I met with a client who is at a transition point in his business. He is in the midst of defining what the next evolution of his company looks like while the simultaneously he wonders if he has what it takes to lead his company forward. He told me about his volunteer work and the crisis the congregation he attends faces in a pastoral transition. As he spoke I jotted down several important capabilities that he discovered about himself in working on the board of this congregation. Then I defined them for him. My observations surprised and encouraged him – he was developing as a leader in an unexpected way and his development impacts the direction he takes his company.
This led me to think about whether I pay attention to the development of my own skills and capabilities. Often I fall into the same trap as my clients – I don’t see my own development in part because it comes from an unexpected source and in part because I don’t always pay attention to the learning opportunities around me.
Below is the summary I wrote to this client about what the experience he described. My hope is that this reminds every leader that life is a development process if we are paying attention and we take a moment to reflect to integrate life experience and learn across our various social settings and not the more common result of compartmentalized life lessons. Unfortunately those people who fail to integrate are like some of the people I see at the gym each morning who only exercise part of their muscular skeletal system. These people not only begin to look a little freakish they also end up minimizing their physical performance level not enhancing it. There is more to healthy living than big biceps just as there is more to effective leadership than the latest trend or personal strengths.
You described the development of leadership capabilities in the experience of volunteering at your church. You asked me to send a list of these observations after we met. I added some observations from other client meetings to show the application of these capabilities to business. Take a moment and read through the list then spend some time with the questions at the end.
Discipline – the willingness to discipline misbehavior is always a needed ability as a leader. Most managers/leaders run away from conflict thus allowing small problems to become major challenges to their integrity and authority. The lessons you described in helping people see the impact of their negative behaviors and engaging them in a way to think and act differently are important to catalog – come up with your own heuristic device that outlines different levels of discipline. Become a leader who is comfortable in engaging what Susan Scott calls, “Fierce Conversations” i.e., robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager, and unbridled.[i]
Communication – you talked about how the congregation felt that the board did not communicate. You were right to put an emphasis on communication and encourage the board to meet with members of the congregation. The second most noted complaint I hear from teams and employees I work with is that their leaders don’t communicate. It is interesting that in those same companies the leaders all feel they communicate effectively and often. One reason that a disconnection exists between what one speaks and what others hear is that leaders confuse proclamation (the conclusion of hours of executive deliberation) with communication. One message proclaimed does not make for good communication. One mentor of mine says that unless you deliver a message seven times in seven different ways people don’t hear what you said.
Presence – is that sense of self a leader has that exudes confidence (not arrogance) and awareness of and empathy toward others. The insight you made about the power of “talking people back from the ledge” illustrates this ability. Many leaders never develop a sense of presence. The only reason anyone takes notice of the average manager or executive is out of fear or perfunctory attention. A leader without presence usually always depends on power alone to get others working. The lesson you outlined on presence is extremely significant because it is a foundation to exercising that most powerful of leadership tools – namely, influence.
Shaping the Environment. You talked about confronting or challenging negative people or a dooms day mentality with hope and a commitment to solution finding. You observed that the entire group began to shift from petty self-protective action to a team oriented problem solving when you made a stand toward hope. This is no fluke – wise leaders understand that they shape the environment they are in both by the way they approach it and more definitely in what they expect of others (both explicitly and implicitly). The reality is that people respond to the implicit expectations of the leader. That is if a leader believes their team are a bunch of ignorant yahoos – the team will act that way. On the other hand if the leader believes their team members want to make a difference, and will put forward their best effort, they will. This is called the Pygmalion effect. Leaders who consciously shape the environment in which their team works consistently show productivity >30% higher than leaders who ignore their work environment or who hold a negative view of his/her team.
Planning. The budgeting process you voluntarily picked up when the volunteer CFO dropped the ball pulled you into a planning process. People around you commented on this capability in part because the ability to see a problem and form a solution and the willingness to assume responsibility to do so is rare in many organizations. One of my graduate professors described the power of planning by reminding us that well begun is half done. The power of a plan is that it reduces enormous tasks to small measurable actions. The power of taking responsibility is that it encourages others to do the same so that instead of being a group of onlookers you contributed to developing a team.
Execution. Of course the best plan is worthless if no one ever acts on it. You described getting to work in the fiscal crisis through the budget and then actually acting on what you mapped out. As amazing as it seems I find the failure to execute is a common down fall of many leaders – they simply do not “pull the trigger” and act. Often leaders spend so much time analyzing their situations they fall into an analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis trains a team to do nothing knowing that real accountability for action is consistently overshadowed with the call for better analysis. At some point analysis becomes an excuse to avoid decision-making and taking the risk to act.
Analysis. However, analysis is necessary. You also described a drive to analyze the situation. Analysis is not bad, you looked at the budget and began to ask critical questions about what outcome each line item intended to carry out and then ask whether it was the right outcome for the time. You asked whether the actions behind the budget item would result in those outcomes or not. Surprisingly, many leaders fail to ask that second question, i.e., will my intended actions produce the outcome desired? I watch a lot of leaders work long hours and burn out because of their roles. However, when I ask them about what outcome they aim to hit they often answer with a look of puzzlement. They were so committed to a specific action and their specific resource set (or lack of it) that they completely lost sight of their intended outcome. They work like a boxer wildly punching the air or the collapse in inactivity hiding behind their power.
In what ways are your capabilities being engaged and enlarged? Are you paying attention? In what ways do you exercise reflection on your various experiences to pull learning from them? In what ways can you change your daily routine so that you take time to learn from your own experience? Let me know your thoughts, I would love to learn from your experience.
[i] Susan Scott. Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time (New York: Berkley Publishing, 2004).