Leading In The Storm of Crisis: A Field Guide

“Crisis.” If ever there were a time to use that word, a global pandemic would be it.

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ In this light, a crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. It’s something that shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. By this definition, events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the Internet, 9/11 and the 2008 housing crash were all crises. More recently, there’s been Brexit and the last U.S presidential election. Whether you see these events as “good” or “bad,” they each cleaved a new world. The novel corona virus has been a cleaving like no other, separating us so profoundly from life as we knew it that we can scarcely get our bearings.

And here you are, leading others through the wild storm of crisis. People are looking to you for guidance, but you may be thinking, “How do I guide others in terrain that’s alien and scary to me?” Or in simpler terms, “How do I lead when I don’t have a clue?”

It’s natural to hunker down, drive yourself harder and work longer – as if somehow you could get it all in order. But you’ll exhaust yourself if you try to outrun the hurricane of crisis, and you’ll be upended if you ignore it. The safest place to be in a hurricane is the eye, where things are quiet and still. It is the place where you can go to regain your balance, strength and sense of perspective. Visiting the eye isn’t a ‘nice to have’ in times of crisis; the people you lead actually need you to go there. They need you at your best so that you can help them be at theirs.

What exactly is the leadership work in the eye of the storm? I think there are six essential tasks, which I’ve gleaned from the immense wisdom of the leaders I work with, my colleagues, friends, community, and spiritual teachers:

  1. Catch one’s breath (if even for a moment)
  2. Confront reality
  3. Connect to what’s essential and enduring
  4. Discern the next right step
  5. Innovate
  6. Extend care

These tasks aren’t sequential. They’ll vary in how often you need to do them. Some days, you may need to do them all. Below, I’ll explore each task and start the virtual brainstorming of the practical things you can do for each.

Task 1: Catch one’s breath

In crisis, the winds of change howl at hurricane force. For most of us, the instinct is to jump into the swirl and do something. But in the swirl, we run the risk of being more active than productive, because we’re often taking action from an off-balanced place. The signs of being off-center are different for everyone, but can include:

  • an inability to sleep, and/or chronic exhaustion that is not improved by rest
  • increased irritability
  • feeling confused, anxious or overwhelmed
  • obsessive thinking and/or engagement in media
  • a change in eating or drinking habits (e.g., consuming more carbs, fat and alcohol)

Even if you notice these symptoms in yourself, you may tend to override them and just keep powering through. But these signs are actually your greatest allies, because they’re telling you that you’re probably not at your best. Heed them as a call to pause. In times of wild change, leaders need to come back to center over and over while on the run – much like tennis players reset their stance between every stroke.

The most accessible reset button is the breath. Slowing and lowering the breath, even for 30 seconds, stills the inner winds. It returns oxygen to the brain, which lowers anxiety and clarifies thinking. Here’s a link to a ‘controlled breathing’ technique that you can try.

Catching your breath also means grounding yourself – in who you are, what you stand for and what really matters. Maybe you find your ground in a personal mission statement or a set of core values; in writings or practices from your faith tradition; in nature; in a favorite writer, poet or musician; in creative pursuits or physical movement; in meditation and silence, or in connection with others.

Self-reflection can also be a crucial way of catching your breath. Consider journaling as a way to check in with yourself and process what’s going on. Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, recently published a set of “Daily Quarantine Questions” which might guide you in daily reflection:

  • What am I grateful for today?
  • Who am I checking on or connecting with today?
  • What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
  • How am I getting outside today?
  • How am I moving my body today?
  • What beauty am I creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?

Where and how you catch your breath is a deeply personal and intimate thing. What matters is that you know what works for you and that you do it. Often.

Task 2: Confront reality

Fake news, opinion-as-fact culture, and partisan information bubbles make it very challenging to get an accurate picture of reality. But facing reality is essential in taking action that is rooted in discernment, not distress.Here are a few tips for getting your bearings in the swirling hurricane of change.

  • Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” 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. Take care not to shut down to perspectives or people that you disagree with. Stay open.
  • Engage your stakeholders. Don’t assume what your customers, suppliers, competitors, employees and bosses are experiencing. Ask them and let in what they’re telling you.
  • Get educated. Facts are the best stars by which to navigate this new terrain. Listen to the experts. 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.
  • Tell the truth. Repeat facts. Share opinion as opinion. Beware of over-simplifying a complex and nuanced reality. Address rumors quickly.

Once you gather information about what’s happening now, you have to help your team make sense of it. I think questions are the best way to guide the meaning-making process. Here are some that might prime your thinking:

  • What are we noticing? What do we know?
  • What do we not know, and when/how will we find out?
  • Given what we know right now, what are the most likely scenarios? Best and worst case?
  • What are the opportunities and threats in each of those scenarios?
  • What assumptions are driving and limiting our thinking?

Disruptive change isn’t just difficult intellectually; it has a profound impact on us personally. Failing to deal with these impacts is often what inhibits our ability to adapt. Here are examples of questions to help people confront the personal impacts of this strange new reality:

  • 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?
  • What might others need to hear from me right now?

The special challenge of ‘confronting reality’ in crisis is how radically and fast ‘reality’ changes. So, like all the other tasks, you may need to do this every week, every day or even every hour.

Task 3: Connect to what’s essential and enduring

In crisis, people become preoccupied with potential loss and threat. Covid-19 has put at risk our routines, physical and financial security, connections, identities, and our very lives. Looming loss can overwhelm us, obscuring what abides. Values (personal and organizational) abide. So do our shared purpose and history, our collective gifts, our accumulated wisdom, our commitment to each other, and our common humanity. Tapping into those essentials can sustain and stabilize us all.

I’m not talking about regurgitating corporate platitudes; I’m talking about connecting with what is true and lasting. Articulate fundamental purpose; remind people of what sustains us; reaffirm those commitments we’ve always held and will continue to hold until we can’t. Ask others to remember all of that, to lean on it, and use it to guide action now. Not everything is going away, and what endures can stabilize, comfort and unify us.

One of my clients, the CEO of Windmill Microlending in Canada, gave a master class in leadership in a recent letter she wrote to her staff. She’s given me permission to share portions of that letter, in which she reaffirms the enduring commitments of the organization:

“When so much is changing, it’s somehow grounding to remind one another about what’s as solid and true today as it was last year and will be next year and next decade: 

Windmill is in the business of helping people out of difficulty. Our organization is in the business of helping people who want to help other people, by putting their skills to work.

We are here to serve and will be a decade from now, living out the vision of Windmill’s founders for converting potential into prosperity. Humanity is resilient and we learn our best in situations of challenge and stress. Stress can bring out the best in us, and can enable us to fulfill our potential.

Serving others and managing stress can be exhilarating and rewarding. Even more surely—those things are exhausting. It’s normal that you are feeling very tired right now.”

Task 4: Discern the next right step

Normally, leaders map out long-term strategies and execute against them. 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. Yet even for the action-oriented, moving forward in a crisis can be daunting. Here’s why.

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

So, in critical times, focus your efforts where you have control. Stay attuned to the larger, uncontrollable forces at play, but don’t let them distract you from taking action where you can.

The second obstacle to moving forward is the desire to establish the “perfect” plan before taking action. These days, the stakes are high and you want to get this right. But in crisis, there is rarely a perfect plan – so if you wait for it, you might not act. Rather than asking yourself what the right thing is, try asking what the next right thing is. Do that, and learn from there.

Otto Scharmer, a Senior lecturer at MIT, calls this “prototyping.” It involves sketching out an initial strategy and testing it through action. Each action cycle produces new learning, which in turn informs the next cycle of action. This iterative approach often builds momentum more quickly and effectively than searching for the elusive perfect plan. And in a time where reality is changing day by day, prototyping cycles will naturally speed up.

One of my favorite prototyping models is the “OODA Loop”, a decision making process for complex, rapidly changing situations.

You can also prototype yourself! In this crazy time, 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.

Task 5: Innovate

Crisis is necessarily a time of re-creation, but I’m not sure there’s ever been a time in history that has spurred such drastic adaptation on such a global scale and in such a short time. The extent of the disruption is dizzying. But so are the opportunities.

It’s a time of immense creativity, driven by immense and immediate need. Almost overnight, virtual corporate coffee breaks, government by zoom, online worship, neighborhood errand brigades, and social safety nets have sprung into being.

But part of the leadership work at the eye of the storm is to take a longer-term view to seize the opportunity coming out of the disruption. Here are some questions that can prime your thinking:

  • What are we discovering – about ourselves, values, culture, mission, marketplace and stakeholders – that we didn’t know before?
  • What’s holding up really well, even in times like this?
  • What weaknesses are showing up?
  • What ways of working have we had to abandon that we might not want to resume when things go ‘back to normal?’ Why?
  • What perspectives, attitudes, practices, programs, structures and practices are proving their worth under duress? Which need to be strengthened or created? Which have outlived their usefulness?

Task 6: Extend Care

While the coronavirus may give rise to many good new things, it is fundamentally threatening our lives, livelihoods, and ways of living. We grieve both realized and anticipated loss, as this excellent Harvard Business Review article explores. My friends, colleagues and clients are consistently talking about how exhausted they are: finding it harder to think clearly or concentrate, ready for bed much earlier at night. An insightful Rolling Stone article talks about this phenomenon as “moral fatigue.”

All of this to say: many of us and many of you are feeling the effects of stress, and what’s called for is extra care and kindness.

Starting with you. I mean it.

In my mind, caring for oneself should be the first task of a leader in stressful times, not the last. Yet in every call I’ve had with my executive clients in this COVID crisis, their own well-being has been the last thing on their minds. For those who think that self-renewal is some squishy, indulgent thing, I offer this wisdom from philosopher Parker Palmer:

“…on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act. It is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can … give true self the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

Actively care for yourself. Remember that you, too, are being buffeted by life in the coronavirus. Maybe adjust your expectations of how much you’re going to get done or how elegantly you’re going to do it. Rather than pushing yourself to the max in your exercise routine, consider engaging in gentler forms of movement to lower the overall stress on your system. Keep returning to the ‘Catch Your Breath’ practices at the beginning of this post. And, importantly, remember that caring for oneself includes letting others care for you.  

Why should you focus on self-stewardship? Because a sound and grounded ‘you’ is the best place from which to then extend care to others.

I’m in awe of the things leaders are doing to reach out to their stakeholders. They’re reaching out with simple emails saying “How’s everyone doing?” Holding virtual lunches. Acknowledging the stress of this difficult time and encouraging people to be forgiving of themselves and each other. Spotlighting great work. Mobilizing support for team members in need. One of my clients holds a “Daily 10:15,” a quick virtual staff meeting at 10:15 each morning to connect and strategize for the day ahead. One of my state’s candidates for governor has retooled his campaign machine into a COVID-19 response team for citizens throughout the state.

Again, my client at Windmill did a beautiful job of extending care in that same letter to staff:

“As we end this week, I want to reach out and share my joy with you at some of your work and accomplishments this week….

In closing, our physical health and our mental health are our most precious commodities. Please look after yours and your families’. If you need to adjust your work or need access to any services, please reach out. We have a benefits plan and paid time off that are there for you when you need it. We can only help our clients and one another when we are healthy, so please look after yourselves.

And thanks for being such a great team. I truly feel blessed to work with each of you and look forward to the time when we can be together in person again. In the meantime, thank you for living Windmill values so well each day.”

The creativity and commitment I see from business and community leaders is giving so much hope and comfort to so many. 

What about you?

Normally in this section of my posts, I offer questions for your reflection. But I’m hoping that you will share your experiences, discoveries and strategies in leading through crisis. I also hope you’ll share your struggles and questions.  I’d love to update this post with your input.

In the meantime, please take care. Remember to return to the quiet eye of the hurricane to get your bearings. And for all that you’re doing and shouldering, thank you.  Please let me know if I can help.

But Is She Electable? Is She Promotable?

“Sure, she knows her stuff. She’s tough and prepared. But is she electable? Is she promotable? Is she ‘leadership material’?” We’ve heard these questions, for freaking ever, in all domains of our culture. I don’t know about you, but I’m over it already.

We tend to address women’s electability/promotability as if it’s a inherent trait in them. But I think the question reveals more about our biases and limitations of imagination. Women are promotable when someone promotes them. They’re electable when people vote for them. They’re leadership material when they’ve demonstrated the ability to lead.

So if we hear ourselves questioning a woman’s promotability/electability, let’s ask the real question: “Am I capable of accepting a woman’s leadership?” If the quiet, honest answer is no, then we’re the ones not making the grade.

Let’s Talk About Power

I’m writing this in the middle of the U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial of President Trump. While I know better than to blog about politicians these days, it’s no accident that power and leadership are on my mind.

When I’m coaching leaders, I am fundamentally supporting their ability to wield power more effectively. As this world unfolds as it’s unfolding, I feel a mounting urgency for us to get our arms around this thing called power. As I deepen my own understanding of leadership, I also have a growing clarity about what “effective” power is (and isn’t). I think most of us have our own sense of that, yet I’m amazed how little critical attention we seem to pay to something that so profoundly affects us all.

I think this failure of examination is a dire problem. The more we hold power in shadow, the more unconscious – and potentially unconscionable – its use becomes. Collectively and individually, we’re being called to grapple with power in more intentional, productive, and unifying ways. Life and lives depend on it. I think the first step is to get clear about what effective power actually is, so I’d like to share my own, always-evolving, construct of leadership. I share it not as the One And Right model, but as a starting place for exploration and dialogue.

Effective power has five essential and interlocking components: awareness, agency, humility, morality and skill.

Awareness
Effective leaders ‘own’ their power. They acknowledge that they have it and why they have it. They understand the source(s), responsibilities and limitations of it. I find that most leaders have real blind spots here. Many take power as a given, never really investigating either how they came to have power or what it means for them and others. As a result, they don’t tend to question their motives, methods or impact in a holistic way… or at all. Others take power as a “not-given,” as something they either don’t have or don’t want to be associated with. I can’t tell you how many leaders (mostly women, I’m afraid) have said to me, “Oh, I don’t think of myself as having power. I like to think of myself as everyone’s equal.” Distancing ourselves from power only increases the odds that we’ll squander or misuse it. Power disowned is like an ungrounded electrical wire: it will either block energy or render it dangerous.

If you’re a leader, it’s not enough to be aware that you possess power. Effectiveness demands that you understand who you are as a power-wielder, in both your strengths and your shortcomings. One of the greatest vulnerabilities of power is its tendency to stunt your empathy. So effective power requires a continual and honest reckoning of what motivates your actions; how your actions affect the people and world around you; whose voice(s) your own might be crowding out; whose voice(s) your own could amplify. An essential tool for that self-reckoning is listening to those who bear your impact.  (See “Humility,” below)

Agency
The term “agency” refers to the ability to take action and spur others to do the same. We all know brilliant, highly placed leaders who can’t galvanize those around them. These people may inhabit the seat of power, but lacking the component of ‘agency,’ their leadership has a stagnating effect. I’ve seen organizations suffer a great deal under leaders who were good and smart people, but couldn’t get things to move.

We can also point to the opposite problem – when someone’s agency is strong, but divorced from the other components. The potential damage there is incalculable. Think the Enron scandal, the mortgage crisis, political corruption… These crises came to pass because people in power were capable of great agency, but lacked the humility or morality that assures ethical action.

We certainly don’t have to look as far away as Washington or Wall Street to see the devastating effects of too much or too little leadership agency. They play out every day in our communities, families and workplaces.

Humility
Leadership is an awesome responsibility, because leaders, whether formal or informal, directly shape the lives of those around them. Effective leaders are humble in the face of that responsibility. They respect their potential for impact and use it with care. They understand that leading is a position of service which also carries profound privilege. That’s no small contradiction to manage.

Through self-reflection and external feedback, effective leaders humbly cop both to their strengths and to their limitations. Humility requires curiosity: the willingness to not know and to admit to not knowing. So humble leaders surround themselves with people who know more than they do, see around corners that they can’t, approach the world from a different angle, raise the inconvenient red flags, and call them out on their b.s. Humble leaders don’t just have those people near; they seek and treasure their counsel.

Morality
The world is heating up. Resources are becoming scarcer. Tribalism and inequality are on the rise. In this context, I believe that a leader’s power is effective only if it is exercised on behalf of something greater than greed, advancement or glory. By “morality,” I don’t mean an adherence to some standard of personal virtue, but rather a dedication to more transcendent principles, like justice, equity and sustainability. Maybe your moral sense is grounded in a particular spiritual tradition, or a cultural ethos, or a personal code. But regardless of what guides you, I don’t think you can be a truly effective leader if you’re not leading toward a more just and compassionate world in some real way, no matter how small.

It’s not enough simply to have a moral code. Effective leaders also demonstrate the courage to act on that code. They say and do the difficult, unpopular thing on behalf of the greater good. Sadly, morality and courage don’t always go together. Think of the religious leader who covers up sexual abuse, or the government official who hijacks public trust for personal gain, or the boss who asks you to fudge the numbers. Very likely, they all know what’s right, but they lack the courage of their convictions.

Happily, we also know what morality in action looks like. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the wake of the 2019 mass shooting comes to mind. So do climate activist Greta Thunberg, San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and the many U.S. civil servants who have put their careers at risk to testify before Congress. You may not agree with their positions, but all of them share a clear sense of the greater good and the courage to risk their necks for it.

Skill
The effective use of power demands more than character. It also demands a broad spectrum of skills, such as:

  • envisioning a compelling future that coalesces action
  • creating cultures and systems that move the mission and people toward that envisioned future
  • being unflinching about values and priorities
  • understanding how the enterprise affects and is affected by disparate forces
  • heading with integrity into the winds of conflict, change and challenge
  • making it safe enough for people to feel secure, while making it uncomfortable enough to keep people reaching for more
  • taking good enough care of people that they want to follow
  • taking good enough care of oneself to provide a sound lead.

If you are someone in or with power, you will never stop being called to grow in awareness, agency, humility, morality and skill.  If you are to be effective, you will keep saying yes to the call to growth.

What about you?

  1. Which aspects of this model of power feel on-target to you, and why?
  2. With which aspects do you take issue?  What feels off or missing to you?
  3. What’s your model of power?  Who is someone whose use of power you admire, and what does that reveal about your own sense of the components of effective power?
  4. Can you point to leaders, either in your own life or in public life, who excel in some aspect of power, but fall short in others?  What are the practical ramifications of that unevenness?
  5. Whatever your construct of effective power, where do you feel strongest and where do you feel most in need of strengthening?
  6. How would your greatest critics answer the previous question?
  7. What compelling motivation do you have for further honing the way you wield power?

 

 

Want to explore working with me to hone and harness your own power?  

 

 

 

 

“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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