Am I serving the group?

At work, I have been sharing with many teams lately about the concept of reflection as a reflex. The concept is about using what Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning as the space between stimulus and response. Stephen Covey also included this concept in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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At times in my career, I have found myself hesitating in meetings. Reflecting on it, I think I hesitate because of things like Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS), fear that what I say will sound obvious to the rest of the group, or that others in the room are smarter or more experienced than I am and I probably do not have anything of value to contribute. Is this something you struggle with too?

Over time, I have learned a quick “test” that has helped me and I hope will help you too.

Any time I hesitate to speak, I ask myself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?”

This yes or no question gives me enough time to reflect without missing the germane part of the conversation and to make a decision on whether my comment will add value to the discussion. This question is also consistent with my personal definition of leadership and my desire to practice servant leadership. It gives me the confidence that even if my comment is controversial, it will be received in the right way because my motivation is service to the group.

I use this test in almost every meeting that I attend. It helps me to reflect in the moment and make sure that I am contributing at a high level. The test also keeps me centered. For example, the “test” prevents me from being too quiet or too dominant because my comments are always in pursuit of service to the group.

I hope you find value in this test as well and it helps you create better and more productive meetings.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders can practice reflexion in most contexts, including meetings. Before you speak, simply asking yourself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?” will give you the confidence to speak up and reflect the authenticity of your point of view.


Shining Eyes

Lessons in leadership can come from many different sources. A mentor and former colleague of mine shared this with me and I thought I would pass it along to you.

In a 2008 TED Talk, classical music conductor Benjamin Zander discusses, The transformative power of classical music. In it, he shares an important lesson about leadership.

He says, “But the conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said, “Ben, what happened?” That’s what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it.”

Like a coach or a CEO, most leaders create the conditions for success rather than doing all of the work on their own. Zander’s description of his role as conductor is a basic function of leadership. His feedback mechanism of looking for “shining eyes,” is one that I always keep in mind when practicing leadership, public speaking, and presentations.

Please watch the TED Talk and contact me if it spoke to you too.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Part of a leader’s impact is to, “awaken possibility in other people.” Leaders can see if they are successful by looking for “shining eyes”. 

The leadership goal line

I spent this past weekend traveling across the state of Michigan with my father. I have a goal of visiting every Major League Baseball stadium (I’ve been to 16 active parks of 30), every presidential museum (I’ve been to 4 of 14), and every state capital (I’ve been to 7 of 50). Michigan is one of the states that has all three, so my father and I did a trip out to see the sites starting with Comerica Park in Detroit, stopping in Lansing to see the state capital, and finally ending our trip in Grand Rapids at the Gerald Ford Presidential library.

When we visited Lansing, the city felt empty. The state legislature was not in session and the students at Michigan State University, which is in East Lansing, were on summer break. We toured the capital building, which is currently under substantial renovation. A friendly and knowledgable tour guide took us around the building and we stumbled upon this portrait of former Michigan Governor John Swainson on display in the capital rotunda.


Photo of the state house portrait of Michigan Governor John Swainson (in office 1961-1963) courtesy Michigan State Capital website:

I assumed that the photo was being restored as part of the renovation. However, according to our tour guide, this portrait of Governor Swainson is intentionally drawn to look unfinished. Until 1963, Michigan governors served 2-year terms. Swainson was the final governor to serve a 2-year term and was defeated by Governor George Romney. Swainson asked the artist to incorporate a symbol that he did not get to accomplish as much as he wanted due to his short time in office. In response to the request, the artist drew the portrait to look unfinished.

Fast forward about 24-hours. On our trip and my father and I were visiting the Gerald Ford presidential museum. As you may know, President Gerald Ford is the only person to serve as president who was not elected either as a candidate for president or vice president. Ford became vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned.

The museum dedicated much of its focus to the Watergate scandal and Ford’s choice to pardon Nixon only a month after taking office as president. Pardoning Nixon was unpopular at the time and is considered as the main reason that Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to President Carter. History has been kinder to President Ford’s decision, honoring him for the wise choice of pardoning Nixon and beginning the healing process to help Americans restore trust in government.

Both Swainson and Ford left office feeling unfinished. Swainson had 720 days and Ford had 895 days in office. While history looks kindly on both men, both felt they had more to contribute when their terms were over.

Leaders are trained to be goal oriented, setting SMART goals or FAST goals to align and advance groups. However, opportunities and other circumstances create demands on leaders to be nimble, adjustable, and innovative. Leaders are expected to set vision, create a strategy, align goals, and engage people to make it happen. But rarely does a leader get to see out the vision to completion. What are the implications of leaving a leadership position unfinished?

The lesson I learned from the stories of Governor John Swainson and President Gerald Ford is that many leaders never feel that they are finished. President Ford remained active in public life after his presidency and Governor Swainson went on to serve as a judge among other leadership roles in Michigan. While their executive service may have been the pinnacle of their career, it certainly was not the end of their service as leaders.

It is okay to feel unfinished as a leader. What is most important is how leaders make the lives of their followers and customers better. That is the true leadership goal line.

For both Swainson and Ford, they did that in their own way. Swainson, a double amputee, had his life described as an inspirational story of redemption. Ford was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award by Senator Ted Kennedy, one of his biggest critics for pardoning President Nixon. Both left a legacy of transformational leadership, even though they only served a short amount of time.

I thought this quote from President Ford sums the idea up nicely and captures how he viewed leadership as continuous and never complete: “At my stage in life, one is inclined to think less about date on a calendar than those things that are timeless – about leadership and service and patriotism and sacrifice, and about doing one’s best in meeting every challenge that life presents.”

KEY TAKEAWAY: We can learn from Governor John Swainson and President Gerald Ford that it is okay to feel unfinished as a leader. What is most important is how leaders make the lives of their followers and customers better.

Tell Me More

Much of the literature on leadership emphasizes the importance of having core values. During difficult times when the future may appear gloomy, core values remind us to resist impulsive, “in the moment” decisions that may compromise us in the future. As I have begun to discover and define my own core values, one is apparent – Curiosity.

Curiosity is important to me for many different reasons. Curiosity allows leaders to accurately diagnose problems, searching for the root cause and asking important questions. It also forces leaders to challenge assumptions, often disrupting the status quo to explore new opportunities and be a force-multiplier for the organization. Finally, curiosity teaches leaders humility.

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In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, habit 5 is, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. In seeking first to understand, leaders have an opportunity to accurately diagnose situations. For example, if a department appears to be achieving good results, a leader could ask questions to understand how the group completed the work and whether their methods could be a best-practice, applicable to the rest of the organization. A leader could also ask questions to assess whether the department was lucky, good, or both to achieve their results. If a department is producing consistently bad results, the leader can also define whether the issue is personnel, lack of cooperation, silos, operations, finance, marketing, etc and recommend changes to help that department to improve its results.

Curiosity also encourages leaders to challenge the organizational status quo and change how people think about a recurring process or challenge. Some long-tenured employees at an organization may defend processes as, “but we’ve always done it this way” or “it’s best practice” or, my personal favorite, “but everyone else is doing it this way”. Leaders who I admire will not take this at face value and instead will explore the process curiously. A strong leader may go and see how the “everyone else is doing it” is impacting the customer and whether the process actually works to deliver them the quality product or service they expect.

Organizations, especially large ones, can often get stuck in a rut with how they typically do business. The examples of businesses that have been overtaken by disruptors and innovators includes Kodak and Blockbuster. Leaders should get ahead of the tendency of people to prefer prevailing practices in order to maximize their potential for success. This gets increasingly difficult as the leader stays in their job longer. Leaders can use curiosity as a systematic way of making sure the status quo doesn’t continue due to inertia.

To do the work of diagnosing and challenging the status quo first requires curiosity followed by other qualities like listening and good judgment. In this way, curiosity functions as a foundation of a building, which is why I keep it as a core value.

The first part of Covey’s 5th habit, “seek first to understand” requires not only curiosity, but humility. Sometimes leaders are encouraged to appear as if they, “know everything”. That pressure, combined with people treating you differently as a leader, can encourage people in leadership positions to actually believe that they, “know everything”.

Curiosity encourages leaders to stay humble. It encourages leaders to go out and learn things will remind them that there is a lot that they don’t know, even about their own organization. Challenging our own assumptions can be hard to do, but is necessary to be impactful in an organization.

Curiosity is a core value of mine and it is an essential part of continuous improvement. It is not a be-all, end all. Just as there is a time and a place for everything, sometimes it is time to stop asking questions, stop diagnosing problems, and act. Curiosity is not an invitation for paralysis by analysis. Instead, it’s a way to challenge other’s thinking and keep things fresh in an organization.

My professor and coach, Dr. Gerald Suarez teaches three powerful words, “tell me more”. These three words can express curiosity around a topic area.

I am working to develop systems in my life as a leader that encourage curiosity, so “tell me more”. What would you suggest that look like? Do you know of any good activities that promote going deeper? I’m curious!

KEY TAKEAWAY: Curiosity is a foundational core value of mine. Curiosity stretches us and our organization, in a healthy way. Coupled with active listening abilities, good judgment, and humility, curiosity can help organizational leaders stay fresh in their thinking and solve complex problems. 

Leading with Vision through Context

In previous posts, I’ve written about my own definition of leadership and the need for vision. However, I have not yet discussed how to actually achieve your vision. In order to achieve your vision, the first thing you must do is to put the daily activities that you undertake with your team into the context of that vision.

I remember having a conversation in the summer of 2010 over sushi (side note –  we were at Momiji, which I highly recommend) with a friend about President Obama’s first term. An enthusiastic democrat and an early supporter of President Obama’s candidacy, he was excited.

He had argued that the President had accomplished more in his first year and a half as President than most others. He cited progress in healthcare reform, environmental stewardship, foreign policy, and others. He could not understand why there was a group of people who didn’t appreciate all of the President’s accomplishments in such a short amount of time.

My answer to him was one word: Context. While, objectively, President Obama had completed many tasks, it was unclear to me, at least, how it was all adding up. The President had surely done a lot, but what vision of our country did it support? Why did he take on these specific initiatives and not others? Were the other problems facing our country not a priority in where our country was going? And if so, why not?

Many of these questions can be answered by explaining them using the vision as context. If, for example, the goal (vision) is to grow your business’ revenue by 10%, then your actions should be explained in that context. The team needs to know that the business is spending more on business development and adding positions in that department in order to try to grow revenue by 10%. In being consistent with communicating decisions in terms of the vision statement, investments in time and money make sense to every member of the team.

My favorite model for this work is Stephen Covey’s “Four Quadrants” (pictured below). Covey uses this model to talk about time management and how to put, “First Things First”. The same principle applies in leadership.

I find that our teams are usually focused on the many tasks that they have to accomplish on a daily basis (what is “urgent”). But, if we are going to build towards our envisioned future, those urgent tasks need to be accomplished with what is “important” in mind.

A colleague of mine shared this TED Talk with me, which illustrates this point using the example of a Phlebotomist interacting with a patient:

Without the important context, most people, in the midst of their busy-ness will complete certain tasks just to finish them or “check the box”. To be intentional, we want to overcome that urge and help them keep all aspects of the task, including its ultimate goal or spirit in mind.

One of the most important roles of a leader is to provide context for all the actions that team members are asked to deliver. If that is done right, not only are consistent and reliable outcomes more likely, but also your team can partner to create your envisioned future.

KEY TAKEAWAY: One of the most important jobs for a leader is to put the daily, “urgent”, actions of team members into the context of the vision statement.