Leaders Fuel the Organization’s Fire

The flame of a candle will go out in the wind, but that same wind will feed the flame of a fire.  Leaders of organizations need to understand the balance of the people.  We must do our best to build organizations that are full of people that can not only withstand the wind, but that thrive on it.

So, what is the wind in this metaphor? It is different for everyone, but for most people, it is probably constructive criticism.  The key word in that phrase is “constructive,” which means, “helping to improve; promoting further development or advancement.”  If you are scolding or just unloading your frustrations on your people, this is not constructive criticism.  Be specific about what is not meeting the mark and help them understand how to move forward.  If they are emotional, get through the initial emotional meeting and follow up later for a more level-headed conversation.  Time usually brings perspective, and even if you didn’t see eye-to-eye at the time, it would likely be a more relaxed conversation the second time around.  At the very least, you will have had time to think through the previous discussion, and you will know each other’s opinions ahead of time.

Oxygen is in the leader’s gas can.  A leader uses oxygen to fuel their people’s flames, and it is positive reinforcement.  Much research has been done to show that people respond to this type of conditioning.  Simply by adding words of encouragement anytime, someone does good work, meets deadlines, and meets expectations is reason enough to let them know.  I am not saying to go overboard here.  Your response should be on par with the level of work they did.  If they met the deadline, then say thank you for meeting the deadline.  If they completed their work early and the work was far beyond your expectations, then perhaps some bonus time off is in order or recognition at the next staff meeting will do the trick.  The key is to encourage your people to continue to do great things.  Also, you should be working to make this a habit, not all of us are good at it, and I’m still working on it!

Any positive reinforcement when not warranted is poison.  This creates confusion and sends the worst message.  It tells your people several things that are terrible about your leadership skills.  It says, you don’t know the difference between good or bad behavior, you are afraid to be honest, you don’t know how to deal with negative behavior or negative feelings, or you are short-sighted because you would rather lie to them for ‘good feelings’ now than to have a difficult conversation at the moment and the potential for a better future.

All of this will help create people that can handle the challenges of life.  Life is hard; work is hard; getting promoted is hard; finding a new career is hard.  If leaders don’t take the time to help create “fires” instead of guarding our actions and language to the point that all we have are “candles” we will continue to face weak organizations that are unable to change and shift with the demands of the industry.

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If Everything is Important Nothing is Important

Leaders of every organization must have deliberate priorities.  Whether it is in the form of a strategic plan or extrapolated through observation of recent actions; there must be priorities.  This is basic management, or what you would learn in an entry-level management course in college, but so many leaders are still not making decisions on what the organization should focus. Calling prioritizing your actions a basic management skill is deceptive.  Although it is learned early in most management programs, it is far from basic.  Everything can seem important at the moment and as a leader, if you don’t give everyone the impression that you care about the things that they care about or are worried about, won’t they lose faith in your leadership?

The result of a leader that tells their people that they have other things to work on is not about telling them they are unimportant. It is about telling them they are capable of handling it on their own.  It is about autonomy, delegation, and trust.  A leader should be concerned with the problem but should also know that solving all their people’s problems will only teach them to keep bringing them their problems.  This is all about how the leader handles the situation from an interpersonal relationship perspective.  Listen to what they have to say; let them know you have faith in their capabilities and trust their judgment to make the call.  If they really can’t make the decision, give them the options to come back to you, but let them know you do not expect that they will need to. This will put some pressure on them to decide on a course of action. 

The follow up will speak volumes!  Always check back in on them and ask how it turned out.  If they made a mistake, be very careful not to hammer them, this will guarantee they never make a decision again.  Use this as a teaching moment and move on.  The trust gained from this kind of interaction will pay dividends for a very long time.

Taking this kind of action will free you up to make three or four areas of the organization your priority.  Then you can focus your attention there.  If you establish a priority of growth, but there are no efforts from the organization to grow, then you have not made your priorities important to your people.  Establish your priorities first, then use them during evaluations and awards periods to determine if people are internalizing them.  If you have established priorities and communicated them, but nobody is paying attention to them, you are not leading, and your people are following someone else.

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People Will Hate You

For everything we do, creating, leading, decision making, someone will not like it.  Especially if you put your work out for others’ consumption.  A blog, a vlog, emails to coworkers about a new project you want to start, a picture on social media of a sculpture you made; some people will say negative things about your work.  It can be hard at first to hear people say you are an idiot and tear your work apart, but you need to get over it and realize it will happen.  You cannot be liked by everyone all the time. 

In an organizational leadership context, the people that work under you will not like all of your decisions, or your ideas, or your initiatives.  If you have formal or positional power over these people, you will have to work very hard to get them to tell you to your face when they disagree with you.  This conflict is uncomfortable, it does not feel good not to wrong or when people don’t like your idea, but debate and sensemaking strengthen ideas.  Questions about your ideas are often interpreted as attacks on the idea or attacks on you as a person.  This is rarely the case; we need people to question our ideas so we can exercise their validity before we put them into operation.  Without this key function, we lose precious time and energy playing catchup when we could have discovered the flaws and developed solutions through debate early in the process. 

Not everyone will have to the courage to be candid with you even when you are open to feedback and take time to cultivate an environment that embraces candor.  Some people simply lack the courage to disagree with people in person.  You will have people that enjoy criticizing you when you leave and trash your ideas when you are gone.  This is a culture issue; if you can get them out of the organization, it is best to do so.  I’m not talking about people that are having a healthy debate about issues in the workplace.  I’m talking about the people that will say negative things about any ideas just because they are a departure from the norm.  Find people that fit the culture you are going for, we don’t need people to be parrots, have the courage to dissent from the person in charge, challenge traditional thoughts, let people think you are crazy. 

Ultimately, we need to embrace the mental exercises that take us through ideas.  If you are unwilling to entertain your people’s different ideas with even a discussion, why should they support yours with anything more than minimal compliance?

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Natural Leaders Suck

Charisma, confidence, inspirational, and many other adjectives can be used to describe a natural leader.  Those traits can be positive or negative, depending on how they are used.  Before we continue, I want to make it clear that I don’t have anything against natural leaders, I am not a natural leader, but I know many great ones, I only mean to articulate how frustrating it can be to work with them when they don’t recognize that everyone does not have the same starting point.  I want to urge those natural leaders that read this to recognize a few points that may help make organizational life better!

Not everyone who wants to lead can be a leader, not everyone who can lead will be a leader, not everyone who leads should be a leader, but sometimes will and skill align to create great leaders.  So, my view of the age-old question of are leaders made or born is…both.  Some are born with it; some develop it through deliberate effort.

Leadership is not natural for everyone.  Natural leaders tend to forget that leadership does not come naturally to everyone.  Things that are intuitive and easy to a natural leader must be learned and experienced by others before they can add them to their repertoire.  I have had to spend countless hours, reading, talking, studying, failing, listening, and experimenting to be the leader I am today.  I still have so much more room to improve and sometimes get frustrated with my shortcomings, but they motivate me to keep learning.

Not everyone wants to lead.  Those that have learned to lead need to be careful of getting jaded by natural leaders or by those that don’t put in as much effort as they feel they had to.  You can’t force people to do what you do, help them if you can and move on.  Not everyone has a desire to lead which can seem frustrating to people that have worked so hard to become leaders.  We need to remember some people want to be technical experts and only want to stay at that level.  They don’t want to get to the point that they have to manage people and deal with that entirely different skillset.  We need these people, they are the backbone of most organizations, so don’t promote them into positions that don’t utilize their skills or that make them unhappy.   Let them do what they love and where their skills align with their passion.  There are plenty of others that want to lead people.

If you want to lead and it doesn’t come naturally to you, then once you decide to learn to lead you will enter a long journey that will never really end.  You will learn more than just leadership.  I’m not talking about knowing different leadership theories or famous leaders and their books, but real leadership skills.  You will also learn more about yourself than you want to know!  Get used to being uncomfortable and get after it!

 

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Organizations are Like Hair

When I was young and wild, I had beautiful hair.  To be honest, I’ve never cared for hair since I was in the 9th grade I’ve been cutting it as short as possible, and I’ve been doing it long enough now that I have no idea what color my hair is anymore. So, although I do not fit the bill, the metaphor I’m about to make, still works.  That metaphor is that organizations are like hair.

I know people that cut their hair every two weeks.  They never change the style, they never experiment.  They know what works and they are the guys that say things like, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, “you don’t mess with the classics.”  They keep tight control over their hair and never let it get out of sorts.  This example shows what most leaders and managers want in their organizations.  They fight to stay standardized and look to control as much of their processes as possible.  There are many organizations that this works for, but this kind of leadership does not leave room for innovation and progress.  You can’t adjust processes and functions when you are doing the same things.

Additionally, you can’t change your hairstyle in any meaningful way without going through that weird medium length sloppy-hair stage.  You know, the stage where some will only lay flat and others will only stick straight up.  This is the stage where you test your commitment to the new style.  How much do you want it? If you are weak, or if you aren’t sure of what you want, you will quit and go back to what you know.  This stage in the organization is where most leaders lose their nerve and think the new efforts have failed.  On many occasions, this early exit is a tragic mistake which causes future efforts to die before they even happen.  Leaders must accept there is going to be growing pains with progress.

Eventually, you will have to cut your hair.  That doesn’t mean you have to go back to your old style, but you do need to get it back under control and set things right again.  Organizationally, this means you have to pull the crazy experimenting back a bit and look at providing more stable processes.  There will always be a need to experiment and take some risk, but after letting your people get wild and outside of the box, you will need to bring all that back in and get the balance back to the organization.  Too much wild-wild-west type of stuff in the organization can be exhausting so you will want to keep some of the momentum going for progress, without so much risk and experimenting.

So, let your hair grow and give your people some room to try new stuff!

 

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Do Tradition and Heritage Hold You Back?

Standardization ruins organizations.  Once we get to the point that we are trying to make everyone do the same thing, without thought, we are doomed.  Most organizations and the people within them get into a rhythm.  They have the same annual events, traditions, and these events are rarely discussed with any serious intent.  The members of the organization are expected to uphold these traditions, and the leaders often expect everyone to participate.  But do these traditions do anything positive for the organization?

It depends.  Most of our traditions are no longer providing value to our processes but are more about culture.  But even traditions that contribute to culture can be problematic.  The military’s Change of Command Ceremony is one such example.  When the ceremony was created, it was done so out of necessity.  Most personnel in a military unit did not know who the commander of the unit was, and it caused much confusion on the battlefield.  This ceremony was designed to show everyone who the new commander was to alleviate that problem, and it worked.  Fast-forward to today, and we continue the tradition, but there is rarely an occasion where members will not know who the unit’s commander is, but we still spend weeks preparing for these ceremonies every two years.  The commander’s and their families enjoy them, and it is a great honor for them to earn a command, but almost everyone else is there because they are required.  The officer/enlisted structure is also antiquated and has lost its usefulness.  On the positive side, the military’s uniforms, many of the customs to include saluting, standing for senior members, reveille, retreat, taps, and countless others add to the discipline and positive culture of the units.

And what about the senior members of the organization?  Could they be holding back innovation?  Much like standardization, continuity is a term we must be careful with.  There is a point that continuity stops helping and starts holding the unit back from progress.  Something that was tried in the nineties may very well work now.  Not because we are better, but because technology may have made things easier than they were in the past.  We need to ensure our senior members value change and progress over standardization and continuity.

We must be cautious of sacrificing any future progress for short-term gains.  It might be tempting, but the short-term gains that too much standardization and continuity provide are addictive and will become the culture your organization begins to form around.  Soon enough, your organization will become irrelevant because short-term gains cannot compete with long-term progress.  Of course, this is not easy, and nobody has the perfect answer, but we must be brave enough to have the conversation.  It may feel bad to say the DoD no longer needs a separate officer and enlisted core, especially from the officer’s perspective, but it’s a conversation we must have, or we risk becoming too caught up in tradition.

 

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Compliance or Commitment

Quality Assurance is everywhere, and it is undoubtedly useful.  The rules that govern our processes are also there for a reason, and we should follow them.  It has most likely taken many years of trial and error to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  But in many organizations, there is a focused effort on compliance and little discussion about commitment.

Most managers or leaders would agree that commitment is better than compliance, but rarely do we talk about commitment.  I have heard the phrase, “culture of compliance” so much that it is clear to me these leaders do not think about commitment and perhaps do not even realize that compliance does not make things great.  It merely makes them acceptable.  When people agree to take a job that does not equal commitment.  Enlisting in the military does not equal commitment.  I suppose it is a form of commitment, but not the commitment I’m referencing.  Organizational commitment is when members of the organization not only comply but look for ways to push the organization forward.

We want members of our organizations to want the organization to succeed.  We need them to invest their time and effort to see that it does succeed.  We have all seen these employees before.  The question is how do we get people to be committed instead of merely compliant?

The first solution is to start asking for commitment instead of compliance.  When we focus on compliance, that is what we get.  We cannot expect commitment when we only ask for compliance.

Someone very close to me recently went through an issue that highlights this problem.  She worked in a small organization as the number two in charge.  The organization was a mess, and there were problems everywhere.  But she was committed to the cause and worked tirelessly.  She put in at least 60 hours a week and received phone calls constantly when she was away from the facility.  She stayed at this organization for only 3-4 months.  She was eventually burned out, but not from the hours or hard work.  She worked for people that wanted compliance, not commitment.  The people in charge of the budget would not approve additional staff to cover severe gaps in service, and she could not fire poor performing employees because that meant she would have to cover those holes.  Once there were not enough people to cover the functions, complaints increased, staff became frustrated, which caused more complaints, which prompted management to approach the issue as if there were a compliance problem.  This approach caused more employees to quit, which meant employee turnover increased.  The staff that resigned were those with options, the ones that stayed, were the poor performers that didn’t want to take the risk of a new job.

To focus on her employees and create an environment that showed them the organization would care for them helps foster a culture of commitment.  It starts at the top; if leaders do not engage the supervisors and managers, then the managers and supervisors will not engage the lower level employees, and problems will surface.  They mask themselves as compliance issues, but they are commitment issues.

 

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The Decision

The Decision, The Standard & The Lesson

What do you do when you come across someone doing the wrong thing?  The easy answer is to say something to that person.  But although this is the easy answer, it is far from easy to make that decision in the split second you notice a problem.  You then have to run through the dialog in your head about how receptive the person will be to your correction, whether you are correct, how you should approach the issue, is it worth the effort to correct, and many other questions and scenarios your brain comes up with.  Then perhaps you decide to fix the problem.  Has there been a clear standard established? What if you are wrong? Or what if you are right, but there should be a change to the standard?  Are you willing to listen and learn something?  That entire drama-filled paragraph is why it is essential to have the foresight to understand three things.

The Decision: 

I’ve heard many times that you don’t choose to be a leader.  Or that the best leaders are the ones that don’t want to be leaders.  I say that is nonsense!  I find it hard to believe that people are accidental leaders.  I’m sure it happens, but I’m willing to bet it is extremely rare.  I think you should want to lead.  Leadership encompasses so much that wanting to be a leader is only the beginning.  Taking care of people, making decisions, critical thinking, empathetic behavior, intelligence, honesty, competent, forward-looking or strategic, and many other things are great traits and actions for a leader.  But the best thing a leader can do is to decide to be a leader.  In any or all capacities.  Deciding to lead is the starting point, and it will open you up to a world of tough actions that lie ahead.  What do you do once you have decided to lead?  Determine the standard.

The Standard:

Everyone has standards but telling someone what your standards are is much more difficult.  A leader must be able to do this.  Perhaps not only verbally but through your actions.  Standards are what you use to guide your actions.  If someone in your organization does something wrong, what do you do about it?  As a leader, you must have that internal discussion and know what you should do.  What behaviors are expected in your organization and how do you articulate those behaviors?  Conversations.  Conversations are vital to the thorough understanding of concepts, and without conversations, we are limited to one-way communication which is a terrible way to establish standards. Once you have the standards figured out, you are good, right?  Wrong.

The Lesson:

The problem with experience is that is can create complacency, or at the very worst it can create arrogance and ego.  With arrogance and ego, the leader believes they know exactly what they are doing and no longer need to listen. This is why it is important to understand that a leader always has a lesson to learn.  There is always a better idea out there.  If you feel like you have arrived at the peak of your leadership mountaintop, there is a good chance you have only forgotten to look around.  You will always gain value from a different perspective, and when you don’t listen, you limit options.  Always look for the lesson you should learn, I guarantee there is one there.

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Leadership Patience

Leadership patience is the ability to lead without having to drive the train on every issue.  Many leaders struggle with this.  Even the best leaders struggle with letting go and gently guiding the direction of the organization instead of moving hard and fast on the issues.  Patience is often overlooked, especially when it comes to leadership.  Don’t get me wrong, there are most certainly times when you need to move quickly and decidedly, but if you are being a good leader, these moments will be rare.  Don’t worry, leaders don’t have all the answers, many times they have very few answers, but they do know how to get the team to discover the answers.  That is leadership patience.

Far too often I see leaders making decisions before the discussion and then fail to listen once the discussion happens because they already made the decision.  It can be difficult to hold off on making a decision, and most leaders know the direction they want to go, but make a deliberate effort to know the direction you want to go and then be receptive to different ways of how to get there.

New leaders need to be very careful about having preconceived notions about the organizations they are taking over.  Deciding what to do and how to do it before you have been brought up to speed on all the nuances of the organization is a costly mistake and the recovery can take significant time.  If you want to see how your ideas will be received, you can do that without giving away your desire to implement them.  Simply ask the question and listen to the response.  You should be able to distinguish biased answers from legitimately thoughtful responses.

Simply put, people do not like change.  In many cases, they will fight change even when they know it is a good change.  I think the biggest reason for this is because it takes energy to change.  In our busy organizations, change takes energy away from important things we are already doing.  Taking that energy and using it on change creates anxiety because the new process may not even work.  This is why following a change management methodology is wise.  It helps reduce the anxiety of change and can help create an intellectual and emotional drive to change which makes the effort worthwhile.

Listen to your people.  It takes longer, you might not get the answer you want, and your forfeit perceived control, but the only way to effectively lead is my listening to the people under your charge.  Listening is difficult for everyone and is especially difficult as we get older and more experienced.  So, take the time to listen, slow the process down and be patient!  We all know you could change it and be finished in a few days, but unless you want to be stuck doing the tactical level work, you need to be patient and take the few weeks to listen and create a plan the team is willing and excited to work with.

 

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Leadership is Uncomfortable

If you are doing it right, leadership is uncomfortable. Not in a weird, creepy way, but in an “I have to do things I don’t want to do kind of way.”  These “things” are different for everyone, but every leader has things they have to do that make them uncomfortable.  I think if we are honest with ourselves we mostly uncomfortable with the same few things.  We all know that getting outside of what makes us comfortable is vital for a leader but being honest about this and talking about these times will make it easier to step outside that comfort zone.  The few things I get uncomfortable with or at least give me some level of anxiety are below.

Making decisions.  I have no issues making a decision.  I rarely, if ever, get analysis paralysis, or make premature decisions.  I think I’m an above average at critical thinking.  But even with high self-confidence, I still get uncomfortable making decisions.  I want to make the right one, I know I will make mistakes, but what kind of mistake will I make and what cost will that mistake incur?   Will it hurt the people that work for me?  Will my decision set my organization back to a place that was even before I made the decision?  Time will be lost, but will that lost time be worth it?  The big thing with making decisions is to realize that you will make a mistake, you will screw it up from time to time.  But as long as you recognize these moments early and learn from them, the lost time is not wasted.  It is time well spent because you learned and will apply it the next time you face that situation.

Tough conversations (confrontation). Talking to your boss about their toxic behavior, telling a coworker they smell bad and need to shower, telling someone you like that they are doing a lousy job, or firing them.  These are all very uncomfortable situations, and they never get better.  The hardest for me is to tell your peer or your supervisor that they are making a mistake or doing something that is causing a problem.  It is especially tricky when you know they will react poorly to your input.  The best way to handle this is to provide many examples and do your best to be gentle.  Taking criticism is hard but getting into a match of who makes the most mistakes will not help the situation.  Give them an opportunity to respond to the criticism, but don’t get involved in a back and forth about who does what.  If they want to talk about your behavior, tell them that you are more than willing to discuss it after you have resolved the current issue.  Being calm and reasonable is usually the best way to deal with the confrontation.

Pressure to perform.  Let’s face it; performance is why you get paid.  A leader is responsible for tasks that they are not actually going to do.  You have to ensure people do well and to do that you must make sure the processes are there to support high-quality work.  This, above all, is uncomfortable.  How do you get people to perform at a high level?  How do you get them to want to do the tedious work and do it every day?  Everywhere and every job is different, but listening to your people is the first step, having high standards, feeding confidence to your people and holding them accountable is a great start.  Work hard and be deliberate in your actions and you will do great.

 

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