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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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 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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Engineering Effective Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Be Mindful of the Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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