Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Power of Impact Leaders; How Little Things Make a Big Difference

It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.
- John Wooden

I recently came across a story by Robert McGarvey about former NBA coach Pat Riley. He shares that when Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers from 1982 to 1990, the team won four NBA Championships. In taking over the New York Knicks in 1991, Riley inherited a team with a losing record. But the Knicks seemed able to play above their abilities and even gave the eventual champions, the Chicago Bulls, their hardest competition in the playoffs.

McGarvey writes that Riley attributed his success to paying attention to detail. For example, every NBA team studies videotape and compiles statistics to evaluate players’ game and performances. But Riley’s use of these tools is more comprehensive than that of his rivals. “We measure areas of performance that are often ignored: jumping in pursuit of every rebound even if you don’t get it, swatting at every pass, diving for loose balls, letting someone smash into you in order to draw a foul,” says Riley.

After each game, the “effort” statistics are punched into a computer. “Effort,” Riley explains, “is what ultimately separates journeyman players from impact players. Knowing how well a player executes all these little things is the key to unlocking career best performances.”

Like Coach Riley, impact leaders understand that it is by attention to the little details that you and your team go from journeymen to impact players. A Persian Proverb says, “Do little things now; so shall big things come to thee by and by asking to be done.” Great things await the leader who prevails in overcoming the small things. Here are three details that impact leaders perfect to become the best and move the organization forward.

Impact leaders communicate vision. George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Impact leaders will not leave to chance that the vision of the company has been clearly communicated and that everyone is on board with its execution.

The implementation of the corporate vision is completed by team members who have the trust and confidence of their leader. John Kotter said, “People are more inclined to be drawn in if their leader has a compelling vision. Great leaders help people get in touch with their own aspirations and then will help them forge those aspirations into a personal vision.” And this is the secret of impact leaders who communicate vision.

Impact leaders create a culture of growth. When a culture of growth is encouraged within your organization it unleashes the creative talent your team members bring to the table. John Maxwell said, “No matter what level you’re on, leadership skills are needed at that level. Each new level requires a higher degree of skill. Your best chance of making it into the next level of “league play” is to grow on the current level so that you will be able to go to the next level.”

When impact leaders provide opportunities for personal growth within the organization it is laying the foundation for the whole team to shine. Billy Hornsby said, “It’s okay to let those you lead outshine you, for if they shine brightly enough they will reflect positively on you.” Organizational growth is achieved when the personal growth of the team becomes a priority.

Impact leaders are relationship builders. An antiquated leadership style would suggest a more fragmented practice and understanding of the power of relationships. In this structure team members are viewed suspiciously, the flow of information is selective, and trust is a far-fetched reality.

Mark Sanborn writes, “Everyday we interact with dozens of people. Often those interactions are fleeting and unmemorable. Freds, however, don’t use people as a means to an end; they use relationships to build a foundation for success. They understand that all outcomes are created by and through interactions with others. So they become students of social psychology. They understand that strong relationships create loyalty and are the basis of partnerships and teamwork.”

Impact leaders are committed to communicating vision, creating a culture of growth, and are relationship builders. As impact leaders focus on these details they create an environment in which the organization can prosper. Are you paying attention to the little details?

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Are You a Redemptive Leader?

Life’s greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved.
- Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

During my last visit to London a few years back, I had the wonderful opportunity to take my wife to West End to see the musical Les Misérables based on the novel by Victor Hugo. It was a magnificent performance and one of the highlights of the trip.

Les Miserables is one of the classics that never fails to inspire and reminds us of the power of redemption. Jean Valjean is the main character who spent years in prison for stealing bread for his sister and her family. After his release from prison he is required to carry a special passport that identifies him as an ex-convict. Forced to sleep on the streets, Valjean grows increasingly despondent.

Valjean is taken in by the charitable Bishop Myriel. During the night, Valjean steals the Bishop’s silverware and flees. Soon Valjean is caught but instead of identifying Valjean as the thief, Bishop Myriel claims that the silverware was actually a gift. Bishop Myriel gives him the candlesticks and ridicules him in front of the police for leaving behind the most expensive pieces. Bishop Myriel reminds Valjean of the promise he made to use the silver to make an honest man of himself.

John Wooden said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” And this is the essence and practice of leadership. Along the way, you will make mistakes and so will your team. And if we are certain that mistakes are going to be made then we must take into account acts of redemption. Here are three questions to ask when dealing with mistakes and how to effectively harness your redemptive leadership skills.

What can we learn? When mistakes are made; be it from poor communication, poor judgment, or another break down in the system, it is important to understand why. Our initial reaction typically is to assign blame, but that is secondary. Redemptive leadership is exhibited when discovering what went wrong is understood and everyone in the company learns from the experience.

As an act of redemptive leadership, an insight by Norman Vincent Peale is a gem for all leaders. Peale said, “We’ve all heard that we have to learn from our mistakes, but I think it’s more important to learn from our successes. If you learn only from your mistakes, you are inclined to learn only errors.” Leadership is a learning process. Successes and mistakes are included in the mix. At the end of the day it is not so much about who made the mistake but what was learned.

What can we teach? Jim Rohn said, “A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.” In failure or success, a redemptive leader seizes upon teachable moments to elevate his team to a new level.

Leaders do not always choose the lessons they teach. In a perfect world everyone communicates well, mistakes are seldom made, customers are always happy, and the bottom line is always strong. Elbert Hubb`rd said, “The teacher is the one who gets the most out of the lessons, and the true teacher is the learner.” Your capacity to teach others is found in your ability to learn and to apply lessons from the totality of your experiences.

What can we change? This is one of the great challenges of leadership. The ability to adapt and change will determine the future of your company. C.S. Lewis wittingly surmised the situation for leaders when he said, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” In practicality, we must not only identify what needs to change but have the courage to act.

And this is the challenge of redemptive leadership. If you do not learn from your mistakes, if teachable moments go unheeded, change will not occur. You and your company will perpetuate a climate of what could have been in place of what could be.

Successful leaders and productive companies understand the power of redemptive leadership and the importance of what can be learned, what can be taught, and what needs to change. Are you a redemptive leader?

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Saturday, September 11, 2010

How Safe Are Your Assumptions?

You must stick to your convictions, but be ready to abandon your assumptions.
- Denis Waitley

A story I read not long ago told of how for centuries people believed that Aristotle was right when he said that the heavier an object, the faster it would fall to earth. Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of all time, and surely he would not be wrong.

Anyone, of course, could have taken two objects, one heavy and one light, and dropped them from a great height to see whether or not the heavier object landed first. But no one did until nearly 2,000 years after Aristotle’s death.

In 1589 Galileo summoned learned professors to the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then he went to the top and pushed off a ten-pound and a one-pound weight. Both landed at the same instant. The power of belief was so strong, however, that the professors denied their eyesight. They continued to believe Aristotle was right.

While it is easy to find that illustration amusing, it should serve as a reminder for leaders that we must be careful about the assumptions we make as we lead our organizations. The most dangerous thing a leader can do is to assume that the way the company has operated the past twenty years will be good enough for the next twenty, or that morale is good because no one tells you otherwise, or that your leadership is still effective.

There is an old adage about making assumptions and what the end result is. A wise leader will call old assumptions into question and evaluate where he is and whether he is on the right track in moving forward. To help you understand where you are and if old assumptions are holding you back, ponder these three questions.

Are your assumptions based on old facts or new realities? In Aristotle’s day, his pronouncement that the heavier object would fall to earth faster became a settled belief. It was faulty in its facts but nonetheless perceived to be true.

Companies that rely on outdated facts and methods of operation are limited to the potential of those facts. As new realities emerge, outdated facts will only serve to choke out the life and potential of the company. The faulty assumption is that you cannot adapt to the present without somehow disrespecting the past. I strongly disavow that notion and warn leaders not to fall prey to that false assumption. You can embrace new realities while preserving your principles.

Is your future as a leader hindered by old assumptions? Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of his day and to challenge his wisdom would be an unspeakable offense. So the people of his day did what many do now-- they adopted the philosophy of “go along to get along”. In doing so, otherwise nice people ignorantly went along with the conventional wisdom of the day.

John Agno said, “Leaders are born with an innate talent to question conventional wisdom.’ And this is a necessary endeavor if your company is going to survive. Aristotle’s fallacy became a settled fact. It was left unchecked for nearly 2,000 years until someone dared to think differently. Until old assumptions are challenged can you honestly say you have reached your full potential? Don’t hold yourself or your company back by living in the past.

Can you handle the truth? When Aristotle’s long held belief was put to the test and proven wrong by Galileo in 1589, the assembled group of professors refused to believe what they saw. They held on to the old assumption in spite of the evidence. Old assumptions die hard.

Writing in his book, Rules of Thumb, Alan M. Webber says, “Old lines are blurring and blending. And solutions are becoming more creative, innovative, and effective. What happens when old categories no longer fit reality? You can keep trying to cram new realities into old categories. Or you can invent new categories that fit new realities. One path leads to irrelevance. The other leads to innovation.” And this new reality places you at the crossroads.

How safe are your assumptions? As you embrace new realities, be prepared to move forward with renewed innovation and opportunity.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Litmus Test for Leaders – ‘Is this thing still flying?’

The reward for being a good problem solver is to be heaped with more and more difficult problems to solve.
- Buckminster Fuller

Writing for Reader’s Digest a few years back, Captain Alan Bean writes about his Apollo 12 mission. Bean states, “Test pilots have a litmus test for evaluating problems. When something goes wrong, they ask,”Is this thing still flying?” If the answer is yes, then there’s no immediate danger, no need to overreact.

When Apollo 12 took off, the spacecraft was hit by lightning. The entire console began to glow with orange and red trouble lights. There was a temptation to “Do Something!” But the pilots asked themselves, “Is this thing still flying in the right direction?” The answer was yes – it was headed to the moon. They let the lights glow as they addressed the individual problems, and watched orange and red lights blink out, one by one. That’s something to think about in any pressure situation. If your thing is flying, think first, and then act.”

Bean describes the litmus test that test pilots use to prepare for any scenario that comes their way. Likewise, a wise leader, while not obsessing over things that can go wrong, must exercise a degree of competence and skill that puts his company on sound footing in times of crisis.

The questions the test pilots ask are ones that will serve you well as a leader. The questions are tactical, and with the guidance of a steady leader will be an asset to your company. When things go wrong here are three questions to ask.

Is this thing still flying?—Evaluation. Bean observed that the temptation is to "do something!" Human nature dictates that when something bad happens we are to respond. But at times, our response is disproportionate to the size of the problem. In our knee-jerk reactions, we overreact.

Maya Lin said, “To fly we have to have resistance.” What perceptive leaders understand is that not all resistance is negative. While some may think the obstacles the company faces will ground them, a wise leader sees it as the very thing needed to give them flight.

When trouble comes and testing occurs the first reaction is not action, it is asking the right question – “is this thing still flying?” When a leader accurately answers this question setting the right course becomes much easier.

Is this thing still flying in the right direction? – Observation. This is critical to the success of the mission. If you are not on the right course, it doesn’t matter how fast you are flying, you will only get to the wrong destination quicker.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The great thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving.” The test of your leadership and that of your organization is not whether you can face times of adversity and testing, but whether you can honestly evaluate where you are and what, if anything, you need to do about it. If you can answer the first two questions then it is time to honestly answer the third.

Is the right leadership in place? – Competence. Not all test pilots become astronauts. While their skills and abilities are admirable, not all have the right stuff. When it comes to the astronaut corps, only the best are chosen.

While it is a delicate question to ask, it is a legitimate one that needs an answer. It could be that that the leader that brought you to where you are will not, nor should be, the one to take you forward. Better to have the right leader in times of adversity than the wrong leader in times of prosperity.

How you evaluate problems as a leader will determine how your team perceives them and how they will overcome them. Evaluate properly, observe wisely, and be sure the right leader is showing the way.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson