Welcome All!

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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Leadership, Women and Vision

There is a big difference between having ideas and having a vision. The year 2009 was named the Year of Creativity and Innovation by the European Union with a strong focus on idea-generating techniques. Executives these days are, however, increasingly exposed to a wealth of ideas as a result of all that training in brainstorming and related techniques, but what is in short supply is visionary thinkers who are capable of making sense of this abundance of ideas and stimuli that have to be translated into actions, preferably through a unified and compelling vision.

Inspiring others to follow your vision should not be underestimated and it should certainly not be  taken for granted. A clear mission and consistent message is what attracts, directs, and motivates followers, and without followers, of course, no powerful results of your vision. But let’s first untangle some related concepts: purpose, goals, and vision. Purpose is generally described as your reason for being, it is timeless. Goals are the objectives you want to accomplish, usually in 1 – 3 year increments, and vision is a vivid description of what you will do with your organization (or your life), over a decade or even a lifetime.

In the remainder of this post I’d like to share thoughts and wisdom from Insead on leadership and vision. The Global Executive Leadership Inventory (GELI) is a 360 degree feedback instrument developed at Insead’s Global Leadership Center by Manfred Kets de Vries, Pierre Vrignaud, and Elizabeth Florent-Treacy. To identify significant dimensions of exemplary leadership the researchers interviewed many senior executives over the course of three years. The resulting questionnaire was validated on an international sample of more than 300 senior executives and MBA students. The result, the GELI, measures degrees of competency in twelve dimensions of global leadership, 10 of which were analyzed in the research on leadership ability in men and women

1.    Envisioning – articulating a compelling vision, mission, and strategy that incorporate a multicultural and diverse perspective and connect employees, shareholders, suppliers, and customers on a global scale.

2.    Empowering – empowering followers at all levels  of the organization by delegating and sharing information.

3.    Energizing – energizing and motivating employees to achieve the organization’s goals.

4.    Designing and aligning – Creating world-class organizational design and control system and using them to align the behavior of employees with the organization’s values and goals.  

5.    Rewarding and feedback – Setting up the appropriate reward structures and giving constructive feedback.

6.    Team building –creating team players and focusing on team effectiveness by instilling a cooperative atmosphere, promoting collaboration, and encouraging constructive conflict.

7.    Outside orientation – making employees aware of outside constituencies such as customers, suppliers, shareholders, and other interest groups, including local communities affected by the organization.
8.    Global mind-set: inculcating a global mentality, instilling values that act as a glue between the regional or national cultures represented in the organization.

9.    Tenacity: encouraging tenacity and courage in employees by setting a personal example in taking reasonable risks.

10.  Emotional intelligence: fostering trust in the organization by creating – primarily by setting an example – an emotionally intelligent workforce whose members are self-aware and treat others with respect and understanding.

The other two dimensions that were not included in this study are life balance and resilience to stress.

In an article in Harvard Business Review OnPoint, winter 2010, Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru state that, using this GELI, women (scoring higher on almost all of the dimensions) are judged to be significantly less visionary than men in 360-degree feedback. It may just be a matter of perception, women might just use different processes than men do to shape the future, or maybe women do not buy into the value of being seen as visionary, but this negative judgment on women and vision, the authors argue, stops women from getting to the top. If leadership is essentially about realizing change, then crafting and articulating a vision of a better future is certainly a leadership prerequisite.

If  you google Insead or GELI you will find more information on this research, the questionnaire and it’s many results and conclusions. In this post, I have two reasons for touching on the topic. First, for all leaders and aspiring leaders, whether female or male, you can contemplate on your functioning on the 12 dimensions and seek feedback from all around you on how people score you on the said dimension and what suggestions they have for improvement. Second, all (aspiring) female leaders out there, take the results (and there were many more than just “Female leaders and vision”) of this Insead research project to heart and develop, if necessary, your visionary qualities. Maybe gender stereotypes are at play, as the authors suggest, leading us to expect emotional, collaborative women and rational, directive men. When men communicate from the heart or manage participatively, it’s generally taken as an added plus. Women’s emotional communication or inclusive process, by contrast, is implicitly viewed as proof of an incapacity or unwillingness to do otherwise, even if the situation calls for it. Or maybe all is well because the results might just reflect that women come to their visions in a less directive way than men do. So it might be perception more than reality that women lack visionary qualities. But since perception is reality in many ways, and therefore it’s still recommended to work on your visionary skills so that they can be seen and understood by people around you.

Saving the best for last, what is an essay on a topic without defining that topic? I’d like to use the definition of Stew Friedman, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Management, also author and former head of Ford Motor’s Leadership Development Center. Friedman states that a useful personal leadership vision is a vision that:
-       Focuses action
-       Provides direction and
-       Inspires your stakeholders to move in a direction you choose.

Freedom, by my dear Dutch friend Rian Peeperkorn

Freedom
is doing what you want to be doing.
Freedom
is being who you want to be.
Freedom
is going where you want to go.
Freedom
is saying what you want to say.

For freedom you need the courage,
to find and receive that which you need.


Freedom
is letting the other person do what he wants to do.
Freedom
is letting the other person be who he wants to be.
Freedom
is letting the other person go where he wants to go.
Freedom
is letting the other person say what he wants to say.

For freedom you need the courage
to give the other person what he needs,
even if you would like to have it yourself.

A different view on authenticity

Romanticism – the late 18th and early 19th century movement in literature and art in which nature rather than civilization was adored and celebrated – awakened one of the most powerful ideas of this period: the desire for authenticity. Ever since Romanticism, it seems, we want to live authentically – we wish to find ourselves, become ourselves, be ourselves. We adore young children for speaking the truth and not being burdened with social conventions and other inhibitions. Our culture seems close to obsessed with authenticity, in private life as in the corporate world where the books on authentic leadership are numerous.

In grocery stores food labels yell at us, prompting us to fall in the authenticity-trap with texts like “no artificial nothings”, “pure butter”, and “real cream”. Commercials are often set in nature to convince us that the advertisers’ products or services are healthy, pure, trustworthy, and with all natural ingredients. Commercials from vacation packages to medical treatments to cars to you-name-it bombard us with “the real thing” idea. I increasingly see, however, the artificiality of authenticity. The forced search for the ‘real thing’, which might not just be one thing, which might be different things to different people, different things to one and the same person in different periods in his life, which might be culturally determined or at least influenced. I might even be able to replace the ‘might’ by ‘most certainly is’.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger on the topic: We often think that authenticity is the same as non-conformism or insubordination, but authenticity is opening yourself up for the possibilities of tradition. Exactly when we try and distinguish ourselves from others by wearing eccentric clothes, for example, we take others and their opinion and taste as a starting point for our choices, which doesn’t exactly feel authentic. If we want to form our own opinion, it doesn’t help to just oppose someone else’s opinion. Heidegger suggests we find out for ourselves how to live authentically. I like that idea.

With all the fuzz about the buzz word ‘authenticity’, three questions seem to pop up time and again when the topic of authenticity is being dissected, which I myself took part of in a much earlier post, just to be clear.

Question # 1: Who am I?
Am I what I believe and think? Am I what I do, am I my choices? Am I what I eat? Am I what I want others to see of me? Am I what I present to others? Am I all of the above, and is that authentic?

Question # 2: What is an authentic life?
Is it denouncing modern technology and in particular social networks? Is it living on a farm or in the woods? Is it vacationing without modern comforts, back to our roots? Why should we do away with all those inventions that made life so much easier? Or is “the authentic life” about the way we use these tools, the way we deal with modern technology, the way we often one-sidedly do away with everything that keeps us close to mother nature? Is it one or the other, is it balance, is it something completely different? Is it dining by candlelight and nature walks? Who will tell? Remains one more question for me to pose to you under this heading: Have you stopped believing in the concept of an authentic life, or are you among the many who still perceive it to be a powerful source of inspiration?

Question # 3: What is true friendship?
Does whether we are in physical contact with each other determine the amount of ‘trueness’ in our friendships? Is the criterion whether we’ve met each other in person? Is it sharing your deepest thoughts, fears, and desires? Is what you post on facebook bringing you the friends that you would get if they were to meet you in real life and if not, is that a good or a bad thing or neither one of them? Is communicating via e-mail, facebook, twitter, blogging, with and without emoticons real communication? Is it impoverished in comparison to real-life contact with gestures, intonation, smells, sounds, touch etc.? Are the hundreds of friendships through social networking sites a caricature of what we all crave deep down inside: true contact, real love, depth, honesty, trust? 

I wonder, how can there ever be a one-size-fits-all definition of any of the above, and why do we seem to crave that in the first place? Why do we seem so hesitant, if not afraid, to define our own real, authentic life, whether others agree or not? According to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor lies hidden in our quest for authenticity the danger of narcissism. Taylor argues that our longing to be ourselves as much as we can, to do what we want and to say what we think, as individuals, may seem really authentic but aren’t we forgetting that we are also social animals, embedded in a structure, a family, a society? Aren’t manners, written and unwritten rules of interacting, and societal traditions as much part of the real life, of authentic living, even though they might conflict with individual desires and goals?

I could tell you that authentic living, for me, at this point in my life is all about living in the moment while honoring the past and traditions and caring for the future, with loved ones around me, while sharing and spreading the values I care about. I could go on with listing my most precious values and I could put down a different definition of authenticity that probably describes my thoughts on authenticity equally well. But to make it easier and more practical, this is what authenticity is to me:

-       A young child on a bus verbalizing out loud his amazement over the weight of an obese co-passenger.  
-       A dog, totally enmeshed in his own energy, longing to explore and control, enthusiastically tearing off branches from trees in the woods that we were told to respect and leave alone.
-       Telling someone how I think and feel.
-       But, at the same time, honoring my resistance in telling someone honestly how I think and feel, and deciding not to do so, for whatever reason.

These are but four examples of what authenticity means to me. Authenticity is so much, and so personal, and possibly overrated as an ideal. Authenticity is often translated as honesty and integrity whereas I believe it’s much more complicated than that – it’s less black and white. 

What is authenticity to you? Is it different in your personal life as compared to your professional life? Are you willing to form and live your own interpretation?

I’m happy to close this post with French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believes authenticity is living in accordance with your own inner voice: “We should not base our happiness on the opinion of others if we can find it in our own heart.”

Friendships

According to Aristotle there are three kinds of friendships. Friendship based on joy and fun, friendship based on usefulness, and friendship based on a higher purpose like a common virtue. The first two friendships are short-term and geared towards satisfying the ego. The third kind of friendship is considered ‘true friendship’. I believe, however, that all three types of friendship have their value and their place in our lives, but do we realize how much of each we enjoy and need, and in what periods of our lives we need which kind of friendship most?  And what’s the influence of facebook friendships? Are they only the first two kinds?  I agree with Dutch philosopher Stine Jensen that they certainly seem pretty ego-centered. On facebook, people seem very interested in themselves, even though they check on others all the time. Look at the status updates, in which people often talk about themselves in the third person. Even though there is also a good share of moaning and complaining on facebook, most people post stories and pictures that show an interesting life -  personal marketing in the 21st century. But to me, facebook intimacy is often fake intimacy. It’s one dimensional, using limited senses, and real vulnerability is lacking.  You can post as many of your mistakes or shortcomings as you want to, but you’re still hiding safely behind your screen with no one looking you in the eyes, providing you with in-person feedback, or patting you on the shoulder. And that’s exactly what so many people like about it, it’s exactly one of the advantages of media like facebook, I know and I’m not condemning it. Research on whether virtual friendships and social networks are advantageous for people that have difficulty relating to others is still young and goes both ways.
What seems a given is what psychologists have long demonstrated: the crucial role that friends play in everything from our development of self identity to self esteem, and the important role they play in mitigating the increasing stress in our lives. Unfortunately, many people are reporting fewer friends in their lives with the increasing demands on them through work, consumerism, child care, a second job, all the time that goes into social networking on-line, and compulsive commitments to television and to physical fitness, just to name a few. Will technology come to the rescue? Will we end up with an equivalent of the Tamagotchis, the “virtual pets”, but then "virtual friends", designed to interact with you in the same way an intimate human friend would, listening to you empathetically, providing encouraging feedback, flattering you, and honestly mirroring your blind spots? Almost sounds too good to be true whether virtual or real friend, right? Or is the new social network Google+, with a new way of sharing information with your friends going to be one of the answers. I hear that with Google+, not yet available to the average mortal, divides you friends into circles, rather than facebooks friend – no friend distinction. These circles could consist of friends, family, colleagues and should guarantee your privacy better than facebook does. But does it increase authentic, intimate relationships? Call me old-fashioned and inflexible, I still feel that I need to see people and spend time with them in order to get to know them, learn to trust them, share with them. I can add on-line friendships to that, if I would want to, but I do not wish to replace them.
Real living, real contact, real friendship, to me, is being connected to the world. Connected as in seeing, smelling, hearing, touching – in the here-and-now. It also means making choices based on the life I want to live. Consciously choosing how much time I spend on-line, which can certainly meet needs and provide satisfaction, and how much time I want to be in personal contact with people. It means really and fully being at a party rather than thinking of how cool it is that I’m here and that I have to take a picture for my facebook page. This is what often seems to be happening. While being in the here-and-now, many people have this third eye watching over them – the eye of their virtual friends, the eye of how impressive it’s going to be if they can post a picture of this party, this concert, this rally.  Of course I ask myself whether this is so different from taking pictures on vacation, “in the old days”, lining up friends or family members to get an even better picture to show back home. Maybe it’s just that we want to share (and impress?) more and more about anything and everything.
Maybe I should add another distinction between different friendships. The casual friendships, the intimate friendships, and the intimate romantic relationships. Psychologists distinguish between social loneliness stemming from a lack of friendship ties and emotional loneliness stemming from a lack of intimate relationships, concluding that emotional loneliness is the more severe of the two forms as I’m sure you can imagine. Shouldn’t we all guard real intimate relationships and ensure that we have the skills, time, and focus to establish and maintain these relationships?
The new pressure many people are dealing with these days could well be an “impressionistic existence”:  the pressure of having to live an impressive life, often defined by others around us. How much are you leading your life following your purpose and values? How about authenticity in your friendships and your life? How about the amount (and more importantly, the quality) of your intimate relationships? See my next post for more thoughts on authenticity.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Small Can Be Big

Some time ago I came across an article (European Heart Journal, March 2011) in which it is stated that little movements can make a big difference. Recent American-Australian research shows that people putting up their arm while sitting at their desk or standing up while they’re making a phone call score lower on a variety of risk factors for heart diseases as compared to people who sit still. A possible explanation is that every brief exertion of the skeletal muscles counts in enhancing blood circulation. In another study (PNAS, Feb. 2011) American researchers showed that the usual age-related shrinking of the hippocampus (crucial for learning and memory) can be decreased by moving more.
This is no commercial for fitness or any other sports. I’d just like to remind you that not only moving is healthy, but, above all, that a small change can bring about a big result or change which is, of course, not at all limited to putting up your arm while sitting behind your desk. I do believe in small things making a big difference, one person and act at a time.
Four small suggestions for big gains:
·         When starting your work day, decide on the desired outcome of the day. Describe two or three specific results. Keep it short and simple, attainable and attractive. You (big) gain: it will focus you, help you redirect during the day, and evaluate at the end of the day.

·         Arrive a few minutes early for your meeting to brush of the previous activity or meeting and prepare for this one so that you actually see, hear, and sense what’s going on rather than being caught up in thoughts and to-do’s that belong elsewhere. These few minutes won’t help you get rid of the daunting amount of things still to do and it will help you achieve more each meeting.

·         Give someone a compliment, let a colleague or subordinate know what you appreciate in them. Small effort, little time, great pleasure and for sure an energy boost for the receiver.

·         Take a few minutes extra to really listen to your conversation partner, to ask that extra question that otherwise would go unasked and that starts a whole different line of thinking.
But it’s not about my suggestions. It’s about making you aware that small can be big. In addition to dreaming big I invite you to add your own small ideas for big and valuable results. If you hesitate, please remember how long it takes to smile at yourself and the world. Makes a big difference if you ask me.



Like in a Foreign Country

I love living abroad, even though the term ‘abroad’ has become a strange one.  The song “Where ever I lay my head, that’s my home” suddenly pops up.
It’s only been two countries, the U.K. and the U.S. The easier ones, of course.  I’ve lived in the U.K. twice. Once a little North of London when I had just turned 18 after finishing high school and the second time when I was 24, at Hull University for a postgraduate year of Industrial Psychology. From there it was back to my home country to live in Amsterdam for four years after which my husband and I moved to the U.S. Three years in Polk County, the Southern state of Florida, one of the poorer counties, where I worked as a psychologist and therapist, followed by another three years in the most Northern state bordering Canada: Minnesota, that state with the collapsed bridge which even made headline news in the Netherlands. Minnesota, so much less diverse, healthier, more prosperous, and politically (and otherwise) a great deal more correct than Florida. After seven years in yet another new province in the Netherlands (yes, that small country has several provinces and we even like to think that they’re very different from each other) we moved back to Minnesota, this time with three children who were well aware of what was going on. And before, in between, and after these years abroad we have loved and still love to travel through Europe, the U.S. and Asia with especially the latter providing us with so many different colors, fragrances, tastes, customs, and surprises, mostly about our own preconceived notions, our limited vision, our judgments, and our sometimes (or often?) fixed ways of seeing and doing things.
Don’t worry, this blog isn’t suddenly turning into a life story. There is a reason for all this. Even though our travels and our years abroad have been relatively easy and safe, it has taught me to question, to wonder, to look with different eyes, and above all, to take time to look, observe, and really see rather than quickly categorize, form an opinion, and judge. And of course, I’m human, and still do the latter regularly.
I have asked myself more and more questions as time goes on. Is our Dutch welfare system, to many Americans way too socialized, really that much better than that of the U.S.? What does it do to perseverance, loyalty, determination, and moral? Is charity and volunteering so much more common and ‘just what you do’ in the U.S. because of the big gap between rich and poor or is it more complicated and more honorable than that? What to make of the indigenous people that we visited in Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, who are increasingly wearing western clothes and watches, worrying about their children who are abandoning their ancestors’ traditional ways of living and healing? What has waiting in vain for public transportation taught me or staying at an ex-prison-turned-motel in Mexico without running water and just a blanket that reeked of sinister stories and crimes? And what are we ‘giving’ our children by having to answer them that ‘no’, we do not know where we’ll be staying tonight while still hiking in the jungle?
Every time we moved back to the Netherlands, it made the familiar feel foreign and the foreign and unknown increasingly familiar. Running on autopilot often isn’t doing the job and I don’t want it to. Everything that I always, and unknowingly, took for granted in my home country like the sick leave arrangements, decent roads and lighting, great maternity and father leave policies, running water and so much more, is not so ‘normal’ anymore. Everywhere, people adjust, and in many times it’s not even adjusting: they just deal with whatever is handed to them. It’s called adaptation and survival. If life hands you lemons you make lemonade even though you might prefer orange juice. Whether you call it adaption, survival, or anything else, the fact remains that you learn to see things from different perspectives, from a helicopter, and less clouded. You learn to see again.
Of course, I fully realize how easy all this is for me to say and do because I’ve always had more certainties, or near certainties, than uncertainties. We’ve always been free from war, brutality, intimidation, natural disasters, and personal poverty where ever we went and lived. We’ve always been able to trust that our main needs (food, water, and shelter) would be met, at the worst with delay.  Having said this, I try and remind myself, which is less necessary as the years go by, how different countries, politics, climates, customs, histories, people, and of course companies can be. And how valuable it is to take less things for granted, to see the beauty in small, to look with new and different eyes at something all too familiar and still see something new, differently, or from someone else’s perspective.
Like in a foreign country, I try to wonder about what’s familiar and look at it as if it were foreign. Like in a foreign country, I make myself look at organizations and their needs with different eyes, like with the eyes of a scientist, an artist, a child, or a foreigner. I invite employees to really see their organizations and their role in it. I invite them to question the often unquestioned, not for the sake of questioning, but to shed a different light on their customs, unwritten rules, visions, values, and on needs often gone unseen. I strive to be of real value. I strive to unravel the unseen and unquestioned and to help people see one and the same thing from different perspectives
Wishing you an exciting, revealing journey to foreign destinations, whether far away or just around the corner and in your own company.  

Friday, June 17, 2011

The value of being nonjudgmental

We do it all the time. We form opinions, we put people and situations in boxes, we decide on right and wrong, we categorize, we judge. Judging is a necessary activity. Without the skill to judge it would be an unpredictable, threatening, unsafe, and difficult world to live in, or more than it already is at times and more than it needs to be. Think of situations like when to cross the street, what sitter to trust with your children, which route to take when you're lost, what job offer (the good old days) to choose, what university to look into, how to best negotiate your benefits package and on and on and on.

The title of this post clearly gave me away. There is a time to judge and there is a time to not judge. And what many of us have great difficulty with is knowing which of the two to do when. Take for example hearing criticism (call it the truth or not). As Jerry Hirshberg, founder and retired president of Nissan Design International in California stated: "Even people who don't mind telling the truth have mixed feelings (at best) about hearing the truth. It's like a chemical reaction: Your face goes red, your temperature rises, you want to strike back. Those are signs of the two D's: defending and debating. Try to fight back with the two L's: listening and learning."

The best way to shut down communication and stifle honest feedback is to punish people who speak up candidly. To snap at them, to quiet them, to publicly ignore input, and to dismiss their ideas by judging them prematurely as impossible, not in line with company policy, too difficult / expensive / out of the ordinary or whatever the judgment is. This quick judging instills fear, demoralization, and apathy at best, and rebellion and couter-productive attitudes and practices at worst.

My suggestion: postpone judgment (excluding crisis situations, of course), listen and learn, inquire by asking questions, see the value of differences and variety, and give people and ideas a chance before you prematurely judge them into the world of the 'weird, the unwanted, and the impossible'.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Real Risks of Leadership

Many leaders worry about how to be the best possible leader. They worry about how to keep track of technological developments and use them to their best advantage. They worry about how to stay ahead of and differentiate from competitors and they worry about how to continuously surprise clients with ever improving and innovative products and services. Organizing retreat sessions with the hottest guru, distributing the latest leadership book for all your employees to read, inviting highly regarded executive coaches to work with the leadership team, using motivational speakers to inspire your workforce, and conducting mission-and-value sessions to get your company to the next level –they can all be valuable and beneficial, especially in the short term.  But the real risk of leadership is not missing out on the latest leadership trends and re-inventing what’s long been discovered and done. The real risk of leadership is not failing on a powerful mission statement that guides the whole organization to greatness. Many leaders fear not being able to continuously compete, innovate, and out-maneuver the competition. I believe the real risks of leadership to be three fold, and in a slightly different area:
1.       Not being brave enough to be vulnerable and fallible.
2.       Not being smart enough to ask the right questions.
3.       Not being wise enough to use ancient wisdom and common sense.

I’ll elaborate on these three risks to explain my thinking.

Not being brave enough to be vulnerable and fallible
What first comes to mind is an inflated ego that thinks it knows it all, which keeps the person from seeing the value in other perspectives and it keeps the leader from continuously being curious, asking questions, and learning from others.  There is a mistaken and sometimes devastating belief that a CEO or any other leader has to know it all, fix it all, and pretend it all. Being too full of yourself and thinking you’re very smart refers to the tightrope exercise between confidence and self-knowledge for which you need a good sense of humor, curiosity and the skills for observation and introspection.
Brave also refers to the courage to let go of the past, of tradition, of the way things have always been done. If they’re honest, many people will recognize this fear of changing.  
If leaders have the courage to be vulnerable and fallible, put otherwise, if they have the courage to be human, leaders will be more influential the more comfortable they get with being uncomfortable. That tightrope between confidence and vulnerability, once again, which includes the courage to be accountable and hold others accountable -  a much neglected topic in theory and in practice.

Not being smart enough to ask the right questions
To be asking the right questions, you first and foremost need the above mentioned courage to be vulnerable and fallible and to be asking potentially painful questions like:
-          What are we avoiding in this company and why are we avoiding this?
-          What are we covering up for ourselves and for others?
-          What are we afraid to admit and talk about?
-          What is dysfunctional that we are pretending to be perfectly fine?
-          What are the topics that are off limits in this organization?
-          What truths are we not telling each other around here?

These questions are really accountability questions. One of my inspirations on accountability is John Miller. In his book “The Question Behind the Question - practicing personal accountability at work and in life” Miller argues that the lack of personal accountability is a problem that has resulted in an epidemic of blame, complaining, and procrastination. The trouble that plagues organizations cannot be solved by pointing fingers and blaming others. Negative, inappropriate questions like “Why are they doing this to us?” or “Why do we have to go through all this change?” and “Who dropped the ball?” represent a lack of personal accountability. The better questions are: “How can I help solve the problem?”

When you are faced with a frustration or challenge of some kind, you can choose to ask more accountable questions. Rather than “When are we going to get more help around here?” you can ask “What can I do to make a difference and contribute to the solution?” This is making better choices in the moment by asking better questions.  Sometimes people think they have no choice. They will say things like “I have to” or “I Can’t”. But we always have a choice. Always. And this is where another great mind that inspires me comes into play: the late psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl with his deep-seated conviction, which he actually ‘lived and behaved’, that you always have a choice, no matter what circumstance you are in. You always have a choice and Frankl speaks of the last freedom that no one can take away from you, not even in a concentration camp. It’s the choice of your attitude regarding whatever circumstance you find yourself in.  When I first read Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” I felt a heavy burden on my shoulders, and I actually still do. To be practicing and truly living this freedom of attitude towards the horrendous circumstances that Frankl was facing during the nazi terror is so powerful and strong that I tend to feel ashamed of all the times I felt sorry for myself. For all the times I thought and acted like a ‘victim’.  I always thought of myself as strong, positive, self-motivated, and a non-victim but that’s easy to think, feel, and be when you’re as lucky as I am and as most of us are. Have we stood a real test yet? I haven’t really, or maybe: I really haven’t. But I sure feel humbled and encouraged  by authors like Miller and leaders like Frankl and I know that facing up to the real me, including the times when I do think and act more like a victim as opposed to an accountable person, is part of being my own leader- the first leadership level we have to master. It’s part of having the courage to be human and fallible. Awareness and a yearning to keep growing is all it takes to get you one step closer to holding yourself (and others) accountable for whatever you face and cause in life.

Not being wise enough to use ancient wisdom and common sense
Look around you and listen to children,  to nature, to old people and their experiences, to the beliefs and practices of the Samurai, to the Tao Te Ching, to the beliefs and fears of employees at all levels, and to all other resources out there. It is not about acquiring more knowledge nor is it about creating even more choices. If the world or your organization was going to be saved by more knowledge it would have happened by now. It is about seeing what’s available, looking at it from different perspectives and with an inquisitive mind. It is about converting long discovered truths and powerful beliefs into the right attitude, focus, and choices and then living it by example.

The real risk of leadership, if you ask me: being blind with a set of great eyes.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Purpose – a powerful organizational driver

As the leading Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal states in “Our inner Ape”, our human nature is stretched in so many different directions that it is difficult to say whether we are naturally competitive or naturally community-building. But why this dichotomy at all? Why the choice? It seems that we are both cooperative and competitive, greatly depending on context and environmental factors. Each society and each group reaches its own balance – or not, with quite some variation between and within species. There are cultures that seem to be more violent than others and there are cultures that seem to be more peace loving - context and circumstances playing a large role in these differences. The more peace loving cultures seem to be better able and willing to iron out differences, to see the bigger picture, and to calculate trade-offs. Reconciliation or conflict resolution, which plays a large role in ironing out differences, has been studied in humans and animals alike (dolphins, hyenas, and chimpanzees) and it’s an interesting process and a teachable process. Either way, conflict seems inevitable when people or animals live close enough to each other. And as it has always been and will always be, it’s all about resources.
In primates and other animals, the main reason for peacemaking is not peace itself but shared purpose. After common trauma like the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, for months afterwards tensions between the races in the city dropped and remained lower than before the attack. Overcoming trauma draws people together, it’s a shared purpose, as President Obama emphasized recently after the news of the capture of Osama Bin Laden. We see it after major disasters like the many violent tornadoes in the South of the U.S., after the Haiti disasters, and closer to my home country after the 1953 water disaster in the Netherlands or the bombings in Spain a few years ago. In the aftermath of disaster and hardship, it seems that we (finally) understand that we’re in this together, sharing a common purpose like safety, survival, and working through trauma. There also seems to be a sudden realization of what’s really important in life (maybe best witnessed after personal trauma and setback), often accompanied by the discovery that we’ve been lucky still being alive despite whatever disaster struck us. Mutual dependency fosters harmony. As history has proven, even solutions to conflicts between nations can be ‘solved’ by forming bonds where interdependency becomes overriding, so that conflicts bare the risk of losing allies, trading partners, and partners in defense more than the possible gains of conflicts (more land, resources, status etc.).
Organizations are in certain ways equally prone to the competition – cooperation debate and to the negatives of competitiveness. Any organization has a limited amount of financial and human resources and a limited amount of promotional opportunities just to name a few. A strong and clear organizational purpose can bring different groups of people within an organization together and reduce possible unwanted sides to competitiveness. In his book “It’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for” Roy M. Spence Jr. asserts that core purpose is the organization’s fundamental reason for being. An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work, it makes them come and work together rather than compete and work against each other. Purpose reveals the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money. Of course, purpose is certainly not everything (think of strong and inspiring leadership, effective management, succession planning, strategy, flexibility, and innovation.) but it all has to start with a purpose – it trumps everything.  Purpose is what drives everything your organization and your employees do. If you have a purpose and can articulate it with clarity and passion, then everything makes sense and everything flows.
Spence lists some of the many benefits of purpose:
- easier decision making with the rule to never violate the purpose
- deeper employee and customer engagement
- more personal fulfillment
- increased innovation
- and it provides a roadmap to hold your course along the way, without being too distracted by marketplace fluctuations, rising and falling trends, fluctuating business strategies, or competitors that come and go.

Purpose prevents much of the competition between departments too often seen in businesses. Purpose certainly is a strong factor in reconciling harmony and competitiveness. 

Concluding this post on a somewhat lighter note, I’d like to remark on a gender difference seen in at least many western cultures. For boys and men, rivalry and hostilities often are a way of establishing and negotiating status. This generally does not seem to stand in the way of good relations. After things got heated men often make up with jokes at the bar, or they don’t even feel they need to make up at all. They separate ‘business’ from personal and naturally fuse competitiveness with harmony. The expression ‘nothing personal’ is an often heard remark after a heated exchange. I’m sure most females reading this concluding remark recognize how different most women feel about rivalry and hostilities in conversations. This is where I’ll leave the gender differences for what they seem to be and ask you to focus on purpose, both in your life, and in your business, preferably with a strong relationship between the two.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Always have a Dream

This poem by Amanda Bradley was on the front page of our son’s end-of-year fifth grade brochure, and it seems to me it fits right in with a blog on Personal Development, Leadership, and Change.

Always have a Dream

Forget about the days when it’s been cloudy,
                but don’t forget your hours in the sun…

Forget about the times you’ve been defeated,
                but don’t forget the victories you’ve won…

Forget about mistakes you can’t change now,
                but don’t forget the lessons that you’ve learned…

Forget about the misfortunes you’ve encountered,
                but don’t forget the times your luck has turned…

Forget about the days when you’ve been lonely,
                but don’t forget the friendly smiles you’ve seen…

Forget about the plans that didn’t seem to work out right,
                but don’t forget to always have a dream!


By poet and novelist Amanda Bradley

Monday, June 6, 2011

Story Time:Leadership Lessons From Sir Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer

Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer of the Antarctic in the early 1900's who can teach us a thing or two about leadership. His expedition from 1914-1916 in the HMS Endurance is the one best known. During this expedition, his ship got stuck in the ice in the waters of the Weddell Sea near the Antarctic continent. Shackleton and his crew of 27 men were stranded on an ice floe, 1,200 miles from civilization. They survived 19 months before they were rescued. Yes, 19 months, under extreme conditions to say the least. Shackleton organized the rescue personally after he made an 800 mile open-ocean journey in a life-boat to the inhabitated island of South Georgia. He then returned on the rescue mission to the desolate Elephant Island where he had left the majority of his crew under the care of his Executive Officer.
Here is what happened in more detail. For ten months, Shackleton and his crew lived on an ice floe and waited for the ice to break. It didn’t, but it did crush the ship in its floes, leaving the men shipwrecked and stranded on the ice, having to endure extreme conditions of icy temperatures that froze their clothes and sleeping bags and caused frostbite, with one crew member having to have his toes amputated. Their diet consisted of penguin whenever they were able to catch one which turned them into weak and malnourished men, but only weak physically. When the ice finally broke up they were forced to take their three small lifeboats and survive on the open sea. They endured these living conditions for an amazing four months, withering storms, one of which produced 50ft high waves crashing onto the boats. When Shackleton and his crew finally reached the promised land of Elephant Island they found it to be completely inhospitable. And so this leader and his men spent more months under difficult living conditions, this time under two upturned lifeboats.
Finally, Shackleton and five of his men left in one of the patched-up lifeboats to sail 800 miles over unimaginably stormy seas. Their goal: reaching a whaling station in South Georgia. Against all odds they made it and did not show themselves discouraged when they found out that they still had to cross a mountain range before arriving at the station. Incredibly, they managed that too, upon which Shackleton returned to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of the crew. It sounds too good to be true, but every one of his crew members survived.

The miraculous survival of the whole crew has been credited to Shackleton’s remarkable, consistent leadership skills. Some insights:
-          Shackleton led by strong personal example which created trust.
-          He showed remarkable flexibility and an outstanding ability to define goals, then redefine them when the situation called for it. For example, when the Endurance first set off it was Shackleton’s mission to be the first to cross the Antarctic. When the ship was destroyed in the ice Shackleton didn’t weep and wail over the loss of his life’s ambition. He immediately set to work on his new mission – getting his men home safely. One mission fails, so he simply moves on to the next. In short: no dwelling but dealing with it the best possible way.
-          He had a great sense of optimism which enabled him and his crew members to keep going in conditions beyond tough. Shackleton’s optimism also translated into his energy and enthusiasm. He was always full of plans, encouraging the men to have a laugh and finding the slightest excuse for a celebration with which he held spirits and confidence up.
-          Highly unusual for that time, Shackleton mingled easily with all of his crew and he literally served his men. He rose early in the morning to make hot milk and hand-delivered it to every tent in the camp. Shackleton's mantra of unity and show of humanity was infectious. While his men were suffering from the most terrible deprivation, they often rose to his example and showed tremendous compassion for each other.
-          He kept everyone busy and equal having university professors and scientists perform the same jobs as the fishermen. This created morale and a real team.
-          He never showed disappointment when things didn’t work out, he just dealt with it and moved on to plan B, C, or D.
-          Just like the miners in Chile, the crew members came together and socialized for games, sing-a-longs, ice football, and more.
-          Shackleton instilled a feeling of equality by consulting his men and listening to their views on a proposed plan of action. He considered each view valuable which resulted in everyone sharing in the responsibility for the mission’s success. And once their contribution was received, the captain made the final decision on which course of action to follow.
-          Captain Frank Worsley wrote, "Whenever Shackleton notices that a man seems extra cold and shivering, he immediately orders another hot drink served to all." Shackleton was careful not to single out the man suffering the most, for he would not want to frighten him about his condition.
-          Facing changing circumstances and constant danger Shackleton managed to remain positive, decisive, calm, and self-confident.

In short, this incredible leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton. worked relentlessly and very successfully to keep his men hopeful, focused, positive, and cooperative. Ice floe soccer games, Saturday evening sing-a-longs, a clear and regular daily regimen for all and regular personal time with each of his men were some of the methods he used to accomplish this. Shackleton may have failed in his initial objective—to traverse the Antarctic—but he succeeded famously in his greater goal – the safe return of all 27 of his crewmen.

What is your greater goal and what leadership skills do you bring to your organization?

Dr. Warren Bennis on Change Management

This post concerns part of an interview of a couple of years ago, in which David Wright speaks with Warren Bennis, best-selling author of numerous books on Leadership, presidential advisor, consultant to many Fortune 500 companies, and top speaker on management. I choose the piece below because it reminds us of the importance of three crucial change processes: involving, informing, and educating the people involved. Nothing shocking, nothing complicated, but so often overlooked and underestimated by change makers.
Warren Bennis: “Change isn’t necessarily something that is resisted at all times by all people. I think, in some cases, there are people who really anticipate, look forward to and thrive on change. And in this world, if they don’t, they’re going to miss the train. There’s not an institution that I know, not a profession that I’m aware of, that isn’t undergoing constant and spastic change. Change is now the constant. Even though it may not be a natural act for certain people, I think it’s something that everyone has got to understand. Take education, for example. It’s no longer just four years of college. Education is really turning into a process of lifelong learning. Universities are going to have to take responsibility not just for their alumni but for people in much older age groups, who have to keep learning because the half-life of professions is shrinking every day.
The way organizations must deal with change is by helping people realize that in the process of changing they’re going to benefit from all sorts of educational programs and opportunities. The people have to be involved in the change, because if they are part of the process, they’re much less threatened by change. There are a lot of reasons why most people resist change, but among the most important is their reliance on old habits, especially the ones that have been successful. Related to that is self-esteem. If you’re doing something extremely well, are pretty successful at it, getting a lot of rewards for it and your sense of self-esteem is based on your competence, it’s got to be difficult if you’re put into a totally different and new situation. Organizations have to help people get into a safe “holding pattern” where -they can learn new skills without it being a threat to their self-esteem. So to summarize, people have got to be involved in the change, they have got to be informed of the change, and they have got to be educated and put into a safe holding area where they’re not going to be overly threatened by change”.
From "Taking Charge - Lessons in Leadership" by Insight Publishing Company