Monday, December 31, 2007

Taking the Long View in an Unpredictable World: Chess Mastery Helps

Living in a developed country where the pace of change seems too fast can lull us into the illusion of progress. With the advantage of hindsight, change is chaotic and non-linear and often very slow in coming.

We are, in reality, just specks in the sand in the long course of human history. So, global events remind us such as Pakistan’s situation. Mahatma Gandhi fought his entire adult life for India to be owned and governed by Indians peaceably and together. The result was not what he imagined.

He envisioned a whole not a partitioned India. Almost 60 years since his untimely death, the decisions made then to divide India into two parts, reverberate today. Given Benazir Bhutto’s recent assassination and the stark contrast between Pakistan’s progress versus India’s, Gandhi’s long view appears to have had more merit as a possible sustainable option. We’ll never know. But one thing is for sure: one lifetime is not enough to celebrate progress in that part of the world.

Another thing stands out: leaders who see the whole, as a chess master does, stand a better chance of making good decisions that have few unintended consequences. That’s a big order in this complex world in which we live but it is the only way to proceed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is Optimism Ever Uncool in a Leader?

Some people get downright grumpy when they walk into a room where everyone looks happy. Or, they become wary. Maybe it’s that such apparent happiness is not a true reflection of life, in general, and certainly not that of a leader or manager. On the contrary it’s often full of one issue after another, too much to do, too little time, too many interruptions and the stress of dealing with the strange behaviours of others. If suddenly faced with smiles and laughter in large quantities all at once, for example, at a cocktail party, a leader might find it difficult to adjust.

What should one do? No one appreciates having their fun dampened or being fooled by hollow happiness. Neither do most of us feel comfortable with a leader who rarely shares her emotions and thoughts or who seems always to look at the world through rose coloured glasses. It can put us on edge and ill at ease in their presence. The conversation may never go beyond the superficial as the dance of unreality keeps the gate to rewarding conversation firmly closed.

What lurks in the background is resonance with reality. Otherwise, optimism is “uncool”. As the emotional intelligence research tells us, a leader’s mood matters. An optimistic attitude is infectious helping others around him see tough situations in a more positive light. The caveat however is this: optimism is better accepted if it is balanced by the right kind and level of truth-telling. In effect, having a better way of explaining bad events than the perennial pessimist builds leadership effectiveness!

If faced with a choice, optimism is a better route to go even if as a manager and leader you have to work hard at not being negative. That means viewing bad events as external rather than personal, temporary rather than permanent and specific not pervasive. The skill of optimism, based in reality, can grow with practice.

One way to demonstrate optimism is through subtle changes in expressions that project more powerfully a positive rather than a negative or weak attitude. Here are some examples from George Walther’s work on “power talking” with the stronger phraseology on the right:

Projecting Positive Expectations:
“I’ll have to.” versus “I’ll be glad to.”
“This is impossible,” versus “This can be done.”

Rebounding Resiliently
“I failed.” versus “I learned.”
“If only I had…” versus “Starting now, I will.”

Accepting Responsibility
“I can’t help it. It’s the other guy’s fault.” versus “It’s my responsibility.”
“This is not practical. It won’t work.” versus “Let’s give it a chance.”

These are not naïve statements but ones full of hope aimed at creating something better and spurring us on to solution-finding actions. They are saying yes to life and no to darkness. This is “cool” for leaders.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Stillness amidst the "tribe"

I watched the great actor Ben Kingsley respond to a young aspiring actor’s question as to how to hold in his impatience. Ben evoked the metaphor of a tribe and that actors are like hunters. Eager to use their bow and arrows in pursuit of the hunt. Eager to get going.

But Ben counselled that a good mentor, knowing that the actor is not quite ready for the stage, would only give him an arrow with no bow or a bow with no arrow. Then, one day when he no longer asked, when he did not have the compulsion to ask, the mentor would finally give them to him.

In Ben’s view, an actor must honour the “tribe’s” code of conduct and its traditions for developing hunter-leaders. Some things take time. There are many lessons to be learned. Be patient. Be still.

Stillness, he contends, is a pre-requisite to graduation as it illuminates the lessons to be learned. It enables an actor in training to “empty his cup”. In Joseph Parent’s book Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game, he explains:

The empty cup approach doesn’t mean giving up your intelligence and following blindly. The point is to receive everything that is taught in an open way, withholding judgment about it until you’ve tried for awhile. Try your best to understand what is being communicated, then give it a fair chance to see if it works for you.

Parent continues with a great Zen Master’s saying:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Thus, the beginner’s mind is like an empty cup---open, empty of preconceptions, inquisitive, receptive and ready to engage.

In essence, “being still”, can make your mind bigger, no matter who you are…actor, leader, parent, front line worker… Your field of vision widens. You literally see more and connect more directly to the experience at hand.

The newspapers are full of unsettling stories of the failings of some experts. Those whom we have put our faith in to make good decisions about complex matters. When the full stories emerge, it is quite clear that their cups had dirt in them, muddying and distorting what they heard to fit their preconceived ideas and opinions. Thus, “being still” and having an “empty cup” applies as much to experts as novices.

It is a privilege to be a leader and no small task to live up to the ideal of great leadership. No one wants to create disasters. An empty and still mind can help offset any potential bad turns in the road.

In Parent’s words:

Bigger space. Bigger mind. Bigger mind. Better results.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The H.O.A.G. Leadership Factor: How Much Does This Count for Hillary Clinton?

As reported in one newspaper, Mark Grimes, a Toronto City Councilor is a H.O.A.G. (a hell of a "guy"). Judging from what is written about Stephane Dion, Canada’s official leader of the opposition, he has a little of the H.O.A.G. factor—just a whiff. Our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, comes across in the media commentary as a cold, authoritarian leader. He does not make the grade as a H.O.A.G. George Bush probably does as well as former President Bill Clinton and former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. But, alas, the polls for Hillary Clinton suggest she’s got some work to do in that area. Does this really matter?

The term registered on my radar a few weeks ago when reading about the latest political skirmishes and accomplishments. A H.O.A. G. is a person (a leader in this context) with whom you’d enjoy “having a beer with”. I take it that this means having a “down to earth” aura or “vibe” that enables others to relax and swap stories and opinions with you. To gain this distinction as a leader, your track record precedes you. Your actions, deeds and way of relating combine to give you a “H.O.A.G.” rating. In matters of voting for a candidate, this “feeling” can matter.

Let’s consider Senator Clinton. About 56 per cent of women favor Hillary, according to recent polls. Yet, only 22 per cent have made up their minds. When asked, people have a hard time articulating why they do or do not like her. The answer from a woman from Coral Gables, Florida captures the ambivalence and hard to put into words conundrum: “I admire her and I think she is well-qualified, but she lacks heart”.

Well, that’s a little drastic but maybe she’s on to something. Many leadership and management researchers speak of “emotional leadership” as counting for up to 90 per cent of success: the ability to relate to others and much more. Now embodied in the term “emotional intelligence”, and made famous by Daniel Goleman, it is becoming an assessment factor in recruiting and a developmental strategy in coaching leaders to become more effective. An amalgam of many “competencies”, there are four main categories with multiple capabilities within:

Relationship management

If we imagined Hillary taking the EIQ test, what might her results be based on what we perceive from a distance? Here’s an estimate on my part:

Self-awareness---reading one’s own emotions and recognizing their impact; using “gut sense” to guide decisions; knowing one’s strengths and limits; a sound sense of one’s self worth and abilities: B minus

Self-management--- emotional self-control, displaying honesty and integrity, flexibility in adapting to changing situations, drive to improve performance to meet inner standards of excellence, initiative or readiness to act and seize opportunities, optimism: A

Social Awareness---empathy or sensing others’ emotions, understanding their perspective and taking an active interest in their concerns: C

Relationship Management---guiding and motivating with a compelling vision, wielding a range of tactics for persuasion, bolstering others’ abilities through feedback and guidance, initiating, leading and managing in a new direction, resolving disagreements, cultivating and maintaining a web of relationships, cooperation and teamwork: B minus

This quick and very unscientific analysis reveals that Hillary is tough, smart and very reliable. She’s got substance, an extremely important leadership skill. She keeps her emotions tightly in check (an attribute under stressful situations). But, that emotional connection with others is tenuous. Husband Bill wins hands down in that area. It is this that likely explains why Hillary would not easily meet the H.O.A.G. “standard”.

The reality is that leaders’ emotional states are contagious, especially cheerfulness and warmth. In Goleman’s Primal Leadership book, he describes the findings of a Yale University School of Management study: “among working groups, cheerfulness and warmth spread more easily, while irritability is less contagious and depression spreads hardly at all”. The researchers concluded that “upbeat moods boost cooperation, fairness and business performance”.

Underlying the “contagion” of a leader’s positive emotional state is passion and enthusiasm. This is where the H.O.A.G factor and charisma meet. So, I return to an earlier theme: if a leader is passionate about a cause, people naturally gravitate to them and are inspired when in their company. This is the trim tab for Hillary, Stephane Dion, Stephen Harper and any person wanting to make a difference in a leadership capacity.

For Hillary to translate the undecided voters in her direction, showing her heart to others in a more fulsome way through her “cause” will be a huge step in the right direction. It’s time for Senator Clinton to rev up her warmth index. The years of political intrigue and deception by her challengers have likely made her wary. Understandable. But, not to do so, to hold back on her ability to connect on an emotional level, to not show her compassion for a cause, gives Hillary’s opponents the advantage.

These are lessons for all of us wanting to be stronger leaders.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

California Burned: Advantage Arnie

One thing is for sure. We’re in an era of disasters, many of which are due to urban sprawl and people in places that nature reclaims as its own on a predictable basis. You’d think we’d learn.

But Calgary journalist Chris Turner writes in his uplifting book, The Geography of Hope, we do learn and its time to dream rather than despair. His book is chock full of little stories where people all over the world take the environmental challenge seriously and have come up with all manner of ways to align with Mother Earth or Gaia. They are leaders working on a small scale who believe every individual effort makes a difference and in the long run will make a big difference. They are here in Canada, in Ontario, as much as elsewhere.

History tells us that eventually, a leader positioned to influence policy to find workable solutions meets up with the little “guys”. Could this be the case right now for Arnold Schwarzenegger? He’s astute enough to understand the power of timing: act while “the iron is hot” so to speak.

Long ago, Arnie claimed that the environment was not about the left or the right on the political spectrum. “What works” is more his mantra. Under his leadership, California has instituted advanced policies and programs to assist in stemming the tide of global warming such as those related to carbon emissions. Now he’s faced with another facet: people who are in harm’s way because of not balancing the natural habitat with development.

This is a battle faced in all developed and developing areas of the world every day. The direction that results depends on leadership, for better or worse. Smart local leaders attuned to what’s right not what’s left or right combined with wise and courageous regional leaders are a powerful force.

Because Governor Schwarzenegger is highly goal-oriented and experienced in achieving what the majority think is impossible, I’m betting that he will astonish us with actions that clearly put public safety first. That will mean collaborating with the different factions to protect the natural habitat where it makes sense to do so and make it easy and desirable for developers to build communities that reduce people’s vulnerability.

As Turner says, inventors, investors, visionaries, pioneers and capitalists in all parts of the world are the pace-setters in a sustainability movement that is far ahead of policy. It would be very satisfying to see California under Arnie’s leadership narrowing the gap between policy and pace. It would be an admirable and significant contribution to the nascent sustainability age.

Monday, October 01, 2007

When You're in a Leadership "Swamp", Rally Your Fourth Order of Consciousness

Malcolm Gladwell author of Blink and The Tipping Point rightly contends that workforces 20 to 30 years from now will have to be cognitively smarter to meet the challenges of complexity. He uses the term “thoughtful”. Ronald Heifetz at Harvard prefers the term “fourth consciousness” particularly for those who lead. MIT’s Peter Senge and others in the leadership development business have championed this for decades under the names, “systems thinking” and “learning organizations”.

Since “swamp” issues now predominate the leadership agenda, that is, ones with no quick technical fixes, leaders being able to connect the dots in their respective complex systems will find the way to success. Call it better “seeing”.

To put this into more concrete form, consider the education “system”. A recent report from The McKinsey Group (Consistently High Performance Lessons from the World’s Top-Performing Systems) provides insight into strengthening any system. The following is the top line:

Focus on a small number of critical, ambitious goals
Invest in quality teachers,
Be transparent in sharing and tracking the results
Intervene early when performance is stagnant
Avoid major distractions (from the priorities)

These lessons, which one could argue persuasively are universal for any complex system, were drawn from the efforts of the leaders, researchers and individual contributors in places such as Finland, Singapore, Alberta, Ontario, South Korea and Hong Kong.

At first glance, it looks like good planning and execution. But, in reality, this is at a level of complexity that is not easy for leaders to grasp, see, untangle and shape into a workable road map. As Heifetz asserts, leaders must be able to work skillfully between being “on the balcony” and the “dance floor”, deftly avoiding unexamined assumptions and the blindness of conventional wisdom. Sherlock Holmes used to say, “if a clue does not fit the theory, throw away the theory, not the fact.” Considerable detective work separates the “wheat from the chaff”.

In a constellation of multiple, ever-shifting interdependent ecosystems, the leverage points (patterns amongst the chaos) are not obvious. Major cognitive and emotional effort by leaders with their workforces is necessary to “see” how all the dots are connected. It’s less about power, persuasion and personality than the capacity to deal with the unknown, the “swampy” issues that create havoc with what’s known.

To govern and lead in today’s and tomorrow’s “vast net of relationships”, Heifetz invites leaders to “get out of their minds” into a fourth dimension: “thinking about their own thinking”.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Find Your Charisma with a Cause That Makes a Bigger "You" Show Up

Charisma, that ethereal and desirable quality of effective leadership, is not easy to come by, so goes conventional wisdom. Many believe, “you either have it or you don’t”. Black or white.

But, here’s another take on the subject: passionate leaders who are fuelled by a “cause” do emanate a charm and a light that people pay attention to. That lightness of being, so to speak, provided it is directed at the common good, can be characterized as “charisma”. Following this reasoning, the quality is more possible for a greater number of us than conventional wisdom implies.

The idea is easily applied to well-known historical figures such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa. More recently we’ve come to know about William Wilberforce through the book and movie Amazing Grace. Over 20 years he campaigned tirelessly to end British slave trade and did so in 1807. No one would disagree that these leaders were driven by a cause. Without the cause, where would they be in our collective psyche? Likely much diminished.

In time, historians will count a number of contemporary leaders as “charismatic” because of a cause beyond themselves. Their relentless focus on a specific problem to be resolved, despite the odds stacked against them, will be increasingly compelling for influential decision makers to support. Examples include Stephen Lewis in his tireless campaign to prevent, treat and reduce AIDs in Africa; Romeo Dallaire with his pursuit of justice and peace for Rawanda and David Suzuki for soldiering on about the environment over his professional lifetime and not skipping a beat when Al Gore gets more press coverage.

We are fortunate to be inspired by such leaders. Ultimately, all are cause-driven. It is at the core of their being. As ethicist Margaret Somerville from McGill University emphasizes, “deep integrity, sensibility, compassion, caring and courage” are some of the vital characteristics that distinguish them as leaders.

Throughout history, such leadership is better known locally than widely—this is the nature of the media and our human evolution. There are more unsung “heroes” who strive to make our communities and organizations better places to be than those written up in our various media channels. Being famous, however, is irrelevant in the context of cause-driven leadership.

Imagine if more of us took a deeper look then at why we exist, what our purpose is? Mediocrity would have a hard time existing, finding itself trumped by greatness at every turn!

Henry-David Thoreau mused in his famous essay, Civil Disobedience that it doesn’t matter how small the beginning for a cause. He exclaimed: “What is done well is done forever”.

Let’s take Thoreau on and allow our “bigger selves” to show up in our workplaces. Some great results will follow.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bullying: The Silent Epidemic that Too Few Know How to Or Want to Handle

Since 9/11, the insanity of rage, blame and retaliation lurks more acutely in the background of our lives, personally and professionally. The perpetual wars against terror, large and small, permeate civil discourse too often at the expense of the things that really matter. Sporadic or chronic “wars” in the workplace add to the aura of an era of discontent fed by terrorism and its ripple effect: more rules and regulations, less trust, more conflict.

It’s hard to get away from “bad behaviour” when it dominates the media. Atrocities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Dafur, roving gangs in cities and gun-totting unhappy young men wreaking havoc in places of learning overshadow the issues and challenges of life lived locally. The statisticians remind us though that violence generally is not increasing and democratically governed countries continue to spread around the world.

But, that truth fades when in our every day existence we encounter “bullying” behaviour. The world might be getting more peaceful, but what does one do when another is far from being empathetic? Nasty’s a better word. Most of us are not well-prepared to work around what kids call “meanies”.

Being female, and having had a few vivid altercations with bullies, I have been inclined to view bullying as a male to female issue more so than vice versa. Women have figured in my archives but I have buried those incidents as wild cards.

So, when I came across by chance a surprising statistic from a 2006 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, I couldn’t help let out a weary sigh for my gender. Are we being affected adversely by our current era of discontent or is this all part of the journey of life, so, “get real”.

Of the 2,900 workers in the United States who were surveyed, 41 percent reported having experienced some sort of psychological aggression at work. But the zinger for me was that women said their aggressors were more likely to be women than men. Unfortunately, I’ve been hearing too many such stories of late during the course of my work. Is it time to open my eyes? It will be difficult because I have a much more visceral reaction to women taking out their frustrations on other women than I do men.

Idealism is the culprit. I keep holding on to a naive view about women: that we should, as a matter of principle, try mightily to support and mentor each other. It’s driven by a belief, whether right or wrong, that we need to stick together to realize our potential both individually and as a group. We are, in my opinion, in a different position than men, still in the early stages within our relatively young democratic society, of learning “the ropes” of and finding our rightful place in organizational life.

Well, it’s time to let go of idealism. As leaders, we women face the same personal development issues as men. We must learn how to wend our way through the politics of any workplace and the volatility of human relationships. Dealing with bullies/not being a bully is a necessary part of creating healthier workplaces and societies. Sometimes we’ve got to be “hard-nosed”: when we encounter bullies, bury our fears, confusion and guilt and draw the line in the sand on bad behaviour. Not allowed! On the other hand, to avoid ever being a bully, resist judging others, be guided by giving people the benefit of the doubt, and work hard at upping our empathy “IQ”. The latter requires practice.

Winnie, my husband’s mother was a gracious lady. She had sayings about life everywhere in her home. Every day, she read a passage from a booklet of inspirational thoughts. On her death, we inherited her “do-dads”. One of them is in full view in our kitchen: “put sugar in what you say and salt in what you hear”. A good rule of thumb for leaders to quell any possible bullying epidemic in their organizations.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The "Secret": More Than Positive Thinking

In that scarcely a week goes by without a product recall, most notably from China these days, risk management continues to be an “in your face” discipline for leaders, best done daily not occasionally. This is fodder for pessimists (“I told you so.”). For those more positively inclined, a “this did not need to happen attitude” may still prevail. Who is right here? Is the cult of positive thinking losing its credibility? How does this relate to the way a leader needs to think?

We had an intense family discussion about the power of positive thinking recently. While we agreed that visualizing a positive future was better than not, we got stuck at how to deal with the present. When today is a long way from the desired future, it doesn’t feel very good and the way forward is not always easy to “see”. Positive thinking alone just doesn’t seem to be enough despite the perpetual popularity of books on the subject, like The Secret.

Taking a wider view provides a clue. What works is the creative tension of the yin and yang, the positive and the negative, the optimism and the pessimism. We do it all the time in strategic planning: envision the future and undertake a reality check on the present to guide strategy. The desired future provides a framework for action.

That’s the theory. In practice, inspiring the hearts and minds of people, and having a smart vision and strategy are huge feats.

But, it’s all in how leaders go about it that counts: good dialogue with the right stakeholders determines the power of the plan. The wisdom of the crowd versus the folly of the potential single mindedness of the few. Tapping into the latent strengths of an organization instead of just dwelling on what’s wrong.

The picture of success becomes imbedded in many minds. Getting there is a constant process of experimentation. Even the vision has to be re-examined frequently, as the complexity of the world does not permit sitting on one’s laurels.

In many ways, the notion of positive thinking is a bit of a mystery because it’s not all logical and concrete. Rather, it is both integrative as well as analytical. The proliferating field of brain research underscores this dynamic to guide smart thinking. For example, this summer’s Journal of Neuroscience reports that “free will” and “free won’t” are located in separate areas of our brains: springing into action (following the vision) or hesitating while considering the situation further play off each other. They each require attention.

Robert Quinn in Building the Bridge as You Walk on It prefers the term “grounded vision”, that is, a positive future grounded in lived experience. It is “constructively optimistic” and, at the same time, “realistic and analytic”. Philosophers such as Thomas Merton explain this as “integrating reflection and contemplation with engagement in the realities of life”. A core skill is to ask the right questions and in so doing enter “a state of active creation”.

The book The Secret, and those before it, appeal to the deeper creative side of ourselves, a must for any leader, manager or individual contributor. The concept of possibility invites the reader to move out of his comfort zone and feel, believe, commit to and take action in the absence of 100% hard data. Positive thinking is a leap of faith but it is incomplete without telling the truth about the lived experience of today. Acceptance of the current reality anchors the vision.

In Quinn’s view, “reality without vision destroys possibility; vision without reality destroys credibility”. That the secret.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Stressing Down the Work Environment: The "Tea Mind"

This is the one time of year that the season helps us easily get in touch with our natural selves. Many people taking vacation, being enveloped in the beauty of the outdoors and its calming capacity. All of us feeling just a little less perpetually stressed because of the opportunity to take a break.

If only we could reproduce that feeling of being relaxed and less in emotional turmoil more regularly in the work environment. The Japanese call this the “tea mind”, Zen-like in its awareness, at rest with clear attention to the moment, seeing things freshly. Those who meditate regularly would know very well what this feels like.

There is no shortage of data reinforcing the stressfulness of the work environment. Research from Linda Duxbury at Carlton University and Chris Higgins from the University of Western Ontario clearly points the finger at overload: balancing family with work demands. Middle managers are particularly burdened. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile blames the trap of time pressure that builds over the week. Her research demonstrates that creativity takes a nose dive due to “pressure hangovers”.

To offset the tread mill of time pressure, Amabile recommends strategies that help the “tea mind” flourish, similar to what happens when we take a relaxing vacation. She encourages “ruthlessly guarding protected blocks of the work week” for individual reflection. To work, this shielding of self and staff from distractions and interruptions must be an accepted norm.

The surrendering to the present, “mindfulness” in meditation terminology, releases emotional build ups. In turn, it enables our inner worlds, our inner wisdom to be more available to us.

Toronto’s Poet Laureate, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, who “walks the talk” on mindfulness, expresses the value of the “tea mind” by comparing it to the need for oxygen. “You can’t live without oxygen; nor can you live without primal human reflection.” The impact when we return to being with others is powerful.

In Di Cicco’s words, these generate “compassionate moments” in any “civic interaction”. They are “authentic moments”.

Good for everyone!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Patience Wearing Thin: Too Many Preventable Crises

Here we go again: more infrastructure crises that need not have happened. This week’s collapse of a major bridge in Minnesota is becoming a recurring nightmare about public safety. The pattern is all too familiar. Somewhere along the line, leaders in key positions have made decisions, or passed on making decisions that would have prevented catastrophe.

It’s not as if there is a lack of solid data. Just as with the Katrina crisis, a prior report by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ was dusted off and re-read in the new context. There was the stark warning in its 2005 report: considerable “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” infrastructure, including the Minnesota bridge. That’s hard to take when people lose their lives.

In fairness, our political leaders must choose from a multitude of competing priorities. They suffer from constant information overload as they wade through reports from credible sources. Many of their decisions no doubt do prevent crises. However, this priority area on roads, bridges, dams, water and sewer pipes, etc., is getting ahead of them. The short term and the long term are not in synch.

One author in the newspapers suggested that the engineers aren’t good at lobbying. Whether that’s a fact is beside the point. Does it have to boil down to whom is better at lobbying than another?

In our complex world, perhaps this is a reality for leaders. Leading up (read “lobbying”) is a fact of life and a skill to be honed. As Michael Useem asserts in Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, upward leadership assures that advice arrives from all points of the compass.

In case after case, Useem demonstrates that leaders’ coaching the leaders above to ‘macro think’ “transforms incipient disaster into shining triumph”. Great navigation skills are essential to ensure that the responsibility for leading up does not end up a career-limiting exercise in frustration. Thus, thoughtful leadership attentive to the process is a must. As the Spanish ambassador to Tehran said during the 1979 hostage crisis following the Iranian Revolution: “Patience is a bitter cup that only the strong can drink.”

Friday, July 27, 2007

As in Golf So in Management: A Mind Up to Speed With the "Game"

After a thrilling British Open in which Ireland’s Padraig Hamilton outwitted Sergio Garcia, we’re awed again by Hunter Mahan’s opening round of 62 at the Canadian Open. While most of us are content to boast a hole-in-one once in our amateur golf careers, Hunter racked up three eagles in a game. He attributes his current round of success with improvements to his mind. In his words: “My mind is kinda catching up to my game.”

Based on the post British Open tournament press interviews, we can conclude Padraig gets it, Sergio, not yet. The latter blamed divine intervention for his almost win. Padraig stuck to hard work, some mental toughness when the chips were down and mental agility along the way. Lots of humility there.

In golf, so in managing and leading in the truest sense. The “game” is as much about “feel” as technique. It is not behaviour modification, such as “I must do active listening more”. It is a deeper sense of how you think and learn, how others do and making the link accordingly. Educators call it “deep learning”. Very much akin to the journey from novice to expert. This is no easy task.

The reality in today’s work environment is sobering. In 30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers, based on the opinions of 50,000 employees in Canada and the United States, Bruce Katcher cites a litany of employee woes about managers:
-don’t listen
-don’t respect us
-don’t appreciate us
-don’t give us enough authority
-will punish us if we make unpopular suggestions

All of these laments are solvable if managers better understand their own minds. To be at the top of their games, pro golfers practice “deliberate learning”. That is, they practice self-observation and feedback followed by practice based on their new insights. The discipline of constant improvement, a deep learning process, is understood as vital to being at the top of their game more often than not. Deliberate practice is essential to great management too.

Note, it’s not technique only or the tasks at hand. It’s about relationship. If you begin to see the world from another’s point of view and you accept it, as a starting point, without judgment, you are on your way to learning and improving. Top pro golfers and other elite athletes fight first with themselves to raise the bar on performance. So relationship with self, in the context of management, is as crucial as relationship with others.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sophocles to Conrad Black: Wish We'd Had a Chat

The contrast in leadership stories was hard to miss. Toronto’s Ed Mirvish, who dubbed himself, “Honest Ed” was described as “an icon who never put himself on a pedestal” and whose kindness to people, especially new immigrants to the city, gave them a sense of dignity and belonging. The adjectives for Conrad Black ran the gamut of arrogant, an inflated sense of entitlement and a disdain for anyone who put obstacles in his way.

Who would you rather be as a leader, let alone a person in this world? Conrad has gotten himself into a mighty mess. Too bad he didn’t take some of Sophocles’ wisdom to heart.

One of the greatest hazards for leaders, according to Sophocles, is the suppression of dialogue with knowledgeable and concerned people around them. In the play Antigone, Sophocles drives home the message that a tough task for all leaders is to resist their own instincts and commitments. In that leaders often face a messy and chaotic combination of feelings, thoughts, facts and analyses to sift through, Sophocles recommends good deliberation. That should include a clear examination of history and a sensible assessment of the consequences if certain actions are taken. Sophocles underscores that the exercise is not an individual but a communal one.

He pushes his point further: Listening is not enough. That which prevents going down dangerous roads is a deep regard for people.

Much will be written in the days ahead as to why and how Conrad Black shot himself in the foot with his own personality. These are the mysteries of life. Only Lord Black really knows. That’s why self-awareness is a lifelong challenge in developing leadership effectiveness.

See the books by Joseph L. Badaracco’s Questions of Character and Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth for more insight.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Preparing for the Unexpected: A Deep Dive in Disaster Management

After three days immersed in the views of disaster management specialists, I’m ready to cocoon. They’ve got me convinced we should prepare better for the unexpected. But, what a lot of work! Business impact analysis (BIA) and all that flows from it is no easy task.

It’s an important part of leading and leadership---to anticipate and be ready to adapt to a crisis. How many leaders of organizations large and small pay enough attention to this? Not many is my guess.

The 17th World Conference on Disaster Management at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre reinforced what the military routinely does: train for the expected and unexpected. The latter is the most difficult. The leadership landscape, military included, is littered with “disasters”---the 2003 blackout, Katrina, SARS, Iraq, the RCMP plus multitudes of train and plane accidents, floods, etc.

The real message is that many disasters, both large and small, can be prevented with smarter and more diligent thinking and action. Richard van Pelt from Pasadena City College made that point over and over again. His visual depiction of one disaster after another around the world that should not have happened underlined that disaster management is a daily requirement.

That means creating an organization of leaders in which openness, transparency, wide sharing of information, creative thinking, and evidenced-based and ethical management abound. When done well, business impact analysis will be built into the “DNA” of the culture.

Check out and for more on this topic of preparedness.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Governance Rehab Comes Calling in Florida: Water and Turf Wars

Wherever I go I like to study the local environment, see what’s going on. Being from water plentiful Canada, the water woes of Floridians caught my attention on a recent trip to Jupiter. With water levels perilously low due to sporadic rainfall, saving water is emerging as a major issue. But taking such action is not so easy with entrenched policies that prevent effective individual action. Silly stories abound pointing to policy-making at its worst.

Take a homeowner on Marcos Island, near Naples. City officials made him get rid of $15,000.00 worth of artificial grass in 2005 on the grounds it was offensive and might pose an environmental hazard. In protest, he painted his house with polka dots.

Developers and home owners associations fare no better in their strategy to conserve water. Or, should I suggest—anti-strategy? Near Orlando, a resident tried replacing sod with plantings that required less water. The developer stopped him in his tracks. These stories are increasingly reported across the state. Many homeowners’ associations still require grass lawns with certain shades of green. Alternatives such as sturdy ground cover and drought-resistant plants are not allowed. The battle is heating up as more enlightened homeowners defy the out of date policies.

Leading change is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership. Florida’s water and turf wars illustrate just how much leaders from the grassroots level upward cling to tradition often far beyond when the facts are in. Many hope that other solutions such as desalination of water will provide the needed respite and off set any need for water conservation. Others might want to lead the way but are caught with so many competing interests, they don’t know where to start. But, non-action and placing one’s trust in hope comes with high risk. The situation can quickly devolve into folly and cause untold extra costs.

There are times when political action is the only way for change to happen at the pace that is required. The water issue seems fragmented with no coherent strategy. As with all change, that’s the beginning of the journey. At this stage of the issue, politicians are well-positioned to bring some coherence to a vital quality of life issue. Good policy sooner rather than later can guide sensible action right down to the homeowners’ associations.

In the absence of comprehensive poitical action, courageous individuals and researchers will continue to put forth their ideas. The debate will get louder. A politician somewhere, if not already, will step forward. In the end, it is individual action that counts no matter who you are.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hanging Out With Twenty Somethings: A Leadership Fitness Check Up

When you are outnumbered by three to one for several days with the twenty something generation, it’s a Margaret Mead anthropological experience. Demographers are on a hot streak again educating baby boom leaders in the art and science of welcoming the Gen Xers to the workplace. When theory and practice come together, it’s an eye opener.

Picture this. We’re on our way to dinner heading to the parking lot. One young man is holding a large garbage bag in his right hand, a cell in his left wandering around looking for the dumpster while having an animated phone conversation. The other young man is on his cell. The young woman is checking her text messages. I’m the only one determinedly working on my “slow” philosophy simply enjoying the surroundings.

The car is no different. Text messaging and cell phone talk. No good conversation here.

At the restaurant, things improve. Talk meanders to hot women and men among the patrons. I do my “be interested” not “interesting” approach by asking a few questions of each. What do they think of the water shortage problem? How are things going? The young people get engaged and put forth some fascinating views. I’m now more in my element!

I am beginning to tune in. I am in a different culture. Just soak it up and enjoy it. Let go of my own “way”. So, I decide to sit back and just “be”. Isn’t that what anthropologists really do?

I remember when I was in my twenties. Very keen. Full of new ideas. So happy to be out in the work place earning money, being independent. But, the work environment was not entirely welcoming and that feeling of being out of place persisted for many years. It is waning somewhat now because more of us in the baby boomer crowd are in leadership positions. Yet, with each successive wave of the generations, the culture divide is never far away. It’s a reality even more so with increasing diversity of ethnic backgrounds.

Technology adds to the complexity. The younger generation of workers has been raised on Web-based tools---chat rooms, wikis, blogs, personal broadcasting, peer-to-peer networks and the ubiquity of the cell phone. Their brains are hard wired differently. I watch them with amazement as they update their websites taking advantage of free ware to make picture collages, add new friends, alter the graphics. I’m counting on “Web Tools” for Dummies to being me up to speed.

The advent of the Web has added an element of pace and a new means of conversation for leaders to grasp and work with. The Net Generation moves fast and takes no prisoners. As demographers keep reminding us, young workers want feedback now. They want action asap. Yet, like in my younger days, they face a generation ahead of them that seems slower off the mark and resistant. In our defense, we value process and some reflective check points (call it managing risk).

There’s an upside. I can imagine that NetGen group is developing a new adaptive strength---tolerance. In turn, it is fostering, at an early age, the development of valuable skills in mentoring and coaching upward. Maybe that’s a good thing as during my twenty something days, the communication was decidedly one way.

For the baby boomers, let’s take some tips from the anthropologists: seek out the Net Gen’s views. Immerse and listen. Learn.

In his poem Experience, Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated and encouraged differences:

Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them, they prove to be many colored lenses which paint the world their own hue and each shows only what lies in its focus...[we] need the whole society to give the symmetry we seek.

When solving a problem, diversity almost always trumps individual ability. When making a prediction, diversity matters just as much as ability. Scott Page explains this in considerable detail in his book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. The challenge is to work with not against it, especially regarding Gen X. For baby boomers, it’s a tall order and one that is no different than that which confronted those that came before us. We have no time to waste though if we want the best and the brightest to be on our teams.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Arnie, the Unexpected Anti-Terminator

He was nicknamed “The Austrian Oak” in his body building days. Now, he’s “The Governator” who has big dreams and is getting big things done. As a political leader Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to be living up to his oak tree legacy which symbolizes strength and endurance. Who could have imagined his apparent future success back in October 2003 when he defeated the then-Governor of California Gray Davis?

At first glance, his “rags to riches” immigrant story suggests that he’s no slouch, certainly a necessary prerequisite for any effective leader. But, many entrepreneurs who are typically fiercely independent fail miserably in the complex, multiple interest public sector arena. “Arnie”, as he is affectionately called, has stumbled here and there. However, despite the faux pas and some questionable past personal behaviour, he has managed to steer through the choppy waters and propel California into international prominence for tackling many tough issues.

His track record is enviable: leading edge legislation on intransient issues such as protecting the environment, emergency preparedness, quality pre-schooling for children, financial sustainability for the state and, more recently, proposed anti-gang initiatives directed towards intervention, suppression and prevention. Having a capable and strategically smart team around him has likely helped a great deal. There must also be something else at work though to move Arnie to act.

After reading an array of press on Governor Schwarzenegger, here’s one “take” on where he’s coming from. He’s a fast learner, open to new ideas and astutely tuned in to the interests and needs of the people of California. In that spirit, he champions innovations that make sense for the long-term.

At this distance from California, it’s not easy to evaluate whether and why he is an effective leader. Cynics might suspect he’s feathering his own ego needs for a lasting legacy. Expert critics might not like any or some aspects of the legislation he has enabled. Yet others might on balance applaud his leadership as courageous and practical. They might argue he is doing what leaders should in the presence of compelling data: taking the obstacles out of the way of the momentum of progress.

On balance, the unfolding story points to Governor Schwarzenegger showing leadership that makes a difference in a positive way. He is not only working the “Vision” side of leadership, he’s getting things done. It raises the question: what really makes Arnie tick?

His press coverage suggests a combination of factors:
1.He has a huge determination to prove himself. Mediocrity is not in his vocabulary;
2. He’s an inveterate goal-setter—big goals only
3. He abhors being a follower. He has been quoted as saying he “wanted to be part of the small percentage of people who were leaders, not the large mass of followers.” He is impressed with “leaders who use 100% of their potential.”
4. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He has had to overcome a lack of support especially in his early years where many people thought he would never succeed. It may be that helping others deal with large hurdles is built into his “DNA” as a matter of proving the naysayers wrong
5. He has had strong role models, such as Eunice and Sargent Shriver, who demonstrated that good public policy can make a big difference in building strong communities.

Arnie’s rise as a leader illustrates that leadership can come from anywhere and in the most unlikely of places. Given our increasing cultural diversity, his story is a reminder to us all to remain open to the talents of those around us.

One last word from “The Governator” to other leaders, as told to Linda Frum of the National Post for her May 26th article: concentrate only on the things you are able to do.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The White Light of Cognition

We’re all creative and innovative even if we think we’re not. Some of us get a thrill out of re-designing an existing process, program or product to make it a little better. Others find continuous improvement not enough and go for the home run---inventing something entirely new. Both are equally important ways of trying to change the world. Both are fundamental to the mind set of a strong leader. The status quo is not an option. But the status quo wins out more often than not because it’s hard to let in the “white light of cognition”.

It’s the “aha” moment when you see a problem in a new light. Sometimes, that moment arrives serendipitously, in a flash without warning. Other times, it has to be coaxed by being deliberate in the pursuit of the new and better. It is at this nexus of puzzlement and will to dig deeper that leaders have an opportunity to move the situation forward.

Simple stories I read in the newspaper remind me of this creative power that we exploit too little. Take the example of a young woman suffering from what appears to be anorexia, as described in How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Despite multiple attempts by the health care providers to help her, they failed and concluded repeatedly that she was “mentally unstable”. However, a Boston gastroenterologist solved the mystery. He took a different tact. First, he suspended his judgment. That is, he decided to believe her when she emphatically said that she was eating. Then, he asked her lots of questions. That led to the diagnosis of celiac disease, an inability of her body to digest wheat gluten. In comes the white light overriding the “errors of cognition” of all who had treated her beforehand.

Leaders anywhere are faced with similar dilemmas. Accept the prevailing “wisdom” (group think) or push more because some facts, opinions or experiences don’t quite fit?

Here’s another example. Imagine the umbrella and a windy, rainy day. We’re in for many of those days over the few months. By the time the snow flakes fly, many thousands of umbrellas will have “bitten the dust”. Turned inside out and never to return to their former symmetrical shapes. But, what if the umbrella was shaped like an airplane wing and re-directed itself to the best position to fit the wind? Yes, there is one---“The Senz”---designed by a young Dutchman who got tired of throwing out umbrellas. When this innovative umbrella comes to North America, I’ll be one of the first ones in line.

Innovation is top of mind in all organizations. In a recent survey we undertook for a client on leadership development practices, that was the most desired and the weakest capability. It can be learned, as we know from creativity experts such as Edward de Bono and others. It can also be as simple as each of us committing to letting the “white light of cognition” in. That means not putting up with the status quo when it’s not working, suspending judgment, being interested rather than interesting (asking lots of questions) and accepting that what you know might be wrong.

It’s a tall order when the obstacles to change are many and the time to sit back and think is in short supply. The reward, however, will be the satisfaction of creating and inventing a better way. The excitement and joy are worth the flak necessary to get beyond the “errors of cognition”. The obstacles and the time constraints will seem a little less onerous in the midst of such an accomplishment!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

From "Sick Man" to "Rich Man" in a Generation: Collaboration's Magic Potion

With a fair amount of Irish in me, I have had more than a passing interest in Ireland’s rise from the ashes. In one generation, Ireland’s leaders have stunned the pundits, nay-sayers and anyone else who thinks “it just can’t be done”. By deciding to work together (read, “collaborate”), the various stakeholders have aptly demonstrated that a shared “game plan” really works to the advantage of many not just the few. The idea applies to organizations as much as countries.

My ancestors were dirt poor when they arrived on Halifax’s shoreline in the early part of the 20th century. They barely rose above poverty most of their lives here. Nevertheless, they did leave a rich legacy. Over three generations, we finally worked our way “up”. Post-secondary education provided the main ticket to greater prosperity. Good government policy helped too: national health care, student loans, labour laws, private and public pensions, land-use planning, flood control, the assurance (more or less) of clean water and electrical power and more dependable services such as telephone, legal, police, fire, garbage, conservation and flood control. These gains for the greater good came about through private-public partnerships and sensible creative thinking.

While Ireland has taken cross-sectoral partnering to new heights, in comparison, it feels as if we’re in a funk and a slump. We are reminded by Stats Canada and a number of think tanks in our country and around the world that in comparison to other developed countries, we’ve got some significant problems: our standard of living is declining relatively speaking, we’re dead last among developed nations in our spending on early childhood education, our cities are suffering from many afflictions including lack of sustainable infrastructure funding, universities are under-funded and Canada’s poorest are no better off than they were 25 years ago.

Yet, Ireland, which has had some very bad times, is proving that overcoming adversity can be done in record time if the right “parties” agree and put their shoulders to the wheel. Poverty is one example. In 1997, Ireland developed a National Anti-Poverty Strategy (NAPS) wherein poverty issues were placed at the heart of government decision making. The 10-year plan targeted all aspects of the problem: income, education, employment, health and housing. It took minimum wage-earners off the income tax roll and put more money into training, especially for immigrants and transient workers. It raised welfare payments, boosted child care and built more affordable housing. Poor neighbourhoods were provided with government investment if local partnerships of business leaders, activists and the poor themselves were formed to develop solutions.

The results speak to the effectiveness of Ireland’s collaborative, multi-faceted strategy: Ireland’s poverty rate has been slashed from 15 percent to 6.8 per cent. The Canadian rate has been stuck at 16 per cent for decades.

The seeds for change date back to the 1960s and continue unabated to this day. It’s a story of helping the “middle class” to get stronger and not lose ground in an increasingly interconnected global economy. The signal that better things were to come began with education. The Irish government created the policy structure for secondary education to be free (an issue we tackled long ago in Canada to our benefit). This enabled many more working class kids to get a high school or a technical degree. Joining the EU in 1973 widened the educated workforce upon which Ireland could draw. EU membership brought subsidies to build better infrastructure. As well, trade unionists, government, farmers and business people agreed on a plan of fiscal austerity, slashing corporate taxes to 12.6 per cent, moderating wages and prices and aggressively courting foreign investment. The icing on the cake occurred in 1996 when the government made college education free. Imagine what that would be like here!

By all accounts, the Irish “Way” is yielding benefits for many. According to Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat), nine out of ten of the top pharmaceutical companies, sixteen of the top twenty medical device companies and seven of the top software designers have operations in Ireland. Kick-started in one generation, this kind of synergy has no where to go but up. It’s not without warts and wrinkles, no doubt. However, the trend line looks good.

In Canada, there are ample examples of collaboration past and present within and across all sectors. These efforts continue despite a culture that is tentative in its support for balancing courageous, anticipatory decision making (tackling perceptible problems before they reach crisis proportions) with “90-day thinking” (focusing on those issues likely to blow up in a crisis in the next 90 days).

The lesson in the Irish “miracle” for me is this: collaboration in an organization or in a country will not happen without the endorsement and attention from the leaders at the top. Furthermore, those leaders must be willing to step out of their comfort zones and “let go” to experience the magic of many minds inventing a better way. Finally, they must act to pave the way for reform. Otherwise, we’re left to “work around”.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Customer Service Blooms

Spring must be in our collective psyche despite the persistently cool weather. For reasons inexplicable to me, I have been subject to unusually pleasant customer service. In that I am generally jaded about what I will encounter on the phone or face-to-face, these encounters came as a surprise. So low are my expectations that I barely recognized the good service I was receiving. Only when I basked in the benefits in my home environment did I realize that something special had happened.

Take the simple act of buying flowers. As my friends and family know very well, the ambience of a place either cheers me up or makes me grumpy. For example, candles in a restaurant are a must! Flowers are in the same category. The difference is they can cheer us up all day. But, I’ve been depriving myself of fresh cut flowers and small blooming plants for the house. I put myself on a flower budget over the past year because I realized that my “habit” was getting costly. I have not, therefore, frequented the flower kiosks in the grocery stores.

With the coming of Spring, I justified that my disciplined behaviour over the last several months warranted a reward---some flowers! Instead of avoiding the flower area in my local Dominion store, it became a magnet for my attention. My two visits have “exceeded my expectations”. With the benefit of my reflections on the first one, I asked a few questions of the woman who had taken care of me on both occasions.

This was her approach on my first visit. When completing the transaction, she took the opportunity to tell me how to take care of my new “Heather” plants. I did not know that cold, strong tea was the best source of water for them. I have dutifully followed her instructions with good results. I also purchased some roses; however, she mentioned nothing about them. Once home with the roses, I had some trouble with one drooping almost immediately. “No problem”, I said to myself. “That’s the norm and the price of working with fresh cut flowers.”

On my second visit, I repeated my pattern: roses and another flowering plant (lilies). This time, she met me while I was choosing the lily and provided advice on care and after care so I could re-use for next year. At the counter, she told me how to avoid drooping roses (very hot water). I would have walked away and repeated the same mistake and it certainly had not occurred to me to report my drooping problem. I had not one sad-looking rose upon following her advice. They were all still straight up even in the compost pile! The irony is that I have been advised of this “trick” in the past. I had simply forgotten it in the rush of life.

At the end of my second visit, I asked the employee how she gained her knowledge and why she was so helpful. She was essentially self-taught through books, the HGTV channel and experience over time. Her helpfulness was driven by a desire to send every single customer away with one tip. I don’t know whether management has made this a requirement (a positive attitude and an informed staff member) as I didn’t get that far in my questioning. I do know that my own attitude towards the store in general has gone up.

Some very successful organizations stress the importance of “attitude” in their recruiting strategy combined with a supportive working environment. Southwest Airlines is a prime example. I believe West Jet is the same---confirmed by a recent experience. Blockbuster tries by having a staff member say “Hello” to each entering customer. Home Depot is on the road to recovery with a new CEO who is stressing customer service for all, not just some. The previous one dropped the ball by focusing on the construction trades and making life miserable for staff (as different from the founders). Home Depot’s business suffered accordingly. Thus, the best attitudes can be spoiled in an environment that fails to enable an employee to shine and messes with customer relationships.

Yes, I know. This is old news. But, maybe, things are getting better. That is, leaders are becoming more determined to get customer service right as the hard evidence piles up. Dollar signs are not easily ignored in a world where great success can become great failure with unhappy, poorly prepared employees.

It’s not as simple as it seems. My experience evolved from the employee caring (a great attitude) and knowing something worthwhile (providing quality information). A reduction in quality of the service or the product would have compromised my satisfaction. For example, our own Issy Sharp has parlayed the Four Seasons Hotels over more than 40 years into a worldwide luxury brand. His deep regard for satisfied and well-selected and trained employees and attention to every detail of the customer experience are the prime sources of his success as a leader.

Another that comes to mind is the founder of Dyson vacuum cleaners. He has tapped into a disgruntled world wide customer base with a vacuum cleaner that really does the job. His passion for making something better and then providing the service and support to reach customers has made him a billionaire. At the same time, he’s contributing to making a “cleaner”, healthier world.

This Spring I’ve been on a roll. Better customer service at every turn as I go about my errands and business. I’m blowing my flower budget with my new found faith in service. I relented and bought a Dyson because I became more aware of how much I’ve been putting up with when I did not need to do so. The good experience of quality and customer service is stoking the fires of “ambience”, a feeling I cannot ignore.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Resisting the Flow of Success

Jane Austen’s sentiments about life and its challenges are in the air again. Two hundred years later, her “brand” is still going strong with two movies to be released this year. Her astute observations about life between and among the classes and the masses resonate.

Stories encompassing moral dilemmas, the great divides of class and money, and spunky women asserting their rightful places in society have enduring messages. One is the capacity not to get swept away by success and corrupt our character as a result.

This myopia of the mind is most obvious when someone becomes famous suddenly or was handed fame and fortune at birth. Some deal with it well. Others succumb to the hypnotism of adulation and the feeling of power that goes with it. We witness the “problem” with the steady stream of Hollywood lives gone awry. The spotlight is seductive and mesmerizing.

This is every leader’s call to character. Canada’s very own Conrad Black who is facing serious charges in the United States for fraud reminds us of the monumental challenge of sustaining leadership success. Put another way, how does a leader avoid crashing and burning?

Having a good dream, a vision, and getting people to rally around it is insufficient. Working hard is not enough. The mania of success, as we’ve witnessed too often in the last few years with various corporate scandals, cannot withstand an avoidance of looking inward to what matters.

We have serious moral obligations to each other and most importantly to ourselves. With the swirling events around us in our workplaces, it’s easy to forget who we are and who others are.

I remember watching and reading about Martha Stewart during her tough times with the legal system in the US. Her “crime” seemed small in relation to the punishment meted out. On closer examination, the stories about her leadership revealed a woman who put business goals above all else, with scant attention to the emotional and other needs of the people around her. Greek hubris visited her. When in need, there were few who came to her support.

It appears that Conrad Black may be suffering the same fate. His partner and long time business associate, David Radler, has abandoned him for higher ground. Historians will no doubt enlighten us in the years to come about the reasons for the unraveling of the relationship. Character, in my opinion, will be central to the analysis.

Another leadership story, with Jane Austen’s underlying character themes, is brewing on the Canadian Federal political scene. Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to be “in charge” managing deftly to win the hearts and minds of some voters. His firmness and control of the decision making in his caucus are appealing. His ability as a “chess player” outfoxing the opposition and making their issues, his party’s issues is to be admired. On the other hand, Stephane Dion, the Liberal leader of the opposition, has a softer, less defined persona. Lack of charisma coupled with integrity are his personality markers. He is working on his “firmness” and presentation style. But, who in the long run who has what it takes to last no matter what battle is being waged and fought?

The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin warns of a danger for Stephen Harper. He contends that “while his shrewd and purposeful style of government has earned him respect, he has not built up a lot of loyalty. His remote, his all-controlling nature, his keeping everyone on a tight leash, has won few friends.” Lurking for Harper or anyone in his position is the anesthetic of success and power in the absence of a reality check on his social and emotional universe. Will he come to terms with and “resist the flow of success”?

I wonder what advice Jane Austen would offer? The word for experience comes from the Latin words ex pericolo, which mean “from danger”. She might suggest this: “pay attention” because there’s more to success as a leader than being smart. In today’s complex environment power is earned not enforced. Compliance does not equal commitment. The respect by the group for its leader happens because he builds a culture allowing the group to fulfill its potential. The paradox of having control is letting go. It seems high risk but the alternative is really so.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Baird's Progress on the Environment Watch

Since the Tories named John Baird as their new Environment Minister, the environment issue has taken off. In two short months, we’ve been visited in a flourish by Al Gore and Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank. Both are passionate, as is David Suzuki and many other scientists, about the dangers of global warming. They have ignited a firestorm of interest.

In the midst of this whirlwind, how has Baird held up as a “newbie” leader and manager? I’ll use the three most important early actions of new managers described by Linda Hill of Harvard University (see my January 7, 2007 blog).

First, how has John Baird demonstrated character, that is, the intention to do the right thing?

He has kept a really low profile and deferred to his boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But worse, he made a faux pas by implying that Al Gore had praised the Tory government about its environment actions. During the Question Period of the House of Commons in early February, Baird said:

“I can quote someone speaking about Canada’s environmental role in the world, ‘Canada is once again providing leadership in the world, fighting above its weight class and showing moral authority to the rest of the world. That’s what Canada is known for.’ Do you know who said that yesterday, Mr. Speaker? Al Gore.”

Whoops! It was taken out of context (Gore was referring more to general support across parties and regions in Canada, not the Tories’ policies, per se). It earned a quick rebuke from Gore. For a newbie, it’s dangerous to get a swelled head too fast. Humility works better when you are tentatively a new member of the global warming issue team.

How has Baird demonstrated competence, knowing how to do the right thing?

The only message I’ve noticed from both Baird and Harper is that it’s impossible for Canada to meet the Kyoto Accord agreements for carbon dioxide emissions. While that appears to be true, they speak little of making an effort nevertheless. Instead, they worry about the cost to the economy in the short term with no underlying data rationale and fail to raise the moral consequences of inaction. They choose also to make light of a serious agreement that, in principle, has merit at the least to focus attention on a global priority.

The scientist in me says that the right thing is to accept we’ve got a problem and to get on with showing leadership through action. No excuses or foot dragging.

How has Baird demonstrated influence or the ability to deliver and execute the right thing?

Baird is nowhere to be seen. Rather than build on all the hard work to date by many people from multiple disciplines and governments, Baird and company are intent on their own “homegrown” plan. It’s not smart to not leverage others’ smart thinking. It’s not smart not to balance the long term with the short term. It’s not smart to be slow and have no or few quick wins.

Put another way, John Baird has been drowned out by the chorus of concerns from people with more credibility. His boss has garnered more attention by deftly insinuating the Conservatives into the “green” agenda. However, he and his party are still on the defensive and in catch up mode. Ordinary Canadians are much farther along the action curve than the Federal Tories.

In summary, John Baird has had a tough couple of months as a new leader and manager. Coming out of the starting gate, he has either stumbled or kept himself at arm’s length from the action. He tried to hitch a ride with Gore and others who long ago earned respect for their role in raising awareness on the environment. He wasn’t allowed on the horse. His boss has largely been the face of the environment. Baird has been in the background.

John might do better by asking his boss for a revised mentoring plan that included him.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Igniting the Fire of Purpose

He’s only 16 years and brimming with the fire of purpose. In reading his story, Luke sounds like and acts like an old soul. Working in his parents’ restaurant in Kingston, Ontario, he’s pursuing a culinary calling making “homemade” food for the lucky locals and visitors to the city.

A follower of the “Slow Food Movement”, he asks customers not to rush the chef as “our foods are handcrafted as they were hundreds of years ago in villages scattered throughout Italy and France”. He experiments continuously, avidly reads cookbooks, gets absorbed in the minutiae of the culinary arts and lovingly presents each plate for patrons as if it was a piece of art. He dreams big of greenhouses, a beehive, an olive grove and other things that will make a completely sustainable restaurant. In short, he’s possessed like an artist by a calling.

Imagine if each of us in organizations were inspired like Luke? We would not have to pay attention to benchmarking as we would set our own. We would not as leaders have to manage as much because those around us would be pulling us forward. The energy would be palpable. Excitement and fun would be in the air. Creativity would abound because we’d be feeding off each others’ ideas as we pursued our laser focus on quality and innovation.

Social scientists generally agree that humans are naturally goal-driven. We get satisfaction from accomplishing things. Our human history is replete with stories like Luke’s, some recorded in books and articles, many only known locally.

Central to each is the person and persons being driven by a force greater than them alone. They want to engage in work that is meaningful. David Bornstein in How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas explains that individuals have a strong desire to apply their talents in ways that bring security, recognition and meaning. Nikos Mourkogiannis in Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies refers to the phenomenon as the primary source of achievement, a game of champions, a function of character and crucial to the success of enterprises.

Yet we struggle to ignite and inspire people in organizations with purpose and meaning. Based on the constant outpouring of satisfaction surveys, the evidence points to the desire often being present for employees but it is frequently squashed by the working environment.

The latest annual survey results from Sirota Survey Intelligence, a workplace attitude pollster in Purchase N.Y., underscores that people want meaning in their work. They will rise to the occasion if they are treated with respect, dealt with equitably, and feel connected to the organization on a work and personal level. Unfortunately, the 64,304 employees surveyed of whom 8,000 were Canadian indicate that the sense of excitement and anticipation on these expectations plummets from 70 to 54 per cent after one year of service. The degree of satisfaction does not easily go back up. In the organizations that intentionally work on developing consistent leadership and management policies and practices, the satisfaction level is 75 per cent after one year. This applies for older employees (55 and older) as well as those aged 25 to 34. Considerable research highlights the correlation between satisfaction and productivity; thus, this is a serious business matter for all organizations.

Take Toyota. It’s rising to the top in the car industry, surpassing GM and Ford. Today, Ford reported a never before in its history loss of more than $12 B while Toyota is thriving. In 2006, GM and Ford terminated 46,000 North America employees and will be closing 26 plants in North America over the next 5 years. Toyota has never closed a plant. It’s opening them instead. Much can be attributed to its culture of continuous improvement as described in The Toyota Way and more recently in the December 2006 Fast Company, No satisfaction at Toyota (

At Toyota the mantra is three fold: “making cars, making cars better and teaching everyone how to make cars better”. The perpetual focus on asking questions of the existing processes followed by constant tweaking has led to outstanding growth and quality. This cannot be achieved without inspired employees.

Inspiration happens one employee at a time. For Luke, his parents provide the support and the tools for continuous improvement. He’s got the natural drive to excel in the culinary business. Luke is fortunate.

Others have succeeded despite enormous obstacles. That’s the norm too often. Who knows what more they could have achieved if the environment had been a little more benign?

In many ways, this is an old story. Our natural predispositions are ignited or not at the intersection of our circumstances and desire. Aware and determined leaders always have the opportunity to make that intersection one that turns little acorns into trees.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Baird's Perilous Learning Curve

Canada’s new Federal Environment Minister reminds me of a bright-eyed, brand new manager who is about to get some hard lessons. Despite being Harper’s trusted lieutenant, he’ll need more than the Prime Minister’s support to succeed in the environment portfolio. This is going to require authentic, adaptive leadership. Aside from John Baird’s potential as a leader on the environment, he’s starting from minus zero.

Many people already “smell a rat”. The Federal Conservatives about face on the environment file appears to be one of political expediency. They have finally woken up to which way the wind is blowing on the environment. Accordingly, they are adjusting their tone and tune. A new face (Baird) is one of the first chess moves. Can he do it?

I don’t know enough about Baird’s track record to use history as a predictor of the future. Fleetingly, I’ve seen him in a smattering of question periods while he was an MPP and now an MP. Certainly he came across as keen, enthusiastic and committed to getting things done. Not surprisingly, he’s been firm on the Conservative’s agenda on many matters. This portfolio may cause him to question his values and beliefs. Is he up to the task?

Let’s look at what he really has to do to succeed, according to Linda Hill’s research on becoming a new boss (January 2007, Harvard Business Review, ).

Demonstrate character: the intention to do the right thing
This is the crucial line in the sand for any leader-manager. It is the foundation for earning people’s respect and trust. It means negotiating an action plan in an environment full of interdependent relationships. A mind set of “I know best” and “we must be efficient” won’t fly. This complex subject is driven by non-partisan values, the prevailing scientific evidence, the long view and no guarantee of an immediate return on investment.

Baird will have to establish credibility with a web of stakeholders, many of whom will be wary of his intentions. It will not be enough to work with his closest advisors who likely do not have enough diversity in knowledge as a team. Baird must reach out to those with whom he does not agree. He will have to convince them that he is more than a marketing front man.

Demonstrate competence: knowing how to do the right thing
Ah, this will be quite challenging. Baird’s boss has given the impression that he is decidedly unconvinced the environment is in need of his firm decision making to avert disaster for future generations. Harper’s messages often come across as “we can have our cake and eat it too”.

We all know that any body of knowledge is always a work in progress. Thus, questioning the findings, at least in scientific circles, is a de facto standard for debate and discussion. However, there comes a time when the “negotiated truths” converge. As it stands, the voices are getting louder and more anxious. In 2001, 100 Nobel Prize winners from around the globe, including our own John Polanyi, raised the alarm. They continue to do so today. The urgency of the situation now demands collective political leadership. It’s time to stop quibbling.

How is Baird going to convince voters who are alarmed about the environment (as many and recent polls suggest) that he knows what he is talking about? His immediate work group has not demonstrated its grasp of the reality. If leaders show they are not convinced by a consensus that has solid evidence behind it and that they are sincere in managing risk for future generations, why would anyone believe they are competent?

Demonstrate influence: the ability to deliver and execute the right thing
My guess is that Baird will deliver. Will the product be the right one, though? Is he going to suffer a “Rona” fate ultimately?

The quality of the product will depend on the quality of the decision making process Baird uses. If he’s already made up his mind and he’s intending on marketing what he wants to stakeholders, he’s setting himself up for failure. This complex file requires creative and open dialogue, not just from the top but from across parties, jurisdictions and knowledge domains and from practitioners.

With a product in hand comprised of “common ground” among competing interests, the leadership litmus test for Baird is next---setting the policy framework to make sensible and effective action possible among the various players.

Let’s hope Baird learns well on the job such that he will not be a “promotion mistake”. Much will depend on his ability to manage “up” as well as “down”. As time is of the essence, his success will benefit all of us.