#18 – Build Capability Before You Need It

This is #18 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another one that I like a lot.


Since we know that nothing lasts forever, a healthy, necessary and realistic point of view for leaders to take is that whatever is working right now will not necessarily work next year. Rationally, we understand that. Emotionally, however, we are too frequently loathe to question ourselves when things are going well as if we might jinx our good fortune. Harry Potter taught an entire world of wizards that it was not only ok to “speak his name” (Voldemort, that is) but it was actually necessary to do so to have any chance of defeating him.

What follows are the direct and specific actions I believe leaders must take if they are to be successful in building capability for the future. I have divided the list into three categories: Developmental, Strategic and Cautionary.

DEVELOPMENTAL

1. Go to therapy. Don’t walk, run. Since many leaders are narcissists and all leaders have narcissistic qualities they are more fragile than they appear to be. (Both Michael Maccoby and Manfred Kets de Vries have written extensively and powerfully on the subject.) When they are wounded by criticism and questioning of their leadership they often don’t heal very quickly and may actually go to great lengths to even the score. As you know, it can get pretty ugly. And, since everything else I am about to advocate involves building infrastructure to question the system, leaders need to build a tough and thoughtful resilience to bear it well. They need to learn not to take every new idea for improvement as an indictment of their leadership but rather as a response to an invitation to keep getting better. For that to happen, those narcissistic wounds are better worked out in the therapist’s office than in the conference room. (If you’re wondering if someone’s a narcissist you can always just ask them.)

2. Send all key leaders to therapy. For all of the reasons stated above.

3. Or at least provide them with highly skilled coaching support. A great coaching relationship can and often does feel “therapeutic” (one senior leader I worked with referred to it as “couching”). The key is to have a safe, trustworthy partner to work through the holistic challenges of work, home and health. All necessary subjects for an effective executive to discuss and work on regularly.

4. Be more human than otherwise. That is to say, thoughtfully reveal your vulnerability, things you’re working on, the challenges you face. Items #1-3 will be very helpful in equipping you to do this. When you become accessible to your team as a human being you increase your power by strengthening your connections. Those connections become the lifeline for communication. And communication is at the heart of learning how to get better.

5. Treat people like adults. Respect them enough to be transparent about what’s going on. Be clear about what you need. Expect them to do the same for you. You’re not their mom or dad. You don’t have to protect them from the truth. You do need to give them a chance to rise to the occasion. If they can’t or don’t you’ll have the information you need to support them in their own development.

STRATEGIC

6. Make every leader accountable for a meaningful annual report of what needs to change in his or her function in the coming year. There is always something to improve. ALWAYS. Building in this kind of evaluative, reflective process expands our capacity for having hard discussions and normalizes the process of doing so. And this is to be done in open dialogue with the whole team, starting with the people who are actually doing the work each day. A simple question for them: if you could change one thing that would allow you to be more effective in fulfilling your job responsibility, what would it be? (Note: if you don’t get useful answers the first time around it’s probably because they don’t trust you enough to be honest. Earn that trust by keeping at it in a sincere and authentic way. If that’s hard for you, see item #1.)

7. Determine how you will change first. No meaningful change happens until the leader decides to change. Figure out what change in your behavior will help bring about the larger change initiative and get busy. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is not an invitation but an admonition.

8. Hold Pre and Post-mortem meetings for every project. In the pre meeting ask as many people as possible what they think could go wrong. Learn to anticipate the bumps and get your team ready to respond. The post-mortem is more of a no-brainer but usually overlooked because we’re already off to the next thing. Even a couple of simple questions – again, asked of all involved – will build openness and a greater capacity for learning: What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn about yourself and our team? 

9. Expect leaders to coach their teams and teach them how to do so. Here’s a fine job description for a key leader: spend time everyday understanding the business and how all the pieces fit together (educate your team about same); critically consider what’s working and what’s not in your function and engage your team in frequent dialogue about same; make plans for improvement by seeking as much perspective as possible; assign responsibilities to follow through on plans; provide coaching support and resources to ensure success; recognize and celebrate publicly and tangibly. This is a talking, engaging, coaching, critical thinking, relationship job. It is not a protect, defend, isolate, manipulate, scheme and otherwise preserve hierarchical hegemony job.

CAUTIONARY

10. Don’t pretend to do any of the above. Up to now, I’ve offered suggestions on what to “do.” Here’s my first and only “don’t do.” Any inauthentic attempt at any of the above will be sniffed out immediately and seen for the manipulative tactic that it is. You gotta mean it or don’t even bother. Good people will leave and you will be surrounded by scared people all too willing to tell you that you’re great and that what “we’re doing” is just right and will certainly last forever.

Until it doesn’t and you end up in therapy anyway.


collection of construction safety helmet

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Put Out Into Deep Water

Casting-Net-Maintenance

Each one of us has a net in which we capture an understanding of ourselves. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net in the shallow end of our experience, catching and re-catching what we have long known about ourselves, hoping that this time the limitations of our understanding won’t hold us back, won’t prevent us from getting closer to our heart’s desire.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who you are. Only then will you be equipped to determine what serves you and what must be thrown back. 

Each one of us has a net in which we gather the collective force of our connection to others. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net on the surface of our experience, keeping our relationships at a safe distance, rarely risking bringing them closer and almost never including someone new. We falsely believe that this distance protects us, reducing the risk of being known for who we truly are.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who loves you, just as you are. Only then will you be equipped to close the difficult distance between the fear of loss and the exponential truth of full relationship.  

Each one of us has a net in which we collect all the learning of our adult life. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do so very often, if ever. Instead, we toss our net in the shallow waters of what is known, comforted by the embrace of the status quo, keeping a wide territory between us and the edge of the new with its persistent threat of exposure, embarrassment and failure.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of new learning. Only then will you be equipped to say “I am, and always have been a beginner.” 

Each one of us has a net. It is large and strong. It works fine along the shore but it is built for deeper water.

It cannot throw itself.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

 

Independence Day

What it takes to form a nation:

Dedication to higher principles.
Clarification of identity.
Exploration of the unknown.
Devotion to a cause.
Consecration to learning.
Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice.

And, what’s at stake:

Freedom from tyranny.
Independence of purpose, thought and action.
Discovery of new frontiers.
Becoming your own authority.

What it takes to develop the self:

Dedication to higher principles.
Clarification of identity.
Exploration of the unknown.
Devotion to a cause.
Consecration to learning.
Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice.

And, what’s at stake:

Freedom from tyranny.
Independence of purpose, thought and action.
Discovery of new frontiers.
Becoming your own authority.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Put Out Into Deep Water

Casting-Net-Maintenance

Each one of us has a net in which we capture an understanding of ourselves. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net in the shallow end of our experience, catching and re-catching what we have long known about ourselves, hoping that this time the limitations of our understanding won’t hold us back, won’t prevent us from getting closer to our heart’s desire.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who you are. Only then will you be equipped to determine what serves you and what must be thrown back. 

Each one of us has a net in which we gather the collective force of our connection to others. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net on the surface of our experience, keeping our relationships at a safe distance, rarely risking bringing them closer and almost never including someone new. We falsely believe that this distance protects us, reducing the risk of being known for who we truly are.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who loves you, just as you are. Only then will you be equipped to close the difficult distance between the fear of loss and the exponential truth of full relationship.  

Each one of us has a net in which we collect all the learning of our adult life. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do so very often, if ever. Instead, we toss our net in the shallow waters of what is known, comforted by the embrace of the status quo, keeping a wide territory between us and the edge of the new with its persistent threat of exposure, embarrassment and failure.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of new learning. Only then will you be equipped to say “I am, and always have been a beginner.” 

Each one of us has a net. It is large and strong. It works fine along the shore but it is built for deeper water.

It cannot throw itself.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

 

Productive Disruption

I’m rereading one of my favorite books right now: Gordon MacKenzie’s, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. As Mackenzie describes it:

Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mind set, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards” – all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.

 To find orbit around a corporate Hairball is to find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy of the organization.

 Orbiting is nothing short of a manifesto for how to save our organizations from themselves by inspiring individuals to “counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity.” It is a call for the productive disruption of the status quo.

When I led the leadership development initiatives for TaylorMade Golf Company the centerpiece of our program was professional coaching. We established and trained a cadre of internal coaches to support the continuing development – the continuous learning – of the company’s leadership team.

Our focus was on offering highly personalized leadership development in the context of the system in which we were all operating but in such a way that we – coaches and clients alike – could learn to orbit the status quo of the TaylorMade hairball and productively challenge it from falling too much in love with it’s past successes.

We rationalized that through powerful coaching relationships our leaders would discover the ways in which they were stuck in the hairball and devise strategies for how to escape it. We wanted to help them confront the tendency to fit in when what the organization most needed was a leadership group also capable of effectively standing out.

The organization was winning in the marketplace. It had devised a formula that overwhelmed the industry and was able to replicate it through some impressive consistency and a better than average portion of good luck. And as the whispers in the hallways began to increase it was increasingly evident that fewer and fewer people believed it would last. The hairball grew bigger, making it more and more obvious – and less and less likely – that we needed to rally ourselves to some new thinking to counteract the inevitable decline of a once vaunted approach.

Coaching existed to help unlock all of that nascent thinking. But the organization – despite many outward expressions to the contrary – was neither ready nor willing to cultivate it into future capability. As a result, coaching became less about supporting leaders in getting out of the hairball and into productive orbit and more about helping leaders deal with the realities of the hairball as well as they could. It served a useful purpose but not the one it was designed to serve and certainly not the one necessary to ensure it’s future viability.

At a minimum this is a cautionary tale. Organizational leaders need to open their eyes to the limiting realities of the status quo and make sure that the efforts they make to counteract it are born out of an authentic commitment to change rather than the false pretense of feel-good initiatives.

At a maximum we need leaders who will wake up to the truth that the world is changing faster than ever and that desperate attempts to hang onto the past will only exacerbate the pain of the present. We need leaders who believe and proclaim, once and for all, that their very existence is predicated on their personal responsibility to preserve, protect and defend the productive disruption necessary for real and responsible change.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

Fitting In and Standing Out

When I last worked inside an organization I was chiefly responsible for leadership development. Fortunately (and with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps even amazingly), there was a portion of that time – about three years conservatively – when our team, along with the principal leadership of the company, operated within the context and with the qualities of deep alignment. Enough time has passed for me to see this period as distinct or even “special,” but not so much as to fall prey to the romanticism that so often accompanies a look to the past. This reflection certainly represents the limitations of my own perspective while it is informed by an awareness of the ease with which such reflections can become revisionist history.

The personal benefit to me of this three-year period of alignment is that, having experienced a time when the specific efforts I led – widely supported by many, many others of course – were in sync with the organization’s drive forward (serving as a propellant, you might say) gave me a high-water mark against which to compare the period when this was not the case. In fact, most of what I espouse today as a learning and leadership professional is rooted in the contrast that I observed between these periods of effectiveness (alignment) and ineffectiveness (misalignment). Seeing our work, work, and seeing it happen in real-time, even though we so often stumbled our way into our solutions with an experimenter’s mindset, provided a felt experience of the possible. Observing and even participating in the deconstruction of our co-created leadership development culture as we slowly but steadily drifted away from alignment provided the best learning of all, of course. It’s a truism that we learn more from our failures.

In that period of alignment there was an overarching sense of simplicity, something I believe to be a powerful indicator of whether or not any initiative is on track. In our case that simplicity took shape from a foundational understanding of what it is we were there to do. What were these leaders, coaches, facilitators, psychologists and training professionals really there to accomplish? What was the primary focus of our shared work in the context of a growing, changing, fast, aggressive, defensive, reactionary, closed, hit-you-right-between-the-eyes system? First, we were there to bind the anxiety of leaders working in a challenging environment (see the aforementioned cultural characteristics) and, second, we were there to facilitate the capacity of our leaders to operate more effectively on the continuum of “fitting in” and “standing out.”

Larry Hirschorn (Passion and Group Life, 2003) identifies this continuum as moving from “heartfulness” (fitting in) on one end to “narcissism” (standing out) on the other. It was on this platform that we were running our campaign of outreach and intervention. Our leadership services – primarily one-on-one coaching augmented by quarterly small group learning events – weren’t advertised this way in a specific sense but you didn’t have to hang around the place for long to understand that narcissism/standing out was the one note played the best and most often. It was a culture of communal one-upsmanship where the senior leader in the room would consistently “suck up all of the emotional oxygen” (Hirschorn, 2003).

In a very real way the narcissistic drive comes from a scarcity mindset, that there’s never enough (love, recognition, opportunity, connection, money, purpose, pleasure, etc.) to go around so I better get all I can before anyone else does. But that is the darker side of narcissism, an individual and organizational quality that is essential for moving towards what one wants to achieve, the pursuit of one’s passion. Heartfulness, on the other hand, suggests that there is plenty for all of us, even in the pursuit of our passion. And this is key: that we can and must (for our individual and organizational livelihoods) move toward what we want and do so in a way that preserves and even upholds other’s needs and interests without single-mindedly destroying what stands in our way. This is the heart of heartfulness.

Our commitment to engaging our leaders on this continuum showed up in the very design of the work itself. One-on-one professional coaching, in large part, helped to more productively and constructively feed the narcissism side of the continuum. “My coach” became a common refrain among the leadership, exemplifying in the early stages the pride or prestige that comes with being among the included. If coaching created a feeling of “specialness” among those leaders it also provided a forum to assert the qualities of narcissism, good and bad, necessary to be experienced by anyone whose job it is to lead teams to specific outcomes in a demanding environment. It was an hour every other week that was “all about me.” With the support of a well-qualified coach the layers of those narcissistic qualities could be examined and played out to enormous impact.

The quarterly small group off sites, on the other hand, were “all about us.” Those interactions had more of a playground feel where each individual could practice integrating their narcissistic individualism with the necessary responsibility to be a caretaker for the whole. Conversely, one could practice the less discussed but equally imperative “standing out,” especially if one’s orientation was more on the “fitting in” or “heartfulness” end of the spectrum. These groups were both small enough that you couldn’t hide and large enough that you had to share the space for it to be productive. And please know that I am not suggesting we discovered some sort of magical “I, thou” equilibrium. We most certainly did not. What we did discover was that learning to operate along the continuum rather than where one feels most comfortable is a necessarily slow, iterative and redundant process. What we were doing was, in fact, countercultural and therefore the most necessary work. We were fortunate to stave off rebellion which reinforces just how aligned, if only for a short time, we actually were.

Our goal, in line with Hirschorn’s admonition, was not an either/or proposition suggesting that if you were comfortable on one end you “should” move to the other. Rather, it was to expand the leader’s capacity to move freely along the continuum with awareness and purpose, born of the heavy lifting of self-reflection. I do not prescribe what we attempted as some sort of “off the shelf” solution for building organizational leadership capacity in the face of complexity and change. We wrote our playbook as the game progressed. Instead, I share it in the hope that the integration of these capabilities – narcissism and heartfulness, standing out and fitting in – will become more centrally located in the dialogue of aligned leadership development practices.