A Window of Opportunity…

“True organizational innovation is impossible without failure.”  -Ron Ashkenas Harvard Business Review

If we were scanning the current landscape of organizational leadership we would be apt to say that two of the hottest buzzwords in the business right now are innovation and failure.  Both of these terms seem to be in vogue as we consider the issues surrounding growth and change processes in our organizations.

However, don’t let their popularity fool you…they are significant concepts that we must consider as we wrangle with modern day leadership.  Just understand that their overuse can sometimes convolute the waters of their meaning and importance.  In most instances, when we consider these two terms from a leadership standpoint, they exist together as by-products of each other.  When the aspiration is towards innovation, the fall-out is often failure…whereas, the repercussion of failure can often spark innovation.  They can serve as drivers of each other in a spiraling cycle of progression and growth.

So if we are to truly lead change, we must acknowledge that innovation and failure are real concepts that will create real disruption for any change effort.  And if we are to take advantage of what each term represents, then we have to recognize that they both arrive with a window…a window of opportunity.

What resides in that window, in regards to failure is an opportunity for greater learning and growth…and yet, we often fail to acknowledge that the learning and growth is dependent upon an action.  Failure, in and of itself, will not necessarily create learning.  It is how we react and attend to the failure (the action) that creates the opportunity for learning.  Wait to long and the window of opportunity closes, and so does the learning.

It is at that moment, when failure has occurred, that leaders want to swoop in with advice and solutions on how solve the problem.  On how to fix the failure.  In other words, they want to save the day.  Whereas, Peter Bregman of Harvard Business Review would advise leaders to rethink that course of action.  Instead…“When someone has made a mistake or slipped up in some way, just listen to them.  Don’t interrupt, don’t offer advice, don’t say that it will be all right.  And don’t be afraid of silence.  Just listen.”  

According the Bregman, the act of listening provides the foundation for allowing empathy to enter into the process.  “There needs to be empathy.  Empathy communicates trust.  And people perform best when they feel trusted.”  Which is what all leaders should seek.  To create influence that allows those we lead and serve to perform at their best.  And that requires trust.  As Bregman adds…“But the learning – the avoidance of future failures – only comes once they feel okay about themselves after failing.  And that feeling comes from empathy.”

That is not to say that timely and authentic feedback are not necessary.  Rather, when we begin by opening the channels of communication, when we learn to listen, we create an environment of trust and empathy.  It is in this environment that the foundation is laid for learning and growth to occur.  And once people feel safe to learn and grow from failure, then innovation can flourish as well.  It takes one to create the other…and very often in reverse.

Letting Go…

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves…”  -Anatole France

Change is difficult, whether we want to admit it or not, for anyone and everyone.  And while change often ushers in the new…it is also equated with and requires some form of loss.  Even when we know the change will improve our lot, we are still slow and hesitant to embark on the process, knowing it is much easier to remain with the known, the safe…than it is to stretch ourselves and dive into the unknown.

While being a creature of habit, I have had the opportunity to stretch myself and accompany my wife several times over the last fourteen years to the incredibly beautiful country of Ecuador.  And though, in the beginning, I fight the challenges required of travel and the disruption to my daily schedule, I must admit that I am truly energized from each and every experience.

We have had the pleasure to spend the majority our visits in the beautiful city of Cuenca, Ecuador.  While we have visited the city during many different seasons, it is especially beautiful during the holidays…with its many different traditions, parades and celebrations.  It is an incredibly festive time to be in this historical city.

It is during this festive time, that one of the city’s many traditions has etched itself in my memory.  It is Cuenca’s New Years Eve tradition of the burning of the ano viejo, or what I refer to as the Burning of the Effigies.  Sylvan Hardy provides insight to this tradition, as it is considered…“one of Latin America’s most colorful – and bizarre traditions” and when “the clock ticks over to the new year, they burn the ano viejos, which are made of cloth, straw, leaves, or even paper mache.  Many are even stuffed with fireworks so that they do not go quietly into the night or the new year.  While others are seen as works of art.  Even some are filled with barnyard manure and tend to make and put out an unsavory smell.”

What’s interesting is that “the tradition goes back over at least two centuries, but its origin is largely a mystery.”  And while the tradition has spread across Latin America, its roots point to the city of Cuenca, Ecuador for originating this New Year’s tradition.

The burning of the ano viejo is much about the process of throwing out the old and ushering in the new.  It is symbolic of “catharsis and purification” for the year that has passed and the new year to come.  The burning of the ano viejo or effigies are “simply acts of good riddance” and or the “cleansing of bad habits.”  It is seen as an “important act of renewal.”  The tradition is about “erasing the past” and “leaving the things behind that must be left behind.” 

As we move into the new year, as leaders there are many lessons to be learned from this tradition…

It begins by, each year, taking a long, hard, honest and introspective look at our organizations, our culture, and the traditions that are ingrained within.  It is about determining the good and bad of our traditions.  It is about determining what new traditions need to be ushered in, what traditions need to be refreshed and revitalized, and traditions have served their purpose and now hang like an albatross around the neck of the organization.

As we know, this is not an easy process.  And like the effigies that are stuffed with fireworks, many of those traditions will not go quietly…many may go kicking and screaming loudly into the night.  While other traditions may have lost their freshness and taken on an “unsavory smell” like those ano viejos stuffed with the barnyard manure.  They have run their course and it is time to throw them out.

And while many traditions play an integral part to the history and well being of the organization, many others, much like the ano viejos, have long since served their purpose and the time has come for cleansing and renewal.  So as you start to tackle this new year…it may be necessary to take a long hard look at your organization, the culture and the traditions that exist within and determine what is in need of change.  As difficult as that might be, it might be time burn a few effigies if growth and renewal are to occur.

The Human Aspect

“Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.”  -Winston Churchill

Many challenges and changes have taken up position and now require the apt attention of educators and our current educational system. Whether it be high-stakes assessments, federal and state accountability structures, or implementation of the common core standards, each one knocking on the door and vying for highest level of attention.  And unfortunately, often distorting the focus of our profession…

In our current search to create a perfectly aligned test, to implement the most rigorous standards, and to exact the cleanest spreadsheets of student data, we can find ourselves losing sight of the other side…the human side of education.  This is not to say that I am against assessment, rigorous standards and working diligently to provide our children the highest levels of learning.  Rather, we can do ourselves and our future generation a real disservice when we lose sight of the human aspect of education.

And yet, that is what I felt reading Will Richardson’s (@willrich45) post, Another Stunningly Bad Vision for Learning.  Will Richardson’s post was in concern to another blog post that discussed how technology could be utilized to “shift to a new form of classrooms” where “students will have their own cubicles as we do now, and they will run apps and watch videos…”  

How incredibly disconcerting to read this as viable approach to instruction and utilization of technology for our students.  We have spent the better part of the 21st century breaking down the walls of isolation in our classrooms and schools to improve professional practice.  We have learned that a collaborative and collective efficacy will not only improve our profession and classroom instruction, but the learning opportunities of each and every student.

So it remains bothersome to fathom how we can enhance student learning and increase their ability to serve as effective and self-sufficient citizens by placing them “in a cubicle with some videos and apps.”  Students, and humans for that matter, are social in nature.  It is in social environments that students learn to interact, share, and learn from each other.  Skills that are necessary for students to be effective in today’s workforce.  Both technology and the environment need to be presented in an effort towards increasing engagement and the collaborative process.  Not to place it in a “cubicle.”  Even two of the Four C’s of 21st Century Learning are “Collaboration” and “Communication.”  

We must remember that technology is a tool that we utilize to enhance and improve learning and the learning experience for students.  It is definitely not the method.  And especially not, if the method is to isolate students in their learning and their environment.  It is in the collaborative environment and moments that students engage and acquire those human attributes that will support their success beyond the school setting.  So, let us not ever lose the human aspect of learning.


A New Equation

“Exceptional people convert life’s setbacks into future successes.”  -Carol Dweck

The communities and world that we are living in is changing at a rapid rate.  Whizzing, whirling and accelerating around us at a blinding speed.  What was here today might very well be gone tomorrow.  What we trusted would always be around for us very often disappears in a blink of an eye.  It is endemic of today’s constantly advancing and evolving society.

And as case would be, no one is immune from this march to the future.  Change forces are affecting our businesses, social services, and educational institutions.  From behemoth organizations down to the very students in our classrooms…no one is shielded from this societal metamorphosis.  Change happens much like time, we can control how we use it, however we have no control to stop its advance.

And as we are aware of how change is affecting the landscape of our society…we must also be cognizant of the changes that are now required of modern leaders to serve and support our organizations.  To serve and support our people in a purposeful and effective manner.  Awareness that technology and social media has compressed our world and requires a level of leadership that can skillfully and transparently influence and lead under this microscope of attention.  It is as if the message in our side view mirror has changed, letting us know that now “things are farther apart than they appear.”

Yes, we are witnessing the slow decline, demise and extinction of positional leadership.  A rapidly changing society is requiring a new mindset and a whole different level of skill-sets from today’s leaders.  And while these skill-sets might not be “just out of the box” new, they are vital to leadership success in the 21st century.  It requires putting on a new lens to existing leadership principles.  It requires a new equation for modern leadership.

Yes, today’s leaders need…

“Growth Mindset”  +  “Emotional Intelligence”  =  “Growth M(EI)ndset

A growth m(EI)ndset, coupled with a strong level of emotional intelligence will be indispensable for leading in the 21st century.  Command and control and carrots and sticks will provide neither the impetus nor the influence to lead organizations in our modern times.  Extrinsic motivators have fallen to the wayside as people look for more meaningful ways to connect and matter.

People are looking to connect to something greater than themselves…beyond their current circumstances.  They are looking to tie themselves to a vision that stretches their imagination.  They are looking to be part of something significant.  Something that provides intrinsic value and meaning to their everyday experience and life.  And it will require leaders with a growth m(EI)ndset and high levels of emotional intelligence to create the level of influence and leadership necessary to provide this experience.

21st century leaders will need to equip themselves with the personal and social competence necessary to meet the demands of modern times and our gradually shrinking society and world.  Daniel Goleman and the authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 provide us these four branches or core-skills of emotional intelligence that will be necessary skill-sets for today’s leaders, which include;

Self-Awareness:  A skill-set that supports self-monitoring and understanding of your own emotions.  Being able to accurately identify and manage your emotions throughout the variety of situations that face modern day leaders is vital to being successful.

Self-Management:  A skill-set today’s leaders will find necessary in order to serve with self-control, transparency and initiative.  Leaders need to incorporate flexibility, along with the ability to adapt to a variety of situations.  It requires awareness of emotions, which creates the behaviors that allow you to lead yourself and others successfully and with influence.

Social Awareness:  An invaluable leadership skill-set is being able to read the emotions of others, at all levels of the organization…from the individual to the overall feeling tone of the organization.  And it requires empathy.  Unfortunately, leaders who are socially ‘unaware’ struggle creating relationships and true influence.

Relationship Awareness:  This is a leadership skill-set that will give mileage to your influence.  This is where a leader models the actions that enable trust to flourish.  It is showing those that you lead ‘that you for them’.  By creating the opportunities to invest and develop others, you also create the environment for teamwork and collaboration to evolve and grow.

And it all comes together when a leader incorporates the core-skill sets of emotional intelligence in conjunction with a “growth mindset.”  It is under a “growth mindset” that a leader recognizes the need to improve…to invest in those skill-sets that enhance their influence and effectiveness.  It starts by acknowledging that leaders are not born, rather, they are built, built on a foundation forged upon a strong work ethic.  In comparison, when a “fixed mindset” has burrowed in, the ability to self-reflect and monitor this process breaks down…impeding the ability to improve and grow the overall leadership skills and effectiveness.

And according to Carol Dweck, “a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, and sports.  It enhances relationships.”

And most important as we look to enhance our leadership skill-set for the 21st century…a “growth mindset” and emotional intelligence can be learned, increased, strengthened and fine-tuned.  And equally important, Bradberry and Greaves, authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 add that “emotional intelligence dictates performance and has a massive impact on your success.  It has been found that 90% of all top performers have high EQs.”

So as you consider whether this is a new equation for leadership, I will leave you with these words from Carol Dweck…

“Becoming is better than being.”

The Seventy-Percent

One of the things that leaders struggle with in any profession or organization is turning what we know into what we do.  It can be one of the most difficult tasks in leading.  Finding the secret key to effectively turn what we learn, the knowledge that we gain, into behaviors and actions that are reflective of that same learning and knowledge.  And while it sounds easy, even simplistic…it is an incredibly challenging and elusive part of leading.

It is what Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton refer to as “The Knowing-Doing Gap”

The divide that exists between what we know and what we actually do.  A gap that often serves as the dividing line between the successful and the not-so-successful organizations.

The data from a study they conducted highlights how very often managers are in full agreement to what works…the requisite and essential strategies necessary to support success in their organization.  And yet, we learn from their study that…“There were, however, big differences between what the managers believed produced success and what they reported practicing in their units.”  

Pfeffer and Sutton accumulated data that identified how very often leaders had distinct gaps between what they thought was necessary for their organization to be successful and what they actually implemented in the real, day-to-day operations.  The divide was almost blaring in the fact that they had full understanding of these strategies for success…and yet, failed miserably in regards to turning that knowledge into action.

What is even harder for us to fathom is that Pfeffer and Sutton’s study uncovers the confession that these leaders understood that “they weren’t doing what they know to be important.”  In other words, they weren’t implementing the strategies that they firmly believed were necessary for the success of their organization.  These managers understood that “sharing of information, providing feedback, and involving their employees in learning how to improve operations” were vital and “widely understood” as necessary for their ongoing success…and still lacked implementation at the expense of the employees and the organization.

As Pfeffer and Sutton add…“time after time people understand the issues, understand what needs to happen to affect performance, but don’t do the things they know they should.”

And furthermore, “leaders frequently rationalized their actions – or more accurately their inaction – by creating elaborate explanations for why they chose not to do the things they knew were important to their business success.”

And yes, I know that you may be thinking…I get it, so what?  It’s just human nature.  If we provide enough learning, enough training, if we keep at it persistently we can most likely ingrain the knowledge enough that we can overcome this “Knowing-Doing Gap” with those we lead…and you may be right.  Isn’t this how we usually operate in regards to training and learning in our organizations for the most part, anyways?

And while I can’t cover all of the strategies and ideas that Pfeffer and Sutton advocate for overcoming our “Knowing-Doing Gap”…I would like us to ponder a few gems that they have provided for our consideration…

First…“essential knowledge, including technical knowledge, is often transferred between people by stories, gossip, and by watching one another work.”

And second…“most workplace learning goes on unbudgeted, unplanned, and uncultured by the organization…Up to 70% of workplace learning is informal.”

What Pfeffer and Sutton have provided us with is real insight into the importance of culture.  The importance of creating true learning organizations if we are going to be able to translate knowledge into action.

We learn that the stories we tell, the conversations that take place, and the collaboration processes that we create…will serve as change agents in our organizations.  And when we create cultures and environments that allow learning and sharing to flow throughout, we begin to determine our ability to overcome our “Knowing-Doing Gap”…we tap into and influence the informal learning that takes place in our organization.  We tap into that seventy-percent.

Leaning Forward

“There are moments in our lives when we summon the courage to make choices that go against reason, against common sense and the wise counsel of people we trust.  But we lean forward nonetheless because, despite all risks and rational argument, we believe that the path we are choosing is the right and best thing to do.  We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead.”  -from Onward by Howard Schultz

Every day as leaders we face a multitude of choices…some are easy and off-the-cuff while others are agonizingly painful and difficult.  While others stand alone as monuments determining the turning points in our leadership.  Those are the ones that define us.  Those are the decisions that leave their imprint on us and our leadership from that point forward.

And deep down inside, we recognize those moments when they stand before us.  They hit like a flash of lightning and yet, often flicker out in the twinkling of an eye…especially if we fail to seize the moment.

Those are the moments when we catch ourselves leaning forward

Because we recognize the moment for what it is.  It is the moment when we decide there will be no Plan B, there will be no back-up plan.  And like the seasoned gambler…it is the time when we determine that all bets are off and we are going all in.

And deep down in our gut we know it is the best thing to do…it is the right thing to do.  And yet it is not the easy thing to do.  We know that not everyone will understand.  We know that we may take a lot of heat, criticism and scrutiny.  And yet, nothing feels better.  Because we know we are right.

When you look in the mirror…what decision is staring you in the face?  Is there a difficult decision holding you back?  What decision do you know that you need to face?

Determine this week to stare status quo in the face and be a difference maker.

Lines And Spaces

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”  -Erma Bombeck

The same is true in leading and leadership.  A fine line exists between being self-serving and serving of others.  And yet, that line is very distinct and makes all the difference…in your leadership and in your influence.

A case in point…

“I’m perfect”     and     ‘imperfect”

Only a fine line and a space separate the two…a line and space that creates a world of difference, in meaning and significance.  These same fine lines and spaces are often the difference makers in leadership…between a leader vs. manager, top-down vs. servant leaders, and innovation vs. status quo…

The difference between “I’m perfect” and “imperfect” is the difference of  position and of influence.

Many leaders choose to draw those lines and create those spaces between themselves and those they lead.  Creating spaces that separate…often referred to or seen as the ‘ivory tower’ top-down approach to leadership.  This is where leadership becomes more about position and entitlement than about serving the needs and best interests of the people and the organization.  It becomes about the leader drawing a line and space…a line and space that insulates them and their leadership.

When this line has been drawn, the leader no longer has a grasp on the true realities of the organization.  Real-time data and knowledge is most times reserved or even withheld.  In this environment, underlings often only pass on information that the leader will want to hear, creating a shield of separation from the real situations and necessary feedback vital to leading.  In this insular environment, it becomes much easier for the leader to take on the “I’m perfect” persona.  Leadership loses touch with reality as the only news heard, is good news and anything bad is shielded and delegated off.  The leader believes they are running things in grand fashion.  It becomes a facade.  And leading becomes an exercise in commanding and barking orders from the tower…often at the expense of the organization and those within it.  And very often at the expense of your leadership.

When we remove the lines and spaces in our leadership we are confronted with an entirely different word…“imperfect”.  When we remove these lines and spaces we begin to understand that leadership is less about position and entitlement and more about understanding and relationships.  When we lead under the “I’m perfect” banner understanding and relationships cannot exist, they wither away and die.  Just like our season of leadership.

When we realize that we ourselves and those we serve are “imperfect”

We approach our leadership with an entirely different perspective.  It allows for serving and learning to cross those lines and fill those spaces that were once held in check under positional leadership.  It allows for true, authentic influence to guide our leadership.

When leaders understand that we are all “imperfect”

It is reflected in the way we handle problems, roadblocks and failures that come our way.  We see them as opportunities to learn from, rather than problems to be shielded from or as opportunities to unload on people.  When we understand that our leadership is about serving and the best interest of our people and the organization…we learn to surround ourselves with those who will give us real feedback.  Not just want we want to hear.  But what we need to hear.  What we need to know…not just what we want to know.  And that allows us to lead with real influence in the best interest of all.

Spaces and lines can divide and separate us from what’s real…and from leading in the best interest of those organizations and people we serve.  Removing spaces and lines takes us out of the ivory tower and puts us at the front line of what is real.  It is the difference between…“I’m perfect” and “imperfect”.  It is the difference between real influence and the imaginary influence of position.  It is serves as the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset.  And it makes all of the difference in the world.

Don’t get lost in the ivory tower…