced with pumpkin puree and turkey instead of the common ground beef. Surprisingly, at least to me, the spices weren’t that different. So I decided to experiment and in addition to the typical chili spices I now add a little cinnamon and nutmeg. After a little tweaking, I’ve created a unique combination of flavors that I thoroughly enjoy.

What’s a chili recipe got to do with a leadership team?

I’ve received a number of calls recently from leaders wanting some help with their leadership teams because they just aren’t quite flowing very well.

I’ve discovered that when many leaders progress to senior leader positions, they believe they have “arrived.” The sentiment is very similar to the quote by Marshall Goldsmith – “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!”

Now, imagine a group of leaders who all feel that way. They are all bringing their “spice” to the recipe with full force. Is it really any wonder that the team isn’t flowing?

The hard work begins by helping these leaders recognize that every “team” has its own unique dynamic; just like every chili recipe has its own unique flavor. In order to get that flavor just right, some spices might need to be subtle and others need to be bold. This means that every leader on a team needs to be willing to adapt their behavior to fit that team.

If I was making traditional chili, I wouldn’t think of adding cinnamon or nutmeg, and I might add more chili powder than what I put in my turkey pumpkin chili. Because of the other ingredients I’m adding, the other spices have to be adjusted. Both chili recipes may taste wonderful, but the spices have to be tweaked to get the flavor just right for each one.

The same is true for teams!

Each time a member of the team changes, the recipe has been altered. That means every other team member may have to adapt their behavior so the team can be at its best – really flow. That doesn’t mean any team member’s behavior is wrong or bad (just like cinnamon and nutmeg are not bad spices), it just means it needs to be tweaked so this team can be in sync.

I have found this concept to be really hard for many leaders to graciously accept. They believe they are in their position because of their strengths, which is true. But today, leadership is not a solo act. Leadership team members need to bring their strengths and be willing to adapt, tweak, or modify to allow the leadership team to thrive.

As a Chinese Proverb states, “A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.” Or, members of an effective team adapt their behavior, as the mix of spices in a chili recipe need to be tweaked to get a really great flavor!

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The Paradox of Leadership and Politics

One has to try to find compromises with mutual respect, but also with a clear opinion. That’s politics [and leadership] – always looking to find a common way forward. ~Angela Merkel

I wrote my first blog post on leadership in August of 2011. That means I’ve now blogged through a number of election cycles. I scanned my blog posts around previous elections and unfortunately, not a lot has changed. We seem to be stuck. Maybe even losing ground when it comes to Merkel’s perspective – “always looking to find a common way forward.”

When you think about it, through the electoral process we are collectively making some very significant decisions. Yet, the politicians aren’t appealing to our ability to make decisions through careful discernment. They are manipulating us through emotional appeals. Unfortunately, because that’s a very successful strategy when your primary goal is short-term: “to win.”

Author John P. Kotter begins Leading Change with this statement: “The single most important message in this book is very simple. People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” All those “truths” about their opponents that candidates are blasting at us 24/7 to influence our feelings.

Real diversity is experiential capacity.

Quentin Schultze offered me the opportunity to read a manuscript for a book he’s now published, 30 Days to Great Communication for Leaders. I came across this sentence: “Real diversity is experiential capacity.”

“…diversity comes from the inside of people, not from the outside. Diversity has more to do with culture than color. Real diversity is experiential capacity. Perhaps we servant leaders have to stretch beyond contemporary notions of diversity that are limited by simplistic categories (30 Days to Great Communication for Leaders by Quentin Schultze).”

The more politicians keep us on their side, the less likely we will be to participate in real diversity as Schultze describes through experiential capacity. If politicians can limit our experiential capacity, they can more successfully influence our feelings. Hence, get our vote (a very short-term mindset).

Learn how to reason with one another.

During previous election cycles I’ve quoted N.T. Wright a number of times. Wright said, “We need to learn how to reason with one another. When you don’t have reason, you just collapse into a subhuman morass of non-engagement.” Wow, that still sounds all too familiar.

Leadership: always looking to find a common way forward.

Maybe there’s hope. Leadership from the bottom up. I stood in line this year to vote longer than any previous year. The line extended outside, in the rain, and yet everyone seemed to be taking the situation in stride. We followed the directions as the line weaved back and forth through the lobby to keep us dry. Not only were people coming out in record numbers, we were adding to our experiential capacity by engaging in conversation with people we didn’t know. We were all there to exercise our right “to vote” – to find a common way forward.

If as leaders we simply practice reasoning with one another and stretch our experiential capacity, I believe that “always looking to find a common way forward” may not be that far out of reach.

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Leaders rise above the fray and are fully present.

I decide, every day, to…open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, caring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride. ~Eugene Peterson

Last week RNS reporter Jana Riess stated, “Eugene Peterson died yesterday (October 22). I wasn’t surprised at this death – RNS reported last week the he had entered hospice care – but I was surprised by my reaction to it.” I can relate, it’s been a week and I too am grieving a loss I didn’t anticipate.

For those who may not know Peterson, over the course of more than 10 years, “he lovingly crafted The Message,” a colloquial translation of the Bible. The Message has sold over 20 million copies.

I never met Peterson. I have only read about and listened to others describe his life. I believe I’m grieving because Peterson was one of the few influential individuals I can point to who was truly able to rise above the fray and be fully present. What an incredible example of leadership!

Some leadership experts would argue that leaders can rise above the fray to a point of denial, with their head stuck in the sand. I agree, that can happen. However, when a leader can rise above the fray and still be fully present, that’s powerful leadership.

Here are just a few quotes from Eugene Peterson to illustrate his life above the fray and fully present.

  • “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.”
  • “Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to them. The question I put to myself is not ‘How many people have you spoken to this week?’ but ‘How many people have you listened to this week?”
  • “It’s your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words.”
  • “A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook.”
  • “An honest answer is like a warm hug.”
  • “Live generously.”
  •  “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.”
  • “Wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves.”
  • “Intentions must mature into commitments if we are to become persons with definition, with character, with substance.”
  • “The primary practice of language is not in giving out information but being in relationship.”
  • “Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless.”

Thank you, Eugene Peterson now among the saints, for guiding leaders toward living above the fray and fully present.

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Leaders: Use restrictions to set you free!

We’re paralyzed by infinite possibilities. Give yourself some intentional restrictions in life and you’ll finally get inspired to act. Restrictions will set you free.  ~Derek Sivers

Leaders tend to think that a blank canvas will spark creativity. If we remove enough barriers employees will suddenly become inspired and innovation will flourish in every corner of our organizations.

Could the exact opposite be true?

Derek Sivers is a musician and the creator of CDBaby.com, which became the largest online seller of independent music. Derek provides this example.

I say to you “Write me a piece of music. Anything at all. Go.” “Umm…anything?” you say. “What kind of mood are you looking for? What genre?”

There are too many possibilities. The blank page problem. How do you begin with infinity?

Now imagine I say, “Write me a piece of music, using only a xylophone, a flute, and a shoe box. You can only use four notes: B, C, E, F, and only two notes at a time. It has to be in ¾ time, start quiet, get loud, then get quiet by the end. Make it sound like a ladybug dancing with an acorn. Go.”

Ah…your imagination has already begun writing the music as soon as it hears the limitations. This is easy!

I’ve seen leaders think this way frequently and I’ve done it myself. Give people lots of freedom and they’ll be creative. Instead, they become paralyzed. They return to their offices and keep doing what they’ve been doing. Nothing innovative, new, or different materializes.

Restrictions aid creative thought.

Research has shown that restrictions actually aid creative thought. An art guild in Colorado took that finding literally. They created an entire show based on restrictions. Each artist was limited to a 1’ x 1’ canvas. They believed that if they put certain limits on things, it would force artists to see things in different ways and stretch their abilities.

Disney believes that when you have unlimited resources, you can afford to be sloppy with your designs. Restrictions introduce a set of rules that you cannot change so you are forced to be creative in order to come up with a solution.

Think about something you have wanted to accomplish in your organization but it’s stalled. It’s not moving forward. Identify specific restrictions, work within those restrictions, and then watch your creativity and innovation soar.

Leaders, your restrictions will set you free!

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Leaders’ New Secret to Success

The desire to treat other people with honor and respect doesn’t automatically mean our behavior comes across as dignifying and kind. There are various adaptations necessary in order to ensure people experience respect and honor from us. ~David Livermore (Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success)

Several years ago I spent a significant amount of time facilitating training for leaders at a manufacturing plant in rural Kentucky. One day during a break, one of the participants handed me a sheet of paper listing Kentucky vernacular with the “translation.” This was done in jest because he, himself, was a transplant to Kentucky. One of the things I remember from the list was the use of “y’all.” I learned that “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural.

Even if this was done in jest, I still appreciated it. I also found myself saying “y’all” and “all y’all” having spent so much time experiencing a culture quite different from urban Chicago.

This example is minor in comparison to many of the cultural differences we face today. However, it still reflects the steps to increase CQ (Cultural Quotient) and interact more effectively with different cultures.

The term cultural intelligence (and “CQ”) was developed by Soon Ang and Linn Van Dyne as a research-based way of measuring and predicting intercultural performance. Others like David Livermore have added to their work in recent years.

Here are the four capabilities of CQ for leaders.

CQ-Drive (some call this motivation) is a person’s interest and confidence in functioning effectively in culturally diverse settings.

CQ-Knowledge is a person’s knowledge about how cultures are similar and how cultures are different.

CQ-Strategy is how a person makes sense of culturally diverse experiences. It occurs when people make judgments about their own thought processes and those of others.

  • Awareness – knowing about one’s existing cultural knowledge;
  • Planning – strategizing before a culturally diverse encounter;
  • Checking – checking assumptions and adjusting mental maps when actual experiences differ from expectations.

CQ-Action (some call this behavior) is a person’s capability to adapt verbal and nonverbal behavior to make it appropriate to diverse cultures. It involves having a flexible repertoire of behavioral responses that suit a variety of situations.

After reviewing those four capabilities, I want to highlight what is likely obvious but it’s a reality we all must face.

Increasing our individual and organizational CQ requires deliberate ongoing effort.

A one-day diversity training isn’t going to result in significant change. CQ requires a new way of being. It requires leaders to be curious and empathetic. To be uncomfortable. To be listeners and learners while putting their assumptions aside. Leaders need to be behavior adapters to suit a variety of situations.  As Livermore said, “to ensure that people experience respect and honor from us.”

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