Growing Leaders

David Spungin's blog about leader development and organizational change

Growing Leaders

Help!!! My Team Needs More Accountability

Help!!! My Team Needs More Accountability

As a leadership development professional, I am always astonished by the number of questions I get on “how can I hold others more accountable for their performance?” This is consistently a hot topic for managers as they seek out the next best practice for driving better performance results. Unfortunately, managers typically don’t like what I have to offer them on this subject as my standard response is…

“I can help, but it will require you to first examine where you may have failed as a leader.”

To which their reply is something to the effect of…

“But that’s not what I’m looking for! I want to focus on where others are screwing up and how we can better hold their feet to the fire.”

Like it or not, the first rule of leadership is everything is your fault. While for many 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. This is because leaders not only set the purpose and direction for the team, they also manage the culture that dictates execution. Thus, when mistakes happen, regardless if you are the one personally making them, you absolutely had something to do with it! Accountability is then fully owning your responsibilities and consistently communicating this ownership to others. Leaders demonstrate their accountability by assessing performance challenges as opportunities for growth and learning rather than failures to be explained, excused or avoided. In short, when mistakes happen, the leader looks inward vs. blaming outward.

Herein lies the greatest challenge most managers face when seeking greater accountability within their team or organization—can you set your ego aside, be vulnerable with your team members, and work towards tangible solutions rather than playing the blame game? This can be a challenging leadership behavior for anyone to exhibit and is infinitely more difficult when experiencing the stresses of a failure (or potential failure). The key to developing this leadership behavior is threefold: 1) The leader should learn to identify his or her own reactivity and defense mechanisms, 2) The leader should understand how accountable leaders choose to behave, 3) The leader should practice the accountable leadership behavior until it becomes his or her new instinctual response.

Let’s take a closer look at these three components of development and how one can leverage them to increase personal accountability.

1. Recognizing Reactivity and Defense Mechanisms

Think of the last time you failed at something in which others were depending on you. Perhaps it was a job related performance goal you failed to deliver on. Or maybe it was a failure on the home front in which you missed a spouse’s expectation entirely. Whatever the situation, try to take yourself back to that challenging incident. Now search inside for that moment of apprehension when you realized there was no way to save the day; you were simply going to fail. You likely felt embarrassed, disappointed, worried, discouraged, and/or insecure. On a physical level your muscles probably tightened, your heartbeat and respiratory rate increased, and you may have even started to perspire. Mentally, it’s likely your mind started racing, alternating between beating yourself up for the mistake and searching for ways to avoid the inevitable consequences. Welcome to survival mode! What you were experiencing is the body’s fight-or-flight stress response and most people will do just about anything to avoid this discomfort, often through offering excuses or blaming others. This shows up in organizations in what many have come to label as “The Organizational Blame Game.”

Leaders must recognize that this instinctual response to avoid accountability lives in their DNA; one can’t avoid it! Rather than attempting to circumvent this natural hard-wiring, it is best to bring awareness to it. Leaders see their reactivity, own it, and then prevent it from hijacking their thinking any further. In that moment of pause, leaders then choose to react differently.

2. The Inspirational Leader’s Response

Exercising personal accountability for mistakes is going against one’s self-preservation instincts, which takes both courage and humility. This is very difficult for many to do, which is why accountability is uncommon. So when it does happen, we really take notice and it leaves a lasting impact on us. We may not be happy with a mistake that’s been made, yet we recognize accountable behavior as honorable and, thus, respect the leader’s exemplary character. This is counter-intuitive, so I offer that you pause for a moment to really let this sink in.

The practice of demonstrating personal accountability rather than playing the blame game is even more powerful when the leader assumes responsibility for what are clearly other team member’s personal failures. Your subordinates have the same reaction to failure that you do. They feel embarrassed, disappointed, worried, discouraged, and insecure. When you take some of that burden off their shoulders, you lighten their emotional load and free them to work with you towards solutions rather than focusing on problems. This can be very inspirational and produces deep loyalty to the leader.

3. Making Accountability Instinctual

Adopting any new behavior is a challenging undertaking, so start with a single day. Try to go an entire day without offering a single excuse for anything or blaming anyone for your challenges. To be successful, you have to really pay attention to your inner dialogue. Note when things are not going how you would like them to go and how your mind is rationalizing the outcomes. Pay attention to any feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, worry, discouragement, and insecurity. This is when you are most susceptible to offer excuses and/or blame others. When you notice your instincts beginning to kick-in, override them with a single question..

“How have I personally contributed to this situation?”

Pause and reflect. Realize your contribution and own it. When you can complete a full day without offering excuses or blaming others, up the ante to an entire week. If successful, try to go an entire month. If you can go a full month excuse and blame free, you will have implemented a new habit of seeking accountability first. This will serve you well when you next face real adversity.

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

I also invite you to follow my blog so I can share with you on a variety of topics. Thank You!

Three Keys to Building Leader Resiliency

Juggeling

Resiliency is a hot topic these days. Leaders are “juggling more balls in the air” than ever before and many can’t ever seem to catch up with the pace of life. The impact is that balls end up getting dropped, which leads to increased stress and, ultimately, to leader burn-out. Many think that they can avoid this modern reality by simply learning to manage their time more effectively. While I agree that most everyone can learn to manage their time better, to properly address these challenges requires a more holistic approach. We must also look at how leaders are managing their stress and energy levels.

Time, stress and energy are undoubtedly interconnected and, thus, leaders should learn to excel in all three of these domains in order to maximize their personal effectiveness and resiliency against burn-out. Think about your own experiences. Some days you might be dragging a bit and not able to get your entire to-do list accomplished. Despite your well-managed intentions, it just didn’t happen today. This in turn might lead you to start thinking about all the things you need to catch up with and as your mind starts racing, your stress levels rise. Later that evening, you lie awake at night trying to figure out what to do next, losing valuable sleep and waking the next day with even less energy than the day before. Sound familiar?

So what are some of the things we can do to reduce this self-perpetuating cycle? While there are many techniques that can help, I would like to highlight what I believe to be the single best thing you can do as a leader to increase your effectiveness in each of these domains.

1. Manage your time by practicing “worst first.”

Everyone has something they dread doing throughout the day. Maybe it’s that sales call or perhaps it’s knocking out that admin task that seems like such a waste of time. Whatever it is for you, you always save it for the end of the day. By then you’re exhausted, so you put it off until tomorrow. Get into the habit of doing it first thing in the morning before you take on any other task for the day. Not only will you manage your time better, but you’ll feel less stressed and more energized as you no longer have that monkey hanging on your back.

2. Manage your stress by finding a physical outlet.

Nothing busts through stress like physical activity. Why is that? Because stress lives within our bodies and it has to go somewhere. Yes, it is true that we are responsible for generating our own stress as it stems from our own thoughts (as opposed to the common perception that others are stressing us out). Yet, short of becoming a Zen master and learning to insert mindful behavior to reduce the body’s natural stress response, I have found nothing more effective for limiting stress levels than 30 minutes to an hour of vigorous exercise daily (CrossFit is my favorite approach). Leaders hold their boundaries firmly when it comes to making time to exercise. This means they schedule time on their calendar and protect it accordingly.

3. Manage your energy by maximizing your time off.

Think of your personal energy level as being like a car’s fuel tank; you can only go so long before you need to stop and refuel. Yet, not all fuel is created equal; there are various levels of octane to choose from. If you own a high-performing vehicle, choosing the low grade gas may have significant long term impact on your fuel injectors. Eventually, the car will run sluggishly. You also are a high-performing machine. When it’s time to refuel, put the right stuff in your system. Tempting as it may be, don’t just sit on the couch and catch up on your favorite TV shows. Instead, do the things that bring you the most energy. Maybe you love to travel, or spend time outdoors, or really invest in quality time with your family. Plan your downtime accordingly and you will increase your energy reserves.

Committing to mastering these three skills can greatly increase your personal effectiveness and resiliency as a leader. The key word is commitment. While we all might recognize the benefits of these skills/behaviors, only a handful of us will find the personal discipline to make it our reality. Yet, all new behaviors start with a personal choice. So as we close out the year, what new choices will you make in 2016?

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

How Leaders Remain Composed Under Pressure

How Leaders Remain Composed Under Pressure

Composure is a behavior that people respond to instantly. Put any group under pressure and you will be able to assess most people’s level of composure in a few short minutes. Sometimes people will mentally “check out” and wait for others to handle the challenging situation for them. Other times they will “freak out” and have an overly emotional reaction. Regardless of the response, any indication of losing one’s composure directly impacts one’s ability to influence others. Conversely, individuals displaying a high degree of composure under pressure are naturally attractive. We seem drawn to follow those that project a calm, cool, self-assuredness. Given this phenomena, and that leadership is about inspiring others through our action and example, it makes sense that a leader should work to hone their composure. I am not talking about developing arrogant, egotistical, or narcissistic behavior that suggests “nothing rattles me!” Instead, I am talking about establishing a powerful presence that, regardless of the pressure leaders find themselves under, they inspire optimism and high-performance from self and others.

Think about your own experiences. Have you ever worked for a leader who frequently lost his or her composure? Ever work for a “screamer” before? Did you trust him or her? Likely not. As a result, you probably second guessed his or her decision and looked for leadership from others. The opposite is likely true if you’ve worked for a leader who exhibited a composed presence. She probably made you feel safe. She didn’t get rattled by challenging situations. She remained “cool under pressure” and, hence, you respected her judgement. By providing level-headed direction, she created trust. Composed persons will face challenges head on because they are not inhibited by paralyzing emotion like fear. When we “feel” this strength within them, it becomes contagious, and we start to believe we can achieve success also. Composed leaders breed confidence in others.

Many believe composure is something that you are either born with or you are not; a personality trait. This is completely false. It is important to understand that composure is not an innate gift that enables an absence of fear in high-pressure situations, but rather the mindful management of that fear. We can have control over how we feel about any given experience. While it may not appear this way sometimes, with increased self-awareness and practice, we can learn to choose our personal beliefs, thus learning to develop greater composure.

Another common misconception is that the only way to develop composure is by experiencing challenging situations. Overcoming challenging “crucible” experiences undoubtedly grows our self-confidence and, hence, increases our likelihood of exhibiting greater composure in future situations. Life is constantly knocking us off balance and gives us ample opportunity to practice composure in everyday life as well. There’s the child at home that won’t get his shoes on to leave the house; the unavoidable traffic that makes us late to our meeting; or the co-worker who always knows exactly how to get under our skin. These are examples of common annoyances that can cause us to lose our patience, perspective, and ultimately our presence. Yet, if you consistently practice composure in these routine situations, you will be well prepared to exhibit the calm self-assuredness that inspires others when the next crucible moment presents itself.

So the natural question then is, how do we practice greater composure in our daily lives so that we can prepare ourselves for the challenging moments that we may face? Here are a few best practices to consider: 

1. Don’t take it so personally – Composed leaders know not to take things so personally when situations don’t go their way. As the saying goes…Sh*t happens! Circumstances don’t always play out logically because our environment is complex and unpredictable. If we take things personally, we will begin to behave defensively. Instead, learn to let go of what is beyond your control. Leaders understand that control is an illusion. Some leaders find that adopting a mantra to remind us of this fundamental truth to be helpful. Timeless sayings like “Que Sera, Sera” and “Everything happens for a reason” can be helpful in regaining perspective and releasing ourselves from blame. The result is often a more composed self that is ready to rationally tackle the problem at hand.

 2. Fake it until you make it – The pressure is on and you can feel the anxiety permeate the team as the reality of the challenge sets in. All eyes are on you for answers, yet you have no idea what to do next! No worries, countless successful leaders have been in your shoes before. What did they do? They pretended they had a clue. Often what is most needed in these situations is a sense of optimism and reassurance that everything will be ok. You must be the energy that is missing in your team. While you may not have a tangible next step figured out yet, you can provide a confidence that, in working together, the team will figure it out.

3. Stand taller, breathe deeply, speak more slowly, smile more – The body and the mind are closely connected. If you change little things about how you hold yourself in physical space, it can change the way you think and how you experience the world. For instance, mindfully standing taller with your chest higher and your shoulders back will cause your voice to deepen and your words to have greater gravity. Composed leaders also practice breathing deeply into their belly vs. allowing short, chest high, breaths which promote anxiousness. Composed leaders also mindfully speak a little slower, as they don’t have a need to rush to their conclusion or worry about losing their train of thought. Finally, composed leaders smile in the face of adversity, and, in doing so, project their confidence and optimism onto others. Research supports that smiling invites connection and increases a leader’s influence.

4. Crush negative self-talk in the moment – It’s not just you. We all have that voice in our head that talks to us sometimes. Most annoyingly, it shows up most often right at the moment when we are assessing whether or not we can do something challenging. We hear things like “that will never work,” or “what were they thinking putting me in charge of this task?” That voice in our head is constantly telling us we are not good enough. Why does this happen? Well, that’s your ego talking and it’s very protective of you. If we try and fail, our ego bears the brunt of that pain and it tends to not like that very much. So it works hard to keep itself in a comfortable and risk free environment.

Yet, leaders operate with a growth mindset and recognize that risk and learning through failure are all part of increasing one’s confidence and composure. Thus, leaders crush negative self-talk in the moment, before it negatively influences them. A powerful way to do this is by simply asking the question “where did I learn this thinking?” Often, we have learned these self-sabotaging beliefs from someone in our lives or from a negative experience. When we pause to question if that belief is really true, we realize that this is not the case or that we are allowing our past to unfairly dictate our future possibilities. You are not the person you were just yesterday, so imagine how much you’ve grown in five years. Let go of those old stories and acknowledge your current strengths and abilities.

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

How to Think Like a Decisive Leader

Which road to takeYour reputation as a leader is intimately linked with your decision-making ability. Yet, in our often fast-paced and volatile world, making good decisions has become more complex and harder than ever. Whereas in the past, good decision makers were expected to draw upon their vast experience to deliver a sound course of action, it is now often impossible to ask the same of a modern leader. The world moves too fast and leaders can’t possibly have all the answers. So how then could we make a “good decision” given this phenomena? Well, the most important part of modern decision-making is speed. Rapidly making sense out of the vast amounts of data that we are now privy to in modern society is a valuable skill that all leaders should work to hone. Still, the most important aspect of this sense-making ability is translating it into relevant action, and this only happens through making swift and calculated decisions.

Why does being a decisive leader inspire others and deliver better results? Because individuals and organizations learn from making decisions, even bad ones. By being decisive, leaders allow themselves to get clear, immediate feedback from their actions. As a result, they are able to learn, and then change course if necessary to achieve the results they are seeking. Contrast this with the indecisive competitors, who while congratulating themselves for not making any bad decisions, are likely still mired in analysis and have not taken any action that enabled valuable feedback. The saying goes that “speed kills,” yet, its intention is to remind one to slow down. I say “speed kills,” so speed up your decision-making and start “killing” your competition!

Google is a company that embraces this philosophy masterfully with its cultural philosophy of “design and iterate.” As one of the world’s greatest learning organizations, they are not afraid to make decisions that will expose areas for improvement. They consistently are first to market with fresh, yet, imperfect products, because they know that consumer feedback enables the best re-design possible in the shortest amount of time. So why don’t more companies and/or leaders embrace decisiveness in their operational decision-making?

Through my consulting work, I’ve noticed a few consistent patterns with leaders that hold them back from embracing a decisive mindset. These are strong, innate tendencies that all humans seem to share at some level, and they are all grounded in fear. I’ve come to call these the “Four Desires that Degrade Decisiveness.”

1. A desire to be correct – Who likes to be wrong? No one I know. When we make bad decisions, it negatively impacts our ego and self-esteem as we feel incompetent or inadequate. This is a really lousy feeling and a strong motivator to avoid making decisions until we are certain they are correct. Yet, we all know that completely avoiding mistakes is simply unavoidable. The best leaders embrace their vulnerability, and choose purposeful action over protecting their ego.

2. A desire to please everyone – When we make decisions that impact others, we want everyone to get on board with them. Yet, the best leaders know this may never happen as disappointing others is simply part of leadership. Leaders avoid wasting time on lobbying for 100% agreement and instead work to maintain trust with opponents. At some point a leader must say, “I have to make a decision here and we are going with this. I appreciate your input and now I need your support. If we need to adjust as we go, I assure you I will make that call accordingly.”

3. A desire to procrastinate – Why do we all procrastinate? It feels good! That’s right! Making a decision is hard and there are often losses in doing so. Having our options open feels good. Thinking our boss will have that answer we need tomorrow takes us off the hook, and that feels good. Yet, delaying decisions is just delaying outcomes and learning. Leaders seek not to be comfortable, but to drive results.

4. A desire to hide – Sometimes decisions have real consequences. Perhaps jobs are on the line, or maybe significant financial risks are at stake. The pressures of making these decisions can cause one to want to hide from responsibility. However, do not let a fear of responsibility impact your ability to be decisive – the most successful decisions happen because individuals had the courage to make them to begin with. One of the most powerful ways to show leadership is to demonstrate courageous decisiveness when others are unwilling to step up to the challenge.

Improving your own decisiveness begins with an honest assessment on which desires show up for you as a leader. Take a moment to self-asses your decision-making tendencies and reflect on what tangible actions will best serve your personal growth needs.

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

8 Beliefs That Increase Your Leadership Potential (Part 2)

8 Beliefs That Increase Your Leadership Potential (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, we explored how our values, beliefs, and personal stories drive our behavior through the road trip story. After running out of gas, each team member played a pivotal role in getting them back on the road. The story demonstrated how certain beliefs open up possibilities, ensure priorities are maintained, and invite greatness.

The next four beliefs presented should further enhance your leadership potential. As you read through them, I offer that you check in with yourself and ask if they are congruent with your own system of beliefs. If you assess these beliefs as your own, to what extent are you living them in your day-to-day actions?

1. With issues of integrity, there is a clear right and wrong path – A leader’s reputation is intimately linked with his or her decision-making ability. Yet, in our often fast-paced and volatile world, making good decisions has become more complex. As a result, today’s leaders are becoming more comfortable with making decisions in “gray areas,” where there is no clear right answer. However, when it comes to issues of integrity, there are no “gray areas,” there is simply right and wrong. The basics of integrity may seem overly fundamental…of course leaders shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal! Yet, if you inventory the greatest leadership failures in recent memory, they almost always are a failure of character. In the U.S. alone, we can look at Bernie Madoff, Bill Clinton, Mark Hurd, or Joe Paterno as prime examples. All were clearly competent in their leadership positions and very successful before they started to make small choices that ultimately led them down a dangerous path of self-delusion. As William James once said, “It’s the small choices that bear us irresistibly towards our destiny.” Leaders know their values, exercise self-control, and choose the harder right—every time, all the time.

2. A leader’s primary role is to manage culture – When you think of a great leader, what comes to mind? For many, this question conjures up images of the visionary who sees what we cannot, and then sets the strategy to get there. For others, they respect the tactical genius who gets things done where others cannot, the one who enables flawless execution and delivers results. Yet, the best leaders believe their most important role is not to set the strategy or even sustain execution, but to manage the organization’s culture. Why? Strategy can shift with the wind. Execution, while undoubtedly important, is likely already the primary focus of the entire management team. Yet, who is looking after the culture? Whose job is it to communicate the values? Who will teach us the rituals, share stories and legends, hold ceremonies, and shape our daily operating assumptions? All of which will determine how well we execute on our strategy! Who will answer this call? Leaders will.

3. Sometimes great leadership is being a good follower – Those who are in positions of organizational authority are also the ones we expect to most often exercise leadership. Thus, one of the most difficult things for a manager to do is to simply get out of the way. Just because one may have power, title, or positional authority does not mean they are the most qualified to lead every time. Perhaps there are team members with expert knowledge or experiences which make them better suited to determine a path or outcome. Or maybe, there are team members that need to grow, and the manager’s leadership is stifling that growth. For example, when I’m training a large group of equally amazing leaders in a workshop and they embark on a team challenge together, not everyone can be a leader. In these scenarios, great leadership is often recognizing when one is hindering the process rather than adding value to it. I find it inspiring to watch an often dominant and influential leader recognize this truth, and then step aside to make space for others. For an experienced manager, it may not be easy to let others take the lead. Yet, ironically, it can also be masterful leadership.

4. 80% of success is simply showing up – You’ve probably heard it before as this is a staple comment of most sales training programs. Yet, when it comes to leadership, your presence cannot be underestimated. Like the back of a raffle ticket, you must be present to win! Your physical presence as a leader is a service to those you lead as it enables accessibility and facilitates critical communication. More importantly, how you spend your time is the single greatest indicator of what is important to you. If you are constantly buried in the office because those emails must be answered, you are telling followers that is what you most care about. You are communicating, my needs come first. Yet, every time you make a consistent effort to check in with your people, ask what their challenges are, what resources they need, and how you may be of service, you are demonstrating a commitment to putting your follower’s needs first. People understand that managers get really busy, and that’s exactly why making a deliberate effort to create a more human connection with your presence will inspire greater loyalty and motivation.

Hopefully, these 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 is always a worthwhile endeavor to strive for greater 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 at the top of the page so I can share with you on a variety of topics. Thank You!

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.

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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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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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