Category Archives: Leadership

Quick summaries of practices to increase leadership capacity and capabilities.

From Violated Expectations to Shared Expectations

An organization is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear. ~Herb Kelleher

I sat at a client’s dining room table. Three business partners had hired me to help develop their business plan. One of the partners had confided in me an intense frustration with the partner salary arrangement. While gathered around the dining table, in the home of one of the partners, I brought up the salary arrangement and asked how they were all feeling about it. Silence. I went around the table asking each partner if they were okay with it. Everyone said it was fine. I probed one more time, and still, nothing.

Violated Expectations

Over the years, I’ve listened to many employees tell me their real frustrations with their supervisor and/or organization. So much frustration that they were planning to leave. But, they also had no intention of actually telling anyone at their organization how they really felt.

A CFO worked at a nonprofit for decades. This CFO prided themselves on being the person who “made the tough decisions.” Those “tough decisions” were perceived as being controlling, insensitive, and rude. But, no one ever said anything, they all just let the unhelpful behavior continue.

Early in my career, an employee would literally hide when he saw me coming. I had no idea that my management style was causing him great anxiety. Until, one day a colleague (not my supervisor) called me into his office to let me know this employee was fearful of me and I was a significant source of stress. I was so grateful!    

Author Anne Lamott said, “expectations are resentments in waiting.” When those expectations are violated, conflict arises.

All of the examples I provided are illustrations of expectations being violated, which created resentment.

Shared Expectations

For reasons I’m still sorting through, we seem to hesitate to engage in dialogue that would result in shared expectations. I believe that creating shared expectations is the hard work of love, and it’s what can make every relationship (personal or professional) stronger. Bound by love rather than by fear.

I think some of the reasons we don’t create shared expectations is that we

  • assume shared expectations exist, when in reality they don’t,
  • assume it’s so obvious it doesn’t need to be stated,
  • fear that stating differences will result in conflict so we leave it unsaid,
  • fear that feelings will be hurt so we leave it unsaid,
  • don’t want to feel uncomfortable in the midst of a dialogue, or
  • are simply impatient and don’t see the value in investing time in dialogue around expectations.

Again, as Anne Lamott said, “expectations are resentments in waiting.” Those resentments can be avoided by acting with bold grace and doing the hard work of creating shared expectations.

Stop Using the Word “Normal”

Normal is nothing more than a cycle on a washing machine. ~Whoopi Goldberg

When something feels “right” to us personally, we tend to equate that perspective with “normal.” Or, when something has just been that way for a very long time, we consider that to be “normal.”

Yesterday I visited a new church. I’m very curious to see how the church, broadly speaking, embarks on this season of emerging from pandemic restrictions on the heels of a very turbulent 2020. I hope to visit a number of churches in the coming weeks. It’s my own micro research study through personal observation.

Last Sunday, it was just one word that caught my attention, and I couldn’t let it go. The pastor continued with his sermon, but my mind just ruminated on that one word – “normal.” He was reading a chapter in Nehemiah that listed one Hebrew name after another documenting how they each contributed to rebuild their city. Then amidst all of the many Hebrew names was “Benjamin.” That’s when the pastor stopped and commented how it was nice to finally have a “normal” name.

In the pastor’s defense, he was reading many names that were not part of his first language so I’m assuming it took effort and concentration. A name he could easily pronounce without thinking about it likely felt like a relief. But then I kept thinking, wouldn’t “Benjamin” actually be the “abnormal” name in the list of Hebrew names? The reason the pastor considered Benjamin “normal” was that it was personally relatable.

Meanings

This got me thinking about “normal.” How easily we toss out that word and the various meanings we attach to it.

The following morning I read this headline: “Stop Using the Language of ‘Normal’ for Face-to-Face Academic Work.” Again, this idea of “normal” was being used to describe our collective recalibration following the many months of restrictions. This same article included the following statement, “…in recognition that ‘normal’ means different things for different people, let us strive to listen to what many of our colleagues are telling us…”

What’s all this have to do with leadership and bold grace? I think that as we move out of restrictions that leaders should be careful not to focus so heavily on “returning to normal.” Instead, boldly extend grace to others and create opportunity for a new chapter that might not look just like the last chapter. (That’s a boring book none of us would want to read anyway.) That leaders take this moment in time to question their assumptions about what is “normal,” and there are lots of assumptions!

Assumptions

Going back to my church experiment. My hypothesis is churches that try to quickly return to “normal” will be those churches that either stagnate or decline in attendance. And those that embrace both what they have learned and new skills they have honed from 2020 will grow and maybe even thrive.  I also believe the same will be true for organizations in general.  

The first step in this process is to start catching ourselves using the word “normal” and examine what assumptions we are making that caused us to use that word. Consider the words of philosopher, Michel Foucault: “There are forms of oppression and domination which become invisible – the new normal.” Let’s do better than “normal” and lead with bold grace.

Gather with a Bold, Sharp Purpose

The first step to convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose. ~Priya Parker

As we approached 5pm, I was grappling with how to closeout a 4-hour meeting last week with some “meat.” It felt as though this leadership team had spent a great deal of time talking and not much time deciding.

The CEO of this organization and I don’t share the same behavioral profile, and that’s a good thing. This was reflected in our differing desired outcomes. I learned after the meeting that he felt like the meeting was successful because his outcome was to see this relatively new team interact and engage with one another. Whereas, my desired outcome was to draw conclusions and determine future actions; which is my definition of “meat.”

While we both had desired outcomes, we hadn’t committed to a bold, sharp purpose.

Bold, Sharp Purpose: Make it Disputable

Priya Parker, author of Why We Gather, highly recommends that in order to have a bold, sharp purpose, it should be disputable.

This begins by really examining why a group is gathering. Ask why enough times until you reach a belief or value. You’ll know you’ve found a disputable purpose because it will stick its neck out a little bit, or take a stand. It might unsettle some participants. It will refuse to be everything to everybody.

As Parker states: “Specificity is a crucial ingredient. The more focused and particular a gathering is, the more narrowly it frames itself and the more passion it arouses. Specificity sharpens the gathering because people can see themselves in it.”

Bold, Sharp Purpose: Should be a Decision Filter

Again from Parker: “The disputable purpose will become a decision filter. It will immediately help you to make choices.”

So, how would I have changed my meeting last week? For this large nonprofit, the purpose was to wrestle with what administrative functions should be centralized and what should be decentralized. That might sound like an acceptable purpose, maybe it’s specific, but it’s not disputable.

Going into this meeting I was confident that this team was going to lean towards most everything being centralized. Therefore, a more disputable purpose would have been: As we position ourselves for growth, what will be our criteria or indicators to know when an administrative function should be decentralized. This purpose is assuming that decentralized administrative functions are appropriate and even a good strategy. With this group, that would have been “taking a stand” and “sticking its neck out a little bit.” It would have been disputable.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and we would all go back and change how we approached various meetings. In the future, take more time to really dig deep and determine why you are gathering. Keep asking until you hit some values or beliefs and create a disputable purpose. Convene people meaningfully and keep leading with bold grace.

Trust is the lubricant for transactions.

Trust is the lubricant for transactions. ~Don Peppers

Growing up with three older brothers on a farm, I was more than encouraged to learn a thing or two about auto mechanics. Of course I needed to know how to check my oil, change a tire, and I was also given a thorough course in how to change my own oil (which I never actually opted to do). Understanding the importance of well-maintained lubricants so engines run efficiently is something I’ve been familiar with for quite some time.

For decades, business academic curriculum and organizational practices have focused heavily on transactions – systems, production, processes, policies, project management, etc. All of those transactions represent the metal parts of an engine, which are necessary, but without any grease, oil, or lubricant, it’s just metal rubbing against metal. Not efficient, and a really good chance the engine won’t even run. Don Peppers, with thoughts by Faisal Hoque, describe the new era of organizations.

Trust is the lubricant.

Trust is the lubricant for transactions. We no longer work in an era in which we try to make everything as efficient as possible; rather, we’re trying to be more agile and more innovative, to move more quickly with our iterations. Relationships are the bandwidth within an organization, which means we need to be deliberate in forming them.

I spend a great deal of time working with organizations on strategic planning. I’ve learned, maybe the hard way, that effective strategic planning is supported by deliberate and intentional leadership development and coaching. Or, said another way, forming the relationships (i.e., bandwidth) so the strategic plan can gain traction and move the organization forward.

It’s still very common for individuals with innate strategic thinking and analytical skills to move into leadership positions within organizations. Strategy is still critical. However, strategy without attention to relationships and culture—the lubricant that builds trust and enables the transactions to take hold—is short-lived with only minimal success. It’s like metal rubbing against metal; inefficient and many times painful. 

Relationships are the bandwidth.

Trust is the lubricant for transactions and relationships are the bandwidth within organizations. Trust is the lubricant for transactions and relationships are the bandwidth organizations. That’s not a typo; I intended to repeat myself because I think it’s worth repeating. 

I frequently watch executives study numbers, charts, and data in an effort to create a business strategy to turnaround or re-invigorate their organization. They do this with the belief that if they can make the numbers make sense, then everything will easily fall into place. And the numbers are important; I’m not intending to discount sound financial and analytical management. However, that’s simply not enough, not today. The real bandwidth of today’s organizations is not balance sheets and cash flow statements. 

Just in case you missed the point I was trying to emphasize: Trust is the lubricant for transactions and relationships are the bandwidth within organizations. It’s another paradox of leading with bold grace.

Lead with Mercy

We’re so desperate to be understood, we forget to be understanding. ~ Beau Taplin

There are so many things in life, and leadership, that are much easier to say than do. Mercy is one of those. The definition of mercy that I’m thinking of includes synonyms like empathy, understanding, and forbearance (which means patience, self-control, restraint, and tolerance).

Now that we’re able to meet in person again, I worked with a leadership team last week to help them move towards alignment. Some had joined the team during the pandemic so this team had very little in-person face time. One of the activities we worked through was the DISC assessment. I’ve done this many times and what I witness continues to be quite similar from organization to organization.

I reveal the behavior styles of the members of the team, and in this case they were very diverse. This is good in terms of having the potential for the best team outcomes. However, it also presents a challenge because it means everyone will need to demonstrate some empathy and forbearance to truly understand one another. In other words, they need to give each a bit of mercy.

Then, for example, I will hear people say they are trying to be more patient with those who need far more detail and information than they do. And others will say they are trying to be more flexible for those who like to keep options open and not be tied to particularly specific plans.

As the outsider in the room, what I see is people’s intention to adapt to others, but actual behavior that still reflects their own preferences. And, I also see a smidgen of frustration because the “other” is not adapting as much as they would like. This is where we need more mercy.

Celebrate Differences

Adure Lorde said, “it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” And I think in order to do just that, we need to lead with mercy.

The challenge I see many leaders struggle with is the fact that they see their own view as obvious. They believe it’s so obvious that it baffles them that others don’t see it that way as well. Which then leads to impatience and frustration. Leaders forget, people aren’t necessarily “disagreeing” with the leader’s perspective, they just simply aren’t “understanding” it.

Lead with Mercy

This is not the first time I’ve written about the hard work of first seeking to understand if leaders truly want to be understood. In fact, as I’m writing this I feel somewhat like a broken record. But I’ll keep repeating this same chorus over and over because it seems to be one of the most difficult and most necessary aspects of effective leadership. Understanding doesn’t mean you have to “agree.” Understanding means you’ve truly listened. It means that you’re aware of others’ feelings and thinking. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with their point of view, but it means that you’re willing to understand and appreciate it. Adapt your own behavior style and lead with mercy.

Grace and mercy are very close cousins. Showing mercy is an example of leading with bold grace.