I love dogs. Often, when I'm introducing myself to a new client team, I share that my two favorite things are dogs and mountains. This weekend, we attended a social gathering and when we arrived, I noticed two dogs in a nice enclosure near the house. Of course, I headed that way - there were dogs. As I neared the enclosure I saw a sign that simply said “We Bite”. It didn’t deter me, it didn’t even slow me down, there were dogs!
I got to the enclosure and squatted down, the elder of the two barked over and over; not a vicious bark or a mean bark - but a consistent and repeated bark. We looked at each other and he calmed. I was doing all the right things, a non-threatening stance; a calm and confident approach; speaking softly. I eased the back of my hand toward him and he pushed his muzzle through the fence. He sniffed my hand, and touched his wet nose to me. And, I thought - “I got this, dogs love me” and then fast as lightning, he chomped my hand. I won’t say that it didn’t hurt, it did - but what really got me was the surprise of it, the unexpectedness of him biting my hand. (Unexpected? Yes, unexpected.)
I stood up and walked away, I promptly found my partner and tattled on myself. She responded with a very matter-of-fact “I know you saw that sign.” And, she was right. I had seen the sign, I had read the sign and made the clear choice to ignore that same sign. To be very honest, the incident made me consider what other “signs” I ignore.
Working with a coach helps me see these more clearly. It raises my awareness. As I pursue deeper levels of coach training, I’ve been working with a coach regularly myself. It’s very much like having an extra level of perception.
I still love dogs. I still want to pet all the dogs. And, I’d like to avoid being bitten - so I do think I’ll pay more attention to those signs.
What about you? Are there signs in your life that you choose not to see? Are you interested in learning to see them? Are you comfortable ignoring the signs and dealing with the bites?
Three men walked down the road,
As down the road walked he
-The man they saw
-The man he was, and
-The man he wanted to be
In 1982 (wow) I was a ninth grader at a school with a Junior ROTC program. Our teacher was a former drill instructor, a lifelong Marine, and an all-around interesting man. I did not impress him nearly as much as he impressed me. He dropped these words of wisdom on us in class once, and though I do not remember the context of the sharing, I have carried those words since.
The meaning that I’ve found in them has shifted over these many years, and continues to shift. Early on, it was about how we masked our true selves from others and how we aspired for a different future self. At this point in my life, I see it more about self-awareness, about authenticity, about growing. Who knows what it will mean to me in another 25 years.
So Tim, what’s your point? Well, I’m glad you asked.
In leadership, authenticity shines. It gives those you lead a beacon to follow through cloudy and uncertain times. Authentic leaders build trust, model integrity by aligning their words and actions, take ownership of wins and losses, show the appropriate blend of positive and realistic views. Big boots, aren’t they?
Think about this with me for a minute. Imagine a Venn diagram with a circle each for: who they saw, who he was, and who he wanted to be. If I recall my algebra terminology correctly, intersection is the space where the circles overlap. Thus, we become more authentic as we increase the area of intersection that these circles have with each other.
Self-awareness creates this area of intersection. Self-awareness provides a key to authentic leadership. Self-awareness is a journey, not a destination. I don’t really believe that many of us ever get these circles to fully overlap; I do believe that persistent effort and focus on becoming better will increase this are of intersection.
Tell me what you think.
In the early 90’s, I found myself in a leadership role with a small company. The CEO lacked any level of refined interpersonal skills; he bullied, he coerced, and was a generally unpleasant human being. But boy let me tell you - he could he spin a yarn.
He had a gold tooth and a very misshapen nose and occasionally, at leadership meetings, he would tell the tale of being young and brash with more confidence than skill and ending up with what he called his “souvenirs”. He would relate his “souvenirs” to a tough, hands-on defeat, to lessons learned and to overcoming setbacks, to grit.
His stories engaged the leadership team. He had others: his rags-to-riches story about taking risks and managing losses and succeeding in business; his stories of hustling deals with sketchy suppliers in his early days. And though, I did not like him as a person, or as a boss - I stayed with the company longer than I wanted simply because he was interesting.
When I turned in my resignation, of course, he had a story for me - a story of a poor decision he’d made, of not following through when things got hard. He told me that he didn’t want me to make a similar mistake. The story got me thinking, and I waffled for just a second before sticking with my choice to leave.
As I said, he was a pretty terrible boss and an unpleasant man. I never missed working for him, not a single day, but from time to time, I did miss his stories.
As my new career progressed, I worked for many leaders with many styles and many strengths. It was years before I experienced anyone who could engage a team with story as well as that old CEO. As I moved into leadership development work, I learned more about “storytelling” as a leadership skill. I often found myself thinking of that unpleasant CEO, often wondering what a powerhouse he might have been had he worked on his emotional intelligence.
A story can explain data, engage a workforce, motivate a team, close a sale, touch a heart, change a mind. As a leader, do you use storytelling? A good story, well told is an incredibly powerful tool. Think back on your own experience, what leaders have you had that used story effectively? What did you learn from them? From their stories?
I have a bird feeder outside one of my windows, and though I don’t often make time for it, I deeply enjoy watching the birds that visit. Regulars include cardinals, a red-bellied woodpecker, the occasional blue jay, chickadees, titmouses, and doves, always doves. The doves feed on the ground, they pick from the seeds the others scatter from above. I like the doves, the seem conscientious and calm.
While I watched this morning, I noticed something I had not seen prior. Usually the doves just hop around and eat their seeds and largely ignore one another, in what seems to me a respectful disinterest. Today, one hopped aggressively after the others, his feathers fluffed and chest puffed out. He acted like a little bully, chasing the others away from the plentiful food.
I wondered what made him seem so threatened that he needed to act that way toward the others. I thought about self-awareness. I found myself thinking about the times that I had been on a team, or in a work group, and how I may have behaved toward my peers.
Most of us, regardless of our role, work in some sort of a team or group setting. How do you act toward your teammates? Do you find yourself acting like this dove, needing to establish your success at the expense of others? I know that at past points in my life, I certainly treated co-workers as competition. At those points, I struggled to see how “we” could be greater than “me”; I struggled to see how our work accomplished a single goal. I won’t blame that on my leadership at the time, but I do think that leadership could have influenced how we worked together.
In coaching, one of the tenets has to do with people acting in their own interest. We all do it, the variance comes in how we do it, how well we do it, and how much awareness of it we have. This morning, all of the doves acted in their own interest, but this puffed-up dove, he acted in his interest to the detriment of others. The way he acted stepped past self-interest into selfishness.
As a leader, how do you experience the other leaders in your section, or in your department? Do you see them as collaborators or competition? How do you encourage your team to act toward each other? What behavior do you model for team, for your peers?
Self-interest exists, selfishness doesn’t have to.
I talked with my grandmother this morning, she’s 92 and I call her a few times each month. Her memory is not what it once was, and often we have the same conversation - the weather, family, my work, people. We almost always talk about people, particularly the attitudes that people hold.
I find it insightful and it often relates to my work. She drops some elder-wisdom on me, and I truly enjoy how she words things. I doubt that she would find meaning in the phrase “emotional intelligence” though we often talk about exactly that - particularly the area of self-awareness.
During one of our recent chats, she said something along the lines of “and Tim, some people are just grumpy with themselves and how are they gonna be kind to anyone else, if they can’t be kind to themselves.” That one stuck with me for a while. I first connected it to self-awareness and self talk, and as I thought on it more I recognized the aspects of a growth mindset hidden in her words.
Acting “grumpy with yourself” doesn’t just represent your self-talk, it’s deeper than that - it shows how you treat yourself, how you experience yourself. And, I deeply believe that the relationship we have with ourselves influences ALL of our other relationships. As a leader, think how much of your work relies on relationships - could you estimate that as a percentage? And what about your results? What percentage of your results come from relationships?
In my coaching work, I often encourage leaders to look at their self-awareness, at their self-talk, at their mindset. Imagine how your mindset filters your worldview. How might a different filter shift that view? How might that different view affect your relationships, your results?
Like any shift, it starts with creating awareness. Are you grumpy with yourself? Are you willing to look at that? Are you willing to look at how it affects you? And, if you find that you are, do you want something different for yourself? Do you have the desire to treat yourself better?
I’ll leave you with this old adage - “would you let someone else treat you, the way you treat yourself?”
A former co-worker, when facing an interaction with someone she found unpleasant, would often say “I need to find something to like about him.” I always saw the wisdom in her approach, but the execution eluded me. Most of the time, people I experienced as unpleasant simply kept that label until I experienced them differently. She, on the other hand, would seek more information about that unpleasant person, actively looking for some common ground on which to build.
Recently, I attended a talk by Marga Odahowski, a corporate Mindfulness Consultant, who asked the question, “What does your routine keep you from noticing?” It’s a great question, and I want to pass it along to you.
I am not criticizing routines, personally I’m a big fan - I strongly believe that mine make me efficient and effective. I am sharing Marga’s question because it’s insightful and powerful. If answered, it creates awareness and that can lead to different approaches, to different efficiencies, to different results.
In her own way, my former co-worker used a version of this question when she met someone who rubbed her wrong. Like many mindfulness related activities, the question encourages you to create a pause between stimulus and action/reaction.
A personal example, I have INTJ preferences and often find it challenging to work with people who have ESTP preferences. It isn’t that I dislike them, it's more that their “seize the day” approach often feels at odds with my detached, analytical style. I’m learning that my “routine”, in this case, keeps me from noticing the spontaneity, energy and pragmatic, problem-solving often associated with ESTPs.
What’s the leadership lesson in this? I’m glad you asked, as a leader, you typically don’t have to look far, or hard to find someone you experience as difficult - an employee, a client, a peer, a manager - opportunities abound.
What’s your routine in those cases? Does it include labeling them as someone to contend with? What hidden gems might you not be noticing about them? What strengths might you be overlooking? How might their differences, or even difficulties add a perspective that you might not have?
I’m working hard on finding things to like about people, especially when that isn’t my immediate reaction. I hope to encourage you to do the same. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, on Marga’s question and on your own experiences.
I recently shared A Lesson About Resilience and talked about understanding resilience as including both toughness and vulnerability. Toughness, or tenacity gets you back up after a fall and vulnerability lets you own that failure. What makes resilience so important for leaders?
In her 2013 HBR article “Surprises Are the New Normal; Resilience the New Skill”, Rosabeth Moss Kanter states that “the difference between winners and losers is how they handle losing”.
I’ll share a secret with you… we all fail; at some point, in some way. And, if you never lose, then you aren’t playing hard enough.
I recently worked with a struggling leadership team. As we explored their team dynamics, two members adamantly talked about how much they didn’t want to fail; didn’t want to risk failure. As I listened, I heard a lot of ego, I heard a lot of “I”.
I won’t go so far as to say there is no room for ego in leadership; I will say there are different aspects to ego and some of them connect to good leadership and some don’t. Fear of failure keeps your focus on you, the individual, instead of on your role as leader of a team.
Think about the impact you have on the work environment. Do your people, your employees; do they see you fail? Do you create an environment that is intolerant of failure? What effect does this have on your people? Have you considered this?
Do you model resilience? Does your team see you get back up, dust yourself off and take that next step? Do they hear you own failure, do they hear you say “Well, that didn’t work out like I thought it would. What can I do differently when I try again?”
Failure is inevitable; resilience is not. Show your team, show your people what resilience looks like. Show them how to get back up and try again.
I’ll date myself with this one.
There is a Larry McMurtry song, from a lifetime ago, titled Painting By Numbers. It's kind of about abdicating your right/ability to choose, so that you do what’s expected, to follow the rules, not have to think too hard. It also brings to mind the old “paint by numbers” kits that were all the rage when I was a kid. You didn’t have to over think them, you didn’t have to interpret anything. You had to pay attention, keep your brush clean, keep a fairly steady hand.
I spoke with a friend recently and she told me about her new boss - late 30’s, bright, dedicated, busy. I asked about his leadership style and she said, “Well, it's a little like he leads by checklist.” I asked her to tell me more, and she added, “it’s like he has these ‘things’ he’s supposed to do: greet each employee as they come by, check-in with everyone on the team at some point each day, ask about their weekend on Monday, have an eight minute development talk twice each quarter - that kind of stuff.”
I said that none of those sounded bad, some of my favorite leaders did similar things. My friend replied, “yea, that’s just it, he does all the right things, but it doesn’t feel genuine; it feels like he does them because they’re expected of him, like he’s following a plan, like they’re on a checklist.” Then I got it.
Leadership is a real thing. True, it’s about results, but it's about achieving results through relationships, through people. You manage resources; you lead people.
Leadership is art and science. And, you need both to be at your best. One of the biggest keys to effective leadership is taking the science aspect of it and bringing it to life, that’s the art of it. And, when I say art, I mean heart, or my preferred phrase - (He)art & Science.
Yes, checklists are good tools; books are good for learning. It’s important to know the elements of effective communication, it's important to understand goal setting, planning and delegation, it’s important to achieve results.
You also have to connect with your people; you have to build the relationships that allow you to achieve the results. For that, you need to listen and connect, to provide feedback and praise, you need to operate with emotional intelligence, you need to be positive and resilient. And most importantly, you need to be authentic and genuine. Otherwise, it feels hollow, it feels inauthentic - it feels like you’re leading by checklist.
While a “paint by numbers” kit might help you get started, at some point you’ll want to move toward a Bob Ross style of painting. A style that feels like your own; a style that feels less rigid, more adaptive, more genuine; a style that balances (He)art & Science.
A mentor once shared with me, “if you want to know if you’re really a leader, just look behind you.”
The dictionary says resilience means:
I jokingly say that resilience is my superpower. If I’m backpacking, my resilience allows me to go that last mile, when everything hurts and I’m really tired and hungry. If I’m hiking in the thin-air of the Colorado mountains, resilience spurs me to just take the next step, and the next step, and the next step - until I get to the top.
I was talking with coaching a peer recently, and the topic of resilience came up. I shared my take on it, and she pushed back a little. She agreed, resilience is largely about toughness, but she felt I missed an important part of the formula. She mentioned vulnerability. She feels strongly that resilience also includes a component of vulnerability. She made a compelling case, and while I did not disagree, I struggled to see the connection in a way that made sense to me.
Vulnerability implies: susceptibility to risk, exposure to potential hazard. When I look from my own perspective vulnerability implies weakness. Now before anyone jumps on me for saying that - let me clarify; I am not saying vulnerability is bad. I am saying that from my perspective, I associate with risk and exposure; it’s something to be managed. And, there are often times making ourselves vulnerable is wholly appropriate. As I said, I didn’t disagree with her her, I simply struggled to see the connection first hand.
Yesterday, I was at the gym, an older gentleman a few machines down finished his workout and was wiping down the treadmill. As he sprayed it with cleaner, he overshot giving the two women in front of him a healthy spritz. They startled and screeched a little. He immediately smiled, apologized, and then added “there’s no charge for that!”. They laughed, he laughed, even I laughed.
In that moment, I understood what my friend meant. If I had sprayed cleaner on someone at the gym and startled them, I would have certainly apologized, likely in a sheepish manner. I would have thought to myself, “ok, you messed that up - let’s try to not do that again”, I would have moved on. But that isn’t what he did, is it? I mean it is, but he took it a step further - he made himself vulnerable to others. For him, that was part of his “getting back up”; part of his “ability to return to original form”.
What do you think? How do you see resilience?
Monday was a snow day here, and 10” of snow in this part of Virginia will largely shut things down, at least for the day. No school meant that the boys were home.
The little guy is eight, very bright and very active. He’s been part of my life for five years, and while he is too young to really “type” his personality, I often see many of the hallmarks of ESFP preferences in his behavior. That puts him on the other end of each MBTI dichotomy as my preferences for INTJ. You can imagine, that there are times we stress each other out.
We decided to take advantage of the snow and our long, steep driveway and do a little sledding. We had big fun riding down the hill, joking each other, throwing snowballs - you get the picture. After an hour or so, he told me he was ready to go in. I had some outdoor chores to take care of, and knew that I wouldn’t be there to supervise removal of the snow clothes.
He tends to put things “down” when he is done with them, as opposed to putting them “away”, My best guess is that this is not just related to his preferences, but also to his age. However, experience had taught me that if I didn’t want to walk in and find a pile of wet clothes that I needed to say something. I squatted down and got eye-to-eye with him, then said “when you get to the basement door, kick the snow off your boots before you go in, and neatly put your snow clothes in the basement.” He said “ok” and for good measure, I said “neatly” once more. And with that he traipsed off toward the house.
About 30 minutes later, I came in half snow-blind to see what looked like snow clothes strewn across the basement floor. As my eyes adjusted and I flipped on the light, this is what I saw…
I laughed and thought to myself - that is not what I would have done, but it was in fact, very “neat”. I thought about the lessons here for me; a lesson about expectations and a lesson about perspective.
As leaders, we often allow biases to form based on our interactions with those we lead. Those biases definitely affect our expectations. My bias was clear, it is what made me emphasize “neatly” and to say it more than once. When I stepped into the basement, on some level, I was expecting a pile of wet clothes. So I have to ask myself, how did that expectation shape my thinking before I stepped in? And the immediate follow up, how does it affect my expectations for the other times and ways we interact?
The next thing that came to mind was perspective. I said “neatly” and I knew exactly what I meant. A word like neatly leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and interpretation is based on perspective. When leading others, do we communicate clearly? Are we shaping our message to our audience? Are we telling them what we need to tell them in a way they will understand it? Are we empowering them to succeed?
One of the funniest parts is that even though he didn’t do it like I would have done it, his way was probably "neater". As I said, he is a very bright kid.