Leadership is messy

Plus - 12 best books I read last year - book 3 of 12

In renowned psychologist Alison Gopnik’s must-read book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, she makes a seemingly too obvious statement: “Children are messy.”

It’s not a new or radical thought, but sometimes we don’t need to be taught something new as much as simply reminded of something important but perhaps out of mind.

My two-year-old grandson, Benjamin, recently had a meltdown in a nice restaurant. Yep, children are messy. He drew a nice picture of a house, dog, and moon—on the wall of our hallway. Yep, children are messy. I could go on ad infinitum, but you get my drift.

When these mishaps occur, reminding myself that “children are messy” seems to help me deal with them. Perhaps just anticipating that unfortunate things will happen ameliorates the discomfort.

Now, let’s switch applications. Here’s a reminder to leaders: leadership is messy.

  • No matter how conscientious you are about hiring good people, you’ll make mistakes.
  • Well-thought-out strategies that you consider bulletproof will sometimes fail.
  • Earn a black belt in internal communications, but you’ll still have embarrassing moments of confusion and misalignment in your organization.
  • Even though you carefully negotiate dismissing an under-performing staff member, you still might get sued.

Work hard at leading well, but don’t be surprised or overly discouraged when things fall apart or get messy. Don’t be cavalier about breakdowns, but don’t let them disrupt your confidence or determination.

The constant challenges that leaders face may cause you to rethink being one. You may be happier and more fulfilled in a non-leadership role—functioning as an achiever rather than a leader. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Raising children and leading an organization have one thing in common: both are messy.

Here’s a video of a smart leader responding to a difficult situation.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

12 best books I read last year – book 3 of 12

The Road to Character  – David Brooks

A great treatise on character illustrated by a brief biography of major characters (Eisenhower, Augustine, Dorothy Day, George Eliot, and others). Click here for more information from Amazon.

Avoid situations in which a “no” is more powerful than a “yes”

In a 50/50 relationship—where each person has equal authority—a “no” is more powerful than a “yes.” For instance, in a marriage in which the 50/50 rule is in place, if one spouse says, “Let’s go out to eat on Friday,” and the other says, “No; I don’t want to,” the latter rules. “No” trumps “yes.”

This seems unfair to me.

This quirkish adulteration of fairness is particularly potent and unsavory when one person in the 50/50 relationship tends to be negative and pessimistic, or controlling, or indecisive, or inordinately passive.

How can we avoid this situation?

  • One obvious way is to avoid 50/50 relationships. Just one degree—a 51/49 relationship—can make a difference. (Just hope you possess that extra one percent.)
  • Spread the power among three or more people, perhaps a 33/33/34 scenario, so that one person cannot control.
  • Establish a measure of independence in decision making; don’t frame an issue in terms that require consensus: “I’m going out to eat on Friday. Would you like to join me?”
  • Carefully craft the initial statement such that you can say “no.” You: “What would you like to do on Friday for dinner?” Other person’s reply: “Stay at home.” You: “No, I don’t want to do that.” In which case your “no” might prevail over the other person’s preference.

I’m not advocating that we become manipulative and self-serving. I am suggesting that we avoid being manipulated and controlled and that we establish balance of power in mutual relationships.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Conflict is inevitable; combat is optional. Pursue peace in relationships.

At work and at home, conflicts are inevitable. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. So don’t be surprised when relationships are strained, but do proactively try to resolve the conflicts.

Here are some things to consider.

Misunderstandings are a natural byproduct of progress.

An ancient proverb says, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest.” There’s something implied but omitted in this phrase; do you see it? My paraphrase of this proverb is: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean; but where there are oxen working, there’s going to be a lot of excrement that needs to be cleaned up.”

Whenever a group of people (oxen) are engaged in activity (producing a harvest), mishaps will happen. Whenever people work together, things get messy. And the more people involved and the busier they are, the messier it gets.

Take the initiative to restore the peace.

In strained relationships, someone must take the first step toward restitution. You be that person. You may be reluctant to do so because “I didn’t start the conflict” or “I’m not the main offender.” Regardless, you can be the peacemaker.

Settle matters quickly.

Misunderstandings seldom resolve themselves and they usually get worse when ignored. Address difficult issues sooner than later.

Distinguish between issues that need to be dropped and those that should be addressed.

If taken to an extreme, obsessing about peace in relationships can have an unsettling effect. If I feel compelled to address every minor irritation that comes my way, I’ll unnecessarily stir up the relational waters. Some issues just need to be dropped.
Consider this suggestion when you’re upset, but if someone else is upset, don’t dismiss their feelings as unimportant or trivial: “Yeah, I know Bob’s upset about being surprised at the meeting, but it’s not a big deal; he just needs to drop it.”

You may need to help arbitrate other people’s quarrels and misunderstandings.

At times, you’ll need to intervene in relational tiffs in which you are not personally involved. If you’re a leader, you’ll do this often.
This might involve encouraging someone to take action: “John, I think that you and Bob need to get together and talk out your differences.” Or, you may need to get directly involved: “John, let me set up a meeting with you, Bob, and me so that this issue can be addressed.”

Sometimes our pursuit of peace will fail.

For relational conflicts to be resolved, everyone involved must do their part to establish peace. Sometimes our sincere effort to resolve an issue won’t work because the other party cannot or will not agree to a peaceful resolution.

Click here for suggestions on how to structure a peace-seeking conversation.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Own your problems

Register now for the Sept. 27-28 Lead Well workshop

Last summer, I boarded a flight from Dallas/Ft. Worth to Seattle. I had priority boarding so I was among the first passengers on the plane. Normally this is a good thing but not in this instance because the plane was stiflingly hot.

I asked a flight attendant, “It’s very hot inside the plane; has the air conditioning been turned on?” (I have been on flights where the answer to this question was “no”; so I thought I’d start with the obvious.) The attendant basically ignored me.

Five minutes later, I crawled upstream to the front of the airplane (passengers were still boarding), when another flight attendant stopped me. Our conversation went something like this:

  • She said, “Sir, may I help you?”
  • I said, “It’s very hot inside the plane; has the captain turned on the air conditioning?”
  • She said, “The air conditioning is not working 100%.”
  • I said, “Ma’m, the air conditioning is not working 20%.”
  • She said, “Yes, it is warm.”
  • I said, “Why is that?”
  • She said, “The supplemental ground AC unit is not working. When possible, we’ll start the engines and start the AC.”
  • I said, “Well, that explains that. Does the captain know all of this?”
  • She said, “I’ll make sure he does.”

Five minutes later, the captain, in what sounded to me like a cheerful but rather flippant and patronizing tone of voice said over the intercom, “Well good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for joining us on this flight to Seattle. This is captain Snotnose (not his real name). Sorry about the temperature, yeah…we’re having some issues, should be okay once we’re in the air. Thanks for your patience.”

I understand that mechanical things break. I wasn’t upset at that. But it bothered me that no one took ownership of the problem, and only after someone (me) complained was an explanation given.

Here’s my advice:

  1. When something goes wrong on your watch, don’t ignore it, hide it, or minimize it—own it. (The AC is not working 100%?)
  2. Don’t blame someone else even though someone else may be complicit. (The ground crew may have forgotten to service the supplemental AC unit, but I’m on your plane.)
  3. Don’t use the phrase, “Thank you for your patience.” (I was not patient about this issue. That comment is presumptuous and dismissive and it makes things worse.)
  4. As soon as there’s a problem, acknowledge it to those affected. Don’t wait until they complain. (We were all perspiring; the problem was evident.)
  5. Explain why the problem is happening; a good explanation won’t fix the problem but it will lessen frustration.
  6. When possible, offer some type of compensation, even if it is token. (The stewardess did offer me a cup of ice but I declined; because everyone was suffering from the heat, everyone should be offered a reprieve.)
  7. Be empathetic. During the plane incident, a simple, “Sir, I’m very sorry about the temperature issue; I know it’s very discomforting.” would have helped ameliorate the tension.
  8. Don’t hesitate to apologize.

U.S. President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk that said, The buck stops here. He didn’t coin the phrase, but he did popularize it.

The saying is derived from the expression passing the buck, common in poker gameplay. It came to mean “passing blame” or absolving oneself of responsibility or concern by denying authority or jurisdiction over a given matter.

The phrase means that no excuses will be made. The speaker is taking full responsibility for what is happening rather than passing on the responsibility.

In life and leadership, we must own our problems. The buck stops with us.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Lead Well fall workshop – September 27-28 Click here for more information.