Outstandingly Great Blog
I know you want to be a good leader. Wanting to be inspirational, effective, and remembered makes perfect sense. Yet, most people aren’t great leaders. In fact, odds are you aren’t a great leader. Leadership is tricky and out of reach for most. It’s this magical combination of empathy and high-standards. You’ve got some folks good at the former – they care about people. And you’ve got even more folks good at the latter – they expect a lot and don’t have a problem letting you know it. But having both – being both – is too hard for most people. They can’t pull it off.
Good leadership is both art and science. I’ve seen it on occasion and it is powerful. Despite all of the executives I have worked with, the best example of effective leadership is my daughter’s former kindergarten teacher. If you have ever been in a kindergarten class, you know that if you can lead five year olds and get them to work for you, you can lead anyone. Mrs. Bell would drop down so that she could look the children in the eye when she spoke to them and she often told them that she loved them. She never had a mean word for any of them, never raised her voice, and never lost her temper. But she never babied them. She never let them off the hook and she had the world’s highest standards. No matter that they were five, she expected excellence and the kids knew it. And the result was that those kids would have followed her anywhere. She had what every leader wants – respect, productivity, efficiency, excellence, creativity, teamwork, contribution.
Part of the reason we are insufficient leaders – either too soft or too hard – is that natural- born leadership is a myth.
Well, maybe not a total fiction, but it is about as common as being ambidextrous or being able to touch your nose with your tongue. My husband says dogs are born knowing how to swim. Throw any dog in a pool and it will paddle. I don’t know if this is actually true, but I am 100% sure that for the most part people aren’t born knowing how to lead. Look at the leaders you have known personally and anecdotally (or even leader in the mirror maybe). How many of them are nailing the leadership thing? Most are drowning or, at best, treading water.
In fact, our very human wiring often is at cross-purposes with leadership. The amygdala – our lizard brain – is what triggers the fight or flight response. Also, often it sabotages us as leaders. When someone doesn’t follow our direction, questions our authority, makes a mistake, rejects our ideas, doesn’t work hard, criticizes us, and takes control from us the lizard brain perceives all of this as danger and threat. We become, not the good leaders we so badly desire, but leaders who are either confrontation adverse or confrontation inclined. We become all empathy (wimps softies) or all rules/regulations (uncaring, punitive). Neither is good. In either case, we lose people, they check out. When we default too far left or right on the empathy – results scale people don’t consistently and loyally follow us, we get half-hearted effort, they don’t hear what we say, they are sloppy, they aren’t invested, and they leave.
Nonetheless for those who have the courage and the resolve, bad leadership isn’t destiny. The amygdala is not the only part of the brain. Luckily for leaders and maybe even more so for everyone being led, we have the prefrontal cortex too and this is where beneficial executive function happens. The prefrontal cortex gives us the ability to pause and the pause is powerful!
With a pause we create options. Instead of making a situation worse either by failing to confront the problem or alternatively engaging in work place combat we can stop in the middle of our flight or fight panic. The pause creates room for us to silently ask, “Is there another way?”
Great leaders do this. They are not controlled by well-intentioned, but misplaced instinctual responses.
Before reacting, before mistaking a manageable workplace skirmish for high-stakes, life or death, drama, they ask themselves questions such as – what is really going on here, is a compromise possible, is my approach the best approach, what’s the real danger, how can both of us come out winners, is the best thing really for me to get my way, and what is this other person feeling?
Leaders who are pushovers or bullies surround us. Why wouldn’t they? This is the lazy leader’s path. It is what we do when we don’t have better options and when more impactful tools are absent. Too much to the left or the right is a hallmark of desperate leadership. Worthwhile leaders, on the other hand, take neither a strictly soft touch nor heavy-handed approach. Rather, they incorporate both. In this way they are remembered, followed, and bring forth our best work and highest potential.
It’s not about being liked or being nice. It’s not a popularity contest after all. Simply, it’s good business strategy. Work is about money ultimately or at least a large part of it is. A hybrid leadership approach – being an empathetic human and also a masterful businessperson – positively impacts the bottom line. Leaders know that if they go too easy they will be ignored, ineffective, and won’t get compliance. If too hard, compliance is temporary, transactional, and not sustained – people only listen when you are in the room to scare them into submission.
It is natural to react before assessing. It is even normal to be controlled by fear and anger. However, this is not the path to great leadership. It is not the road to exceptional success.
To be a real leader – one who is respected, heard, and one people work hard for – silence your lizard brain
The next time the stakes are high, when someone lets you down, when you crave results, listen to your executive function reminding you that this is not mortal combat with a foe and that with a pause and the use of the prefrontal cortex, there is a way for all involved to come out alive, intact, and victorious.
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Many already successful leaders claim that they want to be even more successful, but less of them do what is needed to make that success a reality. This gap between what we say we want and what we do – taking actions that sabotage ourselves – occurs over and over again. We say we want to be healthy, but then we eat a cheeseburger. We claim we want to get more sleep and then stay up late working. There are many reasons why despite our best intentions we can’t quite seem to put our money where our mouth is. Change is for sure possible (Google “neuroplasticity”), but it is hard. New behaviors are uncomfortable. Growth takes time that none of us feel we have.
Leaders regularly, tell me “I want to take my career to the next level. I am open minded and willing to experiment. I am excited to learn.” I hear what they are saying, but when I look at them and watch what they do I see that they aren’t taking the actions needed to accomplish what they claim they want. Instead of being open they are closed. Specifically, they are know-it-alls and if there is one way to guarantee limited success it is to be a know-it-all. It is possible to be a really successful, well-paid, highly respected professional know-it-all. But if the goal is the true maxing out of potential – to be even more successful, have greater financial gain, and receive adoration – open-mindedness is required.
The term know-it-all seemingly is familiar to all of us. Merriam-Webster defines it as, “one who claims to know everything.” Pretty early on most of us learn to quit this bad behavior. Mom tells us, “Stop being a know-it-all.” And eventually we do. The question then becomes, “Why write about it now if we all stopped this nasty behavior when we were 10 years old?” The answer is we didn’t really stop – we fake stopped. We learned how to hide it. We keep our I-know-better-than-anyone-else thinking to ourselves. We take that external bad habit and make it internal.
Now when someone shares a new idea we don’t blurt out, “That’s not right.” Rather, we silently evaluate and then disregard. We tell ourselves we know better and are smarter. Ultimately, we stop listening. Our thoughts are,
- “No, you should not have done it like that. You were wrong. My way is better.”
- “Yes, I hear your suggestion that I should change my approach, but I am not going to.”
- “I know you want to contribute. However, I am not going to let you participate because it will slow me down.”
Being like this of course is allowed. It is one way to go, but people with this mindset don’t get as far as they say they want to go. Closed-mindedness guarantees more of the same and limits possibilities. People who really listen – suspend judgment, silence evaluations, and eliminate preconceptions are able to grow, change, adapt, innovate, pivot, and generally do better. Professionals at the upper echelons are the ones who respond with,
- “That is interesting. Tell me more.”
- “I am curious about your idea. Let me listen closely so I can be fully convinced.”
- “I wonder how we can compromise so we both come out winners.”
While not typical for me, today I noticed the shadows on the ground around me. They captivated me actually. I was curious about how the trees around me made certain forms below, the birds created different shapes, and my own features melted away and became a blob. It occurred to me then that being a know-it-all is like trying to understand the world from shadows alone. Yes, you see something, there is an image, but you don’t really know what it is.
Would any of us make important life choices based on the shadows or even trivial choices for that matter? I wouldn’t decide if I liked my dinner based on what shape my entrée created. I would want to smell it, taste it, and look at it head on. But, ironically, with important business and leadership decisions many leaders limit the amount of data they allow in. They have their own beliefs, their own experiences, their own biases and they go with that because it is quicker, or easier, or less intimating. But it is a shame and it is sad.
Professionals could have more of what they want if they loosened up, slowed down, and became curious. We are like this when we are children. We ask a million questions, we try out insane risky stunts with high rates of failure, we let strangers in, we forget what we have learned and try again as if it were new. But as adults we think we know the way the world works, we think we know how people are, we think we know what is best and as a result, we don’t get what we claim to want.
To be truly successful suspend disbelief, eliminate predispositions, and silence evaluation. Success is possible when we get out of our head and use all of our senses. Walk into into the sunlight to see what is possible.
Do you identify with some points of this post?
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Two people recently asked me for a favor. My first instinct both times was to be annoyed. I was overwhelmed with my own work. I did not have time. It was inconvenient. I did not want to do it. Why where they bothering me? Couldn’t they see how busy I was with my own stuff?
Thankfully, my subsequent reaction was different. Truth is good like that. If you give it a minute, it bubbles up and gets in your face until you can’t ignore it. And so it went for me. I paused and then remembered a couple of principles about asking for and receiving help…
- Asking is hard. None of us is able to get ahead, do our best work, or reach our goals alone. Those that try to do so, suffer and limit their own success. In trying to show the world how capable they are, they fall short. As for the rest of us, we admit that we need help sometimes. It can be a letter of recommendation, advice, a consultation, an audience, proofreading, or feedback – there is always something. Nonetheless, asking for help isn’t easy. We don’t like exposing our vulnerabilities. We want the world to believe we are expert and totally self-sufficient. Asking for help requires courage.
- Giving is hard. Saying yes is rarely convenient. These asks are never at the right time. We are always approached when we are at our most overwhelmed. The fact is we live in a world where we are all overbooked, all the time. A group of chickens running around with no heads. Barely able to fulfill our own responsibilities. We don’t have time to give away to others. Oh well. So what. Lack of time isn’t a reason to say no. There are worse things than taking a timeout from your own life to make time for others.
- It makes the world goes around. Today someone asked you for a favor. Tomorrow it will be you. The roles are fluid. Ask-give. Give-ask. Back and forth. If we can’t do favors for each other or step up when called there is no hope. This giving and receiving is what makes the world go round. Without it, we are all in trouble. If we indeed have entered a post-help world, none of us is going to do very well. Being there for each other is all we have.
- It lets you be your best self. Yes, having another thing to do is a pain in the butt. Yes, writing a letter of recommendation for someone doesn’t necessary benefit you. But, yes, when you do something for another human being, when you come to the rescue, you feel good about you. People like being the hero, we like being selfless, we like to contribute. It makes us feel good and worthwhile and like we have value. So, even these selfless acts have a positive effect.
- Leaders do it. The most successful leaders are emotionally intelligent. Emotional intelligence is not voodoo science; it is a well-studied framework that consists of at least a dozen competencies (skills). Teamwork is one competency. So, is coach and mentor. Influence is another. Doing favors, giving help, chipping in, are all signs of emotional intelligence. You want to be someone who gives help because it means you have emotional intelligence and emotional intelligence is an indicator of leadership success. If you, aren’t a big teamwork person you need to address that because you are getting in your own way. By not helping others, you are hurting yourself. If you are interested in increasing your own success, focus on the success of others. More focus on you is not what you need.
Be mindful of these realities the next time someone approaches you with a request.
It is important to know that certain personality types are better than others at making themselves available, at contributing, at teamwork and collaboration. You likely know who you are, but if you don’t you should take a personality assessment (DISC, MBTI, NBI) to find out. Even if you naturally have one of those personality – let’s say a D(dominance) on the DISC for instance – where teamwork isn’t naturally your thing, don’t worry. Giving help, teamwork, emotional intelligence can all be taught and learned.
Now get out there and lend a hand to someone. If you don’t know how, ask for help!
Personality assessments are a powerful tool to advance your career. Every leader should have an idea of their emotional intelligence. Reach out to me if you need one.
A simple perspective shift that leads to greater success.
Many professionals have a mindset that limits their ability to be successful, make money and get what they want. Specifically, at some point in our lives we get the idea that the things we need to learn – about life, success, leadership – only come from experts, those older, wiser, more successful, or senior than we. But this thinking is mistaken and limits our ability to grow, make an impact, and obtain widespread professional success.
In reality the important and much needed lessons about how to lead, motivate, and treat people surround us. They are being offered to us not just by those who have “made it” (managers, the C-Suite, parents, people with power and money), but equally by our subordinates (direct reports, interns, students, children) and peers (coworkers, team members, classmates). We encounter them at every turn, but only if we decide to do so. The opportunity to learn and grown and get better is everywhere if only we decide to see it and to let it in.
I recently have been coaching my MBA students and with every coaching session I gain insight. I become more aware of my sharp corners – the places where I get in my own way and self-sabotage. Indeed, there are aspects of my personality and communication style that are working for me, but there are also pieces that are not and it is my students that lead me to those. One might think the students would be the ones doing all the learning and while I do like to think that they also are getting something out of the sessions, not all of them do of course. I am at peace with that. It is very much like life – some people are open minded, hungry to improve and willing and courageous enough to take a long, honest look at themselves and others are defensive, scared, desperate to be right, and only seek affirmation. But those who are brave enough to take the deep dive come out enriched, stronger, bigger and readier to take on the world and leave their lasting mark. However, as it happens, I learn equally from both groups of students.
They share their lives with and let me into their deepest sorrows and greatest triumphs to varying degrees – some our open books and others keep me on a need to know basis. They tell me where they are getting it right and where they are making missteps. Throughout this process I have lightbulb moments like – “that hurts me too, I feel proud just like she does, I did that same good thing one time, and shoot I am guilty of that horrible behavior too.” Thereby each conversation is an opening for insight into myself. Everything the students share becomes a point of self-reflection.
Interestingly, the sessions don’t have to have this result for me. It is a choice. My reaction could be different and my thinking could be more along the lines of – “I don’t know what he is talking about, why does that stupid thing make him feel badly, I never do that and his doing so makes me feel superior.” I could offer good advice as a coach, share conventional wisdom, talk about standardized leadership principles and that would be fine. The students certainly would get something out if it and they wouldn’t have any idea about my – judgmental and closed – innermost thoughts, but I would remain static, suffer and miss out on becoming more effective.
I mention all of this because each of us has this very same choice to make every day in every situation we encounter and with every single person we speak with whether it be a 10 year-old-child, a low-level employee, a beginner of any kind, or our less intelligent, informed or experienced counterpart. In each moment we can all ask ourselves, “What can be learned here?” Each encounter gives us the chance to figure out how we can do things better – not better than the person with whom with are connecting but better than we personally did before.
This endeavor is not about judgement, superiority, or affirmation. When someone else shares their obstacles, frustrations, mistakes, we can discipline, dismiss, judge, or move past it in some way or we can pause and honestly acknowledge to ourselves our own humanity and see that this person with all their stuff is simply a mirror image of us with all of our stuff. They were closed when they could have been open as have we. They were harsh when they could have been kind as have we. They were impatient when they could have been generous as have we.
If we are interested in being our best, most successful, and prosperous selves we always must ask, “What does this tell me about myself?” Be careful that your answers are not “I would never do that, I am better, that is dumb.” The conversations and interactions we have are the map to our most impactful self. Whether you open it and begin the journey is entirely up to you.
Happy and expansive travels.
There is an idea in Buddhism that says essentially, “the universe gives you everything you need.” So, if there is a lesson you need to learn – no problem, the universe has you covered and will present a situation for you to learn it. If there is something you need to appreciate – not an issue, the universe will create an opportunity for you to feel appreciation.
This Buddhist concept popped into my head repeatedly during the three days I spent camping in the Ocala National Forest over the New Year. While I very much enjoy camping, it also is really hard. Every single thing you do takes so much longer – no easily accessible running water and only lantern light. No matter what you try – no shoes in the tent – the dirt invades and there is no real keeping clean – immediately after you shower your three-year-old he trips over a tree stump and lands knees and palms into the ground. Further, the woods possess some sort of magical power that makes my bladder perpetually full, endlessly unrelieved and no real restroom within 100 feet.
Throughout it all I was reminded, “Alexa, the universe is giving you everything you need, exactly as you need it, right now.” It is possible that what I was meant to learn was obvious and I know it certainly wasn’t complicated, but somehow these simple truths never stick.
With everything taking so long and being so inconvenient I was forced to be patient. There is no rushing through all that dishwashing by hand three times a day. Only focus and deep concentration got that job done. No email to check, text to write, phone call to answer just me and soap-water-scrub-water- repeat.
Oh! and that dirt – it sure did force me to let go of any illusion of perfection, of our carefully packed belongings being orderly and the precious children being nice and tidy, well cared for. I was liberated from all that frantic, desperate, obsessive, grasping for control and order. Finally, perhaps cliché, but there is nothing as glorious as a pristine night sky totally and fully uncorrupted by the suburban light pollution to which I have grown so accustomed as to render it unnoticeable. You have to see the brightness of those stars first-hand, nothing but in-person bearing witness will do. It will stir you and move you and fill you to the brink with gratitude for being alive. So, I must express my gratitude to the open air, portable toilet stationed outside our tent to which I made about 10 trips HOURLY. Thank you, good ole’ ‘Luggable Loo.’
When I was young, my grandma found delight in wrapping paper. She would ooh and aah over the vibrant colors and fold it away in a perfect square for later enjoyment. I didn’t understand. I thought her making a fuss over paper silly. Knowing the teenaged me, I rolled my eyes. Yet, there I was at the dish washing station marveling at the delicate lace patterns the soap made on the side of the green camping cups – sometimes reminiscent of ocean spray, others unique like fingerprints, at times mimicking abstract cloud animals. The universe gave me that too – visiting hours with grandma’s ghost and the best superpower of them all, wonder over a small and easily overlooked miracle. A pretty good survival skill in these days of more, more, more.
The universe gave me all these party favors at my New Year’s Eve celebration in the woods. Thus, despite the obscene amount of gear crammed back into my mini-van, I returned to suburbia lighter, less burdened and more uplifted.
I had planned on writing my New Year’s musings well-before we departed for Alexander Springs. However, despite thinking and thinking I never came up with anything worth saying. Eventually, I surrendered deciding, “There will be other new years and time for messages then.” Yet, 7 hours, 5 minutes, and 10 seconds away from 2019 I found myself writing this note standing at my food storage container desk, my ankles bug bitten, my feet covered in campsite dust and the universe doing what it does best – providing me with exactly what I needed. As I enter the new year, I hope I finally can remember this truth, but no matter, the universe will continue doing what it always has done for you and me both.
Cheers to a year filled with what you need!
Successful people are adaptable. Research shows that in terms of the competencies one needs to be successful, adaptability is up there with self-confidence, emotional self-control, and inspirational leadership.
Yet, so many of us dedicate significant amounts of time and energy to planning. And then when our plans don’t work out (as so often happens) we dedicate significant amounts of emotion to being irritated, frustrated, bent out of shape, and placing blame.
So, on one hand we have the critical importance of being adaptable and on the other we have our natural tendency to be totally inflexible. This is a problem – a problem I know intimately.
Like most other important business lessons, I was reminded of the futility of planning at the hands of my children. On Friday morning, I went to my kids’ school to volunteer in the classroom. I had confirmed the date and time with the teacher days in advance. I had reviewed with her the materials I needed to bring and the treats I was going to share with the children. I looked over my papers the night before and set my alarm early the morning of. I arrived at school just as I had planned, excited about my morning with the children.
With smile wide, I ran smack into the other mom who had also volunteered to be in the classroom that morning. She had confirmed the date and time with the teacher days in advance. She had reviewed with the teacher the materials she needed to bring and the treats she was going to share with the children. She had looked over her papers the night before and set her alarm early the morning of. She arrived at school just as she had planned, excited about her morning with the children.
Then in an instant our well-orchestrated plans crumbled. There was a miscommunication. The teacher only needed one volunteer and now she had two. The other mom was superfluous. I was a duplicate. We were both very annoyed and disappointed. Our morning had been shattered. One of us would surely be sent home or left standing in the corner while the other performed the morning’s duties. While I can’t speak for her, I wasn’t just annoyed and disappointed, I was angry too.
Neither one of us was particularly adaptable in that movement and because of that neither one of us could figure out a solution. Luckily, the school receptionist, on the other hand, was a study in flexibility and with clear and unemotional thinking rearranged us so that two moms became better than one. She split the class up, sent me to one room with class A, sent the other mom to another room to class B and midway through the morning had us switch rooms so that we could spend time with the other class.
It was a lovely morning and the reshuffle worked out perfectly. I walked out of school thinking how the morning had turned out so much better than I could have planned.
And so often that is how life is. Plan A is average. It frequently doesn’t work out because life is messy and humans are imperfect and in the scheme of the cosmos we are just ants who have very little control over anything. The real shame isn’t that Plan A falls apart it’s that we waste time mourning it and don’t shift to Plan B. And, if we let it, in most cases, Plan B is better.