Shoveling

“Is this what it was like to live in Colonial times?” my 11-year old daughter asks, golden firelight flickering off her face in our living room on Wednesday night.

The power was out in our house and in our neighborhood, thanks to the late winter storm weighing down trees under layers of ice and wet, heavy snow.

I’d just arrived after my own three-hour saga from New York City – 20 miles away – thanks to a tree that hit and immobilized my train, stopping all service in both directions for the night.

We had a few flashlights, the kids were reading by candlelight, I was finally warming up, and my wife says, “Shoveling. We have to shovel, or it will freeze by morning. Let’s do it now.”

Never mind the exhaustion of the journey home, the temperature dropping in our house, eating by flashlight, or all that important worrying we had to do. Let’s shovel.

And she was right.

We trudge out into six inches of wet, nasty, heavy snow, do an hours’ worth of work, and it’s taken care of.

The only reason we did the tough, ugly job that needed to be done? Because she said “now.”

Sometimes we just need someone to speak that kind of truth, cut through it all and say “this, right now. This is the most important thing for us to do.”

Maybe that someone is you.

Maybe the time to put something hard and important at the top of the list is now.

Your team will follow. Even if it’s not, technically, “your team.”

What does the Hippo think?

I was in a meeting recently with a successful startup CEO who was sharing how he runs his teams for best results. He finished by by saying, “…and that way we make sure we don’t end up with ‘hippo’ decisions.”

And I thought, “Heavy decisions?” “Decisions that are big and more dangerous than they appear?”

No, “hippo” decisions are actually HIPPO decisions, ones in which the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion rules the day.

There are entire organizations and cultures built around HIPPO decision-making. You’ve worked at these sorts of places–maybe you do right now. In these cultures, in meeting after meeting everyone is holding their collective breath waiting for the HIPPO to speak. Or, whole conversations happen and ultimately the HIPPO tells everyone what she thinks of the conversation and tells us all what we’ll do next.

Some anti-HIPPO resources that might be useful: the original HBR article on Adaptive Leadership and the great +Acumen course that will help you learn and apply the concepts. A powerful book by General Stanley McChrystal on Teams of Teams.

The funny thing about HIPPO cultures is that they let everyone off the hook: you’d think the non-HIPPOS might feel frustrated that their voice isn’t being heard, but often it’s a relief to have someone else decide, to know that you’re just pitching in some thoughts and that someone else will be on the line.

(And to all you HIPPOs out there, while it’s possible that you’re consistently the smartest, most experienced, wisest person in the room in general, what are the chances that you’re the smartest, most experienced, wisest about all things all of the time?)

Lest we forget forget…hippos are the most dangerous animal on the Savannah.

Blank Spaces

There’s no way I can fully know and see everything you know and see (and vice versa). So how do I react when I discover you did something that seems wrong?

I start by reminding myself that what I know right now about the facts you had and the decision you made is full of blank spaces. In the absence of knowing what you know, I can choose to have a bias in favor of believing that you likely did the right thing. (did you really?)

I can decide that the difference between the choice I’d have made and the choice you did make is the different, better information that you had.  (or you just acted without really thinking things through)

And I can remember that it is always better to enter conversations about what happened and why with genuine curiosity, not judgment. (even though, let’s be honest, we’ve seen you do this sort of thing before)

I can also remind myself that there’s a short game and a long game at play, and be careful about sacrificing your long-term agency for my desire to get each and every step right between here and there. (at the same time, this was a screw-up)

This doesn’t mean that the decision might not have been wrong, or that there aren’t things to learn—because it might have been, and there probably are. But the strongest message we send in each interaction is whether we really believe in and trust each other, and how much we are committed to investing in each others’ agency. (and let’s remember that trust needs to be earned every day)

Finally, and most importantly, I can hold firmly to the notion, each and every time, that your intentions, like mine, were overflowing with goodness, with care, and with as much desire as I have to get the best outcome.

(And to be honest with myself about my own inner narrative.)

(Everything in parentheses is the corrosive inner dialogue, the one that says “I really do know better,” the one that communicates just going through the motions rather than honestly and fully embracing the other persons’ decisions and actions.)

(Even if that voice is speaking truth in this particular situation, you’re kidding yourself if you think that you’re the only one who hears that narrative of doubt.)

(So does the other person, in his own head, and he’s just waiting for you to amplify it.)

(The point is to actually, truly, let that go.)

Dyads

Criticizing or complementing?

Doubting or encouraging?

Analyzing or cheerleading?

Creating tension or diffusing tension?

Being easily influenced or holding firm?

Setting high expectations or letting it slide?

Driving to closure or being generative?

Adjusting based on others’ input or trusting our inner truth?

Demanding excellence at every moment or giving ourselves a break?

Stepping up or raising others up?

Laughing or crying?

The big con of school and of many jobs is the unspoken message that the way this works is: you learn a bunch of stuff—facts, figures, techniques, skills—and then you’re “good at your job.”

And then one day you open a new door and discover that the art of leadership isn’t about those kinds of skills. It is about how we can deploy, navigate and manage between and around these sorts of “ORs.”

We do this by becoming skillful at seemingly opposable dyads, so skillful that we can weave them together in unlikely ways.

We do this by fully embracing opposable attitudes, behaviors and orientations.

We do this by becoming nimble and flexible, while remaining clear and strong.

We do this, mostly, by showing up differently for different people in different situations, while also living a set of core truths, behaviors, and values.

The Do It Yourself Tax

Each time you decide that you can and will do something better, there’s a tax.

A tax on the initiative of the person you took the job from.

A tax on their sense of agency.

A tax on confidence.

A tax on learning.

Taxes are important. They are part of how things work. They allow other good things to happen. They are necessary.

But they’re still taxes. They have a cost.

So use them wisely.

The three things you do best

I’d finish introducing myself, I’d explained what Acumen did—mission, vision, strategy, successes.

The person across from me is focused, intense, and attentive. He nods. He looks me straight in the eye, and says, “That’s great. So tell me, what are the three things you do better than anyone, the three things you do best?”

What a great question.

Not “what do you do?” or “what do you do well?”  Not “what motivates you” or “what keeps you up at night?”

Cut through it all and tell me what your organization does better than any other.

You can imagine telescoping this question to multiple levels: your entire organization, your team, your freelance offering, you as a professional.

What are the three things you do best?

You need to know this if you’re going to write a mission statement, or a website, or an annual report.

You need to know it if you’re drafting your budget for next year or your five-year plan.

You can even imagine structuring an open 360 team review this way: get your team together, ask each person to describe what they think are the three things they do best, and ask each other member of the team to answer that question about everyone else, discuss.

On whatever level you choose to answer, it’s a cut-through-the-fat way to explain who you are, what you do, where you shine, and, most important of all, the promises you always keep.

What are the three things you do best?

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Note: one of the three things I do NOT do best (or at all) is figuring out how/whether to migrate my Feedblitz RSS feed to Feedburner, and simultaneously deciding if it’s high time to migrate this blog from WordPress.com to WordPress.org. If you (or someone you know) does either of these things best, could you email me to let me know? I could use some unbiased advice, especially since FeedBlitz has taken down its migration guide.

 

What to Make of the Wizard of Oz

We all know by now that there was really no wizard, even if he did keep Oz in thrall for quite a while. He was just a man behind a curtain with a bunch of gadgets, some flame-throwers, and a microphone.

Yet, in the last scene of The Wizard of Oz, he does, indeed, perform some magic.

The scene begins with Scarecrow demanding, “But what about the heart that you promised Tin Man, and the courage you promised Cowardly Lion?!” The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion then chime in, in unison, “and Scarecrow’s brain!”

Without missing a beat, the Wizard proceeds to produce three totems: a diploma conferring an honorary degree of ThD (Doctor of Thinkology) for the Scarecrow from the ‘Universitatus Commitiatum E Pluribus Unum;” a Triple Cross medal from the “Legion of Courage” for the Cowardly Lion; and a heart-shaped clock for the Tin Man.

Upon receiving his piece of paper, the Scarecrow recites the Pythagorean Theorem from memory. Upon being pinned with his medal, the Lion, miraculously, feels brave. The Tin Man’s ticking heart makes him believe in his capacity to love.

What happened in that moment of official conferral in which an object and a story from a “wizard” made them each believe in something that was within them all along?

More confusing still, what do we make of the Wizard who gave them trinkets that transformed the stories they told themselves about themselves, and which, therefore, transformed how they showed up in the world?  Is he a pure charlatan or, as he claims, “a very good man, just a very bad wizard.”

And, before we get too far down the path of asking whether placeboes really work, let’s remind ourselves that every degree or fellowship or job title is nothing more or less than conferring of an official title and set of expectations, and these things are no more or less real than Scarecrow’s fake degree.

Sure, some of these things – degrees from prestigious schools, time spent working at blue chip firms – do communicate that we’ve gone through rigorous selection criteria, been exposed to certain curricula or training, been socialized in a particular way, and jumped through other sorts of hoops. But it is far too easy to get lulled into the belief that each rung up the ladder of life requires us to be picked by someone else. While it’s true that each prestigious marker that we collect opens certain doors, it’s a siren’s song to be tricked into believing that it is someone else’s job to decide when you are worth praise, recognition, and the right to lead.

I’ve known too many amazing people in the social sector who need “just one more” degree, fellowship, or job in a fancy mainstream firm, after which they’ll finally have everything they need to make the difference they hope to make in the world.

The truth is that the opportunities for you to lead are too many and too urgent, the gatekeepers often don’t know what to look for, and what makes the most difference is that terrifying moment when you realize that the important stuff doesn’t come after you get your next medal, piece of paper or ticking heart: it’s already there inside of you.

Drop the Rope

The person you want to give a piece of your mind.

The argument you want to win.

The “I told you so” that you’ve been molding and honing until it’s perfectly crafted.

All of these responses are infused with an emotional energy that isn’t going to help.

The first step is to drop the rope.

Not because you are indifferent, but because you care. You care a lot. And whatever this thing is that you have to speak your truth about, it’s not the kind of thing that will have a right, a wrong, a winner and a loser. 

Not if it’s ultimately going to get where you’re so yearning to go. 

What is Fellowship?

I’ve spent the last two weeks in India and Uganda with the current class of Acumen Fellows (applications for the class of 2018 just opened). It is a profound experience to do deep work with our Fellows: no matter where they come from, they are dedicated to a life of social change; they are well-positioned to create that change; and they are in the midst of a deliberate journey to grow as leaders in service of that change.

The foundational design element of the Acumen Fellowship is the cohort experience. While we introduce many powerful leadership tools, frameworks, mindsets and approaches in our Fellows programs – anchored around Authentic Voice, Adaptive Leadership, Good Society readings, Managing Polarities and Systems Thinking – we know that the impact that we can have in 25 days of time together is necessarily bounded. The real learning happens outside of the room, between the time Fellows are together in session over the course of a year and, most importantly, in the long years after they first come together, as they continue to grow as leaders as they do their work.

This is why we believe that the most important aspect of our program is, in fact, “fellowship.” Fellowship, to me, is the weaving together of relationships, common purpose, shared expectations, aligned values, mutual investment, trust, and individual and group accountability to push and support one another. No matter what content elements we introduce and what discussions we have with our Fellows, part of what is happening in every conversation and every moment of silence in the room is an investment in strengthening the Fellows cohort, an investment in fellowship.

As part of this week’s Good Society discussion with our East Africa Fellows, in which we read some of the great thinkers and leaders from throughout history (including Hobbes, Amartya Sen, Martin Luther King, Ibn Khaldun, Amin Maalouf, Eduardo Galeano, Chinua Achebe, and Nelson Mandela), we waded through the first few chapters of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (which I find to be one of the most challenging of all the readings that we do). The foundational question Rousseau asks is in The Social Contract is: what makes authority legitimate? Rousseau’s answer to this question is the Social Compact.

He describes the Social Compact, somewhat obtusely, as:

The total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others….

Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

OK, maybe it’s really obtuse.

What Rousseau is saying is that we create a social compact when every individual (in a group or in a society) gives himself over to every other individual in equal measure, and, in so doing, the rights each person yields to others are the same as the rights she gains.

For example, in fellowship. For example, when 20 people fully give themselves over to each other, creating mutual bonds of trust and accountability.

In so doing, they create something that is stronger and greater than the whole.

In so doing, they are, paradoxically, more free.

These are the cohorts we are building,

As part of our discussion of Rousseau, we explored what kind of social compact this cohort of East Africa Fellows is making with each other, and what steps they have taken to strengthen this compact.

In service of this exploration, I asked the Fellows to reflect on actions that other Fellows have taken that have supported them in challenging moments. In response, one Fellow told a simple, profound story of wanting to learn to ride a horse, and how terrified she was to get into the saddle. She was with another Fellow at the time, and he gave her words of encouragement and support that helped her muster the courage to get on the horse. But he didn’t stop there. As her horse started walking, this Fellow walked alongside her. He kept on walking, matching the horse stride for stride, staying physically present with her as she faced this challenge.

I can’t get that image out of my head: I see one person up on a horse, conquering a fear, and another calmly walking next to her, accompanying her on her journey.

The beauty and power of fellowship is this invitation, willingness and capacity to accompany one another. It happens for our Fellows when the whole group is together in the room while we are in session. It happens individually and in groups outside of the room and between sessions. And, in our best moments, it happens even when Fellows cannot be physically present for each other, as each Fellow grows to realize that they are accompanied by all of their fellow Fellows everywhere they go.

With this realization, the have more strength to take the leadership steps that lie before them, they have more willingness to make hard decisions, they have more fortification to keep walking the path because they know that they do not walk alone.

Here’s to fellowship, and here’s to the brave, powerful, committed people creating it each and every day.

A place to practice

The only way to improve performance is through a consistent practice of self-diagnosis, reassessment, and behavior change.

The prerequisites are the belief that we have the capacity to change and grow, and the realization that we have not yet reached our full potential.

This work is sustained by trusted allies who are willing and able to give us astute feedback.

It is steeled by our willingness to hear these allies’ truths, even when they feel like criticism.

And, as we hear these truths, and as we see ourselves and our behaviors more clearly, we must, ever so slowly, start acting differently.

But where to act differently? How to act differently? How does this process actually work?

Part of the answer is within the intentional groups we are part of, ones in which we commit to supporting one another’s growth as leaders. For example, both the Acumen Fellows programs and +Acumen courses are run in groups. We have found, like many before us, the tremendous power of cohorts who embark on a shared journey. A skillful facilitator coupled with a group that is willing to invest in a process of group formation can create a holding environment that can be transformative.

The more obvious tools in this process are the bonds of friendship and trust built in these cohorts. Sometimes these groups also evolve into places where open and honest feedback becomes the norm. Most useful, but often hardest to achieve, is for members to use a cohort as a testing ground for new leadership behaviors.

Cohort groups (or, indeed, any group doing intentional work together) are fertile ground for thoughtful, deliberate experimentation of new behaviors. If trust exists, if recrimination is unlikely, and if you’re willing to be a bit brave, you can (like at summer camp) show up in a new way in any of these cohort groups.

What does this look like? It’s as simple as this: if you’re someone more comfortable jumping to solutions, you can choose to spend your time with the group listening more deeply. If you’re averse to conflict you make the choice to step into the fray. If you like to raise your hands first you can see what happens when you give more space to others. If you’re someone who’s afraid to offend you can work on freely speaking your mind. You start as simply as this, and build from there.

It can help to think of the group as a practice ground, a place to break a new leadership behavior into its component parts and try it on for size. Just as a swimmer would never adjust her stroke at an Olympic qualifying meet, and a tennis player wouldn’t mess with the toss on his serve in the first round of a major tournament, we cannot expect ourselves to be suddenly bolder and more truthful when our salary, or our job, is on the line. Nor should we try to have our first courageous conversation when our bosses’ boss in in from abroad for one day.

Instead, we can jerkily try new leadership moves on for size in our cohort group, putting aside our natural desire for approval, or status, or recognition, or safety in service of learning behaviors we ultimately want to utilize successfully with our teams, our Boards, our business partners, or our bosses.

This is not easy to do. We tend to walk the deep trenches carved by the patterns of our own behaviors, hemming ourselves in with the expectations we’ve created in ourselves and in others about how we are going to act.

The peer groups we are already part of, or that we choose to create, are the best place to start breaking out of these old ruts