Becoming a Feedback Warrior

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In my last post, I reasoned that people are not getting enough performance feedback in the workplace today. Although research consistently demonstrates that feedback is a fundamental human need and we desire more of it (even the constructive kind), managers are simply not giving enough of it. This is resulting in a loss of human potential, disengagement, and mediocre results. So what’s the solution?

Managers Must Learn to Embrace Their Warrior Spirit.

Sure, I could start this article with five steps for managers to deliver better feedback. You might read through them and nod your head in approval. You may even say to yourself, “I am going to try to do point number three more often.” Yet, the reality is that you probably wouldn’t make any real changes. Our default operating systems are hardened through years of personal experiences and unconscious adherence to beliefs/values. We can talk all we want about learning new skills; however, if we don’t change our mindset first, we won’t make any lasting shifts in our behavior.

So then…what does it mean to embrace your Warrior Spirit? Let’s first identify what the warrior represents. Warriors have been a necessary part of all cultures and societies throughout the ages. The purpose of a warrior is to face conflict. A warrior is never eager to fight; however, they realize it is sometimes necessary. The warrior is often revered because they take personal risks on our behalf. They may even sacrifice themselves for a greater purpose. The best warriors embody values like duty, loyalty, courage, respect, and integrity.

The Feedback Warrior 2019

While it’s an ancient archetype, it still lives within us all today. Some of us express our inner warrior more often than others, yet we all can learn to bring forward the warrior spirit when needed. This is especially relevant for the modern-day manager. If we learn to become a Feedback Warrior in the workplace, we can unlock potentials in others and inspire superior results.

Let’s take a look at the warrior’s values and how they serve us when delivering feedback:

1.    Duty – Warriors willfully face obstacles because it is their duty. They welcome responsibility and exhibit the discipline necessary to do their job. Likewise, a manager must own their role fully. It is their duty to provide feedback! Ask yourself this…“If not you, then who?” Where is the feedback going to come from? Do you get feedback from peers? Maybe. How about from your direct reports? Not likely. Most of our feedback comes from our supervisors. If you accept the title, own the responsibility as well and think of it as your unconditional duty to give specific, actionable, and timely feedback.

2.    Loyalty – Warriors declare their allegiance to a purpose bigger than themselves. When I served in the U.S. Military, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. As did all my fellow servicemen and women. That oath bound us together, and our loyalty to both common purpose and one another was unwavering.

Managers, today, need to think similarly when working with their teams. A loyal manager thinks of his or her direct reports like a brother or sister. They should feel an allegiance to support them, even giving difficult feedback if necessary, because they genuinely care about them and their success.

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3.    Courage – Conflict is scary because we are uncertain of the potential outcome. Nevertheless, warriors do not shy away from it. They realize that avoidance of conflict often exacerbates the problem and postpones the inevitable. Warriors, instead, train themselves to handle conflict quickly and efficiently.

This does not mean that the warrior does not feel fear. A warrior understands that courage is taking action despite fear. The same applies to managers, today, when delivering feedback. We don’t know how it will be received and the other person may have a strong emotional reaction. However, we have to work with this person, and we don’t want it to jeopardize our relationship. What if we don’t have our facts straight? We may even be perceived as being sexist or racist!

There are many reasons we feel anxiety about giving feedback. A Feedback Warrior will find the courage within themselves to maintain focus on the task and deliver the feedback despite their emotional energy telling them to do otherwise.

4.    Respect – If you visit a traditional Japanese Karate Dojo, you will immediately notice the emphasis placed on respect. Not just respect for the authority (Sensei), but for the art’s lineage, the customs, and for one another as Karateka practitioners. This is to instill a respect for the powerful gift you are receiving in training. With power comes responsibility. Students learn that karate is for self-defense purposes and to use proportional force against a threat. In short, you learn to respect your opponent.

The same goes for managers today. A Feedback Warrior will seek to create feedback conversations that feel dignified and respectful. They deliver constructive feedback in a private setting, never in front of peers where they might cause undue embarrassment. They, also, will invest in countless instances of providing positive feedback beforehand, to create a strong relationship of mutual respect.

Think of your own experiences…we tend to be more open to constructive feedback when it comes from individuals we admire and respect. Feedback Warriors earn their authority to provide others with constructive criticism.

Integrity GNS Quote

5.    Integrity – A warrior always strives to act honorably and understands that having personal integrity is one of the highest measures of one’s honor. Webster defines integrity as 1) firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values, and 2) the quality or state of being complete or undivided. A Feedback Warrior embodies both aspects of the definition when having feedback conversations.

First, integrity is speaking honestly and fairly. Communicate with absolute candor, while also acknowledging that this feedback is your own perception/understanding/ reaction. A Feedback Warrior recognizes that feedback is as much about the giver as it is the receiver. We all have our own lens and biases, which impact our effectiveness at evaluating others’ competency. However, in speaking to your personal truth, you can help to limit defensiveness. For example:

Instead of: “You are not answering my emails in a timely manner. I need you to be more responsive.”

Try: “I’ve noticed that it took several days to get back to me on this important email. When I don’t hear from you in a timely manner, it makes me feel as if we are not on the same page and we may inadvertently mix up our messaging to the client. I realize that we all can get overwhelmed with email sometimes, yet, can we agree to be more responsive in the future?”

Second, integrity is being undivided in your communication. A Feedback Warrior does not “beat around the bush” or “sugarcoat” things. Often, managers will offer a “feedback sandwich,” to help alleviate their own anxiety. This is giving a compliment, then some constructive feedback, and then ending it with another compliment. This can confuse people as to what’s really important in this conversation and what they need to focus on.

My hope in sharing this article is that more managers will embrace their inner warrior and provide more feedback to their team. Yet, higher levels of performance don’t come from simply providing feedback. In my next article, I will share how managers should develop a Servant’s Heart in order to coach next level learning. I invite you to hit the “follow” button so you can receive future blog posts.

PS. Are you personally getting enough feedback to learn and grow as a professional? If you are a busy executive…probably not! Check out my powerful 360 Feedback Review process by clicking here.

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David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran and consultant to thousands of Fortune 500 managers, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces. Get a copy of his book, “Growing Leaders: 20 Articles to Challenge, Inspire, and Amplify Your Leadership” by clicking here.

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all this content is prohibited without the authorized consent of the author.

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Activate Yourself to Crush Mediocrity

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Things need to change! You’ve known this for some time now. Others on your team understand this as well, yet, for various reasons, no one is acting. You are officially mired in mediocrity.

Perhaps people feel that implementing a change will be too difficult, or too risky. Or, maybe, they feel they don’t have the skill to lead a successful change effort.

So, now the hard question…what are you going to do about it?

In previous articles on the VUCA Proof© Leader, we determined that leaders exist to extinguish the status quo, envision a superior outcome, and align actions towards producing new results. To be effective in our VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) world, leaders must overcome their learned tendency to display heroic leadership, and instead focus on being more passionatebold, and mindful. Then, once you’ve made the effort to get Aligned, it’s time to get to work by becoming Activated.

Activated Main Model

An Activated leader leverages their passion to boldly challenge a team (or organization) to change for the better. It’s their rare combination of energy and courage that ignites others and becomes a powerful force for transformation. Specifically, there are three activities that an activated leader takes to create the conditions for change to occur.

Activated LeadershipActivated leadership starts with planning for change within the context of your environment. Assess the key stakeholders. Who are your allies? Who is likely to be in opposition? What are the hidden assumptions, values, and mental models that are contributing to being for or against your change initiative? I use Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis as my preferred tool to help frame these difficult-to-identify dynamisms.

puzzleNow, make no mistake, if it’s a big-enough change, this will be a struggle! Every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it gets. In any change, there will be winners and losers. Thus, you need to anticipate and prepare for resistance. In the military, we called this “prepping the battlefield.” We never wanted to engage in conflict on other’s terms. Instead, we did things like emplacing shaping obstacles, causing opposition forces to change direction to where we held the advantage. Translation…understand who has the most to lose with your proposed change, and try to predict their next steps. What can you do to mitigate opposition? Perhaps you need to have (meetings before the meeting) to ensure public support from your allies. Or, maybe you need prepare concessions that will make losses resulting from change more tolerable to others. “Wargame” how things could play out, and prepare accordingly.

Now, it’s time to act! An Activated leader will next engage in the activity of pot-stirring. Like a stew that’s become cold and stale, you need to get things moving and heat it up if it’s to become appetizing again. Thus, this is when you “say what needs to be said.” Speak from your heart and authentically articulate what change is needed. It may be uncomfortable, as people try to escape from, avoid, or delay the hard conversation. Hold strong to your beliefs and continue to mix it up. Ask questions of the group like, “What risks do you see in continuing along the same path?” Or, make a provocative interpretation like, “It amazes me that we all just bury our heads in the sand when we see these same mediocre results…is that because we don’t care anymore?” People may sigh at your “ridiculous” statement. Good. The idea is to get people talking when they prefer not to. Keep on stirring until, as Dr. Robert Marshek might explain, all topics, behaviors, attitudes, and feelings that are considered unacceptable or questionable for discussion “move from under the table, to on the table” for discussion[1].

9 Activities ActivatedWhile you may need to be a lightning rod for a moment to help generate healthy debate, I offer you never do it alone, and there will come a point where you should transition to the final Activated leadership activity, which is bridge-building. This is when you focus the group by creating unity of vision and direction. Rather than concentrating on the differences, pay attention to their commonalities and shared values. A year from now, what is a better outcome that we’d all value? What should we be doing to make this vision a reality? Who needs to be included to bring diverse perspectives on how we should get there? What are the small baby steps we can agree on that will enable clear progress? These are example questions that an activated leader might use to facilitate powerful discussion. The path forward does not need to come from you directly, in fact, it’s better if it emerges from the group. While the heroic leader “tells then sells” their vision, the VUCA Proof© leader consults, delegates, and builds consensus. This ensures the greatest amount of team buy-in, which is imperative to leading change in a VUCA environment.

Preparing, Pot-Stirring, and Bridge-Building are the activities that ensure we are practicing Activated Leadership. In my final VUCA Proof© Leadership article, I will address how we can stay Attuned to ensure change efforts progress as planned, which is essential to moving away from a heroic leadership style, and towards a more effective VUCA Proof© style.

Interested in training your team to adopt a more VUCA Proof© leadership style? You can download my white paper here and the VUCA Proof© 1-day Executive Workshop Brochure here.

[1] Marshak, R. J. (2006). Covert processes at work: managing the five hidden dimensions of organizational change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

 

Connect, Adapt, Collaborate: Applying Army Mission Execution Fundamentals to Business

Army Ops

The U.S. Army has a timeless and sticky saying it uses in order to drive home the fundamentals of mission execution. From the very first days of boot camp, a young Private will hear the Drill Sergeants yelling “you must learn how to shoot, move, and communicate if you want to survive on the battlefield!” They then go on to spend weeks mastering their personal weapon, learning how to low crawl and find cover, and practicing how to speak properly on the radio. Over time, one learns how important these skills really are. Yes, there are many more advanced competencies to learn over the course of your career, but if you can’t do these three basics consistently well… it might all be for nothing.

These ideas are not limited to the military and there is much that corporate leaders can take away from this simple saying as well. Successfully executing any strategy, whether it be on the battlefield or the boardroom, is often a function of doing the fundamentals consistently well. So how might the Army’s fundamentals of shoot, move, and communicate apply to the modern business environment? There are many similarities but I would translate the language to connect, adapt, and collaborate.

TargetConnect – Just like the Private learning how to “put steel on target” at the weapons qualification range, business execution requires one to master their resources and connect them with distant objectives. Specifically, there are three connections to be made that foster better execution. First, master an awareness of your personal strengths and connect these innate talents with the team’s objectives. Ask yourself: what are my exceptional gifts to the world and how can I provide the most value in day-to-day execution? Next, smartly connect to the infinite resources outside of you. Who can do this challenging activity much better than you can? Savvy leaders realize their boundaries and connect with others that compliment limitations. Finally, fully connect with your customer’s needs and expectations. Little is more frustrating than executing well on something that is no longer in the greatest service to your key stakeholders. Like the bullet seeking its target, the energy of connecting with your customer is one of laser-like focus. Don’t wait for feedback; be proactive and purposeful in continuously reaching out to clarify how things are going.

mud soldiersAdapt – Successful execution is becoming less of a formulaic process, and maintaining flexibility and agility is increasingly important. In essence, we must practice our ability to move with our shifting environment and change plans as necessary. In the Army, we might rehearse a complex mission for weeks on end. Yet, we lived by the rules of “the enemy always has a vote” and “no plan ever survives first contact (with that enemy).” A more relevant example might be at Google, where the culture promotes the concept of “design and iterate.” Googlers see strategy and execution as being one – a continuously refined process of trial and error that speeds up results. We might intuitively understand these concepts; however, many find them difficult to implement. We frequently become wed to our brilliant plans or overly comfortable with stale execution processes. The key to overcoming these barriers is to cultivate a “beginner’s mind” and learn to approach potential change from a place of curiosity. When we already “know” how to execute best, we resist things that do not reinforce these beliefs. Yet, when we lose our rigidity and get curious about possibilities, change becomes a way to simply get better.

military-560475_1280Collaborate – Great execution today requires increased communication and collaboration. It seems simple enough, yet why can it be so hard to collaborate during execution? The answer lies in the two very different energies required to do these equally imperative skills. When we are personally executing, our heads are down, our eyes narrow, and we concentrate our energy so that we might overcome obstacles and complete our tasks. When we are collaborating, we pick our heads up, we open our eyes wide, and seek to see the bigger picture around us. Executing and collaborating well is an ebb and flow of contraction and expansion. We collaborate to build intent, execute initial steps, communicate needs, execute some more, check-in on collective progress, drive towards results… it’s a rhythm we all know well. Yet, we all seem to do much better at the personal execution part than we do at the collaboration part. Key to becoming a better collaborator is becoming aware of when you contract. When do you tend to put your head down and get overly focused on your piece of the execution pie? For me, I contract when I have made a personal commitment and am up against a tight deadline. In these moments, I can be a lousy communicator as I focus myself on fulfilling my promises and shut down to others in the process. Stress in general can make us all contract, so recognizing when we are stressed is a tell-tale sign that we need to communicate our needs and collaborate more with others.

Execution is what translates ethereal strategy into tangible results. Yet, disciplined execution is a rarity in today’s turbulent business environment. Learn to embody the three fundamentals of connection, adaptation, and collaboration…and all will marvel at your ability to get the mission accomplished!

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all this content is prohibited without the authorized consent of the author.

“Soft Power” – Leading Without Authority

Bear FaceHave you ever tried leading a person or a group without any formal authority to fall back on? For many, this is one of the greatest leadership challenges we might face. Without the traditional “carrot or stick” to help get things done, we can feel powerless and limited in our ability to influence. Yet, some people seem to thrive in these situations and we admire their ability to still get things accomplished. I call this demonstration of applied emotional intelligence—leveraging “soft power.” So what are the secrets of “soft power” and how can we use it to accomplish both individual and team objectives? Here are three ideas to consider.

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  1. Give Power to Others. When working in groups where the formal power dynamics are flat, it is important to recognize that everyone is subconsciously “racking and stacking” one another and creating their own personal hierarchy. This evolutionary process is deeply ingrained within all humans and allowed us to organize ourselves for survival. Expect that there will be power plays as group members test to see where they fit in the group. Instead of allowing these dynamics to naturally unfold, tactfully intervene and try to facilitate a space where everyone’s voice gets heard. Rather than leading with your opinion, ask for input from others and encourage quieter voices to speak up. Insist on mutual respect for all team members. In creating a space for power to be shared, others will trust in you more and naturally give you an informal leadership role.

Create Space to Listen Deeply

2. Actively Listen. When we hold formal authority, we are frequently directing and telling others what needs to be done in order for the team to be successful. Thus, managers tend to get really good with their directing skills, often to the neglect of practicing their listening skills. In a power flat relationship, it is the better listener who will assume leadership. Use techniques like mirroring back what you heard and asking meaningful questions to gain further clarification. When others feel you are a great listener, they are more likely to trust you and hence give you referent power, which is the highest base of power a leader can access.

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3. Serve & Synergize. In power flat relationships, the synergistic details that lead to better teamwork can often be neglected as everyone stays in their personal lanes of responsibility. To be seen as a leader in a team, hunt down the resources that everyone knowingly needs, but no one finds the courage or the time to make a priority. Or perhaps you might seek out the management/stakeholder feedback needed to make the team work better, and then act as a liaison in making the team more aware. Make it your priority to help others succeed. These small acts of service will increase your value to the team and others will intuitively begin to seek out your leadership.

Leading a team without formal authority can often feel like a daunting challenge. Yet, when we smartly recognize the group dynamics at play and practice the use of “soft power,” we provide the leadership necessary to achieve results. The next time you are leading without formal authority, try using some of the above ideas to influence others… you might be surprised at how persuasive you can become!

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

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3 Leadership Lessons from Dr. Seuss

Many of you may not know this about me, but I have four young kids ranging from one to ten years old. As a family, we enjoy reading a lot of children’s books together and over the years, we’ve determined a few favorites. At the top of our list are several books written by Dr. Seuss. His rhymes are fun to read, and the brightly colored illustrations capture their imagination. I’ve also noticed that some of his stories carry a wonderful leadership message within them. A message that many adults could stand to revisit. Here are three of my favorites:

1.      Yertle the Turtle – These are King Yertle’s famous last words. Just a few pages later, we find him falling from his great height, face first in the mud, never to rule again. How did the once proud and mighty king end up like this? Well, he wasn’t grateful for the wonderful kingdom he already had and became overly ambitious. Leveraging his positional power for his personal benefit, he literally walks on the backs of his subordinates to make himself more magnificent. Meanwhile, he treats his people with great disrespect. If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a day, you have probably met your own personal Yertle somewhere in your career. Leadership lesson…don’t be King Yertle! Instead, embrace humility as a leader and use your power to serve, rather than exploit, others.

2.      The Sneetches – Oh those silly Sneetches! Always trying to outdo one another and put down those that are not like them. There are several solid lessons here. In the formation of all groups, a natural phenomenon unfolds where “racking and stacking” takes place. We are unconsciously determining the social pecking order, and this often results with an “in-group” and an “out-group.” When this occurs, unspoken jealousy and resentment can plague a team’s dynamics and effectiveness. Leadership lesson…no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches! All team members have unique value. Leaders must be aware of where unhealthy dynamics are festering in their team and learn to unleash the often repressed value that the “out-group” brings through their diversity.

3.      The Zax – This one is my favorite! It’s a short tale of two prideful and stubborn Zax who find themselves at a crossroads, unable to compromise on a solution (great metaphor for the current state of American politics, anyone?). Instead of exercising empathy and compassion, the two Zax angrily argue their individual viewpoints. The result—zero progress and personal irrelevance as the world passes them by. Leadership lesson…learn to notice your inner Zax and manage it accordingly. Leaders should be principled and passionate, however, not to where they are getting in their own way.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my new children’s book, “The Legend of Stinky Toes McGee.” Inspired by Dr. Seuss, it’s intended to teach kids that some problems cannot be solved with our heads, but rather, they can only be solved with our hearts.

You can pick up a paperback or digital copy exclusively on Amazon by following this link:“The Legend of Stinky Toes McGee”

David Spungin is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces. Follow him on LinkedIn , Twitter, and Facebook to see more of his articles.

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all of this content is prohibited without the authorized consent of the author.

Are You a “VUCA Proof” Leader?

Attention all leaders out there. It’s a new year and I imagine you have some audacious goals already lined up for you and your team. You probably have a strategic plan by now, and you intuitively know that exercising leadership will be imperative to getting things accomplished. In this light, I have an important question to ask you….

After 20+ years of studying leadership, personally leading teams, and helping Fortune 500 leaders to effectively do the same, I’ve come to a few of my own conclusions that I’d like to share with you.

First, I should highlight that the words management and leadership often are conflated together. The purpose of management is clear, to increase efficiency through enhancing control over one’s environment. The purpose of leadership, however, is more up for debate. I believe leadership exists to disrupt one’s environment for the better. In this regard, the purpose of leadership then is to extinguish the status quo, envision a superior outcome, and align actions towards producing new results.

Yet, given this purpose, there has never been a more difficult time to be a leader. Today’s executives must learn to compassionately disrupt in an already highly Volatile, Complex, Uncertain, and Ambiguous (VUCA) business environment. We’re talking about leading change in a world where predictability and control are limited. Pushing individuals outside their comfort zones and taking them to their edge when they are already overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. Leaders today must learn to challenge followers to the highest levels of performance without breaking them (or being broken by them). For many years now, we’ve relied on a heroic leadership model to do this work, yet times are clearly changing.

So how should one adapt to effectively lead today? While no one approach works for every leader in every environment, there’s been a shift in the last several decades from heroic, authoritative, command and control approaches to more collaborative and adaptive methods. This hasn’t been some egalitarian impulse by leaders to more fully empower their people as some might argue, but rather a product of necessity. To be effective today, leaders realize that they need to be more strategic, flexible, and balanced. In essence, they’re learning to VUCA Proof© their leadership style.

What then does it take to VUCA Proof© one’s leadership style? It starts with critically looking at yourself and then building greater individual capacity in three critical behaviors: being more passionate, bold, and mindful.

1.      Be Passionate – Inspiring change requires a transfer of energy, and if one is to transfer inspirational energy to others, they must be inspired themselves. The more passionate the leader, the more inspirational they become to others who share similar ideals.

2.      Be Bold – As Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Leadership requires us to boldly challenge followers by walking with them to edge of possibility, and acknowledging our own vulnerabilities along the way.

3.      Be Mindful – Most people practicing leadership are in positions of authority, and with authority one can easily become self-absorbed. Effective leaders today must practice empathy and compassion to a greater extent than in the past, constantly seeking out ways to serve others before self.

Once you’ve built a strong foundation in these behaviors, then you can apply them at the team and organizational level. Importantly, these behaviors intersect with one another, to form three critical competencies for effective leadership in a VUCA environment: Alignment, Activation, and Attunement.

1.      Passion + Mindfulness = Alignment – An Aligned leader understands themselves and how they may best serve their environment. By being aware of what they stand for, what their value is, and where they fit in the world, they are more prepared to communicate their vision and make decisions in a turbulent VUCA world.

2.      Passion + Boldness = Activation – In a constantly changing VUCA world, being too comfortable can lead to a rapid demise (here’s 30 examples of companies struggling with VUCA who may disappear in 2017). An Activated leader abhors mediocrity, avoids safety, and inspires others with challenges. They know what it will take to achieve their leadership purpose, and they help others to boldly push beyond the boundaries of what is possible.

3.      Mindfulness + Boldness = Attunement – Perhaps the biggest shift leaders must make from a heroic leadership style is towards greater attunement. An Attuned leader recognizes the emotional impact of new initiatives on followers and others. They “feel” where there are pain points and opportunities to strengthen relationships. Most importantly, they care enough to make bold acts of compassion that keep people motivated during adversity.

So the question now becomes…how VUCA Proof© are you? Truth be told, when I first started leading, it was mostly a command and control world and I was a heroic style leader. My own transformation to a more VUCA Proof© style was born out of necessity, in order to meet the needs of the changing world around me. If you or your team is interested in walking a similar path, contact me directly at dspungin@leadergrowthgroup.com to learn more about VUCA Proof© team training and personal coaching programs.

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

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Can a Llama Teach You Leadership?

Having finished cinching down the buckles of our llama’s saddle, my tent mates and I took turns loading our gear on the animal for the first time. It was a hot day and we were sweating greatly, yet as my eyes shifted to the trail ahead, it was clear the snow-capped peaks in the distance would offer something quite different. I am part of a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) expedition where a group of thirteen senior executives are practicing the art of leadership by exploring the Wyoming backcountry together. We will navigate many miles of increasing elevation daily. We will learn new outdoor skills and how to care for the environment. Yet, most importantly, we will learn to behave in ways that inspire deep trust with one another.

A core part of the learning comes from the llamas themselves. Magnificently agile animals, they can leap over three feet high logs, with 70 pounds on their backs, and calmly stick the landing on the side of a wet cliff. It’s an amazing sight to behold. Much like humans, they also have different personalities, varying moods and preferences. Some are more dominant than others and “act up” if placed in the back of the pack. Others are almost cliquey in nature, and will only move efficiently when placed next to their best bud.

Similar to leading with a team of direct reports toward a goal, our group had to learn how the llamas wanted to be managed! We had to uncover the pack’s dynamics, assess their personal needs, and then adjust our management style to meet those needs. For instance, we quickly learned that a command and control style would often backfire immediately (as it does in most modern organizations). In fact, push too hard, and you just might get spit on in retaliation! However (unless you speak llama) it’s rather hard to communicate a vision and then empower a llama to drive results. The llamas needed a balanced approach to leadership; not only one that took into account the environmental pressures being placed on us to accomplish the day’s mission, but also brought them into the decision-making process. Over the course of seven days together, here’s what a bunch of llamas taught us:

1. Know when to give ‘em more lead, and when to reel ‘em in

We all took turns as a llama handler as we trekked across the remote and sometimes dangerous terrain. When guiding your animal, you hold onto what’s called a lead, which attaches to their bridle and gives you about 6 feet of rope to work with. Mastering how much of that lead you hold in your hands is an art and it’s constantly changing. When navigating tight areas, you might shorten it to just a foot or two so you maintain strong control. When crossing a fast moving creek, you might release all of the length, giving your llama the freedom to cross the danger as he sees best. The parallels to leading a direct report are clear. Sometimes they “don’t know what they don’t know,” and you need to provide strong direction and guidance to best help them. Other times, strong guidance works against you as a manager, and reports need space to find their own solutions. A great manager does not adopt a single style of leadership,  rather applies the right style based on the individual’s need and the task at hand.

2. Listen to your llama, sometimes they know best

On day five, we began our descent from roughly 11,500 feet. The terrain was steep, rocky, and the riskiest part of the week’s expedition. As we descended, it was unclear as to where a proper trail was at times. At one point we attempted to lead our llamas down a particularly steep part of the trail. We knew it wasn’t a great route, but it looked doable and appeared to be our only option. Then our lead llama just stopped in his tracks. “Not going that way” he communicated to us by digging his heels in and refusing to budge another step. At first we tried pulling harder, then we tried a gentle smack to the animal’s rear. Usually this would get your llama moving again but this time was different. He just sat there, looking at us like we were crazy. Then it occurred to us, maybe he knows something we don’t and we started searching harder for an alternate route. Lo and behold, there was a much better trail about 20 feet to our left! The llamas then followed us down safely. The lesson was clear, sometimes as a leader you must get out of your own way. There will be times when your followers know best. Perhaps it’s the front line manager who knows your customer’s needs better than you do. Or maybe it’s the brilliant middle manager who just needs space to voice  that next best idea to the company. The best managers know when to lead and when to follow.

3. Love your llama, and your llama will love you back

Finally, the llamas helped ground the importance of being a servant leader. When you are deep in the backcountry, you quickly realize how important the llamas really are. If one were to get injured or developed a saddle sore, we as a team would be carrying an additional 70 pounds between us. As such, we used an old cavalry saying to help guide our priorities of work each day; “First, take care of the horse, then the saddle, then the man.” This translated to first feeding and watering your llama, then setting up your group’s tent and collective responsibilities, then tending to all your personal needs. Repeating this process multiple times a day emphasized where a leader needs to be dedicating his or her valuable time. You simply won’t meet your goals without your follower’s dedication and team’s support. Yet, when your actions consistently demonstrate a willingness to put other’s needs above your own, you cannot fail to inspire respect, admiration and loyalty.

So yes, I believe that you can learn much about leadership from a llama. In fact, the greatest lessons often came from allowing a llama to lead you. Yet, like all successful relationships, it is a reciprocal dance of give and take. The llamas would be lost without us, wandering aimlessly without purpose, and we lost without them, struggling mightily under the limits of our human capacities. I offer that you go find those llamas in your life that need your leadership, then practice working the lead, listening deeply when challenged, and serving them every day. Do so, and you are destined to climb some impressive mountains together.

If you are adventurous business executive who enjoyed this post, I invite you to “follow” this blog or connect with me directly at  dspungin@allamericanleaders.com  so I can share with you upcoming NOLS/AAL expeditions that you may want to take part in.