Mindful Leadership in a VUCA World

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In my last article on the VUCA Proof© leader, I made the case that leaders exist to extinguish the status quo, envision a superior outcome, and align actions towards producing new results. To be effective towards this purpose, leaders must be extraordinarily bold, rising above the distractions of Volatility, Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and Complexity (VUCA) to inspire others. Yet, embracing boldness as a leader is only part of the equation, as a strength overdone becomes a weakness.

Perhaps, you have met an “overly bold” leader. Someone whose vision was so far ahead of the rest of the team, they had a hard time gaining buy-in during execution. Or maybe, they challenged others so intensely to attain their vision, they burned out even their most ardent supporters (or themselves) along the way. For boldness to be effective, it needs a counterweight. Mindfulness is the Yin to the Yang of boldness.

Mindfulness

You may think, “Oh no, not another mindfulness article!” For some, the word mindfulness conjures up images of yogis meditating on a pillow, and it’s “too far out there” for them to practically access. So, please allow me to break this down in the most tangible way possible. Mindfulness is about training your attention. For a VUCA Proof© leader, mindfulness is about training your attention to cut through chaos, so you can notice what’s going on and deeply understand the impact of your leadership initiatives. Let’s look at these components in greater detail.

Cutting through chaosIt’s No Longer Optional – In a world of information overload and multitasking, a leader’s attention is their most precious asset. One might think of attention as the currency of leadership, just like in your wallet or purse you have a finite amount of money you have available to spend. How you spend it is largely a function of your values/needs, and how a leader “spends” attention reflects their priorities. Unfortunately, in today’s VUCA world, it’s easy for leaders to spend their attention on distractions. Mindfulness is no longer optional; it is now a critical leader behavior.

Hand in waterGetting Beneath the Surface – With deliberately focused attention, the leader can dig deeper to see and to hear what might go on in their environment. Think of your daily workflow as moving like a fast-paced stream. The water is rushing by, and from the banks, you can see rocks and how they are affecting flow. Now, you take your hand and place it in the water. Immediately, you notice new information. The water is cooler and deeper than you expected. You also notice there is a strong undercurrent down about two feet. Similarly, leaders leverage mindfulness to observe, feel, sense, and think about what’s going on inside them and around them.

connectionsSeeing connections – With fresh information to work with, a mindful leader can practice greater curiosity and empathy. They might notice the VP of Sales sounded a little down on the call today and get curious about how he is holding up after almost three straight weeks of traveling. They may then remember he has a 5-year-old daughter at home, who has likely also been affected. Or a leader might notice their own frustration around why Project X hasn’t made more progress in recent weeks, only to realize they haven’t done a great job communicating expectations for certain milestones. Having connected the dots, the leader now has greater choice as to what leadership actions will increase their influence and produce results.

Yet, like boldness, mindfulness does not just happen to us one day; it’s a behavior that must be practiced and embodied. To be a mindful leader, here are a few things to keep top of mind:

  1. Be Your Own Intervention – VUCA typically has us thinking about past events and anticipating the future. To get oneself in a fully present state requires an intervention! We need to interrupt our thinking and quiet the mind. For many, the best way to do this is through a micro-meditation that focuses one’s attention on your breath and/or our body. Sometimes, a short mantra can help. As an example of all three techniques, here is Deepak Chopra’s “go-to” 3-minute meditation to get focused.
  2. Make Curiosity a Habit – Once you are well practiced at quieting your mind on demand, you will have the space to practice authentic curiosity — questioning your observations in an open, honest, and non-judgmental way. For better introspection, this is a solid list of 13 questions every leader should have on hand and reflect on daily. However, mindfulness is also about what’s going on for others, and great leaders’ check in often with their people to test assumptions. Here is also a great list of 7 questions every leader should keep in their back pocket to better understand the impact of their leadership on others.
  3. Commit to Consistency – 10 minutes a day…at a minimum, that’s what it takes to increase your mindfulness (1). Just like heading to the gym, you must put in the work to build new muscle. Create the conditions for consistency. Perhaps, you start your day with 5 minutes of meditation and then 5 minutes of reflection on “questions of the day” (before looking at your email). A little discipline goes a long way, and over time, it will become easier. Finally, there is great new technology you can use to support a mindfulness practice. If you haven’t yet heard of Headspace, it’s a great app that helps to make meditation and mindfulness a habit.

I invite you to bring more mindfulness to your leadership. In doing so, you’ll be setting yourself up for greater success and moving toward what I call a VUCA Proof© leadership style. Interested in learning more about what it means to be a VUCA Proof© leader? You can download my whitepaper here. Interested in training your executive team to adopt a mindful, more VUCA Proof© leadership style? Simply download the VUCA Proof© 1-day Executive Workshop Brochure here.

(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 of this content is prohibited without the authorized consent of the author.

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Feedback + Coaching = Higher Performance

Feedback + Coaching = Higher Performance

What do you believe most contributes to missed performance expectations in the workplace? Too lofty of goals to begin with? Not enough talent in place to do the work? Insufficient effort or a lack of incentives to properly motivate? Perhaps.  Yet, my experience is that the more significant culprit is one of two things: 1) a leader’s failure to clearly communicate expectations upfront or 2) a leader’s failure to provide proper feedback and coaching. This is not too surprising as these are challenging skill-sets to learn and can take a lifetime to master (effective coaching in particular).

There are a few key ingredients to demonstrating good coaching as a leader. First, coaching begins with practicing curiosity and a leader will benefit from adopting a coaching style that values inquiry more so than advocacy. This is unnatural for most managers who like to speak from their experience and advocate solutions based on their personal expertise. Yet, if leaders place a premium on listening before speaking, they are more likely to build trust with their coachees and help them develop their own solutions to challenges. Perhaps this highlights one of the greatest differences between management and leadership. Managers seek to control outcomes by problem solving and offering solutions to their people. A leader realizes his or her ultimate goal is to create more leaders. Thus, he or she ask questions that inspire and challenge. Leaders seek to build capacity in the coachee and lessen dependency on the coach’s expertise.

Indeed, if a leader must do one thing exceptionally well to be effective, it’s coach! Yet, because this is such a huge topic of discussion, we cannot possibly cover all that I would like to share with you in a short article. Thus, I am going to focus on one of the most difficult coaching conversations that managers seem to get wrong more often than they get right; delivering constructive feedback and then coaching towards improvement.

Oh the agony we feel when preparing for this coaching conversation! Do
we directly deliver the feedback and simply hope that they take it well? Or perhaps we should indirectly address the feedback, which will likely lower their defensiveness? No wait! Of course. We’ll go with the “feedback sandwich” and deliver a compliment, followed by the criticism, and finally, another compliment to keep their spirits high and save the relationship! While it must be noted that most everyone likes to receive feedback differently, I believe there is a universal approach that can set you up for success. One that reduces anxiety for the feedback giver, lowers defensiveness in the receiver, and ultimately inspires change. I call this framework: The Five Pillars of Constructive Feedback.

1. Create the right mindset

Why is it so unpleasant when we have to give constructive feedback to others? All that anxiety we often experience has to do with our own ego and how we might be perceived. Will they think I am a nitpicking idiot? Will they think I am just a clueless leader who isn’t seeing the whole story? Or maybe, I’ll be seen as the a’hole manager who is a demanding tyrant! Remember that providing constructive feedback to another has nothing to do with you, and it’s not about “fixing” the other person. Constructive feedback is a service and you are engaging in a conversation to help the other person reach his or her potential. If your mindset is to “fix” everything, your voice will communicate judgement and trigger defensiveness. Yet, if your mindset is to “serve,” that will also show up throughout the conversation and create trust. Nothing opens persons (coachees) quicker to your feedback than when they sense you genuinely care about them. To help promote this mindset when delivering constructive feedback, remember without humility, expect futility.

2. Ask permission

“May I give you some feedback?” It’s a simple question, but how often do we jump straight to the assumption that the other person is both ready and willing to hear us out. After all, you are there to “serve” them and you care about their performance. Why wouldn’t they want to listen to what you have to say? Yet, maybe the other person is not in the right frame of mind. Perhaps they are having a really bad day and no matter what you say to them, they will see your feedback as an attack. If you ask the question upfront, you are giving them power and they must choose to give it back to you. In that seemingly insignificant exchange, you have already established a mutual respect that will make the feedback recipient more receptive to you.

3. Remember SBI

This is a tried and true process that works like magic when done right. SBI stands for Situation/Behavior/Impact, and I find it incredibly useful in helping me to remember what’s most important when giving feedback.

 

(S) ituation – This is when you anchor feedback in time, place, and circumstances and it helps the receiver understand the context of your feedback. For example, “remember yesterday afternoon in the staff call, about halfway through the meeting, Bill asked me for my thoughts on our financial outlook.”

(B) ehavior – This is when you are specific to the behavior or non-performance you would like to see changed (again, so the other person may meet their full potential). Think of it like replaying a movie for the other person. For example, “As I began to communicate the importance of adhering to the monthly budget, I noticed you rolled your eyes slightly and then began to check your phone.”

(I) mpact – This is the key to your success. If you just focus on their behavior, expect defensiveness to ensue. Yet, if you speak to the impact on you or the team, you are creating space for a more empathetic conversation. Most people care about whether or not they are disappointing others. If you speak to how the behavior made you feel, you move the other person out of their head and into their heart. For example “This embarrassed me, as I feel it made us look disjointed in front of the team. Others picked up on the tension and I felt as if I was scrambling to regain credibility with them.”

4. Get curious and create spaciousness

Now is the point in the conversation where you might transition from advocacy to inquiry and facilitation. You have delivered your feedback, now give them a voice! How did they view the situation? How might have you contributed to their reaction? Are their deeper concerns that need to be addressed? Know that this is a tender moment for many, and you can possibly expect some level of defensiveness to ensue. Give them space to be heard and acknowledge their point of view. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, only that you empathize with their feelings, while respecting their point of view. Note that a common diversionary technique is to broaden the conversation to where their performance is no longer the focal point. Your job as a leader is to keep the heat on them in a respectful and supportive manner.

5. Coach towards the desired performance

It is important when you work with a coachee to determine a clear path to success together. However, there is no need to give him or her all the answers. It is important they discover on their own how they can improve. You might ask, “how do you believe we could avoid this challenge in the future?” Then after hearing them out, you might offer, “If you have an opposing opinion in the future, I honestly want to hear it rather than have you feel like challenging me will offend me. My expectation is that we have a united front when engaging with the larger team in these meetings, and, if we have differences, we should hash them out in private beforehand. Is that an unreasonable expectation or can we both agree on this moving forward?”

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

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