On the Frontier

American mythology has long included the archetype of the “self-made man.” And no place is associated with that archetype quite like the American west. Think of covered wagons and remote outposts, think of cowboys and ranchers, think of miners and the Gold Rush. Think of the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood ethos. Think of Henry Ford, Ray Kroc, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. For that matter, just think of Silicon Valley.

Pioneers, adventurers, trailblazers. Vigorous, steadfast and resilient. They set out to conquer some part of a vast, undeveloped territory and make it their own. The “self-made man” goes on a hero’s journey: he sets out to fulfill a vision, is forced to overcome both internal and external obstacles to achieve it, finds resources within himself that he didn’t realize he had and ultimately, against all odds, achieves his dream.

And he does it alone.

Here in the present day American west, and in the broader American culture, we still live in the shadow of this romantic legacy. We obsess over our jobs, our homes, our stuff. We carve out a small space – an eighth of an acre in most cases – and make it our castle. We preserve at great lengths the old story of individualism, what I alone can do, what I most dream of doing, in order to get our piece, our slice of the dream.

And this becomes the operating system of our neighborhoods, our “NIMBY” communities and our corporations most of all.

So many of our most prominent, influential corporations, through their failed performance management and reward systems, a relentless focus on short-term results, through lip service to vision and values, leadership development, social responsibility and employee engagement, are no more than temples of self-congratulation and self-worship. They are, all too often, simply a construct for the very few to accumulate as much as they possible can while the very many do the hard work to make that possible.

All of this you already know. What I hope you also know is that there are small and powerful exceptions. The inspiration for this post, in fact, came from the comments of a team member I worked with earlier in the week. We were in the midst of a conversation in which we were exploring the intersection of individual, team and corporate values. An expatriate from Brazil, he shared how much he appreciated this kind of interaction with his teammates because so much of his American experience is marked by the sort of individual compartmentalization described above. With familiar Brazilian enthusiasm he described his desire to be more connected, to literally be closer to his colleagues, in a culture that seems to work so hard to avoid that kind of intimacy.

I believe that what he is asking for, what he is seeking is a new frontier. And it is there for us if we are willing to take the steps. This new frontier is marked by a more purposeful kind of interaction, one that preserves a focus on the individual but in the larger context of how she connects and contributes to the larger group of which she is a part. It is a frontier of deep and challenging conversations about why we are here, and what we are meant to achieve. It is a conversation that calls on us to recognize that our actions have an impact beyond ourselves and that we are responsible for those outcomes, good or bad.

It is a frontier that demands us to wake up to the truth that everything is connected, that how we honor the person in front of us is how we honor all things.

The “self-made man” is a myth for one simple reason: no one does it alone.


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Partnership

fullsizeoutput_254fI don’t pause often enough to reflect on, much less comment about, the importance of my marriage to the success of my business or, more importantly, the success of my life.

While “success” is a subjective term, Theresa and I have done and will continue to do the work that helps us to live up to our core values, both as partners and as co-leaders of our family. I don’t know another way, certainly not a better way, to define success than that.

The simple, beautiful truth is that without her faithful dedication to me and to our family, I would not have the freedom or confidence I need to have the impact that I aspire to have each day.

Today, on our 24th wedding anniversary, it’s important to me to say “thank you” to the person who has been most quietly and consistently responsible for helping me to live into the person I have longed to become.

I couldn’t do it without her. I would never want to. And as I long as I have the privilege to do so, I will work very hard to make sure she knows that.


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Start Within

“…the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.”

Jim Yong Kim
President, The World Bank


There is no team member, and certainly no team, who will surpass the commitment to learning and development that is established by their leader. If you are frustrated by the lack of growth, or the lack of commitment to growth, being demonstrated by your team, you must first look at yourself.

The act of learning in organizational life, and the feedback required to enable it, depends totally on the environment created by the leader, one in which he or she demonstrates a personal, living commitment to continuous learning. If there is a “secret sauce” to effective leadership, this is it.

Today, the onus on leaders is to start within, focusing first on their own improvement as a continuous exercise of genuine humility. This practice of humility creates a space for a deeper empathetic sensibility that can then be applied to the leader’s team.

When feedback comes from that place it demonstrates a universal commitment to getting better (We are all in this together!) while also reenforcing the most basic truth of leadership, that leaders go first.

If you are not willing to go first, you are not a leader. If you are not willing to learn continuously, grow continuously, question your personal status quo continuously, you are not a leader.

Once you do so, however, it changes everything. You will no longer dread the discomfort of providing feedback to your team but will instead relish the opportunity to be a catalyst for their growth. Once you normalize a persistent and consistent approach to learning for yourself, you will normalize it for them as well.

As ever, leaders go first.


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Must be present to win

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The longer I think about it, practice it and teach it, my philosophy of effective leadership gets simpler and simpler.

A deep commitment to self-awareness, a wholehearted approach to relationships, a lifelong pursuit of learning; these are all hallmarks of great leaders.

And none of that matters if the leader isn’t present in the first place.

Step one: you must show up.

You can’t “phone it in.” You can’t commit in words and not in actions.

This is stupidly obvious and self-evident and, yet, the absent leader – the “leader” in name only – remains a reliable cause of organizational failure.

 

How to Practice / How to Lead

I asked my piano teacher to help me create a practice plan. I have noticed that each day when I sit at the piano, after a few warm-up exercises, I find myself uncertain how to make the most of the time. I bounce around from this exercise to that song, from this chord pattern to that one, inevitably feeling a mix of satisfaction for having spent the time and uncertainty as to its greater value to my education.

She practically beamed at the question. It was one of those “when the student is ready” moments that is just the right approach for this adult learner.

Her recommendation, regardless of how much time I have to practice, is to break it down as follows:

  • 25% – Warm-up
  • 50% – Focus on songs I have chosen to learn
  • 25% – Something new, something fun

As soon as she mapped this simple structure for me I relaxed with the knowledge that comes with a coherent game plan. She gave me a container, a way to structure myself that allows me to proceed with more purposeful and directed action.

On the drive home I concluded that this would also be an excellent approach for the daily practice of leading others.

What if, each day, you “warmed up” by briefly checking in with each member of the team? You could ask how the previous day finished up for them, how their evening was and how they’re feeling about the day ahead. Just a few moments with each person to greet them into this new day and remind them that you are there, also, attentive and engaged in their success.

What if you then focused on your  most important projects and initiatives? This includes your desk work, responding to requests, organizing information, planning for and attending the necessary (and unnecessary?) meetings in which you establish and sustain the forward motion of the work itself. What would or could be different about this core part of your day if you begin each day with the “warm up” described above?

What if then, no matter how busy the day becomes and how aggressively it threatens to get away from you, you took the time to do something fun and/or something new? This could include that reading you’ve been putting off, some quiet reflection about a difficult question or situation, a walk outside with a colleague, a celebration of a team member’s or project team’s accomplishment, a team building activity to break up the mid-afternoon slump, or simply a “warm down,” checking in with your team members at the close of the day.

Perhaps you’ve already done the math on this idea and found that in a 9 or 10 hour day that’s over four hours of “stuff” that is very much not you sitting at a desk and doing the work itself. And with that realization you may dismiss this out of hand as pie-in-the-sky thinking that is out of touch with your reality.

I would gently remind you of two things: first, your job as a leader is to help the team be successful which means that you have to be with them an awful lot. And second, you have more freedom in the design of your day than you may choose to admit. When you recommit to your team’s success and reclaim your calendar you will find as I am discovering with the piano, that a thoughtfully applied “practice” plan allows you to relax into the work in both unexpected and rewarding ways.


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.

Because of You

If you’re a leader, everything you do and everything you say is being watched, recorded, memorized and replicated.

That may not be the most comforting image but it is the most accurate one.

Whatever you are seeing from your team; the energy, the focus, the camaraderie, the expense of discretionary effort…that’s because of you.

Whatever you are seeing from your team; the frustration, the disconnection, the avoidance…that’s because of you.

You have an extraordinary opportunity as a leader of a team. You get to create an environment that helps people bring the best of themselves to work every day.

What an incredible honor. What an awesome responsibility.


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 Have to Decide

You were promoted to a leadership position because of your exceptional competence.

Your team is full of competent people.

They do not need your competence.

They need your leadership.

And so, you have to decide.


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.

Reactive or Urgent?

If the company warehouse is on fire you need to react quickly to save what you can and get to safety.

When you go to rebuild you must do so with urgency. Your sales team has made promises that your customers expect them to keep.

Reactive is thoughtless and immediate. And sometimes necessary.

Urgent is thoughtful and persistent. And always necessary.

When you confuse them, you confuse the team. And when you confuse the team they quickly learn to default to reactive.

Push the lever, get a treat.


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.

Culture is a Playground

What if you thought of your organization’s culture as a playground?

You might establish clear boundary markers. You might provide resources that induce creative interactions. You might not legislate rules but rather allow them to form organically, as a result of your teams natural inclination to create a workspace of accountability and accomplishment. You might provide soft landings for those who risk, experiment and explore.

You might keep alive an enthusiastic conversation about where you are going so the team is reminded of why they chose this particular playground on which to play their game.

You might lead by example, creating a higher standard of engagement for those who have the most responsibility and the biggest paychecks. You might not allow team members to “sit this one out” but rather learn how to have the conversations that re-engage them in the work. You might help the bullies and the narcissists and the prima donnas find the exit as fast as humanly possible.

You might provide drinks and snacks and sit together once in a while to celebrate a job well done, a game well-played.

You might.

But will you?

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