“Bulldog,” Not “Bitch.” Elizabeth Warren’s Master Class For Powerful Women

Relax, this isn’t a political post. Just a lesson from a political person about women’s exhibiting strength in a way that works.

I’ve heard a lot of women say that they can’t be strong at work without being branded as bitchy or aggressive. I get where they’re coming from. Organizations can be pretty punishing to women with a direct or forceful communication style. In addition, organizations often allow men to exhibit much more intensity than they would ever tolerate from women.

And yet… I have also observed powerful women leaders who do not get labeled, judged or ‘killed’ for their strength. What do they have in common, and what are they doing differently from the rest? They seem to be the leaders who have the best stylistic blend of grit and grace, wielding influence with neither apology nor intimidation. As a result, they’re able to exercise power in a way that commands respect and sways opinion.

One of the best examples of this kind of woman leader is Massachusetts Senator and Democratic candidate for President, Elizabeth Warren. I’m not addressing her political views or prospects here. But stylistically, she exhibits a remarkable balance of what I call “grit and grace.” That blend of styles allows her to advocate fiercely for the issues she cares about, without being dismissed as a bitch. Even as her campaign for President mounts in strength, she’s managed largely to elude that critique.

How does she DO that?  

A video clip of  an early Senate Banking Committee Hearing on Bank Money Laundering is Warren’s master class on power that blends grit and grace. Watch and learn.

Based just on this video clip, Senator Warren exemplifies several key principles that we can apply in our own contexts.

  1. She balances passion and reason. There’s no doubt that she cares about what she’s saying. Her voice is animated, her body is leaning in, and her questioning is pointed. Yet her content is factual and her arguments are well-reasoned.
  2. She doesn’t allow herself to be pushed over, but she never goes on the attack. She came to this hearing with one central question: “How big of a crime does a financial institution have to commit before it faces getting shut down or before someone actually goes to jail?” In response, the panelists weave, dodge, obfuscate and redirect. But she returns, over and over, to her central question. And she does so with grace-laced language: “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you. But I’m not hearing your opinion on this.”
  3. She’s passionate but doesn’t get emotionally hooked. Two male panelists did something that a lot of women have experienced – the men assumed a paternalistic tone toward Warren, and tried to explain “the way it works.” It’s a classic move to imply a lack of competence and understanding on Warren’s part. Each time, she replied clearly but without defensiveness. She quickly dismissed the implied slight: “Sir, I understand the limits of your organization’s authority, and I have read your full testimony.” And then returned, with an even keel, to her inquiry. “But are you saying that you have no opinion on how much drug money a bank can launder before it should be shut down?”
  4. She’s fighting for something greater than her own interests. Whether or not you agree with Senator Warren’s positions, she seems like a values-based leader, not driven by ideology or personal interests. Part of why Warren’s grit works is that it seems to arise from authenticity rather than gamesmanship.
  5. She’s humble. In an interview just this week, she was asked why she continues to stay after rallies for hours to take selfies with every single person who wants one. Her reply was simple: “It’s true that I stayed for four hours after the rally in New York City. So did the last guy in line.”

What about you?

Can you recall a situation where you “brought the grit” but neglected the grace?

  • Which of the five principles above – 1) blending passion with reason, 2) staying rooted without going on the attack, 3) not getting emotionally hooked, 4) fighting for something greater than yourself, or 5) humility – did you not bring to bear in that interaction?
  • How did that feel inside? How were you received by others?
  • How might you have worked with any of the five principles to bring a more blended and effective form of power in that situation?

Conversely, recall an interaction when you felt that you expressed yourself in a way that was both grit-full and grace-full.

  • What was your impact there? How did it differ from your impact when you only brought grit forward?
  • What reminders, images or practices can help you balance grit and grace when you want to express yourself in a powerful way?

Are You Kindling Others’ Courage?

Happy National Encouragement Day! Yes, apparently that’s a thing, and it’s today, September 12th. The reason I know this is that Sammi Brown, my local representative to the WV House of Delegates, announced it on social media this morning. Delegate Brown is the very embodiment of encouragement, so she’s the perfect person to get me thinking about the importance it plays in leadership.

I think we’ve lost the power of ‘encouragement’ as a word and an act in organizational life. We tend to see it as a mere compliment or pep-talk. Actually, encouragement is badass. At its root is courage, and courage’s linguistic root is the word for heart. To encourage (en-courage) someone is to kindle her brave heart. If that’s not the definition of leadership, I don’t know what is. It’s one of those leadership acts that requires as much grit as it does grace, so in my view, it’s one of the higher-order leadership skills.

To encourage (en-courage) someone is to kindle her brave heart. If that’s not the definition of leadership, I don’t know what is.

Encouragement takes many forms.  One is a leader’s own example. Delegate Brown is my avatar for en-couragement. She’s a generous, compassionate public servant with a warrior’s spirit. She goes to the mat for teachers, workers, victims of sexual assault, people of color, government transparency and the environment – in a state where these causes are often all but lost. With a kind heart and a sharp mind, she fights hard in the hard fights. Although we’ve never met, Delegate Brown’s own courage en-courages me every day.  (http://sammibrown.org – site coming soon)

Another form of encouragement is to provide challenge that is rooted in hope. We all know leaders who challenge people, but in a demoralizing, tightening-of-the-screws way. They’re the ones who gloss over the positive feedback and zoom in on what could be better. They take success for granted and use it mainly as a reason to raise the bar again. Maybe you find that kind of leadership encouraging; I don’t. The most encouraging leaders I’ve had are those who have seen more in me than I saw in myself. They didn’t push me to make themselves look good. They envisioned my best, helped me see it, and supported me to bring my potential into potent reality. Delegate Brown did just that this morning, encouraging everyday people of principle to run for office, and offering her direct support of those who choose to do so.

A third form of leadership encouragement is a consistent commitment to others’ learning. One of the great wasted opportunities in organizational life is the feedback conversation. Those conversations tend to be either complimentary or so-called constructive. They may produce feelings (good or bad), but rarely lead to insight or learning. But learning is what en-courages. It motivates and equips us to do better. So what if your feedback conversations were…

  • grounded in a commitment to the person’s (vs. your own) success?
  • tied to his or her aspirations and potential?
  • specific and objective, whether you’re giving praise or critique?
  • collaborative (maybe you’ll learn something too!)?
  • clear about what comes next? Don’t assume they will magically intuit what to continue or change based on your feedback. Forge specific agreements.

In other words, what if you entered a feedback conversation in the role of a learning partner vs. a pleased or disappointed judge? Might that be more encouraging… for both of you?

Before we wrap up this exploration of encouraging leadership, let’s remember that encouragement goes both ways. In challenging, risky times, we need to encourage our leaders. Many of my executive clients feel frustrated, defeated, or overwhelmed. This is a hard time to lead, so maybe there’s a leader who needs your encouragement today, who needs you to lift them up or call them forward.

What about you? 

  • When you focus on the ‘courage’ part of encouragement, how does that shift your view of encouragement as a leadership act?
  • Where are you demonstrating the brave heart that will en-courage others?
  • Where or how might you kindle others’ courage by being more courageous yourself?
  • Who around you may not see the potential in themselves that you see in them? How might you show that potential to them in an encouraging, inspiring way?
  • By holding feedback as a learning conversation, what opens up for you? What might that open up for the receiver?
  • What action can you take today to encourage a leader in your world? Who needs to be called to something more? Who needs to be appreciated – not just in a vague, atta-girl way, but in a way that shows her that she’s making a real difference to you?

 

Grit Gone Wild: Armed and Dangerous

Normally this blog focuses on ways that individual leaders can blend grit and grace for maximum positive impact.  But the grit-grace imbalance that we often see in the workplace takes place in a larger context and at a larger scale. One person’s leadership sits within a corporate culture… which sits within a larger regional/national culture… which sits within the global context.

This is a time when events in the U.S. and around the world demand the larger view.  We’re being forced to examine leadership at every level: not only in our teams and organizations, but also in our lives, our communities and our countries. Everywhere I look, it seems to me that ‘grit’ seems to have so many leaders – and followers – by the throat.

Grit is the part of our brain and psyche that differentiates, delineates and strives, while grace is the part of us that unifies, connects and accepts. Both elements are useful and necessary. But for both to contribute their best, they each need to be in partnership with the other. Martin Luther King, Jr. sums up what happens when they become disjointed:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

It seems as though “power without love” is the dominant and rising force in so much of the world. The perspective of “I and mine” is overtaking the mindset of “all of us and all of our’s.” Collectively it seems we’ve muted our compassion, curiosity and gentility, and we can see the reckless and painful results. Ask the residents of Newtown, Parkland and Charleston. Ask African Americans; ask the police. Ask conservatives and liberals. Ask LGBTQ persons; ask Muslims and immigrants. Ask the people of Puerto Rico and Syria. Ask the poor and the working poor. Ask the oceans, forests and air.

This is grit gone wild: a radical swing to one side of the psyche’s pendulum, divorced from the mediating aspects of grace that could restore grit to its healthy best. This imbalance isn’t a new phenomenon. We move in and out of balance, from one side of the pendulum to the other. What does seem new in this gritty time is the level to which we are separating and armed at the boundaries.

As we turn against each other, we have so many weapons with which to assert our positions and silence the other. Here are just a few:

  • Systemic privilege
  • Misused positional power
  • Public shame and bullying
  • Destructive technologies
  • Self-righteousness
  • Xenophobia and nationalism
  • Prioritization of individual rights over the communal good

It’s as if we’re stuck in the sinister version of Thelma and Louise, grit-riding ourselves over a cliff.  As long as we keep flooring the pedal of self-interest and righteousness, we’ll hurl ourselves to the movie’s inevitable conclusion – a soaring demise … without the fun ride, the gorgeous sunset or the liberation.

We don’t need to abandon the productive engine of grit. But there’s also a serious imperative to to engage the forces of kindness, connection and care if we’re going to get the outcomes we really want.

The questions for leaders are clear. How are we complicit in grit’s reckless ride?  How will we usher love back in?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leading The Brokenhearted

I never imagined I’d be writing this post. But I have coached more stressed and grieving people over the past year than I have in my whole career. Challenges of every sort seem to be buffeting us, and their effects accompany us into all aspects of our lives… including into the workplace and into the hands of devoted community and organizational leaders like you. So here goes: an executive coach’s exploration of leadership in brokenhearted times. 

There is no predicting the accident, the diagnosis or the addiction; the mass shooting or the private abuse. The fire, flood, quake or hurricane. The disturbing national event or the cataclysmic organizational shake-up. We think of these as the unimaginable tragedies that happen in other places and to other people. Not here, to us.

But these past many months have reminded us that tragedy can strike right where we stand. The unthinkable happens, and the affected take a bit of time out to register the blow. But then – grieving, disoriented or even traumatized – they show back up to work. They may be walking back into your workplace, to your team. And there you are,  leading people in their most raw and human moments, when their well-pressed suits can’t button up their sorrow. If the tragedy has hit your whole community or workplace, you may even have to lead the brokenhearted while your own heart is in shreds.

If this happens to you, it will be a crucible in your journey as a leader, calling upon you in ways you can’t imagine. Although you can’t predict these moments, you can prepare for them: personally, relationally and structurally.

Preparing Personally 

Who you are is how you lead – and that is never so true as when the chips are down. Your own experience with tragedy will naturally shape how you manage others in heartbreaking times. So it can be helpful to review your own history with trauma, grief and loss, and take clear-eyed stock of their imprint on you as a person and as a leader. The “grit and grace” lens is one simple way to self-reflect.

Grit is a crucial leadership trait in difficult times. It helps you focus on the work at hand, drive to make progress and provide others with a sense of stability and predictability. To what extent does grit show up in you during tough times, and how does it manifest? How has that grit served you or others in tough times?

As useful as grit is, it’s also possible to bring so much of it that others experience you as uncaring or unapproachable. For example, has your own history trained you to ignore or power through your own emotions? Is there any chance that you expect (or hope) that others will do the same? Does vulnerability make you squeamish or judgmental? Becoming more at home with challenging emotions (your own and others’) can help you prepare to be more open-hearted when others are facing difficult times.

Grace. Perhaps your response to tragedy tends toward grace, which is a key aspect of the ‘consoler in chief’ role. Grace offers compassion and comfort to those in pain. But too much grace can get you in over your head. You can become so identified with others’ suffering that you lose your objectivity and find yourself crossing the line from leader to rescuer or enabler. You can be so flexible as to create havoc on the rest of the team and on productivity. So being too helpful can put you, the employee and the company at risk. If you tend to be grace-full to a fault, you might want to set up some guardrails that prevent you from going overboard on overhelping.

The optimal stance, in tragedy as in most things, is a blend of grit and grace, which allows you to be appropriately sensitive without losing your own footing. A shining example of blended leadership in recent times is Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Here’s a clip of Cruz, where her deep care and steely resolve are seamlessly woven together.

Turning grit & grace toward yourself. It’s hard to lead well when the well is empty. In times of tragedy or challenge, it’s crucial to attend to yourself. Most leaders would tell you that self-care is absolutely necessary, yet few actually put that into practice. They treat it as optional: something they’ll get around to when they have the time. But if you are leading the brokenhearted, self-care isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity that requires both resolve and self-compassion. Get sleep. Exercise and eat well. Go easy on the alcohol. Do things that nourish you. Draw on your support system; consider getting counseling for yourself. Structure your time, adjust your expectations and renegotiate your commitments to align with the realities of life in a time of upheaval.

Preparing Relationally 

You can’t know in advance what people will need when tragedy falls.  But you can prepare by knowing what kinds of conversations you’ll need to have when it does.

If you’re leading someone(s) going through difficulty, don’t make any assumptions about what support he/she/they need from you. Don’t assume that what you would want is what they want. Even if you know them well, don’t assume that you know the brokenhearted them.  Tragedy changes us and reveals aspects of us that we may not know or show under normal circumstances.

How do you know what support to give someone? Ask them. Does he need time off, or does being in the office help? How does she want you to answer other people’s questions about what’s going on? What can you share, with whom? What needs to be kept private? Do they want you to check in with them, or would they prefer that you not ask how they’re doing unless they bring it up?

Sometimes people can’t articulate what they need, but they know what won’t work. So if they don’t know what support to ask for, you can ask them what you could do that would be counterproductive or unhelpful for them. A lot of clarity and wisdom can surface there.

Even as you accommodate (as possible) someone who’s reeling, you still have to make sure that the work gets done. This is delicate terrain, where you need to keep grit and grace in balance. The best way I know to navigate this is to explicitly acknowledge the challenges of working while recovering, and make explicit plans and agreements. Talk with the brokenhearted person, and then the team, about how the work’s going to get done while someone is either physically out of the office or is present, but less mentally/emotionally available.

Here’s an example from my own experience. My father died when I was 30; my mother had died several years earlier. That second loss really threw me, and my performance was very uneven while I grappled with it. I’d get totally overwhelmed, out of nowhere. My boss noticed this new unpredictability and sat down with me to create a strategy.  We moved one of my deadlines back by a few weeks, and moved one of my projects to a teammate. We agreed that I would work in the office as much as I could, but that I could leave the office on short notice if I felt overwhelmed. Sometimes just knowing I had the space to leave enabled me to stay. Sometimes, I needed to step away for an afternoon or a day. So I briefed a co-worker on my deliverables and kept him in the loop so that he could step in at any time if needed.

It wasn’t easy, but it worked. My boss’ explicit collaboration with me and engagement with other team members gave me the room to recover without derailing the team’s ability to deliver.

Preparing Structurally 

While you may not have given these worst-case scenarios much thought, your organization probably has. Most organizations have created structures to help you support staff through difficult times. Rather than waiting till a tragedy hits to know what these structures and resources are, you can meet periodically with your HR professionals on the following questions:

  • What actions are within and beyond the scope of your role as a leader, when responding to employees going through challenging times?
  • What are the resources available through the organization’s Employee Assistance Program? How does an employee go about engaging EAP services?
  • What is the manager’s responsibility and process for notifying company officials if an employee appears to be a danger to self or others?
  • What internal programs (such as leave-sharing, disaster relocation funds) has the company established? How do they work?

Leading the brokenhearted is perhaps the most delicate, difficult and important work you will ever do. It will stretch your character, heart and competence in ways that everyday leadership won’t. Though we like to think that tragedy won’t happen to us or “ours,” the truth is that it can land at your feet in an instant.  And while you’ll never be ready, you can prepare.

 

 

#metoo: Coming To A Workplace Near You?

How surprised were you by the number of #metoo’s on your social media a few weeks ago? I found the magnitude of those affected by sexual misconduct absolutely breathtaking.

Behind every #metoo, there is the face of at least one aggressor. My own #metoo represents four different men over the course of my life whose sexual actions put me in direct harm or imminent threat of it. That doesn’t count the scores of men I’ve forgotten about whose comments or leers made me just garden-variety uncomfortable. I am not unique. Think of all the #metoo’s you experienced in your small world, and extrapolate that out. That’s a lot of harassed people. And for every one of them, there are one or more harassers.

Given the extent of sexual predation coming to light, it’s not a stretch to imagine that there are troubling sexual power dynamics in your world and workplace. I’ll bet that some of your coworkers are feeling (re)traumatized by what’s been in the news. Others may feel relieved. Some folks may be in denial, while others are hiding under their desks hoping they don’t get “the call.”

In a new way and with new urgency, people are questioning what conduct is OK and not OK. But I’m not sure I buy that question. It’s not that the lines of acceptable behavior have suddenly changed or blurred. What’s changing, I think, is that we’ve reached a tipping point in our tolerance for crossing those lines. The rules of physical engagement at work are, and always have been, pretty straightforward:

  • Shaking hands is the language of physical connection in the western workplace. Stick with that.
  • If it’s not your body, don’t touch it, comment on it, or share your fantasies about it.
  • Don’t look at someone’s body like it’s your favorite meal.
  • Don’t sexually touch or comment on your own body in front of someone else.
  • Don’t make any career opportunity contingent on a sexual act. Don’t even insinuate it.

In this current tsunami of truth-telling, we realize that this is too big to be just an individual problem – it’s a cultural problem. Our society has a long-standing illness that has allowed and excused sexual misconduct by people (so far, mostly men) in power. It’s absolutely important to hold the individual perpetrators of sexual misconduct to account. At the same time, there is a larger conversation needed, in which we take a harder look at the cultural dynamics of power in this country.

This is a potent moment in which to examine how powerful people use sex, knowingly or unknowingly, to dominate others. If you want to investigate your own behavior in this realm, here are a few questions you might ponder:

  • When have I said or done something of a sexual nature that could have made someone feel unsafe, insecure or devalued? What are the cultural beliefs I’ve inherited, such that that behavior seemed OK to me?
  • Do I find myself levying criticisms or doubts about the women who are coming forward now? If so, what assumptions might I be holding about them?
  • Have I ever tacitly allowed or condoned someone else’s inappropriate behavior?
  • What is the most impactful action I can take now to stop sex from being used as an intimidating force in myself or my sphere?
  • What am I willing to put at risk to do that?

Here also are some questions that leaders can use to engage their teams and organizations in self-reflection:

  • What aspects of our culture, policies and practices might be giving people in our organization permission to wield sexual power over others?
  • What aspects of our culture, policies and practices might be discouraging victims of sexual harassment from coming forward?
  • What are some of the things we should be looking out for to indicate possible sexual harassment?
  • What are the most powerful practical commitments we are willing to make as an organization to stop sex from being used as intimidation?
  • What will we need to put at risk in order to carry out that commitment?

As unsettling a time as this is, it’s a time of clearer seeing. With truth comes the possibility of reconciliation, that we might create a more just and vital way of living and working together.

Workplace Diversity: Vitamin or Pathogen?

Ever since I’ve been in the workplace, which is a long time now, diversity has been touted as a business and moral imperative. Most organizations hold diversity as a core value. Yet 50 years into this push for diversity, and with a workforce growing more diverse by the day, why do we still need to talk about this? Why are women and people of color still so scarce in top leadership roles? Why do so many organizational cultures still reflect the complexion and preferences of their founders, rather than the kaleidoscope of the current workforce? The reasons are many and complex, but I want to explore one in particular: our default mindset toward diversity.

I believe there are two fundamental mindsets that operate at both an individual and collective level: diversity as vitamin, and diversity as pathogen.

The ‘vitamin’ mindset holds that:

  • diversity (the many forms of variety that humans bring) is a necessary element to the health of the enterprise;
  • a deficiency in diversity weakens the system, and the remedy is more diversity; therefore…
  • the organization embraces and metabolizes diversity as medicine – even when it might be hard to digest.

The ‘pathogen’ mindset holds that:

  • what is different from the so-called norm is considered alien, foreign or other;
  • foreign objects stress the system and threaten its health and stasis; therefore…
  • the organization must use its informal ‘immune system’ to neutralize what is different.  This includes behaviors such as silencing, ignoring, isolating, attacking or discouraging people who are different from the norm.

Like most people, you and I would say that we ascribe to the “vitamin” theory. And at the conscious level, we probably do. But researchers at Harvard University’s Project Implicit have shown conclusively that most people have both an explicit, conscious view of diversity, as well as an implicit, unconscious one.

Our conscious mind tends to embrace difference (vitamin view), while our subconscious mind tends to house our more negative perceptions (pathogen view). Research shows that these dual mindsets co-exist within almost all of us. Because both levels of belief are operating simultaneously, we behave inconsistently. We say we value diversity (which we do), but our behavior will reveal any of our ambivalence or fear toward it.  Because we don’t tend to own or acknowledge our implicit biases, those tend to disproportionally drive our behavior. Hence, 50+ years in, we’re still struggling to embody our diversity ideals because we are conflicted.

In their excellent book, “Blindspot,” the Project Implicit researchers emphasize that these dual mindsets are not cause for shame or blame. They are part of the human package. But the beliefs we don’t own or examine can drive some very counterproductive behavior that can only be righted through self-awareness and conscious effort.

These dueling mindsets don’t just happen at the individual level; they occur organizationally, driving the behavior of an entire system.

Like most individuals, most organizations hold a consciously positive mindset toward diversity, and we can see that play out concretely. Many companies hail diversity’s rich virtues. They aggressively recruit for it. They set up diversity and inclusion programs, and sponsor affinity groups around race, gender and sexual orientation. None of this would be happening unless organizations believed, at some level, that difference is a strengthener, worthy of aspiration and investment. Diversity as vitamin.

And yet… If organizations were operating solely from the ‘vitamin’ mindset, workplace life would be very different. Employees of all kinds would feel a more consistent sense of ease and belonging at work. Variety, both in demographics and perspectives, would be reflected and embraced at all levels. Employee retention, satisfaction and turnover rates would be consistent across groups. If our sole belief were that diversity was a nutritional necessity for organizational health, we’d take our vitamins – happily and often.

Our lived experience reveals the diversity-as-pathogen mindset is also strongly at work. Often without intent, organizations will treat a person who seems “different” the same way a body would treat a foreign object: as a threat. Like the body, organizations will deploy an autonomic cultural immune system to isolate or neutralize that disruption to the norm.

Here are some of the indicators of the diversity immune system at work at the interpersonal or group level:

  • The minority person or point of view is repeatedly excluded, ignored or negated.
  • People are spending significant energy tending the wounds of conduct that, intended or not, diminishes them.
  • Some groups of people chronically struggle to be heard or included.
  • Those who raise questions about inequity are told that they’re seeing the situation incorrectly.  They’re often accused of being “sensitive,” “angry” or “difficult.”

Here are some indicators of the ‘diversity as pathogen’ mindset working at the systemic level:

  • Pay gaps might exist between different demographic groups doing the same work.
  • An organization’s retention rates may be inconsistent across demographic groups.
  • The ranks of senior leadership may not reflect a variety of backgrounds and points of view.
  • New employees who are not white, male and heterosexual may still be referred to as “diversity hires:” as if white/male/hetero is the standard of sameness and all others are, well, “other.”
  • An organization may have succeeded at hiring a diverse workforce, but finds that a disproportionate percentage of non- white/male/hetero employees feel undervalued, underutilized, over-securitized or excluded.

If your organization is experiencing any of these dynamics, it’s facing an opportunity you may not have considered. Rather than building new policies, procedures or programs, consider first examining the organization’s underlying mindset(s), and identify how those are expressed through behavior, culture, systems and outcomes. Awareness isn’t everything, but it’s the necessary starting place.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
~ James Baldwin

Uber Reveals the Perils of Grit Gone Wild

Set bold goals. Drive for results. Accelerate growth. Foster competition. Push people to excel.

This is the ‘grit’ side of business success, and it’s become a favored playbook in the start-up world. This formula has produced dizzying growth and investor bonanzas for countless new companies. So what’s not to love about a strategy like this? Ask Uber’s investors and its CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Under Kalanick’s leadership, Uber’s strategy and corporate culture were overwhelmingly grit-centric:  which is to say that Uber has faltered – seriously and predictably – because of the absence of the grace aspect of the enterprise. What was missing in Kalanick’s Uber? Fairness; compassion; care for employees’ welfare; collaboration. You know – that touchy-feely stuff that, in the right amount, actually makes organizations sing.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with bodacious goals and an aggressive stance to productivity. But, if left to its own devices, grit’s aggressive ambition will ultimately bring a company down. Like a tall tree with shallow roots, like a field farmed year after year, like an engine run too hot for too long, a leader who leans on the grit and ignores the grace has followed a recipe for failure.

According to a recent New York Times article, Uber’s obsession with results at all costs – unmediated by attention to workplace equality, safety, civility and due process – has fostered some very unhealthy dynamics:

  • a hyper-competitive atmosphere which pits employees against each other and against management
  • inappropriate workplace conduct among high-performers has gone unchecked, condoned and even modeled from the top
  • incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination have continued to mount

As a result, Uber’s “bro” culture became a broken culture. Customers, employees and investors are in revolt and the company is in chaos.

  • The company’s brand and profits have taken a huge hit; Kalanick’s been forced to step aside.
  • Uber’s valuation has dropped from $68B to $50B, while its customers flock to competitor, Lyft.
  • Uber is mired in lawsuits brought by employees and competitors.
  • The company will need to devote untold resources and time to rehabilitate its culture, management practices and brand.

Our experience tell us, and research confirms, that the leaders who are effective over the long term are the ones who blend grit and grace. Maybe not in perfect halves, but at least in dynamic combination. Their actions promote productivity as well as harmony, and foster competition and collaboration in healthy measure. Why? Because the blend is what gets the best results over time.

The Uber story, like the 2009 real estate crisis and Enron before that, was predictable and avoidable, because grit alone (like grace alone) can’t deliver sustainable success. So if you’re a grit-leaning leader who wants to shoot the moon without the crash-and-burn, go get your grace on.

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Leading in the Eye of the Hurricane (Part 5): Charting the Next Right Step

You’ve found yourself leading in a time of crisis: which is to say, you are guiding others in a time of reality-shifting change. If you’ve been reading the other posts in this series, you’ve joined me in exploring several tasks that are especially helpful for leading in times like this:

  1. Catching one’s breath
  2. Confronting what’s happening and
  3. Connecting to what’s enduring and essential

All of these tasks involve pulling yourself out of the fray and entering the still, quiet “eye of the hurricane,” where you can find necessary grounding and perspective.

“Charting the next right step” is the final task and the natural outgrowth of the first three. It marks the transition out of reflection and into action. Yet even for the action-oriented, moving forward in a crisis can be daunting.

First, crisis often invokes a sense of powerlessness. The forces of disruptive change are frequently far beyond your control. It’s sobering (and sane) to recognize the limits of your influence, especially when your team is looking to you to handle it all.

My clients who are taking effective action in critical times tend to focus in on what they can control and influence, and take action in that zone. They stay attuned to the uncontrollable forces at play, but invest their efforts where they can actually accomplish something.

The second obstacle to moving forward is the desire to establish the “perfect” plan before taking action. The stakes are high and you want to get this right. But in the chaos of crisis, there is no perfect plan. If you wait for it, you’ll never act. So you have to take what you do know, take a logical next step, and use that step to inform the next one. When things are changing fast, taking action is sometimes the only way to discern what the ‘right’ action is.

Otto Scharmer, a Senior lecturer at MIT, calls this “prototyping.” It involves sketching out an initial strategy and testing it out through implementation. Each action cycle produces new learning, which in turn informs the next cycle of implementation. This iterative approach can often build momentum more effectively than searching for the illusive perfect plan.

You can also prototype yourself! In the swirl of changes, you may be stretched to develop a whole new skill set or aspect of yourself. (I can help you with that.) Don’t attempt to take on all the changes in one fell swoop. Pick one or two areas to start and make small new moves. Then reflect on the results, recalibrate, and reengage.

The third obstacle to useful engagement is frenzied activity.  Frenzy functions in a strange way in the brain. The stress hormones pumping through your body tell your brain that you’re in danger and the only way out is to step harder on the gas. But your logical mind knows better: you will never manage all the debris that a crisis throws into the air. And if you try, you’ll probably end up just depleting yourself and your team – with little to show for it. If you find yourself in frenetic activity, it might be time to return to the ‘eye’ and attend to Tasks 1 – 3. There, you can settle yourself and figure out what matters most.

In normal times, leaders tend to map out a long term strategy and execute it according to plan. But in crisis – when the world as you know it is falling away and something new is emerging – it’s often impossible to see far enough ahead to map more than a few next steps. So crisis requires a different mode of taking action. It calls on you to discern new patterns as they are emerging, to formulate a prototype strategy, and test that prototype by putting it into motion. Then learn as you go, using the actions you’ve take to inform the actions to follow.

 

Leading In The Eye Of The Hurricane (Part 4): Connecting To What’s Essential and Enduring

This is the fourth of my five-part series on crisis leadership.

If you’re like many people, you tend to equate ‘crisis’ with ‘disaster.’ But the word crisis actually comes from the Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ It describes any event – whether positive, negative or neutral – that separates a new reality from an old one. Thinking about crisis in terms of ‘separation’ certainly doesn’t eliminate the difficulty and loss of change.  But when leaders look at crisis as being cast into a new world, vs. as being thrown to their doom, they may be more able to navigate the storm of change productively.

In Part 1 of this series, I explored the implications of this different lens on crisis, and mapped out four essential “renewal” tasks for crisis leadership: 1) Catching one’s breath; 2) Confronting what’s happening now; 3) Connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and 4) Charting the next right step.

Part 2 focused on the first of those tasks: “catching one’s breath.” This task requires pulling yourself out of the fray of change and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Taking the time to reflect and get your bearings feels counterintuitive when the world is going haywire.  But it’s critically important work, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re in a swirl.

Part 3 explored the task of “confronting what’s happening now.” In disruptive change, the world is rearranging us, so we must likewise shift our response to it. To do that, we must lead others in seeing what’s happening, making sense of it intellectually and processing it emotionally. This is what it means to confront something – to face it head-on and heart-in.

This post is about the third task of crisis leadership: connecting to what’s essential and enduring amidst the change.

In crisis, we can become preoccupied with what’s being lost or threatened. Your world may be turning on its head and upending you, your team and your organization in the process: fighting for survival; recasting missions; questioning long-held beliefs; restructuring, regrouping or recovering.

But in the press of adaptation, we often forget to anchor ourselves in those things that aren’t changing, which can sustain and stabilize us. These are usually deeper “DNA” things like values (personal and organizational), shared history, accumulated knowledge, unique capabilities, or a strong reputation. There’s an essential “you” (or “us”) that continues, even if you have to radically change how you express it in your new reality.

Over the past months, I’ve been in conversations with many leaders who are remembering to tap into what is essential and enduring.  Here are some examples of how they’ve expressed that:

“I know we have to pay attention to the business. But focusing on our people is the only way this business survives.”


“Everything about how we do our work is changing. And personally, I don’t agree with the new direction. But I keep bringing myself and my staff back to our core mission – which is, has been, and always will be – of vital importance. We will adapt whatever we need to in order to keep this critical mission alive.”


“The company is exerting enormous pressure on us to sell, sell, sell. But what’s always won us business is delivering exceptional results for our clients. So that’s what we’re going to keep doing. I’m keeping an eye on sales, but I’m not going to chase ‘just any’ work or work we can’t deliver on.”


“Our church is losing its pastor after 30 years. We have two main tasks in this transition.  The first is to affirm this community’s many strengths, which are the pastor’s legacy to us. Our second job is to be intentional about drawing on those assets, so that the congregation stays robust beyond him.”

We can all take a cue from these leaders, who are drawing on foundational values and assets for stability in the storm. But that doesn’t mean it’s all going to work out for them – or you. Maybe you’ll still have to lay off staff. Can you challenge yourself do that in a way that’s true to the organization’s animating values? True to your own? Perhaps your team will lose the funding for its cherished project. Rather than fight to keep a doomed project alive, can you lead your team in reimagining its offering for a new world?

This makes sense, right? But you’d be surprised how often I see leaders abandon essential and enduring strengths as they scramble to adapt to a new reality. Try not to join their ranks. Instead, remember to articulate and amplify what is good and abiding amidst the change.

What about you?

  1. Think of a time when you led (or are leading) in profound disruption.
  2. How consciously or effectively did you leverage the power of what is “essential and enduring” during that time of change?  What were the results?
  3. The next time you face a major ‘separation,’ how can you better articulate and amplify the aspects of your organization that will continue?

 

 

 

 

 

Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane (Part 3): Confronting What’s Happening Now

This is the third installment of my five-part series on crisis leadership. The premise of the series is that leading in times of crisis (disruptive change) requires, to quote Liam Neeson, “a very particular set of skills.” This post examines another of those important capacities.

First, a quick recap. The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ We normally think of a crisis as something terrible. But it’s actually any cataclysmic event that separates “what is” from “what used to be.”  Crisis shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibility and what/whom we can trust. You may see the Presidency of Donald Trump as the edge of Doomsday or a floodgate of opportunity. Either way, this is a time of crisis, in the sense that it’s a profound separation from what has been. And you are leading in it.

In Part 1 of this series, I mapped out four essential tasks for crisis leadership: catching one’s breath; confronting what’s happening now; connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and charting the next right step.

Part 2 focused on the first of those tasks: catching one’s breath. Catching your breath requires pulling yourself out of the fray and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Getting centered is counterintuitive when the world is going haywire.  But catching your breath is crucial, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re breathless.

This post zeroes in on the second task: confronting what’s happening now.

Because crisis disrupts what we’ve known and relied on, it challenges how we think about ourselves and our world. So in times like this, leaders need to help their team to get grounded and to differentiate reality from the predictable hallucinations of fear.

Fake news, fact-as-opinion and partisan information bubbles make it very challenging to get an accurate picture of reality. Here are a few tips for getting your bearings in the swirling hurricane of change.

  • Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” In chaotic times, it’s natural to try to minimize confusion. But the danger in that is that you might miss critical information. Navigating crisis requires leaders to model the ability to stay curious, keep learning, and adjust as you go. Try not to assume (or let others assume) that you know how this situation is going to go. Beware of over-simplifying a complex and nuanced reality. Take care not to shut down to perspectives or people that you disagree with. Stay open.
  • Engage your stakeholders. Don’t make assumptions about what your customers, suppliers, competitors, employees and bosses are experiencing. Ask them – and let in what they’re telling you.
  • Get educated. If your business is affected by pending legislation, read the bill itself, rather than relying on legislators’ or media’s interpretations. Consult legitimate media sources on the left and the right. If you’re wondering if media reports are accurate, here’s a link to an article by FactCheck.org on how to spot fake news.
  • Look at objective measures. Facts are the best stars by which to navigate this new terrain. But since “facts” have become a matter of opinion, make sure that the methodology by which the measures were arrived at are sound.

Once you gather information about what’s happening now, you have to make sense of it intellectually. Involving your team in this process is a great way to get everyone engaged, out of denial and up to speed. Here are examples of questions you can ask:

Based on what we’ve read, heard and experienced…

  • What do we know?
  • What do we not know, and when/how will we find out?
  • What do our data indicate will be the most likely outcomes?
  • What are the opportunities and threats of those outcomes?
  • What contingencies should we be preparing for?

The last, and perhaps most difficult, aspect is confronting what’s happening at an emotional level. Disruptive change has a profound impact on us personally, and failing to deal with these impacts is often what inhibits our ability to adapt.  Here are some questions you can use to confront the new reality at a personal level:

  • How does this all affect me?  How does it affect us?
  • What do I/we need to confront about the world or ourselves to really let this information in?
  • How do we feel about what we know?  What emotions does it stir in us?
  • How might our emotions and reactions be clouding our view or impeding our progress?  How might we manage that?
  • How can we leverage our emotions to foster positive action?

One of the greatest temptations in crisis is to jump to action. Sometimes, immediate action is exactly what’s called for. But often, that impulse to act is rooted in a desire to escape discomfort. Taking the time to catch your breath and to critically assess what’s happening can help you take action that is rooted in reflection, vs. in reactivity.