Fluent Leadership

Leadership is a language. It is entirely about communication. To be fluent in a language is to be able to communicate effectively as a natural process, convey to others the intent of your words, and enabling the hearer to create action. The bad news is that many who are leaders have not yet acquired the fluency required to precisely convey their desires. This frustrates the direct report and hinders forward progression in the organization. The good news is that fluency can be obtained through practice and saturation.

Think about how a child learns. She surrounds herself with those who know more than she does and mimics their actions. When she sees how one does a specific task, she tries to mimic the action that accomplished it. Though her arms may not have the dexterity or agility of the one she watches, she tries none-the-less. When the parent speaks, though she does not completely understand what is being said, she tries to make the same noises as the parent. Eventually, she will acquire both the physical dexterity and the verbal articulation that she needs to become an articulate woman of action. This takes both time and countless hours of practice.

It is the same with the leader.

If you are new to leadership, you would do well to surround yourself with those who have been in leadership for some time. The more effective the “parent” the better. Begin to mimic the actions that you see in them and apply those actions to your life and organization. Begin to listen to their speech, their vocabulary, and mimic it. It may seem unusual at first, but that is how we learn. Before you know it, you will begin to see that you have become fluent in the language and proactivity of leadership. You will realize that over time you have become a bit of what you have mimicked. Isn’t that how it is with the Christian life? We mimic Christ as we become Christlike. Should it not be the same with leadership?

Perhaps you have been a leader for some time. If so, I have a question for you. Who is mimicking you? Are you mentoring another? Are you equipping the next generation of leader? Regardless of where you are at in your personal leadership journey, remember to surround yourself with godly examples of what you would like to become. Before you know it, what you saw in another someone else will see in you.

A Higher View

Work “on” the system, not “in” the system.

The role of leader requires a certain way of thinking about everyday tasks. You may need to shift. Consider how you can step back from the to-do list and oversee the progress of your organization as a system to be managed. We struggle with so many things to do that it is easy to throw our hands in the air and give up. However, with a little strategic thought we can streamline.

You have a work flow. How organized it is depends on you. I want you to imagine yourself at your desk. If it is anything like mine we could say it’s “un-neatly organized.” Now that you are picturing it, imagine all the related tasks that are on it’s surface. The thirty-fifth paper in pile number two is related to the twenty-fourth paper in pile five. It has gotten this way due to neglect. Day to day, you take the top paper, work on it, put it somewhere else, or you throw it in the trash. You are in the system…

Quote1 working one task at a time you will fail to work strategically    Quote2

Now, imagine that you had perfect clarity. You are now standing over your desk (not sitting at it) and because you can see the big picture you can see how each paper corresponds to other papers and you begin to group them with all other relevant papers. You begin to see “mobilizations” instead of a to-do list. You realize that if you put the tenth paper in pile two together with the third paper in pile four and the fifth in pile five, you can take care of all of them with one action. You are now working ON the system…

As long as you are working one task at a time you will fail to work strategically, or give ownership of anything to anyone. It is faster to do the task than to teach (or allow) someone else to do it. However, if the related and relevant items are grouped, and a mobilization is build around it, you can give ownership of something much bigger than a task, and relieve yourself of the minutiae of having to perform every task yourself. As a collective whole, those tasks can become a strategic mobilization which results in the training of your direct reports and greater efficiency for the organization.

As a leader, your people need you to show them where they are headed and how they will get there. Inspire them with the big picture. Reward them for every step towards that end. Celebrate when each victory is achieved and inspire confidence in their abilities. You know that they are going to make mistakes. You also know that – initially – the tasks will get completed to a lesser level of excellence than it would had you completed the task on your own. However, to follow your same patterns will lead you into a trap. You do not have the option to work in the system and direct it from above. If you desire change in your organization, but refuse to let go of the lesser things, then step aside and let another lead. Remember, a leader rejoices more over a mistake made with effort than with inactivity perfectly executed.

PRACTICUM: Take a moment to think about repetative things that you do, the no-brainers. Now think about how often you do them. Add up the time on a weekly, monthly, yearly basis. Take one of those tasks, and hand them off to someone this week. Expect less than perfection and be willing to wait for the standard to rise.

Leaders Go First

In today’s unforgiving environment both seasoned leaders and those coming into new leadership roles need to hit the ground running, or at the very least, come up to speed quickly. This is simply a reality.

In previous eras of workplace ethics you could coast for a long time before your lack of leadership proficiency was noticed or harmed the organization. No so any longer. Today’s leader needs to be the forerunner of change. Allow me this personal example.

I am a SCUBA diver. I have been avidly diving since 1986 and I have a special love for the sport. I have yet to be on a dive boat where, once we are over the dive spot, I am not the first diver in the water and the last to come aboard. Why? Because I am passionate about diving. PASSIONATE! I love every moment of it. I suit up long before anyone, sitting on the deck amidst the stares of the others who are in the galley eating. I wait for my chance to take my giant stride off the deck and signal OK to the Divemaster with a tap to my head. On a recent dive at Anacapa island in California, I was in awe as I descended into a school of thousands of fish, I was right in the middle of them. Guess what? I was the only one on the boat that day that was so privileged. Why? I was the first in.

A Hard Reality…

As a “go first” leader, you must be competent. If you are not the first one in (and the last one out) on every new endeavor, you are losing your authority. I am not saying that you cannot delegate, but delegate the lesser things. The important ones are yours. Build the team, inspire them to act, and take the first step. Your passion for the new endeavor will be contagious and you will inspire those behind.

I marvel at the many “leaders” that I speak to on a daily basis, and when I look behind them (figuratively) there is no one there. In fact, I’ve been there myself. However, you know as well as I, you are not a leader if nobody’s following. Today’s leader must not only have the ability to lead followers, he must lead leaders.

If you want to lead leaders, here are some of the things you will need to consider important.

• Time management skills
• Delegation and ownership
• Personal presentation
• The ability to drive values and objectives
• Complex decision making and problem solving
• Effective communication and consensus building
• Performance management and evaluation
• Dealing effectively with difficult conversations
• Ability to make the tough call
• Learning to tap into an individual’s creativity in times of great challenge
• Team building
• Giving and receiving constructive feedback that promotes growth
• Developing others
• Taking ownership of results (accountability)
• Self awareness and self-management

That last one’s a killer…

Self Leadership

Leadership starts with self.

I woke this morning to two things. First, a notification on my phone of motion on my home security system. It turned out to be a moth buzzing the cameras. Second, news coming out of Milwaukee that riots are taking place because of the escalated national violence and sensitivities that mark the day.

It strikes me that the polarization we are undergoing as a nation is nearing the point of no return. It seems everyone is looking in the wrong place for leadership. Leadership stars with self.

When leadership is looked for through dependence it is never healthy. When we entrust others to define and implement our futures we subjugate ourselves. We must each define the future that we want to see for ourselves and it does not start with blowing up the system, but becoming part of the system.

I am privileged to work with many different associations to help them define their future paths and roles among their members. One thing remains constant, the newer members of the organization see the old guard and define the gap. The elder members see the gap as well, and their approaches to change rarely find common ground. The older members must seek to include the younger and benefit from their input and participation. The younger members must seek to engage and allow their voices to be heard. What typically happens is that the older exclude the younger, and the younger want to blow up the system. This leads to a passive aggressive—or sometimes aggressive—struggle for change. This season of “Storming’” can be detrimental to the organization if not handled well. Each individual in such a situation needs to refrain from being part of a group voice and seek their role as diplomat in that situation. The harmony in an organization is more important than individual need or agenda. But most people are sheep. They seek another’s leadership to get behind. I contend we all need to be leaders starting as leaders of one… self.

Back to our current reality…

While the nation struggles, I wonder how things would change if everyone would take a leadership role in their own life and not subjugate themselves to a group.

Are you waiting for a political party to solve your issues? A movement? A business? A house of faith? Another person? None of those people care for you like you do. They don’t wake up in the morning and think “I need to make sure Rick is well provided for today and feels a deep sense of security!” No, that’s Rick’s job. The world is cruel and doesn’t give a lick about Rick.

Until we are happy with who we are, and refuse to be dependent on a system or another, we will not be free to pursue self fulfillment. Take stock, who do you depend on for your sense of purpose and wellbeing? If it is other than God and family you are not free and you cannot blame that on anyone but yourself. Lead yourself.

Here’s my final thought. What I am watching in Milwaukee today represents the moth in my home. I know that for the rest of the day that moth is going to fly around and activate my alarm system. So today, my alarm system is worthless. I will need to fight the tendency to ignore it because by ignoring it I am vulnerable. But, I will unfortunately ignore the moth.

An Avoidable Tragedy

Fail Fast

I cannot remember the location, but I remember the story like it was yesterday. A man and his son facing that moment where the son’s right of passage meant an extreme hiking trip with his father. Big hopes and excitement confronted them both. At one point, during the hike, the son strayed from the path and began to stumble down an incline littered with shale. Trying to right himself, the boy began to run faster and faster downhill until he was out of control. His father, knowing that at the bottom of that shale was a drop-off of over one hundred feet, began to give instruction. The boy could not see it nor was he aware of the danger. The father began to scream at the top of his lungs, “Fall Down!” He even extended his arms and legs to instruct the boy in a futile attempt to force the child’s action. “Fall Down! Spread your legs out and fall! NOW! Do it!” Doubtless, all the boy was thinking about is how much pain it meant to fall, and he continued to try to gain his balance. To the father’s horror, the son plummeted to his death.

I remember telling my children that story to reinforce a truth that I wanted them to learn. That is, that they must trust my word and do as I say immediately. There will be times when I know better, even if it hurts.

What a fabulous lesson for us as leaders. Failure is never what we intend. However, if we are going to fail, we really need to fail fast. Prolonging your fall can lead to death. By failing fast, you may be battered and bruised when it is all said and done, but at least you are alive to rebuild.

Reality Check

These lessons go to hundreds of people each week. That means one thing. Some of you are failing! Are you that leader? If it is, you have choices. Call a colleague, a mentor, a coach, or another leader whom you trust. There are many of us who care. We want to help.

Final Note

Every organizational leader desires to lead transformational change. If that’s you, you will fail in some of your many endeavors. Fail fast. Seek the guidance, pick yourself up, and pour your energies into the idea that seems to be gaining ground. Remember to always measure and assess your failures. If you can, failing fast will make you stronger.

Trickle to a Force

Come with me, high up into the Andes of Arequipa Peru. Allow me to lead you to this specific spot, covered in snow, near a small trickle of water, marked many years ago with a small white cross. As you ponder the cross and absorb the delicate sounds of melting snow, allow your senses to find peace. Here on this mountain, is a melting snowflake with one of two destinies. If that snowflake melts and its liquid form heads west, it will eventually end up in the Pacific Ocean. If it drips to the East, it will begin a four thousand mile journey to the Atlantic, known as the Amazon River.

I have been there. I have canoed the Amazon. I have let that river take control. It is a raging behemoth of energy that brings power, force, and life (sometimes death) to everything it touches. It is mighty.

It’s an amazing thought that a melting snowflake on the cliff of a mountain named Nevado Mismi eventually becomes the world’s largest river. As the water joins with other waters is steadily grows to become a formidable force. Until—at last—219,000 cubic meters of water per second rush into the Atlantic ocean on the eastern coast of Brazil.

As leaders, we should remember that each little spark of an idea has the potential to become a transformational force in our organizations. We must constantly scan the horizon, asking; “What other ideas can I bring together with this one to create something mightier, something almost uncontrollable.” Truly transformational leaders possess the innate ability to see the bigger picture and assimilate data while on the journey. Just like the Amazon, as you combine, connect, and let thoughts incubate, the sum of those thoughts become something greater than the parts.

The next time you have that small, lateral thought, STOP! Throw it out to your team or your direct reports. See if the streams of thought come together as something larger. Navigate the flow. Let it move you to places you would not otherwise go. Continue to let it take you on its journey. Allow it to turn that Trickle into a Force.

Harmony in the Universe and Bob the Destroyer

Until a recent remodel at Los Angeles International Airport, adjacent to American Airlines Terminal 44 was a Burger King. Sequestered in the corner of that restaurant was a small stainless steel shelf with an even less obvious label affixed upon it. It read Coffee Lids. I wrote this one morning as I was seated no more than 100 feet from that very label – and I was thinking about the strategic implementation of processes.

What follows were my observations on that morning.

If you are reading this you are a member of the small percentage of people who care, people who are driven to refine the less than efficient processes in their lives. You are a leader. Most, however, are not. Most do as they are told and in fact, are somewhat content to exist and live in the status quo.

You are not.

You want to make a difference. You understand that things can be improved. You abide by principles of excellence and streamlining of the process.

Let me tell you about Bob. The first fact you need to know about Bob is that Bob is not his real name. I am watching Bob right now. Early 50’s, probably a great father, a hard worker and dedicated to the task that provides for his family. Bob works right there, next to Terminal 44 at the Burger King. I know he is a hard working man because I am observing him as I write. Besides, it’s just after five in the morning and only Bob knows what time he had to get up this morning to be here on time. Though I only just rubbed shoulders with him ten minutes ago, I like Bob… Now back to you.

You understand that the tasks of the day can be draining. You engage in the tactical events of the day without complaint because your eyes are on the process and you are always looking for strategic opportunities to better the system. You realized that the tactical responses yesterday have a common thread with ones that you performed last week and that those correspond to what you will be doing this afternoon. Deep in your mind, you are already thinking about the commonalities of the tasks and how they can be combined into a streamlined effort to produce a better, simplified, process. You see, that’s what you do! You streamline systems by finding simple solutions to common problems. You identify a bottleneck or repetitive tasks and you streamline them by revising the process. And it works.

So, let me tell you how I rubbed shoulders with Bob. To properly convey this, I need to give you the layout of our infamous Burger King, its drink station and the little tiny label marked Coffee Lids. You see, there are actually two drink stations about 10 feet apart there at Terminal 44. Both stations serve customers with a soda machine and a coffee dispenser. Both have both! However, the soda cup lids are on the stainless steel shelf over the leftmost drink station, and the coffee lids are over the right. So, regardless of which station you get coffee at, you have to force your way into a crowded corner of the restaurant to get your lid. The process is broken. While I am trying to get to my lids, I am swimming upstream against the flow of people who just filled their sodas and are coming my way to get their soda lids. I ask myself, how many years has this bottleneck been here and why can I see it so quickly and no one in all these years, not even management, has noticed? Then I realized, it’s the label: “Coffee Lids.” This mayhem has been created by a misaligned attempt at organization.

I still have not met Bob.

So here you sit. Surrounded by process. Have you asked yourself what bottlenecks you live in? Just look for the confusion. You’ll see it. Then look deeper, into the bottleneck. If you cannot see it, ask someone in your organization. Ask them about those things that, to them, do not make sense. Bring in an outside observer to see what you don’t see. Unlike Bob and his managers, there are those who are gifted to see logistical problems and less than ideal systems. Strive to be such a person. Identify and remove the misaligned attempts at organization. Remove the labels.

Ok, so I just met Bob. I pushed and shoved my way to the coffee lids. I grabbed one of the lids and placed it on my cup, but before leaving, I grabbed a handful and carried them to the stainless steel shelf above the leftmost drink station, the one without the label. FINALLY, for one (and only one) millisecond, the multi-year dysfunctional process of cup lid gathering at Terminal 44 was solved. The masses, as if they were a school of fish, naturally flowed under my power in directions that for the first time in perhaps years made sense. The sky opened, rose petals fell at my feet and a choir of angels sang the hallelujah chorus (though I was the only one who could hear it). I smiled. I had changed my world. I was responsible for happier people, less missed flights, pleasant flight attendants and passengers. In that moment, I was the center of the universe! Then, over my bumped shoulder (this is where Bob and I are acquainted), I see Bob pick up my stack of coffee lids and return them to the place of origin. Back to where they were supposed to be. Back above the label! Good Ol’ Bob was doing what he knew to do, and in his hard-working diligence destroyed the peace and harmony of my new universe. Back to square one.

The point? Look past the label! See beyond the way things are “supposed” to be…

Great!!! I got so inspired by this whole thing that my coffee is now cold. Here I go, back into the mayhem that Bob has unknowingly recreated…

Hesitation Remorse

The backdrop is the Sahara with the tops of the great pyramids in the distance slightly obscured by the sand and dust-filled sky. The characters are my son Bryan upon a camel named Michael Jackson, my brother Robert upon a second named Oscar, and me upon the third named Casanova. The journey is a desert trek to the great pyramids of Giza.

The lesson: Embrace moments in the unknown.

I had feared the moment and now suffer from hesitation remorse.

When you caravan across the Sahara the camels are necessarily tied to each other, each one with a rope firmly affixed to the saddle of the camel ahead (think of all those Christmas cards with the three wise men silhouetted at the top of a sand dune). This keeps these magnificent (albeit ugly) beasts in line as they have learned in their domestication that they cannot break free.

Toward the end of our journey, we were situated on the crest of a dune with a great view of Giza. I asked the guide, using hand signals and broken English, if he would take a picture of the three of us, shoulder to shoulder, on our camels. “Yes, yes!” came the reply and he quickly began to untie each of our camels from the other. With a switch in hand, he smacked, yelled, and aligned all three camels so that he could step back and frame the scene. It was a beautiful picture, a Facebook favorite. [ See Photo Here ]

Having taken a couple of frames, the guide stepped forward and began to tie Michael Jackson to the saddle of Oscar. Much to my surprise, Casanova (my camel), noticing the guide had turned his back, realized that if he would ever be free from the switch of his taskmaster, that was the moment! In what became a futile attempt at freedom, he bolted!

With a voice that surprised me, sounding not unlike my morning voice, I pathetically whimpered, “Uh…” and quickly realized that I would need to do better than that. I ratcheted it up a notch with a nervous, “I’m leaving, Hello…” When that didn’t work I cried out with conviction, “Hello!” Finally, the guide came running at us, switch in hand, screaming words of Arabic in what sounded like a Jihad moment of anger and subdued Casanova with a few good smacks of the switch and a tug or two of the rope. After a bit of commotion and a few deep breaths, I found myself once again leading the caravan as both Oscar and Michael were tied behind Casanova and the journey to the pyramids played itself out in all its splendor.

Looking back at that moment, I ask myself why I did not immediately cry, “Help!”

After much thought, I have become convinced that some deep inner desire, which I refused to let surface, yearned for the adventure that the circumstance had presented. However, that deep longing for adventure was subdued by my fear.

In fact, I now wish that I had shut my mouth, overcome the fear, and held on tight for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can see myself bolting across the Sahara, bouncing like a golf ball in a blender on the back of that camel! Our guide would have found me… Eventually! However, on second thought, a camel can go ten days without water! Not good.

I had let my anxiety ruin an unbelievable life experience. I am not saying that the experience–to that point–had not been glorious, it had been. However, what fun it would have been galloping across the Sahara on the back of a camel running for his freedom from a tyrannical taskmaster. I had missed a life moment. One that others would have talked about for a lifetime.

I am typing this later in life and I realize that leadership is very much like that day. Every once in a while, you are going to have the privilege of just holding on. There will be moments that at first seem out of your control, but as you tighten your grip, learn to steer, you will find that you possess the ability to navigate a grand adventure. Let it happen! Be pensive, resolved and keep your wits but do not forget to enjoy the ride. Today, I tell my own leaders that vision is good, but achieving the vision is not where the excitement is. The excitement is in the progressive, sometimes out of control journey of getting there. This admonition reminds me of a bumper sticker that I recently saw on the back of a souped-up, red, 1965 mustang. It read; “Get in, buckle up, hold on, and enjoy the ride!”

As leaders, if we learn to enter the territory of apprehension, unfamiliarity, and fear, it may just lead to our break-out moment. If it does, we will be remembered for that ride into the unknown. However, if we back out when faced with that fear, we will continue in the status quo and that break-out moment will be lost forever.

I will never be able to recreate that moment on the back of Casanova. It is, regrettably, gone forever.

Higher Standards

One current overwhelming reality is that there is no lack of moral failure in our society. We need only think of recent sports figures, politicians and others who have destroyed their lives because a pattern of decreasing moral standards was allowed to continue unabated. Surely these same individuals knew what the consequences would be for their actions. Didn’t they? Yet, they continued until it all fell apart.

Wake Up Call

As gifted men and women, ones who lead and drive dynamic organizations, we must be on guard against declining standards. Unless we consciously set higher and higher moral standards, we will continue to slip the other direction… In other words, there is no middle ground. Lack of progression equals decline.

The same principle applies to organizations as well as individuals. It has been said that the greatest hindrance to tomorrow’s success is today’s. We naturally tend to settle. We cannot allow this to happen. The dynamic organizational leader will reward the success of today, and set new goals for tomorrow.

“You don’t understand, that will burn out my people! We already drive the work ethic pretty heavily.”

Let me say this as delicately as I can; “Stop your excuses.” The reality is that people want progression. They want to be a part. If you are losing them, they either fail to see value or they are not feeling rewarded or recognized for the incremental accomplishments.

A Word of Warning

Driving success means celebrating success. Many leaders set the vision high. Rightly so. However, many of them make a terrible error by setting the celebration for accomplishment at the same level. This is wrong. We need to see the vision as the distant place we want to arrive, but we need to reward and recognize each of the steps in getting there.

Come with me to Paris. I was standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower and told my family to “look up!” I said, “we’re going to climb the stairs to the top!” “What!?!” came the reply. It was drudgery, until I began to count out the steps in increments of fifty. “Fifty… One Hundred… One Fifty…” Soon everyone was calling them out; “Two Hundred!!!” What started as drudgery, became excitement as we celebrated each fiftieth step. “Two Fifty!” Before we knew it, we were at the top! Six hundred and seventy four steps!

Had we waited until we came to the top to celebrate, I would have had to listen to requests to take the elevator the entire way up! Perhaps one of my kids would have broken ranks and headed the other direction. Maybe mutiny at step number Three Ninety Nine. Or, having made it to the top, faced a family who–for their anger–failed to appreciate the spectacular view from the top.

Celebrate each and every landing on your organizational journey, and set the next highest standard when you arrive.

Risky Leadership

TAKE A CHANCE. The riskiest idea may turn out to be the most innovative and transforming. In a culture that despises change, this is a paralyzing thought. True transformation seldom comes without a leader determining something drastic needs to happen. If that “still small voice” is telling you to do it… do it!

DON’T LOOK BACK. There was no crystal ball when you made the decision, and come-what-may you work through your objectives. Be confident. The decision you made was thought out, and if you believed in it’s transforming power (unless the environment has changed), continue to believe. As a person of excellence, you should focus on the forward progression of your decisions.

MOVE FORWARD. Rather that setting the reward at the final objective, allow yourself to reward the team in incremental steps. Too often we lose our drive because we see the final goal as the only victory moment. Celebrate each landing on the staircase to your vision.

STOP WORRYING. If your heart is in it, the consequences of a radical decision are yours to deal with. Besides, worry will affect the outcome. Place your concentration on the future. If you must worry, use it profitably by asking; “What’s the worst that can happen?” We tend to forecast doom and the actual answer to that question will often remove worry entirely.

Remember, THERE ARE NO MISTAKES. The lessons learned through missteps will be instrumental in driving you closer to to your goal and refining your understanding. Mistakes are nothing more than invaluable learning opportunities. True, people will see one mistake and overlook one hundred profitable decisions, but that is their lack of vision and shortcoming, not yours.

STEP OUT. Dynamic leaders move beyond their comfort zone. The more success you experience by risk-taking, the more comfortable you will be outside of the zone. You have to do a new thing and no matter how hard you look, the answer is not inside your box.

RELEASE YOURSELF. Perfectionist tendencies will keep you from attaining success in new areas. Perfection is only reached when you have been at something for some time. This does not apply to new ventures. Shelve the perfectionism and do something new.

RELEASE OTHERS. Build your team, empower them, and let them make mistakes (remember, there are no mistakes). Do not micromanage and allow them the victory celebration at each step. Never rob them of the glory of success. Their glory speaks of you as a leader so let them receive it.

EVALUATE AND MEASURE. Every step of the doing should be evaluated and measured. What are the results we are seeking? Are the results coinciding with the plan in this endeavor? If the results are contrary to the greater vision then stop and reevaluate–humbly with your team–is the best place to start.

DON’T STRESS. The big victory will come. Celebrate the small victories, regroup after the detours, and find camaraderie with the team. Build the relationships and center them on the milestones. Each victory will draw you closer to the final goal. When you reach the final goal…

Then start the process again…