Check out any instruction manual on starting a fire without a match and you will inevitably come across this key action item “when the spark ignites the tender, gently blow on it to create a flame.”
By blowing on the flames of greatness that reside in the people around them, good leaders produce great outcomes.
In my previous blog, I talked about Kyle, one of the best bosses I ever worked for; “he didn’t need to give Obama-esque speeches to get us to follow him anywhere; it was the nature of his character.”
One of the best bosses I ever worked for was charming, excellent with people and understood the value of relationships. He was well-liked but too low key and two unassuming to be called charismatic. Yet, those of us who worked for him were fired up about it.
His words were more powerful than his delivery but he didn’t need to give Obama-esque speeches to get us to follow him anywhere; it was the nature of his character (his “moral excellence and firmness”)
He was in charge but he was not the boss. Kyle (not his real name) gave us direction but he was not dictatorial. He expected great things of us but he did not put any pressure on us.
When I was young[er], every now and again I would run across someone older who would say “Do as I say not as I do.” As in, “don’t cuss even though you hear me cuss.”
Now that I am old[er], I run across people who will say, “What you’re doing is speaking so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” As in, what you say [telling me not to cuss] does not have any influence on me because I’m more influenced by what you do [cuss].”
I recently finished Doris Kearns’ book, Team of Rivals. One of the cornerstones of the book is how Abraham Lincoln, having been elected president, populated key cabinet posts with men who had competed against him in the 1860 election, men who were accomplished in their own right.
Mr. Lincoln is unquestionably one of the great leaders in the history of the United States; after reading the book, I realized Mr. Lincoln did not just surround himself with other great leaders; he led them as a team.
Doing the right thing is sometimes inconvenient and oftentimes it goes unrecognized and unrewarded. Not exactly a great incentive; but as the saying goes, doing the right thing does have its own rewards.
In one of my leadership assignments, my peer directors and I decided to be consistent in how we threw year-end holiday parties. As a team that valued unity across organizational boundaries, we wanted to avoid situations in which one group held its holiday event in the evening at a five-star hotel while another group held its holiday event during lunch in the office conference room.
A recent headline in The New York Times over an article discussing a national political issue contained a familiar phrase from our childhood, “They started it”.
The March 31, 2017 article written by Matt Flegenheimer provided the equally familiar context: “And each party’s justification [for its position] can often be summarized with a schoolyard classic: ‘they started it.’”.
This is also known on playgrounds as “tit for tat”, i.e., when we have been wronged we return the wrong. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in arenas other than politics.
Remember those times as a kid when you got into trouble by doing something because your friends did it? And your mom asked, “If your friends jumped off a bridge would you jump, too?”
Unfortunately, as adults we sometimes take our cues regarding ethical behavior from others as well. If unethical behavior is viewed as the norm in a certain arena we, too, will likely engage in that behavior. After all, everyone does it, so it’s okay, right?
Businessdictionary.com defines integrity as “strict adherence to a moral code, reflected in transparent honesty and complete harmony in what one thinks, says, and does.” See, http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/integrity.html
It is a good definition; however, because it focuses on personal statements and personal behavior (“what one thinks, says, and does”) it is, in my humble opinion, merely the starting point of a leader’s responsibility as it relates to integrity.
Just as important as knowing who we are is knowing who we are not.
When our actions do not align with our identity leaders create challenges for ourselves. In my own experiences and based on my observations of others, leaders run into trouble when we try to be someone else or when we try to apply the latest leadership “techniques”.
Early in my leadership career my introverted personality and my goal-oriented nature combined to make appearances outside of my office for anything other than meetings a rare event.
When I assumed responsibility for a training organization that began to change. Its leader would remind me over and over, “It’s about the people.” I soon learned that being an introvert and caring about goals did not mean that I could not make valuing people an even higher priority.
One of the insights into leadership I have gained through the years is the concept of leading from our own identity. This insight includes recognizing the importance of being who we are not just doing what we do.
So much of the literature on leadership focuses on helping us to be better at doing “stuff”. I have come to believe (supported by some research) in the concept of leading from identity. See, Thomas Karp and T. I. Helgø, “Leadership as Identity Construction: The Act of Leading People in Organisations; A Perspective from the Complexity Sciences,” Journal of Management Development, 28, no. 10 (2009).
To describe a sense of helplessness, the late U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying, “I feel like a hitchhiker on a Texas highway in the middle of a hailstorm; I can't run, I can't hide, and I can't make it go away.”
Difficult circumstances can make us feel the same way. . . helpless.
But even in times of great difficulty we can be powerful. Like the 1970’s television character, the Six Million Dollar Man (“We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster”), we can emerge from challenges better than we were before.
I recently came across a quote from Ralph Marston: “Being positive in a negative situation is not naïve. It’s leadership.” It reminded me of a leadership assignment where I didn’t think being positive in a negative situation was naïve, I thought it was dishonest.
I was a frontline supervisor in a human resources unit in a company that, at the time, did not value human resources as a function. Among the outcomes was the notion that anybody could “do HR.” As a result, the leaders of human resources were not necessarily qualified for the task . . . and some of their decisions reflected that.
Leaders who have a strong sense of accountability can sometimes forget that they are not the ultimate authority, e.g., the business owner, the CEO, the General Manager. And when that happens such leaders can adopt an ownership mentality. But confusing accountability and ownership is not a good thing.
I hate when that happens.
I have been blessed to work with bosses who trusted me to operate within expansive boundaries. One such boss traveled a lot. While he was away, I ran the operations side of the business without direct oversight; not that it was overly complex but I made a lot of final decisions on my own.
No one is perfect.
However, I did have one colleague who was nearly perfect. To celebrate the end of a long and arduous project that impacted almost everyone in our department, we had a recognition lunch complete with tongue in cheek awards. My colleague received the Ms. Prefect Award. Everyone got a kick out of the fact that she missed the misspelling of perfect.
But I suspect everyone who calls herself a leader can recall a time when, somehow, some way, we missed the obvious.
My father was a platoon sergeant in the U.S. Army but thankfully, he did not treat my younger brother, Julian, and me like privates. Although we were not raised in a strict military type environment, we were taught by our father not to make excuses.
The only acceptable responses to questions regarding the completion of tasks were “yes, sir” and “no, sir”. If not, excuses were not accepted.
It was one of the ways my brother and I learned accountability.