BUSY = The Enemy of Strategic Leadership

Strategy, Stefan Erschwendner, Flickr

Strategy, Stefan Erschwendner, Flickr

Leaders vs. Managers

The work of managers and leaders is different (See my previous post on key distinctions of leadership and management here). In larger organizations, some roles have the luxury of focusing on one or the other. Increasingly, organizations are looking to individuals to fulfill both roles within the same position.

Individuals are being ask to consider both giving direction (a leadership function) to their team and organizational unit and also guiding processes with efficiency of execution (a managerial function). Drawing on John Kotter and others, here are some key difference between leadership and management.

Leadership is about Doing the Right Thing by:

  • Direction Setting
  • Aligning
  • Motivating

Management is about Doing Things Right by:

  • Planning and Budgeting
  • Organizing and Staffing
  • Controlling and Problem-Solving

Vision, Strategy, & Goals

Both “Doing the Right Thing” (leadership effectiveness) and “Doing Things Right” (managerial efficiency) are vital in organizations. While both of these activities require time and attention, and busyness can be the enemy of both healthy leadership and management, perpetual busyness is especially the enemy of the leadership function of direction setting.

Time is required for setting direction as a strategic leader. It requires time to think. It requires time to reflect.

Healthy organizational vision, organizational strategy, and organizational goals come best to those who pull back from busyness for intentional time to think and reflect.

Identifying the Right Strategy

The issue is not whether or not your organization has a strategy. The issue is whether or not you have the right strategy. Leaders must continually be asking whether or not they are focused on the right things for their organization.

While strategic questions may be asked in seasons of busyness, thoughtful answers to these questions often only come when enough mental bandwidth is freed up in the life of leaders. Strategic insights come most often when there is intentional space to think and reflect.

Hard Work vs. Busy Work

Certainly hard work is core to successful organizations. Organizations thrive when talented members pull together with conscientious, attentive, and coordinated work.

But hard work and busy work are not the same thing. Busy work is not necessarily the hard work that your organization needs. As I share in another post, make sure that you Don’t Confuse Motion with Progress (see related post here). It is possible to be busy and not be effective.

The Work of Leaders = Time for Thought and Reflection

So what is the Hard Work to which leaders must devote their time?

One answer to this is to engage in the work of thought and reflection. This seems simple, but actually there are many factors that often work against this strategic priority for leader time management. Demanding schedules, organizational fires that need to be addressed, requests for time and attention, and just general busyness can work against this “simple” leadership agenda. In response to such demands, it is all too easy for leaders choose busy work over hard work.

Over time, in the face of such realities organizations often create a work climate that validates busy. This validation is rooted in the belief that busy = hard work, and that hard work = organizational performance. While it sometimes works this way, often we are making assumptions that are not accurate.

Sometimes working smarter rather than just working harder requires a different pace—a pace that provides space for the leadership work of thought and reflection. So how are you making time for this vital work of strategic leadership?

Making Time for the Work of Strategic Leadership

Leaders must make time for the work of strategic leadership. This is especially important because the cultures of our organizations are often working against finding this time. It doesn’t just happen—leaders must make time for this vital work.

Some of the most effective public leaders have made time for this work. Warren Buffett is known for insisting on time to just sit and think almost every day. Bill Gates was known for taking a full week off twice a year in order to think and reflect about the strategic needs of Microsoft.

7 Questions for Leaders Engaging the Work of Strategic Leadership

  1. Are we staying focused on what matters most?
  2. What is changing around us that requires a strategic course correction?
  3. What are we doing that needs to be ended or scaled back?
  4. What are we doing that needs to be continued or scaled up?
  5. What are we doing that needs to be improved or strengthened?
  6. What is missing? What are we not doing that needs to be introduced?
  7. What’s next? What is our next top priority for strategic focus?

Taking Time for the Work of Strategic Leadership

The work of strategic leadership is vital for organizational health and effectiveness. Are you too busy for strategic leadership, or are you making time and setting busyness aside for this essential leadership work?

Find some time in the next month to step back from the busy pace of leadership so that you may engage these 7 questions in the work of strategic leadership.

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For additional reading on strategy and leadership see Strategic Foresight: The Past, Present, and Future Focus of Leadership

11 Lessons for Those Feeling “Stuck” or “Trapped” in their Careers

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Have you ever had the feeling of being “stuck” or “trapped” in a career or job? Most people have at one time or another.

The question of what to do with this “stuck” feeling is vital for anyone facing a challenging season, and is at the heart of what I’d like to engage in this brief reflection.

Changing Your Work Context

Sometimes this experience or feeling leads toward a shift away from one’s current role, whether this shift is dramatic or more subtle.

One expression of this might be the bold step of quitting a job even though a next step is not in place. Another expression of this might be putting your résumé out and getting a feel for other options. Still another expression of this might be going back to school in order to eventual make the jump out of a current role.

Changing Your Perspective on Your Work Context

Other times, the answer is not a shift away from a role or organization, but rather a shift in perspective within that role or organization. This path is about taking a proactive posture toward the stuck feeling. Rather than seeing this as something brought upon you by the organization or others, this is about shifting to take ownership and responsibility for what you have control of as you face this feeling.

Advice for Getting Unstuck

On this point, Robert Steven Kaplan provides thoughtful reflections in his HBR article entitled Reaching Your Potential. Here are some recommendations and reflections drawn from Kaplan’s work for those desiring to move out of this feeling of being “stuck” and “trapped.”

  1. Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses
  2. Use this Understanding to Guide Your Career Choices and Goals
  3. Identify Three or Four Tasks that Are Central to Your Work Responsibilities; Make Sure You Excel at These
  4. Show Character and Leadership within Your Role and Organization
  5. Put the Interests of the Company and Your Colleagues ahead of Your Own Interests
  6. Be Willing to Speak Up, Even Voicing Unpopular Views
  7. Don’t Play It Too Safe
  8. Identify Your Dreams
  9. Develop Skills to Realize these Dreams
  10. Demonstrate Courage to Pursue these Dreams
  11. Remember their Will be Bumps Along the Way

What Are Your Next Steps for Getting Unstuck?

Although we could identify other recommendations to add to these, Kaplan provides great insight here for those wanting to move forward from this place of feeling stuck. The key is to move away from a passive posture and on toward an active posture of taking ownership in moving toward your career potential.

What steps have been most helpful for you in getting “unstuck” in the context of your job?

How to Pray for Your Work

the prayer continued, Flickr

the prayer continued, Flickr

Do you pray? Do you pray about and for your work?

For some, your work may be in a church, school, or organization where prayer is encouraged. For others, your work may be in a place where prayer is simply for personal and private expression.

Regardless of your work context, it is important for us to remember that we are not alone in our work. God cares about you. God cares about the challenges you face in your work.

I’d like to provide some brief reflections on prayer and work

Prayer for Work

First, it is important to recognize that the Bible encourages us to pray for our work. Consider for a moment the example of Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90:16-17. In these verses, both the work of God and our work is addressed. Moses prays:

Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!

This is a verse I frequently return to as I begin and go throughout my work days. As I put my hands to the work of my day, I want to be mindful of where God is at work (“Let your work be shown to your servant”), and I want to ask for God’s favor and presence to bless, guide, and establish my work (“let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands”).

A friend of mine who served as the director of a major international airport would often use his commute time at the start his day to pray about his work. He looked to verses such as James 1:5 to guide him:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

If you are like most people, you have concerns and challenges in your work. The Bible invites you to bring these concerns and challenges to the Lord in prayer. Ask for God to give you wisdom for the work of your day. Ask to be mindful of His presence with you in your work. Ask for his guidance and favor to establish and make successful the work of your hands.

Why Prayer for Your Work Matters

As you bring your work and your prayer together, here are some final thoughts on why prayer matters:

  • Prayer reminds us that we are not alone
  • Prayer provides a place for us to bring our worries and concerns
  • Prayer reminds us that while our work matters, our work is not the final word (God is at work even when we are not … see my previous reflections on this theme here)
  • Prayer provides a moment of pause to reflect on core needs and what matters most in our work and in our life
  • Prayer helps to align our will and desire with the will and desire of God
  • Prayer helps to align the resources of heaven with the needs of this world

Enjoy the journey of praying in and for your work. God cares about you. God cares about your work. He wants to hear what’s on your heart and mind in prayer.

Whether for the first time or the thousandth time, share your heart and thoughts with God in prayer. No special words are required. Share with Him what you are thinking in your own words. Ask for his guidance and direction where you are confused. Bring your concerns and challenges to God in prayer.

Let Your Life Speak — How to Understand Your Vocational Call

Artist at work, Jean-Francois Phillips, Flickr

Artist at work, Jean-Francois Phillips, Flickr

How do you discern your vocational path? How do you decide what your contribution to the world will be? What is your vocational calling?

These are big questions. How we understand our work and the contribution we make to the world is vital from our earliest days of vocational discernment on through adulthood.

  • It is vital for teens as they consider potential pathways for further education and future work.
  • It is vital for adults as they work to make ends meet for their family, and particularly as they seek to do so in a manner that is fulfilling to them personally and meaningful to others societally.
  • It is vital to all engaged in any form of vocation because our work lives occupy the majority of our waking hours.

Understanding the importance of vocational discernment is one thing. Understanding how to approach this process of vocational discernment is quite another.

How to Engage in Vocational Discernment

As I have spent time teaching in the area of leadership and the inner-life, one of the core principles I come back to with students time after time is a rather simple one—the importance of listening. At the core of vocational discernment is the art of listening.

1. Listening to Heroes and History

In the book of Hebrews we are instructed to “Remember [our] leaders, those who spoke to [us] the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). This charge to look to our leaders is not simply referring to the contemporary and living, but rather also to those who have gone before us.

In Hebrews chapter 11 the author highlights over a dozen persons of great faith such as Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and David. Reflecting on their lives, we are instructed: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

As we look to such stories of courage and faith, this becomes one pathway of listening for our own vocational discernment. What is “the race that is set before us”? As we run our own race, we have “so great a cloud of witnesses” surrounding us and cheering us on. Some of these are individuals we read about in Scripture. Some of these are courageous individuals we read about in other historical literature. We can learn about our own vocational race as we look to others. We can reflect on our life and calling as we consider the lives and callings of those throughout history. Historical examples, for better or worse, provide thoughtful insights for our own vocational discernment process.

2. Listening to Your Community

Not only can we engage in vocational discernment through listening to heroes and history, we also must learn to listen well to those in our immediate communities. Are we listening to our family, our friends, and maybe even our foes as we consider our vocational path? There is great value in a contemplative approach to vocational discernment (something I will highlight below), but calling is often best discerned not in isolation but rather in the context of community.

Are we listening to the voices around us? Are we listening to the perspectives of supervisors? Are we listening to feedback from coworkers and those who work for us? Are we listening to what our friends and family share? Are we listening even to our critics when they bring constructive rather destructive reflection?

In the context of community we find a place to listen to others in our own vocational discernment processes.

3. Listening to Your Life

In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer points us to an old Quaker saying that became the title of his book—let your life speak.

Speaking to Your Life

Parker begins his reflections by contrasting two approaches to life. I’ll call the first approach speaking to your life. On this approach, Parker writes, “Vocation, the way I was seeking it, becomes an act of will, a grim determination that one’s life will go this way or that whether it wants to or not.” This is the path many pursue for understanding and seeking their vocational goals.

This path is characterized by setting our course, clarifying our values, and identifying and implementing things such as our S.M.A.R.T. goals. Certainly there is a place for these principles.  But Parker is pointing us to something more. He refers to this something more as letting your life speak.

Let Your Life Speak

Rather than planning out and dictating to our life, Palmer reminds us of the importance of listening to our life and letting our life speak to us. Parker writes, “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”

Such insights remind us of the value of contemplative reflection. They remind us of the importance of stopping, listening, and paying attention to what is happening in and through our lives. Though contemplation is not the only solution, it is a particularly important message for this season in time and history. There are so many potential distractions around us. Although contemplatively listening to our lives has always taken intentionality, in the days of smartphones, email, Facebook, and countless other barriers to contemplation, we are reminded that listening to our lives takes focus and intentionality.

4. Listening to God

For persons of faith, listening to God is the most important consideration. Understanding and living out God’s will for us is a primary concern, and a conversation for which the biblical authors provide key insights (e.g., Romans 12:1-2). While the discussion of understanding God’s will and listening to God’s heart for us warrants a substantial treatment, at this point I’d simply like to make the connection between listening to God’s voice and what has been noted above.

Listening to voices from history, voices from our community, and the voice of our own life are some of the primary ways we hear the voice of God in our lives. The biblical phrase “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) reminds us that through seasons of discernment and prayer, often the will of God is discerned in the context of the communities within which we are placed.

Certainly God can speak in very direct and dramatic ways. Moses experienced this in the burning bush of Exodus 3. But more often, we hear the voice of God in quiet ways through the people, events, and circumstances that shape our life. We tend to hear God more like the “gentle whisper” Elijah experienced (1 Kings 19:11-13) than the burning bush Moses experienced (Exodus 3).

What’s Next — Moving from Listening to Action

While listening is often the headwaters of discerning vocational calling, action is also important. Engaging the question “How do you get where you want to go,” Michael Hyatt reminds his readers of the importance action: “Just start. Once we had our direction all that was left was to move toward it. … Clarity is composed of knowing and doing.”

As most can affirm through their life experience, sometimes the best way to figure out what is vocationally fulfilling is to experience a number of options. As you “try on” these vocational options, what is a good fit for your skill set and gift mix? What is consistent with your personal passions and purpose? What options are also aligning with opportunities?

While vocational discernment begins in contemplation, it doesn’t end there. Find a rhythm of moving between contemplation and action. There is a cyclical or helical relationship between reflection and action where contemplation gives birth to behavior, and those actions once again lead us back to further reflection.

What Has Worked for You?

As you’ve engaged in your own vocational discernment journey, what has been the key for you? What acts of listening have been of help to you? What other steps do you recommend for those engaged in their own vocational discernment process?

Easter, The Gospel, & Virtuous Leadership

black and white cemetery christ church

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Easter week is just around the corner as I write this post. At the heart of Easter is the message of the gospel. In this brief post, I’d like to make some connections between the core message of Easter and leadership practice.

Ethics matter for those working at diverse organizational levels. But ethics especially matter for leaders.

We want to know that what our leaders say is true. We want to see that the actions of our leaders are consistent with what they say as leaders.

General Ethical Approaches

Though certainly an oversimplification of ethical theory, we can argue that there are three primary approaches to ethics:

  • Virtue Ethics
  • Duty Ethics
  • Utilitarian Ethics

Here is a brief overview of these approaches drawn from an article I wrote with a colleague:

  Virtue Ethics Duty Ethics Utilitarian Ethics
Key operational question Who ought I to be? What ought I to do? What brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number?
Definition of Happiness Fulfilling one’s purpose or function Adherence to moral absolutes Maximization of pleasure, absence of pain
Focus Character of the individual Rules and resulting obligations of the individual Outcomes and consequences
  • A utilitarian approach to ethics bases decisions on what brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
  • A duty-based approach (or deontological approach) to ethics bases decisions on what one ought to do.
  • A virtue-based approach to ethics bases decisions on who one ought to be.

The Priority of Virtue Ethics

While there are supporting arguments for each of these ethical paths, I find that the most effective form of ethical practice is grounded in virtue-oriented approaches. Why is this?

In times of crisis and ethically challenging circumstances, people will tend to do what is natural to them. They will act in accordance with who they are. Because of this, the most powerful approach to ethics is one that takes seriously the formation of ethical people at a level of virtues and character.

Though we need moral guidance (a deontological and duty-based approach), the capacity to act on this comes from moral fortitude (an ontological and virtue-based approach).

Virtuous leadership requires virtuous leaders. Ethical leadership requires ethical leaders.

Because of this, a foundational question in this discussion is how does one become a virtuous person/leader?

The Gospel and Virtue Ethics

I don’t want to imply that only Christians may be virtuous leaders. Certainly, we can all think of Christians we know who have not acted virtuously and those of other non-Christian commitments who do act virtuously.

I do want to emphasize that the Christian gospel provides a powerful answer to the question of how one becomes a virtuous person/leader.

At the heart of Easter is the gospel. The gospel centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross, remembered in the heart of Holy Week, is at the center of the Christian faith. Jesus died on a cross to pay the penalty for sinful people and to restore wholeness to our broken world. Those who trust in Jesus’ work on their behalf are offered forgiveness for their sins and are welcomed into both God’s family and God’s mission of restoring and healing a broken world. At Easter, we celebrate not only Jesus’ death, but also his being raised to life three days later to demonstrate His power over sin and death.

So How Does this Relate to Virtue-Based Leadership?

The gospel is not about good, moral, or virtuous people offering themselves to God. The gospel is about sinful, immoral, and broken people being made new by Christ’s work in their lives.

We can never be good enough, moral enough, or righteous enough to make ourselves right before God. Only God’s work in us by the gospel can do that.

What does this mean for a Christian approach to virtue ethics?

Rather than seeking to be virtuous in order to make ourselves right before God, in the gospel we yield to the God who is able to make us right before him.

The gospel does not lower the ethical bar. The gospel does not say that sin and unethical leader behavior doesn’t matter. Rather, the gospel gives us a pathway for changing us from the inside out. The gospel gives us a hopeful path on which we can start to see change. The gospel gives us a credible answer to the question of how one may become a virtuous person/leader.

The answer is not in our own virtuous behavior, but rather in looking to the God of Easter who is able to do in us what we are not able to do ourselves.

Taking the Next Step — How to Improve Individuals and Organizations

Photo by Justin Irving; new Vikings Stadium in process.

Photo by Justin A. Irving; new Vikings Stadium in process.

One of my favorite quotes from W. Edwards Deming is “Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.” What a great reminder. And, this helpful reminder raises a key question: What are your results telling you?

Deming is a key figure in operations management and the pursuit of continuous improvement within operational systems. Management theories like Total Quality Management (TQM) and beyond have been significantly shaped by Deming’s key principles. While Deming’s work is primarily designed for macro operational settings, the lessons are helpful for both organizations and individuals. What are your results telling you organizationally? What are your results telling you individually?

Here are a few highlights from Deming I offer for your consideration

Deming’s 14 Key Principles

Deming is known for 14 Key Principles in his approach to management. I will not review all of these here since they get into specific dimensions of organizational operations. However, here are a few high points of these principles from Deming’s book Out of the Crisis.

  1. Prioritizing the Creation of Constancy of Purpose: “Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.” Improvement at the organizational and individual level does not come by constantly changing focus. Deming’s first point reminds us of the importance of staying the course, remaining focused, and keeping our aims before us. Are you constantly changing your aims, or are you maintaining constancy of purpose and staying focused on what matters most?
  2. Committing to Improve Constantly: “Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.” Whether at the organizational or individual level, what problems or challenges exist in the system? If “your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting,” then what problems need to be addressed and are you asking this question regularly?
  3. Taking Action toward Transformation: “Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.” If, as noted above, we have identified the problems holding us back, then it is time for action based on these identified problems. Deming’s final point is a call to action. If at an organizational level, this means focusing everyone’s attention on the problems that need to be addressed and the transformation that is desired. If at an individual level, this translates into prioritizing desired outcomes and shaping our decisions and actions toward this desired transformation.

Deming’s Wheel (P.D.C.A.)

Deming's Wheel

In addition to Deming’s 14 Key Principles, another helpful lesson from Deming’s thinking is Deming’s Wheel. Deming’s Wheel is a four stage process focused on (1) planning, (2) doing, (3) checking, and (4) acting, and helps to simplify core steps along a path of continuous improvement.

  • Plan: Plan an improvement
  • Do: Do the activity planned
  • Check: Check the results of this activity
  • Act: Act on these results in order to make future improvements

Whether at the organizational or individual level, Deming’s Wheel of PlanDoCheckAct provides a memorable model for engaging in continuous improvement. Consider what transformation you desire in your life or in your organization. (1) Make plans for an improvement. (2) Do the planned activity toward this improvement. (3) Check the results of the activity you did. (4) Act/Revise your future planning based on the observed results.

Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.” What are your results telling you? Perhaps Deming’s approach to continuous improvement will provide you with some practical insights on how to take the next step toward improvement both organizationally and individually. It’s time to Plan – DoCheckAct.

Can You Serve God in Your Work?

Faith & Work, by J. Irving, St. Patrick's in NY

Faith & Work, by Justin A. Irving, purposeinleadership.com; location: St. Patrick’s in NYC

Do you see your work as an opportunity to serve God?

Some workers—such as those in overt ministry roles (e.g., pastors, missionaries) or those in helping professions (e.g., teachers, nurses)—seem to have an easier answer to this question.

But what about other professions? How, for example, may plumbers, engineers, writers, carpenters, accountants, programmers, electricians, lawyers, and call center employees see their work as an opportunity to serve God?

Most of us devote upward of 100,000 hours of our lives to work. The significance and meaning of these hours matters. Is this 100,000-hour investment of our lives disconnected from our life of faith, or do these hours connect meaningfully with who we are as persons of faith? In what way is our work a means to living out a vocational call on our lives—a means to serving God in and through our work?

Celebrating Every Good Endeavor

I just returned from a conference hosted by the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. What an encouraging time to see how the people of Redeemer Presbyterian are guiding their congregation and city in reflection on innovation and meaningful faith-work integration.

For those new to this conversation, Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf, both of Redeemer Presbyterian, have written a helpful book on the topic of faith and work entitled Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.

Setting the stage for their discussion in Every Good Endeavor, Tim and Katherine propose a diverse set of convictions and pose the question of whether these convictions are opposed to one another or complementary. They note:

The way to serve God at work is to…

  • Further social justice in the world
  • Be personally honest and evangelize your colleagues
  • Do skillful, excellent work
  • Create beauty
  • Work from a Christian motivation to glorify God, seeking to engage and influence culture to that end
  • Work with a grateful, joyful, gospel-changed heart through all the ups and downs
  • Do whatever gives you the greatest joy and passion
  • Make as much money as you can, so that you can be as generous as you can

Engaging this list, Keller and Leary Alsdorf note that it is problematic if we add the word “main” to any of the above statements (e.g., “The main way to serve God at work is to…”). Each of these serve as a way serve God through our work rather than representing the way to serve God in our work. They additionally emphasize that depending on one’s particular vocational path, cultural context, and historical moment, the way we live these convictions out will look different.

A Means for Joyful Exploration

In light of such observations, connecting our work to God’s work becomes a means for joyful exploration rather than burdensome obligation. Our work does matter to God. Our work is a means to serve God. The opportunity in front of us is to explore how our particular role is an opportunity to serve God in and through our work.

Toward this end, I find that the above list is a helpful prompt.

In what ways is my work an opportunity to …

  • . further social justice
  • be honest
  • share the gospel
  • work with excellence
  • create beauty
  • glorify God
  • work with gratitude and joy
  • be generous?

How will you serve God through your work? How will you invest the 100,000-hour opportunity in your life?

Leader Resiliency … Face Reality, Find Meaning, Forge a New Path

by Arya Aiai, Flickr

Photo Credit: Image by Arya Aiai, Flickr

One of my areas of research is examining the role of resiliency in leadership. Here’s a link to an overview of one of my recent academic articles focused on the role that obstacles and resiliency play in the development of leaders (Management Research Review, Vol. 37, Iss. 5, pp.466 – 478).

In our research, we found that a variety of developmental assignments, relationships, experiences, and training were associated with increased levels of leader resiliency. Often, these developmental variables take the form of personal and professional obstacles that build resiliency in leaders.

What is Resiliency

Resiliency is about the capacity to bounce back after difficulty. Resiliency is about the capacity to persist through and overcome diverse challenges in life and leadership.

In this day and age, resiliency is increasingly important for leaders. Our world abounds with uncertainty, and it is individuals and leaders who are able to bounce back and make the best of difficult circumstances who will thrive in the days and years ahead. This is what resiliency is all about—persisting, or even thriving, in the midst of difficulty.

How Resiliency Works

Engaging the theme of How Resilience Works, Diane Couto argues that resilient people possess three defining characteristics.

  1. Resilient People Face Down Reality: “…coolly accept the harsh realities facing them.”
  2. Resilient People Search for Meaning: “…find meaning in terrible times.”
  3. Resilient People Continually Improvise: “…have an uncanny ability to improvise, making do with whatever’s at hand.”

These characteristics are vital for leaders today. Facing down reality means accepting the harsh realities and facts in front of us, but doing so in a way that finds meaning and purpose in the chaos.

The Stockdale Paradox

Jim Collins referred to this tension between facts and faith as “The Stockdale Paradox.” The Stockdale paradox, named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, is based on the observation that those who survived in the most difficult of circumstances (such as prisoners of war) do so by both confronting the most brutal facts of one’s current reality AND retaining faith that one will prevail in the end. It is not merely choosing optimism OR pessimism—it is the experience of embracing BOTH difficult facts along side optimistic hope.

Brakes Break for a Reason”

My wife took me to a movie last night entitled The Hundred-Foot Journey. It is the story of the Kadam family who left India for a new life in France. As the story unfolds, this new life begins in a French village due to their vehicle breaking down. Overlooking this village, and through the events that follow, the family embraces their reality that “Brakes break for a reason.” Through embracing the reality in front of them, the Kadam family finds meaning in the moment and forges a new and hopeful future for their family.

It was a beautiful movie, and in a simple way depicts this tension between facing down reality and finding meaning in the midst of reality.

Purpose in Leadership

This tension is one of the reasons I’m passionate about “Purpose in Leadership.” Leaders who are able to make sense of the world around them—to find meaning in the face of the mess—often are characterized by a resiliency that allows them and their organizations to thrive in the midst of great difficulty.

Creative Improvisation

This blend of finding meaning in the face of reality sets the stage for Couto’s final observation—the ability to improvise and make do with what is at hand. Resilient leaders face reality from a place of purpose and meaning, and from this place engage the resources around them (human, physical, structural, financial, etc.) to resolutely move forward toward their driving purpose.

Because the future is always being created as we go, leaders learn to improvise along the way. They respond to the needs around them. They collaborate with the people and resources at hand. They find unique and creative pathways forward to accomplish their goals in new ways.

______________

How are these characteristics of resilient people at work in your life? Are you nurturing this capacity to (1) face reality, (2) find meaning, and (3) forge a path forward through creative improvisation?

A Joyful Heart is Good Medicine … it also increases productivity!

Joy, by Alice Popkorn, Flickr

Photo Credit: Joy, by Alice Popkorn, Flickr

“A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

– Proverbs 17:22

In a recent edition of Harvard Business Review, the title of a sidebar mini-article caught my attention … “Start Your Next Meeting with a Joke.”

In the highlighted research, teams with at least one person in a good mood were more than twice as likely to solve a puzzle as teams whose members were all in neutral moods. The article explains, “people in good moods are more likely to share knowledge and seek information from others, which cues the rest of the group to follow suit.”

As noted above, Proverbs 17:22 reads:

“A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

Not only is a joyful heart good medicine at the individual level, joy is also contagious. And, according to researcher Kyle Emich, this positive spirit also leads to greater productivity in teams. In other words, joy is not only pleasant, it is also productive.

What are you bringing to your team today? Are you bringing a negative or neutral mood, or are you bringing joy and positivity?

You Are Not Alone — Interdependence and Dependence in Leadership

Steering Wheel from a Vessel, Wilderness Kev, Flickr

Photo Credit: Steering Wheel from a Vessel, by Wilderness Kev, Flickr

How do you begin your day as a leader? I recently heard a friend share his leadership challenge of “waking up with the steering wheel in his hands.” Perhaps you can identify with this metaphor.

As leaders, it is all too easy to mentally and emotionally dive into our daily to-do list the moment we wake up. This level of all-in leadership engagement often continues throughout the workday and beyond. While understandable, such engagement can adversely effect us on multiple levels — our personal well-being, our interpersonal availability, and our team/organizational productivity.

In light of this challenge, we need to be intentional in finding time for pause, perspective, and refreshment in our day-to-day leadership responsibilities. I plan to write on several pathways for this intentionality in future posts, but I begin with this point — Remember You are Not Alone

Awareness of Our Finitude

Leaders are often wired toward independence … toward going it alone in the task of leadership. Thankfully, the practical nature of human limitation reminds us that we cannot do it all on our own. Leaders are reminded daily that there are only 24 hours with which to work. Leaders are reminded daily that our bodies need food to eat and the rest of sleep. Our finitude reminds us that going it alone is neither practical nor beneficial within the context of leadership.

You Are Not Able to Do it Alone”

Moses faced such limitations multiple times in his life and leadership. At one point, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro stepped in and challenged Moses’ independent approach to leading: “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18).

Thousands of years later, leaders are still battling this reality Moses faced. So how can we work against this tendency? A quick answer to this is we need to remember that we are not alone.

Interdependence and Dependence

First, as with Moses, we have other people within our communities with whom we are able to partner in meeting the goals that matter to our organizations. As with Moses, we need to learn healthy interdependency in our leadership. We rise to greet the day with a community of people who are likely much more willing to partner with us than we think. We rise to family, friends, and associates with whom we may link arms and work toward the goals that matter most to our organizations.

For some communities, cultivating this interdependency means that leaders need to equip and empower volunteers. For other communities, this means equipping and empowering staff and coworkers with whom we serve on a common mission. As with Moses, we need to resist our tendency to go it alone. We must look for authentic partners with whom we may work and serve.

Second, as with Moses, we may rise to greet the day with a heavenly father who is ready to lead and guide us. As with Moses, we may learn our healthy dependency on God in life and leadership. Although leaders have a tendency to “wake up with the steering wheel in their hands,” leaders who are mindful of God’s presence recognize that they are not alone even when no one else is around.

On this point of remembering God’s presence, I appreciate a prayer of St. Patrick. Here are some excerpts from this prayer:

I arise today through the strength of heaven….

I arise today through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me….

Christ shield me today against wounding.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me….

I arise today
through the mighty strength of the Lord of creation”

Though sometimes drawn toward independence, leaders need to remind themselves early in the day that they are not alone.

  • I arise and awake to a God who is ready to “pilot me,” “uphold me,” and “guide me” through the demands of my day.
  • I arise to a day where there are opportunities to partner with others in work that matters.
  • I arise, and I remember that I am not alone in my leadership journey.