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.”