Can you help me?

Last summer I was invited to be a guest lecturer in the College of Business at Cal State San Marcos University here in San Diego. Those first two classes allowed me to fulfill a longtime goal of teaching at the college level, and it is as challenging and fulfilling as I hoped it would be. I accepted two more class assignments this spring, eager for the chance to apply my lessons learned from the first semester and to see the experience less from the narrow perspective of survival and more from the advantaged point of view of having come this way before.

As the school year comes to a close and I anticipate continuing my affiliation with the University in semesters ahead, I find myself thinking about one interaction – one conversation – this spring that helped me to get fundamentally clear about my “why?” for teaching.

I am a leadership coach and consultant by trade. My “day job” allows me to work with leaders to help them become more effective in leading their teams and growing their organizations. It is challenging and humbling work. Progress comes in fits and starts and change is tough to measure in the speed and impatience of the modern company. If I had an agenda for my teaching at the beginning of the fall semester it was to bring this reality – the necessity of continuous learning amidst the demands of organizational life – to my students in a way that would bring urgency to our collaboration and focus to our work.

If I hadn’t physically bumped into a student at a campus event earlier this semester this would likely still be my point of view.

The College of Business takes seriously the opportunity and responsibility it has to prepare its students for career success. One example of this is an “etiquette dinner” for sophomore students who are on the cusp of pursuing and interviewing for internships. The evening is exactly what you are imagining: a facilitated dining experience, course by course, designed to equip students to succeed at the all-important professional lunch or dinner. I was invited to serve as a table moderator, tasked with keeping the conversation flowing amidst instructions for eating soup (spoon it away from, not towards you) and selecting the correct water glass (it’s on your right).

Before entering the dining room, students, faculty and staff were encouraged to “network” in a reception area too small for our group. It was a nervous, crowded room and if you wanted a drink of water you had to work for it. When I finally made it to the self-serve beverage station, I proceeded to bump into one of the students as I was reaching for a glass. I quickly apologized and noticed right away that he was hesitant to engage in any further conversation. Like many of the students that night he had a “fish out of water” sense about him, making it perfectly clear why an event like this is such an essential opportunity.

Just as I was retreating back into the crowd, this young man stepped toward me with unexpected composure and simply said: “Can you help me?”

Surprised at first, I replied, “Of course. What do you need?”

He said, “I don’t know how to do this. What do I say?”

“This” was the small talk of networking. He was out of his depth, nervous and intimidated and, in the swirl of all of those feelings, was still willing to ask for help! He made an affirmative choice to learn from the situation he was in when so many of his peers were shrinking from the opportunity. He could have stayed on the sidelines or just melted into the larger group but he chose a different path.

So we talked it over. I asked him a few questions and encouraged him to ask a few of me. I made some suggestions, shared some ideas and wished him well before we went our separate ways. It took five minutes. I think that I helped him, like he asked me to.

I still want my students to bring their energy and commitment to learning to our modern workplaces that are so in need of meaningful, sustainable change. I still want them to meet the crazy demands of the business world with a maturity and mindfulness that expands the conversation beyond the balance sheet.

But that’s my agenda. It’s not why I teach.

I teach because I want to be around people who, from time to time will courageously remind me that one of the bravest and most important things we can ever do is ask for help.

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.

Salt and Light

salt-mounds“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” – Matthew Ch. 5

Salt adds flavor, depth, dimension, perspective, enhancement, improvement, and preservation. No recipe has salt as its primary ingredient. It always acts in service of the other components, bringing them together into something otherwise unattainable. It is essential but not exclusive. It’s never just about the salt. When it is, it’s a mistake and the dish is ruined.

What does it mean for me to be “salt”?

Maybe it means that I have to let go of ego-driven, me-first, right/wrong dichotomies. Maybe it means I am to be of service rather than to be served. Maybe it means I choose to make contributions that complement the whole rather than standing out as an individual. Maybe it means humility, restraint, listening, noticing.

I’ve been having trouble being salt. Have you?

Light provides visibility, illumination, clarity, exposure, transparency, inclusion, honesty and awareness. Light is beautiful and inviting, welcoming us to a new day, showing the way in the dark. It is also revealing, sometimes exposing stark realities which must be acknowledged, if not dealt with, because they are now seen. Light can be manipulated to shade and shadow, giving us the chance to avoid the truth.

What does it mean for me to be “light”?

Maybe it means that I ask how I must change before asking others to change. Maybe it means that I shine an inviting light on others needs, shifting it away from my own. Maybe it means that I show someone the way, guiding them to a safer place. Maybe it means that I invite others into tough conversations and meet them there with empathy, restraint and a commitment to learn.

I’ve been having trouble being light. Have you?

Too much salt leaves us parched and too little leaves us longing for something more.

Too much light leaves us blinded and too little prevents us from finding our way.

There is a space between – there is always a space between. I am trying to find it. Will you meet me there?

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.

You Don’t Fear People Whose Story You Know

20130316-155255.jpg“Ask: ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking.

Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty. Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.

Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.”

Turning to One Another,” Margaret Wheatley

The Story of Now

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and the challenges offered by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

— Thomas Merton —

The Story of Now is the story of what we do with our learning and how we continue to develop it. It is the story of turning insight into action, of turning our internal awareness toward our external reality. In other words, it is the story of how we change.

My daughter attends a school that is primarily made up of Hispanic students. Yesterday they were concerned about the election. Today, many are scared that they will be forced to “return” to a country they have never visited. This is not unique to her school or our community. This is our new national reality and it doesn’t much feel like the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Today, I am thinking of our great country as a small child who has crawled into its mother’s lap seeking reassurance that bad things won’t happen. That mother, like all mothers do, lies to her child. She says, “everything will be ok” and “nothing bad is going to happen.” She delays the child’s experience of reality because she knows that the child needs reassurance right now, in this moment. Sixty million Americans crawled onto mom’s lap yesterday because they preferred to be seduced by the lie of simplistic reassurance rather than challenged to wrestle with the complexity of truth.

The truth is that the America of the 1950’s – homogenous and predictable – no longer exists. It hasn’t for some time. That change has been hard for lots and lots of people, in real ways that I have no intention of denigrating or belittling. Globalization is real. The world is smaller and more connected than ever before. Jobs have been lost. The definition of marriage has changed. The make-up of our citizenry has changed. Racism (and so many other “-isms”) remains pervasive. A black man was elected president…twice! And, sadly our government has proven itself to be an ineffective monolith of self-serving behavior. In the face of all of that, with the option of choosing either a deeply flawed woman who was prepared for the job or a detestable narcissist who is grotesquely unqualified, well…60 million people spit in the face of common decency, picked up their ball and walked home.

It’s an immature, shallow response to a new level of complexity. The greatest nation on earth just announced that it is not prepared for change. The “right” guy came along at the right time to fan the flames of uncertainty and send half of the electorate to act on the regressed belief that machismo, polarization and isolation are not only viable but preferable responses. This is stark evidence that when imagination is lacking human beings do the simplest thing they can think of, even when it’s horribly wrong.

We have to, perhaps now we will, reconcile ourselves to the depth of our country’s division. We need leaders who are equipped for that and we need them at all levels of public and private service. In part, that “equipment” is the ability to tell three distinctly and inextricably linked stories: one of personal understanding, one of deep connection, and one of continuous learning. That last one? That’s the Story of Now.

An honest and ongoing self-examination reveals us to ourselves and creates the opportunity to do something with and about what we discover. That experience creates openness to others and the ability to enter into and build relationships of powerful empathy and mutual reliance. With that foundation in place it becomes possible to wrestle – productively, positively, imaginatively – with the realities of complexity and change.

Know yourself. Commit to others. Learn together to create change. That’s the recipe mature adults – mature leaders – follow to navigate toward and meet the challenges of our shared existence. Yes, there are many days we long for mother’s lap and her false promises of security. But we don’t succumb to that temptation because we have earned the ability and made the commitment to stand on our own two feet, holding each other up when the going is difficult. We have earned the ability to see simplistic lies, false promises, fear mongering and hatred for exactly what they are.

The changing face of our country and the interconnectedness of our world will only continue, regardless of what happens these next few years. More acceptance is coming. More openness is coming. More structural dependency is coming. More integrated, holistic and systemic thinking is coming. And it will be created, sustained and led by people who understand how to speak the stories of understanding, connection and learning.

The Story of Now is happening…now. If ever there was a time to write your part, this is it.

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.

Becoming

DSC_0042Sometimes I forget that my son isn’t finished yet. He’s 16, he’s strong-willed and he doesn’t see the world quite the way I do. I understand that this comes with the territory but since my dad left well before my teenage years I feel like I’m leaping without a net on most days. Lacking a model upon which to base my “fathering” I tend, of course, to default to my own experience. And not to my 16 year old experience but to my 46 year old experience. This is entirely unfair, to both him and me.

I so want for him to care about the things I care about, to find importance in what I find important, to believe in, move towards and otherwise embrace ideas and purposes that weren’t even on my radar, much less in my daily practice until I as well until adulthood.

In my utter lack of realistic appreciation for his need to walk his path in his way, I find myself wanting these things desperately, frustratingly, achingly. Sometimes, I drive myself a little crazy with it. I get frustrated. I get ornery and “snipey” and jerky.

Pause here for long sigh of uncomfortable recognition.

There is an essential belief and practice in the coaching, therapy and other “helping” professions that we who are coaches and therapists are to meet our clients “where they are.” This is, of course, as opposed to where we want them to be or where, in our wise assessment, we believe they ought to be.

This is easier, much easier, said than done. I was recently expounding on this idea in a small group conversation about the necessity of leaders to tend to the building of strong connections and durable relationships. I help forth with the example that we might be enjoying our personal “summer” while a colleague or peer is experiencing a transitional “fall” or is even plunged into the depths of “winter.” That our job as leaders is to sharpen our lens to notice and discover where people are and what they need so that we can help them be as successful as possible from that place.

I was both convicted and convincing. For a little while, I even convinced myself.

And then I got home and watched as that logical insight gave way to the messy truth of my uncertain heart. I want so much for him to see what I see, know what I know, to believe in the depths of his heart what I believe in the depths of mine.

More important than that, and far more essential, is how I share what I see, know and believe so that he has a positive model of the value of seeing, knowing and believing. What he chooses to do with that will always be up to him and I have to make peace with that.

I have to learn to love what is unfinished in him, which means I must continue to learn to love what is unfinished in me.

A worthy goal. A difficult path.

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.

The Tap

taxiA man in a taxi wanted to speak to the driver so he leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder. The driver screamed, jumped up in the air and yanked the wheel over. The car jumped the curb, demolished a lamppost and came to a stop inches from a shop window.

The startled passenger said, “I didn’t mean to frighten you, I just wanted to ask you something.”

The taxi driver says “It’s not your fault, sir. It’s my first day as a cab driver…I’ve been driving a hearse for the past 25 years.”

Since I first heard this story a few months ago I’ve been using it to open every talk I’ve given and every workshop I’ve led. And I’m going to keep it up. It’s one of those jokes that have been around for a while, I’m sure. But it never fails to get a big laugh and it has proven to be a great way to open up one of the most challenging conversations we can have: how well equipped are we for the realities of change?

I have great affection for this taxi driver. I imagine him as a guy who woke up one day and realized after years of loyal service that he was no longer fulfilled by his work, no longer able to find in it what he needed to stimulate his imagination and ignite his sense of possibility.

I imagine that, in a very real way, he decided it was time to rejoin the living.

I imagine him enthusiastically sorting out all of the details of his new employment, anticipating the variety of people he would meet, the places he would go and the experiences he would witness. I don’t imagine him considering for even a moment just how big a shock to the system it would be to have a passenger lean forward and tap him on the shoulder.

A single tap on the shoulder forced him to let go of the past and wake up to the here and now in an immediate, uncomfortable and essential way.

I think about my decision to move to Chicago after college, the excitement of my first job dissipating in the hazy asphalt of interstate 80 as the realization that I was all alone settled into the seat beside me. Tap.

I think about moving to northern California as a young married couple in search of something new, something romantic, something that would jumpstart my professional life, only to my find that my lack of direction, a sharp lack of knowing who or what I was to become, was in full supply there, too. Tap.

I think about reconciling myself to the loss of a friendship that I believed would stand the test of time. Tap.

I think about the audience of six people I almost wrote off as a waste of my time only to have one of them turn into my biggest client of the year. Tap.

The more I consider these experiences – these reunions of expectation and reality – the deeper my conviction grows that the way to anticipate them, to welcome them and to work with them is to stay in an open and honest conversation with myself.

That conversation must include a combination of high expectation – the belief in possibility – and high regard for the universal truth that as soon as we pull away from the curb we become a bold invitation to the shaping hand of reality.

Drive on. Stay alert.

The tap is coming.

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.

Welcome to the Age of Meaning

January-2The divisiveness in the world today is all the evidence we need that we have entered the “Age of Meaning.” Our fragile society convulses with the recognition that what has come before no longer serves us and what will be has not quite taken shape. It is into this middle ground, this breach of both opportunity and uncertainty, that today’s leaders must step if tomorrow’s world will become what it must.

Those leaders, powerful in their conviction and beautiful in their humanity, will hold that space because they have demonstrated the ability to express the elements of meaningful change. They will have equipped themselves – through courageous discovery and deep commitment – to speak in three essential ways:

First, they will speak with the voice of understanding. They will articulate a depth of knowledge about who they are and what they believe. They will start within, never asking someone else to change before they have done so themselves. It is their modeling we will honor, their going first we will prize, because it will offer both the permission and the push we need to do it ourselves.

Second, they will speak with the voice of connection. Their strength of understanding will fortify them to reach out, building relationships of mutuality and trust regardless of power or position. They will make themselves known to us first as human beings, inviting relationships based on essential truths rather than of convenience or opportunism. Their vulnerability will knit us together, a catalyst for common purpose and greater impact.

Finally, they will speak with the voice of exploration. Learning, always learning, will be their invitation, their expectation. They will refuse the seduction of the status quo and will rely on us to help them do so. Together, we will question, challenge, invite and listen. We will examine our need for certainty, our resistance to change, as we take the tentative and purposeful steps we must take to reach the edge of our understanding. And then we will go further.

We are at the dawn of the “Age of Meaning,” the full possibility of which will be revealed by those leaders who speak it into existence. More and more, people are listening for a better way. Will you speak to them? Will you be heard?

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.

Costco, the DMV and What I Learned From Paying Attention to One Thing

IMG_3407I like to do things quickly. To find the best way from A to B and to cover that ground as fast as I can. I like to be in control, to be uninterrupted when I’m right and to execute my plan as I see fit.

These qualities have served me well in my professional life. They allow me to meet and exceed high expectations and to enjoy the satisfaction of “delivering the goods.”

They have also gotten me into some trouble. My need for speed and control has, as you can no doubt imagine, been tested and dismissed in the real world of other people with both similar and different preferences for how they want to operate.

These inevitable confrontations leave me irritated, frustrated, annoyed and upset. Think of it as an always simmering, low level and perpetual version of “road rage.” I have allowed the disruption of my needs to ruin more days and more experiences than I care to admit. Far too many.

Until.

Until one day, realizing that the price of meeting these needs was getting too high, I decided to do something about it. Among other influences I was moved to action by David Foster Wallace’s now famous commencement address, “This is Water.” In it, he invites us to a radical empathy. He invites us to imagine the possibility, however implausible, that the person in front of us in line with too much stuff and a whiny kid has had a far worse day than we have; that the person who cuts us off in traffic is actually rushing a sick friend to the hospital; or that the person who seems oblivious to our existence is actually lost in thought about their dying mother.

He invites us to wake up to the brutal, obvious truth that the people around us are not bit players in the drama that is our life but are ACTUAL people leading ACTUAL lives of their own. He invites us to a new kind of awareness.

Moved and humbled, I started to pay attention in a new way and I started to make some progress. This year, in particular, I made it a focus to slow down, to let go of control and to let myself be swept along now and then in the current and the speed of those around me, going with the flow instead of trying to direct or divert it.

It is perfect then, that on this last day of the year, a year in which I really have strived to do better, I should find myself at both the DMV and Costco, two institutions who both by design and execution make my fantasy of speed and control look absurd. On any day, the DMV is a torture chamber. On New Year’s Eve, it was a cakewalk compared to the consumptive disaster that is Costco. Needless to say, I was tested to the max. And it was the realization that I was being tested, in the ultimate way, that helped me resolve to not only survive but to thrive in my navigation through the darkness of bureaucracy and the vastness of consumerism. I “thank you-ed” and “excuse me-ed” the hell out of those places. I let people go first, I got out of the way, I wished people “Happy New Year” and I decided to see my parking space as an opportunity for exercise instead of as the death march it could easily have been. In other worlds, I saw the experience for what it was, the reality of many, many people trying to satisfy their needs, rather than as a conspiracy to make sure that mine could not be met.

I did this because I decided to pay attention to it. That’s all.

So here, in another of what will surely be a maelstrom of articles about resolutions and planning, goal setting and change, I invite you to consider one thing. Pick something and focus on it. Think about it every day and see how it creeps into your consciousness, carves out a little space and gives you a stepladder to more awareness and new action.

For my money, that one thing should come from on of three areas:

  1. Self-Understanding. My “needs” awareness was driven by wanting to know why I was so damn frustrated all the time. Digging into that helped me see what was in the way and gave me a chance to do something about it.
  2. Connection and Relationships. For sure, there is someone in your life right now who needs more attention, better communication, more love, regard, respect, trust or empathy. Maybe they just need a little more of your time. Moving towards that space, being the one who is willing to go first, is what leaders do.
  3. Continuous Learning and Exploration. You, your team, your organization and community will only keep growing through continuous learning. The speed and pressure of change has made that so.

Do not choose three things. Do not choose two. Please trust me on this, PLEASE! Choose one thing and get started.

Perhaps, on New Year’s Eve next year you will be standing in line at the DMV, privileged to chuckle to yourself that after 364.5 days it was worth it to pay attention, after all.

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.

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.

First, Turn the Soil

Soil HealthEveryone wants to talk about harvesting. A few want to talk about planting. Even fewer want to talk about preparing the soil.

I came across an article yesterday called What Amazing Bosses Do Differently. Like so many books and articles out there right now it says all the right things. None of it is new. Here’s the last paragraph:

The common denominator is attentiveness. Pay close attention to your employees as individuals. Take that extra bit of time to build their confidence and articulate a vision; to provide constant, ongoing, high quality feedback; and to listen to their ideas. And ensure that your own messages are consistent.  Is it hard work? Yes. But it’s worth it.

Attentiveness? Check. Vision? Check. Feedback? Check. Consistency? Check.

Hard work? Check. Just not the right kind.

Do we really think another researched-based study that comes to the same conclusion as the last one is going to get our leaders to change their behaviors? That will only happen when organizations realize they don’t get to have it both ways.

Telling our leaders what they already know without getting them ready to apply it is a recipe for cynicism. It promises to deepen the resistance to change that is fed by corporate pronouncements about “employee engagement” that fail to come with any substantive cultural change to support them. Our leaders continue to default to fear-based, controlling behaviors for two reasons:

  1. It’s what their organizations are compensating them to do.
  2. It’s the easiest way to ensure performance in the short term.

The best way to appreciate the danger of the reality we’ve created – yes, we are all complicit – is to go back to the farm.

If you’ve worked on a farm of any size or even carefully tended a garden you know that planting and harvesting can be good, hard work. You also know that those activities are nothing compared to what it takes to properly prepare the soil. Turning just a few spades of dirt, especially in compacted and root-bound soil, is enough to remind you what physical labor really is. And it is our willingness to stick with it – to turn it, amend it and smooth it out – that makes the difference in the quality of what it will produce.

One of the first principles of planting crops of any kind – assuming you want to avoid chemically “enhancing” the soil – is that from one year to the next you rotate them into different sections of the field. (This applies to small garden planters as well.) Since different varieties absorb different nutrients from the soil this prevents any one crop from taking more than it’s share.

The corporate bias, in a thoroughly unimaginative response to the speed of complexity and change, is to simply take all it can while it can. This failure to tend their own soil makes them slaves to the present instead of caretakers of the future. In the same way that crop yields diminish in depleted soil so too do organizational results wither from the lack of attention to the first principles of long term growth.

 

Defining “Hard Work” 

What we need to talk about – what so few want to talk about – is the kind of “hard work” that our organizations and our leaders must engage in if we are to see real change. In my experience, a person who is both willing and able to do the “hard work” of practicing great leadership behaviors does so because first – first – they have tended their own soil.

Organizations must create the conditions where this is not only possible but also expected. To be a “leader” must come with clearly articulated, high expectations of self-knowledge that precedes behavioral training. Advancement to leadership positions must be contingent upon an individual’s ability to display a detailed understanding of their values, strengths, aspirations and limitations. They must be able to define themselves both at their best and at their worst, demonstrating an awareness of the conditions in which they thrive and those most likely to send them off the rails.

My bias would be to send a prospective leader to therapy or counseling for a year before he or she took the role. Since I live in the real world I will relinquish that fantasy in favor of developmental initiatives that allow for a deep understanding of each individual’s “soil composition” and just what is needed to amend it for them to grow – and support others growth – as well as they can. These programs already exist. We just need organizations to have the courage to put them into play.

We must also stop confusing positional competence with leadership capability. It’s a shortcut, knowingly taken far too often, that utterly fails to serve men and women who would otherwise thrive with the influence of a qualified leader. Organizations will further impoverish themselves if they continue to teach new skills to people who have not addressed their own compacted and root-bound soil.

The articles about “brilliant bosses” and the lists of “best leadership behaviors” are sure to keep coming. They will be dressed up differently but made of the same stuff. We need to do better than this.

We need to collectively reject the temptation to plant in poor soil, the bias for short term thinking that limits the quality and quantity of our yield.

We need to get our hands in the dirt, face up to the reality of what we find there and make it ready to support the growth for which those we lead are so hungrily waiting.

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.