Sunday, October 25, 2009

Leading Ladies in Leadership

ESPN’s Graham Hays wrote a story about a women’s softball game between two conference opponents back in 2008. The game was played between Western Oregon and Central Washington. Western Oregon won the game 4-2. Both schools compete as Division II softball programs in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. At first glance, this may sound like a routine game. The events that transpired that day were truly amazing.

Western Oregon senior Sara Tucholsky had never hit a homerun in her career. Tucholsky came to the plate in the top of the second inning of the second game with two runners on base. A part-time starter throughout her four years, she was the unsung player at the plate about to crush the ball over the center field fence for the first home run of her career.

Filled with emotion as she began rounding of the bases, Tucholsky missed the tag at first, reversed direction to tag the base, and then it happened. Her right knee gave out. Lying in agony from a torn ACL, Tucholsky tried to reach the bag.

Confusion about the rules temporarily left the outcome of her hit in doubt. Unable to continue under her own strength, would a substitute runner nullify the home run? Moments before making the decision to bring in a substitution, the unexpected happened.

Central Washington senior Mallory Holtman, the team’s home run leader, asked the officials if they could carry her around the bases. Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace lifted Tucholsky off the ground and supported her weight between them as they carried her around the bases. They stopped at each base until they carried her across home plate into the waiting arms of her teammates.

As they crossed home plate, the crowd stood and cheered their incredible display of sportsmanship. Holtman and Wallace returned to the field and tried to win the game, but that play decidedly was the most memorable one of the game.

Leadership exploits show up in unexpected ways and are demonstrated by unsung heroes. The selfless acts of leadership exhibited that day give hope as we look at the leaders of tomorrow. Here are three reasons to be optimistic.

Leaders step up at the right time. The young ladies that carried Tucholsky around the bases had every reason not to do it. But they realized at the end of the day it was not about winning or losing a ball game, what they did was a random act of kindness.

The right time to step up is not necessarily dictated by circumstances, or when it is time to close a deal, or when a championship is on the line. Characters high calling to humility can be demonstrated in board rooms and on ball fields at any given time.

Leaders step up at the right place. The sportsmanship of Holtman and Wallace was remarkable. Everything that the team had worked so hard to achieve was on the line. Without prompting or coercion these ladies placed the team in a position that ultimately cost them the game, but set them apart as true leaders.

My belief is that the underlying principles of leadership were already in tact with these young ladies. A leader understands that her time to step up may come when least expected. Holtman and Wallace were in the right place at the right time and allowed their leadership to shine.

Leaders step up for the right reasons. Leadership is about seizing opportunities when presented. Tucholsky had never hit a home run in her career. Holtman held her school’s record for them. They could not have been further apart in terms of their respective abilities. Holtman knew what this home run would mean to her and thus offered to carry her around the bases. In leadership, being right is not as important as doing the right thing.

Western Oregon coach Pam Knox put the game in perspective saying, “It was such a lesson we all learned—that it is not all about winning. And we forget that, because as coaches, we are always trying to get to the top. We forget that. But I will never, ever forget this moment. It has changed me, and I am sure it has changed my players.”

The Western Oregon women’s softball team teaches us that whether in business, sports, or life in general, to get ahead you sometimes have to give up, and a greater victory comes when you give someone else a lift.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Support Pillars and Optical Illusions

Nino Lo Bello writes in European Detours about Sir Christopher Wren and his design of Windsor Town Hall near London. Built in 1689, the ceiling was supported by pillars. After city fathers had inspected the finished building, they decided the ceiling would not stay up and ordered Wren to put in some more pillars.

England’s greatest architect did not think the ceiling needed any more support, so he pulled a fast one. He added four pillars that did not do anything – they did not even reach the ceiling. The optical illusion fooled municipal authorities, and today the four sham pillars amuse many tourists.

Within every organization is a need for pillars – they are the go-to people who are steadfast and committed to success. These pillars are grounded in the qualities that inspire confidence and shape an in-house culture of excellence.

Support pillars are not hard to spot. Their qualities are indispensable, transferable, and attainable. Develop these leadership qualities within your organization and you will have a firm foundation.

Pillars rise to the top. A pillar not only represents the foundation of a building or organization, but symbolically represents its potential. Pillars in your organization rise to the top because they have paid the price with respect to hard work, reputation building, and trust. Pillars on a building are placed there by the builder. Pillars in the organization grow there over time.

Pillars give support to others. Structurally, pillars provide cover and keep things in place. Organizationally, the principle works the same. Pillars give support to those around them in order for others to thrive and succeed.

The residual effect of a pillar is in how his support is reciprocated. Leadership expert John Maxwell said, “If you continually help others, then others will eventually want to help you. Just remember: It’s not how heavy the load is. It’s how you carry it.”

Pillars stand the test of time. By design, pillars are placed strategically to fortify a structure. Come what may, pillars are the anchors of your organization. In like manner, leadership pillars have stood the test of time, gained wisdom that is acquired through experience, and offer the maturity needed to mentor future pillars.

C.S. Lewis said, “What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear.” The pillars of your organization are the guardians of the warning signs; tested, experienced, trustworthy, and grounded.

In as much as there is a need for pillars within each organization, one must not turn a blind eye to the presence of illusions either. In a rather creative way, Wren fooled the municipal authorities of his day by adding what appeared to be additional pillars to the building. It looked the part but it did not play the part.

In your organization optical illusions look and sound like team members, but at the end of the day, they are only in it for themselves. Distinguishing pillars from illusions is made easier due to the last characteristic. This last characteristic runs contrary to the illusion masqueraded by the pretender.

Pillars cast a big shadow. Pillars understand that their rise to the top is only successful as they raise others up to the same stature. A strong team is built not by a handful of pillars but by a cast of them. Rather than rely of the strength of a small number of pillars, the team thrives because of a host of them.

Pillars encourage team members to perform at optimum levels. Mark Sanborn said, “Remarkable performers see in others what they have discovered in themselves-the ability to reach unexplored and unanticipated levels of performance. They inspire others through their own performances, instruct others through their own teaching, and help others improve through their encouragement.”

Be encouraged to rise to your full potential, support others along the way, stand the test of time, and cast a big shadow. As you do, you will stand among the pillars.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Power of Simplicity

The story is told of a man flying in a hot air balloon who realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon and shouts, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?” The man below says, “Yes, you are in a hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field.”

“You must work in information technology,” says the balloonist. “I do,” replies the man. “How did you know?’ “Well,” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but it is of no use to anyone.”

The man below says, “You must work in management.” “I do” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?” “Well, says the man, “you don’t know where you are, or where you are going, but you expect me to be able to help you. You are in the same position you were before we met, but now it’s my fault.”

Ever had one of those encounters? At some point we all have. Often, our expectations are fueled by our perceptions. Perceptions can be deceptive, and while expectations need to be high, they also must be realistic.

In his book, Rules of Thumb, Alan M. Webber shares some practical wisdom about the roles of leadership. “The problem today,” says Webber,” is too much information sharing and not enough sense making: too many messages, too many meetings, too many e-mails, too many change programs, too many changes in direction. The problem only gets worse when the stakes go up-when a company is facing a crisis, when it’s up against an innovative competitor and the old ways won’t work. That’s when too many leaders give in to the temptation to ramp up the volume an amp up the adrenaline. The result: an already overtaxed system collapses from overload.”

I neither want to overstate nor understate the idea here, but a fresh look at simplicity may be in order. Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” If your organization is on the brink of collapse due to “one more meeting” for the sake of a meeting, or one more organizational makeover, then take these ideas into consideration.

Simplify your mission. Simplicity of mission is not dumbing- down the mission, nor does it equate to less work. It means working with a smarter understanding of the mission and how to achieve its stated purpose.

Simplifying the mission is about people in your organizational structure being able to connect the dots because leadership made sure they saw the big picture and knew where the ship was headed. To this end; meetings, when called, should be intentional and with a purpose, people should be empowered and trusted, common sense should prevail.

Simplify communication. Survey most people within any organization and one of the top frustrations is that of communication. Over the years, I have seen up close how morale is sacrificed at the expense of clear, open, and relevant communication. When key personnel are kept in the dark, when office politics stifle ideas, the consequences can be costly. As Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”

If communication is to make sense and be simple, the following should be examined carefully: the methods, the intended audience, the desired outcome, and the frequency. If one of these methods is out of balance; there is potential for problems down the line. Communication is the life blood of your organization. If you don’t communicate well internally don’t expect communication to go well externally.

Is your organization about to buckle under from the weight of too much information and not enough sense making? Perhaps it is time as Henry David Thoreau said to, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you have imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”

Keep it simple.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Who's Got Your Back?

It’s an amazing story that perhaps you have heard. I read it again recently in a story by Rick Reilly for Sports Illustrated. The Father-son duo of Rick and Dick Hoyt are an amazing team. Together they have competed in marathons and triathlons. They have competed together and finished hundreds of races together. Each time they cross the finish line they do so at the same time- every time.

What you may not be aware of is that Rick is disabled. In each marathon they compete in, Dick is pushing his son in a wheelchair the entire 26.2 miles. Not only has he pushed him 26.2 miles in a wheelchair, but has towed him 2.4 miles in a dinghy while swimming, and pedaled him 112 miles in a seat on the handlebars- all in the same day.

Rick was strangled by the umbilical cord during birth, leaving him brain-damaged and unable to control his limbs. The doctors told them that he would be a vegetable the rest of his life, but he Hoyt’s weren’t buying it. Now together, they have competed in more than two hundred triathlons, and four 15-hour Ironmans in Hawaii.

The incredible story of Rick and Dick Hoyt is truly an inspiration and one with obvious leadership ramifications. What the Hoyt family has endured and overcome tends to put a new twist on the perceived problems we think we have. By looking at the Hoyt’s as an example of a team that never quits, I believe these simple truths can help us. Watch the video:

The simple truth- experts can be wrong. Peter Ustinov once said, “If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.” When the Hoyt’s were given the grim news that their son would be a vegetable the rest of his life, they challenged that assumption. Despite being told that there was nothing going on in Rick’s brain, the reality was quite different.

The Hoyt’s are but one example of what you are being told everyday by experts on the economy and business. Everyday someone is giving a forecast that, if not challenged, will stifle your adventurous spirit to grow your business, hire that new employee, and buck the trends. The Hoyt’s didn’t buy the negative report, and neither should you. I am not suggesting you throw caution to the wind and not exercise due diligence, but sometimes when your head says “no”, you have to listen to your heart.

The simple truth- what appears to be a disability to one is a marathon to another. Rigged with a computer that allowed him to control the cursor by touching a switch with the side of his head, Rick was finally able to communicate. First words? “Go Bruins!” And after a high school classmate was paralyzed in an accident and the school organized a charity run for him, Rick pecked out, “Dad, I want to do that.” Although the initial training was difficult, Dick got in shape and the marathons began.

“Opportunity is missed by most people,” Thomas Edison said, “because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Dick Hoyt had to train like never before to get ready for the marathons. Dick’s devotion to his son was worth the sacrifice in order for Rick’s dream to become a reality. When you embrace your challenges as opportunities it’s then you discover the power of possibilities you never knew existed. Don’t miss the opportunities before you because you missed this simple truth; your marathon awaits you.

The simple truth is – you can go farther than you ever imagined when someone has your back. During a race a few years back, Dick had a mild heart attack. “If you had not been in such great shape,” a doctor told him,”you probably would have died 15 years ago.” As it turns out, Dick and Rick saved each other’s life.

Babe Ruth said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” When you commit to your team, share common values and goals, and have each other’s backs, you can go the distance. Despite obstacles along the way, each challenge is overcome when each member gives their all.

Whose back do you have?

© 2009 Doug Dickerson