Category Archives: Leadership

Quick summaries of practices to increase leadership capacity and capabilities.

Leading in Overwhelming Uncertainty

Praise crazy. Praise sad. Praise the path on which we’re led. ~Joy Harjo

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

Joy Harjo’s poem “Praise the Rain” makes space to appreciate all the nuances of our lives. Even overwhelming uncertainty. That’s the best way I know how to describe the world these days. As we all know, what we once considered normalcy has been turned on end and seems to change from hour to hour. My contemplation of overwhelming uncertainty has led me right back to bold grace. If ever there was a time that bold grace was needed, I think it’s now. So, how can I lead with bold grace in my own small way through this pandemic?

Be patient.

Be patient with others, with yourself, with the process, and try to empathize. Dealing with COVID-19 is challenging by itself. Pile on other life issues and it can push people to the edge. Remember, we all have challenges in addition to the pandemic.

Be flexible.

I know I put clients on timelines and do my best to hold both their feet and my own to the fire to keep things moving forward. Now is not the time to hold others accountable to schedules or budgets. We just have to be flexible and ride this out together.

Pause and be grateful.

While it may feel as if we’re swirling in chaos, take a moment to pause and take in the sunshine. Write down even three things for which you are grateful, right now. Don’t underestimate the power of recognizing abundance. I’m certainly not suggesting that we trivialize the seriousness of our current circumstance, but that we try to keep from letting it consume us or those we are leading.

Be honest.

If you are in a leadership position, don’t sugar-coat or make false promises. What people need is straightforward, honest information.

Communicate often.

That can apply both professionally and personally. Not only are people more isolated but the combination of social distancing and added stress could stretch our mental wellness. Communicate to encourage and to inform. Daily virtual meetings or check-ins could have a significant impact. Even knowing that nothing has changed is critical during a time of uncertainty.

Just sit together in the dark.

Krista Tippett from the On Being Project shared, “The meaning of the Inuit word ‘qarrstiluni’ conjures up a striking image: ‘sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen.’ Teju Cole shares the word in his On Being conversation.” That image describes how I feel. Like we are all sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen. Many times when people are in the midst of challenging life situations, they need someone to just sit with them. Not to fix the problem, or list all of the “at least it’s not…” scenarios they can. We just need to sit together in the dark, and that can even mean sitting together virtually.

As Joy Harjo penned, “Praise crazy. Praise sad. Praise the path on which we’re led.” That sounds like leading with bold grace.

The Lost Art of Simply Conversing

Collaborative Conversation: Argue without being argumentative and disagree without being disagreeable. ~Doug Fisher

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

A common theme in my work these days is conflict resolution, which is frequently manifested because horizontal teams are struggling to work together. When people, or teams, lack the vertical hierarchy to make a decision or resolve an issue, they get stuck in an endless debate that only digs the hole of disagreement even deeper.

We’ve lost (or maybe never developed) the skills to have truly collaborative conversations. This means we need to speak-up, articulate our thinking (be bold), and do it in a way that is respectful and inclusive (delivered with grace).

Tips to Have a Collaborative Conversation

  • Establish the outcome for the conversation. What decision are you trying to make? What problem are you hoping to solve?
  • Use a cooperative not a competitive tone. This isn’t about establishing a winner and a loser. Author Amy Edmondson describes it as “People say what they think and they’re willing to be proven wrong.” That mindset will demand a more cooperative kind of tone.
  • Use phrases like:
    • Yes, and… (instead of: Yes, but…)
    • Can you tell me more about that?
    • My perspective is different…because…
    • The way I interpreted what you said was…please correct me if I’m wrong.
    • Would you consider…because…
    • What if we…
    • I think we could benefit if we…because…
  • Keep contributions short. Think of it as playing on a soccer team – quick passing back-and- forth between players who are committed to scoring in the same goal. 
  • Take the time to summarize agreements and disagreements periodically (not just at the close) to check for accuracy and depth of shared understanding.
  • Close out the conversation by synthesizing, categorizing and prioritizing. Don’t just walk away frustrated.

Hear Thinking

The point of a collaborative conversation is not to “make your case,” it’s to hear thinking. This requires three things of all parties involved. (1) Clearly state what you think and why so others can hear your thinking. (2) Ask clarifying questions with a cooperative tone so you can hear what others think. (3) Be patient and trust the process.

As Doug Fisher said, “Argue without being argumentative and disagree without being disagreeable.” Lead with bold grace.

When was your last “moment of poverty”?

A moment of poverty; it is this opening that we all wait and long for.  One side calls forth and also creates the other—and neither side needs or wants to take the credit.  It is the essence of what we mean by grace, the ecstasy of intimacy. ~Richard Rohr 

A moment of poverty is the ultimate act of leadership.  ~Kathryn Scanland

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

What is a moment of poverty?  For most of us, when we think about poverty we think of a lack of financial means.  But the meaning of the word poverty has nothing to do with money or finances.  Poverty means a lack, a shortage, deficiency or scarcity of anything.  We’ve just become accustomed to using it almost exclusively for financial poverty.

Several years ago, I traveled to the remote rural regions of Zambia.  I was certainly anticipating poverty.  In fact, numerous people had warned me about being overwhelmed by the extreme poverty that I would witness.  When I stepped out of the Range Rover at the first village we visited, one of the most remote and underdeveloped, their poverty didn’t overwhelm me.  It was how my own poverty was exposed that overwhelmed me.  Sure, I had far more financial means than they did.  However, they had far more joy, peace, contentment, and sacrificial hospitality than I had ever experienced, or even thought possible.  It was a humbling moment of vulnerability.  It was a moment of poverty—my poverty.

Vulnerable enough to identify with

Dr. Henry Cloud said that to be an effective leader, a leader of integrity, “you must be strong enough to depend upon, but vulnerable enough to identify with.”  If leaders can be open to moments of poverty, and embrace them as opportunities for grace and intimacy with colleagues and employees, their likelihood to have people follow them will be significantly enhanced.  Simon Sinek, in Leaders Eat Last, says “You’ve got to STEP AWAY from the spreadsheets and the computer screen; you’ve got to get out of the board room, you’ve got to do more than blast off a memo here and a memo there – you’ve got to show em’ that you care and show em’ that you’re there.”   

What better way to be vulnerable and show the people you work with that you’re there than to allow your own poverty to be exposed. 

An example: you’re in a planning meeting with the team you lead.  You suggest a strategy that’s got merit but it’s not necessarily mind blowing.  Then a staff member speaks up and suggests a strategy that demonstrates real innovate thinking and has the possibility of something akin to hitting it out of the ballpark.  Instead of forcing your idea through, since you hold the leadership position, you commend their creativity and not only support their idea but suggest they take the lead on that strategy.  A moment of poverty can be as simple as demonstrating that you don’t always have the best idea (because you don’t!).          

You have limitations  

Moments of poverty can be the recognition that you don’t know, that you don’t have the answer (right now), that you have limitations, that something isn’t your strength but it is someone else’s, that you have experienced some of the very same struggles (professional and personal) that some of your employees are experiencing.  It’s recognizing that sometimes you are deficient and someone else is more than sufficient.  And neither side wants or needs to take the credit.  It is the essence of grace, the ultimate act of leadership. Leading with bold grace.

Lead with Calm and Steady Self-Awareness

In the light of calm and steady self-awareness, inner energies wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part. ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

Several years ago I sat in an auditorium and listened to a world-renowned expert on leadership talk about the importance self-awareness. I agreed with what he said. It’s what he didn’t say that really had me baffled.

He described self-awareness as knowing your strengths, what might be your weaknesses (he kind of played that down) and then he stopped there with his definition. I was waiting for what I believe is the most critical aspect of self-awareness. Knowing how your behavior affects other people. If you’re a leader, it’s absolutely critical to understand how what you do and say affects others.

What you do affects others.

It’s surprising to me how many people in leadership have never stopped to consider how what they do and how they behave affects others. And, that what they do will not affect everyone in the same way. I believe that’s a significant lack of self-awareness

Fellow consultant and blogger, Dr. Kate Price said this about self-awareness. “It demonstrates a capacity to honestly evaluate your own actions, beliefs and impact on others.”

Because who we are as individuals is constantly evolving, self-awareness is much more a process than it is a destination. We don’t suddenly “arrive” at self-awareness. It’s a life-long journey; a way of being.

I’ve completed more personality assessments than I can count in order to be aware of what organizations are using. But simply knowing what letter or color or score I am does not mean I have a higher than average level of self-awareness. These are very helpful tools for reflection, but this alone does not make someone self-aware.

What can you do?

Are you constantly striving to better understand how your thinking and actions are influenced by your experiences?

What are your biases? Do you even know? How can you overcome these so you can view the world more realistically?

Some of those biases could be considered micro-inequities. That’s become a bit of a buzzword, but the definition is critical to consider. Micro-inequities are unintended signals of discouragement. This is caused by micro-messages we send other people that cause them to feel devalued, slighted, discouraged, or excluded. We do this because we lack self-awareness – knowing how our behavior impacts other people.

Now, if you really want to be bold, go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html and choose any one of the implicit bias tests to see how unbiased you really are. Think of it as a test of your own self-awareness.

Being vulnerable enough to examine your own self-awareness is bold. Making intentional changes to your behavior to encourage and lift up others, is a symbol of grace. Lead with bold grace.

Uncertainty Makes Us Miserable

People are more stressed out when there is the possibility (uncertainty) they will experience discomfort as opposed to when they know for sure something bad is coming. ~Alexandra Sifferlin

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Uncertainty makes us miserable. If given the choice, we would rather know, for certain, that a bad outcome/event is coming, than to live with uncertainty. We really hate uncertainty.

Think of personal situations where this may have played out for you. For example, knowing for sure that your flight was canceled might be less stressful than being kept in suspense as it is repeatedly delayed. Or, you are waiting for any kind of test results (academic, medical, etc.). If you’re certain it went really well or really badly, you might not feel as much stress than if you’re totally uncertain about the outcome (lead study author Archy de Berker, of the University College London).

Knowing this phenomenon explains a lot for me about why strategic plans fail more frequently than they succeed. If it’s really strategic, the plan will include change. And along with that change will likely be uncertainty.

What leaders fail to see, or maybe accept, is that uncertainty is a feeling. Ultimately, we’ll change what we do when we wrestle with how we feel about it.

What can leaders do?

Here are just two things that can help teams, and an entire organization, go through change (i.e., uncertainty) and not become stagnant. Recommended by Patti Sanchez, The Secret to Leading Organizational Change Is Empathy.

Tell People What to Expect

We could all take a lesson from the medical profession. Even my dental hygienist tells me what she’s about to do and what I can expect (how it might feel) throughout a simple cleaning. I’m assuming she’s been taught to communicate what to expect in order to reduce the patient’s stress.

What to expect is more than just the facts. For example, a leader might communicate a change such as phasing out service “x” so that service “y” can be added. Don’t stop there. Give them more detail about the timeline and the process. Then acknowledge how this might make them feel (guilt for having to let some clients go, fearful that the new service won’t succeed, etc.).

Profile Your Audience at Every Stage

Ask questions to uncover beliefs, feelings, questions, and concerns about the strategy or change. Identify how each employee segment feels about the change effort, and plan communications based on whether they are excited, frightened, or frustrated. This is not telling them how they should feel; it’s acknowledging how they do feel.

If a leader is doing their job well, then they are likely leading change. If that leader wants others to follow, they have to lead in a way that recognizes that uncertainty is one of the greatest stressors and barriers to leading change and strategy.

In other words, be bold, move toward change. And, do it with grace by listening and responding to not only what people think, but what they feel.