Archives For Leadership

Greater Than Yourself

Mark Howell —  September 4, 2006

If you haven’t caught on to Steve Farber yet, you need to check him out.  I commented earlier this summer on his book The Radical Leap.  His style is similar to Patrick Lencioni, with a twist.  Every once in a while one of the characters in his fable will let loose a %##@!!… but the message is still really good.

He’s on to some good things.  Check out this post on extreme leadership and see for yourself.  Hard not to think of the great leader.  Here’s what Paul had to say about him…

"If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand."  Philippians 2:3-4 (The Message)

What are you listening to on your iPod?  You know…there’s a whole world out there that’s available and most of it is FREE.  How about a 45 minute talk by Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of Search.  Or how about Bob Sutton, co-author of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense?  One of the things I’ve found essential in my own development is a broad reading menu.  Not just one field.  A variety.  Same thing is now available audibly.  At the Educators Corner you can choose podcasts from quite a variety of world class thinkers.

Or check out iinnovate where you can catch a great interview with David Kelley, the founder of IDEO.

This is some really interesting stuff.  Will it apply directly to your business?  Maybe not.  But if you’re really listening you can’t help pick up that one new idea that will help you take the next step.

Thanks to Bob Sutton for the links to two great resources. 

Thinking Gray

Mark Howell —  August 27, 2006

One of the five books I listed in my Required Reading post was  The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample.  If you haven’t picked this one up, you’re definitely missing out on a very helpful read.  Some books have a nugget or two.  Others force you to decide what not to underline.  This is the latter.

One of the key ideas in The Contrarian’s Guide is what Sample refers to as thinking gray.  What he’s talking about is the ability to delay forming "an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts."  Of course, the notion of gray is a reference to that place between black and white.  He’s not suggesting that we stay there (In this sense, gray isn’t the new black!).  He’s only suggesting the we stay there "until we’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments."

Why is this important?  Easy.  Most of us are what he refers to as "binary and instant" in our thinking.  Things really seem black or white and they seem that way immediately in our mind.  But the truth is that binary thinking makes effective leadership much more difficult.  Sample identifies at least three dangers of binary thinking.  See if these make sense to you:

  • Making lasting decisions too soon, based solely on the facts and opinions that arrive first, and closing the mind to facts that emerge later.
  • Flip-flopping when the second set of facts forces you to reverse a decision.
  • Taking the opinions of a group of other people, even when you’re not quite sure, just because a group must be right.

Any of those ring true for you?

At the same time, in leadership everything isn’t gray.  There are lots of decisions that really are binary.  Black and white.  But on the weightiest of issues, learning to think gray will enable us to move to a better position strategically.  So how to learn?  Sample says that we need to begin to practice the art of thinking gray on everyday, black and white seeming decisions.  How?  By delaying forming "an opinion about an important matter until we’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force us to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts."  Could we do that?  Yes we can.  Why not try it tomorrow.  Pick out something to test it on and let me know what happens.  I’ll report in too.  It’ll be fun.  Imagine the possibilities.

Another important tactic in learning the art of thinking gray is to develop the skill of artful listening.  You can find out more about this in an earlier post.  Mostly, I want to encourage you to grow in this area of leadership.  It really is at the heart of what makes a great leader.

The Artful Listener

Mark Howell —  August 25, 2006

What kind of listener are you?  Or are you a listener at all?  If learning to think gray is important for a leader, learning to listen is right on its heels.  So how well do you listen?

Steven Sample has it right when he says that “the average person suffers from three delusions: (1) that he is a good driver, (2) that he has a good sense of humor, and (3) that he is a good listener.”  The tragedy is that when a leader is not also a listener it becomes much more difficult to lead effectively.  Few of us can really afford to be a one man show.  It’s all about gathering a team and then leveraging the skill-sets of the whole team.  If you never learn to listen, the chances that you’ll be able to gather and retain a great team are significantly lower.

So HOW can I become an artful listener?  What needs to happen in order to become a more effective listener?  Here are a few ideas from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership:

  • Move beyond passive listening.  Take an active interest, become intensely interested and ask questions that draw out the other person.  Ask relevant and probing questions in order to determine the filters and biases of the person you’re listening to.
  • Seek out a second account of the same event.  With independent assessments from two or more people “whose biases you know” will “put you in a better position to discern the truth of the matter.”
  • As you become an active listener, be careful to listen and not voice agreement.  Remember that you’re listening gray.  At this point you’re simply gathering information.  Taking a position too early is to be avoided.  Appearing to approve all comers simply raises the chances that you’ll be misunderstood.  Be careful to actively engage without offering a definite response or taking a position.
  • Know when to stop listening.  This can be difficult, but there comes a time for a decision.  It’s important to note that the decision may be to delegate the decision to someone else.  When the decision to stop listening is made you will need to move on.
  • Don’t make up your mind about the credibility of others until you have to.  Instead, listen.  Ask questions.  Ask for clarification.  Get a second opinion.  Only decide on credibility when you have to.

What’s the takeaway?  Why not try it?  Make it your objective to become an artful listener.  And if you have read The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership you are missing a real find.  I highly recommend it.  Here are the top five books you should be reading.

Challenging Assumptions

Mark Howell —  August 23, 2006

Recently I wrote about calculated obsolescence, referring to the need all of us have to carefully evaluate our programs on an ongoing basis.  As we’re evaluating, we need to prepared to eliminate those programs and events that no longer match up with our strategy.  Failure to eliminate leads to sideways energy.  All of us know what it is to have programs that may be successful in some ways but that make no contribution to the success of the organization itself.  Instead they actually pull people, energy, and resources (facilities, budget, time) into a kind of backwater that just swirls but doesn’t move with the rest of the stream.  I based the concept on a great Peter Drucker quote about what he called calculated obsolescence.

Kathy Sierra over at Creating Passionate Users has a post today about a similar concept, maybe a cousin to it, writing about the need to challenge assumptions.  As usual, she’s got some great content.  I love the imagery behind her question: "Do you have a plan in place for regularly sniffing the milk?"  That’s vivid, isn’t it?  Or maybe I should say pungent!  But it does make the point well that with assumptions, just like programs, we need to have a plan in place to routinely be making sure that what we’re using as a basis for our decision-making is actually still true.  HELLO.  How many of us need a routine that helps us do that?  I’d say…most of us.  You can take a look at her whole post right here.  It’s well worth the read.

If you’re a leader there are 5 books you need to be reading.  Just 5?  There may be others in the top 10 but this is a collection that is both timeless and timely.  If you are a leader this set will provide both a source of soul-searching about your own organization and fodder for a great discussion on your executive team.

  1. The Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner is a great place to begin.  Regardless of the arena you are in, this is a terrific book that you will find yourself coming back to over and over.  Since its first printing in 1987, The Leadership Challenge has sold well over a million copies.  Recommended by many of the business world’s best-selling authors, it is also recognized by leader’s like Andy Stanley, founding pastor of North Point Community Church, who has said it has been "his primary leadership text since 1988" and is "required reading for anyone who aspires to be a next-generation leader."  Why should you read it?  The contents are organized around what Kouzes and Posner have identified as the 5 practices of exemplary leadership.  From those five practices they have carefully developed ten commitments, behaviors really, that if implemented "can serve as the basis for learning to lead."  Looking for a way to really begin the journey?  This book is a great place to start.
  2. Good to Great by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras is another very important choice.  A careful reading will produce a collection of insights about your organization and if you are a leader a series of next steps that could set an exciting new direction.  Whether you’ve already begun getting the right people on the bus or you’re not sure what a bus has to do with anything…If you will do the hard work of determining your hedgehog, this book will continue to serve you long after you’ve worn it out.  Why should you read it?  Good to Great provides a set of concepts that are very actionable for today’s organizations, both large and small.  In addition, the language is clear and descriptive at the same time, skillfully presenting a very helpful set of ideas that can easily form the basis of an ongoing discussion that leads to action. 
  3. The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive may be Patrick Lencioni’s least known work.  I’ve found it to be a perfect follow-up to Good to Great.  Written in Lencioni’s trademark fable style The Four Obsessions will provide a vivid example of identifying the keys to clarifying your mission and then keeping everyone in your organization moving in the same direction.  Why should you read it?  One of the real advantages to Lencioni is that he writes in fable or parable form.  This presents a wonderful opportunity to talk with your executive team about the ideas it contains.  You will find yourself referring to the main characters as real people and thinking about their actions long after finishing the book.
  4. The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, Peter Drucker’s classic primer on increasing your executive effectiveness is a must read.  You will find yourself coming back for further review.  It’s just that kind of book.  Why should you read it?  No one has had more influence on American business leadership than Peter Drucker.  Getting the right things done is at the heart of the matter.  Drucker’s Effective Executive should be required reading for anyone who aspires to lead a team.
  5. The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample may be the best leadership title you’ve never read.  The 10th president of the University of Southern California, Sample is a brilliant thinker who sets out in principle form some of the very best work on decision making, leadership, and team-building.  Chapter One, Thinking Gray, Thinking Free is worth the price of the book by itself.  This is one of those books that will require determination on your part…determination that it isn’t helpful to underline every sentence.  Why should you read it?  This is a book you will come back to over and over.  The greatest challenge for any leader is to learn to think.  This resource will be one you’ll be talking about with your team for a long time.

Calculated Obsolescence

Mark Howell —  August 21, 2006

How often have you dropped a program?  Ever found yourself determined to drop a program only to be the first to blink when your decision was challenged?  Why is it so tough to kill a program even when it clearly isn’t succeeding but especially when it is working to a degree?  Those are the toughest, aren’t they?  When a program continues to draw people but really doesn’t line up with what you’re trying to do overall.  Which leads to what The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry refers to as sideways energy.  What a great term for that sense that a program is taking lots of energy to produce, and people are participating, but there really isn’t a very strategic outcome.  At the end of the day these are the kinds of events or programs that are more like cotton candy than anything of substance.  They look large and impressive.  But like my 11 year old says, "it’s really just sugar.  Can I have some cotton candy?"

So what is the solution to the problem of sideways energy?  Peter Drucker suggested calculated obsolescence.  How’s that for descriptive terminology?  Calculated obsolescence.  Here’s what he wrote in the August 5th reading from The Daily Drucker:

"Innovating organizations spend neither time nor resources on defending yesterday.  Systematic abandonment of yesterday alone can free the resources, and especially the scarcest of them all, capable people, for work on the new."

Now, I don’t know about your organization but I know for sure there are some very talented players who are working hard at yesterday’s ideas, keeping those fires burning, making calls, lining up teams, trying to secure budget and make sure there baby is being promoted…long after the program they’re passionate about eased onto that great off-ramp of strategic initiatives.  What will we do about it?  Do we have the courage to systematically abandon yesterday in order to free the resources for tomorrow?  Or will we just impatiently wait for it do to die on its own?

What do we need in order to implement calculated obsolescence?  We need to know where we’re going.  We need to know what it looks like to get there, and what steps lead to there.  And then we need to determine to do only the things that lead to there.  Everything else is sideways.

Drucker on Growth

Mark Howell —  August 18, 2006

What happens when your organization grows?  Do you celebrate immediately and have high-fives all around?  Or is there a kind of analysis that attempts to determine the cause of the growth?  In the August 3rd reading in The Daily Drucker there is a very interesting piece that reminds us that "a business needs to distinguish between the wrong kind of growth and the right kind of growth, between muscle, fat, and cancer."  Isn’t that an interesting proposition?  What does that mean?  And what could that mean for you?

Before I get into that, let me just say that Drucker assumes that every organization has a "minimum of growth required."  And with that as a presupposition here are his rules on the need to distinguish between muscle, fat, and cancer:

  • First, growth that "results in an increase of total productivities of the enterprise’s resources is healthy growth."  What are productivities?  Let’s say productivities would be fruitfulness.  And you could see how that would be.  If we’re talking attendance or participation growth, it should lead to an increased involvement in the end result: involvement beyond consumption.
  • Next, growth that results only in volume and does not, within a fairly short period of time, produce higher overall productivites is fat."  Again, if productivites is fruitfulness and fruitfulness must be more that consumption (attendance) then if it doesn’t lead to involvement it would be considered fat…and according to Drucker if it doesn’t "lead to higher overall productivity it should be sweated off."  That is an interesting observation!  Isn’t it?  Think about your organization’s mission.  For instance, if you’re in business to produce change in lives and your understanding is that engagement in living beyond yourself produces change, then you won’t be satisfied with simply increasing attendance at your events.  You’ll be looking for next steps.  Drucker’s saying that if you don’t see that in a "fairly short period of time…it should be sweated off."  What might that look like?  How about inserting periodic calls to action?
  • Last, Drucker calls out the idea that growth that leads to a reduction in fruitfulness should be eliminated by radical surgery — fast."  What would cause growth that reduces fruitfulness?  What about programs that take energy away from a careful definition of your mission?  Couldn’t that lead to a kind of growth that reduces productivity?  Yes.

Yesterday was an awesome day!  Every session was just incredible stuff.  Yesterday had a huge cast.  Ashish Nanda, Jim Collins, Bono, and Patrick Lencioni.  I’m not sure it’s fair to pick a highlight.  Each talk had some really great moments and takeaways.  Still, if you could have heard Jim Collins’ passion for the idea that society can be better, that our nation and world can be great…you’d be ordering the Team Edition DVD to hear it again…just like me.  Simply awesome.

I’ll post more on the sessions tomorrow, but for now I have to tell you about three minutes of the session that Ashish Nanda, a Harvard Business School professor did on the topic of the Risky Business of Hiring Stars.  The extra that was huge was a three minute version he gave at Bill Hybels’ request about what he calls the Service Profit Chain.  Just know it is all about doing the things that help you keep your customers satisfied.  This was a very big idea…in three minutes.  An idea that forms at least a 90 minute session.  I spoke with him afterwards and found that you can order an HBR paper that will include the idea in detail.  Here’s the HBR link: Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work (HBR OnPoint Enhanced Edition) This is a big idea.  You may want to check it out.

Also, Tony Morgan’s posting a blow by blow recap of the sessions almost as they happen.  Nice when you’re hosting a sattelite site!  You can see what he’s saying here.

I think the highlight of day one was pretty easy to call.  Although Bill Hybels was as good as ever and James Meeks had many good things to say, Andy Stanley’s informal style and powerful concepts produced a captivating 45 minutes.

Key idea?  Based on two passages:  In Matthew 16 Jesus said He would build the church.  In Ephesians 5 Paul wrote that husbands ought to love their wives as Christ loved the church.  Takeaway?  It’s God’s responsibility to build the church.  It’s our responsibility to love our families.

How’d that translate for Andy?  He made a commitment to a 45 hour work week and left every day at 4:00 pm.  What got done, got done.  What didn’t waited.

How did it translate to Northpoint?  They say no to lots of opportunities.  They have incredibly loyal staff.  Their healthy level of commitment attracts other healthy people.

I’ll come back to this when I have more time.  He talked about lots of implications.  For instance, they concluded that although they could probably grow by adding Saturday night service, they didn’t because it would violate the basic idea.  Driving the staff to an unhealthy work load not only affects staff familes but it sets unhealthy expectations.

More later.