“Have your article in by close of play tomorrow” I was abruptly informed and thus another deadline monster comes menacingly to life. What to write? How can I attempt to add value to your life as a leader? What is it you need to hear….want to hear?
Well, when it comes to leadership (and writing) context is always important. So I locate myself to one of my favourite coffee shops, one that is disguised in an old house built like a medieval castle guarded by a ‘moat’ of bonsais that serve as a major distraction to someone like me trying to enter. I steel myself past the distraction, wallet undisturbed; find my way to a comfy old armchair in serious need of reupholstering (which merely adds to its charm), order a cappuccino and the obligatory muffin (I have put in the ‘hard yards’ by way of exercise today) and think about what to write.
It occurs to me (I won’t claim any genius revelation here) that this time of year is usually awash with advice, platitudes and resolve to be better, fitter or happier. Advice isn’t a bad thing and the best advice is normally that kind of advice that ‘finds us’ rather than we finding it. I think you know what I mean. Something that we may have encountered on a regular basis that one-day, for whatever reason, springs to life in a impossible-to-ignore kind of way. In fact I have a ‘little black book’ (no, it’s not what you think…focus please) to record just such advise. I carry it with me most days for you never know when such advice will visit. When it does, I want to be ready.
So, in a hitchhiker’s random kind of way I thought I would share with you some of what I have written in my little black book and trust that, at least for some of you, there might be words that trigger bigger thoughts and even actions that make a difference in your own leadership journey. Perhaps like a playful kid who tosses a pebble into restful water and then stands to watch as the ripples spread and the universe provides further evidence of cause and effect.
Here then are some ‘stones’ for your contemplation.
“Thinking is the place where all intelligent action starts”…
is something Meg Wheatley once said. Many years ago Meg’s book, “Leadership and the New Sciences’ made a significant and lasting impact on me, derailing my own leadership journey at many levels and in numerous ways. Impacted by her book I made contact with Meg, once visiting her in her home in the Sundance Valley just outside Salt Lake City in the USA. Since then our paths have conspired to cross albeit all too infrequently. There have been many things that Meg has said and written that have stuck a deep cord and her leadership insights and wisdom have been a source of inspiration for many around the world as she connects, learns and shares as she goes. As I reflect on the many leaders I have the privilege to engage with and learn from, were there to be one dominant emergent cry from them, it would have to do with the inordinate pressure they face; a pressure that squeezes the life out of any reflective habit that they might intend or wish to cultivate. It is a real concern. Leaders who fail to pause; who fail to take the time ‘to think’ will ultimately not survive the journey. When all is said and done, they might just end up doing more harm (to themselves and those closest to them…maybe even those they lead) than good.
As a leader you need to establish and then guard with everything at your disposal ‘time to think’. You need to rebalance the overriding emphasis that has spread like a leader’s cancer that always demands action, a ceaseless doing and a relentless activity that has falsely been accepted as the norm, as the way things are meant to be at the ‘top’. Here might be an incentive to more intentional thinking: As you do it, so you give ‘permission’ to those looking on (and there are always others looking on) to do the same. I don’t need to spell out the possibilities of a more intentional, thinking leadership team surely?
Confucius said that there are three methods by which we learn wisdom: By experience – which is the bitterest; by imitation – which is the easiest; by reflection – which is noblest. We need more ‘reflective’ leaders in today paradoxical, connected and often confusing world and it starts with taking the time to think.
It’s up to you.
“I don’t know”.
It was at 38 000’ on one of my many overseas trips that these words found a home in my thinking. I was watching the movie, ‘The Music Within’ and the full context (leadership is always context specific…but I think I may have already said that?) was an exchange between an aspiring orator and his coach / mentor. The student was on stage and had just delivered his speech for the Coach who sat in the empty theatre listening. After a lengthy pause the Coach said: “You like it up there?” (on the stage)
“Better than anything” replied the student.
“I don’t know”
“That is the first honest thing you have said”
The Coach then delivers his verdict that is, in spite of the student’s passion and talent, he is not yet ready to perform on the stage. He sends the down-hearted student away with these powerful words: “Go live your life; fill yourself up; find out what’s important, earn a point of view then come back when you have something to say”. As a leader, what is it that you are saying? From the stage you command, what message is being sent? All too often leaders don’t feel they can say from the platform, “I don’t know” but then maybe they should try it sometime and see what happens. Being authentic when you have the cloak of leadership is never easy and certainly never simple nor straightforward. For any leader to free themselves from the all-knowing ‘Commander-in-Chief’ can be both liberating and a measure of leadership growth. “I don’t know” can be a good first step on such a journey. At some point try a “I don’t know” and see what happens. It seems a good place to start.
It starts with you.
“If we know the present, we can calculate the future – it is not the conclusion that is wrong but the premise”…
is something that renowned German physicist, Werner Heisenberg once said. His statement has come to be known as, ‘Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle’ (although this expression of it represents a somewhat ‘loose translation’ or colloquial form of what is a rather complicated matter). Leaders who are ‘less certain’ about today are better equipped to deal with the ‘uncertainty’ of tomorrow. One of my all-time favourite quotes is that of Mark Twain who said, “It not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble but rather what we know for sure that just ain’t so”. Certainty kills curiosity; ready-answers stifle budding questions and ‘black and white’ thinking removes the ‘grey’ that is where paradox and ambiguity live. “So, what has this to do with my leadership?” you might be thinking. Leading in uncertainty and paradox is the, dare I say it, new terrain of leadership. In some or other measure these conditions have always been present but in today’s connected and colliding world, they are ever-present, dominant realities. They are realities that complicate your leadership thinking and practice; they are realities that demand different thinking, different practice, sharper awareness and certainly alternative skill-sets. Playwrite Robert Ardrey once said, “Not in our powers but in our paradoxes shall we search for the essence of man”. He could have been speaking directly to you as a leader. Uncertainty and paradox: These will be the key features in which and through which you will be required to lead. What form and shape are these twin challenges taking in your own leadership context at present? They might be out in the open and boldly daring confrontation or they might be disguised, hiding in the shadows – but know one thing, that whatever guise they have taken, they are present and cannot be ignored! All too often leaders are expected to ‘slay these dragons’ thereby creating calm security for those that unquestioning follow. I say, befriend them; embrace them, view them as essential allies in your leadership journey. They will demand that you think, grow and experiment. They will make both you and those that follow stronger and more resilient for such engagement. They will reveal new possibilities and help you question old assumptions that often act like a slow-killing poison to the very system designed to keep you alive and breathing – or what we might define within our organisation as ‘being successful’. If you want to lead and are serious about your leadership, then dealing with uncertainty and paradox is unavoidable and simply non-negotiable. The trick is not to view these twin realities as ‘the enemy’ but rather to embrace them as ‘your friends’ on your leadership journey.
Embrace uncertainty and paradox as part of you.
There is a lot more I could ‘take’ from my little black book and I want to thank you for the opportunity this has provided for me to rediscover, explore further and reminisce a little over the scribbles that fill the pages of this somewhat tattered and frayed little book. To be honest, I am not sure this is a ‘smart’ leadership article, most of which come packed in a clean, crisp and unambiguous language supported by a strong spine of ‘how to’s’ for you to implement. I know this for whenever I adopt such a style, these are the articles that seem to gain the most traction. It is a pity really because I think leadership is often reduced to a pretty list of ‘how to’s’ all neatly presented on a platter that ultimately does a disservice to the leadership struggle and the thinking required of leaders. Leadership is messy; it is hard and it requires that for the most part, you make your own way through the thicket.
I hope as you do so, these hitchhikers thoughts will serve some useful purpose and if they do, well why not share them with someone else. Not for my benefit, but for yours and for the conversations that might follow and rides that might result. Enjoy the journey and in the words of a traditional Hawaiian blessing (also taken from what is now, in part at least, ‘our’ little black book), ‘e ma lana pono’ which is…take care, be strong, stay integrated.