It’s not your dad’s management anymore

Jane’s been guest posting over at the Lead Change Group blog (a place where you’ll regularly find lots of good insights, especially into character-based leadership) so you’ll find this article there, too!

leadership isn't a speciality areaYears ago I handled labor relations in a meat processing facility where every employee had a singular function. Someone ran the slicer, someone else the grinder, etc. Everyone knew and accepted the very narrow parameters imposed on their job duties.

An exchange with a client this morning prompted my walk down meat packing memory lane.

“Coaching problem employees isn’t my job.”

“Whose job is it?”

“That’s what HR does, not me.”

While there’s a whole host of rich topics embedded here, what jumped out first for me was how effortlessly this fellow had narrowed his area of leadership responsibility. The employees making the bacon had little choice in the scope of their duties given the machine they were assigned to run. This individual had constructed his own job boundaries, opting to make them narrowly focused on what he did best – metrics, results and schedules. He forgot about the people who make the results and numbers possible.

It’s heart-warming to read the results of IBM’s 2012 Global CEO study in which “CEOs regard interpersonal skills of collaboration (75 percent), communication (67 percent), creativity (61 percent) and flexibility (61 percent) as key drivers of employee success to operate in a more complex, interconnected environment.” Leadership isn’t a specialty area for one-way directives, tasks and numbers. (I’ll send out the memo to Wall Street and big business later this afternoon.) Leadership is a labor of love that encompasses both task completion and relationship fostering. It’s not an either/or proposition.

Are you a leader like my client who’s most comfortable focusing on results and aren’t sure how to bring more flexibility into your leadership interactions? If so, research and science provide guidance in learning to integrate the “paradoxes, tensions, and trade-offs inherent in the managerial job.”[1]

4 ways to bring flexibility into your leadership

1) Reframe how you think about your role. Many leaders tend to over-rely on a strength (say, driving for accomplishments) and under-use its opposite[2] (collaborating and creating cohesion). That’s when all sorts of problems arise because the over-used strength has now become a weakness. Here’s where you apply the Goldilocks principle of getting it just right – like skillfully pressing for results while treating people like people instead of machines.

2) Be kind and hold people accountable. A good leader expects his people to achieve their objectives; and when they fall short, the performance gap is discussed considerately so their self-esteem and self-worth remain intact. We all fall short from time to time and rarely benefit from being labeled an idiot or worse by an uncaring boss. It’s the leader who coaches us to better performance and who does so with compassion that we’ll follow off the cliff.

3) Understand it’s not your dad’s management anymore. Command and control may create short-term compliance at the expense of long-term resentment and disengagement. Awareness and agility are needed to deal with a world that’s constantly changing, perpetually connected and well-informed. An effective leader wants a broad repertoire of knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors in her toolkit.

4) It’s all about context. At some point in coaching programs and development workshops, someone typically points out that I’m advocating that they be inconsistent and manipulative. Puh-lease. I’ll concede that it does take more time, effort and awareness to be directive and flexible, decisive and sensitive. Recognizing that one-size-leadership doesn’t fit all circumstances isn’t being capricious, it’s being smart.

A character-based leader willingly incorporates the dualities of leading in a complex world – monitor and mentor, producer and facilitator, doing good and doing well. What say you?

Duality image from Unwrapping Minds


[1] Lindberg, Jennifer T. and Kaiser, Robert B. “Assessing the Behavioral Flexibility of Managers: A Comparison of Methods.” April 2004.

[2] Ibid.



Ambiguity is sometimes the right leadership answer

The meeting exchange was fascinating. Belle resisting giving Max the absolute answer he so clearly wanted; Max’s rising frustration with what he perceived as Belle’s wishy-washiness; and Belle’s explanation of how ambiguity is sometimes the right leadership answer.

Some business problems do have a black-and-white answer, like Is Sally ready to be promoted now?  Yet with experience comes the realization that there isn’t a clearcut answer to many of the issues leaders face.  To select one remedy is to select wrong because both answers are right. Sometimes our business needs speed and efficiency; other times achieving effectiveness takes a little longer. Leaders have to balance creating change while also maintaining stability.  Personally, we have to figure out how to prioritize both work and life demands.

Receiving end of ambiguity

When you’re hoping for a black-and-white answer and get a shade-of-gray response, it’s likely you’re facing one of those both/and leadership scenarios. If so:

Reframe your impatience and/or disdain into inquiry. Look for the bigger picture. Ask clarifying questions to understand why you received that response. Own digging in to understand the reasons behind the both/and answer.

Be willing to explore alternatives and contingencies. Possibilities that may have never occurred to you can be top of mind for someone else — and could be a critical, overlooked factor which impacts your decision-making.

Challenge yourself. Why is it that you always want a black-and-white answer. Are you seeking a quick fix? Are you reluctant to take a deeper look; and if so, why? Are you succumbing to quantity over quality? Are you putting the bottom line above principles and people?

Giving end of ambiguity

If you’re giving a both/and response to someone who obviously isn’t satisfied:

Explain your ambiguous answer. We all process information in our own way, so providing an explanation of how you reached your conclusions helps others understand your thought processes. Here’s your leadership opportunity to teach others how either/or isn’t always the appropriate solution.

Start a dialogue. Step back from command-and-control and seize the opportunity to expand each other’s point of view.

Be compassionate. The person who wants the definite answer isn’t wrong, so don’t treat them as if they are.  This isn’t the time for belittling remarks; it is the time for a teachable moment.

What both/and learnings do you have to share?



Collaboration is messy…4 reasons to go for it anyway

I used to tease Frank, an accountant where I worked some years ago, for his hope that life would track more like a balance sheet — all the ins and outs offsetting perfectly, all neat and tidy.

Truth is, neat and tidy rarely applies to life, love and leadership. Getting ‘em right is messy, time-consuming and requires real commitment. This reality surfaced recently in a chat with a colleague when he remarked collaboration was more trouble than it was worth.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. ~African Proverb

Borrowing an acronym from the military, collaboration is full of VUCA - volatility, uncertainly, complexity and ambiguity.  Yet, when a shared effort goes right, the rewards are well worth the trouble.

Collaboration: 4 reasons and realities to go for it

  • Collaboration is volatile - hang on, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. Multiple opinions, experiences, styles and preferences come into play when working with a group. Sure it’s a balancing and sharing act, yet the variety of inputs yields a richer outcome than what you could have produced alone.
  • Collaboration is full of uncertainty - what a great way to expand one’s comfort zone and sphere of knowledge. Unpredictability and surprise expose us to ideas and emotions we may not encounter on a singular journey; some are beneficial, some not. Yet all add to the breadth and depth of our experience.
  • Collaboration is complex - embrace it. It can be confusing, confounding, crappy and chaotic, too. Embrace them, too! Go it alone if you seek simplicity. If you and/or organization seek growth, engagement and innovation, pass out the waders and head for the deep end of the pool. That’s where the group can really challenge and support one another in the way to excellence.
  • Collaboration is ambiguous - add that tolerance to your toolkit.  Ambiguity is the breakfast of leaders. There’s no room in today’s complex world for cut-and-dried, black-and-white answers to everything. Many of the realities of business are dualities to be perpetually managed — things like stability and change, task and relationship, impose and facilitate. Success requires you to do both because they identify a relationship that’s ongoing and which raises issues that don’t go away. A diet of all stability leads to atrophy and demise; a feast of all change yields bedlam and uncertainty.

As Emmanual Gobillot writes in Leadershift, “traditional leader behavior that focuses on command and control becomes irrelevant.” Communal social power and transformational leadership rest on a base of collaboration. Ready to play?!



Leaders: be humble and seek first to fully understand

My reaction to the request was immediate, visceral and not pleasant. Why on earth would the workshop facilitator ask the group to split up by gender? This wasn’t fourth grade phys ed where sex and strength would play a role. My paradigm: leadership knows no gender distinctions, so why was this necessary?

My mind closed. I didn’t hear the first instructions. When everyone stood up and grabbed their chairs, I had no idea what was happening. I blindly followed the women next to me across the room and added my chair to the circle of women’s seats, still fuming at the gender division.

There must have been directions to think about something, given the silence and pensive expressions. After several minutes, the facilitator for the women’s group opened the floor for comments.

The deeply insightful and moving comments offered by the first two, then three, then four female participants set me back on my heels. This was meaningful stuff. My pique at the-girls-versus-the-boys separation was petty.

Because one of my personal hot buttons (women’s issues) had been hit, I had rushed to judgment, failing to seek first to understand. Fortunately, I only lost five minutes of what turned out to be an extraordinary two-hour exercise.

My seek first to understand lessons for the day:

1) Be curious. Gather information objectively. Understand what’s being asked and the context in which it’s being asked.

Be curious, not judgmental. ~Walt Whitman

2) Hot button or not, extend the benefit of the doubt. Presume good intentions, not ill.

Perhaps the greatest charity comes when we are kind to each other, when we don’t judge or categorize someone else, when we simply give each other the benefit of the doubt or remain quiet. ~Marvin J. Ashton

3) Check your personal filters to make certain your own assumptions aren’t blocking the way for all the facts and/or data. I leapt to the top of the ladder of inference in a single bound!

Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life. ~Don Miguel Ruiz

4) Listen actively and with empathy to what’s being said. Assure that what you are interpreting is really being said. Focus on the speaker, not what’s swirling in your brain.

You can hear without listening, and you can listen and not hear. ~Daniel Barenboim

5) Be humble and look for lessons to be learned!