The “Art” Of Leadership

“Words and numbers are fine, but only drawing can simultaneously reveal both the functional characteristics of an idea and its emotional content.”  -Tim Brown Change by Design

As a child, and even as an adult…I found that it was much easier for me to pay attention and stay focused during meetings and lectures when I would doodle.  Not to say that I did not take copious notes, as well.  But those notes were often littered with doodles of shapes, pictures, and other images.

And unfortunately, I was often accused of not paying attention for this penchant for doodling.  

The only thing that often kept me from being chastised…was that on more occasions than not, I could repeat back everything that was covered or said in the lecture or meeting.

And even to this day…I like to have tools available to draw when sharing or discussing ideas.  I find it much easier to incorporate drawing, in tandem with talking points, when sharing or promoting an idea, or even a vision.

Whenever I get really involved in sharing an idea…I immediately find myself grabbing for a pen and paper, a marker and a whiteboard.

Which for me, was a pleasant surprise to run across a section on “Visual Thinking” in CEO and President of Ideo Tim Brown’s book, Change by Design.

In this section, even in considering his own leadership, Tim Brown discusses…”When I use drawing to express an idea, I get different results than if I try to express it with words, and I usually get to them more quickly.

And he doesn’t stop there, he expands upon the necessity of drawing beyond his own leadership to the work at Ideo and designers…”Design professionals spend years learning how to draw.  Drawing practice is not so much in order to illustrate ideas, which can now be done with cheap software.  Instead, designers learn to draw so that they can express their ideas.

In this very short section on “Visual Thinking“, Tim Brown makes a very important point for us to consider as leaders, educators and even as parents.

All children draw.  Somewhere in the course of becoming logical, verbally oriented adults, they unlearn this elemental skill.

Very often, our well-intentioned efforts to get children (and even adults) to stay on task, to stay focused…can be of a real disservice.  When we determine to understand before dissuading those around us from processes…we have the ability to promote and support more than hinder and bind growth.

To not inhibit and determine those skills as a negative that can serve as a positive later in their career and work life…

As Tim Brown spotlights in Change by Design, there have been great thinkers who “devoted much of their creative energy to mind maps, two-by-two matrices, and other visual frameworks that help explore and describe ideas in valuable ways“…even highlighting Leonardo da Vinci as an “accomplished design thinker,” who “used his drawing skills to build on the ideas of others.”

And so, here is to the doodlers…and in the words of Leonard da Vinci…

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”  -Leonardo da Vinci

The Red Flag Of Self-Proclamation

“The moment you claim to be generous is the moment that people will begin to doubt it.”  -Adam Grant (Wharton Professor, Author of Give and Take)

We live in a world where it has become easier and easier to raise yourself up as a “self-proclaimed” this or that.  More and more we read in bios and hear people declaring their status…proclaiming to be an expert this, or a master that.

We are swimming in a virtual world glutted with guru’s and thought leaders…everyone an expert world.

Unfortunately, what many an “expert” or “guru” fail to realize is that “self-proclamation is a red flag“, or as Adam Grant recently shared on Twitter…”The moment you claim to be _________ is the moment that people begin to doubt it.” 

And it is not just that self-proclamation is a red flag…it also sends a deeper message.  When we entertain the idea of being an expert, a guru, a master of something…it sounds finished, complete.  It sends the message that you have apparently arrived, that you have learned all there is to learn and know.

And this is not to say that there are no experts or thought leaders…they just see no value or need in proclaiming this level of achievement.  Very often, they are too immersed in their work to spend that valued time proclaiming expertise.  Their focus is on the journey…not the destination.

Which requires retaining a learner mindset.

Or as Socrates so eloquently stated…”The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

Which is why it is so important to refrain from self-proclamation.  Not only does it raise the red flag of doubt from others, it creates your own expert mindset, as opposed to staying engaged in a learner mindset.  One says I’ve arrived, opposed to the other that says learning is an ongoing, never ending journey.

In the end, self-proclamation serves as the antithesis towards continued growth and capacity building.  It stagnates and stalls momentum.

Which is why it is important to remember…

In this journey of life and learning, the expert mindset has a tendency to pull off at the rest stop, while the learner mindset keeps going, ever onward and forward.

Ideas In The Backyard

“The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all of the parts.”  -Paul R. Ehrlich

As a kid, two favorite places for our imagination to explore and run wild for building and making…were the garage our backyard.  It was the place of limitless possibilities.  We could easily spend hours upon hours immersed in creating and constructing our own world.

And while the garage was all about tools, parts, wagons, bikes, go-carts, and trying to discover new and innovative ways for us to break the land speed record…the backyard was all about forts.  From western outposts to medieval castles…we loved to create and build fortresses and strongholds out of any available materials that we could lay our hands on.

So we would team up and go out on gathering missions…collecting all that we could.  Wood. Cardboard.  Sticks.  Old Signs.  Whatever materials that we could lay our hands on that would be viable to creating these grand structures.  We would bring it all together and lay it in a pile in the middle of the backyard.

There were no comments or complaints…”Why did you get that?”  “We can’t build with that.”  “That won’t work.”  Everything was on the table…or the yard, I should say.  And we used whatever we could, and what was left-over, wasn’t thrown away, it was put aside in case it was needed at a different time, on a different day.

It was a great time…filled with passion and joy.  And the funny thing…we have a tendency to lose this positive approach (passion and joy) towards tinkering and making as we grow older.  The door to our openness seems to slowly slam shut.

We become more abrasive, less embracive…and we engage with a much more critical eye.

Which may be one of the reasons that our people and our organizations have a less than open attitude towards sharing…towards more creative and innovative approaches to the problems that we face and challenge us.

It is not that we don’t have the ideas…rather, it is often how those ideas are treated when they are shared.  People don’t lack creativity, they lack the willingness to put themselves out there with that creativity.  Which all stems from the culture and environment that we create in our organization.

Especially, when we lose that child-like zeal for seeing possibilities, rather than more obstacles…

And until we change that culture, that environment…the outburst of ideas, the sharing of creative thinking, and the best innovations will fail to come forth, to be realized.  They will continue to remain hidden and concealed…often with people who are bursting at the seams to share and contribute.

To make a difference…

Our organizational environments and cultures need to be more like that backyard where we created as kids, where everyone went on the scavenger hunt to gather all that they could.  Where it was fun to sift through the pile to determine what was useable for that day.

Either you could use the materials or not.  It was neither good nor bad, just useful or not.

The same attitude needs to be applied to ideas and thinking in our organizations.  We need to allow people a safe place to bring all of their ideas to the table (or backyard).  A place to pile them all up and allow everyone to work together to sort out what they can use…and what needs to be saved for another day, another project.

And when we create that environment, that culture…towards our thinking and ideas…creativity and innovation will have no other choice than to flourish and grow.

Leadership: Building Future Fluency

As a leader, if you are not “selling” the future…you are most likely still “buying” the past…

One of the priorities for today’s modern leaders will be the necessity to create and build their capacity with fluency for the future.  Which has not been seen as such a demanding requirement for leaders or leadership in past times…but is quickly becoming a much more necessary and needed skill-set.

So, when considering future fluency, you could possibly visualize it like this…

Leadership of the past was more like an art museum.  You had time to wander at a more leisurely pace, spending time looking deeply at the pictures, taking in the nuances, considering, creating connections, building understanding.

Leadership of today is more like a fast play movie of that museum.  Hundreds of thousands of images flashing by at a quick and unremitting pace.  Yet, unlike a movie where the story is pieced together for you…you have to distinguish this barrage of images and piece together your own understanding, your own connections, your own meaning, your own story.

We all understand and acknowledge that change is difficult, but why would future fluency be necessary for today’s leaders?  

The future is coming at us in such quick explosive, waves…that we spend most of our time in a reactive mode, reacting to change.  A constant scramble to keep up with the speed and the volatile nature and upheaval of change.

Whereas, modern day leaders, to be effective, need to embrace a more aggressive mental stance towards change that allows them to be more proactive in thought and action.  Today’s leaders need not only be prepared for the future coming at them..but to effectively and proactively assess the trends of where change is pushing us, as well as how that change will eventually affect us.

Which requires ahead of the curve and around the corner thinking and action…and why future fluency is so important for modern leaders.  

And to best represent this…we can begin by comparing the necessity of fluency for a reader and reading.  When fluency is lacking, reading is a struggle, it can be disjointed, cumbersome, and laborious.  In comparison, when a person can read quickly and accurately…they can turn their efforts and attention towards comprehension, making connections and meaning with the reading.

Which is the why behind building future fluency…rather than trying to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to decode the changes coming at them…leaders must be able to quickly read and ascertain the writing on the wall…of what those changes mean and what will be required for them to effectively move forward supporting the organization and their people.  Just like a fluent reader, they can recognize the change for what it is and comprehend its overall meaning…simultaneously.

And for a reader to truly be fluent, it is not just recognizing words in isolation…it is being able to comprehend those words in a passage or text.  The same rings true with leaders and change.  It is not enough to recognize change in isolation…but how those changes will affect the organization and all within the organization.  Understanding how those changes work beyond their isolation, seeing connections and how they ripple out in a variety of different ways within the organization.

Which is why future fluency is so important for leaders…they have to be able to see the connections and ramifications of change…in real time as well as down the road.

Which is why the following definition from NAEP on reading fluency, has real benefits for a leader, when seen through the lens of change and creating future fluency

As provided on the LearningRx website…“Reading fluency is defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as: the ease or ‘naturalness of reading, including how a reader (1) groups or phrases words as revealed through intonation, stress, and pauses; (2) adheres to the writer’s syntax; and (3) expresses oneself in feeling, anticipation, and characterization during oral reading.”

Or in future fluency leadership terms, this same definition can be seen through this lens…

“Future fluency can be seen as: the ease or “naturalness” of how a leader (1) realizes how change affects the organization, the impressions and influence it has, as well as the stresses and strains that it causes, and the need to determine the speed at which to move as an organization and as individuals; (2) future fluency is not just the organization and people within adjusting to the actions and reactions of the leader and leadership, but leaders and leadership adjusting to the needs of the organization and those within; (3) and how the leader expresses and creates an environment for change and moving forward in a positive and conducive manner that creates positive momentum.”

What thoughts or ideas would you add to building the future fluency of leaders and leadership?

Mindshifting: From “Try” To “Do”

“Sometimes despite the determination to jump in, the enormity of an important task can stop you in your tracks, especially at the beginning.  Getting started can be hard.  The writer faces the blank page; the teacher, the first day of school; businesspeople, the launch of a new project.”  -Tom and David Kelley from Creative Confidence

At some level, we are all paralyzed by perfectionism.  We want things to be right, to be the best…what we do, what we share, what we create…we want it to be perfect.  So we wait, and wait, and wait, and wait…

And nothing.

We remain suspended in the planning stage, in the getting ready stage, in the perfecting stage.

And what’s worse, very often this need to create perfect, instead of pushing us forward to get better, actually hinders and keeps us from improving and fine-tuning our skills.  We actually end up doing less than doing more.  We spend more time thinking and considering than actually doing…trying, practicing, building our capacity through a constant cycle of failing and redoing.

According to Tom and David Kelley in Creative Confidence“In other words, to ultimately reach a creative breakthrough, you just need to start, regardless of small failures that may occur along the way.”

They continue…“It’s hard to be “best” right away, so commit to rapid and continuous improvements.  The messiness of such trial and error may seem uncomfortable at first, but action allows most of us to learn at a faster rate; it’s almost a prerequisite for success.  Otherwise, the desire to be the best can get in the way of getting better.”

Whether it’s the Kelley Brothers with building creative confidence, the DuFours and Eaker on improving education, or Pfeffer and Sutton for initiating business success…they all expound on the value and necessity of doing.

Doing is often our path to improvement and success…

In Creative Confidence, the Kelley Brothers discuss the subtle, yet enormous mental chasm that exists between when we determine to “try” something, as opposed to determining to actually “do” something.  The difference between action and consideration.

Or, as they share from Stanford’s d.school academic director Bernie Roth…“It’s as if today is for attempts, and the real action will happen at some vague future moment.  To achieve your goal, to topple the barriers that stand in your way, you have to be focused on getting it done now.”

As an added point, Tom and David Kelley share in Creative Confidence the story of a ceramics instructor who divided his class between those who would be graded on “quality” and those who would be graded on “quantity“.

And the result of this exercise?

“At the end of the course, the best pieces all came from students whose goal was quantity, the ones who spent the most time actually practicing their craft.”

The case has been made very clear…if you want to improve, if you want to create change, if you want to move forward…you can’t wait for perfection.  You have to jump in, create action, and allow yourself to gain momentum and improvement within the process.  It is about a mindshift…moving from an idea of “try” to an action of “do“.

And yet, unfortunately…

“Many of us get stuck between wanting to act and taking action.”  -Tom and David Kelley

Five Leadership Lessons From “Elf”

Over the years, we have seen many movies move their way into regular rotation as part of the Christmas Season culture.  Movies like…”It’s A Wonderful Life“, “Home Alone“, “Miracle On 34th Street“, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation“, “A Christmas Story“…and a whole array of others.  From touching, to funny, even action-packed…they’ve become holiday classics that we look forward to each year.

In 2003, Jon Favreau directed one of those instant classics that was immediately embraced as a yearly Christmas must-see…with the release of “Elf“.  The story of a human (Will Ferrell), who was raised by elves in the North Pole…and eventually left to seek out his real father living in New York.

And for all of its laughs and humor…“Elf” also has a few leadership lessons that can serve as holiday stocking stuffers…

Let’s take a look at 5 of them;

“Why don’t you just say it…I’m the worst toy maker in the world.  Seems like everyone has the same talents, except for me.”Buddy the Elf

1.  Like Buddy, sometimes we feel like the odd person out on our teams or in our organizations.  Especially when our ideas and talents don’t necessarily match up with the organizational mainstream.  You can begin to feel a bit like an outlier.  Leaders have to be able to not only notice, but strategically put people’s strengths to work.  To find ways for each person in the organization to contribute positively to their team…as individuals.  When we do this, we not only avoid creating an echo chamber of thoughts and ideas…we allow the strengths, talents and diversity of our people and teams to be utilized to their highest benefit.  For this to happen, it requires that a leader not only notice, but differentiate and intentionally engage the variety of strengths and talents around them.

“Buddy the elf, what’s your favorite color?”  –Buddy the Elf

2.  Great leaders don’t spend their time giving people answers, they focus on asking the best  questions.  Questions that drive learning and build capacity across the organization.  As Tom and David Kelley share in their book, Creative ConfidenceOne of the best ways to accelerate learning is to ask questions.”   They share in their book, how a veteran IDEO designer, Coe Leta Stafford uses questions as a leader…”One way she brings questions to life is by making them playful.”  “She reframes the question in a way that sidesteps some of the ‘business as usual’ responses and elicits more meaningful answers.”  So, like Buddy the Elf, if leaders want to build and “accelerate” learning on their teams and within their organization…they need to be able to ask really good questions.

“Sounds like somebody needs to sing a Christmas Carol.”  –Buddy the Elf

3.  Today’s leaders must be equipped with high levels of awareness…at the organizational, team and individual level.  They need to continually keep their finger on the pulse…on how well things are going at each of these three levels.  Which requires a strong level of emotional intelligence.  A real strong “notice” barometer.  Today’s leaders need not only have a strong understanding of how to lead initiatives, drive results and create momentum towards change…they need to equip themselves with empathy, compassion, and  understanding.  To have a strong sense of when to push, when to back off, when to slow down, and when people just need a pat on the back and a bit of encouragement.  Just think of the impact Buddy had a person when he greeter her with the following comment…Deb, you have such a pretty face, you should be on a Christmas card!

“I thought maybe we could make ginger bread houses, and eat cookie dough, and go ice skating, and maybe even hold hands.”  -Buddy the Elf

4.  Leaders don’t just know how to work hard…they know how to make work fun.  They find ways to infuse joy into what the organization is doing.  Think of the Google’s, Southwest Airlines, Zappos,  and many other organizations that not only bring joy and fun into their work culture…but they take what they do with incredible seriousness, as well.  They create a vision and a culture that people want to be part of, to belong to…one they want to give their best to.  They understand that hard work, doing something that is worth investing themselves in, something bigger than themselves…can also be incredibly fun and joyous at the same time.  As Tony Hseih from Zappo’s says…”Businesses often forget about the culture, and ultimately, they suffer for it because you can’t deliver good service from unhappy employees.

“You sit on a throne of lies!  You stink.  You smell like beef and cheese.  You don’t smell like Santa!”  -Buddy the Elf

5.  And even though Buddy was happy go lucky and always tried to find the silver lining in all that  he was doing…he did not hesitate to call out a wrong if it existed.  He did not just go with the flow.  As leaders, we too have to look for the best in those we lead…but, we can’t choose to look the other way when there is a wrong or problems exist on an organizational, team or individual level.  Being a leader means to not look the other way…to face the issues, which left unattended, will slowly decay and erode the culture of the organization.  Or in the words of Buddy the Elf…”He’s a fake.  He’s a fake.  He’s not Santa Claus!

These are just sample of leadership lessons that can be carried away from “Elf“…what ones would you add?

What Is Your Impact?

When we fail to incorporate reflection and awareness into our leadership, we will struggle and eventually fail to assess…let alone comprehend our impact.

Which is often the issue…

Inundated.  Consumed.  Overwhelmed.  Busy beyond belief.  The urgency of the now so often overcomes us and our work.  The power of the present and its need to be taken care of is a demanding one.

We are often so consumed by the work stacked in front of us that we seldom consider, let alone reflect on our impact.  Short-term pressures have a tendency to win the tug of war over long-term considerations.

But, as leaders, if we continue down this road for very long…we will find that we’ve gained a great distance without ever determining a destination.

Which is why knowing your impact is essential to being effective.

Impact is a powerful word.  It is not subtle, especially when we consider that what we do, the choices we make, the words we use, all have an impact.  But first, we must have a clear understanding of impact

According to a Google search, impact is two-fold…

the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another.

or

the effect or influence of one person, thing, or action, on another.

The interesting thing, with this definition in hand, you would be quick to think that only one applies to leadership…and you would be remiss in doing so.  Unfortunately, even in the 21st century, just as many leaders work from the former as do from the latter.

Fear.  Pressure.  Anxiety.  Worry.  Power.  Are all still drivers of modern day command and control leaders.  Forcing a uniformity to one is still alive and well in many of our organizations.  You find in these organizations and leaders that your role has less to do with impact, than with implementation.  Ideas and thinking come from the top…which are eventually forced down upon the organization and all within.

And then there are those few organizations and leaders who understand the power in the latter…the power of influence and having a positive impact.

These organizations and leaders realize that influence, the impact and imprint that they create and leave upon those they serve…far outweigh any bottom-line.  The funny thing, those organizations and leaders that place people first, often achieve beyond any bottom-line that was set.

Which is why reflective leaders realize that impact is multi-dimensional…it has many layers.  A leaders impact rolls out on many fronts in an organization…in a variety of ways, in a variety of arenas.  All of which must be considered and assessed.

And it begins with asking the right question…

In a recent article from Inc.com, Leigh Buchanan interviewed Adam Grant, professor and author of Give and Take, in which he discusses that very question of impact.  In the article, Grant mentions how in Doris Kearns novel, Team of Rivals, Abraham Lincoln resolved to ask himself…”Is this where I can have the greatest impact?

Which is a question that we must begin to ask ourselves.  “Is this where I can have the greatest impact?”  And if not, why?  And what can I do to put myself in a position where I can have the greatest impact?

And it is not just Wharton professor and author Adam Grant that is pushing us to ask ourselves this question…professor and author John Hattie has pushed educators to “know thy impact“.  Of which Hattie says requires our ability to listen, but to “see through the eyes of others“.

Which is why it is not just about having an impact…but knowing what kind of impact you are trying to have, to create.  And once you know, once you have determined that, follow Lincoln’s lead and ask yourself…

“Is this where I can have the greatest impact?”