Category Archives: Personal Development

Expanding on Rules for Living

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The Dalai Lama has 17 rules for living.  One of them is that a person should travel to someplace they have never been before at least once per year.  The more I pondered this; I felt that this was a bit limiting.  I am fairly sure that he was focusing on the traditional view of this thought; traveling and experiencing a location that you have never been before.  But, there is a more philosophical approach to this “rule.”

Look at this creek.  It could be near your house, on your way to work, or off a mountain trail.  You may see it every day.  Is it the same? It changes moment to moment.  Even how you look at it changes.  Today it may be peaceful.  During a storm, it may become deadly.  One day gray, and blue the next.  You can be standing at the exact same physical location, yet you have never exactly been there before.  You have changed, and the place has changed.  The key is being aware and recognizing the changes.

As a leader, a person must continue to grow.  A leader must be able to see the changes around them, and interpret how those changes impact the situation.  The creek may be calm and serene one day, and present hidden dangers the next.  It is changing its environment, and as a result impacts the plants, animals, and people around it.  Similarly, our daily actions can have the same impact.

Your mood, your reactions, your comments, and your actions, whether you are aware of them or not affect those around you.  A smile can improve a person’s day, and you may never know.  A laugh or a kind word with the cashier as you go through the lunch line may become contagious, and those that follow may see the afternoon in a positive light rather than a negative one.  Snap at the toll agent as you go through the tollgate, and you may impact dozens of individuals later that day.

We are part of the whole.  We don’t see ourselves as having an impact unless we do something “big.”  Sometimes it is recognizing how the small things influence our growth and those around us.  We tend to go from one project to the next, or one event to the next, and fail to see the wonder and life around us.  We miss living while waiting to live.

 

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Chance encounters and lasting impacts

MVC-015SWe have all had them; those little chance encounters where everything seems to have aligned, and things are never quite the same.  For example, you missed your connection and you end up sitting next to a person you’ve never met, and begin a discussion about what you do for a living, and that person turns out to give you a lead on your next job.  Or, you are at the grocery store, and run into an old friend that you have been thinking about lately.  Or, you pick up a book or magazine and read an inspirational story that seems to be exactly what you needed at this particular moment.

These encounters are part of our lives, and we never know when they will occur, and you may never know if you were the source of one of these events.  Some may refer to these events as fate, or karma.  Others may see them in a different light.  But, fundamentally each and every one of us has these types of events.  And, may not recognize them at the time they occur.  And, sometimes these particular events may or may not happen to you directly, but may be transmitted via family or company lore.

Examples of dramatic impacts via company lore are prevalent.  Think about the stories surrounding the invention of the light bulb – why was it such a passion for Edison?  Or, the development of the electric grid?  There was the race to see which was best DC or AC between Tesla and Edison.  How about the development of Facebook?  Or, the naming of Phillips 66 – it was supposedly a random comment about how fast they were going or could have been a confluence of that comment or being on Route 66 at the time.  Lore has a tremendous impact on an organization’s culture, and it is a lasting one.

While it is known that company culture impacts an individual’s leadership style, family lore and chance encounters can also have a lasting impact on our personal leadership style.  In my family, there is the re-occurring theme of “got mad about something” and its ultimate consequence.  The thing that the person got mad about may be lost, but the consequence is long lasting.  Question my grandfather about why he left a particular job, he might have said “I got mad about something, so I quit and went to school.”  The stories in my family are legendary, the getting mad caused a move to California, joining the military, running for office, speaking out, and the list goes on.  The fundamental lesson from this lore is that it is OK to get mad about something, but you have to do something about it.  It wasn’t acceptable to let the situation continue in its current state. You have to act.  This lore has greatly impacted my personal leadership style and my life in general.

Additionally, I can point to chance encounters that have changed my perception or have changed how I approach a particular situation.  For example, I have met individuals that have a mystic or aura about them – famous scientists, well-known politicians, etc.  In my case, had the opportunity to meet them as individuals rather than in their well-known role, and got to know them as person rather than as an icon.  By encountering these people in this fashion, you don’t have the barrier of thinking “there is no way I could be… because they are smarter, or have a certain connection, or more resources, etc.”  Because you have seen or share something in common with them, you saw them as a real person, not as something bigger than life.

These types of encounters have an impact.  They change our point of view or provide a hidden driver for a particular course of action.  How many times have you witnessed a situation, where you have thought to yourself – I don’t want to handle a similar situation in that way?  Or, say to yourself, “I don’t want to be that kind of leader.” We all do it.  We all are the products of our particular environment.  We all need to understand that these events may have just as much of a lasting influence on us as something we have worked on for years.  These are life changing events.

We as leaders have to also understand while these events happen to us; we may be the source of the event for someone else.  We need to show ourselves as real.  We need to spread a kind word or encouragement to someone.  We may be the connection that someone else need.  We may be that spark for “getting mad about something.”  Thus, we need to ponder our actions and be good role models.

Dealing with the Tough Decisions

Every day each person makes a number of decisions.  Some of these decisions are easy and don’t usually have life changing consequences, like if I am going to have another cup of coffee or should I wear the blue tie with stripes or the green one with dots.  But, then there are the other decisions that need to be made, the ones where someone is going to be impacted, or someone won’t be happy.

As our society has changed, expectations have changed and handling situations where someone is not going to be “happy” has also changed.  These changes have complicated how leaders make the tough decisions as well as communicating these decisions.   So, how do you handle these types of situations?  How can we help those around us understand the rationale behind the decisions, without the baggage of a potentially socially charged situation?

First – Make the decision

When situations get tough or difficult, it is natural to want to avoid the “messiness.”  There is a tendency to put off the decision that Scarlett O’Hara moment where we say “I’ll deal with that tomorrow.”  Or, we want to wait and see if the situation takes care of itself.  While sometimes this is good, as it allows you to move from a potential “gut reaction” or allows some of the unknowns to become clearer.  The usual result is that the “messiness” just gets worse and worse and the implications of not making the necessary decision compounds.  The key is to make a decision, and then handle the consequences.

Second – Understanding that what is right is not always easy

Giving feedback to someone that they don’t want to hear, “you aren’t performing up to expectations” or “you can’t continue to provide a poor work product” or “you aren’t qualified for this task,” is never easy.  Leaders need to set expectations.  Leaders need to prepare individuals for the tasks that are to come or situations that they will face in the future.  Life comes with disappointments.  Life is full of failure (remember a good batter in baseball is only successful about one-third of the time).

Our society has changed. People are expecting to not have to work as hard for their goals.  They are expecting to be catered to in a number of different ways.  There is a sense well that doesn’t apply to me, because …….. (fill in the blank).  In this sense, leaders need to understand that they need to stand up for what is right:  meeting the expectations, applying the rules fairly and consistently, and doing the job.  The consequences of not holding to these standards are far reaching and ultimately become a death spiral.  A leader can’t make a decision or not take an action just because it resolves a particular situation today, they have to be aware of the long-term consequences.

Third – Understand it isn’t personal

One of the leadership skills that we all need is dealing with conflict.  If you go to a course on how to provide feedback, or how to deal with conflict; one of the skills that are taught is how to handle an argument by not making it about the person, but about the action or your perception of the action.  For example, you have a team member that is not performing or providing the necessary work product on time.  Rather than saying that the person is lazy, or can’t be counted upon; you should point out that the due date was not met and here are the consequences of those actions.  It is not about the person; it is about the actions and the results.

As leaders we have to understand that when we are taking the “hard line” on a decision, i.e. not relaxing a deadline or a standard; it is not because we don’t like the person; it is because we have to do this in order to what is right for everyone.  We also have to remind ourselves that the subsequent reactions of the individual are not really at us, but at the situation and ultimately at themselves because they did not meet their own expectations.

As true leaders, we will face these situations.  We will get negative feedback.  We have to continually assess ourselves to understand whether or not what we are doing is “right.”  But, the one thing that we must do: is make the decision, and handle the consequences in a tactful and considerate manner.  The key is not to let the situation fester; thus destroying the organization, those involved, and ultimately yourself.

Leadership Lessons from Story Time

Kindergarten

From the title of Robert Fulghum’s best-selling book of life stories is as applicable today as when he published it in 1988.  And, you can learn a lot about leadership by participating in a number of summer activities that you might feel are “just for kids” like Story Time at the local library.

It has been a number of years since I last attended Story Time.  And, now that summer is here and I have the opportunity, I have begun to take my grandson to Story Time.  The format hasn’t really changed all that much – there is a gathering, a brief outline of what is going to happen, a song, a story, a song, another story, and an activity.  (Sounds pretty much like that standing weekly meeting, except that they aren’t as much fun, because we don’t get play along with the song, and the activities, well…..)

So, let’s look at the leadership opportunities that are present:

The Gathering – While it is one thing to “wrangle” 20 to 25 kids under the age of six plus their tag along adult into a seated position and ready to listen, it is another to bring together a team of professionals, right?  Not so much.  In fact, I sometimes think it is easier to deal with the children.  They want to be there.  They are expecting certain things.  They are anticipating positive outcomes.  The adults, well…..

So, what is the lesson?  When pulling together a meeting, a training session, a presentation, etc., we have to include the hook, some predictability, and a desired outcome.  Sure, you won’t always be able to have grab everyone and some of these are “have to be there, because” type meetings.  But, you don’t have to allow them to be painful, boring, or last longer than they need to.  Posting of agendas is necessary. A stated purpose is necessary.

And, you have to allow for the gathering to occur.  You can’t rush it.  And, it this may be the most important part of the event.  These interactions are what make your teams cohesive.  The real work of an organization is usually done in the hallways, the break room, and in those few minutes at the beginning and end of meetings.  This is where the innovation occurs.  It is where work gets streamlined.

The Outline – OK, even if the agenda was posted. At Story Time, even though it follows the same pattern every week, the outline for the next hour is repeated.  Why?  Because, there may be a new child, a new parent, or someone who is not yet familiar with the routine.  In the business world, the attendees may not have read their email, you might have a guest, you might have an observer, or they just need the outline to get them focused on the task at hand.  Humans like patterns.  We need patterns.  The repeating of the outline helps us grasp that focus that we need to be productive.

The Song, the Story, the Song and the Story – The purpose of the first song at story time (and it usually the same one from week to week) is the initial grabber.  It gets the participants involved.  These are the standing agenda items: the safety moment, review of last week’s sales, etc.  All the attendees know what is about to happen, but they are watch for anything new or how the new individuals are going to react.  And, it allows you to slide into the flow of the event.  Then there is the story.  It is new information, we are actively listening.  We are applying the information.  All are key things for adults as well as for the children.

This is followed but round two.  But, this time the song is different.  We have to be more engaged.  We are applying something new.  But, it is bringing us all together and bring the focus back to the group.  This is where the buy-in occurs at the business meeting.  It is followed by another story.  For the business meeting, this is where the connections with the organization’s mission occur.  The why.

The Activity – During Story Time, this is where the children get to participate and really do.  The activity is usually related to the stories that were presented.  So, connections are made.  New things are tried.  And, learning is masked as something fun.  For professionals, the activity usually means discussions of the work, the goals, the plans, etc.  There are the normal workflows that must occur.  And, how the information presented will be applied.  The only difference – we don’t get to see it as fun or play.  (Sometimes, you need a bit of play to keep the creative juices flowing.)

Thus, Story Time is a learning experience.  There are lessons to be learned.  There are observations to be made.  You might want to take a bit of time to be “outside of the concrete, steel, glass box” and take a trip to Story Time, it may be more beneficial than that leadership symposium.

Curiosity as a Leadership Trait – How to make sure you keep it.

Watching the world leads to questions.
Watching and observing leads to one to more questions.

There is an old idiom that says “curiosity killed the cat,” which means fundamentally means that inquisitiveness leads one into danger.  According to The Phrase Finder, the first use of the phrase can be attributed to the English Playwright, Ben Johnson, in 1598.  But, what are leaders without curiosity?

Leaders by their very nature are and should be exploring the “what ifs.”  One cannot lead without thinking about how something should be done, or what will result from a specific action.  Thus, if a leader does not have a curious streak, how are the other leadership traits developed? In fact, the archaic meaning of the word curiosity (according to Dictionary.com) is “careful attention to detail” and “desire to know and learn.”  Essentially, one of the key traits attributed to leaders.

Curiosity while there is a potential downside, it can lead one along a dangerous path, is fundamental to our desire to learn and solve problems.  Without asking the “what if” questions, how is one supposed to grow?  How is a business supposed to plan for its future or for potential threats?  How is the next innovation supposed to occur?

These are key questions that leaders ponder each and every day, so it is apparent that leaders have a healthy curiosity streak.  But, what about the downside?  This is also something that leaders have to consider.  Leaders need to think through potential actions to avoid the downside.  You can just open the box, without thinking about what consequences might arise.  Leaders have to look at and examine the potential unknowns.  They have to anticipate some of the consequences, knowing full well that all the consequences may or may not be apparent depending upon the specific situation. It is the unintended consequences that have the biggest potential to get us all into trouble.

So, being curious and acting upon the curiousness that we have as leaders is a careful balancing act.  Leaders need curiosity but need to be deliberate in how we proceed.  Leaders have to look for and consider the potential dangers, not just the potential benefits.  Leaders have to look at more than their next action, they have to think about the subsequent actions due to the intended result (or in how the results are implemented).  Yet, without curiosity; we as individuals and society don’t progress.

Thus, leaders must:

  • Not lose the curiosity that got you to this point
  • Not take things for granted
  • Not stop asking questions

In order, for us to do this, leaders must:

  • Continue to explore – Whether through travel, reading, discussions, etc. as a leader you have to be exposed to different ideas and points of view.  You have to expand your frame of reference.
  • See learning as an opportunity to open the mind – Leaders have to stay abreast of what is happening around them. They have to monitor changes in their chosen fields.  They have to study new ways of applying techniques, and tools.  Learning is a constant in a leader’s daily life.
  • Understand that curiosity is an active process – As a leader, you must actively engage in exploration, actively ask questions, and actively seek to learn. It is not a passive endeavor.

My favorite words are possibilities, opportunities and curiosity.I think if you are curious, you create opportunities, and then if you open the doors, you create possibilities.

Mario Testino, Photographer

Taking Stock of Words

Power of Words

Actions speak louder than words. This is a common idiom used in the development of leadership skills.  Another idiom that is used is “walk the walk.”  As developing leaders (we are all developing leaders whether or not we are a 25 plus year CEO or a new entrepreneur), we have been taught, told, and mentored into believing that it is our actions that are going to help dictate the culture of our organizations.

Yet, it is not only our actions that influence our organizations, our words do as well.  Our own personal language, the body of words and how we use them, conveys much about our personal values, our leadership style, and ourselves.  Thus, as leaders we must assess and evaluate the quality of our own language.  This means that we need to not only look at our vocabulary, the library of words that we use and understand, but in also in how we use that stock of words to express ourselves.

Our language builds culture.  And, it is the culture that sets the unwritten rules of society, and our organizations.  You want to build a culture of inclusiveness?  Think about the words that are used in conversation in meetings:

  • We were discussing in the hall …..
  • Listening, to the hallway conversations……
  • Did you talk with …….

Versus

  • We need to do it this way ……
  • The administration says …..
  • Don’t bring them into this discussion …..

While each of these openings may be appropriate at a particular time, if we are starting a meeting this way the first set frees up an open discussion, while the second set closes the discussion.  Phrasing becomes just as important as what the words mean.

The structure of a sentence, the specific words used, and the setting of the transmission of the words to another individual becomes highly important to the development of the culture and the atmosphere of the organization.  A quick public thank you in a meeting, may have much more value to the organization than a lengthy in office more formal thank you.  A handwritten congratulations on an achievement to a line employee may be as valuable as a bonus at the end of the year.  Even a handshake in the elevator introducing yourself to someone, may be a very valuable exchange conveying the importance of everyone in the organization.

Today as leaders, we hear about the importance of the motivational speech or sending out mass emails about the status of the company or organization to both employees and stakeholders.  We are told by our public relations people that we need to communicate and we assess every word in a press release and in the speech.  But, do we really take time to listen to ourselves.  Are we using precise speech?  Are our words communicating exactly what we are trying to convey?

We need to look at how we speak, write and the methods of communication.  As each of these elements convey meaning and color how our words are consumed by the audience.

Gaining Wisdom through Reflection

Confucius

Wisdom.  It is one of the many words that are used to describe leadership.  Yet, it is typically not something that we as leaders have innately.  Wisdom is something that coalesces from a variety of other aspects of a leader’s education.  Wisdom is derived from book knowledge, observation, experience, and reflection.  Wisdom is as not simple as the abridged definition “the quality or state of being knowledgeable with just judgement.”

As leaders, the easy part of gaining wisdom comes from the many hours of learning our technical craft.  We spend hours gaining the technical skills of our chosen professions: going to class, taking training courses, reading the current literature, etc.  We also have honed our skills of observation: watching other leaders, learning individuals, understanding group dynamics, etc.  But, have we become wise?

This is an interesting question.  Stop and take a moment to visualize a wise person.  What images come immediately to mind?  For some, it is a yogi or a guru sitting atop a mountain.  For some, it is an owl.  For others, it may be a specific person, but that person is generally older, and quiet.  We have a vision of what it takes to be wise or full of wisdom.  Yet, there is no manual or recipe or real guidance document. Sure, you can Google the question “how to become wise,” (and you will get 23,800,000 hits) but these are suggestions and starting points.  There is not a single recipe or set of steps that you can follow that will have you waking up tomorrow as a wise person.  Sure, you may be a bit wiser than you were today but it is never a completed project.  (It is probably a topic that can have some intellectuals researching for years.)

This doesn’t mean that we can’t become wise nor develop wisdom.  All it means is that wisdom comes from our willingness and openness to new experiences, new ideas, and listening to different points of view.  Wisdom is derived from our personal situations, our challenges, and the environment or circumstances that have occurred over time.  Even then, a leader may not become wise as there is still something missing.  The missing item is reflection.

One cannot learn from our experiences and environments without taking the time to reflect and ask questions about them.  How do we begin to listen to another point of view?  We ask questions.  We investigate.  We may still disagree, but we are actively learning how someone else approaches the same situation.  We learn to be active listeners.  Yet, do we listen to ourselves. Do we note our own conflicts? Do we ask ourselves questions?

We have to make time for the reflection.  And, we have to have some way of reflecting.  So, how can you as a leader begin to develop this habit of reflection?  Well, there is a technique that is widely used and for some of us it is something that is a bit of struggle – journaling.  Yes, remember that creative journal that your English composition teacher tried to get you to start?  It may be one method of helping you develop wisdom in your life.  Sure, you have heard of creative writers journaling, but the CEO of a Fortune 500 company?  You probably have even read excerpts from some journals from famous individuals in history like George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson.  But what about J.P. Morgan?  Sure you know that they kept “diaries” of appointments or notes – but did they journal?  We may or may not know.

Why start a journal?  The typical reasons for journaling include:

  • Journals help you articulate thoughts and ideas
  • Journals help you clear the mental clutter
  • Journals help you track your own personal growth
  • Journals promote creativity

You can do a quick search and find a host of other reasons.  But from a straight forward and simplistic perspective – journals allow you the time for reflection.  It is this reflection time that is the important aspect of developing wisdom.

How do you start and what should you write?  The first step is to pick a medium – computer, paper and pen, etc.  Personally, I am fond of the paper and pen method as for me, it is more personal. It is engaging. And, I am interacting with my thoughts.  (Now, I do use a smart pen which does allow me to store my journals electronically.)  But, I have used a number of different media over the years – including some of the new apps.  I have also found that I am much happier keeping everything in the same place, i.e. my daily appointments, to-do lists, and journal all in the same book.  It simplifies things for me and if I have an idea I don’t have to figure out which book to put it in.

What to write?  This is the personal part of the journal and may be highly dependent on the time of day when you chose to journal.  There are times that I journal in the morning as I am preparing for the day and my reflections may be about my goals for that day.  Or, if in the evening, they may be about something that I learned, noticed or was troubled by during the day.  I may reflect on a reading throughout the day, which is why I like my journal all in one.  I journal about new words, a line in a book, something I heard on the radio or something that I could have handled better.  It really doesn’t matter what you write, it is about taking the time to sit quietly and reflect.

Confucius said that the noblest way to learn wisdom is by reflection.  Margaret Wheatley reminds us that without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and fail to achieve anything useful.  The journal is a means of providing that bit of reflection that is needed to help us develop into the leaders we need to be.