Tag Archives: leadership

What distinguishes leaders from laggards?

What distinguishes leaders from laggards and greatness from mediocrity is the ability to uniquely imagine what could be. ~Robert Fritz

“The Spirit of Progress”

When I first moved to my condo in Chicago I had a bird’s eye view of The Montgomery. This is a condo building that was once home to the retail giant Montgomery Ward. I remember watching the transition; at one point it was stripped to the concrete pillars and I could see all the way through the building. This image resurfaces whenever I hear someone say their organization could have X number of clients, customers, or sales without even trying (i.e. laggards). It could be that Montgomery Ward believed that to be true as well.

What still remains atop the former Montgomery Ward Administration Building across the street is the statue, somewhat ironically entitled, “The Spirit of Progress.”

Another building, just north of the Administration Building is the former two million square foot Mail Order House (a single floor covers six acres). The interior contained miles of chutes, conveyors, and storage lofts. At one time the building had its own post office branch and a ground-floor shipping platform that could accommodate 24 railroad freight cars. Today, this is where you’ll find Groupon HQ, and yes, many more condos.

In my last post, I quoted Sue Barrett’s definition of strategic: Being strategic means ensuring the organization’s core competence is consistently focusing on those directional choices that will best move the organization toward its new future. Something that Montgomery Ward did not do.

In 1962 Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, published a theory in his book Diffusion of Innovations. His theory outlines a process by which an innovation is adopted over time. It’s the shape of a bell curve beginning with the innovators (2.5%), then on to the early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%), and finally closing out the bell curve with the laggards (16%). [Rogers’ book is in its fifth edition and continues to be frequently referenced.]

I think it’s easy for organizations to become comfortable with making directional choices based upon their laggards—the people (customers, clients, etc.) who will always be there. It feels “safe” in the short term, but could be very risky in the long term. There’s a reason they are laggards; they don’t like change. Consequently, it’s likely that the laggards are the most vocal when you make directional choices that don’t mirror the past.

Directional choices (i.e., strategy) should be moving the organization toward its new future. That means leaders’ strategic choices need to focus on the initial part of the bell curve – the innovators, early adopters, early majority.

When I read about the history of Montgomery Ward and compare and contrast that with what Amazon is looking for in its HQ2, it’s unfortunate that Montgomery Ward made choices to serve their laggards. In many ways their basic mission and even infrastructure isn’t that different from Amazon. The difference is that Amazon is constantly making directional choices to move the organization toward its new future – they have a dynamic strategy.

Strategic leaders don’t build their strategy based on their laggards. They make directional choices to always be moving the organization toward its new future.

Leaders: Experience and Power Hinder Self-Awareness

Even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria. ~Tasha Eurich

Experience and power hinder self-awareness. Yes, that’s correct. While for some leaders, they do learn from experience. For others, all that experience and power has a negative impact on their self-awareness and leadership effectiveness. Referencing the findings of this research study, it may be the vast majority (85-90%) of leaders who fall into that second category.

Self-awareness in this study is defined as how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. And, understanding how other people view us in terms of these same factors.

I was fascinated by this study and article by Tasha Eurich in HBR because I’ve often wondered if this might be the case. I’ve seen leaders proudly proclaim their self-awareness and ability to hear and receive feedback. Then, I’ve also seen these very same leaders fire and force out the very people who provided them with that valuable and generous gift of honest and kind feedback.

James O’Toole, author of numerous books on leadership and culture said “As one’s power grows, one’s willingness to listen shrinks, either because they think they know more than their employees or because seeking feedback will come at a cost.”

How does this happen? Eurich says that once we see ourselves as highly experienced, we do less homework, stop seeking disconfirming evidence, and no longer question our assumptions. This experience can also “make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge.”

In one study of more than 3,600 leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills. This included competencies of emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness, and leadership performance.

So, how do we become one of the 10-15% who truly are self-aware? Eurich says to “Seek frequent critical feedback.” I’d suggest a slight modification based upon my experience with leaders. I’d say, “Seek frequent critical feedback and receive and accept it graciously.”

Here’s a feedback tip. Be specific. I frequently recommend Sheila Heen’s suggestions (author of Thanks for the Feedback). Her two suggested feedback questions are:

  1. What’s one thing you appreciate about…?
  2. What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that’s causing me to be less successful than I could be? And you could be even more specific like: What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, when I conduct our staff meetings that may be causing those meetings to be less effective than they could be?

Be a more effective leader by increasing your self-awareness. Increase your self-awareness by seeking frequent critical feedback.

2 Ways to Sabotage Your Leadership

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you. ~Travis Bradberry

There are two behaviors that I have watched leaders practice that sabotage their leadership. Yes, we could certainly list more than “two.” However, I think these two behaviors begin very subtly, and then snowball into default behaviors that can be destructive and go undetected by the leader. They are complaining and blaming. The two are interrelated and possibly interdependent.

Complaining. You may view yourself as a fairly positive and optimistic person. Yet what others see might be quite different. Complaining can become a blind spot, even for CEOs. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if you’ve subtly become a complainer.

  1. Are people frequently slow to return your calls or emails?
  2. Do people listen to you for a few polite minutes and then need to go to an appointment or take another call?
  3. Do others vent to you, or are you always the venter and never the ventee?
  4. Are you complaining about the same thing now that you were six months ago?
  5. Following a meeting, presentation, event, etc. do you talk first about what everyone did poorly?

Blaming. I recall a CEO who was providing a corporate update at an all-employee meeting. In his effort to be “transparent” he said he was going to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. When he got to “the ugly” part of his presentation he zeroed-in on one specific department. Essentially, he said that the organization’s lackluster bottom line was all their fault. He put the blame squarely on a department that actually depended upon his participation in order to be successful.

Peter Bregman wrote in HBR (April 8, 2013): “Take the blame for anything you’re even remotely responsible for.” Bregman says:

This solution [taking the blame] transforms all the negative consequences of blaming others into positive ones. It solidifies relationships, improves your credibility, makes you and others happy, reinforces transparency, improves self-esteem, increases learning, and solves problems.

It takes courage to own your blame, and that shows strength. Being defensive makes you slippery. Taking responsibility makes you trustworthy.

The CEO in my example believed he was doing a good thing, being transparent. Transparency is a good thing; however, it’s unfortunate that he sacrificed the credibility of being transparent by pointing fingers, blaming others, and not taking any personal responsibility for something he really was partially responsible for.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to consider how you might be defaulting to blaming without even realizing it.

  1. When you debrief with others, does your name rarely appear on the list of whose responsible for mistakes?
  2. Do you communicate who the “culprit” is for unsuccessful efforts, rather than identify how you will take responsibility?
  3. Are you still trying to solve a problem that was identified months (or years!) ago?

John Maxwell said, “A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.”

A Leadership Lesson from the Chicago Police Department

Accountability is really an act of love. ~Patrick Lencioni

On Friday, January 13, 2017 the Department of Justice issued their report on the investigation of the Chicago Police Department, sparked by the highly publicized shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014. I’m going to focus on one word that I heard mentioned a number of times during the press conference: accountability. I first heard it from the U.S. Attorney who stated that a part of the solution will be training, supervision, and accountability. Then I heard Mayor Rahm Emanuel state several times, emphatically, that the changes (i.e., training, supervision, and accountability) are being requested by the police officers.

What, I think, Mayor Emanuel was trying to say was the same thing stated on walkthetalk.com. “Accountability should not be defined as a punitive response to something going wrong.” I agree, it’s a misuse of the idea of accountability if it’s being used from a cynical or punitive perspective.

This author (who unfortunately wasn’t identified) from walkthetalk.com said:

Webster’s Dictionary defines “accountability” as “the quality or state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.” Notice the adjectives describing accountability in the dictionary: quality, obligation, willingness, and responsibility. Does that sound like punitive response to something that has gone wrong? Of course not. Accountability means preventing something from going wrong.

It means there are clear and agreed upon expectations from two parties, both the sender and the receiver. Consequently, it is also both parties’ responsibility. When I engage in a project with a client, we’re both accountable for what we agreed upon as the scope and outcomes of the project. If the client withholds feedback and I don’t hear that I’m falling short of their expectations, I lose my chance to improve.

I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen leadership marginalize or force-out employees because they weren’t meeting someone’s expectations and that someone was too uncomfortable to hold them accountable. That’s because leadership was viewing accountability through a punitive lens as opposed to a lens of love as suggested by Patrick Lencioni. Keep in mind, that holding someone accountable also means you really did provide them with clear expectations, upfront. You can’t expect others to read your mind.

I’m reading a novel written from a 4th graders perspective. What she observes about the adults around her is that they are afraid of one another. Until she meets Jesse, who seems unafraid of other adults, which really means he’s willing to be vulnerable. Grace, the young 4th grader, then refers to Jesse as “magic” because he doesn’t seem to be afraid of really engaging others.

You can call it love, or magic, or whatever term you want, but using a positive lens for accountability could change your view of how you lead.

Finding leadership, the week after.

Authentic leaders match their behavior to their context. They do not burst out with whatever they may be thinking or feeling. They understand how they are being perceived. ~Bill George

dividedAfter this past week, I was at a loss for how to address the topic of leadership. A country starkly divided, people living in fear, harsh and hateful words painted on walls, social media posts riddled with hurtful and mocking statements, etc. Where is leadership in the midst of all this turmoil?

Then, I went to a concert at Symphony Center Sunday afternoon. This was a solo pianist concert by Jeremy Denk. A musician I was completely unfamiliar with but the concert was part of the subscription package I purchased months ago.

The program we received as we entered the auditorium included an insert with a revised program. At the top of the revised program it included this statement: “Due to unexpected circumstances, Jeremy Denk has revised the first half of his program and will not perform Phrygian Gates by John Adams.” My first thought was, this is a solo performance, how could “unexpected circumstances” change the program if only one person is performing?

Jeremy performed the first piece and then took the mic to explain the “unexpected circumstances.” He apologized for changing the program at the last minute and then said, “I didn’t sleep very well last week.” He said given how last week played out, his original program was too serious. Instead, he replaced the Adams piece with seven ragtime pieces, which he emphasized are based on syncopation. If you’re not a music buff, here’s the definition of syncopation.

A shifting of the normal accent, usually by stressing the normally unaccented beats. More simply, syncopation is a general term for a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm.


He performed the seven “replacement” pieces and the mood in the auditorium shifted. The response was a standing ovation, which in my experience is not typical in the middle of a program at Symphony Center.

I asked myself, what did Jeremy just do, because I think that was leadership?

  1. He acknowledged the atmosphere, the elephant in the room, he didn’t try to pretend it didn’t exist.
  2. He saw the need to alter his plans to align with what people were experiencing. He matched his behavior to the context.
  3. He altered his plans in a way that was authentic, unpretentious, and gracious.

As I walked home along Michigan Avenue, I heard people talking about his altered program. He literally lifted people’s souls when they needed it most. That is leadership.