Fresh Leadership

“We’ve always done it that way” is just about the worst possible reason for doing almost anything.

If you’re going to lead effectively then you’re going to need to know exactly why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing. What’s worked for a long time, even if it’s still working, may not be the best way of doing it anymore.

If you’re a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind of leader or a “don’t reinvent the wheel” type then I have question for you: How are those stone wheels on that hot new car working out for you? The fact is some of the best inventions ever made were just improvements on stuff that was working good enough.

Leaders can get stuck in ruts just like anyone else, it’s just that the consequences tend to be greater when it happens to them. That’s why the most effective leaders are always looking for a fresh perspective on pretty much everything they do. They know what is, what they really want to know is, what’s possible.

Here are a few ideas to shift your thinking from the “is” to the “could be.”

Look at your situation, issue or challenge from someone else’s point of view. If you were a six-year-old child, what would you see? If you were a fighter pilot, or a hippie in the ‘60s, or a prisoner of war, how would things look different then?
Describe the situation in writing. It’s amazing what we see when we see it in black and white. Draw it out on a white board, do a flow chart of your process (you maybe didn’t even realize there was a process) and consider every little thing. Assume nothing and leave nothing to chance.

Take a gigantic step away from the situation and ask yourself these questions: How does this situation fit into the larger scheme of things? What are the consequences of the consequences of what I’m thinking of doing. How does it affect want I’m trying to achieve in life? Does it “fit” with the values I have for my life and my organization? How will I feel about it in 10 minutes? 10 months? 10 years?

Ask for the opinion of someone very different than you. You won’t learn much from someone who thinks a lot like you or from someone with a similar background as yours. Remember, a fresh perspective will likely be a different perspective than the one you currently have. It’s okay if you don’t like it or don’t agree with it, you can get an even fresher one tomorrow.

Stay curious. Curiosity may have killed the cat but it can save a leader their career. Never stop asking “why do we do this” and “how can we do it better.” There has never been a leader who thrived on auto-pilot, don’t kid yourself, you’re not likely to be the first.

Wait. I’m admittedly terrible at this one. I’m perpetually in a hurry to “get it done.” But it’s amazing how different things can look from one day to the next. Maybe even from one hour to the next. I can’t tell you the number of times I could have done something better by just practicing this simply principle. Wait.

Now, having said that, let me remind you, there is a big difference between productive waiting and productivity destroying procrastination. Effective leaders know the difference.

Leadership is perishable, if we don’t constantly fertilize and freshen it with new thoughts, new insights, new ideas and new practices it can become stale pretty quickly. Have you checked the “freshness date” on your leadership lately?

A Leader’s Responsibility

During workshops and talks I’m often asked about what to do when you’ve hired someone who just isn’t measuring up.

Sometimes people actually tell me the person they hired is an idiot.

I tell people don’t be so hard on yourself. They get a bit of a surprised look on their face because they didn’t intend to be hard on themselves. They intended to point out that in their wisdom they, apparently for some reason, purposefully hired an idiot.

The first problem of course is thinking that one of your people is an idiot. Once one of your people knows your low opinion of them they are unlikely to exceed your low expectations. Never ask or expect less from your people than you need or want them to deliver.

I believe that leadership comes with certain responsibilities. If you actually have the audacity and courage to accept the mantle of leadership then you must also be willing to accept the wide range of responsibilities that come with it.

The responsibility to put people in their strengths zone is one example. If you’ve hired someone and they are not getting the job done there are only two possibilities.

You’re not going to like either one.

The first one is that you simply hired the wrong person. Yes, you simply hired the wrong person. If they truly cannot get the job done then why did you hire them? If they didn’t have the skills, knowledge, and experience to successfully complete the requirements of their role then why in the world did you hire them? You must have just hired the wrong person.

The second possibility is that you did hire the right person but you’re not giving them the tools they need to succeed. You, as a leader may not be teaching them the additional skills required to truly excel. Your may not be transferring your additional knowledge and experience to them.

Either way, if you’ve hired someone who is not succeeding it’s your responsibility. When you accept 100% responsibility for the success of your people you begin to grow as a leader.

When you accept 100% responsibility for the success of the people you’ve hired you’ll no longer be so quick to dismiss them with a “they’re an idiot” flick of your tongue. You will stop “spending time on” and start “investing time with” your people.

Now, let me stop a good number of you right now. You’re thinking of a million “excuses” right now why you can’t be held 100% responsible for the success of your people. I’ve heard them all 100’s of times, heck, I’ve used them dozens of times.

Let me also tell you this: if you allow yourself those excuses then the chances of one or more of your people failing goes way way up! Don’t tell yourself that you’ll accept 50% of the responsibility but “they” have to give 50% too. I’ll guarantee you that it’s not a 50-50 proposition because your people will not succeed with you, their leader, giving a 50% effort in helping them develop and succeed. The fact is, when it’s a 100-100 proposition then your people have a great chance at success.

Leadership is a big deal. It’s not just a position, title or concept. It is real, it comes with serious consequential responsibilities. If you can’t handle them, or are unwilling to accept them, then you should reconsider your role as a leader.

There is no harm in choosing not to lead, leadership is not for everyone. The harm comes from accepting the challenge of leadership without the commitment to accept the responsibility of a leader as well.

Leaders can make excuses or they can make more leaders. They can’t do both. What are you making?

What’s the Rush?

Haste makes waste.

That truism is never more true than when it comes to problem solving. When you rush to solve a problem you run the risk of actually making the problem worse. You may misidentify the problem and end up “solving” a symptom. It could appear that the problem is gone but it’s seldom gone for long. When it comes back it’s often bigger and it’s often more expensive to solve.

Misidentifying a problem, failing to discover the root cause of an issue, is the single biggest mistake a problem-solver can make. Yet it’s made all the time. I think it’s because too many people aim to instantly fix a problem.

We live in a world where Minute Rice just isn’t fast enough anymore. We want everything now, immediately, if not sooner. We especially want problems solved, preferably before anyone knows there’s a problem.

Sometimes it’s best to slow down and live with a problem for a while.

When we live with a problem for a bit we get to know it, we understand it more. We know it’s origins and it’s likely our solution will be much better. Not only better but permanent.

Slowing down does not mean doing nothing. Study the problem, discuss it, look at it from different angles. Learn from it, above all, learn about it. The best problem-solvers have patience and they know enough to never mistake procrastination for that patience. Never forget, there is a difference between moving a little more slowly and not moving at all.

Do not slow down because you don’t know what to do, slow down so that you will know with certainty what needs to be done.

Some people see more in a walk around the block than others see in a trip around the world. Great problem-solvers, like great leaders, walk slowly through the halls, they listen, watch and learn with every step.

Now a good number of people reading this post will say slowing down is a luxury that they can’t afford. They have to “get it done” ASAP! Time is money! You know how it goes.

But you also know that if you don’t have the time to fix it right the first time you’ll never have the time to do it a second time. A shortage of time is EXACTLY the reason you should slow down.

So save yourself some time, slow down and solve the problem once.

There’s no rush to do it twice.

When Things Really Matter

In a Major League Baseball season there are 162 regular season games. Pretty much every team will win 60 and every team will lose 60. It’s what happens in the other 42 that matters. It’s knowing which 42 games will make the difference that really matters.

The most effective leaders know that not every decision is life, or business changing. What makes them effective is knowing which ones may be and which one most definitely are. The most effective leaders know which 42 games they MUST win.

They know that when they are in the middle of one of those “must wins” that they must lead, most likely from the front. They are less likely to delegate and more likely to micro-manage. Actually effective leaders wouldn’t admit to micro-managing, they are in a “must win” situation and they are just “making sure.”

But what exactly is so critically urgent that an effective leader wouldn’t dare delegate it? Not much as it turns out should be so urgent that it can’t be delegated… or just eliminated.

A long time ago I was promoted to my first management position as Sales Manager for a soda pop company. Not too long after that promotion I received a 4:00am phone call that our delivery drivers had just gone out on strike and everyone in management had to come in immediately.

Shortly after that I had this neat new uniform and a spot on a truck delivering pop to grocery stores and bars. I wasn’t meant for that kind of work to begin with but I was really unprepared to do that all day and then my real job at night.

A short day was 18 hours and even with that I fell behind. I lived in my office for several weeks and still I fell further behind. My desk was a sea of paper stacked several inches high.

I was overwhelmed.

One morning about 2:00am I went into the warehouse and grabbed one of those big trash dumpsters on wheels. I pushed it to my office and threw every piece of paper on my desk away.
A few hours later as my colleagues begin passing my office they would all look at my desk in amazement with the same question; What happened?

I said only that I had a very productive night.

Here’s the truly amazing part, with the exception of a couple of documents that needed signing I never heard a word about anything I had thrown away. Not a word.

It was then that I realized this leadership truth: never underestimate the absolute unimportance of almost everything you do. Most of the things we stress over just don’t really matter. There are few things in life that are truly important and we miss too many of them by focusing on the stuff that isn’t important. We fall victim to the “urgent curse,” doing what seems to be urgent rather than doing the truly important.

We try to focus on too much and forget that “over focusing” is like wearing Milk Bone underwear in a dog eat dog world. We’re going to be eaten alive and it ain’t going to be pretty.

Successful leaders don’t mistake the urgent for the truly important.

As a leader you should not be doing anything that someone else on your team could be doing. If you’re doing anything that someone else could do then your not doing something that only you can. You, I’m sorry to say, are holding back productivity in every direction.

You have 120 games that are going to happen with you or without you. Some will be won and some will be lost and it won’t really matter.

It’s in those 120 games that you build your future leaders. Those are the times that hold the decisions you allow others to make. Those are the times when you just get out of the way and let other leaders stretch their leadership wings. The outcome won’t matter much. What will matter is that THEIR actions and decisions led to an outcome. They can see the results of THEIR decisions and learn from them.

When their day comes to lead the way in the “must win” 42 games you will have prepared them to succeed.

That’s Leadership!

Decisions, Decisions

Decisions are the fuel of all successful endeavors. If you’re a person who strives to succeed you’ll need to make many decisions in your life. Try as you might, some of them will be bad decisions.

Some will be very bad.

I’ve written before about my thoughts on the importance of sound decision-making. Success requires not just decision-making but GOOD decision-making. Skilled decision makers use what I call judgecernment, the combination of judgment and discernment, to make the best decision possible. The most successful people don’t always make the best decision possible but they get many more “right” than “wrong” and the “bigger” the decision the more likely they are are to get it right.

But sometimes it’s the little ones, the quick ones, that when wrong, haunt you.

I’m truly fortunate to be trusted to speak in front of groups, often. It is an honor to be considered skilled enough and thoughtful enough to share my opinions and thinking with an organization’s people and in some cases, their customers.

Sometimes while “on stage” I’ll share some jokes too. I have this theory that if you’re in front of hundreds of people and you’re telling jokes then you are most certainly going to offend someone. No matter what you say, if somebody laughs then somebody else, at least one somebody, will be offended. No matter how “safe” the joke is, somebody will always be offended. I’m perfectly okay with that. So long as it’s not too many “somebodys.”

Last week in front of a very large group I shared a joke more suited to a barroom than a ballroom. I’d love to claim poor judgment but there would need to be at least a bit of judgment displayed in order to claim that it was poor. It was actually just a very bad decision.

I’m sure I disappointed some people with my decision. While I don’t want to seem cavalier about the feelings of other people because they do matter, I’m really not overly concerned about that.

Here’s what really made it a bad decision… I disappointed myself. I forgot for a moment the honor of being trusted in front of a group. While many people laughed (well, maybe not actually
many but some) and some more were even still laughing about the joke the next day.

Truth be told I’ve received little negative feedback from the joke but it doesn’t really matter because I was offended. I was offended by the fact that I failed to model the behavior I speak and write about every day. I got lazy and failed to look for a better, more appropriate joke. It’s a decision that will haunt me for awhile and frankly, it needs to. It’s good to be reminded that despite my skill and experience I can still make bad decisions that negatively affect other people.

Like I said, some decisions will be very bad.

So, you know what I did about that? I learned. Immediately. I committed to myself to make better decisions next time and then I made a whole bunch of decisions the very next day. They were all better decisions than the one from the night before though admittedly, I’d set the bar pretty low.

Successful people cannot allow bad decisions to prevent them from making decisions in the future. The failure to make any decisions, or to make decisions too slowly, can cost companies just as much as making poor decisions, sometimes even more.

Successful people learn from every decision, good and bad and they know that a person cannot learn from a decision that they refuse to make.

Making no decision is in fact a decision, it is a decision to do nothing and that is almost always a wrong decision. You can’t “fix” a decision until it is made. If you think you can avoid problems by not making a decision then you’ve just made the biggest mistake a decision maker can make.

So learn from your poor decisions, better yet, learn from the poor decisions of others and use the experience to grow as a leader and make better decisions in the future. It’s what successful people do.

And no, I won’t share the joke with you, you won’t be hearing that one from me again anytime soon!

Encouraging Mistakes

I’m not a big fan of mistakes. That might surprise the people who know me best since they also know I make a lot of them.

I make a lot of mistakes because I make a lot of decisions. Mine are mistakes of action and they can be fixed, usually with just a small adjustment. Often, people don’t even realize I made the mistake at all.

Some people believe they can avoid mistakes by not making decisions. They fact is, not making a decision is a decision, it’s a decision to do nothing and it’s almost always the wrong decision. Deciding to do nothing is a huge mistake, it’s a mistake of inaction and it’s often much harder to fix than a mistake of action.

The most successful leaders make a decision the moment that they have the facts required to make it. They make good decisions because they have made a lot of them and they learned as much from the bad ones as they did the good ones.

I get asked from time to time about the best way to help young leaders learn to make decisions. My answer is nearly always the same – let them make decisions!

No one can learn how to make good decisions just by watching someone else do it. If you’re a leader hoping to build future leaders then you need to let your people make decisions. Even some bad ones!

Get out of the way and let them decide. Let them be wrong and let them fix their mistakes. Let them learn from THEIR experience and allow them to build self-confidence by doing… and redoing if that’s what it takes. 

I’m not suggesting any leader stand by and let their people make decisions with potentially devastating consequences, but let them make small decisions and grow their way to bigger ones.

Lead by ensuring they find the lesson in every mistake they make and lead further by helping them develop a plan to make a better decision next time. 

The ability to recover from a mistake or a poor decision can be a great encouragement to your younger leaders. Authentic Servant Leaders don’t use mistakes to criticize their people, they use them to coach and encourage their people. 

It all comes down to this: as a leader, do you have a spirit of criticism or a spirt of encouragement? One forces compliance and one builds commitment. 

One works and one doesn’t. Which one are you? 

Do Leaders Really Need Good Judgment?

There was a time when that question would never have been asked. It was a foregone conclusion that sound judgment was a prerequisite for effective, authentic leadership.

Today however there are some leadership “experts” who are in fact asking that very question. They point out, correctly I might add, that today we have terabytes, and megabytes of data. We have charts and graphs and grids with every color of the rainbow looking at every possible situation from every possible angle. All the data, some experts say, leads the leader right to the proper decision. No real judgment is needed.

I’m not sure I can say crap in this blog but let me tell you, that “expert” thinking is a load of crap in there every was one. Today, as in every other day in history and as in every day in the future, judgment mixed with discernment, or as I prefer to call it “judgcernment” is as vital as it ever was or ever will be.

The experts point out that using data takes the personal bias out of a leader’s decision making and thought process. Well isn’t that just swell; we no longer need a leader who thinks, they just have to be able to read a pie chart. That’s just crazy!

Data may provide facts but wisdom comes from judgment.

We need wise leaders. I want a leader who applies their “life lens” to a situation. I want a leader who uses their experience to make a decision. If the right person is doing the leading I even want them applying their own bias to the decision making process.  

Good leaders have good data but great leaders use their experience and knowledge to judge what data to believe. It might be possible to manage using pure data but people won’t be managed, they want to be led. When you attempt to remove the “human element” from leading human beings the result is utter leadership failure. I’ve never seen a person’s life illustrated on a spreadsheet but there are empty cells in everyone’s history. Judgcernment is required to fill in those blanks.

Is good judgment still a prerequisite for leadership success? Decide for yourself but know this; your answer likely will speak volumes about the authenticity of your own leadership approach.