Tag Archives: Character-based Leadership

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

The Practical Gift of Humility

freemanX-GiftsSome time ago, there was an online discussion that came about from a blog post published by Mary Jo Asmus.  In it, Mary Jo  outlined a number of important gifts people can give to those they lead; the more intangible ones that make a big difference when building a happy and engaged workforce.

At the end of the post, Mary Jo asked us to think about what other qualities leaders might bring and apply at work.

I offered the gift of humility.

Mary Jo said it was a great gift but asked, “How would you give humility to others?”

Well, that started me thinking.  How indeed?  After all, humility is one of those things that is constantly in competition with the ego.  And, it’s not a quality that comes naturally or easily to human beings either.  In fact, we can’t actually give humility to another person.  Even the idea sounds a bit, well, arrogant doesn’t it?

I suppose I could go off on some esoteric journey about the righteousness of humility (a journey on which I would no doubt find myself alone), but right now, I’m more interested in looking at some of its more practical aspects. Here are some that come to mind.

Leaders give the gift of humility every time they:

  • Praise others and give credit for work well done, without expectation of sharing in the tangible recognition that may come from it.
  • Give the challenge of new and exciting assignments to those who they feel will get the best result and grow from the experience, even if doing the work themselves would have earned them major bragging rights.
  • Step behind the rest of their team when accolades are being given for great results.
  • Look in the mirror first, when things go wrong.
  • Make the work and the collective effort of the team more important than their own status or image.
  • Express more pride in their teams, the work and their values than in themselves.

Okay, all this sounds tough.  And it is.  It may appear Paradoxical, but I think that to be able to carry it off, we need a healthy sense of self-esteem, because then we can more easily find contentment and pride in allowing others to shine brighter, or more often, than we do.   It is that, which makes it a gift.

Do we have to be captains of industry to give the gift of humility?  Of course not.  Does it mean we have to turn into someone like Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep to be humble? Certainly not.  In truth, leading with humility is available to us all.  It simply (not to be confused with easily) takes practice and sincerity.

I’m still working on it. You?

 

Note: this is a revised version of the original post published in 2010

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Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams, organizational culture, Uncategorized

Crossing the Finish Line

060812_al_ablow_640So far, there have not been many really hot days in my neck of the woods this summer, but one such day recently reminded me of another summer day quite a few years ago.

I was nearing the end of my degree program, sitting, and sweating, over a particularly tough assignment. It was one I needed to submit prior to my final residency and graduation. I was hot and tired. And, because the subject matter was not a favourite, I was struggling. I wanted to quit. In fact, I remember saying to my husband something like, “I’ve had enough. I just want to give up. What made me think I could do this in the first place?”

He said something like, “I know it’s hard right now. But you’re not going to quit. You’re going to sit there and finish what you started because it’s important to you.”

Well, of course it was…so I did. But at that moment in time, I wanted to pack it all in and I needed someone who cared about me to give me a little push.

I expect we all, at one time or another, have experienced this kind of dwindling interest as the finish line comes into view.

At first, when we embark on a new project or business venture, we are full of enthusiasm, raring to go and dreaming of how it’s going to look, or be, when we have accomplished it. As time progresses, we encounter problems (or challenges, however you wish to express it). Things we imagine don’t quite manifest themselves according to expectations. We experience mission“drifts” and relationship“rifts”, disappointments, victories and defeats along the way. By the time we get close to the journey’s end, we wonder if we are going to make it. Exhaustion sets in and sometimes we start thinking about the next project before this one is done because the next project looks like so much more fun.

It’s not a unique scenario is it? The question for the leader is; how do you, not only get over the finish line but make sure that everyone else does too?

Well, we all have ideas about that I’m sure. Here are a few of mine:

Keep your eyes on the prize ~ When the going gets tough, I think it helps to remember the fundamental purpose of the project; why it was important when you started it and why it continues to be important as you work toward accomplishing it. Consider the tangible rewards that will come from having completed it and also how you’re going to feel when all is said and done.

Celebrate small successes ~ Sometimes a large project can create overwhelm that feels somewhat akin to a snake swallowing a pig. If, however, you were to break it down and take time to celebrate milestones along the way, it might be entirely more digestible and provide sufficient energy to keep going.

Make Time for Rest ~ to function optimally, the human engine requires rest. It is easy to get caught up in the demands of a critical project and tempting to work right through until it is done. However, doing so and expecting others to do so, without respite, is a mistake. We are at our best when rested and focused. The time we think we save by not resting is usually lost when our physical and mental energies go on the wane.

Exercise the empathy muscle ~ This means checking in with people along the way; acknowledging their challenges and the feelings that go along with working toward a collective goal. In other words, recognizing and relating to the emotional ups and downs that occur over the life of a project can be very reassuring. In truth, empathy and encouragement fuel the journey and can make the difference between giving up and going on.

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

 

Note: Originally published in the Summer of 2012

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

Leadership and Courage

courageCourage has many faces. It doesn’t always show up complete with epaulets and a shiny sword yelling “Charge!!” In fact, I would suggest it more often demands a much subtler approach. Either way, courage is not something we can buy or fake. It lives in the heart of our character. And, it is something we hope to have enough of when we need it most.

Brave leaders go first and inspire others to find their own courage. They defy convention. They admit their mistakes, apologize and make amends when they are wrong. Brave leaders explore unknown territory in service of something greater than themselves. They deliver bad news with clarity, determination and compassion. And, they stay the course when the going gets tough

Brave leaders, too, frequently look in their personal, and organizational mirrors to find something in themselves or in the systems they create that works against their potential for achieving their goals. This calls for a special kind of courage, one that can feel less noble than the others. But workplaces have little hope of thriving long if this work goes unattended or is swept under the rug in hopes that no one will notice.

Here’s a case in point. Some time ago, I met with a friend, a niche specialist in communication. She shared this story with me:

On being invited to meet with the CEO of a company to discuss business opportunities, she entered the premises and almost immediately detected a certain tension in the air. And, while people were impeccably polite to her, she noticed that throughout the office, no one was smiling.

The CEO, a clever and efficient woman, appeared to have all the hallmarks of a successful business leader. At some point in the conversation, she asked my friend if she did other communications work because she had noticed that the e-mails being passed among her staff and out to customers had a tone that seemed terse and unwelcoming. The CEO asked my friend if she could possibly fix that with some communications training.

Of course, my friend, a smart and intuitive woman herself, knew all too well where this conversation was headed. Could she ‘fix’ the tone of the emails being sent from this office? Yes, she could do that. The bigger question…why people were writing snarky emails went unanswered. It could be that this CEO had no idea why but, when pressed, she also was not willing to ‘go there’

This is not an unfamiliar story. In fact, I would hazard to say that more companies than we’d like to think spend inordinate amounts of time and money addressing unpleasant symptoms if only to be able to say they are doing something to improve their employee, and by association, customer experience.

We know of course that underneath it all lurk many cans of worms and a few Pandora’s Boxes that need opening before anything can be truly resolved. This is where that special kind of courage comes in. It is the kind that asks us to face our imperfect selves; to find our humility and to lay ourselves open to closer examination.

When I think about courage in leadership, this quote comes to mind,

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear. “ ~ Ambrose Redmoon

Good leadership is about focusing on what’s really important among other things. Sometimes that means having the courage to relentlessly pursue truth, even at the cost of personal pride, in service of building something everyone can be proud of.

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

 

Note: This post was originally published in August, 2012

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

Collaboration and the Value of the Dissenting Voice

dissent_SSAlthough the word collaboration can conjure up images of people working happily together, I rather think we would get closer to reality if we included a few arguments, some eye-rolling and some exasperated over-emoted sighs to round out the picture. Mostly this kind of friction happens because, as individuals, we differ from each other in culture, experience and skill. The perspectives we hold come from those things. And, as human beings, we can cling to them stubbornly, shutting out the possibility that there may be another way.

But, if we want to truly extract the best ideas and create the best outcomes, we must be prepared to include the likelihood that our view is not always going to be the best. That means making room for the friction and the dissenting voices of those who look at things through a different lens and have the courage to share what they see.

Here’s a quick and entertaining example from the great comedy team of Abbott and Costello:

I don’t know about you, but at times, I have discounted the opinions of others because their logic sounded wrong or what they were saying had, in my view, no bearing on the matter at hand. In those situations, I wonder what might have happened had I spent just a few more minutes listening and trying to understand. Of course, there was always the possibility that what was being said was complete drivel. But, it was equally possible there was something there of great value that was lost because I failed to take the time to really listen.

In a World where time is at a premium, I don’t suppose the behaviour I describe is unique. So many of us spend our days striving to get to the end, or accomplish a goal and yet sacrifice the quality of what we produce by ignoring the voices that don’t seem to have a place on our personal radar screens.

I think there are lessons here regardless of whether we need to make room for the dissenting voice or we are the dissenting voice.

For instance, to make room for the dissenting voice I think it helps to:

Develop a discipline of drawing out those who may be reluctant to speak

Some people can feel overpowered by the common opinion. In fact, they may believe their own view to be less important because it is different. And so they stay quiet so as not to rock the boat. Drawing them into the conversation can make it more real and provide the opportunity for a wider variety of ideas to be shared.

Provide enough time for reflection, curiosity and discussion

Of course if you make room for the dissenting voice, you also must make time for people to ask questions, explore, challenge and think about what is being said. It may take longer but the conversation will be enriched because of it.

Give the ‘Dissenting Voice’ a place at the table

That means, when you come together to discuss some aspect of your work together, assign a virtual place for the ‘Dissenting Voice’. Over the course of your discussion, stop from time to time, and invite people to place themselves in a perspective, they may not currently hold. Sometimes this will give rise to a new idea that may not have otherwise surfaced. And, It will encourage those who really do think differently to become part of the conversation.

Conversely, if you differ in experience, perspective or opinion from the rest, I think it helps to:

Find the courage to stand up and speak

While it can be nerve-wracking to stand up and share an opposing view, it can also be very liberating. Little is accomplished by waiting until a meeting is over to voice an adverse opinion, to no one in particular. If you want to be counted in, stand up and be counted. It matters.

Ask questions that provoke thought

Sometimes a well-placed question can slow the momentum of a meeting long enough to allow thoughts to take a much needed detour. Questions that begin with “what would happen if….?” Or “How might ‘X’ apply to this situation?” can spark ideas not yet explored.

Explain the relevance of your view to the subject at hand

If your view represents a big departure from the prevailing thinking, you stand a better chance of having it heard if you explain how it connects with the subject under discussion and the value it brings to realizing a successful outcome.

Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying, “ It is the man who does not want to express an opinion whose opinion I want”

From that I surmise that Mr. Lincoln was keen to be informed on many levels, to solve the right problems and to make good decisions more often than bad ones.

When it comes to working collaboratively, I expect that’s what we all want.

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

 

* Please note the Clip shown from Abbott and Costello is for learning purposes only and not meant as an infringement on copyright.

** This post was originally published in July, 2012

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Sincerity…A Leadership Imperative

crossed-fingersSincerity. It is perhaps not a word that springs to mind first when we think about highly successful and powerful business leaders but in today’s uncertain world there are things we need to be able to count on. Sincerity in our leaders is one of those things.

The word sincerity likely has a number of definitions. To me, it is simply about representing ourselves genuinely, without guile or hypocrisy. And, like most worthwhile qualities, talking about being sincere is easier than actually living it.

There are a lot of temptations out there…temptations to pretend we are more knowledgeable, more experienced, more skilled, more empathetic, more important, even wealthier than we really are.  I know.  We have our reasons for doing it but the truth is, most of them are self serving.   And we all know by now that good leadership is rarely about us.

So, not only must leaders be personally vigilant about their own sincerity, they must also be on the look out for it when they are choosing people for leadership roles or helping them develop leadership skills.

In truth, it’s not that easy to spot. It requires us to look beyond the words for consistency and alignment of words and actions.

I’m reminded of a time when I attended a function where sincerity, my own included, was notably absent.

It was Christmastime and our organization participated in a number of activities to support charitable causes. Often, we would “buy” a table at a luncheon benefit with net proceeds going to the charity in question.

On this one particular winter’s day, eight of us were walking from the office building to such a luncheon being hosted at an upscale hotel a few blocks away.

We walked in a bunch; all well wrapped and well shod, happily chatting together about nothing terribly important. There were other bunches of business people as well, walking in the same direction and equally well dressed.

About one block from our destination, we passed a man sitting on the sidewalk. His hair was long, as was his beard and he held in his hand a Styrofoam cup and sign that said something like, “Hungry, Please Help”.

I suppose none of us will really know whether or not this man was representing himself sincerely but he was obviously not doing very well.

My group and I, (engrossed in our conversation and barely noticing the man), walked past him.

The people walking behind us did the same, with one exception. One man stopped long enough to look at the man and say, “Get a job”.

On hearing this, I remember feeling ashamed of myself for not acknowledging the man and giving him something to ease the pain of his day. I remember too, feeling appalled and outraged by the other man’s “get a job” comment. It was an ignorant, throwaway remark that lacked any kind of compassion or decency.

But we all moved on, in a hurry, not to be late for our important luncheon.

We reached our table and seated ourselves. A few minutes later Mr. Get-a-Job and his colleagues also entered the room. The irony of this story became clear then. We were all there in support of the Salvation Army to help raise funds for the vital work they do to ease the lives of people just like the man we had seen sitting on the sidewalk… and so conveniently ignored.

On that day, it was clear too, that although we were physically present at the luncheon, we had left our sincerity behind, choosing instead to focus on being seen to do the right thing rather than actually doing it.

In today’s environment there is little time for this kind of posturing. We are being asked to step up and out of our pretenses. I’m working on it because in my book, sincerity in leadership, (whether we lead only ourselves or multitudes of others), is a pretty big deal.

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

Note: Original post published in July 2011

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Filed under building awareness, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, Servant Leadership

Four Reasons for Insisting on Civility at Work

While we all  decry bullying, some may believe that civility is a minor consideration at work, especially when we are constantly plagued by looming deadlines and demands. Who has time to be polite? Who has time to say please and thank you or stop to consider the effect our behaviour is having on those around us? And, why should we care as long as we’re getting the job done?

Well, I think we have to care and we have to make time. In fact, to me, good manners and consideration for others should be embedded in the culture of every organization. Here are at least four reasons why:

Successful collaboration is not possible without it.

Collaboration is a key word in today’s workplace. When we work together to achieve a common, mutually beneficial goal, it is often the case that impatience will raise its’ ugly head and start goading us into saying things we might not otherwise entertain. It is at these times when a good dose of civility is required. Rude and self-indulgent remarks simply get in the way of achieving a satisfactory outcome. In this context, I like what Wikipedia has to say about civility. “Civility gives us the means to disagree without being disagreeable” That kind of says it all doesn’t it?

How people treat each other inside the organization will reflect, for good or ill, outside the organization

This just makes good sense. Those who work in an atmosphere where good manners are the norm will, for the most part respond to their customers and others, in kind. There’s nothing complicated about that. And, for some reason it is my guess that customers are more willing to part with their money if they feel they are being treated with respect.

People make their best effort when they feel acknowledged and important

I started my work life in the mailroom of a bank. My job was to open mail and deliver it to its intended recipients in a department of approximately three hundred people. Many department managers either completely ignored me or made me the unfortunate recipient of rude, bad tempered remarks. A few however, received their mail with good grace, responding with a well-placed thank you and a smile. When this happened, I actually felt I was doing something of value. It was a small gesture but always with a big result and a willingness on my part to do more for those managers who had taken the time to acknowledge my existence, despite my lowly placement on the hierarchical ladder.

Civility is key to building relationships and reputations through Social Media

Today, workplaces extend beyond our walls and borders through technology. Every day, we send e-mails, text messages and tweets to people, some of whom we have never met face-to-face. To me, civility is an important part of communicating through this media. After all, when we say something on e-mail, Facebook or Twitter it is captured forever. We can’t take it back. And, it shapes the image we create of ourselves which can either reflect who we really are or cast a shadow over us that is difficult to overcome

Some people might pride themselves in their ability to rattle others with rude behaviour. They say things like, “This is who I am. Get used to it”.

But civility is not about who we are. It is about how we choose to behave. And, insisting on good manners simply makes sense. It matters.

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

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