Welcome All!

If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Leadership, Perseverance, and Resilience

"There are no easy businesses. Every single one is hard. Having perseverance means, most critically, persevering through failure. I love to talk about my successes, but the only way that I’ve ever learned anything is through failure." 
- Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone

Another of the many possible introductions to this topic is Theodore Roosevelt, born in Manhattan in 1858. “Teedie”, as he was called, was said to be a beautiful baby with strong, intelligent parents. It should have been an idyllic childhood but Teedie, was not as healthy as he appeared. He continuously suffered from severe asthma, coughs, fevers, nausea and diarrhea. He was small and thin, became malnourished, and was often forced by his asthma to sleep sitting up in chairs. Several times, he came dangerously close to dying from lack of oxygen. Not to paint too negative a picture, Teedie was an active boy and had a fantastic personality. He was full of curiosity about nature and led expeditions of cousins to find squirrels, snakes, and anything that could be dissected. His asthma confined him and turned him to books, which he devoured throughout his life. He was sickly but did not suffer from a lack of desire to live.

When he was thirteen he noticed that his friends where reading a billboard that he didn't realize had writing on it, and so it was discovered that he was very nearsighted. During a trip to the country due to asthma Teedie was bothered by boys and could not defend himself. He told his father he wanted to learn to box. By the time he went to Harvard, he was a healthier Teddy and a regular winner of athletic contests. The rest is history. Teedie Roosevelt became a successful New York assemblyman, the New York commissioner of police, Assistant secretary of the Navy, the Governor of New York, best-selling author, and the youngest president of the United States.

The big question here: How is it that someone so sickly should become so healthy, vigorous, and successful? Why is it that some children or adults, sickly or not, thrive, while others wither away? What does it take to overcome adversity and thrive despite multiple or long-term set-backs? Was Roosevelt’s drive specific for him or is it something that lies within each of us? There are many approaches to these questions. One of them is by a young Viennese physician named Alfred Adler who was intrigued by these kinds of questions. It led him to develop his theory, called Individual Psychology. Adler stated that a “striving for perfection” is the single drive or motivating force behind all our behavior and experience. (Could this be one part of the workings behind: “If I can’t be the best at something good I’ll be the best and something bad” that we see in some children and adults?). Adler was influenced by the writings of Jan Smuts, the South African philosopher and statesman who believed that we have to view people more as unified wholes than as a collection of bits and pieces and that we have to understand them in the context of their environment, both physical and social. This approach that Adler took very much to heart is now widely known as holism.

A second foundation of Adler’s approach is the idea of social interest or social feeling. As social animals, we simply don't exist, much less thrive, without others and without considering our social environment. Adler felt that social concern was not simply inborn, nor just learned, but a combination of both: It is based on an innate disposition, but it has to be nurtured to survive, with the lack of social concern constituting the heart of mental ill-health.

Back to our present day leaders, back to you and your perseverance, resilience, and choices:
1.    How does your social concern relate to personal concern?
2.    When were you last confronted with failure and what effect did it have on you?
3.    Do you bounce back from failure and do you know how to learn from mistakes?
4.    Are you able and willing to make midcourse corrections?
5.    Are you willing to amend a belief that has become an obstacle?
6.    Are you capable of rising above the doom and gloom and succeed in the face of some insurmountable circumstances in a timely way?

Even great leaders make mistakes. Of course they do. They are humans too. Great leaders distinguish themselves from the rest by inner strength to face their failures graciously and turn them into lessons learned, not worrying obsessively about their ego nor about looking good in the eyes of stakeholders and faking to be infallible. They are guided more by values, vision, purposeful living, and a holistic view of the world than by personal superiority and success alone. And this exactly makes them personally successful most of the time.

A last note on holism. We all seem to understand that rising food prices or oppressive regimes, to name just two examples, are related to poverty, disease, unhappiness, and unrest and that they can lead to protests – violent or peaceful – which in turn may jeopardize political stability and even ignite shifts in political systems as we are witnessing this very moment. But we also understand that many more other factors need to be in place for such a change to occur - we see the holistic workings behind these processes and their chain reactions. To what extent do you apply this system thinking or holistic approach to yourself, your choices, your leadership? It does matter who you surround yourself with, it does matter how you treat everyone in your organization, it does matter what food you eat (but be assured, no culinary advice here) and what business rituals you choose and it does matter what vision, purpose, and values you formulate and how you act upon them.

Leadership is diverse, challenging, complex, exciting, tough, surprising, and a “gutsy business”. In case you need some encouragement, look around you, and see the person struggling with addiction, overcoming hurdle by hurdle and at times, falling back, but often getting up when being knocked down. Look and see the many elderly people taking their increasingly failing bodies with its effects on daily living graciously and focusing on meaning and purpose in the latter part of their lives. Look and see the single parent working multiple jobs or odd hours to combine childrearing with generating income while sacrificing personal needs and wishes to provide for their children in the best possible way they can. Look and see victims of natural disaster upon disaster. They continue to live, often against all odds, generally emerging stronger and more determined than before. Look and see how they creatively adjust to their circumstances and how they show the inner strength to continue and to persevere, sometimes against all odds, just like great leadership requires.

If you are looking for additional inspiration I recommend clips on Dick and Rick Hoyt - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPSUrR3ipQc or on Nick Vujicic - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciYk-UwqFKA .If you love books just like I do you can read Helen Keller’s autobiography or any of the other amazing stories on bouncing back and resilience. More on the specifics of resilience in one of my next essays on my blog.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Female Leadership – The Real Struggle?

Make-up, flirting, dancing, and bling outfits. A beauty contest as we’ve seen them so often. This one has a twist, however. Its men not women who dress up and the women get to pick the winners. I am talking the Wodaabe people of Niger, where male contestants paint their faces with red, white, and yellow clay and dance for hours to impress female judges who may take them as lovers, even if both already have partners. These unusual beauty contests, known as Gerewol, celebrate the fertility the rains bring to the parched edge of the Sahara. Drought, conflict and, more recently, insurgency from al-Qaeda's North African offshoot have prevented the celebrations from being practiced frequently. Only when there is enough water to support several hundred people in one place do the normally isolated Wodaabe gather.

Western women may dream of equivalents of this reversed male-female situation, like seeing female executives heading the corporate world. The facts about women in top positions are still shocking. Although women make up over half of America's workforce, as of 2009, only 13 Fortune 500 companies and only 25 Fortune 1000 companies have women CEOs or presidents. Women receive about six in ten college degrees, yet near the top there remains slow progress in the number of female directors, officers, and women in the pipeline, according to research by Catalyst and Corporate Library. Catalyst, the not-for-profit New York-based women's research organization, points out that its data shows a change over the last ten years. From 11.2% of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies being women in 1998 to still only 15.7% in 2008. At this rate, it would take another 40 years for the number of female corporate officers to match the number of male officers. What to make of this?
Allow me a side step with a purpose. Author Shelby Steele in his book “The content of our Character” defines the present problem for blacks as not having abandoned the victim – role. Could this be the case for women in the corporate world? Steele asserts that leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton make claims for special treatment solely on the basis of skin color and historic bad treatment.  But their claims fall on increasingly deaf ears, says Steele, and, unfortunately serve to foster a corrosive atmosphere of black dependence on white largesse. Steele continues that there will be no end to despair and no lasting solution to any of our problems until we rely on individual effort within the American mainstream rather than on collective action against the mainstream as our means of advancement. Maybe this is too strong, or better, too one-sided of an argument, and I am well aware of all the resentment and opposition women may confront in their way up the corporate ladder, but it sure supports my belief in the power of individual effort, in ownership, in personal responsibility, in perseverance, and in personal willpower and sacrifice – all necessary ingredients to be able to do what it takes to get where you want to be whether you’re born male or female.

Of course it’s tempting to blame the reluctant and male-dominated corporate arena for too few women at the top. Sure enough there was and is discrimination and harassment, there are biases and limitations and many other challenges for women climbing the ladder. I do not, however, want to get caught up in this debate that holds truths and exaggerations as well as misguided beliefs and incomplete conclusions. So I will not swamp you in a historical, psychological, socio-political or any other analysis of the ‘female struggle to the top’. For women that made the choice in favor of a career, whether it be combined with raising a family or not, they face challenges that in many ways are similar to those of their male counterparts. Many of the same ingredients for success apply to both genders. At the end of the day, it comes down to the question: Are you willing and capable of doing what it takes to get yourself and your career to the highest possible point – if that’s your goal? For females to become corporate leaders it takes resilience, stamina, strong values, vision, passion, humbleness, authenticity, astuteness, endless determination, and perseverance and sacrifices. It is my belief that the list for men looks pretty much the same. 

During my career I have coached female leaders who regularly confessed to me that one of the hardest struggles can be balancing between doing and being what they think their (often male) counterparts expect of them and what they really feel is the right thing to show and do, to just be themselves, whether it be considered ‘female’ or not. This is perception and expectation management and touches upon inner strength and confidence more than anything else.

Notwithstanding apparent gender-based injustice, discrimination, and harassment I suggest every female’s focus be on her own circle of influence and on her own power and perseverance. If you are a female leader or aspiring to grow into one, do not fall into the ‘victim-trap’. Instead, ask yourself questions like: What are my beliefs about leaders from both genders? What are my beliefs about the effect of gender on leaders, how they are perceived, and how they perform? What strengths and inner resources will I be able to draw from? Do I feel I should be given extra slack and chances merely because I was born female? Do I need regulations and preferential treatment or do I need individual effort, personal responsibility, perseverance, and willpower in addition to expertise, content, and interpersonal strengths to make it as a female leader?

On a lighter note, the Nigel Cole directed industrial action movie “Made in Dagenham” might serve as an inspiration on the topic of female leadership. It’s a 2010 dramatization of the 1968 strike at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, England, where female workers walked out fighting for equal pay. The main character played by Sally Hawkins serves as a reminder that you don’t have to be a leader in the traditional sense to be leading.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Presenting with presence and impact

Will I do well selling this concept?
Will I be able to answer all questions the best possible way?
Will I be convincing in promoting this drastic strategy change? 
How will they respond to my explanation of the budget problems?

Many questions, or better: worries. Recognize any of them?
As Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Aurelius stated, “Our live is what our thoughts make it”.  And as any motor cycle rider, horseback rider, and car driver knows: we go where our focus lies. What is your focus and which are your goals when presenting? Which are your beliefs and thoughts when preparing for a presentation and while taking the stage? Are you striving to have all the answers, to swiftly redirect all criticism, to show off how well you know your facts. Are you focused on leaving the impression of a smashing presenter and an effective change maker?

If you do, your tensions can be daunting, your worries overwhelming. They can evaporate your breath, your focus, and your confidence. They can lead to defense mechanisms and retreating in the trenches rather than connecting, inspiring, and moving and motivating your audience.  

Or you might not yet have recognized yourself in this writing. Maybe this is you: you are authentic, human, and fallible. Your presentation is more like a conversation. You show and share your passion and your purpose. You value differences. You are open to other perspectives and view them as enriching rather than threatening. Maybe you can laugh about your goof-ups. You reflect on yourself and get into the helicopter while being on stage.

Yes, of course, preparation, knowing your facts, experiencing some tension, catering to your audience, arriving on time, and familiarizing yourself with the environment are all important facets of a successful presentation, of a successful performance. It's well known that presentations serve to entertain, inform, persuade, or inspire and in order to achieve that, you have to be clear, brief, and convincing while providing your audience with specific action steps.

So, there are many different kinds of presentations with different audiences and purposes. Which means this writing is not a silver bullet nor a one-size-fits-all remedy. I merely suggest you focus less on ‘me’ and more on ‘we’. I suggest you view any performance, whether it be an official presentation or a meeting of some sort as a dialogue, as a work in progress. I merely suggest you see your presentation as an opportunity to share your vision, passion, and goals. To see it as a forum to spark interest and to increase commitment. I suggest you see the opportunities that a two-way endeavor can provide you with. Give it a try and see for yourself what difference it makes for you. 

Just a few of the many possible questions you might want to ask yourself in preparation of your presentation or meeting:
1.    What do I want to accomplish with this presentation or meeting?
-       Is it about me, them, a product/service, a thought?
-       Do I want to inspire or coerce, influence or control, persuade or manipulate?  
2.    What’s my view on the different means through which to accomplish this goal?
-       Do I believe I can convince, inspire, inform by focusing on me and on facts?
-       Do I believe that I have to overwhelm or ignite?
-       Do I believe in numbers, in stories, in emotions, or in a combination?
3.    Which are my beliefs about my audience and about myself?
-       Do I see them as equals or not?
-       Do I see myself as an authority not to be questioned?
-       Do I enjoy different views and integrate them in my presentation to the benefit of the greater good?
With many more questions to ask and ponder.

A slip of the tongue, a forgotten fact, a misplaced sheet, a technical disturbance, a dead moment in your presentation – none of these equal failure no matter how terrible and inexcusable they may seem at the moment. They merely equal being human, they equal opportunities to show strength in acknowledging the humanity of mistakes and to show your creative dealing with unfortunate mishaps. Authenticity, passion, and connectivity are key.

Me? I rather leave a lasting, authentic impression than gain a quick buy-in. How about you?

“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them”

A Personal Perspective on Change - guest writer Rian

My life has seen quite a few changes in recent years. It has always fascinated me why things happen the way they happen. You may think differently, but I am convinced that things happen for a reason, even though we might not always be able to see or comprehend that reason. Such is the case in my life.

In 2006 I started my journey in search for some answers to important questions in my life. This was the start of a period of change. A change within me: what position do I take in life, how do I view life, how do I want to lead my life? A journey into my values and boundaries and into who I really am.

In the latter half of 2008 a big change was added to this journey. Our family moved to the U.S. This was a physical change: a change of environment, culture, language, habits and thus a change in how we perceive our own culture, habits, and environment. You only realize this change of how you perceive your own culture when placed back in that old culture. A culture that suddenly doens’t feel that familiar anymore. This is a very distinct experience.

Changes can be conscious choices, they can cross your path, or they can be caused by certain situations or  opportunities. Either way, change is movement and can elicit all kinds of responses. Sometimes you immediately feel that a change is a positive experience and it makes you feel happy. Other times you might feel surprised by the change because you discover a piece of yourself that you weren’t aware of yet and which makes you feel good. Whenever this happens, I perceive it as a connection with who I really am. I had this experience during our stay in the U.S. I discovered that the space that is literally available provided me with space to breathe and it allowed me to be who I really wanted to be. I felt more energy because I wasn’t constantly confronted with the energy in my environment. Our home had a most wonderful view of wetlands through which I could recharge my battery within minutes.

Because we had a new start with all new people around us I had and took the chance to present myself the way I really was and felt at that time. There was noone who had a history with me and who tried to place me back in his familiar world and in preconceived molds.

A change, however, can also be perceived as negative. It can cause sadness because you have to let go of something or someone that you would have loved to hold on to a little longer. It might feel as if you’re back where you started. I strongly felt this way when we were unexpectedly relocated back to the Netherlands, earlier than we anticipated. I grieved for the loss of space and nature surrounding us in the U.S. and for the fact that I wasn’t quite done with my new experience yet. Life in the Netherlands had, of course, taken its predictable course, nothing much had changed, except for me. As a result of my new experiences I felt (and actually still feel) that habits that seemed so obvious before, didn’t seem obvious or self-evident to me at all - not anymore. To me, the fact that something had always been a certain way didn’t mean that it had to stay that way. For my environment, nothing much had changed and I felt the expectation that it would be nothing less than normal that I’d step right back into the old, familiar world that I had previously lived in. This was terribly confusing for people in my environment, and even more so for myself.

The Netherlands is so much smaller. There are many people living too closely together. Everything is happening at a fast pace with much impatience and it seems like nobody has time to listen and to see what is really happening around them. Everyone seems to be shouting and fighting for their own spot. This change was and still is my own fight. Because I still want to be able to breathe and feel the space and peace inside me to be who I really want to be. I want to take time even though life seems to rush by. I do now realize that also this change is a movement forward since it is impossible to really move backwards. And as I stated before, nothing happens without a reason. My challenge is, wherever I am, to be who I want to be and to take my own responsibility for my own life and happiness.

I have already broken many circles in which I previously was going round and round. I am also aware that I’m probably still walking other circles that I do not yet see, or maybe I don’t want to see them yet until I am aware of self-repeating patterns and events and I choose to change whatever I can and want to change. Or merely accept whatever I don’t want to change or think I cannot change. This requires courage and confidence because fear for the unknown can be daunting at times.

I know one thing: If I don’t change anything, I will keep getting what I’m already getting so If I want something else I will have to change something.

By my dear friend Rian Peeperkorn

Saturday, February 19, 2011


The last of three parts: The Power of Reflection
With all the contemplating and questioning comes the art of reflection. I call it an art because I think it’s a beautiful and creative process. Reflection, however, is really a skill. It’s something that can be learned. Most importantly, something that has to learn how to climb its way up the leader’s priority ladder, up anybody’s priority ladder, regardless of position, field of expertise, level of influence or whatever other distinguishing factor.
Reflection is often thought of as something luxurious and something passive. Something you do if you really don’t know what else to do. Maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but to make it clear: reflection is not for softies nor does it reflect inertia. And it certainly isn’t a waste of time. Reflection is actually an active process: it is thinking, pondering, considering, re-organizing and thereby often creating something new or realizing what is, why it is, and how great (or not) things are.
Back to the everyday reality of most managers and leaders, though. Often, you are too busy running from meeting to meeting, talking with stakeholders, implementing the business strategy, and keeping all other balls in the air. It is highly likely that you ‘find no time’ to reflect. For reflection to seriously take its place on your priority list, you must recognize the need and the power of reflection. As was described in parts 1 and 2, asking yourself questions, and asking the right questions, is crucial for learning, rejuvenating, creating, staying on the right track, changing tracks, and moving towards growth and change. Reflection is one of your key tools to accomplish just that.
Respectfully appreciating your busy reality, I advise you to make reflection a habit. Some people like to reflect during a staring contest with their backyard, others while walking the dog, still others while taking a brief break between meetings. Or you might prefer to reflect while taking a shower, while reading a book and relating it to your own leadership and business, or while driving back home from work, or while just sitting in your comfy chair without doing anything else. The “where” of your reflection isn’t exactly important. What matters is that you take time to step back, get into that helicopter, and look at your own thinking and acting, the results you are creating, and, most importantly, your underlying values and the purpose that it should be serving.
Stepping away from the problem and from your crazy daily schedule to reflect helps you to purposefully evaluate your leadership being and your being in general. It often frees creativity that lay buried deep under the many meetings, projects, deadlines, and appointments that may swamp your daily schedule. Stepping back from daily habits and routines helps you question the ‘why’ of these very habits and routines. Are they still useful, purposeful, the best possible choice? Reflection provides more perspectives and thereby more options and choices, which is what strategic leadership is all about.
Reflection can result in reconsidering fundamental assumptions on which your way of doing business or your leadership is based. It’s like asking the “why” question as Kenichi Ohmae suggested. Asking the why question over and over again, until you get to the bottom of the issue, value, or concern. Another advantage, if you needed one more: reflection helps you to see yourself more clearly and enables you to laugh about yourself – which many of us do too little of – and to see the bigger picture, sometimes even seeing a significantly different picture from before.
In short: reflection – an underused tool for leaders (and other humans). A powerful tool, for everyone.  


Drawn from the book
“Ubuntu” – An inspiring story about an African tradition of teamwork and collaboration”
by Stephen Lundin and Bob Nelson, 2010

In Africa there is a concept known as Ubuntu – the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others. So Ubuntu is very low on Ego stuff which is often so dominantly present in our private and work environments.

The focus of most people’s attention is often on our differences, despite the fact that it doesn’t really matter who you are, what you look like and where you live, and despite the fact that we have similar values and essentially the same genes. Still, we often focus on our differences – Arab and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Christian, liberal and conservative, the color of our skin, and many more possible differences.

This is different if you live and work according to the ‘spirit’ of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu means –
I am because we are.

Ubuntu means –
A way of life, a way of being.

Ubuntu means –
We’re all in this together.

Ubuntu means –
Being busy is no excuse for avoiding the things that matter most.

Ubuntu means –
A philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual.

Ubuntu means –
If you allow differences to define a relationship, you will always be at odds with others.

Ubuntu means –
Asking: “What do we have in common?”, and “How can we best work together?”.

Ubuntu means –
In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments, there are just consequences.

What can Ubuntu bring you and your organization?

Leadership Conversation with Ronald Blom

Interview with Ronald Blom
Former top exec of a leading utility company in the Netherlands

This interview is part of my “Leadership Conversations” with leaders in the U.S. and abroad. They are conversations with leaders in different areas such as education, the service sector, manufacturing, politics, the agricultural business and charity organizations. I speak with sales directors, CIOs, HR executives and leaders in general management.

These conversations inspire me and I hear they inspire the participating leaders through enhanced awareness of their beliefs, values, vision, and their leadership–in–action.

Some of the topics covered in these Leadership Conversations were put to Ronald Blom.

Which values form the foundation of your leadership?
1.    Honesty, reliability, and self-reflection but also critical thinking towards what’s coming your way – in other words: independent thinking.
2.    Consistency in thinking and acting. Sticking to the determined route no matter how difficult and at the same time being receptive to arguments.
3.    Create and ensure an environment (i.e. people) that keeps both your feet on the ground.  

When is it difficult for you to act upon these values?
When I’m under pressure as is the case when I’m facing conflicting interests. Or whenever difficult choices are warranted. Whenever you get involved in a specific situation which leaves you less independent. It is also difficult when praise and admiration are too abundant so that you start believing you are God.

What or who inspires you in your role as a leader?
No famous examples. I partly draw my inspiration from my Jewish background: I’m still around, so I’m obliged to make the best of it and to use my talents.
What also inspires me is being able to add value for the ones who need it.

What trends and developments do you foresee in the area of leadership?
Less focus on the Chairman type leader, less focus on one leader being in charge of it all and more focus on team work and team leadership. Also, the importance of engaging and inspiring an organization as opposed to the untouchable leader who thinks he’s larger than life.

What requires more attention in your leadership thinking and acting?
Developing a thicker skin.

What’s your biggest fear as a leader?
Leading your business into decline or destruction, so fear of failure. Fearing that I will make the absolute wrong decisions and being held accountable by share holders, customers, and employees.

What do you need to remain motivated as a leader?
A combination of success and challenges.

What do you like best about your role as a leader?
Acknowledgment for the fact that I’m a good leader and realizing objectives.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reflection – part 2 of 3: The “Why” Question

Following my earlier post (part 1of 3 on reflection: "Ask Yourself"), this post adresses the questions we ask ourselves.  

“How should we implement the new strategy?”
“What should we do to survive in this economy?”‘
“What is the best approach to leadership these days?”
“What is it that distinguishes us from our major competitors?”
“How do we get our workforce to embrace the upcoming changes?”
“What should be done to reduce overtime and cut costs?”

All valid and significant questions, but I believe their significance diminishes drastically without asking yourself the question of all questions: WHY?

“Why are we in this business at all?”
“Why do we do the things the way we do them?”
“Why is it that we want to operate worldwide?”
“Why do we think customer satisfaction is of major importance?”
Or even more fundamentally: “Why are we in business? Why do I exist? What’s my purpose in business and in life?”

Are we escaping from freedom, as philosopher Eric Fromm would say, by not asking the “why” question? Which starts with the ‘why’ question turned inward since we cannot operate effectively without self-questioning.
The notion and importance of the “Why” question is, of course, not new at the scene let alone that I would want to claim ownership of the concept. For many centuries philosophers of all breeds have asked themselves the “Why” question. In more recent history, Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, focused on the “why” of things and on purpose in life. So does Richard Leider, coach, speaker, and author, who emphasizes the importance, joy, and fulfillment of purposeful living. The well known strategist Kenichi Ohmae states in his classic “The Mind of the Strategist” that companies have to challenge the business and the strategic thinking by confronting what’s taken for granted in an industry or business by asking the simple question “why”. Instead of accepting the first answer he promotes to keep asking “why” until there is nowhere to go with your “why”. So does author and consultant Peter Block, who writes that there are more important questions than ‘what’ or ‘how’. He reminds us that getting the question right may be the single most important thing we can do in life and in business.

Even though the notion of the importance and impact of the “why” question is not new, pondering the very question and acting upon it is still foreign to many people, leaders and non-leaders alike. Do you know what drives you? Do you know why you get up every morning other than to silence your alarm clock? Do you take time for the many “why’s” in your life? Only if you take time to contemplate and to reflect are you really in charge of your own life and are you really your own screen writer, editor, and stage manager.

“Questions are too big and take too long
only if you expect a final resolution”.

From Peter Block’s book “The Answer to How is Yes”

Friday, February 11, 2011

Peaceful, powerful perseverance and courage-in-action

Finally – he stepped down! What a remarkable demonstration of peaceful persistence and of courage by the Egyptian people. Talking about bringing about change! Timing, persistence, courage, passion, the power of numbers, and authenticity seem some of the key factors in this revolution and in its result.
Weeks of historic importance accumulating in the long-anticipated resignation of Mubarak, turning “The Square of Freedom” and the rest of Egypt and the world into places of intense celebration and a sense of justification and accomplishment.
Despite my optimistic nature I wonder and worry about what’s to come. Euphoria, happiness, initial excitement, and hope are too often followed by despair and disillusionment, partly due to inexperience, chaos, worrisome power shifts, and optimism with too little realism leading to unrealistic expectations. How I wish for the Egyptian people to prove me wrong in my worries.
From the little I know and am capable imagining, the challenges of rethinking, redesigning, and rebuilding must be daunting. New oppression with a different face could be lurking already. So many people, sometimes complete generations, have struggled and suffered after dictators and oppressive systems were overthrown, like in former Eastern Germany to mention just one example. In some place these challenges were overcome, in others people woke up to yet another oppressive system with just a different name.
From a systems perspective: so much unknown yet about the consequences of Mubarak’s resignation for the wider region and the whole world. If one part in a system changes, the whole system changes. If only there were guarantees.
This is clearly not my field of expertise, I can only share my thoughts and feelings. I have no answers, just questions and, above all, worries. And most of all: I hope for a healthy, democratic, prospering Egypt by and for the people.  So for now, I enjoy the pictures and sounds of celebration, with deep respect for the demonstrators and the Egyptian army – a force that will have to show its true colors in the coming days and weeks. Hopefully the colors will remain the same.

Reflection – part 1 of 3: “Ask Yourself”

We text, we tweet, we e-mail. We follow, we re-connect, we e-read. We mobilize electronically, we web-search, we share world-wide. This used to be: we make a phone call, we write a letter, we drive to meet with someone. We stand on a soap crate to mobilize for our cause. We browse dusty library shelves to find that one great book. How things change. How the way we seek and use information changes. How we relate to and connect with others changes.

These changes are great because they serve accessibility, convenience, efficiency, and speed. It breaks down boarders, distances, and some of the confinements and restrictions imposed by some political systems. It’s a greener way of doing things and it’s anonymous, if you want it to be. It improves accessibility for people with limitations and it has an enormous range. Everything seems available, always, and marketeers have convinced almost everybody that we even have an inherent right to have everything we want without waiting for it. Isn’t that great?

Yes, in certain ways it is. And it might also be a curse. Because I wonder what all this does to our attention, to our awareness, to our patience, to our appreciation, to our social skills, to our values, and to the way we perceive ourselves, others, and the world. I don’t have all the answers (do we ever?) but I wonder and I invite you to wonder with me.

In restaurants I see couples texting happily while dinner is being served. In shops, I see moms and dads and, of course, their children texting  and tweeting while standing in line or just standing in another shopper’s way. I see my son playing on his I-touch before breakfast – you never know, she might not notice this once. I hear of people getting out of their bed after turning of the light to check their I-phone after that all too familiar beep. I hear people talk about their best friends,that they've never met in person. I see myself being distracted while researching a topic for my blog – so many sites, articles, referrals let alone the e-mails, tweets, and texts that keep buzzing by.

To be clear, this is not a lecture opposing modern technology of which I am a happy user myself. I love my kindle, my cell, my I-touch, my laptop as I do the sites, blogs, and tweets. Or most of them and most of the time. I am all about growth, change, creations, experiments, and progress. And of coures focus, choice, and discipline are part of the equation.

I am merely inviting you to wonder with me. I’m inviting you to ask yourself some questions that too often go unasked:

1.    How present am I when I am in a conversation with someone? Am I really there, in the here-and-now, with body and mind, listening to the spoken and unspoken words and intentions? Am I free of distractions to be fully aware of what is going on inside me, inside the other person, and between us?

2.    Am I really that much more efficient/happy/enriched doing so many things at the same time and switching from one activity to another, fragmenting rather than focusing. Many studies suggest that multi-tasking and flying from one activity to another and back again has negative effects on precision, speed, quality, and safety - in the case of operating cars and other machines.

3.    Do I take time to learn backwards and dream forwards? Do I take time to relax while staring out the window, while enjoying a beautiful piece of Frank Lloyd Webber, while walking in the woods, or while just mesmerizing on my deck with a glass of Gruner Veltliner in the absence of modern distractions?

4.    Do I still know and live the values that form the foundation of my parenting, my leadership, my life? Did they change along the way and is any of that to be contributed to my use of technological advances (because I certainly don’t blame technology itself)? Am I still breathing and modeling my values and following my purpose?

Enough food for psychologists to research for many years to come. Enough questions for you to contemplate and munch on and try and find answers to. Or even better: to follow up with more questions, especially the “Why” question.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book Review - Leadership

“A Leader’s Legacy” by James Kouzes & Barry Posner (2006).

Kouzes and Posner have been writing together for quite some time, and they have spoken and worked with countless executives and other leaders. Interactions that provide many sharp observations and inspiring stories that are turned into topic focused essays .

The writers provide readers with a view on leadership different from many other authors on management and leadership, at the same time a view that seems to gaining ground rapidly. Kouzes and Posner cover several themes from “Is leadership living a life of success or a life of significance?”  to “To be an authentic leader you have to be willing to serve and to suffer”. Kouzes and Posner assert that the best leaders are learners and teachers and they discuss how leadership is personal, that it’s a relationship, and that leadership requires courage.  They are convinced that leaders who serve will earn commitment and that loyalty is something people choose to grant to a person who has earned it.

With these and other beliefs the authors build their theory on the what, how, and, above all, why of a leader’s legacy. As in many books there is quite some overlap in topics as well as repetition of themes. If you choose to do so it’s easy to skip parts that have already been covered, or you can ponder the theme again, through different words and with new examples. An easy read focusing on the  (inter)personal side of leadership as well as on purpose and values - my foundation for life.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

From life: Who's in charge?

The calendar shows May 2007. We tell our three children – then 10, 10, and 7 years old – that we are likely moving back to Minnesota for dad’s work. It’s the country where our twin girls were born but of which they have very few memories. Our children have grown up knowing that we might move again for dad’s work. They have often asked us questions like: “Will I wake up in this house and in this room when I turn 6?” So the shock is not as big as might have been the case in some other households. 

We always strive to practice transparency with our children, discussing topics generally thought of as too difficult for kids like addictions, divorce, integrity and the like. This shows in their responses to our announcement of the future move. In their initial reactions we are told that the rabbits will move with us and we are asked whether 1 and 1 is also two in the U.S. Many more questions and concerns flood their wonderful brains and hearts and reach us that same evening. We celebrate the news and everything to come with a dinner at one of their favorite restaurants: a Japanese Hibachi grill. The amount of energy and excitement running through our children’s bodies beats most descriptions. With high pitched questions, excited fantasies, and wonderful ideas about life in Minnesota in abundance, we watch our resilient and positive children with a mixture of pride and amazement. We also realize that they cannot anywhere near realistically comprehend the impact of this move yet. Maybe better so.

The best question of the day is saved for last. Our eldest daughter - by three minutes - solemnly calls me and announces a very important question: “Mom, we were just wondering. Is this a decision that we can say “no” to if we wanted to?” That hits home. Our children are accustomed  to having a vote whenever possible. This is not one of those situations, of course. My reply to JoAnn is: “Honey, this is a great question, and you know how I love questions. I feel a little sad to have to say that this time you guys do not have a vote in the decision”. I want to elaborate on my response but JoAnn and her siblings seem satisfied with my answer: They just need to know if and where they could possibly influence and control the situation. So JoAnn counters with “Okay, I already thought so, but we were just wondering”.

And don’t we all (or at least shouldn’t we all) wonder where and how we can influence our own lives, the lives of others, the quality of life on this planet, the quality of the workplace, and of our relationships. Of course it’s not always this easy or innocent (and it wasn’t, from our children’s perspective).

Influence and control can be either good or bad, depending on how and where it is exerted. But the need for it, the need for clarity, for decision-making power, and the need for impact lies within all of us. With you, your friends, your colleagues, your employees.

So how about you?
1.    Are you the stage-manager of your own life or does it ‘drive by and just happen to you’?
2.    Do you know what values and purpose guide your choices as a leader, as a person?
3.    Are you aware of the beliefs that guide your thinking and your actions?
4.    Do you control your impulses or do your impulses control you?
5.    Do you provide others with the trust and the means to take decisions and to exert control, i.e. be influential?