Category Archives: Leadership Vision

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

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

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

Leadership and the Challenge of Change

ten-tall-tales-climate-change-skeptics-29-Jun-11I am not a baseball fan. Nonetheless one day, I sat, somewhat reluctantly, in front of my television and watched the movie “Moneyball”. I say somewhat reluctantly because, well, Brad Pitt was involved… so I forced myself.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, “Moneyball” is based on the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. It’s about how he defied deeply entrenched tradition and beliefs and changed the game’s system of player selection forever.

There are valuable lessons and reminders in this story that are worth considering when it comes to making change happen. Here are just a few of them:

Begin by defining the problem correctly

Change usually begins with a problem. While everyone involved might acknowledge its existence, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone sees it in the same way. Here is a clip

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Billy Beane saw the problem as one of disadvantage. His scouts saw the problem, more traditionally, as one of deficiency. If, collectively, you fail to see the problem in the same way, resolving it will be that much harder.

To find a different solution, you have to employ different means and sometimes, different people

In order to better understand and resolve his problem, Billy partnered with a very unlikely individual. Peter was an economist, newly graduated from a prestigious University, who had developed an unorthodox method of player evaluation. It was an untested process and yet to Billy, it spoke of possibility. Sometimes to make change happen, you’ve got to take a leap of faith.

Once you’re committed, there’s no going back

Billy’s story made me think about just how hard it is to make a major change in any organization. At some point in the process the going is bound to get tough, often unbearably so. In spite of it, a leader’s belief in what s/he is doing cannot waiver, especially in the face of naysayers. Failure is always a possibility but giving up too soon, or not trying in the first place, is a kind of failure in itself.

In the face of immovable obstacles, go around

In the movie, the Oakland Athletics Team Manager was fiercely opposed to Billy’s new approach. Billy’s suggestions for player positioning fell on deaf, and very stubborn, ears. The manager continued to play in his time-honoured way, honestly believing that Billy was making a terrible mistake. No manner of persuasion would convince him otherwise. So Billy traded the players favoured by the team manager, effectively forcing him to do something different. Sometimes you have to rattle the cage hard.

Know when it’s your turn to take charge

The introduction of a new process and a new Assistant GM was a great boon to Billy in initiating change. When something is working it is tempting to become reliant on it for all the answers. However, good leaders understand that a system, process, or even the advice of others can only take you so far. That means that on occasion, decisions have to come from your own experience, your own talents and your own understanding of what’s going on. It goes with the territory.

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

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Please Note: The clip used from the movie “Moneyball” is not used for commercial purposes or financial gain. It is respectfully borrowed from Sony Pictures for illustration purposes only and not intended to infringe on copyright.

* This post was written and originally published in June, 2012

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, Leading Teams, Management

Perceptions of Leadership ~ Changing the Record

0716_Slide2_blog_inlineRecently, I  read an interesting article that started me thinking about the messages we send out to our children concerning what it is to be a manager. I was thinking too, or perhaps worrying, that in spite of herculean efforts on the part of many ‘experts’ to change the perception of what it takes to be a good manager, we seem to be failing to convey a more enlightened message than the one that prevailed at the beginning of the Industrial Age.

The Article, written by Hal Gregersen for Businessweek.com is entitled, “What Do Managers Do at Work?

Gregerson and his colleague, Warner Woodworth, collected data from one thousand children between the ages of five and eighteen years old. When asked, “What do Managers do at work?” the responses looked like this:

55%: Managers control people’s actions at work, making sure they do what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it.

39%: Managers fix problems at work, any problem (and more often than not, they fix every problem).

6%: Managers develop people’s capabilities by coaching them to become better at what they do.

Less than 1%: Managers understand and serve customer needs.

Less than 1%: Managers make a profit for their companies.”

While I don’t think the sample size here can wholly represent the perceptions of all children in the five to eighteen age range, it appears that among these 1,000 children, the perception of management remains largely entrenched in a command and control model. And that is worrying enough to talk about.

For me, it begs the question: What must we do to change the record… to make sure upcoming generations of organizational leaders have the opportunity to think differently about the work of leadership and management long before they even get their first job?

It’s a big question. I don’t have the answer…just a thought for now, which is this:

Changing the way we talk about our own work experience might provide an opportunity for the next generation to think about work differently, not necessarily how it is, but how it could be or how we want it to be. ~ If we think young people are not listening when we talk about our jobs, our bosses, or our employees, we would be wrong. That means our experiences around leadership, control, problem solving, idea-generation, diversity etc. are, almost always passed along and absorbed.

So, here are a few questions to ask ourselves that might help us to think differently; to change the conversation; and perhaps too, the perception of what a good manager does at work:

What kind of boss would I like my daughter or son to be?
In what way can I champion a positive and collaborative leadership model?
Why is it important?
What opportunities might I provide now that will help my children develop 21st Century leadership skill?
What kind of role model am I?
Alan Keightley said, “Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t’ have to experience the world in the way they have been told to”

With that in mind, I assert that our children do not have to experience organizational life in the same way so many of us do, or have done. But, for a new vision of leadership to fully emerge, we have to start by breaking old patterns…and changing the record. Fortunately, there is some evidence of this happening.  Take a moment to listen to these children on the topic of leadership:

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

*Note: This post is a refreshed version of one written in October 2012

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Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, Leadership Vision

If I Ran the Zoo ~ A Whimsical Look at Leadership

From February, 2012 ~ I had fun writing this, so I’m running it again in the hope that you will have fun reading or re-reading it.

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When my boys were little, one my favorite things to do was to read stories to them at bedtime.  A well-loved story was Dr Seuss’ “If I Ran the Zoo”.  Basically, it is about a little boy, Gerald McGrew, who decides that the animals he sees in the Zoo are too ordinary and he begins to imagine what it might be like if he ran the Zoo instead.  I’m not sure what started me thinking about it but a whimsical mood has led me to creating my own version of “If I Ran the Zoo”.  So, with apologies to Dr Seuss, here it is:


If I ran the zoo, I’d begin with the view,

That my organization includes you, and you.

All manner of folk, both women and men,

All shapes and sizes; all cultures and then…

I’d paint a big picture up there on the wall,

A picture so clear it would dazzle, enthrall,

All those wonderful folk with their heads full of notions

Who want to commit with their hearts and emotions.

If ran the zoo, I would see to it, too,

What’s important to me is important to you.

And just to be sure, I’d turn it around,

So things that you value, with me, would resound.

Then we’d roll up our sleeves and get down to work,

With genuine effort…no one would shirk.

With good conversations and tough ones as well,

There’d be no need to shout or to curse or to yell.

If I ran the zoo, there’d be elephants too,

But not in the room ‘cuz between me and you,

A room with an elephant’s crowded I think,

(And after a while, the room starts to stink).

And speaking of animals, there’d be “octopi”,

With tentacles reaching way up to the sky,

Crossing all kinds of boundaries, and silos and such,

To change for the better the World we all touch.

If I ran the zoo, I would hire people who,

Would focus on making our customers, too,

Feel glad that they know us and to want to come back

And we’d work to make sure there’d be nothing they’d lack

We’d be curious, too, us folks in this zoo,

We’d want to be knowing the why, what and who,

Of what happens around us, and how it takes place

Cuz, change is a creature we have to embrace.

So, that’s what I’d do, If I ran the zoo,

There’s more… but I’ll turn it over to you.

With blank sheet of paper and pen in the ink,

Tell me, how would you do it?

What do you think?

 

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Values, Leadership Vision, NOWLeadership, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness, Servant Leadership

Creating Boundaries for Growth and Success

In life and work, there are many boundaries, personal ones,interpersonal ones and systemic ones.  And there are also organizational boundaries.  These are the ones that intrigue me most because they are the most difficult to manage and yet can be just the thing that makes growth and success possible.

The trouble with organizational boundaries though, is that so often they are defined by rules and procedures that have a tendency to limit creative ability and collaborative effort.  That can be very stifling for both the organization and most certainly for the people who work in it.  In my mind, boundaries built on rules and procedures alone make an organization look a bit like this:

It has a rather claustrophobic feeling about it, doesn’t it? And, its walls are solid and unbending.  In an atmosphere like this, I can imagine how hard it must be to engage people in creative thinking, (and doing), because really, there seems to be no way out of the ‘boundary box’.  In this scenario, boundaries create a static space with little room for fresh ideas or growth.

But, let’s not get carried away.  Boundaries are a necessary part of every organization.  Without them, we invite chaos, distraction, and confusion with everyone running around doing their own thing and nothing meaningful being accomplished.

The thing is, boundaries don’t have to limit our ability to put our heads together and come up with ideas and activities that bring the workplace alive and produce something meaningful and fulfilling.

In fact, if expressed differently they can serve the creative process amazingly well.  Here’s what it might look like:

You may notice that the Legal and Ethical boundary appears at the bottom of both images.  There’s no getting away from that one.  It is in no way flexible and serves as the foundation for any reputable organization’s dealings.

The vision and purpose of the organization provides the uppermost boundary.  This speaks to the importance of creating, conveying and instilling a clear sense of purpose and future throughout the workforce. This is not simply about hanging framed vision statements on the wall.  It is something that acts as a guide to decision makers and leaders throughout the company regardless of their position or title.  It invites the question, “Does what we are about to do serve our organizational purpose and move us closer to realizing our ultimate goal?”

The boundaries on either side of the model are created by the Values the organization and its people espouse.  Values express our intentional behaviour and the qualities we hold as critical to the company and what it stands for. It also invites the question, “ Does what we are planning to do honour our values? If it doesn’t, what must we do differently to ensure alignment?”

Finally, the Creative space here is not so much restricted by hard and fast rules but guided by a set of principles that makes sense to everyone. They are open to challenge. They respond to changing times and situations. And that makes the creative space alive and dynamic.

Of course, if there were a downside to this kind of boundary making, it would be the greyness of its nature.  Rules are black and white, right or wrong… vision, purpose and values…not so much. These can be open to interpretation from one person to the next.  As such, they require ongoing attention, management and leadership.  Their messages must be constantly referenced and reinforced.  And too, there must be a strong belief in the will and capability of people to see themselves in the organizational vision, working with others to fulfill its purpose and aligning themselves with the values it embraces.

For the leader, it is not easy work…not at all.  To me, though, it is work worth pursuing because, done well, it increases the potential of companies to successfully build something that everyone involved can feel proud of.

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

Note: This post is a refreshed version of one originally published in December 2011

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