Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


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What script are you reading from?


conflict-in-recruitment“What did he say?” Bill (not his real name) was eager to find out what his partner had talked to me about. Bill and Abe (not his real name) were in the middle of a fight that threatened the productivity of their employees and gave the whole company and uncomfortable edge – even their customers had picked up on the tension.
“He is open to an engagement to facilitate your board meetings” I responded.
Bill and I had been introduced by his attorney because the attorney could not get these two partners talking and he knew that I did facilitation work. In the weeks preceding my conversation with Abe, Bill and I talked about the power of facilitation and the way it could help he and his board overcome the gridlock they were in. Bill had been consistently open and optimistic about the potential of facilitation – that is until I reported on the results of my conversation with Abe.
Bill jumped from calm and measured to intense and angry, “He’s not sincere – he will tell you anything you want to hear. It’s his pattern. I won’t continue this charade of change. I need to buy him out and get on with things.”
“Bill,” I queried, “Abe sounded pretty sincere to me. He asked probing questions, wanted to know how facilitation had worked in other organizations and expressed his own frustration with the gridlock. Why don’t we engage a face to face and define what facilitation looks like for your company and what objectives we need to hit?”
Bill continued his tirade about Abe. What I didn’t tell Bill was that Abe had spent the first forty-five minutes of our conversation expressing his frustration with Bill. These two men fell into the same pattern of offense, accusation, counter-accusation, and rejection in every conversation they engaged. I wondered what had started this down-spiraling pattern that now held each of them prisoner to their own silence about what they needed. In fact, it was their silence about their need that was most astonishing to me in the face of their loud protests about the suspected motives of the other.
Is there a way out of a toxic conversational pattern? The answer is yes, but with some significant conditions.
First, will you stop and recognize that the pattern that emerges in every conversation is predictable and toxic? Employees in Bill and Abe’s company told me that they could predict each board meeting’s conversational pattern. They actually had a pool on the side that predicted when the conversation would go off the rails and they could recite the “script” that Bill and Abe used on each other when the meeting decayed into hostility. It was the same script every time with very little alteration. People “addicted” to anger and one-up-man-ship, like an alcoholic, must first admit they have a problem. Once a person is willing to see that the toxic communication pattern is their problem, not the problem of their nemesis they take the first healthy step – they break the pattern.
Second, will you be vulnerable enough to talk about what you need from the conversation? It’s interesting to me that Abe insisted that he told Bill in every meeting that he needed real numbers to make sound decisions. “Abe,” I responded, “may I give you some feedback on that?”
Abe looked at me askance for a moment and then agreed, “Ok” he said.
“You don’t ask for what you need, you accuse Bill of massaging his numbers to manipulate the decision,” I replied.
“Yea,” Abe retorted, “I can’t make strategic decisions with numbers that I know don’t include realistic sales forecasts. I need clear cost analysis and projected gross profit that takes into account our history and the current market conditions. I tell Bill in every meeting this is what I need.”
“Abe, do you see the difference between a request for specific parameters and an accusation that Bill is trying to manipulate the meeting?” I asked. “Listen to what you just said, you don’t tell Bill what you need you tell Bill his numbers are wrong. He defends his numbers, you show him your numbers and the conversation disintegrates from there.”
“Ah,” Abe reflected for a moment, “I think I see what you mean.”
“Abe is the problem the numbers or is the problem that you don’t feel Bill respects your expertise and perspective?” I asked.
“Geese Ray, where do you get that?” Abe responded.
“You told me that in our last lunch meeting,” I replied.
Abe’s eyes turned to the carpet and he grunted. “Humph, I hate talking with you.” He looked up, “I need to think about this.”
Third, exercise low-level inference rather than high-level inference listening skills. How much do you infer from the verbal and nonverbal communication you receive? Low-level inference doesn’t “read into” what is said, rather it asks for insight into the reasons something is said or done. High-level inference assumes an understanding of unstated motivations and intentions.  If a listener cannot listen to understand rather than listen to respond and if they assume they understand unstated motivations – the conversation rapidly disintegrates into a volley of accusations and counter accusations.
Will these three skills resolve embedded and toxic communication patterns?  No, but they are a significant first step to that end. When practiced they open the door past conflict to communication where the real work begins. Can toxic communication patterns change without these three skills and the decision to employ them?  No. Without these first steps, the organization will limp along toward its ultimate demise while it sheds its best talent and misses its best opportunities while the principals in the conflict continue their charade of power.


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Discussing Social Issues as a Follower of Christ


conflict-in-recruitment“So you strain the Scriptures and mislead your reader.”  The frustration and antagonism in the writer’s voice was palpable. He wanted me to unequivocally condemn another writer for his view. I wanted the respondents to engage each other in honest communication about their biases, commitments, and background reasoning to their social commitments. I failed to draw anyone into that kind of discussion. Some were encouraged, some were enraged, some were disappointed, and some were ruthless in their proclamation of what I should have said.
The conflict among my group of friends rapidly jumped from disagreement to an ugly display of religious proclamation, fixed attitudes, hardened identities and closed hearts.
I generated an argument between people who found it easier to throw ideological stones from the safety of a fenced off belief system than engage a dialogue with real people.
One observer shared his candid observation of the discussion with me off-line. He said, “I also observe that the tone and content of some people’s words are not one of work or inner turmoil, but rather of hatred and of aggression. I believe the absence of passion in the moderator [myself] of a discussion can be a critical tool in advancing the discourse. However, the absence of passion (or decisive marginalization) in the face of persistent, willful, hateful rhetoric is, in my view, corrosive to the soul; yours, and the other participants in the discussion.”
I couldn’t disagree with that assessment. Where did I drop the ball? More importantly, am I clear about my own convictions and statement of logical starting points? In this blog, I outline ways to manage conflict with comments about how well I did or didn’t deal with the conflict I generated and make my own assumptions clear for those who wish to engage me in the future.
First, how is conflict approached?  Mark Gerzon identified three common responses to conflict: demagoguery, management, and mediation with the later being the most effective.
The demagogue addresses conflict through fear, threats, and intimidation turns opponents into scapegoats. The demagogue dehumanizes others and resorts to violence to dominate and destroy the other. I had one especially insistent demogogue in the argument. I felt like turning into a demagogue myself in the face of mounting stress. However, throwing back the same kind of rant I was being served would not do a thing.
The manager faces conflict on the basis of an exclusive or limited definition of “us”. He/she defines purpose in terms of the self-interest of his or her group and cannot or will not deal with issues, decisions, or conflicts that cross boundaries. Managers are very effective in directing and controlling resources and the activities of other people for the benefit of a particular group. Gerzon points out that this approach is limited.
I recognized a wide variety of people who served as the audience to the argument. I knew that every intransigent statement, every belief hurled in anger, every example offered as a proof text would only exacerbate the argument. I attempted to pull back the participants – to get them to listen to each other. They were not ready and I failed to provide them a bridge to get there.  Each wanted me to side with them or absolutely disagree with them. I failed to state my starting point clearly and as a result, I failed to bring the appropriate people together.
In contrast, Gerzon states that the mediator approaches conflict by striving to act on behalf of the whole (cf. John 3:16 as a definition of the church’s scope of concern).  Mediators have the capacity to discover the whole and to act in the best interest of the whole. Mediators work on the collaborative principle which Gerzon defines as:
 
If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with reliable information, they will create authentic vision and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization or community.
The mediator thinks systemically and is committed to ongoing learning.  The mediator builds trust by building bridges across dividing lines and seeks innovation and opportunity in order to transform conflict. I wanted to go here, I did not arrive.
In hindsight, I failed in the ability to ask questions that unlock essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform conflict so that it becomes an opportunity. I failed to communicate that the point of inquiry is not the loss of conviction or strong beliefs but the realization that one’s views are discovered and renewed through inquiry. Mediators of conflict naturally want to learn more; “What else can I learn about this situation?” “Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?” “Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?” “Should I consult with others before I intervene?”The rule of thumb in facing any conflict is: inquiry must precede any form of advocacy.
My other conclusion is that social media used as a discussion point requires a highly structured set of rules for engaging a discussion that participants must agree to before entering and that must be enforced aggressively to create an environment where listening to clarify positions is the goal. Clear convictions can be communicated without expressing hatred. But when participants are dehumanized and made into moral positions only, it’s easier to just shoot at them.
Will I engage another such discussion again on social media?  Yes. Why? It allows an audience who deeply wrestles with difficult questions to work through their thinking by listening to others.  I will encourage concise statements of conviction, and then encourage inquiry to dissenting views. To what end? Understanding and respect. Can my goal be achieved with every person? Here I have to agree with Machiavelli, no. Why? Because there are evil people whose only goal is the destruction of others. Additionally, there fundamentalist individuals who disallow any dissenting opinion from their own.
Religious convictions require another a short discussion about why the founding fathers of the United States wanted to limit the establishment of religion by the state? They saw in their own history the evil unleashed when political power is mixed with religious absolutism. My friends who want to legislate their Christian beliefs to the exclusion of other systems in civil society would only succeed in reducing civil society to the tyranny of their enforced moral codes. History consistently demonstrates the failure of this. Instead, civil society acknowledges the diversity of core moral conviction and allows for its influence in a discussion involving every participant. Hence it is, in my view, equally dangerous to prohibit the discussion of religion or religious convictions.
The American experiment used the foundation of compromise to create a form of government that allows for religious freedom and offers representation to a diverse populace.  I prefer this form of government over others I have seen even with its flaws and limitations. Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to minimize the contrast of their convictions to a perceived norm or power.” As a result, fundamentalists consistently press for an oligarchy composed of religiously acceptable candidates who state religiously acceptable convictions.  The hypocrisy and tyranny of such a system are constantly illustrated in the despotism that always results.
Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to blend into the perceived norm or power.”
Second, in light of what others in the argument describe as my own fuzzy commitment, I thought it a good exercise to state my own commitments as clearly as possible. I am one who follows Jesus the Christ. I have an unapologetic and inquisitive faith that informs the assumptions I begin with when it comes to moral and social issues. But, I am not fundamentalist in my perspectives. By fundamentalist I mean a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam. I hold to the centrality of the Christian Scriptures and recognize that given their diverse literary forms (i.e., poetry, prose, law/statutory, prophetic, historical narrative, parable, and proverbial/wisdom) that a “literal” interpretation does a disservice to a proper interpretation of the text.
In full disclosure, I also understand Jesus made an exclusive claim when he said, “I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11)  Does this reduce me to a mindless automaton closed to learning and assuming full and complete knowledge of all that is spiritual?  No, it makes me a disciple i.e., literally one who is learning. And as one who is learning, I recognize that I live in a diverse and pluralistic society from whom I can also learn.  Has faith answered every question? No, it answered the main question e.g., about purpose and meaning and it opens new questions that I still ponder.
So, I reject fundamentalism as inherently flawed both historically and reasonably. I see a different model in the Bible particularly evident in the growth of the first-century church from a sect of Judaism to a multi-cultural entity. The rapid expansion of the church in the first century moved the faith community of the church from the comfort of a modified theocracy (often more an oligarchy of socially or religiously powerful and corrupt leaders) experienced in the history of Israel to existence as a unique community and social force in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world. Paul, the apostle most influential in teaching the fledgling church to live in a pluralistic world wrote this advice,
“Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:7-10)
So, if you hang out with me I will demonstrate this commitment to loving my neighbor. I also demonstrate a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. I am open talking about my relationship with Jesus Christ in a way that is neither in-the-face of my neighbor nor hidden from my neighbor. I understand that in loving my neighbor I fulfill the law and in fact, make its provisions clear as well as the promise inherent in the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus Christ. I practice listening skills and invite those with whom I strongly disagreed to talk while I listen. We engage a discussion rather than a diatribe.
Are you looking for a way to love your neighbor? Do you want to be heard about your faith? Start by listening especially in a day when religiously induced hatred and hostility is passed off as indicative of Christianity. Listening skills may be tested by conducting a simple exercise.  Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen – take the following steps.
  • Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
  • Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
  • Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone, and intention.
  • Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
  • Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
  • Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand.  It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
  • Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience.  Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
  • Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
  • Be kind. Listen with the heart as well as with the mind.
After doing this notice what difference this makes in you feel about your relationship with the other person.  Pay attention to how your act of listening often (though not always and rarely immediately) opens others’ hearts and mind to ask about your faith. The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before.  One conversation does not have to resolve all issues, however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences.  Listening is a good step in demonstrating the love God has for the world about you.
Want to know more about faith in Jesus Christ? Contact me directly. My contact information is listed on the “About Me” tab of this blog.
Want to know more about conflict?  Read Mark Gerzon (2006).Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities.  Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. 273 pages.
Want to know more about where I attend church? See http://madeforfellowship.com/.


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Leadership Lessons from the County Fair


220px-Baton_long“You need to get out of the office for a while, you’re stressed out,” my wife’s voice sounded with empathy and emphasis. I was in the middle of conflict. The organization I led was growing and I keenly felt new performance pressures on my own skills, disappointments from those around me, and open challenges to my leadership role (some people wanted me gone).

I agreed to meet my family at the fair and drove my body there at the appointed time. My mind however was still engaged in determining my next strategic and tactical moves. Neither my wife’s welcoming kiss nor the smell of deep-fried fair food was strong enough to disengage my thoughts. I wandered around the fair like zombie-dad – physically there but mentally unreachable by my children and my wife.

We turned a corner in time to see a Karate demonstration about to begin. Violence – now that sounded interesting to me at that point. The narrator explained he would play the part of a victim while his partner acted as an assailant. The assailant had a big pole which he maneuvered with the confidence of a tested warrior.  I felt a bit sorry for the narrator and awaited his ultimate demise – with a certain gleefulness. I wanted someone else to hurt like I was hurting.

In the blink of an eye the attack was over. I stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the assailant lay spread eagle on the ground with the victim standing over him. The victim stood with a foot on the assailant’ throat and the assailant’s weapon in his hand. I wasn’t sure what I had just saw.

The victim helped the assailant up and still narrating said, “Now, let’s slow things down so you can see what just happened.”

“Geese,” I thought, “this ought to be awesome.”

The players reset, the assailant with the pole and the victim with nothing but his hands. “Begin the attack,” the victim narrated.

“Notice how the assailant is swinging the pole at me,” the victim began. “The natural tendency is to move away from the pole – but the power of the swing is at the end of the pole. Moving away can result in a serious injury or death.  I move into the assailant.” He paused just a moment to let that fact sink in and the action continued.

“As I move toward the assailant I turn with his momentum,” the victim continued. “The natural tendency here is to attempt to overpower the assailant but in most cases the assailant has the advantage of momentum which means I do not have the leverage I need to mount a counter force. I intend to move with his momentum to lower the potential for injury.”

The victim had turned with the assailant’s momentum and continued, “Now I am in a place to act as a fulcrum. The assailant has committed his energy to swinging the pole and all I have to do is use his momentum against him,” the victim had not knocked the assailant off-balance and was taking away his pole as he fell to the ground.

Boom, victim became the victor!  I ruminated on the stages of the attack and the response of the victim as I compared it to my own situation.

In what seemed an eternal moment of pause, I felt as though God’s own voice was reaffirming the leadership lesson I had just saw.

Move toward the assailant.  I had tried to avoid the controversy swirling around the changes I had made in the organization. It seemed the harder I tried to extricate myself the deeper I fell into critical assessments.  I smarted under the power of my assailant’s swing as I tried to escape. I did not understand their motive or their concerns and had made the mistake of thinking I could avoid having to spend the time to know them.

Do not attempt to overpower their momentum. I had failed here as well as I was marshaling my resources for a display of power – if my critics wanted conflict I would give them a mega-dose. Going down fighting seemed like the only alternative I had – however, being new meant that I was playing the role of the martyr. It was foolish to attempt a head to head contest against people who had been in the organization longer. I thought, “What are my critics saying that I can agree with and thereby join not resist the momentum of their attack?”  I knew I had to understand their core concerns and discern their motive.

Use their momentum to knock them off-balance and remove their weapon. I wondered what the tipping point would be as I got to know my opposition. How could I disarm them and help us both win? Or, how could I defang them in such a way that I survived their push to oust me?

The next several weeks saw a significant change in my demeanor and my activities. I acted much less like a zombie-dad and more like a human engaged in life and relationship. I moved in close to those people who opposed the changes that I made in the organization.  I listened to their concerns. I spent time working to understand their motivations and needs. I did not pull back from the conflict and in so doing I was not hurt to the degree I would have been. Surprisingly to me, the one person driving the tumult exposed in his own toxic behavior. When I was finally able to define and address the differences in perspective this man’s behavior called to question his credibility and ability as a leader. Ultimately I had to let the tumultuous person go – I fired him. People grieved the lack of reconciliation between us but understood that I had finally done everything I could to turn the situation around.

The organization became healthier and our people more engaged. They realized that I would not hide from conflict nor would I arrogantly insist that I had all the right answers.  I have never been as happy to attend a county fair as I was that year. The lesson I learned at the fair have stayed with me all this time.


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Putting out Fires – Leadership Lessons from My Son the Submariner


040917-N-0000X-001I was talking with a client who recently moved to an international assignment. He is an experienced executive with earlier international experience but the tone in his voice alerted me to the fact he faced an unexpected level of adversity in his new move.  He started our conversation by saying, “This has been three weeks of hell. All I have done the last three weeks is put out fires, and it is exhausting.”

What kind of “fires” do leaders face? Common “fires” include:

  1. Rumors that undermine staff morale and productivity.
  2. Deliberate reputation hack jobs by competitors designed to undermine customer and stakeholder confidence.
  3. Revenue crises i.e., sudden drops in sales or donor gifts.
  4. Political crises that threaten market stability and employee safety (especially threatening and uncertain in countries facing military coups).
  5. Unexpected loss of key people.
  6. Surprise audits.
  7. Innovation breakthroughs by competitors.

In my experience there are three kinds of “fire-fighting” leaders. The first two are damaging to an organization. The third is the ideal because they reduce damage while maintaining productivity.

The first is the frantic leader. This is usually a new and inexperienced leader who expected everything to work without a glitch. This young/inexperienced leader is the most dangerous to an organization because their own panic in the face of crisis leads them to freeze or withdraw at a time that their presence and clear-headed perspective is most needed by employees and stakeholders looking for reassurance that the crisis is not fatal.  The frantic leader needs to understand that fires happen – they will occur and because of this reality contingency plans for dealing with fires must be in place.

The second is the distracted leader. This leader puts all their energy into extinguishing the fire and finding its source. The distracted leader is also dangerous to the organization. The distracted leader is aware of the potential for “fire” however, they have not put response mechanism in place. Because they focus their attention on the fire they temporarily suspend leadership activity needed to keep the organization on the right course in the midst of the fire. The organization becomes distracted and may fail to produce or pay attention to its stakeholders.

The third leader is the captain.  The captain knows fires happen and that they threaten the mission critical activities of their employees and organization.  Because of this the captain puts in place the response mechanisms needed to address the fire while continuing to manage the operational necessities that keep the organization productive and strategic.  The captain knows his vessel, he has response mechanisms and people in place and he directs their response. He is confident in their ability because he has trained and drilled his team to refine their skills.

Here is where my son’s stories of being a submariner kick in. As we talked about life aboard a submarine during his Navy days I walked away with two important insights. First, everyone is a fire fighter on board any kind of marine vessel.  Even on my visit to his submarine on parent’s day we were given instruction on what to do in case of fire.  We were instructed on where to go, what equipment to use, how to use it, and then we practiced using it. Everyone on board is trained to respond to fire. Second, a fighting vessel cannot afford to drop its operational functions to respond to a crisis.  It has to be able to maintain a dual focus of mission completion and crisis intervention. If a fire occur those at their duty stations remain attentive to their jobs, those off duty become fire fighters.

The application to leadership is important. On a submarine this dual focus is the subject of repeated drills. I observed the captain run several drills while aboard my son’s submarine. Practice, practice, practice so that when emergency situations arise people respond with discipline and not panic. The captain was attentive to multiple layers of activity.

My friend while an experienced executive is developing new capacity as a leader.  He has moved beyond the frantic leader model to the distracted leader model and to his credit he realizes that he cannot afford to be distracted.  As we talked his vision of being a captain emerged and I am confident that his current crisis will teach him what his organization needs to manage fire while completing their mission.

What kind of leader are you?  The question is really one of capacity i.e., the power to grasp and analyze ideas and cope with problems.  Does your organization have the mechanisms in place to respond to different kinds of “fires”?  Do your people know how to respond (or defer response) in the face of crises? Do you lead from the front in the face of “fire” or are you frantic or distracted.  Think through the “fires” your organization has faced in the past. What needs to be in place to find the nature of the “fire” and what needs to be in place to address it?

For example: in one company I worked with we set up social media monitoring to catch customer disappointment or complaints as soon as they appear. We drew up an action map to guide an immediate response to any complaint or disappointment. We drew up an action map for follow-up and designated specific follow-up by department. In another company I worked with I helped them create a legal response team to work with clients, state and federal compliance, and internal management. This team went into action when any of our employees inadvertently or deliberately violated state or federal law (sounds odd but in that industry the quick pace, high demand and tight regulatory boundaries made such infractions a distinct possibility). In this situation too we define action maps; we drilled people on their roles, responsibilities, and follow-up procedures. We moved from a frantic reaction to a disciplined response that not only reduced the damage but created an organizational culture that was more contentious about compliance and productivity.

How do you deal with “fires” as a leader?


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Four Questions to Ask in the Middle of Conflict


conflict-in-recruitmentLeaders face conflict. Conflict simply is a matter of fact.  The presence or absence of conflict has very little to do with whether a leader is successful or not. Instead successful leaders know how to transform conflict into opportunity. So, the question is not how to avoid conflict but how to engage it and how to find the opportunity for break through thinking and development that conflict represents. Don’t rob your organization of powerful and transforming potential by either power over or ignoring conflict.

Mark Gerzon, in his book Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, outlines four essential questions for approaching conflict.  Make a habit starting your approach by asking yourself:

  • “What else can I learn about this situation?”
  • “Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?”
  • “Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?”
  • “Should I consult with others before I intervene?”

Leaders who make a habit of asking themselves these questions avoid the impulsive decisions that generate years of regret later. I am not exaggerating when I say, “years later.” I have worked with leaders who described significant turning points that cost time, money, and tons of emotional energy  in colossal set backs. Rather than ask themselves these questions they responded to in hast and anger. We can and should learn from similar examples.

Ask yourself these questions then you are more ready to engage conversation with the source of the conflict.  The goal in engaging any conflict is to listen generatively and not reflectively.  Generative listening listens from the context of the whole system while reflective listening only hears from inside one’s self. The pitfall of reflective listening is that subjectivity pushes leaders down the rabbit hole of Wonderland and end up with a distorted view of reality. Generative listening on the other hand provides the leader an opportunity to move from simply managing conflict to engaging transformation. Generative listening uses several important skills.  Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen – take the following steps.

  • Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
  • Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
  • Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone and intention.
  • Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
  • Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
  • Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand.  It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
  • Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience.  Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
  • Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
  • Be kind. Listen with heart as well as with mind.

After doing this notice the difference this makes in how you feel about your relationship with the other person.  The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before.  One conversation does not have to resolve all issues however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences.

Leadership i.e., the ability to create a new vision for group action amid competing perspectives, values, and allegiances; is all about getting through conflict.


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Leadership and Doing the Unprecedented – Lessons from the Life of Gideon


What is a Leader?

compass 1What is the difference between a leader and someone who simply holds a functional place in an organization?  Leaders have a commitment to act in unprecedented ways – sometimes with little empiric evidence of future success.  They have a vision, they understand the cost, yet they see (indeed almost taste) a different future that must change the present. Functionaries are precedent keepers afraid of failure almost as much as they are afraid of rocking the boat or standing out.

As part of my own development and personal renewal I read through the Bible every year. The experiences the Bible records of the intersection between faith and leadership is more than inspirational – I often find it deeply challenging. If the Bible is read with the humanness of its characters in mind (not simply read as a mystical book of inspirational thoughts) then it jumps off the page with a contemporary vibrancy that is astonishing.  Men and women portrayed in the bible face the same challenges of: decision-making, risk mitigation, managing outcomes, building trust, ensuring long-term results, building strong teams, delegating, developing others, courage, and resilience every leader today faces.  I find myself sometimes cheering them on and at others bemoaning their stupidity and the consequences that emerge as a result.

I read through Judges this week. The context of the book is that the third generation since their exodus from Egypt had forgotten the fundamental values and commitments so hard-won in their grandparent’s generation.  The parallels to what occur in family business the third generation from the founder are uncanny. Stalk and Foley note:

In the United States, a familiar aphorism—“Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”—describes the propensity of family owned enterprises to fail by the time the founder’s grandchildren have taken charge. Variations on that phrase appear in other languages, too. The data support the saying. Some 70% of family owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over. Just 10% remain active, privately held companies for the third generation to lead. In contrast to publicly owned firms, where the average CEO tenure is six years, many family businesses have the same leaders for 20 or 25 years, and these extended tenures can increase the difficulties of coping with shifts in technology, business models, and consumer behavior.[i]

Israel found themselves under the competitive pressure of a group called the Midianites who had dominated them and were in the process of pillaging their livelihood.  Gideon was no one of particular importance prior to where the narrative picks him up. He was however an apparent cauldron of burning questions.  What unfolds in the narrative presents five principles of leadership emergence that I see played out constantly. The case study of Gideon is worth the time for every organizational leader to review to avoid the trap of precedent. For every future leader the narrative should be mandatory so that they understand what they are getting into.   The five principles listed here are explained below:

  • Principle 1: the emergence of leadership begins by pondering a different future, a different reality. Emerging leaders interrogate the present by asking, “why?”
  • Principle 2: facing the test of their personal fears and sense of inadequacy is the first hurdle in acting on their vision of the future.
  • Principle 3: facing the test of public scrutiny and backlash clarifies the leader’s vision and galvanize their deepest commitments and values.
  • Principle 4: the greatest challenge a leader faces is not failure but success.  It is success that tempts them toward arrogance.
  • Principle 5: leaders who successfully pass the test of arrogance are positioned to create systems that sustain greatness.

Principle 1: the emergence of leadership begins by pondering a different future, a different reality. Emerging leaders interrogate the present by asking, “why?”

Gideon was approached by an angel who greets him with a destiny shaping statement, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12 RSV)  This divine encounter uncorks a flood of pent-up reflection. (I won’t make a defense for the presence of angelic beings here – if you have ever had a divine encounter you need no one to convince you of the possibility or the impact. The fact is that the presence of questions does not need a divine encounter for the principle to apply.)  The observation is that leaders spend time considering the unprecedented which makes those around them nervous.

If you work with a leader you have no doubt learned to (1) be sounding board for their “why” questions and their exploration of alternative futures and (2) manage your own cognitive dissonance and emotion as you help these leaders focus on the next productive action.

If you are a leader like this, understand you are not the only one who generates puzzled looks and nervous laughter from those closest to you. Like other leaders you may have received your share of veiled threats from those serving around you that aim to reign in your “insubordination.”  The most important thing you will wrestle with if you are a leader like this is the realization that what you see as possible not only alters your destiny but the destiny of those around you.  This presents the responsibility inherent in leadership to not “go off half-cocked.” Leadership decisions impact other people’s lives. At the same time you have to ask the questions. These “why” questions are the beginning of innovation.

Principle 2: facing the test of their personal fears and sense of inadequacy is the first hurdle in acting on their vision of the future.

The answer to Gideon’s “why” question was unexpected. “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.  Have I not sent you?” (Judges 6:14 NASB) The acceptance of personal responsibility is the differentiation between lazy negativity masquerading as insight and true leadership.  Anyone can complain – it takes courage to act. This point really brings up three aspects of effective leadership: (1) legitimization; (2) courage; and (3) authenticity.

If you work around this kind of leader you will see that they work from a vision larger than themselves. Your support and their larger vision is the authentication of their leadership. Gideon received an invitation to put faith to work – or using a colloquialism – to put his money where his mouth was. Leaders who ask the “why” questions discover a deep passion within themselves to act on what they see.   God asked Gideon to put his own faith to work. Wrestling with destiny questions always ultimately forces leaders to make a choice to act or stop asking the questions.

If you are a leader, courage is required. To act Gideon must do the unprecedented and work against the prevailing mental model of his community.[ii]  The idea of leading has the idea of going first. Think about being the first one to try something.  How often have you stepped up to be the first?  Many so-called leaders prefer to have someone else (like a younger sibling) go first.  Then, if all goes well the so-called leaders can step up and claim credit for the success.  It takes courage to go first.

If you hang out with real leaders it doesn’t take long do discover that they are authentic – not super human.  If you are a leader you need people around you who can listen to why you are not the best person to go first. Like Gideon you may not have the experience, or the recognition (pre-established support or track record), or the confidence in your ability to lead.  Some people see this as a contradiction in leadership.  It really is a deeper wrestling with an intuitive awareness of the risks involved in leading.

Principle 3: facing the test of public scrutiny and backlash clarifies the leader’s vision and galvanize their deepest commitments and values.

Gideon’s first act was to topple the community idol and offer sacrifice to God.  Theologically speaking, an idol is any symbolic source of security, provision, protection, or reverence that has usurped the place of God in a person’s life. Idols become symbols and explanations of success. The problem with these symbols of success is that: (1) they are never causative and (2) they empower mental models with an aura of unchallengeable authority. The result is that a defensive reasoning emerges as a means of self-protection. Defensive reasoning is a learned behavior for dealing with difficult situations.  These mental models set up a bifurcation between espoused theories of action and a very different theory-in-use.[iii]  The latter are usually resorted to in times of stress.

Theories-in-use in organizations have four similar values: 1) unilateral control; 2) maximization of winning and minimization of loosing; 3) suppression of negative feelings; and 4) appeals to rationalism.  The stress of introducing change to any system results in defensive reasoning because it alters the political and symbolic frames of the organization or group i.e., it attacks their idols.

If you are a leader don’t avoid conflict.  Conflict pushes the theory-in-use to the front of everyone’s conversation and causes them to test the utility and actuality of their mental models.  If conflict is avoided then the myth of a mental model’s unassailability will continue to keep people from knowing a new reality.  They will remain under the thumb of whatever belief keeps them from moving to an alternative future.

For leaders conflict clarifies their thinking and helps them galvanize their actions. In Gideon’s case an important theological assumption emerges. Notice that in the conflict Gideon does not stand alone, he has a first follower – his dad, Joash. Joash made this statement when the community threatens to kill Gideon for tampering with their idol, “Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? …If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his alter.” (Judges 6:31 NASB)  What is the important lesson?  God is self-authenticating.  By extension the most important thing a leader gains in conflict is: (1) the emergence of first followers – early adopters; and (2) the awareness that their motivation for acting is self authenticating to those who do step in as first followers.  The synergy that formed between Gideon and his first followers became contagious as it does of any leader in this situation.

Principle 4: the greatest challenge a leader faces is not failure but success.  It is success that tempts them toward arrogance.

The potential for failure at any point in the story of Gideon seems more probable than success.  For leaders who have stepped out and faced the conflict inherent in challenging the mental models of those around them failure is sometimes seen as a preferable exit. Why do I say this?  I have seen leaders in the middle of success and conflicts orchestrate their own failure to escape the pressures of leading. Success in leadership is the greater challenge. Success can lead to arrogance and hubris that ultimately undoes a leader who believes they can do anything they want and still experience success.

Gideon recruited a significant army as a result of the synergy developed in conflict. However, God asks him to cut the numbers of volunteers so that a victory would not be misunderstood to be the result of purely human effort but the intervention of the same God Gideon questioned at the beginning of the narrative. It is interesting to me that every great leader “…apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck)” according to Collins’ research.[iv] Whether or not you belief in God’s intervention great leaders understand that it is not their efforts that ultimately lead to or sustain significant discovery or sustained success. It is luck or divine intervention.

This is why the development of character in leadership is imperative if success is to be sustained over a life time and leaders are to grow in their capacity to lead.  Peter said, “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and area increasing, the render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8 NASB) Leadership character is appropriately defined by Peter’s admonition to develop these virtues.

Principle 5: leaders who successfully pass the test of arrogance are positioned to create systems that sustain greatness.

Unfortunately sustained greatness was not the case with Gideon. He was tested by the request of the people to be their king and he initially rejected that offer pointing them to God as king. However, in rejecting the offer he determined to commemorate his victory with a gold-embroidered garment often used as a symbol of priestly authority by ancient Israel. The commemorative garment became an idol. Gideon had a chance to significantly alter the political and social values, symbols, and commitments of the country but it seems that he preferred to return to a quiet life away from the challenge of leadership.  His meager attempt at commemoration rather than transformation set up ultimate failure. Leaders today face the same temptation.

Conclusion

What is your leadership context? Have you been irritated with nagging “why” questions?  Are you honest about your questions? Will you accept responsibility to make a difference in what you see or do you find it easier to simply join the chorus of cynicism and negativity that exists somewhere in every organization?  Are you authentic in your self assessment? If you are willing to make a difference do you see that conflict is unavoidable?  How will you process these questions and ultimately how will you finish well in life?  The lessons of Gideon are still lively and troubling.


[i] George Stalk and Henry Foley. “Avoid the Traps That Can Destroy Family Businesses” Harvard Business Review. January – February 2012. Source: http://hbr.org/2012/01/avoid-the-traps-that-can-destroy-family-businesses/ar/1. Accessed 20 Mar 2014.

[ii] Mental models: Beliefs, ideas, images, and verbal descriptions that we consciously or unconsciously form from our experiences and which (when formed) guide our thoughts and actions within narrow channels. Source: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/mental-models.html#ixzz2wXvPmx1x. Accessed 20 March 2014.

[iii] Chris Argyris. “Good Communication that Blocks Learning” in Harvard Business Review. July August 1994, 77-85.

[iv] Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Other Don’t (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001), 35.


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It’s Not About Experts – It’s about Nerve, Endurance and a Commitment to Learning


Convenient Misconceptions

The conversations started over a year ago when an executive in one of my clients approached me, “You are the leadership guru,” he began, “how will you get the CEO to become a leader?” I was a little surprised by the intensity of the statement especially because the scope of my assignment had little to do with directly working with the executive team.  However, this was not the first time a COO has approached me with this level of frustration.

“I won’t,” I responded.

He looked me up and down for a moment.

“What do you mean?” he continued.

“How long have you been with this CEO?” I queried.

“About 15 years,” he answered.

“Hmm, over that time how has the rest of the team, yourself included, adjusted to the CEO’s poor leadership?  What changes in your own leadership perspectives have to occur if the CEO did become the leader you want him to be?  What has changed now that makes the CEO, you and the rest of the team open to change that was not in play before now? What makes you think I can bring change you have either been unable or unwilling to initiate in the last 15 years?” I had more questions but I could see that I had already more than amply primed the pump.

It is not uncommon in a consultation to be viewed as the answer to all an organization’s most troubling problems.  In fact it is a little heady to be viewed as one possessing such power…that is until reality pops back up. In my younger days I would have jumped into the middle of this discussion and outlined a change project that failed to take into account the systems, organizational culture and long-term relationships that had authenticated the leadership of the CEO (warts and all) for so long. In my earlier days I often failed to appreciate that pushing on a system to change only meant having the system snap back with the same force to expel me.  The simple fact is knowledge is only a small part of a transformative process.  It opens the door to new perspectives and may inform future decisions.  But it cannot make people travel a path they don’t want to pursue.

The COO sat across the table from me silent. When the conversation started back up we talked about the questions I raised. “One thing that is different,” he began, “is that you have challenged the CEO in a way none of us ever have before. He is talking about change now where before he acknowledged that he was the limiting factor to the organization but he would not step away from his role.”

“What will you do with the observation you just made,” I asked.  “In what ways have I challenged the CEO that you have not? What makes this challenge so effective? What step will you take next since you are in a place to do far more change organizationally than I am?”

At this the conversation shifted to talk about how to define leadership and how leaders develop.  Over the course of the next several months the COO and I met periodically to continue the discussion and to talk about communication and where the company needed to go in his view.  The COO talked about his conversations with the CEO and how they had changed to be more transparent or open.

The COO’s opening statement about guru’s was a convenient misconception.  In his frustration and resignation with how things were it seemed far easier to assume a holding pattern that waited for some outside force to start the changes he felt were needed. Convenient misconceptions are simply ways to avoid the stress of upsetting the status quo. All of us weigh the cost to change.  We understand that in some cases acting like a turtle under duress seems safer – withdraw, pull down a paycheck and try to reduce the impact living at odds with either core values or sense of purpose. But, convenient misconceptions ultimately show up for what they are – denial.

The Change – it begins internally

Month’s passed and the COO invited me to lunch. “I want to talk about a different future,” he said in his call, “this is strictly confidential.”

“I understand, I will keep the conversation confidential and I would love to go to lunch” I replied.

At lunch the COO laid out his plan to either take over the role of the CEO or step down from his role as COO.  “I cannot continue in either the scope of my role as now defined or the tension of this role knowing that without significant change we may be in trouble in just a few years.  I want to do something significant. I can do it here or somewhere else,” he told me at lunch.

The problem in all interpersonal relationships is the challenge of preserving self in a close relationship.  Somewhere along the way the COO had lost his sense of self.  He now began to reclaim it and to decide how he would stay a differentiated person while simultaneously maintaining a healthy interaction with the CEO and the rest of the company’s leadership team.  This requires maturity that Friedman defines as, “…the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny.”[1]

Leadership is an emotional process and not only a process of analysis and data. The significance of this shows up in how a leader deals with resistance. In this case resistance from the CEO was not something to avoid.  Instead the CEO’s resistance was a reality associated with the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system of the company. Resistance was inherent in change the COO wanted to pursue and was not caused by the company’s “…specific issues, makeup, or goals….”[2]  The capacity of the COO to identify and manage this emotional process began a road to change.  This kind of self-management that addresses and not avoids emotional issues is paramount to success in leadership.

Now what?

The COO invited me to help with the changes he mapped out. I reviewed his plan and provided feedback.  When he presented his plan to the CEO and to the board the plan was enthusiastically received. We met again after the board meeting and the COO outlined his next steps.

“Your job is changing pretty dramatically,” I offered.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” he stated.

“May I suggest that the transition you are now entering, and that your entire team is entering, is the same as though you were moving to a new company altogether?” I asked. He agreed with this assessment and we talked about how he would approach his first 90 days. I recommended the book by Watkins, The First Ninety Days.  In his book Watkins points out that,

… transitions are critical times when small differences in your actions can have disproportionate impacts on results. Leaders, regardless of their level, are most vulnerable in their first few months in a new position because they lack detailed knowledge of challenges they will face and what it will take to succeed in meeting them: they also have not developed a network of relationships too sustain them.[3]

In the transition the COO has entered he has to manage the shifting balances of the emotional processes in the company and do this while matching his strategy to the situation. Understanding the situation of the company is the first step in outlining a strategy that has the potential to succeed.  It is now imperative that the COO find the right formula for success especially now that he secured the changes he wanted.  So what does it mean to match strategy to situation?

Match Strategy to Situation

Understanding the developmental stage of the organization provides a basis for engaging the right kind of leadership approach. If the business situation of the company is not understood then it is easy to set the wrong goals and then fail to meet them. In the first 90 days of a transition it is important to establish credibility and knowing the business situation is critical. Watson’s STARS model (i.e., is the business a start-up, turnaround, realignment or sustained success?) is a simple diagnostic tool that can guide critical leadership/management decisions.[4]

Figure 1: STARS model[5]

 

The goal in a transition is to focus energy on the actions that set up the greatest chance of success in a new environment. Figure 2 below summarizes the choices. Focusing energy in a new assignment is a function of three core questions:[6]

  1. How much emphasis will you place on learning as opposed to doing?
  2. How much emphasis will you place on offense as opposed to defense?
  3. What should you do to get some early wins?

Figure 2: Focus Energy on the Right Approach

By offense Watkins means activities such as identifying new markets, developing new products/technologies and building new alliances.

By defense he means protecting current market share positions, strengthening products and realigning relationships. In turnarounds a good defensive position includes pairing things back to the most valuable core and identifying the most valuable employees.  New relationships are important to forge with the right people so that the team that results is ready to work in a new direction. Friedman’s work around systems in leadership relationships is an important addition to Watkins at this point.[7]

Friedman defines the difference between healthy (differentiated) and unhealthy (non-differentiated) people and the dynamics involved in various relational triangles. His point that all relationships are three-sided versus two-sided is an important insight to a leader stepping into any new situation particularly in the case of the COO who has a team made up of new and existing members all of whom must now redefine themselves in light of the shifts in reporting structure.   The COO must decide the situation of his own company.  Consider your situation.  What challenges and opportunities do you face?

See the Challenges and Opportunities of Transition Times[8]

In a start-up people are excited and hopeful. The challenges include:

  • Building structures and system from scratch without a clear framework or boundaries.
  • Welding together a cohesive high-performing team
  • Making do with limited resources

The opportunities in a start-up include:

  • You can do things right from the beginning
  • People are energized by the possibilities
  • There is no preexisting rigidity in people’s thinking.

Clearly a leader has much more flexibility in a start-up.  Remember however that flexibility also means the leader’s own strengths and weaknesses will mark the company. Diversifying leadership by acquiring good mentors and choosing the right employees helps prevent adopting fatal flaws.

In a turnaround the focus stays on key issues like vision, strategy, structures and systems. The challenges include:

  • Re-energizing demoralized employees and other stakeholders
  • Handling time pressure and having a quick and decisive impact
  • Going deep enough with painful cuts and difficult people choices

The opportunities of a turnaround are:

  • Everyone recognizes that change is necessary
  • Affected constituencies (such as suppliers who want the company to stay in business) may offer significant external support
  • A little success goes a long way.

In realignment the goal is to pierce the veil of denial that has allowed the organization to get too close to irrelevance. The challenges a person faces in realignment include:

  • Dealing with deeply ingrained cultural norms that no longer contribute to high performance.
  • Convincing employees that change is necessary.
  • Restructuring the top team and refocusing the organization.

The opportunities a person faces when leading realignment include:

  • The organization  has significant pockets of strength
  • People want to continue to see themselves as successful.

When leaders find themselves in successful organizations where the assignment is to sustain success the objective is to invent a challenge the organization can rally behind.  The challenges faced by leaders in successful organizations include:

  • Playing good defense by avoiding decisions that cause problems
  • Living in the shadow of a revered leader and dealing with the team he or she created
  • Finding ways to take the business to the next level

Successful organizations present great opportunities as well:

  • A strong team may already be in place
  • People are motivated to succeed
  • Foundations to continued success (such as the product pipeline) may be in place

Conclusion

The COO’s journey has changed from tedious boredom plodding toward retirement to enthusiastic purpose striding to a new future. I appreciate the invitation to work alongside this team as they pursue a different future. The road ahead is not without deep challenges. Even though the team agrees on the need for change not all of them anticipate how the changing relational structures and strategic emphasis impacts their relationships, skill development and leadership capacity.  Those who are weakest in their self-differentiation will have the hardest time adjusting – if they do adjust.

Remember, it’s not about experts – it’s about nerve, endurance and a commitment to learning. So how do you assess your own sense of purpose and your role in the organization in which you work? Do you have the courage or nerve to be an agent of excellence and/or change?  The COO’s own change and self-differentiation ran parallel to his willingness to step away from a good paying job to pursue his sense of purpose and a more meaningful relationship. The CEO could easily have agreed to his departure. I suspect however that the COO would have found the pursuit of purpose a far greater force than the temporary loss of revenue. In your situation ask yourself the following questions and see where they lead you.[9]

  1. Which of the four STARS situations are you facing?
  2. What are the implications for the challenges and opportunities you are likely to confront?
  3. What are the implications for your learning agenda? Do you only need to understand the technical side of the business, or is it critical that you understand culture and politics as well?
  4. Which of your skills and strengths are likely to be most valuable in your situation and which have the potential to get you into trouble?
  5. What is the prevailing frame of mind? What psychological transformation do you need to make and how will you bring it about?
  6. Should your focus be on offense or defense?
  7. When you dig deeper, what is the mix of types of situation that you are managing? Which portions of your unit are in start-up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success modes?  What are the implications for how you should manage and reward the people who work for you?

[1] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing. [Kindle Version downloaded from Amazon.com], 2007), 235 of 5400.

[2] Friedman 292 of 5400.

[3] Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), iv.

[4] This is another way to describe where a corporation or company is at in its life cycle. Compare Ichak Adizes. Corporate Lifecycles: How and Why Corporations Grow and Die and What to Do About It (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1988).  The model also takes into account the insights from Ken Blanchard in his work on innovation/revitalization showing how revitalization must occur as an organization approaches its prime.  See Ken Blanchard and Terry Waghorn.  Mission Possible: Becoming a World-Class Organization While there’s Still Time (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1997).

[5] Watkins, 63.

[6] Watkins, 69.

[7] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix Margaret Treadwell and Edward Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2007).

[8] Watkins, 66.

[9] Watkins 77-78.