On the legitimacy of leaders

     As I watch the current events unfold in Iraq, and the Middle East at large, I am reminded of an incredibly insightful blog post by Larry Miller [Management Meditations] last year, comparing the presidencies of Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Mohamed Morsi of Egypt.  Larry points out that the biggest difference between them is that when Mandela got into office, he set as his highest priority to unite the peoples of South Africa as one country and instill national pride, while Morsi consolidated his power and tried to kill or get rid of everyone that opposed him.  Mandela’s passionate statement “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” summed up the goals of his presidency. It was only by demonstrating sincere respect, consideration, and warmth as a leader, particularly to his previous oppressors and those who the most to fear from his leadership, that he was able to move forward and unite the country.

      Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, seems to be making the same mistake as Morsi and other failed leaders.  Instead of reaching out to the Sunnis and the Kurds in an attempt to unite the country, Maliki accuses those who oppose him of being terrorists, criminals, and enemies of the state.  This enrages and strengthens his opponents, and allows them to justify their own murderous actions.  He would be wise to follow the leadership lessons of Mandela.

     So how does this apply to you as a leader?   Most likely you are not facing a literal armed insurrection (!) but you may be dealing with spoken or unspoken opposition, resistance to change, and impediments to implementing your vision.   As a leader, are you reaching out to understand, acknowledge, and if possible, incorporate alternate points of view?  Or is it ‘my way or the highway’?  Remember that your purpose as a leader is to unite your group and get them to focus their collective energy on working toward a common vision.  No corporate leader today has the luxury of having his enterprise operate on only half its cylinders.  

 You can read Larry’s full blog post at: http://www.lmmiller.com/blog/2013/07/03/corporate-culture/mandela-morsi-and-the-legitimacy-of-leaders/


On Trust

Trust has become a word that is so overused that it has almost lost all meaning. Trust is a key foundation of successful teams, so important in fact, that without it, teams will never reach their productive potential. Traditionally, we think of trust as predictability—a person has been dependable in the past, and I “trust” that they will act that way in the future. In this sense, trust has become more about predictability and reliability, which is necessary, but not sufficient to develop a truly high performing team.

In, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” Patrick Lencioni defines trust in a different way—as a vulnerability. Trust is achieved when team members are able to make their vulnerabilities known to others—their weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, and help requests—and are confident that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them or jeopardize their status within the team.

However, this goes against our human nature; the job of the ego in all of us is to protect us from being hurt, and exposing weaknesses and vulnerabilities does just that—it places us in a position where we can be judged, humiliated, etc. It is difficult to turn those instincts off for the good of the team, but that is exactly what needs to happen. One of the things we constantly ask our teams is, “Are you giving everything you can to the team, and are you taking everything you need from the team?” We have found that people really struggle with asking for help for many reasons, but failing to ask for help when you need it, failing to be vulnerable with your teammates, can lead to catastrophic failure on a mountain climb or on a team project —from how long it takes, how you feel about your teammates, and whether or not you reach the summit.

So how does a team go about developing this kind of trust? It is not easy, but it requires the team, especially the leaders of that team, formal or informal, to demonstrate genuine vulnerability first. This helps to relieve the burden of all other teammates who are feeling the same way, but are afraid to speak up due to fears of being exposed. Essentially, it establishes the norm that it is both acceptable and desirable for teammates to ask for help. And once this happens, teams can truly perform at an optimal level.

Darrin Kass is a Professor of Management at Bloomsburg University and occasionally partners with LEEP in trainings.  His area of expertise is leadership and team development.


On Getting Punched in the Face

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face" — Mike Tyson

Regardless of how well you prepare; regardless of how well you have thought through every course of action; regardless of how well you planned for every potential outcome, you are going to get punched in the face. What happens next is far more important than all of your planning and preparation. We see this all the time when we take teams to climb mountains—inevitably a mountain will punch you in the face. Our teams prepare for months for what usually turns to out to be one of the most physically and mentally challenging experience of their lives—they are well trained, have all the right gear, and know all they can about the mountain—and then everything goes sideways. Regardless of whether you are climbing a mountain, or preparing for a new product launch, marketing campaign, or major project, what really matters is not how well you and your team has prepared, but how well you manage yourself and others after you get hit. So, how do you prepare for a punch you haven’t yet received?

1. Don’t stick to a failing course of action. Regardless of all the time that goes into developing a plan, a plan is really just a “best guess.” Avoid putting so much weight into this guess. Is your plan working? If it isn’t, change it. However, once we have committed to something, we tend to commit more and more resources to make it succeed, even when it continues to fail. This is the so called ‘sunk cost effect’.   We hope that with just a little more time, effort, resources, etc. we can turn things around. We tend to forget the old proverb ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’.  On the mountain, we have seen groups maintain dysfunctional pattern for 8-10 hours, and yet no one speaks up to make a change.  It’s hard to admit that a project or product launch isn’t going well, but you can’t make positive changes until you acknowledge there is a problem. 

2. Lean on your team. Are you taking everything you need from the team? When you get punched in the face, you go into survival mode. This “fight or flight” mode actually bypasses rational thought and we innately begin to narrow our focus to all the potential threats in our environment. We tend to get very focused on our own safety and survival, and forget that we have a ton of resources that surround us. Think of the last time you were really hungry, or really cold. What was your mindset? You could probably focus on little else other than food or warmth. It is exactly the same when you feel stress or pressure at work.  Use your teammates for physical, emotional, psychological, etc. support.

3. Are you giving everything you can to the team? We can become very self-focused when we are placed in challenging situations, concentrating and worrying about our own needs. Naturally, we become less aware of the needs of our teammates, but this can really undermine performance in the long run. On one of our recent trips, we encountered some unseasonably cold and wet weather, and it really challenged the team physically, mentally, and interpersonally. There were team members who were clearly struggling very early into the trip, but the challenging conditions prevented team members from focusing on anything but themselves. By the time we stepped in to address this a good portion of the team was mildly hypothermic, and it had sapped a good deal of the mental and physical energy of the team.  Does someone look cold? Make them add layers or change wet clothing. Does someone look exhausted? Lighten their load by carrying some of their equipment, or just take their back pack.  At work, can you see other team members who are stressed over a deadline or tired from multiple long days on the job?  Ask what you can do to help.  Sometimes asking is all it takes to help the person out, as they feel less isolated and part of the team again. 

4. Change your lens. This is both the easiest and the hardest one to accomplish; however, we can choose how we frame our reality.  Decades of research has unequivocally shown that what we experience is far less important than how we perceive what we experience. Are you a victim, or a survivor? Is this a setback, or a challenge? This lens through which you view your experiences affects everything from learning and health to happiness and resilience.

Remember that everyone gets punched in the face sometime. It is your response that determines your long term success as a leader. 

Darrin Kass is a Professor of Management at Bloomsburg University and occasionally partners with LEEP on trainings.  His area of expertise is leadership and team development.


The Importance of Vision

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where –" said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

"– so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

From ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll, 1865.

     Even though enough has been written on the importance of vision to fill a library, it is still a critical missing element in many organizations.  I didn't fully understand this concept when I first started as a Plant Manager; I dealt with issues as they came up, and assumed everyone knew what their job was and just needed to be encouraged to do it to the best of their ability.  We had meetings to align departmental objectives and the senior staff worked together to get new products while cutting costs, and we had the usual squabbles about departmental turf.  Compared to our sister plants, our performance was in the top of the pack and I thought we were doing pretty well.  But in retrospect, the departments were working in silos and I did not have a vision of what I wanted the organization to strive to be.  Like Alice, everyone was going somewhere, we just weren't going anywhere together. 

      A year and a half into my assignment they announced that our plant was to be closed or sold, and we knew we had to do something to take control of our own future.  At that point we enlisted the aid of a consultant and developed a simple vision/rallying cry ‘Secure the future’, with a subset of guiding principles.  For the first time, every department had a common framework to evaluate all decisions – Was it going to help us find a buyer for the plant or wasn't it?  Improving manufacturing performance, reducing overhead, and assembling information on all our equipment were top priorities.  Anything that wouldn't be important to a potential buyer was put on hold.   The power of a common mission/vision could be felt throughout the plant, and we were all making decisions for the entire plant, not just by department. 

      The real reason you need a vision is that it sets the direction for your entire organization, or department, or team.  Personally, I like the simple way that Mike Rother, author of ‘Toyota Kata’, puts it –

“Without a direction we tend to evaluate proposals individually on their own merits, rather than as part of striving toward something. This creates that back-and-forth, hunting-for-a-solution, whomever-is-currently-most-persuasive effect in the organization… those endless discussion meetings that all of us are tired of. 

     I was asking a younger colleague recently about the vision of her organization, and how it impacted her motivation to go to work.  Her response – “Seriously?  Some mornings I sit in my car in the parking lot and ask myself why am I going to work today?  And then I remember – I have rent to pay!” 

     If you don’t create a compelling vision for your organization, your unspoken vision may very well be ‘We have rent to pay !’ 

 Justin Noll

 Justin Noll is the owner of Advanced Knowledge Consulting and a Principal Partner in LEEP (www.experienceLEEP.com).  His area of expertise is continuous improvement and team development.