8 Beliefs That Increase Your Leadership Potential

Nect Gas 130 miles

A follower, a manager, and a leader set out on a road trip together. After packing the car, they briefly discussed who will drive. Not wanting to be responsible for potentially getting them lost, the follower opts out and takes a spot in the back seat. Then, sensing the manager’s need to be in control, the leader hands over the keys and instead reviews the map from the shotgun position. It wasn’t very long into their adventure that everyone realized how they all were in the perfect place to best contribute. The leader was doing a fantastic job of monitoring congestion alerts, augmenting the route, and then providing clear directions to the manager. In turn, the manager who was a superb driver, safely obeyed the traffic laws while skillfully weaving through the crowded highway. Finally, capitalizing on his natural gift for DJing, the follower played a great medley of tunes from his iPhone’s extensive music collection that kept the group upbeat throughout. In fact, things were going so well that no one noticed that they were almost out of gas!

As their car slowly sputtered to the side of the road, the manager was livid as he had specifically asked the follower to fill the car with gas before they left and, the closest gas station was many miles away. The mood in the car now quickly turned sour as the manager angrily sought to hold the follower accountable for his mistake. The follower knew he had really screwed up. Sulking in his seat, he felt horrible. Evaluating what would best serve the group in this moment, the leader began to speak. “Gentleman, this is my fault. Prior to the trip I asked the follower to help me load the car. He likely didn’t have time to get gas because he was doing me a favor. What I thought would take only a few minutes ended up taking over an hour.” The follower immediately felt better, not necessarily because he was no longer on the hook, but because he felt connected to the leader who was both sticking up for him and exercising personal accountability. Even the manager, while still not particularly happy about the situation, felt his emotions subside and was now more concerned with solving the problem.

Everyone then quickly got back to what they did best. The follower worked the side of the road to try and flag down someone who might help, the manager inventoried their resources available in case they were stranded for an extended period of time, and the leader got on the phone with AAA to try and secure towing support. Each bringing his diverse talents to the situation, it wasn’t long before the group was back on the road and headed in the right direction again!

In my recent posts “8 Beliefs that Limit Your Leadership Potential Part 1 and Part 2”, we explored how our values, beliefs, and personal stories shape what possibilities are available to us and, thus, are responsible for driving our behavior.

This then raises an important question, if there are certain beliefs that hold us back as leaders, are there certain beliefs that might enable us to better fulfill our leadership potential?

After 20+ years of studying leadership and observing some truly amazing leaders in action, I think there are certain beliefs that set the best leaders apart. These are ways of looking at the world that open up possibilities, ensure priorities are maintained, and invite greatness. As you read through these first four beliefs, evaluate how they might have showed up in the story metaphorically and, if they are congruent with your own system of beliefs. If you assess these beliefs as your own, to what extent are they fully embodied? Check in with your daily actions as a leader…would others agree that your behavior is congruent with the following:

1. Everyone comes to this world with unique gifts to offer – If you’re a results-focused leader like I am, this may seem a little soft and sentimental. Yet, the reality is that each of us is needed, has value, and has a deep seated desire to contribute. When we hold this belief, we no longer use people like human “resources” to be managed as we delegate work tasks. Instead, we seek to understand each person’s gifts and how they can best be leveraged. A leader who truly embodies this belief at a core level will also look beyond an individual’s surface level attributes. They become curious as to what gifts remain untapped, and wonder how this individual might contribute in ways that they haven’t considered yet? The best leaders help us to see potential in ourselves that we never knew existed.

2. There is strength in diversity – People often fear what they do not understand. Thus, when it comes to hiring people in organizations and building work groups, people often surround themselves with those who are much like themselves. Doing so makes us feel more in control — enabling a sense of comfort and a greater semblance of predictability. Yet, the best leaders lean into the discomfort of surrounding themselves with a diverse team. They know that homogeneity leads to group think and, hence, they value the varied perspectives that diversity offers. They also value independent thinking and, thus, create cultures where dissent is both encouraged and appreciated. Great leaders know they will rise or fall depending on the quality of the team they lead. The saying often goes that A’s hire A’s while B’s hire C’s. Perhaps more appropriately, A’s hire diverse A’s while B’s hire similar C’s.

3. Nobody shows up to work to suck – When individuals are not meeting organizational standards, the first thing most managers are likely to do is judge them as non-performers and document their failures. Essentially, they are protecting themselves and externalizing blame for their non-performance. In fact, many managerial experts will tell you that the faster you rid yourself of non-performers, the more effective the organization will be. While there may be some truth to this, I believe the best leaders see things differently. First, they get curious as to what their part is in the non-performance behavior and recognize that, as an accountable leader, they likely had something to do with it. Leaders don’t ask “why is this person failing,” but rather “where have I failed this person?” Their curiosity emerges from the belief that nobody shows up to work with intentions of sucking at their job. Something else is likely going on. Perhaps they are going through a difficult personal challenge at home, or maybe they are simply in the wrong position for their natural skill-sets. Whatever the situation, non-performers are almost always doing the very best they can given their circumstances. A true leader will then find a way to make them successful again. I have seen it time and time again…the best leaders never leave anyone behind.

4. A leader’s primary responsibility is to serve followers – While the responsibilities of holding authority are stressful and can take their toll on a manager, an elevated position within an organizational hierarchy is certainly not without its perks. There is the increased status, access to information, and the powerful feeling of being more in control of one’s destiny. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when riding the lofty winds of authority, it’s the fans of loyal followers who are keeping you in flight! That’s why this particular belief is supremely important in reaching your potential. Leaders know that if they are to be successful, their followers must be successful first. Thus, the best leaders rarely think in terms of their own personal needs or agenda, but rather work tirelessly to uncover and meet the needs of their followers. The irony being that when you serve your followers well, they will bend over backwards to make you successful! Not because you are their manager with great authority, but because they respect your outstanding leadership in helping them to become their best.

Hopefully, these first four beliefs personally resonate with you and your leadership experiences. If so, you are likely already fulfilling much of your leadership potential. If not, remember that our beliefs, values, and personal stories are not fixed, we can change them. While not a simple undertaking, it’s always a worthwhile endeavor to strive for greater leadership capacity. The world needs your leadership. Choose to reach your full potential.

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8 Beliefs That Limit Your Leadership Potential (Part 2)

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In Part 1 of this post (below), we explored how our values, beliefs, and personal stories drive our behavior through the crowded bar story. After waiting a long time for service, the leader took action and secured a pitcher of beer for her thirsty team. Let’s pick it up from there…

Finally enjoying their frothy cold beverages together, the follower, manager, and leader begin to talk about their day. The follower starts the conversation by explaining his routine challenges to the group. Apparently, the sales team keeps over-promising on what his manufacturing team can deliver on and the timid follower feels he can’t speak up about it. The intense workload and impossible demands are taking their toll on him and his peers. He then describes his boss as a “slave driver” with no backbone to stand up to those “prima donna sales snobs!” Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to the follower, the gentlemen to his left happens to be the head manager of sales and he is quickly becoming very defensive about the follower’s tirade. The now irate manager begins to loudly express his strong denouncement of everything the follower has just shared. He then explains his intricate system for accurate sales forecasting, his impeccable record of always making his numbers, and how it’s just too bad if the “whiny” manufacturing folks can’t keep up! At this point, the leader intervenes. First, she explains to the manager that she hears what he is saying and offers that the sales team is under a lot of pressure to deliver on the quarterly expectations. She then coaches the now very embarrassed follower into not backing down from this challenge by the manager. She expresses her interest in learning more about the follower’s challenges and begins to facilitate the much needed discussion. After a few uncomfortable minutes, the group begins to engage with each other and truly hear one another’s needs and concerns. By the end of the night they are toasting each other and commit to making several improvements together. The leader then picks up the tab and Ubers a cab for their ride home!

This brings us to the next four beliefs that can limit your potential as a leader. As you read through them, I offer that you 1) try to identify how these stories might be either limiting or working towards the leadership potential of our fictional characters in the bar scenario and 2) check-in with your own beliefs and how they are shaping the possibilities available to you. Again…what is it that you personally believe?

1. I must be liked to be a good leader – This makes perfect sense. No one wants to work with someone that they don’t like. Besides, leadership is about influence and how could I begin to influence people if they don’t like me? If I work to be liked first, then people will go out of their way to help me and make me successful in my leadership responsibilities. Not necessarily. While being liked as a leader certainly helps, it should never be a primary motivator for your behavior. Leaders often have to make tough decisions and sometimes those decisions will make them unpopular. Whether it be delivering news about much needed sacrifices ahead or having difficult accountability conversations, leaders must be comfortable with communicating the hard truth versus what will make people happy. Instead of working to be liked, work to be respected. Not in the sense that followers respect your authority, but rather respected for your competence, compassion, character, commitment, and consistency. The liking part will then take care of itself.

2. A leader ensures a harmonious team – Huh? How could this not be true? We all know that harmony is a good thing. I mean what kind of leader lets team members get into it with one another, which always has such a chilling effect on the rest of the group. A leader’s job is to ensure that various personalities on the team find a way to get along. Not really! It’s very easy to fall into this trap as it is socially engrained in us from an early age. Groups naturally strive for harmony and the moment that conflict emerges, we just want it to go away. If a leader provides us with protection and re-establishes order in these moments, they are exercising authority not leadership![1] Good leaders instead recognize that conflict is a necessary part of getting the group’s needs met. More importantly, leaders understand the ramifications of repressing conflict and promoting a false harmony — resentment and crippling dysfunction. Leaders instead create a trustful space for diverse perspectives to speak their mind and enable healthy debate to occur.

3. Leaders don’t fail – Of course they don’t fail! Failures fall by the wayside and it’s those that succeed who are promoted to positions of greater responsibility and opportunity. Leadership and failure go together like oil and water. There is simply no mixing the two or you will quickly be labeled a poor leader. Wrong! Leaders are never one to play it safe. Comfortable is a dirty word to them and thus they take risks and push our boundaries of what is possible. Yet, leaders, like everyone else, rarely get everything right the first time. They make mistakes, and it’s how they handle their mistakes that separates themselves from the rest of us. Leaders never lets their mistakes define them. They don’t avoid their failures, they own them and value them. Failures instead become powerful ways to expedite their learning, strengthen their resilience, and inspire an even greater will to succeed.

4. I’m not good enough to lead – Seriously, what were they thinking putting me in charge? I have been faking it the whole way. Sure, I had some successes but anyone could have produced the same results. It’s only a matter of time before they figure me out. Absolutely, Positively, NO! This may seem to be ridiculously obvious as a limiting belief, however it is by far the #1 most pervasive belief holding many leaders back. Even many “successful” leaders share this story and, ironically, it can be the primary driver of their success. When this belief serves them, they work extra hard to overcome their insecurity and embrace continuous learning. Unfortunately, this story also can cause a leader to overcompensate for their ego, feeding almost every other belief discussed in this post! If this is resonating with you, know this, you are not alone and you don’t need anything else. You already have everything it takes to be an extraordinary leader. The real challenge is will you internally validate yourself enough to be the leader that you are destined to become. When you flip the switch inside and see yourself as that leader – you are.

Remember that our beliefs, values, and personal stories are not fixed, we can change them. It’s not a simple undertaking, yet it’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor if they are limiting our leadership capacity. The world needs your leadership, choose to reach your full potential.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to hit the “follow” button on this page so I can share with you share with you on a variety of topics. Thank You!

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[1] Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Boston: Harvard Business Press.

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8 Beliefs That Limit Your Leadership Potential

Frosted-Mug-and-Beer-PitcherA follower, a manager, and a leader walk into a bar. They are all thirsty for a beer but the place is very crowded and it may be a while before they are served. Sure enough, many minutes pass and no one helps them. Feeling annoyed but unsure of what he can do, the follower continues to sit patiently for the waiter to arrive. Unhappy with waiting for the inefficient waiter to come by his table, the manager secures a menu from the hostess, analyzes the beer options, assesses the cost of an import vs. domestic beer, and finally signals his urgent readiness to order to the waiter across the room. Recognizing that there are three very thirsty people in her presence, the leader walks across the room to the bartender, communicates her need while extending a healthy tip, and returns to the table with three cold mugs and a frothy pitcher of delicious beer. Her absolutely delighted compatriots rejoice!

Stereotypes aside, why would each individual take a very different course of action when they all wanted the same result? The answer lies in what possibilities we allow ourselves, and our realm of possibilities are a direct function of our belief systems. More succinctly put — our values, beliefs, and personal stories drive our behavior. The follower’s personal story was one of limited possibilities. There were social norms that he was supposed to follow, and wanting to be a good follower, he did what he thought he was supposed to do. The manager’s personal story is one of control. Valuing efficiency and optimization he took action that would expedite the ordering process. The leader’s personal story is one of service. Ignoring social norms and irrational restraints, the leader assessed the needs of the group, adapted to the environment, and made things happen through purposeful action. Why was the leader most effective? Because she was not confined by a story that limited her potential.

In my executive coaching work, I have come across several common beliefs that consistently show up and can limit a leader’s potential. Note that these stories do not discriminate, and even the most successful leaders can sometimes fall victim to them periodically. My hope is that by sharing these with you, it may bring awareness to your own personal stories and how they impact your leadership potential. As you read these first four, check-in with yourself….what is it that you believe?

1. Leaders are supposed to have the answers – Are we not? We get promoted to positions of authority primarily based on our experience and competence. Followers value our ability to clearly articulate vision and direction. Thus, we are supposed to be the smartest person in the room. If you don’t know, then you can’t possibly be leading effectively. False! Not knowing is a prerequisite for curiosity, which enables both a sense of humility and our ability to innovate. Leaders who value curiosity over knowledge tend to facilitate the exchange of diverse perspectives and foster healthy debate within teams. Yet, leaders who can thrive in such ambiguity are a rare breed. For more on how you can overcome this common belief and instead turn uncertainty into opportunity, I recommend Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner’s book “Not Knowing.”

2. Good leaders never show signs of weakness – Of course they don’t! As soon as you show weakness, the wolves will attack your soft underbelly. Great leaders project strength and have the will to overcome adversity. Well, this is only part of the story! Great leaders also know how to demonstrate vulnerability to increase their approachability and authenticity with followers. In doing so, they connect with followers in a truly meaningful way and inspire far more engagement than the stoic warrior-leader ever could. Once more, leaders must know how to ask for help. No leader can succeed alone and if you believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness, you have already significantly limited your potential.

3. My team can’t operate without me – This one is certainly the truth right? The place falls apart when you go on vacation. Plus, we all know that things just won’t get done right unless you are personally involved. Untrue! If anything, this is the manager’s story not a leader’s story. Leaders seek to relinquish control and recognize that the true mark of leadership is when they can walk away from a situation and trust that things will be executed in their absence. Why? Because leaders create more leaders. In the U.S. military, leaders are required to train multiple people to do their job should they be lost in battle. It is a culture that inspires constant coaching and mentoring. Your leadership ability then becomes more about the quality of your team than your personal skill. I wish I saw more of this in our modern corporate environments. Instead, I often come across leaders who believe that training the team too well makes them expendable. Do you need to be the hero? Or do you relish in creating heroes? Leaders value the latter.

4. It’s my job as a leader to enforce the rules – This is a no brainer. Rules exist for a reason and leaders have a responsibility to ensure that team members work within the social contracts we agree upon. If they don’t, the result is chaos and disorder. No organization can survive in such conditions. Not exactly! A leader must manage two operating systems: one that limits risk and one that encourages experimentation and change. Leaders fully own their responsibility to provide stability and act ethically. Yet, they also push boundaries and realize that sometimes rules exist to stifle innovation, preserve the status quo, and bring outliers right back to average. The mindset of a leader should always be one that abhors mediocrity. What’s more important to you, meeting other’s expectations or redefining the expectations altogether?

If any of these stories resonate with you personally, it may be time to release a belief or work towards changing a value which is no longer serving you as a leader. In part two of this article, I’ll examine four more beliefs that can limit your potential as a leader, including the most pervasive belief that holds leaders back. Stay tuned!

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The Leadership Equation

Part of West Point’s academic curriculum requires every cadet to study the natural sciences, advanced mathematics classes, and an engineering discipline of choice. While I often struggled in these challenging courses as a cadet, it was likely here that I developed my fondness for logic and healthy respect for a sound equation. A well proven equation really is a thing of beauty. In a concise set of symbols, one can communicate volumes of information and help to explain the world around us. For example, Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation (E=mc2) is considered pure genius because it unlocked one of the greatest mysteries of the universe in just five simple characters. I share this with you because equations can similarly help us to explain the inner workings of organizational life and help develop us as leaders.

In fact, there is one equation in particular that continuously guides me as a leadership development professional. It stems from the work of organizational development scholar & practitioner Kurt Lewin and is as relevant today as when he first theorized it back in 1943. While not an actual mathematical equation representing quantifiable relationships, it is a heuristic formula that accurately explains one of the biggest challenges of leadership and it’s as simple as this:

Lewin’s formula states that behavior (B) is a function of the person (P) and his or her environment (E). Thus, if you are seeking to change an individual’s behavior, you must influence one of two variables (or preferably both for maximum effect). Leadership, at its heart, is often about moving individuals and organizations through change and Lewin’s formula gives us a practical way of organizing our efforts. Looking at your own team as an example, perhaps there are behavioral tendencies that are negatively impacting performance and you would like to see change for the better. Let’s first work with the idea of shifting behavior by focusing on the individual person.

It’s important to note that you can never really change another person, they have to change themselves. Attempting to force behavioral change on another individual is likely to incite resistance and is ultimately unsustainable. Yet, often this is the norm as managers leverage their proverbial carrots and sticks to shape organizational outcomes. The real leadership challenge at hand is how does one inspire an individual to want to learn to behave differently and better align with the team’s goals? Well, much of that inspirational ability stems from your own behavior and example as a leader. Are you a person of character, competence, and credibility? Are you demonstrating an authentic empathy with those you are leading? Do you own your vulnerabilities and have you established a track record of personal accountability? These are just some of the leadership behaviors that are a prerequisite for inspiring another person to change their behavior. It comes down to this — do followers admire and respect you enough as a leader to make the difficult process of changing themselves an imperative.

Now let’s look at how the environment impacts behavior and performance outcomes. Are your team’s behavioral challenges isolated to a few individuals or is there evidence of a systemic issue? If the latter is true, exercising leadership now becomes more about addressing environmental factors like values, mission, vision, structure, relationships, technologies, and reward mechanisms that are not producing the desired behavior. Perhaps your organization’s structure is fostering competition over collaboration and promoting selfishness. Or maybe there is a values disconnect between what executives are communicating as the priority and what front line workers are expected to deliver on. Whatever the environmental challenge, the savvy leader understands that changing the organization’s environment is a much larger undertaking and should be approached with caution. There is risk in championing change to the organizational environment as every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it gets. There will undoubtedly be stakeholders that have a vested interest in keeping things exactly how they are. One will need to build a strong case for change and create alliances with organizational authority that can help generate movement.

In summary, the B=ƒ(P,E) formula gives us a simple yet powerful way to determine things we can do to improve individual, team and organizational performance. Leadership is about facilitating change and behavior is how we can tangibly interpret progress towards desired change. When seeking to move the needle in a positive direction, a leader can look to influence the individual directly and/or seek to shift environmental factors that are impacting outcomes. Regardless of the point of influence you choose, it’s essential that you are personally practicing the leadership behaviors you are seeking from others. No individual or system will adopt your vision for change if they do not see you first being the example.

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8 Songs That Can Teach You Leadership

Playing-Acoustic-Guitar-Wallpaper

Have you ever wondered why you can easily remember the lyrics to a catchy song from years ago, yet find it hard to recall what you ate just yesterday for breakfast? Music has an uncanny ability to circumvent our logical brains and instead lives deeply within our emotional bodies. When we resonate with a powerful tune or are inspired by a musician’s message, we can instantly recall how it made us feel. This has me thinking about the real power of music and what this medium might offer in terms of learning leadership. Curious as to what lessons my own meager collection (about 5K tracks on my iTunes) might ascertain, I recently re-listened to a few favorites but with my leadership headphones on….this is what I heard:

1. Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

“I’m Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I’m Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer
If You Want Make The World A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change”

The King of Pop was on to something here. Every leader must learn to lead themselves first. This often means having the courage to realize when you’re ineffective and what adjustments you might need to make. As leaders we are always changing, as are the environments in which we lead. Constant self-assessment and feedback are critical to understanding that man (or woman) in the mirror. The best leaders make this a consistent practice in their lives.

2. I’m Not Afraid by Eminem

Eminem”I’m not afraid
To take a stand
Everybody
Come take my hand
We’ll walk this road together, through the storm
Whatever weather, cold or warm
Just letting you know that you’re not alone
Holler if you feel like you’ve been down the same road”

While Eminem might be far from your idea of a model leader, in “I’m Not Afraid,” a more mature voice emerges as he raps about the struggles of overcoming drug/alcohol addiction and fully owning his responsibilities as a parent. The main chorus in particular elicits a theme that is reoccurring in many of his songs — I understand your pain, I am willing to sacrifice for you, join me and together we shall overcome. This is the same call to action that every leader must make if they are to recruit and maintain followers. Great leaders communicate their empathy for follower’s needs, embody a philosophy of selfless-service, and align the team in a common purpose.

3. Imagine by John Lennon

Lennon“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world”

In this celebrated song, John Lennon asks the listener to imagine a world freed from class, religious, or political boundaries. He also encourages people to focus less on material possessions. Ultimately, the song is a passionate call for world peace. Could there be a better example of how to create and express a vision? Lennon does a masterful job of understanding the current situation (written in 1971 during the Vietnam War), envisioning a different future, and communicating a path in a succinct and powerful way that challenges others to act. The real testament to his genius is that his call for more tolerance and equality is no less relevant today.

4. This is not a Song it’s an Outburst: The Establishment Blues by Rodriguez

Rodriquez
“This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact”

If you don’t yet know the story of Rodriquez, I highly recommend you watch this amazing 60 minutes special on his music and life story (http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/rodriguez-the-rock-icon-who-didnt-know-it/). “This is not a Song it’s an Outburst: The Establishment Blues” was a call to action that no one heard in the US. It sold very little copies and Rodriguez’s career essentially flopped. Yet years later, the song became an anthem for South Africans to rise up against the evil of Apartheid and sold millions of records. The leadership message is clear. Not everyone is fit to lead in every environment. Hone your abilities, hold to your values, and practice authentically bringing your leadership gifts to the world. Ultimately, with enough patience, those who you need your leadership most will find you.

5. Get Up Stand Up by Bob Marley

Bob Marley“Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight
Get up, stand up. Life is your right
So we can’t give up the fight”

This iconic reggae song was conceived while Marley was touring Haiti. He was so extremely moved both by the lives of the Haitians and the extreme poverty they faced; that he called for all to “Get Up Stand Up” and fight for greater equality in the world. Leadership is often about fighting the status quo and sustaining yourself in such battles requires tremendous energy. This can be difficult to sustain over time. A leader who cannot passionately advocate for a mission will never attract and retain followers. Thus, wise leaders prudently take on the issues that give them a strongest sense of meaning and purpose. Figure out what makes you “Get Up Stand Up” and lead the change you most desire.

6. Tough by Craig Morgan

Craig Morgan“She’s strong, pushes on, can’t slow her down
She can take anything life dishes out
There was a time
Back before she was mine
When I thought I was tough”

In Western corporate culture, there can be a tendency to overly value the warrior/hero archetype of leadership and then falsely attribute those qualities more frequently to men. Craig Morgan’s country hit “Tough” reminds us that real toughness, like leadership, can come from anywhere. The warrior/hero in this song is his wife who manages the challenges of their day-to day lives with ease. Then when she struggles through a bout with cancer, he marvels at her will and resiliency. Leaders should be mindful of their own assessments of what a leader is and isn’t. Know that leadership can come from anyone in your organization and make a point to recognize the often overlooked leadership that is being exhibited all around you.

7. Blue Train by John Coltrane

ColtraneNo Lyrics…All instrumental bliss.

Pretty much any classic jazz track would suffice here, I chose Coltrane’s “Blue Train” for its mix of catchy riffs and universal appeal. Rather than providing a message that relates to leadership, performing Jazz in itself is an act of leadership. In fact, leadership guru Max DePree wrote a book about the links between jazz and leadership called “Leadership Jazz” back in 1993 (http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Jazz-Essential-Elements-Leader/dp/0440505186). In essence, DePree writes that leaders, like jazz musicians, must stay attuned to the needs and ideas of their followers and even step aside at times to be followers themselves. Listen to “Blue Train” and you can hear this philosophy come to light. Coltrane asserts himself when appropriate while also bringing out the best in those around him. It’s masterful.

8. Staying Alive by The Bee Gees

John Travlota
“Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother,
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’,
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.”

What could the Bee Gees possibly teach us about leadership you might ask? While their 1977 Grammy award winning hit might not have been intended to have anything to do with leadership — it might as well be every true leader’s personal anthem. Whenever you choose to exhibit leadership, you are moving against a norm and often against authority whose job it is to maintain those norms. Move too fast or without proper support and your’e likely to experience what Harvard Leadership professors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky call “getting assassinated” (a.k.a. getting fired or marginalized to the extent where you are no longer effective) Surfacing conflict and challenging the status quo will cause people to experience pain. Savvy leaders understand this and raise and lower the heat accordingly, moving the needle while simultaneously keeping themselves in the game. Leadership is risky business and it’s all about staying alive!

So there you have it. Eight songs that will hopefully inspire you to think about your own leadership and how you can be more effective as a leader. I also realize this list is far from all-encompassing so if you have a favorite to add, I’d love to hear from you!

1. Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. He a holds a degree in Leadership Development from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Master of Science in Organization Development from American University. A combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he now consults to Fortune 500 companies internationally. Learn more at http://www.leadergrowthgroup.com)

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10 Leadership Lessons I Learned at West Point (Part 2)

West Point Dress Uniform

The United States Military Academy at West Point has produced some of the United States’ finest leaders. From President’s Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower to General’s Douglass MacArthur and George Patton, every graduate experiences a formal four year leader development process that is designed to yield principled centered leaders of character. As a leader development professional and graduate myself, I often reflect back on my West Point experience and the powerful leadership lessons that it taught me. In this two part series, I compiled some of the stickiest lessons that continue to guide me today. Part one explored how great leadership is about demonstrating personal accountability, acting with integrity, proving resilience, embracing adaptability, and embodying a mindset of selfless-service. Here are five more timeless lessons to reflect on:

1. No combat ready unit ever passed inspection – West Point cadets endure lots of inspections. From daily uniform checks to white glove room inspections called SAMI (Saturday Morning Inspection), by default every cadet becomes a master shoe shiner and sink scrubber. If at any time you failed to meet Academy standards, you could get written up and ultimately end up walking hours on the area as punishment. No matter how “squared away” you were, most cadets end up walking at least a few hours over their four years as you are constantly juggling many priorities and eventually balls are dropped. Thus, cadets get very good at prioritizing what is most important. With only so many hours in a day, sometimes studying for the big exam or writing that important paper meant you would likely be written up for an untidy room or uniform. The same goes for leaders today. It’s important to get the big stuff right — always. You might take a few bruises along the way, but in the long run, your ability to stay focused on what’s most important will pay off.

2. Trust but verify – In their second year at the Academy, every cadet is assigned a first year cadet (called a plebe) as a direct report. For many, this is their first opportunity to lead someone on a daily basis. You are responsible for your plebe’s performance and quickly learn to conduct periodic inspections to ensure discipline and proper accountability. While subordinates in today’s organizations don’t want leaders hovering over their shoulders and inspecting their every move, they do expect you to check-in with them often and acknowledge their hard work. Train your team, trust they will deliver, and then verify standards have been met. The act of verification is important because it validates your leadership priorities and helps to clarify expectations for the team.

3. The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask – As a first year cadet in particular, success is often clouded with mystery. There is so much to learn and so little time to learn it all. Then, just when you think you have figured it all out, you are challenged with new tasks that make you feel like a novice again. To survive this intense period of learning, you must accept your vulnerabilities and lean into others for support (we used the saying “Cooperate and Graduate” as a reminder). Leaders today must do them same. No one expects you to have all the answers in this fast changing and complex world we live in. Instead, leaders should practice an impassioned curiosity and have the courage to say “I don’t know” when appropriate. The irony being, in admitting our vulnerability we often find the answers and/or develop the very competence we are seeking.

4. Always understand your mission two levels up – A key philosophy of U.S. Army operations is that in the absence of specific direction, any soldier should be able to take initiative and complete the mission. To support this concept, every officer learns to embrace their Commander’s Intent, as well as their next level Commander’s Intent. It might seem like overkill but in the fog of war, intent is the glue that keeps a unit together. The corporate world is no different. For a leader to be successful, they need to make their supervisor and their organization successful. Clearly understanding your bosses’ definition of success, daily priorities, and leadership philosophy is a must.

5. Mission first, people always – This popular Army slogan represents much of what a cadet does on a daily basis until it philosophically permeates every bone of their body over time. From simply checking on your subordinates feet while on a long road march, to never leaving a soldier behind on the battlefield, cadets practice balancing mission execution with taking care of their people’s needs. Leaders in the corporate world should also embrace this philosophy. Talent is the single greatest differentiator in the marketplace today and every organization’s greatest asset is its people. Successful business leaders understand how to manage the stresses of short-term stakeholder expectations while continuously being mindful of employee needs and concerns.

Thus, in addition to the behaviors noted in part one, great leadership is also about rigorously maintaining priorities, holding others accountable to standards, being a life-long learner, exercising initiative through intent, and taking care of your people at all times. It’s worth repeating that you don’t have to go to West Point to learn these lessons. Anyone can adopt these behaviors and become a better leader. Practice these behaviors consistently and watch your personal, team’s, and organization’s success exponentially increase.

(If you would like to learn more about how my leader development programs can help you and your organization practice these critical behaviors more consistently, please contact me at dspungin@leadergrowthgroup.com)

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10 Leadership Lessons I Learned at West Point

West-Point-1The United States Military Academy at West Point is one of the world’s finest leadership laboratories. From the very first day (called R-Day for Reception day) that a new cadet enters into the West Point system, they are immersed in a four-year-long formal leader development process that has been honed through 212 years of experimentation. Twenty one years ago I began my West Point journey and the subsequent four years taught me countless leadership lessons for which I am forever grateful. In this two part series, I have compiled some of the stickiest of these lessons that continue to guide me as a leader today.

1. Don’t point the finger, point the thumb – At West Point, you are taught the first rule of leadership is everything is your fault! While this may sound just a bit harsh, it’s not far from the truth. As a leader you are responsible for all your team does or fails to do. When mistakes happen, one’s natural reaction is often to pass blame on to others or offer excuses. As a new cadet, you are allowed only four responses to questions, Yes Sir; No Sir; Sir, I do not understand; and No Excuse, Sir! This taught us to be accountable for our actions and question our own role in a team failure.

2. A leader is always on parade – Drill and ceremony is a central part of West Point’s curriculum and watching the Corps of Cadets conduct a parade on the hallowed plain of West Point is a sight to behold. 4000 young men and women in their most formal uniforms all marching in complete synchronicity. As a cadet, all eyes are on you to do your part and do it well. It is the embodiment of situational awareness and personal discipline. When in a leadership position— every day is parade day. You are constantly being watched and assessed by your followers. People are counting on you to do the right thing, when it should be done, and without being told to do it.

3. Embrace the suck – Cadet life can be tough and full of irony. The worse the weather, the more you are required to be out in it. No matter which way you have to march, it always seems uphill. You have two choices. Either move towards the struggle and allow it to sharpen you, or let it consume you and break you down mentally. Leaders must do the same with their teams. Worthwhile goals always require an element of struggle and there will be moments when things downright suck for your team. Be a beacon of hope in times of adversity and always be compassionate with follower challenges.

4. No plan survives first contact – One essential skill every officer must learn is the art of planning and communicating orders. Cadets memorize specific frameworks like the 8 Steps to Troop Leading Procedures and the 5 Paragraph Operations Order to assist them in this process. Using these processes, an officer can spend days mapping out the best course of action, gathering intelligence, and synchronizing resources. Yet, real world experience soon teaches us that the enemy always has a vote and plans often fall apart (and quickly). Likewise, strategy will always be an important part of today’s business processes. Yet, the best companies today are adaptable and flexible with their environments. Leaders know when to abandon the plan and nimbly adjust to new circumstances.

5. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care – West Point recruits some of the smartest kids in America. The average SAT score for the Class of 2018 was 1,270 and 82 of the 1,212 admitted were their high school’s Valedictorian[1]. Yet, cadets quickly learn that people follow heart before head. Leaders must be servants to their followers and demonstrate that they are committed to putting the team before self. Competence and intelligence are important, but character defines you.

In essence, great leadership is about demonstrating personal accountability, acting with integrity, proving resilience, embracing adaptability, and embodying a mindset of selfless-service. The good news is that you don’t have to go to West Point to learn these lessons. Anyone can adopt these behaviors and become a better leader. All it takes is choosing to lead differently and a commitment to practice consistently.

(Stay tuned for part two in this series where I’ll explore 5 more Leadership Lessons I learned at West Point.)

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[1] http://www.usma.edu/parents/siteassets/parentwelcomecl2018web.pd

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What If We Have This Whole Leadership Thing All Wrong?

Upsidedown Eagle

Imagine that you just read an article on how your competition is steadily stealing your market share. This is nothing new to you, they have been out innovating you for some time now and it’s now apparent that your current products or services are inferior. Slowly you’ve seen your talent leave for greener pastures as rumors of downsizing abound. There is a fear permeating the organization as people wonder what the future holds. What’s needed is a real leader! Someone who can come in and make things right again. We’ve seen this scenario play out time and again. The Board will likely remove the C-Suite and bring in a leadership savior. Yet, what if we have got this whole leadership thing all wrong? What if the very essence of how we define leadership is no longer serving us?

We can’t really fault why we seek a leadership savior in these scenarios. It’s engrained in our DNA! The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009) explains that since the dawn of time we have engaged in a social contract within groups. Essentially when a group member emerged to offer us much needed direction, protection and order, we in turn granted them authority over us. As long as this person kept their side of the bargain, we continue to reward them with increased power. At some point we started calling this authority figure our Leader, Chief, or King which anointed them with title and elevated social status as well. The key distinction to make here is that we started associating the exercising of authority with leadership. This is a huge mistake as leadership is totally different.

Given the above scenario, direction, protection and order is exactly what we crave. We want a new direction and our new leadership should have the ability to see what we cannot. We require protection from our competitors and the threat they present. We desire order as a power vacuum emerges from the loss of key talent. Yet, what if instead of providing the direction we need to go, leadership helped us to figure out where we collectively want to go together? What if instead of sheltering us from our competitor’s threats, leadership exposed the reality that we faced and challenged us to be more? What if instead of returning us to a calm and comfortable place, leadership taught us to embrace the chaos of change and to value living on the edge of constant learning? In short, what might happen if instead of exercising authority, our leadership actually led us?

Intuitively, we get this. While management is an important aspect of a productive society, deep down inside we all want to be led more so than managed. When we experience true leadership we feel empowered to grow to our full potential. Outside of experiencing love, there is perhaps no greater feeling than pushing yourself to be more than you thought you could be. Yet, with the pleasure of growth we often experience loss and pain. We have to let go of a part of ourselves and learn to be something new. Learning then becomes a series of failures until we ultimately get it right. This can be a very disappointing and humbling process. Thus, true leadership requires us to disappoint our followers at a rate that they can tolerate.

This is the very reason why we see more authority rather than leadership being exercised in our world. There is a real art to establishing enough trust with followers so that they allow you to disappoint them. Disappoint them too much and you will soon be looking for a new job. Yet, it’s important to note that if you disappoint them too little, as when exercising pure authority, and you will also be looking for a new job! Exercising authority will not promote the learning needed for organizational growth, and thus results will be the same over time. With consistently poor to average results, you will eventually be replaced as your organization seeks out new “leadership.” Thus, the next time you feel the pull to provide direction, protection and order to your team, take a step back and try to recognize what is really needed in this moment. Start practicing leadership rather than authority and watch your organization begin to flourish.

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Engineering Effective Change

As a manager in an engineering firm, you’re a smart and practical problem solver who inspires trust in your team. All is going smoothly until one day you realize the need to promote or reassign a few team members. Or maybe it’s something more substantial like implementing a new information technology system. No problem. You will handle this like any other problem you face: acquiring data, analyzing options, designing solutions, and, finally, implementing the change. It all seems logical and you are confident the process will yield success! Then it doesn’t. In fact, you encounter stiff resistance as people drag their feet to adopt your change initiative. What went wrong here?

You might find it comforting to know that you are not alone, as more than 70% of all organizational change efforts fail. While these failures occur for many reasons, consistent themes include attempting to solve adaptive challenges through technical problem solving and the common assumption that change can be managed to fruition. Engineering professionals often embrace these conventions when attempting to manifest change as they tend to value linear and systematic processes that enable a sense of control. Yet, changing human systems is habitually messy and unpredictable by nature. Is it realistic to think that a formulaic change process might work? An analytically minded person myself, I have struggled with this question for years. My conclusion is that while a prescribed change framework might not be feasible, there are several key principles that every change agent should take into account. Specifically, one must be mindful of: 1. Preparing the system for change, 2. Initiating the change using “soft energy”, and 3. Sustaining the change through “hard energy.”

Preparing a system for change is an often overlooked but critical change principle. Before engaging in change, one needs to understand where the system is starting from. What is the current state? Who are the key stakeholders? How might cultural norms and belief systems impact a proposed change? What is the perceived sense of urgency for change? These are just a few of the questions – leaders must ask themselves. Yet, perhaps the most important preparatory question is “who stands to lose the most from this change?” People don’t resist change, they resist loss. In particular, those who believe they may lose power and influence are the ones most likely to resist. Having thought through these questions and developed a compelling case for change, the savvy change agent will then secure buy-in from the highest sources of power in the system. Executive support helps in generating key alliances and centers of power to move the system in the desired direction.

Now that you have organizational muscle behind you, do the unexpected. Rather than imposing your change plan on the system, initiate the change by using “soft energy.” Soft energy is about acknowledging the difficulty of change and disrupting compassionately. This is also the energy of possibilities and emergence. Start by inviting all the key stakeholders into the change conversation and give them a voice. This process is often messy and unscripted. Facilitate the conversation and avoid directing it, while allowing for needs and concerns to be heard. Control must be abandoned in favor of faith. The more the group owns the change process, the more likely they are to take action. Soft energy also means understanding that change creates anxiety in the system and your role as the change agent should be to transform that angst. This is often accomplished by helping the system transition from fear to curiosity. Once a plan for change is agreed upon, constant and transparent communication of the vision is imperative for transformation to occur. When people “see” where they are going, they feel more in control and less anxious.

Finally, soft energy is not enough, we also must implement a “hard energy” if we desire sustained change. Hard energy is challenging, focused, calculated, and persistent. This is the energy of driving towards closure. This does not mean that we forcefully coerce the system to change; rather this is about avoiding distractions and measuring performance. Organizations are what they measure and the same principle applies to a change initiative. Thus, identify the metrics associated with change success early and monitor progress. Challenge the system to meet goals and objectives while utilizing social pressure to pull the organization forward. Finally, reward early adopters accordingly and share examples of group success whenever possible.

While there may not be a way to truly “engineer” effective change, there are key principles that can increase your chances for change success. By first preparing the system for change, one ensures an understanding of the politics, potential losses, and centers of power needed to generate momentum. By initiating the change through use of soft energy, one disarms opponents with empathy and involves the system in determining its own solution. By using hard energy, one helps the group stay focused and on track as it embodies the change over time. As an engineering professional, I invite you to master these tools of organizational change and lead your team to new heights of achievement.

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(Originally featured in the July 14 issue of Professional Engineers Magazine PE Magazine-Engineering Effective Change-David Spungin)

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Be Mindful of the Journey

ulyssesEvery now and then I stumble upon a gem of literature that truly inspires me. My most recent discovery is the poem Ithaka by C.V. Cafafy. Written in 1911, Cavafy was inspired to write Ithaka by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey. The poem’s theme is that enjoyment of the journey of life, and the increasing maturity of the soul as that journey continues, are all the traveler can ask for. Yet, I also see many parallels to a leader’s journey. Before I voice my insights, I invite you to take in the words unfiltered and through your own leadership lens.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Beautiful! This is the kind of piece that one should post on their refrigerator as a thoughtful reminder for the day ahead. Here are a few valuable leadership lessons that I am taking away from it:

  1. The first step in leadership is finding your courage – The poem starts with a destination in mind, however the path ahead is potentially a dangerous one. Most true acts of leadership are inherently dangerous by nature. That’s because leaders must often go against the grain, disrupt the status quo, and inspire change in themselves and others. Leaders can prepare for these challenging conditions by aligning their mind, body, and spirit. When a leader has a clear singular purpose, they can find their courage more readily and lead in spite of fear.
  2. Cherish your time as a leader – When performing the role of a leader, we are often engaged in a struggle. We summon a vision and then rally others to perform against that vision. Change is never easy and the responsibility to keep followers focused on the end state can can be personally taxing. Yet, in this journey we can find so much richness while in relationships with others. We discover new possibilities, uncover potential, and thrive together in applying new found wisdom. When your tenure in a leadership position is up, it will be the struggle that you most fondly remember, not just the accomplishments.
  3. Leadership is not a destination, it’s a journey – This poem is a powerful reminder that we never really become “a leader,” yet we are always striving to improve our leadership. Often when we master one experience in life we are rewarded with a new and more complex leadership challenge. It’s through the striving that we foster curiosity, maintain our humility, and find our true power.

With these insights in mind, I offer that you check in with yourself. What’s your leadership Ithika? Are you being mindful of the journey?

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