Leadership Mile-High Club

I’m sitting on the plane, coming home from a short week away with a client. The vantage point from up here is unreal – far out my window I can see the tips of the Rockies, and immediately underneath us the brown earth slides by. Besides the fact that I am continually amazed (and a tiny bit anxious) that I’m flying in a metal tube thousands of feet above the ground, I am in awe of the perspective I get from this height. And the perspective comes not only the vastness of my view, but the fact that I get a brief time-out-of-time from our plugged-in world.

While it is a bit of circumstance that is forcing me to take best advantage of my time in the sky, this ‘white space’ is useful (probably even more so) when I’m in the chaos of my life on the ground.

As a leader, it’s a art and a skill to be able to step above the day-to-day, to be able to both observe and assess what you see happening in your interactions, your team, your company and your career. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky say: “To diagnose a system or yourself while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from those ‘on-the-ground’ events.” This distance and perspective leads to informed action, rather than unconscious reaction.

And you don’t have to be in plane to put these leadership practices in place:

Balcony View: This in-moment perspective requires the ability to observe your interactions, the impact you’re having, and the quality of conversation. Leadership is an everyday practice, and not distinct from strategic business conversations. How you show up in the immediate is what makes up your leadership essence. To have the impact you want means being able to both observe and act simultaneously.

Make it a habit:

  • At the end of every meeting, check in with yourself: did I show up the way I wanted to? What was my leadership impact? How do I know?
  • Check in with the team: how would everyone rate the quality of the conversation? Did we defend and declare or pause and inquire? What worked and didn’t work with how we engaged with each other?

Strategic white space: Ever noticed how one minute your calendar is blissfully empty and the next it’s completely full of meetings, phone calls, operational deadlines? If you’re not intentional about giving yourself some white space – that time away from the day-to-day where you can have a longer-term perspective – your day-to-day time just fills up.

Make it a habit:

  • Book time at least once a quarter to step away from your day-to-day to look more strategically at your leadership and your business. Ask yourself: Am I leading my team in a way that gets the best out of them? What challenges and opportunities do I see on the horizon? What’s it going to take from me and my team to overcome these challenges and seize the opportunities?
  • Check in with your customers: What trends am I seeing in customer expectations? How can we best meet customer needs? How can we stay two-steps ahead of what our customers want?

Periods of complete disengagement:  Self-care is one of the most overlooked leadership advantages. When you are at your best, your team is too… And the reality is as much as you try to convince yourself otherwise, working endless hours, day-in and day-out is not conducive to your best self.

Make it a habit:

  • Take vacations. Even though it can seem pointless – working crazy hours to get ready to leave, and crazy hours to catch up when you’re back – the complete disconnection from work is what allows you to come back with refreshed energy, perspective and mental focus.
  • Turn your e-mail off every once in a while. Companies managed to survive (and even thrive!) before the days of the digital… a few hours of inaccessibility isn’t going to end the world.
  • Spend time doing things you love… and if you looooove work, spend time doing OTHER things you love. Time with family, laughs with friends, adventures in the woods… do things that feed your soul. Then your soul has more to give.

As I start the slow decent into Vancouver, I’m thankful for this reflective time I’ve given myself. Come join me in this leadership mile-high club, take some time-out-of-time to reflect and think – and let me know if it makes a difference for you.

Stop the Circumstantial Drift: Lead with Purpose

Many leaders float through life, coming and going with the tides of circumstance. Time gets away on them, and soon they realize they aren’t in a role that inspires them, and their career has been based on logical and comfortable progression rather than intentional drive and passion. These leaders lead from a place of unconsciousness; having a wishy-washy impact on results and on the people they’re leading. This is leading without purpose.

Sometimes financial need dictates our direction. Other times convenience stands in our way. And more often than not… even when we choose to plead ignorance… we get in our own way of really, truly declaring and going after our dreams.

It takes courage to take a stand for what you want, and sometimes it’s just easier to ride the current rather than dig in and paddle. I know. I’ve been there, and will probably be there again… and again.

So rather than fall prey to circumstantial drift, how about giving yourself some good anchoring? Sit back, take a time-out-of-time and reflect on these questions:

  • What gets you excited in life and in work?
  • What untapped potential have you been shying away from?
  • As a leader, what do you want people to be saying about your character 5 years from now, 10 years from now?
  • What’s keeping you where you are?
  • What risks are you willing to take to get what you want and be even happier than you are now?
  • What first step are you willing to take tomorrow to move you closer to your dreams?

A vision is an anchor point. A place from which directed action occurs. It’s an internal compass – helping to guide decisions and ideas. It gives purpose and meaning to our work and leadership.

My litmus test for a vision (personal or corporate) is whether or not you can answer positively to these three questions (The 3 Cs):

  • Is it clear? Can you say, without a doubt, where you’re heading?
  • Is it concise? Can you remember it? Does it make sense?
  • Is it compelling? Does it guide your decisions and actions? Does it “grab” you and inspire you?

While these questions may seem a tad fluff, I can tell you that the clearer you are in the difference you want to make the more likely you are to make it. And from a leadership perspective, when you lead with intention, courage and clarity, people are more likely to want to be around you.

Bring some discipline of thought and passion to your own leadership. I dare you to lead with purpose… You may be surprised at what you come up with.

Stress Response-Ability: Beyond Fight-or-Flight

About eight years ago my life went through a bit of an upheaval. I was in the middle of a demanding Masters program, I was working in a job that really wasn’t fulfilling, I was in a relationship that had an uncertain future, and I was in that “phase” of life where I was questioning everything.

My stress was high and my resilience was low. Let me tell you, it was not a winning combo.  Despite my type-A, success-at-all-cost mentality, my body shut down. Stress was oozing from any available outlet. Meanwhile, my b*tch-of-an-inner-critic was saying: “get it together,” “you’re stronger than this,” “successful people don’t break down!” (Doesn’t she just say all the right things?)

With so many changes (real and potential) going on, my mental and emotional capacity was tapped out. I was at my max. And, what I’ve realized is that I’m not alone. Stress isn’t something we casually talk about… especially as a leader. It has a stigma, and can be seen as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. Though I can tell you, I’m stronger now for having lived through and experienced that low point.

The truth is, stress is real and it’s everywhere – at work, at home, between work and home… With our current world, some say we might even have a stress epidemic on our hands: leaving people with an out-of-control feeling more often than not. But what we do have influence and control over is growing our capacity and resilience to deal with it.

Physiologically, we are wired to respond to threats with our automatic stress reaction of “fight, flight or freeze” – a response that is very useful in predator-prey situation, not so useful in a corporate office.

In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world-renowned expert and teacher on mindfulness-based stress reduction, says that rather than falling victim to our stress reaction, we can develop adaptive strategies for coping: “you do not have to go the route of fight-or-flight reaction nor the route of helplessness every time you are stressed. You can actually choose not to.” Simply by bringing in mindfulness, or moment-to-moment awareness to what happens to us when we are stressed we reduce the strong-hold that our stress reaction can have on us.

When we’re in the grip of stress, we’re not at our best. And as a leader, when you’re not at your best, your team can suffer.

So what can you do? Start with simply noticing.

  • What is it that triggers a stress reaction in you?
  • What is your “typical” full-out stress reaction?
  • Can you pay attention to the subtle cues that are the start of the downward spiral of stress?
  • What can you do to re-calibrate and re-energize?

When I get that antsy, anxious flutter in my tummy, I know it’s time to hit the woods on my bike and get grounded. It fills up my tank emotionally, physically and mentally, and gives me the re-fresh I need to face the challenges that are part of life and leadership.

What are your stories around stress? What’s your re-fresh routine? Do you have one?

Don’t Be Blinded: Seeing Opportunity in Blind Spots

It might be the fact that Mary jumps in to finish peoples’ sentences, or John has an incessant need to be right… Maybe David lacks follow-through or Sarah’s cutthroat mentality leaves her employees wounded. Blind spots. We all have them – those personality quirks (or full-on flaws) that are obvious to everyone but us. And, the truth is, when we discover them, they can be… well, blinding. It takes vulnerability to uncover them and courage to point them out to others.

In Fearless Leadership, Loretta Malandro says “most successful leaders are unaware of two things: (1) the impact of their blind spots on others and (2) the degree to which others work around them and avoid confronting the real issues.” Organizational potential gets strangled because of these blind spots.

And though the interpersonal outcomes of a leader’s blind spot can be weighty, the thing to remember is these behaviors are usually sub-conscious, resulting in unintended impacts. Where leaders do get into trouble is in:

  • Not getting curious about their blind spots
  • Ignoring them altogether
  • Thinking they are immune, and have none
  • Immediately dismissing feedback that highlights a potential blind spot.

Let’s get real… a blind spot isn’t a blind spot anymore if you know about it already but choose to ignore it… That’s just leadership carelessness. Even if the feedback shocks you beyond belief, take it as a cue to pause, take a deep breath, and look for the part that is true – even if it’s only 2%. The choice is yours. Once uncovered, a blind spot is information that can help you up your game – you can wallow in self-pity, or look for the opportunity (easier said than done, I know!). Just know you’re not alone. We all have them. And, if you think you don’t have any… think again. There’s your blind spot.

Some common leadership blind spots or pitfalls that I’ve come across (caveat: more often than not, these are not conscious, intended behaviors, but rather unconscious, unproductive habits):

  • Needing to be right: When you need to be right, someone needs to be wrong. This winner-loser mindset really is a no-win game.
  • Thinking you have all the answers: Being the go-to answer-guy is seductive, but the unintended impact of this blind spot is stifling others growth.
  • Quick to say No: Saying “No Way” or bringing a negative mindset to everything instead of exploring possibilities is a sure fire way of getting people to work around you. Let’s face it; no one likes a constant Debbie-Downer.
  • Not really listening: While you might be in the same room as someone, your mind wanders to other places or you re-direct the conversation back your way (a move I call the “Back To Me” (BTM)). The unintended impact? Others feel insignificant. (Read Mobilize Strategies great post on Listening).
  • Having an inflated sense of self: Leading from a place of ego leaves little to no room for learning. The impacts of this grandiose sense of self are that people may shut down and stop collaborating with you. Ego can break a team.
  • Being unaware of your impact: The mother-of-all blind spots, you’re either too “busy” to notice, unable to read others, or just don’t care how you’re impacting your colleagues. This blind spot leaves others thinking you’re cavalier and insensitive. Don’t be surprised if people start avoiding you.

If any of these strike a nerve or get you thinking… it may be time to explore what blind spots might be getting in your way.

e-musings leadership tips on uncovering blind spots:

  • Seek feedback often – the good, the bad and the ugly
  • When you learn about a blind spot, slow down, get curious and find the grain (or boulder!) of truth in it
  • If you notice a potential blind spot in a colleague, help to enable their success by:
    • Asking if they are open to hearing some feedback
    • Being as specific as you can – what behavior do you notice and what is the impact (on the team, on results, etc…)
    • Getting curious and helping them process the information

Any comments or stories to share? Have you ever been blinded by a blind spot? How did you work through it?

The Marble in A Field of Grass – Learning from Mistakes

Have you ever had that icky feeling that comes when you know you’ve made a mistake? A beautiful concoction of anxiety, guilt, shame, humility and anger – at least this is typically what shows up in my cocktail. Mistakes happen – systems issues, process slips, political misjudgments, interpersonal breakdowns… And it’s never easy.

We hear it all the time: the best learning comes from mistakes. And when we fail to learn from mistakes, failure sets in. But trying to glean that learning is a bit like trying to find a marble in a field of grass that hasn’t been mowed in a month… when you’re IN it, it sucks.

Last week I made a mistake, an interpersonal mess actually, and I am reminded of how critical that moment is: once the realization hits that you could have and should have done something differently. This moment-in-time is the proverbial fork in the road. It’s the choice point between truly embracing a learner mindset or going straight downhill towards the sh*t-pit.

And let me tell you, the sh*t-pit is no fun. It’s filled with self-doubt, blame and shame – all mindsets that actually inhibit learning… so if we really want to glean the learning, it starts with giving yourself some grace… to be vulnerable and courageous enough to admit it, digest it and learn from it.

And what does this mean for leadership?

As a leader you have the ability to shape that learning moment for your employees. It’s also a choice point for you. Will you jump to blame or judgment, or will you pause and inquire to help facilitate the learning? (And, by the way, “Why did you do that?” isn’t true inquiry… it’s judgment disguised as a question!).

A miss I commonly see with leaders is not giving the time required to debrief mistakes… thinking that asking “what would you do differently next time?” is enough. To truly deepen the learning, and build competence and resilience, takes asking some powerful questions. These are questions that serve to deepen awareness and advance learning, questions like:

  • What is it like for you to have made this mistake?
  • What are the impacts – good and bad of having made this mistake?
  • Tell me about the learning you’re doing as a result of this mistake.
  • Where else might this learning relevant for you?

Mistakes can be a breeding ground for learning. It starts with getting curious and asking the right questions.

Where have you learned from mistakes? Any stories to share?

e-musings resource suggestion:

  • Change Your Questions, Change Your Life by Marilee Adams. This book highlights the power of bringing curiosity into relationships – with others and with yourself. Marilee’s method, called QuestionsThinking is a way to ask the right questions, leading to better results and better relationships.