The Story of A Great Leader

teacherIf you were to ask me to describe someone who demonstrated greatness in leadership, I
might be tempted to paint the picture of a larger-than-life super hero, perhaps a president, a king, or a captain of industry.

I might not come up with Roberta Guaspari. Nonetheless I believe she is just that, a great leader.

Roberta Guaspari teaches children to play the violin. When she first started, she was a single parent to two young boys. To earn her living she arranged to provide violin lessons in school to the children of East Harlem. What she had going for her was the love of music; the ability to play; and the strong desire to make a difference for children whose opportunities were limited by their circumstances.

She has a clear and passionate vision which is simply,“for kids to have music in their lives

She believes that her vision is important because music, “empowers these children with the ability to make something beautiful that allows them to believe in themselves and know they’re special”

This is Roberta’s primary purpose, to help children love music, play music and believe in themselves. It is not about money or attention for herself but about something bigger than that, much bigger.  She is a great leader because not only can she see a better future for the children she teaches, she helps them get there, even against great odds.

In 1991, Roberta’s music program was cut from the school board budget. That meant, not only was she out of a job but the children (and their parents), who so depended on her, would lose something that had become vital to their development and future.

Roberta did not back down. Instead, she kept her focus. She forged relationships with people who had the power to help. And they did. She plucked up her courage and made much larger strides than I suspect even she thought herself capable of. Throughout it all, it seems  she never lost sight of her primary purpose.

Empathy, Vision, Focus, Determination, Courage, …and a violin. This is what makes Roberta Guaspari a great leader.

And, (the violin, notwithstanding),  such qualities exist in other great leaders, each of whom typically:

  • Have clear, well-articulated visions of the future
  • Lead with great will, humility and focus
  • Build strong alliances with a variety of people
  • Strive to achieve things that are greater than themselves and for the greater good

To demonstrate that the kind of leadership I describe can bring great results, here is a clip of Roberta Guaspari presenting her students at Carnegie Hall in a fine performance accompanied by Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Mark O’Connor.

Great leadership Indeed.  that’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010.

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Style, Leadership Values, Leadership Vision, Uncategorized

Five Elements That Help Create Real Teams

2137737248_e9f3e429d1_zThe word “team” is a perfectly good word but one in great danger of crossing the line that divides meaningful language from jargon. We’ve probably all heard it.

You have to be a team player“, they say.

I am a team player,” they write on their resumes,

And, even CEO’s talk to the masses of the importance of being on the “team”

You get the idea.

The point is that we throw around this word “team” in a very cavalier fashion, maybe because it has that warm glow of inclusion about it. Who knows?

So, what do we have to do to ensure that we are creating real teams?

Well, I have a few thoughts about that and here they are.

We are likely creating a real team when we ensure that:

Everyone on the team clearly understands its purpose

This seems a bit obvious but really, sometimes people come together assuming that they share the same idea as to why they’re there but this isn’t always the case. As such, it is always wise to ensure that the purpose and objectives of the team are commonly understood. It might take a little extra time and patience to get there, but failing to gain this kind of clarity can result in people running around like chickens in a yard, accomplishing nothing.

Individuals on the team each know their roles in fulfilling the purpose

Presumably, when we form teams, we do it with some idea as to how each member can contribute. However, it is always a good practice to give people an opportunity to say where they might make their best contribution. After all, it stands to reason that we do our best work when we are operating from our strengths. And, I expect we are that much happier about it too. As well, knowing where we, and our skills fit into the fulfillment of the team’s purpose helps us keep on track.

Individuals on the team see their roles as being no more, or no less important than anyone else’s

To me, a true team does not involve hierarchy. Yes, there is usually a team leader in the formal sense but the thing that is placed highest in the minds of all of the team members, including its leader, is the fulfillment of the purpose. That means that the work becomes more important than any individual’s need to be, or be seen to be, the boss.

We pay attention to the team dynamic every time a new member is introduced

The nature and culture of a team is something of a sensitive thing. The informed leader will appreciate that the introduction of a new member requires a period of adjustment, a little time to review team roles, skills and potential contribution. It is a time of orientation for the new member and for re-balancing and re-connecting to the purpose for the rest. It need not be a long drawn-out thing but without it, it is easy to lose the clarity required to get things done.

The team works together until its purpose is fulfilled.

It must be said that when one purpose is fulfilled, it is not unusual for teams to re-form and focus on achieving another goal. In this way teams can stay intact for a long time, changing and transforming as new people join and others leave. However, I think that in order to have a raison d’être a real team always needs to be able to easily connect to a tangible purpose.

Of course, nothing is simple. There are all kinds of teams… independent teams, interdependent teams, multi-disciplinary teams, sports teams, project teams, self-managed teams. Each has its challenges. But, it seems to me that no matter how big or complicated the team is, to capably function as a team, these elements have to be present.

Otherwise, it’s probably a group.

And by the way… you don’t have to be a member of a team to fulfill a worthy purpose or accomplish good things. But, if you say you are part of a team just know that it takes more than just saying it to make it so.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams, Teambuilding

Leaders and the Learning Organization

senge2It is a testament to our naïveté about culture that we think that we can change it by simply declaring new values. Such declarations usually produce only cynicism. ~ Peter Senge

Peter Senge is one of my favourite Thought Leaders. You will probably know that he has been around for a while but his message, at least for me, is as relevant to our current time as it was when he first introduced his book, The Fifth Discipline, twenty something years ago.

So far, in my experience anyway, we have not been great students of his philosophies…or we have been great students but just, well, crappy at the execution part, proof perhaps that naïveté also lives in our belief that any of this stuff is easy.

There was a time when everyone was jumping onto The Learning Organization bandwagon. This usually happened when times were good, when organizations felt a little more ebullient about their prospects and generous toward their employees. And then when things started to look a little gloomy, heads turned back to the way things were. Budgets were cut and the Learning part of the organization dried up while the focus snapped back in line with the notion that wisdom and decisions could only come from the few and learning for the many was a luxury no one could afford.

I’m thinking though that it is in the difficult times that leaders need to embrace the concepts of the Learning Organization and to build a culture of shared leadership.

I must confess that not being particularly academic in my own learning process, I found The Fifth Discipline a little dry. Having said that, I also think the five main components of a Learning Organization continue to make great sense and are actionable, to greater or lesser degrees, by everyone regardless of whether we lead in large organizations, small ones, or are simply striving to lead a meaningful life.

Each of the Learning Organization components, personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision and systems thinking allow for the opportunity to create lives and organizations that are resilient, flexible, inclusive and dynamic. The question often is though, how do we to start?

Here are some of my thoughts about that:

Personal Mastery: is, for me, the place where everything really begins. Taking the time to study and understand our reality, and our purpose, serves not only ourselves but also everyone with whom we come in contact.

Practically speaking, there are a lot of instruments available on the Internet that will help us confirm what we might already inherently know about ourselves or uncover some things we didn’t know. However we do it, the key to successful personal mastery, I think, is to trust in the information we receive; to be curious and ask questions either formally or informally; to observe the impact we have on others when we interact with them; and to act on any new knowledge we get about ourselves.

Mental Models: are, simply put, about assumptions and biases in our thinking. There is a proverb that says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

This speaks to the dangers of clinging to, and operating from, narrow perspectives. I believe the goal for leaders in this century is to widen the lens of their thinking by challenging not only their own assumptions but also the beliefs and biases on which their organizations operate. I hazard to say that if we were each to bring heightened awareness to our assumptions, our ability to be receptive to change would be that much greater.

Team Learning: There are many books written on the topic of teams, and an amazing array of teams within organizations too. It can get pretty complex. But suffice it to say that in an age where shared leadership is, or will become, critical, the need to understand the dynamics and functional operation of teams is pretty great. Here, I think it starts with gaining an understanding of what a truly successful and highly functional team looks like. In my observation, it always seems to come down to how team members communicate with each other; how they manage conflict and; how they examine their successes and more particularly, their failures.

Shared Vision: I expect this one is pretty familiar to most people. And yet its usefulness is so often diminished because the vision is developed at the top of the organization and seldom shared by those who are expected to work toward its achievement. To me, a Shared Vision is just that…shared. It may start with one person but if it is going to come alive and guide the company’s activities, it must be embraced and shared by all. It doesn’t have to be a sweeping statement with big words either. For example, Zappos.com, the online department store’s vision is, Delivering Happiness. It is a clear, simple statement that provides great direction to anyone who works there. To me, the message is, if what you do delivers happiness, it’s probably the right thing.

Systems Thinking: When most people talk about Senge’s model of a Learning Organization, they usually start with Systems Thinking. I keep it to the end because really this is about paying attention to the connections between and among a variety of elements that make up the whole. In organizations, we have this tendency to create silos of operation where people make decisions based only on their own needs. When this happens, others are affected, (often negatively) and that creates unnecessary and unproductive tension within the organization.

So, I suppose a place to start with respect to systems thinking is to ask, Who will be affected by what we are about to do? How do we involve them? Why should we care?

Really, systems thinking is  kind of like the plumbing in an old apartment complex. If there is a breakdown in one person’s apartment, it can affect the water supply to all of the others.

Some people may think the concepts put forth in The Fifth Discipline are old too. But, I think that they are timeless. If more organizations were to embrace and enact these philosophies, they would find ways to remain pliable and resilient in even the most treacherous of time.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*note: this post was originally published in 2010

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, Leading Teams, Learning, organizational culture, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Getting Back to Work ~ What Motivates Us

KtLtMO3rJd42s9nvpRuZ6D7b_500I hate to say it…but I will. Summer is coming to a close. It feels a little sad saying adios to the hazy, crazy, sometimes lazy days of summer. And yet, to me, there is always a ‘new start’ feeling about September. I guess it must be that, for most people, summer vacation is over and it’s time to get back to work.

Some of us will approach this prospect with enthusiasm and some, well, some will spend time singing the back to work blues.

As a leader, it is reasonable to assume that you would prefer the enthusiasm option to the blues option. But, like everything else, you’ll likely have to work for it.

So here’s a reminder from Daniel Pink about what truly motivates people to do their best work, (post vacation or otherwise) and it has nothing to do with money. In fact, according to Pink, (and intuitively, I agree) there are three things that, in combination, will charge our batteries and get us happily moving forward. Here they are:

Autonomy ~ freedom to,( independently or with others of our choosing), work creatively and produce something we can be proud of.

Mastery ~ opportunities to learn, grow and build on our interests, knowledge and abilities

Purpose ~ Connecting to something greater than ourselves that we can believe in and strive to fulfill.

Here is a wonderful RSA Animate production called Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It is ten minutes long but, for any leader, is worth the time to see because it gets to the heart of what motivates us.

This presentation suggests to me that to keep the effects of lethargy (whenever it may arise) from diminishing our activity and blurring our focus, we must find ways to emphasize or integrate the principles of autonomy, mastery and purpose into our everyday work life.

With this in mind, here are some questions for you, as leader, to consider:

Autonomy:

  • Given the nature of your business, how might you provide opportunity for people to work autonomously?
  • How flexible are you when it comes to work arrangements?
  • What would happen if you were to make each person’s operational framework larger and allow more independence? What might it look like?
  • What would you need to make it work? What would you have to do to fill that need? What would others have to do?

Mastery:

  • What opportunities do you provide for people to get better at what they do?
  • How do you approach development planning?
  • How do you acknowledge accomplishment?
  • What value do you place on curiosity, risk and learning?
  • What are you willing to try, to allow your people a chance for growth and greater contribution?
  • If you were to take what you are doing now to increase peoples’ level of mastery and multiply it by two, what would it look like? What do you anticipate would be the outcome?

Purpose:

  • What purpose does your organization serve?
  • Does everyone in your organization know it? Understand it? Believe in it?
  • How often do you remind people of your organizational purpose?
  • How do you help them make the connection between what they do and how they contribute to the fulfillment of the purpose?

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There will of course be other questions that come up for you but the point is, there are times when this notion of achieving a working environment that values autonomy, mastery and purpose requires some active consideration.

I just happen to think that the autumn is one of those times.

What do you think?

*Please Note: This post was originally published in 2011

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Filed under Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, motivating & Inspiring

Leadership…And All That Jazz

This week, I’m offering you a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010. Not to be immodest but it is one of my favourites. I love jazz and I think it a perfect metaphor for leadership. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

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jazz-piano-record-producer-9-13-2012-2011Warren Bennis once said, ‘I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s more like jazz. There is more improvisation”

I must confess. I really like the symphony orchestra metaphor, simply because it is, well, beautifully uncluttered. But, as much as I would like to think it possible for all things to be in harmony at all times, I know the reality to be a lot messier, or jazzier, metaphorically speaking.

In fact, it is perhaps the jazz of life, (that stuff that requires spontaneity and improvisation), that transforms the vanilla of a well-ordered enterprise into something spiced with possibility and potential for greatness.

So it is with leadership.

In leadership, there are times for following a well-planned strategy. And, there are times when doing so isn’t going to work. The landscape has a way of changing rapidly, often requiring leaders, as creative beings, to rely on instinct to successfully navigate unexpected challenges or opportunities and explore unknown places.

At those times, improvisation is a useful tool. However, as with jazz, improvisation on its own will not create a joyful noise. It must somehow find its way back to the primary melody no matter how far afield it may go.

In leadership, the primary melody lies in the organizational vision, its purpose and the values and principles it operates from. How far afield we are willing to go to realize the vision and fulfill the purpose is usually dependent on a number of things like:

  • How much we know
    The more curious we are and the more we seek to learn about the immediate environment, our markets, our politics and the world, the better equipped we are to make spontaneous decisions that will serve our purpose, either now or in the future.
  • How much we are willing to risk
    When it comes to risk, those who extend themselves too far, risk losing sight of their core purpose and those who don’t explore at all, risk missing opportunities for growth that go beyond their current expectations. Being clear about how much we are willing to risk can help us determine the extent to which we are willing to improvise.
  • How much we believe
    If we have our organization’s core purpose and future vision etched on our brains and hearts, the likelihood is that we will also feel more at liberty to play with improvisation without fear of getting lost.
  • How much we imagine
    Just as jazz music is highly interpretive, the extent to which we use our imagination in leadership often determines the kind of organizations we build and the ability of the people working in those organizations to improvise effectively.

I believe there is a vital role for improvisation in organizations. Our appetite for spontaneity will of course vary but if we are wise, we will allow room for it. It could make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

Oh, and just for fun, here is Oscar Peterson providing a fine example of what can happen when improvisation blends beautifully with the primary melody.

 

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

Feedback…Criticism or Opportunity?

Every once in a while, I like to get back to the basics.  The basics for me are always about people and how we relate to each other.  This post addresses giving and receiving feedback. I know, it is an old topic but I’ll stop talking about it when more of us get better at it. In the meantime, here it is…again.

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canstockphoto6447088“Feedback is the breakfast of Champions” or so says Ken Blanchard. But I’m wondering how many of us truly have an appetite for it.   After all, it has a way of feeling like bad news much of the time.

Why is that I wonder?  Well, first of all a very common view of feedback is this.  Feedback equals Criticism.

When I looked up the word criticism, here are some synonyms that greeted me…reprehend, censure, reprobate, condemn, denounce. Okay then, I can’t wait to get me some of that!

Often too, the experiences we have around performance management time can bring on an allergic reaction to feedback because, despite good intention, it is often delivered badly and received equally badly…a breakfast of champions complete with sour milk.

Perhaps, then, the task for all of us is to shift the perspective of feedback from one that equals criticism to one that equals opportunity.

So, where is the opportunity in both providing and receiving feedback?

For the Recipient there is opportunity:

For personal growth

We only see ourselves from the inside out.  The value of having others observe us and give us information about what they see helps us ‘round out’ our impression of ourselves.

To make positive change

Information about ourselves gives us a chance to make changes that have some personal meaning.  The hardest part about making change is the commitment it takes to sustain new behaviour.   Knowing why a change is important helps us to remain on course and raises the potential for experiencing positive results from our efforts.

For the Provider there is opportunity:

To build relationships that include trust

Feedback becomes a gift when it is presented sincerely and without judgment.  As well, when it is given as part of a conversation rather than a laundry list of things to fix, it is more palatable for the recipient and allows for deeper understanding on both sides.

To convey belief in the recipient’s capabilities & potential contribution

Giving feedback allows us to paint a picture of what we believe another is truly capable of and to shape our expectations around those beliefs.  If we simply demand a certain level of performance without inviting input or considering what people might need to make it possible, we will likely be met with resentment rather than interest.

Okay, so this might address some of the why for shifting a negative perspective of feedback to a more positive one (and there are doubtless more reasons for doing so as well) but it doesn’t speak to the how.  So here are a few thoughts on that:

As Providers of feedback, if we take the opportunity perspective we must:

Be clear about what we’re looking for

This means that if we are going to observe someone going about their work and then provide meaningful and useful information to them, both parties have to be focusing on the same things.  Feedback, after all, is comprised not of a single conversation but a series of conversations that lead to change and growth.

Make conversation and observation a daily habit

Sitting down with someone once a year to talk about performance and outcomes does not encourage an opportunity based perspective on feedback.  Instead, it becomes something one dreads.  Having daily conversations with people and making daily observations about their activities facilitates good and useful exchanges of information.

Avoid the “poop sandwich” approach

Who is not familiar with this?  Its starts with something positive; ends with something positive and then sandwiches the negative  you-know-what in between.  I personally don’t like this approach because it feels contrived.  And, by the way, no one is fooled by it.

As Recipients of feedback, in taking the opportunity perspective we must:

Participate in the conversation

In my experience, people who say nothing during a session that includes personal feedback can have plenty to say when the session is over, and to people who can only commiserate.  While this might feel good at the time, it really isn’t very helpful.  Participating in the conversation means asking questions.  It sometimes means disagreeing and challenging.  But it also means there is opportunity to understand as well as to be understood.  That alone has great value.

Take the view that feedback is as often positive as it is negative

Whenever someone says, “May I give you some feedback?”  It is tempting to say “Uh-Oh.  What have I done now?”

To be open to receiving feedback I think we must also do our best to wipe out the negative “tapes” that play between our ears about it.  In short, an open mind helps.

The truth is, these discussions are rarely easy.  They take thought, and work, by both parties.  And, because we have this tendency to equate feedback discussions with personal shortcoming, we avoid having them; wait to the last minute to have them; or rush through them in a way that does more harm than good.  I think shifting our perspective  away from criticism and toward opportunity might help

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Filed under Coaching, communication, Human Resources, Performance Management

Leadership and Human Nature

flowerIn October, 2012, Superstorm Sandy was top of mind for a great many.  Not only was it a catastrophic storm for thousands of  people, it served to remind us, once again, that disasters pull people together like no other phenomena.

I say this, not to be flippant, but to call to attention how the best in good people seems to rise to the top whenever the worst things happen. It’s almost like our greater brain kicks in and we gain full access to whatever stores of resilience, resourcefulness and generosity we have inside us.

It would be great if we could bottle it, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps then we could take a spoonful whenever we begin to forget what’s important.  After all, in life or death situations, things have a way of shifting our view, away from politics, bottom lines and winning at all cost toward something decidedly more genuine, more human.

So what is it we forget about people when we are not in crisis that we would do well to remember and respect? And, how would doing this serve to improve our leadership efforts?

The answers to those questions require more than this one person’s scrutiny but when I think about it, I’m reminded of a few truths about being human, like:

Necessity is the mother of invention ~ When we feel an urgent need, we are driven to seek a solution that will fill it.  That necessity drives change.  For most of us, before we are willing to change, we have to both see and feel the need for it. The role of leadership in this is both to help people feel the urgency and to believe that the pain of change will be worthwhile in the end.

People are more resilient than they are typically given credit for ~ While, firm structures are important during times of uncertainty, so is faith in peoples’ ability to adapt and contribute to bringing about a new order of things. In leadership is it wise to remember that in general, human beings are not that fragile.   We fare much better when we are regarded, not as part of the problem but as part of the solution.

Caring for and about others is in our DNA ~ In crisis, our list of priorities tends to look different from the list we might draw up in more stable times.  Specifically, the safety and welfare of people always seem to come first when things are truly scary.  Everything else falls away.  Regrettably, when we are not in crisis, it is easy to forget that and shift focus to other, more financially or politically rewarding pursuits.  I suspect though that when leaders actively care for the people who follow them, the financial and political aspects of organizational life don’t suffer at all.

When we know the score we have it in us to be patient~ With a few exceptions, those who have suffered, and continue to suffer hardship from this latest blast from Mother Nature seem to have borne the discomfort and inconvenience of power outage and fuel shortage with stoic resignation.  People expected to lose electrical power.  Likely too, they expected to have to line up for batteries, gas and other supplies.   I  think that people who are not in crisis also appreciate it (and are much more patient with themselves and each other) when they know what to expect.  Patience allows for clear thinking. Clear thinking allows for greater productivity and problem solving. From that perspective, keeping people informed pays off.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This article was originally posted in 2012

 

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness