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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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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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.