Tag Archives: Leadership

Story and the Art of Story Telling

If you read various leadership articles, you are likely to have found a number of items related to the “Art of Story Telling.” From a leadership perspective, the idea behind this is that people are more in tuned to messages conveyed via a story. If you want to provide a lesson or a concept – you can put it in a story, people will pay attention, and are more likely to retain the information and get what you are trying to convey.

But there is more to “Story.”  Story throughout all of history has been used to convey – historical events, to entertain, to perpetuate culture, to convey cultural morality, and to pass on family. In general – a culture is defined by its stories. If you think about the stories that are traditionally studied in school – Aesop’s Fables, Greek Myths, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. You can see how story has been used.

There are religious stories – the Old Testament Bible stories – Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, and the Garden of Eden – as well as the New Testament Parables. In Native American culture – there are the Mother Earth stories. And, you can even follow certain themes throughout all cultures – there are common flood stories, and there is always a creation story.

Some stories have been preserved – the Bible, the Qur’an, and many epic poems (Beowulf, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and others). But, many stories and possibly the most important ones are not usually written. These are the stories that hold families and/or clans together. The tales of how we as individuals are molded and taught. These stories are unique to the personal histories of each family.

For the last several years, my husband and I have noticed that our Society has lost the art of story telling – beyond the “Big Screen” and the television. Children don’t hear Mother Goose, Aesop’s Fables, or the traditional Bible stories unless a special effort is made to convey these through a lesson plan at school or Sunday School. We have seen that when the stories of the overall culture – the cultural fabric or quilt have disappeared – the quicker the disappearance of the family stories particularly the ones told from generation to generation. And, these are even more likely not to have been recorded.

I suppose that this is a result of losing the extended family. In most cases, we don’t live down the street from Grandma anymore. Great Aunt Mary is in Arizona for the winter. Even brothers and sisters are removed by several states. Closely knit communities have seen the “kids” move to the cities because of they don’t want to farm or the mill has closed to get a job. We have lost the time around the kitchen table or the campfire where the stories flow. How did you get that scar on your knee? Why did we live in that particular house? How did Grandpa come to live in that town? Are being lost faster than your current cell phone goes out of date.

We are losing this trait so fast – that there are articles about it for leaders. There are courses in journal-ling. Our Society has to make an effort to revive something that has been a part of being human since language was invented. This is evidenced by the fact that Museums like the Smithsonian have programs where people come to put down their oral histories or a particular story about a topic or an event. We see organizations like the American Chemical Society collect particular personal stories about why they chose to be come chemists. These are efforts being made because we are losing a part of us. We are losing what brings us together and we can very possibly be losing ourselves. Our personal story is what makes us who we are, but it is the grounding, the enrichment of the stories of how our great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and families that really tell us so much more about why we are the way we are.

(Also published on SophicPursuits)

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Transition & Re”creation”

According to the calendar, it is May.  And, May generally is a time of transition – end of a school year, graduations (high school or college), weddings may be in the air, and people are beginning to thing about a summer vacation or recreational activity.  For some the weather is finally starting to feel like the grip of winter is leaving and you can transition from indoor to outdoor activities.  So, there are lots of things that are vying for our attention. 

May is also a time where your leadership skills may be challenged, dusted off, or reach a new level.  Because May is a transitional month, you may have to rely on your personal skills to help you through the transition.  If you are graduating, you may be transitioning to a new job.  If you are in academia – you may be preparing for a sabbatical or a summer research push.  If you are industry, you may be thinking about summer field work, manpower issues, or interns.  You may also be facing personal life changes moving from a single person to a married one.  Transitions imply change – and successfully navigating change requires good leadership.

Even if you are not facing a significant transition – chances are there is someone close to you who is.  Thus, you may be called on to mentor that person.  Mentoring requires good leadership.

May then is a great time to think about your leadership in transition.  What are you specifically doing to improve your leadership skills?  What goals did you set for yourself at the beginning of the year?   How are you progressing on those goals?  Have you grown as a leader?  These are questions you may want to take a bit of time to think about.

On May 3 – I had a chance to sit in on a graduation ceremony at two year college, which led me to think about these questions.  And, I also began to think about how I personally could make an impact as a leader.  What actions – not just thoughts or words – could I do to bring about the change that I wanted to see?  In that graduation ceremony, I noted a number of things.  One was demographics – while there were some significant positives – the number of older students, the number of students in general and the support group present – the demographics were not what the should have been.  The group should have been even more diverse.  This means there is still work to do – and we as leaders need to do something – to see real change.

Second – was the concern that each and every individual there was facing a transition. Some where going straight to the workforce.  Some moving on to work on higher level degrees.  But, the fundamental question was – were they truly prepared?  As leaders, it is incumbent on us to help, encourage and mentor individuals through these significant transitions.  We have to be the role models, and the support groups.

Third – was the meaning of this transition. For some of the students, this was just a brief stepping stone or a mile marker.  But, for others it was a sign of achievement, sign of determination, a huge accomplishment.  I saw graduates that were the first in their families to ever receive a degree.  For one student, it took 14 years to get her Associates. She took one or two classes at a time – got her girls through their Bachelors before she finished her Associates.  She is a role model for the next generation.  Each story behind the graduate is different.  Each spark that drove that particular individual was different.  But each one had someone behind them that said – you can do it.  As leaders – we need to spread that spark a bit more.  We need to think about those little conversations that provide the encouragement.  You never know if it is the one thing that gets that individual over the hump and help them achieve.

Leadership is not just a hypothetical topic in a book.  It is not words on paper.  It is not a speech.   It is a push, a prod or an extra fifteen minutes.  It is a practice.  It is action.

So, as you plan your summer – think about what actions you as a leader can take to help the person next to you.  

What “commodity” do you value most?

As leaders we have a number of responsibilities and a variety of demands calling for our attention.  In addition, we all have good intentions of getting everything done.  For many of us, it means that our “to do” list is never empty.  Thus, we all have to prioritize and make choices that are going to impact our day, our well being, those around us, and even how we view our success.

How many of us have attended those time management classes, or bought self-help books that promise a 4-hour work week, or get more done in less time, or you can do it all.  Deep down we know that this is not possible. We try multitasking, balancing, delegating, etc.  But, what it comes down to is a basic value statement – what do you value most?  What commodity in your life – time, money, patience, etc. is highest on your list?

We get busy and caught up in the activity of life.  We go from one task to the next.  It seems that our priority is to get things checked off the list.  There are situations where at the end of the day – you may have checked a dozen things off of your “to do” list but you still feel that you did not get anything done.  This is a symptom of focusing on the activity rather than the accomplishment. You have focused on the wrong measurement or gauge to assess your day.  While what you did may have been important or had to get done – it may not have progressed you toward your goals.  

For me – the activity of life was not fulfilling.  I was not growing as a person or a professional.  Yes, it appeared that I was successful and happy.  But, I was spending the most precious of commodities on the wrong thing.  I wasn’t focused on the reasons for my behavior – I was focused on getting things done – thus, not getting the right things done.

Each of us has to ask the question of ourselves and truly be honest – why do you work? Yes, there is the needs part – I have to pay the bills, I have to have a place to live, etc.  But, there is that other part – I have chosen this profession because – I want to make a contribution to ……. Or, I want to be able to …… Or, I want my family to be able to……..  In many cases, we get so caught up in the day-to-day burdens of the job, or what Society says we should be doing – that we don’t have time to make that contribution, or do what fills in the blank.

To me – time is that precious commodity.  It can’t be saved for a rainy day.  It can’t be borrowed against. It can’t be retrieved when it has past.  We have to use it wisely.  We have to choose how we apply it. We have to make sure we are focused on the “right” things.  “First things first” as Covey says.  We need to reflect and get out of the rut of thinking that activity is success and focus on the why of the activity – not just checking it off the list.

So, carefully use some of that precious sand in the hour glass each day to reflect and prioritize.  Close off the rest of the demands for 5 minutes and truly take that time to focus on what is important to you.  Then, set up your to do list – you might find that it gets shorter, and is less activity based.  You may also find that in the end – you achieved more.

Accountability

I just read a short blog about holding yourself accountable.  While it was directed to PR professionals, it is not just PR professionals that face an accountability challenge.  Each and every one of us do – and even if we hold ourselves accountable in one area of our lives – we tend to not do the same in other areas.  Thus, we really need to look at how we got to this point and what can we do to get us out of our current state of lack of accountability.

Blame/Excuses – How many times have you heard this statement “It was not my fault because……”  When we were kids – the imps from Family Circus were to blame for everything “Not me” or “I don’t know.”  We had a set of standard excuses, I couldn’t do this or that because there wasn’t enough time, the teacher did not show me how to do that, they didn’t remind me that the paper was due on Friday, etc.  Today, we can add – the internet was down or there was no reception at this location. 

We have become a society of “it is not my fault.” Or, I am not responsible.  Hooey – someone has to take responsibility.  OK, so the internet was down last night – why did you wait until the last minute to open up the computer to do the assignment or submit the application?  Yes, there are some things beyond our control – the plane was diverted to Helena, Montana when you were going to Denver, Colorado.  But, most of the time the root cause of our problem or failure is because of something we didn’t do or waited to late to do.  We need to think about the “what if’s” and plan ahead better.

We tend to rely on someone else.  It is not your boss’ responsibility to remind you of the deadline for submitting that report to the government is on Tuesday. It is not your boss’ fault that they have told you for two weeks that will be gone on a two week vacation on Monday – and you did not get the signature of approval on the report before they left.  Yes, sometimes it is the boss’ fault when the report sits on their desk for a week, but did you remind them?

Your crisis may not be the most important.  Don’t get angry when the boss or the instructor says too bad when the report is late.  They may have other priorities.  You need to plan ahead.  Recall, your failure does not necessarily create a crisis on my part – I have responsibilities as well.

As individuals – self doubt, worry, and being your own worst critic – become hindrances to productivity.  There is a saying that sometimes we let perfection get in the way of the good or excellent.  Time is an extremely valuable resource.  We don’t have infinite time to get something accomplished.  Yes, we need to turn out good work.  We need to edit, polish, and refine.  But, we shouldn’t hold up others or the project just because you can’t decide whether or not ebony or black is the perfect word for the sentence.

As a society – we have allowed this lack of accountability.  Instructors have accepted late homework.  Clubs and organizations have accepted applications past the deadline.  And, the government continually moves the deadlines to suit their needs.  As individuals, we need to show some leadership and stop sliding down the slippery slope.  Exceptions should be rare and not expected.  Currently, they seem to be the norm.  We need to hold the line on deadlines.  Hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable.  We need to have accountability partners.  We need to maintain the same accountability in all areas of our lives.

“Hope is not a strategy”

This phrase has quickly become cliche’.  But have you ever really thought about, what it is saying?  First let’s look at the entire quote:  “Because ‘change’ is not a destination, just as ‘hope’ is not a strategy.”  This quote was made in a speech by Mayor R. Giuliani in 2008.  Of course it was political in nature, but it has been picked up in the day-to-day business lexicon and is now used at those annual “pick-me up” meetings, stockholder addresses, and in those routine development meetings.  So, let’s use this bit of political sarcasm as a bit of leadership acumen and reflect on exactly what and how we can use it to our personal advantage.

As with most profound statements there is reality, truth and depth.  This is the case here as well.  Let’s take the two parts of the quote – “change is not a destination” and “hope is not a strategy” and examine them.  Both are essentially factual statements.  If you look for Change, USA in Google Maps – you find there is no such location (there is a Change’, France – but I am sure it is not pronounced the same way.)  And, certainly it is clearly understood that the Mayor was not referring to a physical place.  Those of us in the business world know that change is difficult and requires a great deal of planning and work.  So, change for change sake is not worth the resources required nor will it work without a clear vision and destination in mind.  Change is a process, it is used to achieve a goal.  But the goal must be clear, and the benefits must be understood by all if it is to be successful.  People by their vary nature are resistant to change.  “Who moved my Cheese” is an excellent book (and a quick read) if you want to explore the philosophy behind change and how people react to it.

How about the second part of the quote – the one that is getting frequent use?  “Hope is not a strategy.”  A strategy is defined as the science or art of employing/implementing plans or methods to obtain a specific goal or outcome.  For most of us, a strategy has become more of a process by which various action items are framed to achieve a specific goal.  For example:  if the company or organization wants to be the “premiere provider of great stuff”, the strategy is the specific action steps outlined by the organization’s planning group or development team that have been decided based on the available resources (or missing resources) that need to be achieved in order to get to that state (as it was defined by the organization).  Thus, the strategy becomes the guide book for a period of time used to achieve a goal.

So, clearly “hope” is not a strategy as it lacks substance.  It lacks framework.  It does not have actionable parts.  There is nothing to build upon.  It is ephemeral.

Think about all that motivational training you have had over the years.  Those goal setting instructions.  The feel good speeches.  All of them have something in common – they tell you that you can’t achieve your goal without having some sort of plan.  But, what they don’t tell you is “how to define your goal”.   Sure, they say – think about where you want to be in five or  ten years. However, if you are like most people there are two problems with this: 1) you don’t have a clue what the options are and 2) you haven’t even figured out what you want to be when you grow up.

Here is where the word “hope” helps.  If you recall from your Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the box, she let out all kinds of evils, dreads, and despair.  Yet, there was one thing in the box that could counteract these things – hope.  Have you ever looked at the definition of hope?  It is not very concise nor does it truly convey its meaning.  Hope is defined as a feeling that what is wanted can be had.  Not very helpful, yet we all know what hope is.

So, how does hope help?  Think about your hopes.  You may hope that you are going to find a cure for cancer, or hope that you will live comfortably until you are 110 years old, or hope to climb Mt. Everest.  These “hopes” define your aspirations.  They let you dream for the stars.  They are not grounded in the framework of your current situation.  They change your thinking and allow you to define the future.

Hope allows us to see possibilities.  Hope allows us to visualize. Paints the picture – you have to do the rest, set the goals, and develop the plans to get you there. No, “hope is not a strategy” but it helps define the destination.

The Calm before the Storm

Merry Christmas!

During the next 12 days – most of us will be relaxing with family and friends; finishing up those few last minute tasks and doing a bit of clean-up up before January hits with full force.

If your business life is controlled by government regulations – you know that January is typically filled with a host of deadlines and government reporting.  If you are in finance – there are the calendar year reports, W-2s, 1099 Forms, and various quarterly/annual filings.  If you are in environmental – the list is very long.  Safety – there are injury and working hour statistics.  So you know that come January 2 – your “work” life doesn’t slowly come back – it is like hitting the accelerator pedal and it seems to get stuck.

So as leaders – we have to prepare to handle this avalanche of information, reports, tasks, and new year demands  – while at the same time help our colleagues, co-workers, subordinates, and families adjust.  What can we do?

You will find a host of articles discussing the usual – stress busting, get some quality sleep, break down the tasks into smaller action items, etc.  Everything you have heard before.  Some you have already built into your normal routines.  So you are thinking it is time for something different.  (Remember the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome.)

So here are some thoughts that might set you on a different track and increase productivity while helping you balance all of the demands:

1) Ditch the massive daily “to do” list – focus on accomplishing three to four key tasks per day.  I keep a master “to do” list with due dates and sub-tasks.  This master list is reviewed and  updated frequently.  But, my daily “to do” list is written out each evening as I close my day – with only three or four key items.  The makes you set priorities and allows time for interruptions.  It helps to focus. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to accomplish anything on a daily basis – and your “to do” list just seems to grow.  The shorter more focused list – allows you to make progress.

2) Take time for personal growth – even if it is only taking the time to read an inspirational quote.  Even this brief moment provides a bit of a recharge – particularly when you are stressed.  I have found that some quotes or messages seem to come at just the instant you need them.

3) Working longer does not necessarily accomplish anything.  While sometimes this cannot be avoided – you need to be aware that breaks are necessary.  When you are tired, stressed, etc. errors increase and you may find that you have increased your work load rather than improving your situation.  Take breaks or do a different task that  does not require the same mental effort.  For example:  you may do some of that filing or clearing of emails at the end of the day – rather than reviewing the production numbers.

4) Don’t try to implement all your new resolutions at once.  Work on one new habit at a time.  This allows the habit to take shape and mature.  Once it is a habit, it works for you and you can reap the benefits.

When you walk into the office on that day after your holiday vacation take a deep breath, focus and set off to have a wonderful 2014.

‘Tis the Season

December is a time of transition, chaos, stress, etc.  For some businesses – it means year end closings, annual reviews, paperwork, summaries, and goal setting.  For many educational institutions – it means finals, short terms and preparation for the spring session.  For families – it means holidays, family reunions, celebrations, etc.  In general your home life, work life and personal life takes on a surreal appearance.  Time is compressed or expanded to fit the particular situation and you really begin to feel like you live in a different dimension.

This of course results in irritability, stress, competition, forgetfulness, frustration, and maybe a little joy and wonder.  It is a difficult balancing act.  And, this of course doesn’t even figure in the political correctness police.  So, as a leader just how do you handle the various priorities and demands?

My first tip is – don’t wait to the last minute.  If you find yourself in this predicament this year.  Make it a top priority for next year or one of your New Year Resolutions, to not have a year-end pile up.  If you know that the accounts for the year have to be closed on Dec. 31 – start working on getting things lined up in October.  If year-end performance reviews are due in December, think about putting in check-in times throughout the year so these are short and unsurprising meetings.  Set timelines to get the year-end reports started early, so you only have to add in the last few numbers in December.  Make your year-end deadline Thanksgiving, so all you have to do is a bit of clean-up and you can have December to begin to focus on January instead.

OK – it is too late for that – what else can you do?

  • Be understanding – Most everyone is in a similar situation as you are.  Take the time to be polite, smile, and provide a word of encouragement.  Sometimes that is all that is necessary to make a person feel better.
  • Use your favorite stress buster – Go for a walk, enjoy the sights, take a deep breath.  I am sure that you have a stress buster that is your go to.  Use it – getting flustered only makes matters worse.
  • Do something nice for someone else – Studies are finding that this may be more beneficial than we know.  Even just helping someone pick up items that were dropped or pushing the button to the elevator when their hands are full helps both you and the person being helped.  It may be just the pick-me/you up that is needed.
  • Keep your sense of humor – Look for the irony, or humor in the situation.  You may even be able to laugh at yourself.
  • Use words like “please”, “thank you”, and “your welcome”. Manners count.
  • Get some rest.

Leadership begins with yourself.  You will be amazed at how these little things may change the entire atmosphere of your office, home or store.