Leadership, it’s not about ‘one size fits all’…Blog #89

‘One size fits all’…really? In actuality, one size rarely fits all in any situation. Interesting piece of trivia, did you know we have been using that phrase since 1975 when Frank Zappa released his ‘One size fits all’ album? For over 4 ½ decades the idea that a product, concept, principle or process could proclaim this phrase as their pièce de resistance is quite astounding. 

“Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, ‘I agree, I would never suggest one size fits all!’” Let’s consider an area we might be applying this maxim without much thought, leadership. Most leaders want to get better at their ‘craft’. That applies to both positional and relational leaders. How many times have you found yourself reaching for the newest leadership book, secretly praying that this book will have the key – the magic bullet that will allow you to realize that desire to be a great leader.  I know I have! I’m not trying to stir the pot here, at least not too much. Let me assure you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading these books. Even as I write this, I glance at the many books on my shelves on whose pages I have highlighted and underlined words of wisdom and insight offered by amazing authors—men and women alike—who have taught me much about leadership. What I’m saying is that in our pursuit of leadership excellence, sometimes we are unwittingly influenced by mantras like one size fits all. It’s entirely possible to read a fantastic book with amazing ideas that simply won’t fit you, or your area of influence. 

At my college, we teach leadership theories to developing entrepreneurs, business executives, intrapreneurs, tech start-ups, change makers, social entrepreneurs… you get the idea. We know that laying a solid foundation is important in creating critical thinkers who take those theories and analyze their relevance in a business world marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and the need for great adaptability. We know that leadership is no longer limited to traditional face to face contexts. Leaders are called to lead remote teams, hybrid teams, teams that are made up of employees, freelancers, contractors, and even volunteers. Some of these theories we teach have been around since the 19th century where The Great Man Theory (later changed to the great woman theory) was popularized. Out of this came the belief that leaders are born, not made. This alone is great fodder for discussions that could build chasms between friends! 

Back to today and our one size fits all discussion. As leaders we know that people are not clones, we are unique. In the words of King David, ‘we are fearfully and wonderfully made’. So this is where leadership theories, at least one specific leadership theory, moves to the top of the pile. Hersey and Blanchard are responsible for introducing the ‘Situational Theory of Leadership’.

The situational model of leadership focuses on flexibility so that leaders are able to adapt according to the needs of their followers and the demands of the situation.

Read that quote again. ”…leaders…adapt…to the needs of their followers.” There is no one size fits all here. Hersey and Blanchard remind us that we need to focus on those we are leading, to determine what they need then respond accordingly. Our team members come with varying experiences, level of risk taking, knowledge and skill base, personalities, work approaches, cultures; in other words, leaders are responsible for managing and supporting great diversity of culture, belief, value, thought and much more. 

Have you ever heard someone glibly say, “if it weren’t for the people, my job would be easy!” The truth is your job IS the people. The Great Person Theory is just that…a theory. The greatest leaders are not those who show up as the hero or heroine to save the day. The greatest leaders are those who show up and ask ‘What do you need from me? What barriers can I remove for you? How can I best support you? What do you think? How can I help? 

The greatest gift we can give those we lead and support, is to act on the fact that one size does not, and never will, fit all. This is easier said than done, but it is important. Perhaps the best leadership approach is to start each day, with a posture of humility, intentionally seeking to serve those we are called to lead.  

Photos by JOSHUA COLEMAN and Ben Weber on Unsplash

Leadership growth in the liminal space…blog #88

In a previous blog I wrote about liminal space from the perspective of a professor. Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about it from the context of leading in this current work-from-home reality. We know the current state of affairs will not be forever, but we don’t know how long it will be until we can settle into a more stable way of life and living. Thus, the liminal space in which we are living. The rollout of vaccines has certainly provided a glimmer of hope for the ending of our forced remoteness. Until then…liminal space.

“Liminal space is where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully in something else. It’s a transition space.” 

So, how do we take advantage of this period of liminal space, a gifted time where we can rethink what we want life to look like when we are released from the bounds of our four walls? I recently listened to a podcast by Brené Brown where she was interviewing Adam Grant. They discussed how “…rethinking does not have to mean changing your mind; it’s about reflecting and wondering if you should change your mind. It’s about being open to new information.”

For some, the experience of working from home has been a welcome change from the craziness of the 9-5 existance we came to accept. For others it truly has been like a confinement paired with constant negotiations with partners, kids, pets, or house mates for even a tiny bit of space in which to work. Some have already decided that they never want to go back to the office, while others are thinking, “If this is remote work, no thank you!” 

The thing is there is nothing normal about how we are working right now. This isn’t remote-working. While some folks are happy with their working from home arrangement , I don’t think this describes the ideal that would cause many of us to say, “I’m loving this set up, I could do this forever!” Perhaps the majority of us would be happier approaching it like a buffet…”I’d like some of this, some of that, but none of those!” Now that makes more sense to me. 

So how can we take advantage of this rare liminal space? Let me suggest a few questions to think through as you prepare for your upcoming liberation. 

  • What are you really loving about your current working context? 
  • What about this context do you want to preserve–to hold onto–even after restrictions are lifted?
  • What are you really hating about your current, working context?
  • What do you know must change for the sake of your emotional, physical, psychological, or spiritual health? What is simply not sustainable?
  • What have you learned about yourself and how you work? 

No matter which work arrangement you hope to embrace, change is inevitable. We may not be able to control all the elements of change, but we do have control over how we prepare ourselves for what’s ahead. While we are living in this liminal space, why not add value to the time by investing in YOU? Engaging in some, or all, of the suggestions below can start the preparation for emerging from the liminal space with great expectancy and enthusiasm, more prepared and equipped than before we hit lock-down. Self-growth (or self-leadership) may just help you prepare for your desired work arrangement by gaining a deeper understanding of who you are and what you bring to the job.

  1. Learn about and growing your emotional intelligence
  2. Learn about and growing your strengths 
  3. Complete and contemplate via the Daring Leadership Assessment.
  4. Learn about and developing the competencies necessary for success as a remote/hybrid worker. 
  5. Identify some desired growth areas and create SMART goals to work towards achieving them. 

Let me finish with the quote I started this blog with. “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” We will get through this pandemic; how great would it be if we emerge with great expectancy for the incredible that’s waiting to be known?

Photo by Jeb Buchman on Unsplash

Leading and learning, why?…blog #87

Odeon in Ephesus ~ the Bouleuterion

I really love learning, but these days learning can feel more like a chore. Growing up, if you were to ask my teachers or parents, they would not say a love of learning would define my school days, unless you were talking about anything to do with music. In high school, I had no problem getting to school by 7am, three mornings a week for choir and band practice, and I was thrilled to go to school on the days I had music classes in my timetable, but on the other days, I can’t honestly say I was a model student.

While I loved music lessons at school, private piano lessons were a completely different thing. To be fair, my lesson followed my older, focused and very musical, brother. We both faithfully practiced everyday (thanks to Mum’s perseverance), but somehow Ian kept getting better; me, not so much. I still remember the horror of walking into a very sterile, institutional building in Belfast to take a Royal Conservatory piano exam. Finally, the inevitable happened, our very stern piano teacher, had a talk with my parents. It went something like this, “You are wasting your money having Roberta in piano lessons; she doesn’t have a musical bone in her body.” That was my last piano lesson. I was ecstatic! I now had an extra three hours every week to do what I loved – ride my bike, roller skate, and hang out with my friends. I wonder what Miss Thompson would say if she knew I went on to achieve first chair as clarinetist in our high school orchestra, and travel for two years in a prestigious singing group?  

So what made the difference in my musical education? I think two things were at play: a desire to learn about the subject matter, and the learning environment. I really did not want to take piano lessons. I did, however, want to play the clarinet and sing. I love learning with others, and I have always loved creating music with others; I never do well in an ‘stick’ vs ‘carrot’ learning environment. It not only breaks my spirit, but it awakens my stubborn Irish ire (I know, not very mature).

Why is this concern over learning such a pervasive thought in mind? What really is irritating me? If I love learning so much, why am I feeling overwhelmed and fatigued with learning these days? I found this statement when reading a blog by Dean Yeong

The abundance of information and the ease to access it quickly becomes a severe problem for people who are curious and want to learn almost anything. They’re constantly consuming information to the point that they don’t have the attention left to take action and to produce.

I wholly resonate with Yeong’s sentiment. This ‘problem’ becomes especially challenging when such a fire hydrant of information comes at us from every direction; this is one of the advantages, and disadvantages, of ready access to the totality of human knowledge at our finger tips. Add to this abundance is the reality that for some folks, this past year has left us with more time to follow our curiosity. As leaders, we are coached with leadership wisdom such as:

“We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.”  Peter Drucker

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” John F. Kennedy

Such appeals can unintentionally create added pressure on struggling leaders in today’s complex working environment! Don’t get me wrong, I am committed to lifelong learning, I just need to intentionally filter both the content and the source of information. I need to focus on what I can and should research in order to make a difference in the lives of those I am humbled to influence; to focus on what I deeply care about. I need to learn, to dialogue and debate with others who will challenge my thinking and shed light on the dark corners I am overlooking.

The good news is that I have such amazing people in my life: family, friends, and co-workers. For this I am both blessed and eternally grateful. However, it’s up to me to set up the filters necessary to not drown in the abundance of information, and make time to probe, ponder and assimilate what it is that will make a difference in what I most care about. It’s the richness of the dialogue and debate that makes such a discipline all the more precious.

Here’s another great quote on leading and learning. This one stirs in me a desire to jump up and shout ‘YES!” As leaders, this is why we learn!

“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” ― Peter M. Senge

References:

Yeong, Dean. (2018). Knowledge Prioritization; How to prioritize what you should learn first https://www.deanyeong.com/article/how-to-prioritize-what-to-learn

Interaction Design Foundation. (2020). Information overload, why it matters and how to combat it.

https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/information-overload-why-it-matters-and-how-to-combat-it

Leadership in 463 steps…blog #86

View from the Duomo, Florence, Italy

I am basically an impatient person; a person of action. Multi-tasking comes easy and being in the midst of the ‘action’ is stimulating. My mind works fast! I receive information and quickly sort through it to get to a point of resolution. Making decisions is fairly easy for me. However; through the school of hard knocks, I have learned that impatience, action, quickly assimilating information, multi-tasking, and fast decision making is not always a good thing! In fact, it’s rarely a good thing when, as leaders, we are faced with making decisions that impact those we are called to serve and support.

Many people have heard of the concept ‘balcony view’. It refers to the mental (or physical) action of stepping back and gaining perspective. I first heard about it shortly after visiting the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo, in Florence, Italy. We had spent a few days visiting places like the Galleria Dell’ Accademia and were moved by Michelangelo’s David, an impressive 17′ statue of detailed strength and beauty. We leisurely walked through the Uffizi Gallery, awed by the magnificent paintings by artists such as Raphael, Botticelli, and da Vinci. And of course, we delighted in the many cafés with their delicious pastries and memorable coffee. We quickly learned the difference between al tavolo and al banco pricing! Exploring Florence was such an amazing experience.

After putting on many foot-miles, our final adventure was to climb the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo. The staircase quickly narrowed to a spiral climb – suffocating for a claustrophobic!   

However; once we broke into the warmth of the afternoon sun, we were rewarded with the most magnificent view…Florence from 114 metres! We could trace the path of our explorations, see each location in relationship to others, and even notice places we didn’t realize existed. I think you get where I’m going with this. 

We thoroughly enjoyed exploring Florence, but until we made the climb to the top – to the balcony – it was a series of magnificent, but isolated experiences.

Heifetz/Grashow, and Linsky added to the Balcony View concept by referring to the action of – “moving from the dance floor to the balcony“. We love the  dance floor. We love being at the heart of the action, enjoying the energy of everyone dancing to the same beat. It’s difficult to pull ourselves away, to step up to the balcony and be an observer rather than a participant. But as leaders, we must. But what are we doing on the balcony?

Heifetz and his co-authors suggest three activities in which we need to engage from the balcony: observe, interpret, and intervene.

If you were to ask what we saw from the top of the Duomo, each of us would have described something different — all correct, but different. This is an important part of observing. We look at things through the lens of our personal experience and bias, so when on the balcony our view or perspective is broadened a more inclusive view of what’s happening in the everyday workings of our team or organization. The authors encourage leaders to then move into the practice of interpreting what they have observed. Once more we need to acknowledge the fact that we interpret our observations differently than our colleagues. In my previous blog I introduced the importance of checking assumptions…this is a perfect example of how the practice of critical thinking will enhance how we interpret our observations. In our human desire to get to solutions, we may tend rush through this interpreting stage. Taking time to consider, to ponder, to reflect, will enhance our accurate deciphering of what our senses take in. This pause and will greatly impact the interventions or actions we put forth. Remember, action is the result of decision making. 

I appreciate how John Dewey approaches decision making. Following a close examination of the situation (as noted above), consideration should be given to possible alternative directions in addressing the matter at hand, weighing the evidence, choosing what is deemed to be the best path, and then taking action. But it doesn’t end there. Leaders need to identify when the decision will be reviewed and potentially altered.

We took 463 vertical, winding, narrow steps to get to the top of the Duomo, a very intentional climb. It would have been foolish to immediately do the return trip without taking time to pause and appreciate the view. And, once we got to ground level again, we discussed what we saw, what amazed us, what we missed seeing in our Florence walk-about, and what we would still do. In other words, we didn’t make the climb only to ignore what we observed. We observed, interpreted, and finally intervened with a new course of action. 

Leaders of people, are you ready for a Duomo experience? It’s truly worth it.     

References:

Heifetz, R. & Grashow, A, & Linsky, M. (2009). The theory behind the practice. A brief introduction to the adaptive leadership framework. Harvard Business Press. https://cambridge-leadership.com/documents/Ch-2-Theory-Behind-the-Practice.pdf

PSDP-Resources and Tools: Moving from the dance floor to the balcony. https://practice-supervisors.rip.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Moving-from-the-dance- floor-to-the-balcony.pdf

University of Massachusetts (n.d.). 7 steps to effective decision making. https://www.umassd.edu/media/umassdartmouth/fycm/decision_making_process.pdf

Photo of Duomo view by Chloe Xie on Unsplash

Leading and critical thinking…blog #85

In my leadership class this week we will be looking at the importance of critical thinking. We hear about it all the time, but fail to realize it truly is one of the most important elements to consider at this time.  I began digging by looking at Stephen D. Brookfield’s book, Teaching for Critical Thinking,and it has certainly created a deeper desire to more analytically consider my own ability to think critically. A word I learned during my Post Grad studies was metacognition. It’s a great word that is packed with so much substance.

“…thinking about one’s thinking. It refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning; and b) oneself as a thinker and learner.” Nancy Chick

When we put these two things together, critical thinking and metacognition, something really important begins to emerge. Consider these questions as you continue reading:

  1. Do I engage critical thinking during these times?
  2. What assumptions influence my decisions?
  3. Am I clear on my values?
  4. Who am I focusing on?

So let’s put this in context of what leaders are facing in our current leadership ethos. Not only do they face the challenge of guiding their teams through uncharted waters, but in the process they are expected to learn new tools, new terminology, new ways to motivate and measure performance…I could go on! However; perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of leadership today looks at preserving culture within an organization. Or possibly the question is more about whether there is a culture worth preserving? Or maybe the realization hits that it’s time to consider the health of the culture, or to examine if what was believed (stated) as being the organizational culture is in fact what teams and customers are experiencing?

My intent is certainly not to address organizational culture in this blog (perhaps at another time), but to look at what critical thinking skills a leader needs to employ when examining such matters.

In his writings, Brookfield suggests the purpose of thinking critically is “…so we can take informed actions…not just to survive, but also to live and love well”. Beautiful. In order to do this he states that individuals need to discover what assumptions influence the way they think and act. He then encourages the checking of those assumptions as to whether or not they are valid and reliable. Finally, Brookfield urges that time is taken to envision our assumptions from others perspectives and points of view. All this before any informed action is taken.

But (and there so often is a ‘but’), the ribbon that must run through all of this is: values. What values actually inform our critical thinking. As leaders, do our values encourage critical thinking that leads to decisions and actions that truly are in the best interest of those we are entrusted to serve?

Back to leadership ethos. The American Heritage Dictionary defines ethos as “The disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement.

Moving that into the realm of leadership ethos, we learn that:

Leadership ethos is associated with actions which add value, honour commitments to stakeholders and society…leaders…choose service over self-interest.” Dr. Ken Kalala Ndalamba

Getting back to those guiding questions, let me once again ask, as leaders do we:

  1. Take time to think about how we are thinking critically when navigating and guiding our teams through uncharted waters?
  2. Do we stop to consider what assumptions are influencing our decisions?
  3. Are we clear about, and committed to, the values that guide our actions?
  4. Does the leadership ethos we create result in putting those we serve over self-interest?

Interested in talking more about this? Please feel free to email me, reach out via LinkedIn, or simply comment on this post.

References

Chick, Nancy. (nd). Metacognition: thinking about one’s thinking. Center for Teaching, Vanderbult University. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/metacognition/

Brookfield, Stephen D. (2012). Teaching for Critical Thinking : Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions: Vol. 1st ed. Jossey-Bass.

Ndalamba, Ken. (2017). Leadership Ethos and Culturally Oriented Strategic Management: A Conceptual Framework and Research Propositions. Journal of Values-Based Leadership. 11. 10.22543/0733.62.1216.

Photo by Marcel Strauß | @martzzl on Unsplash