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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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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8 Songs That Can Teach You Leadership

Playing-Acoustic-Guitar-Wallpaper

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

1. Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

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

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

2. I’m Not Afraid by Eminem

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

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

3. Imagine by John Lennon

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

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

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

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

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

5. Get Up Stand Up by Bob Marley

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

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

6. Tough by Craig Morgan

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

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

7. Blue Train by John Coltrane

ColtraneNo Lyrics…All instrumental bliss.

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

8. Staying Alive by The Bee Gees

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

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

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

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

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

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What If We Have This Whole Leadership Thing All Wrong?

Upsidedown Eagle

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

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

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

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

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

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