Tag Archives: change leadership

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


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

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

Four Things to Remember When Change Hits “Upside the Head”

woman-ice-pack_300Change.  It’s a topic that provides much fodder for discussion among leaders.  We anticipate it; study it; plan for it; and, if we are smart (or lucky), we make it happen or respond to it with strength, a sense of purpose and a clear head.  Sounds pretty simple.

But of course, it’s not.  Sometimes change hits us “upside the head” and cares not whether we have had time to think about it or prepare for it.  It simply happens, rudely and without ceremony, leaving us grappling to make some sense of it all.

Yes, there are ways to mitigate the impact of such brutal changes but for the most part, they have a way of sending us into a tailspin and causing even that which was once so familiar to seem somehow foreign and out of sync with how we understand the world.

The trauma brought about by such change happens every day to countless people, people without contingency plans, or any idea how they are going to cope with what has happened to them.  And yet we do, cope I mean, under many conditions and through many challenges.

Having experienced an “upside the head” change myself, I am given to thinking about aspects of change that I perhaps did not give so much consideration to in the past. Here are a few of those thoughts:

Change is primarily an emotional and people-centred event

In 2001, Jeffery W. Greenberg, Chairman of Marsh & McLennan Companies headquartered in New York, presided over a firm of 58,000 people worldwide.  1,127 of them worked in the World Trade Centre, some in Tower One and others in Tower Two.  Mr. Greenberg’s office was in Mid-town Manhattan.  From his window, he had a clear view of the towers and of the horror inflicted on those who went to work there on September 11th.

At the end of the reckoning, 295 of the company’s employees had lost their lives.  In the midst of the pain and disarray that was to ensue in the days, weeks and months following the attack, something significant emerged.

In telling his story, Mr. Greenberg’s primary observations were not about executing business disaster recovery plans or repositioning Data Centres and telecommunications systems but about the people in his organization; their courage, resilience and determination to pick up the pieces and move on.

This suggests to me that successfully moving through horrendous change events relies more heavily on the preservation of emotional health than we might otherwise think.  It reinforces, at least for me, that building an organization with a strong sense of purpose, widely shared values and an engaged workforce is not a faddish notion.  It is a business imperative.

During times of drastic change, people are often given far less credit for having resilience than they deserve

It is tempting, I think, for leaders to assume that because a change is frightening, people will fall apart and be unable to participate in working toward a new normal without constant hand holding and caretaking. I believe though, that it is during such frightening times that we each have the potential to discover inner stores of strength and courage that might never have been tested.

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.

“Upside the Head” kinds of Change bring out the best in most people.

It would be naïve of me to suggest that when disaster strikes, there won’t be some who will take advantage of it for personal gain, or fail to rise to the occasion, but for the most part, people are amazingly supportive of one another during times of trouble.  Even if, in ordinary circumstances, they spend time bickering, there is something galvanizing about life-changing, scary events that brings out the best in most of us.

For leaders, it is something to perhaps remember…and to trust.

Recovery requires us to dig deep and see the funny side of things.

It’s hard to even think of laughing when your world has been turned upside down.  After all, the experience of being caught in a chaotic and foreign situation is far from funny. But, in my experience, there is always something ironic or just downright comical about every situation.

My husband had a stroke, a very serious one.  It scared us both, badly. But, for some reason, along with the crying (and there was some of that), there was also a fair amount of laughter too.

I just think that, sometimes reverence can be overrated and looking at the lighter side of life, even if it seems a bit out of place, has a way of lifting the load for a time. It is even possible that through a recovery period when the going is hard, laughter is indeed a very potent medicine.

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


Note: A revised version of a post originally published in 2009

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

The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century

I’ve always loved language. Admittedly, my facility in it is sadly limited to English, a few French words and phrases, body language (on a good day) and oh yes, a little pig Latin. But, what I love about language is its power to shape ideas, create images, evoke emotion and give birth to new habits and traditions.

In organizations, language also has the power to determine what matters. For instance, the language of the 20th Century stressed, among other things, the importance of control, competition, individual targets, winning, losing and results. And while many of these words allude to activities that continue to be important, there is other language creeping into the 21st Century landscape that will affect our behaviour and change the way we go about things.

To some, this language is associated with the softer side of life. In the past, It has often been derided and dismissed as being too ethereal or without merit in the workplace. But, as this new century unfolds, language like this will re-shape what matters and reveal its harder edge as we put it into practice.

So, what specifically am I talking about? Well, no doubt you will have heard and used the words. But because I often think it’s easy to use words without really understanding what they mean or how they might be used in any sort of practical way, I thought I’d have a go at bringing them into the light if only for the sake of provoking your own thoughts about their applicability in these highly challenging times. Words, after all, have a way of being open to interpretation and I’m sure you will have yours. But, for what it’s worth here are mine:

The first word is Empathy. To me, empathy in action looks like this. You and I are sharing our viewpoints over a particular issue. It is a difficult conversation. What I’m hearing from you sounds foreign and unlikely and yet I want to make sense of what you are saying. So I stop. I let my ego and my belief that I am right go, and I step into your shoes. I do that by asking questions and exploring the issue from your perspective. I seek to see what you see. In so doing I search for what you might be feeling and when I find it, I begin to understand what it’s like to be there. In short, empathy is about understanding. But just to be clear, it is not necessarily about agreeing.

Here are some other key words that come to mind:

Inclusion is about creating an environment where people feel they belong; are valued and respected. Including people means asking their opinions frequently; trusting them to take the lead in situations where their strengths will better serve the purpose; acknowledging their contributions sincerely and often.

Self-awareness is about knowing our own strengths, weaknesses, behaviours and attitudes well enough to understand our impact on those around us and how effective, or perhaps ineffective, it is in certain situations.

Cultural awareness is about the values, beliefs and perceptions that are part of the organization and the people who work in it. Organizations with an enduring culture will be ones that align their activities and practices with their values and beliefs. These values and beliefs are brought alive through action and thought; in their approach to the customer; in their hiring practices and in the kind of business they choose to conduct.

Diversity is about achieving a real appreciation for the heterogeneous nature of the world and it’s people. To me, embracing diversity means appreciating, understanding, valuing and using our differences to enhance the work and create something greater than we might otherwise do by behaving divisively and out of ignorance or fear.

Openness is about being truthful and giving people the information and resources they need to do their jobs. It also reminds me of the critical need to be receptive to new ideas from a variety of sources and people. In the last century, information was often used as a power tool by a few against the many. Today, I think that power is at its most effective when it is collectively held and willingly shared.

Adaptability in this century will be key to not only successful organizations but ones that simply seek survival as well. This is about learning to accept change as an every day occurrence as opposed to an event that must be planned and carefully managed. It speaks to the necessity to be continually reading, questioning and challenging the current environment. Today becomes yesterday in the blink of an eye. I think that those who learn fast and change faster will do better in these times than those who don’t.

Collaboration speaks to the need to work together for a common purpose. The 20th Century organization was rife with silos and walls that provoked, or perhaps encouraged, internal competition and rivalries. Now it’s time to build bridges between people and lines of business; to eschew hoarding behaviour and learn to share ideas and resources for a purpose that will be of service to everyone involved

These are just eight words that I think, when put into action, will define leadership, and organizational life, in the years to come. There are, of course, others. But, my point is that the more we use this language, and seek to understand its meaning and application, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges that this century presents.

What do you think? What words come to mind for you when you think about leadership today? What do they mean to you? How will they affect the way we work?

Note: This post was originally published in October 2010

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Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Encouraging Innovation & The Story of the 5 Monkeys

This post is from 2011.  No monkeying around here.


I think we’ve all heard someone say it at one time or another.  Or, we may even have said it ourselves.  It goes something like this.  Someone asks the question, “why?” and the response is “Because that’s just the way it’s done.  We’ve always done it that way”

A statement like that can put the lid on things pretty quickly can’t it?  And often, those who are brave enough to explore further by asking, “Yes, but why has it always been done that way?” never receive a satisfactory answer because the truth is that nobody really knows why.

You’re nodding your head aren’t you?  I’m not surprised.  It is, after all, a fairly common occurrence especially in long established organizations.

It reminds me of the Story of the 5 monkeys.  If you aren’t familiar with the story here it is.

Of course, as human beings we like to think that we have evolved a little more than the monkeys in the story; that we are not so easily manipulated.  But, the story illustrates how we can fall into patterns of behaviour without really understanding why.  In organizations, we can also become so deeply entrenched in our way of doing things, attempts to effect change are often greeted with a metaphorical dousing of cold water almost every time.

I think we all know that in today’s economy, our ability to be flexible, creative and innovative is key to our present and future success. The question is, as leaders, how do we invite innovation and creative thinking into our workplaces?  Well, I’ve been having a bit of a think about that and I have some suggestions for your consideration, just to get you started.

Conduct a review of what you value

We tend to talk a lot about organizational values, sometimes without a second thought.  Taking the time to consider what we value and why we value it provides an opportunity to re-affirm organizational beliefs and also to challenge some that may no longer fit with our current reality.  Sometimes too, our actions and attitudes can get out of sync with what we say we value so looking in the mirror once in a while is not a bad idea.

Invite Challenge

This seems like a simple thing to do but sometimes we can allow our egos to get in the way.  For example, if you are a new leader it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you must have all of the answers. You don’t.  And you won’t.

Allowing others to challenge our thinking does not demean the role of the leader.  Instead, it enhances the possibility of a fresher, more creative and progressive outcome and that kind of leadership places emphasis where it belongs, on the work and the people who do it.

Look at failure as part of the process

Nobody likes to fail.  The thing is there are lessons to be learned from it and while we don’t try new things with the idea of failing, sometimes we have to try, and fail, until we discover what works.  Whether we like it or not, clinging to the familiar or doing things the way we have always done them will eventually lead us to failure anyway.

Acknowledge and Reward Creative thinking

Organizations that value stability over innovation will tend to discourage what they consider to be interference with the way things are and discount the ideas of those who think outside the scope of conventional wisdom.

Finding ways to bring out fresh ideas, no matter how bizarre they may sound, and acknowledging those eager to put them forward, demonstrates a willingness to accept the necessity for ongoing change in a time when change is the only thing we can count on.

In today’s world those of us who value stability must learn to live in environments where the apple cart is constantly being upset. To me, this means we will not always be able to know the “why” of everything but we can also no longer afford to accept things because that’s the way we’ve always done them.

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


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

Building Awareness ~ Lessons from a Dancing Bear

It was James Thurber who said, “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness”  This started me thinking about  how important awareness is in leadership and in life.  And, it reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago about building awareness in organizations.  So, as a refresher, here it is  again.


The other day I came across this little film clip that was, I gather, designed to draw our attention to the need for vigilance on the road.  It made me think about how easy it is to miss what’s going on, even when it’s right in front of us. Please watch the film.  It takes less than a minute. Honest.

How’d you do?  Did you get the number of passes right?  I did.  In fact, I felt quite   proud of myself until I realized what I had missed.  I was too busy concentrating on getting the numbers right to notice.  It happens.

This concentration on one thing to the exclusion of everything else happens to leaders too and yet I think we know that a leader’s job is never about just one thing.  It’s about a whole whack of things that go on around them all of the time and often at the same time.  Consequently, building awareness about themselves, their environment and those around them is a pretty big deal.  And, it’s a big deal that often makes the difference between success and failure.

The truth is, that while a few people may be particularly gifted with a keen sense of awareness, most of us need help.  Blind spots abound.  So what to do?

Well, whether you are working on improving your selfcultural or social awareness, it seems to me that just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole company to build awareness and to use what comes from it for the benefit of everyone involved.

Practically speaking, leaders who know the value of building awareness tend to do these four things to encourage and grow it in their organizations:

Invite: We are each provided with one pair of eyes, one pair of ears and one voice.  It only makes sense to invite more eyes, ears and voices to participate in achieving clarity of purpose and a common understanding of what’s important and why.  Multiple observations contribute to the formation of a shared picture and the awareness of the organization as a dynamic body, always changing and moving toward the accomplishment of shared goals.

Inquire:  Sometimes it is simply a matter of admitting when we don’t know something and asking others to help fill in the blanks.  This is particularly true when it comes to building self-awareness.  Enlightenment in these areas admittedly can be painful at times but also self-affirming. And, the truth is, the more we know about ourselves the better able we are to navigate the rough and the smooth without having to spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about ourselves.

Include: Often, it is tempting to gather around us only those who think like we do.  We like it because well, it just feels more comfortable.  But, building awareness in organizations is not about comfort or even being agreeable all the time.  It’s about getting a grip on what’s real and about creating depth of understanding that not only strengthens the organization but also the people it serves.

Intuit: Ah yes, the third eye…okay maybe not… but intuition often plays a part in building awareness.  It is sometimes not what is said but what is not said that seems the most obvious.  While operating from intuition alone can be a dangerous thing, there are times when those gut feelings serve a very useful purpose.  In fact, combined with inquiry and inclusion, it is a very powerful tool.


The bottom line is this:  One person cannot see everything.  Building awareness in organizations must be a collective effort with participation from many and diverse people. Leaders who value the eyes, ears and voices of those around them will be unlikely to miss the moon walking bear too often.

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


Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, Leadership, Organizational Effectiveness, Uncategorized

Change and the Credibility Factor

This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote just over three years ago.  I’m giving it another airing because, at its core, leadership is about change and exploring new territory.  No leader can do that successfully without having earned the confidence of those s/he leads.  It’s as simple and as complicated as that.


I’ve been thinking about what it is that separates a person who seems to be able to influence change in a positive direction, from a person who might have the authority and the technical skill to do the work, but seems unable to pull it off.

The word credibility comes to mind.  The Thesaurus suggests that credibility is synonymous with trustworthiness, integrity and sincerity. I think that if these basic values are present, the chances of arousing the interest and respect of other people are pretty good. And, I believe too, that change agents come in many forms, manifest themselves in a variety of ways and at a variety of levels.

Thinking about that reinforces for me, the notion that it is credibility not title, position, role or authority that makes the difference between an effective leader and an ineffective one.

So, if you are with me so far, the big question seems to be ” How do I prove my credibility to others?”

Here’s what I think it takes to earn credibility:

I do what I say I’m going to do… and I do it, when I say I’m going to do it.

Reliability is an important ingredient in establishing credibility.

There’s nothing more infuriating or counter-productive, than when someone makes a commitment to do something and then fails to follow through.

I represent myself honestly and do my best to be candid and open with my colleagues and bosses.

I think that to gain credibility with others we must simply find the courage and confidence to be ourselves and make our contributions without pretense or bravado.

I show that I’m open to learning and trying new things

Nothing puts holes in our credibility as a leader more than conveying the impression that we have all the answers. And, it is arrogant to think that we can influence change in others without feeling the need to change something ourselves.

Change is a learning experience in itself. If we believe that it is for everyone but us, we are likely not asking the right questions, enough questions, or paying attention to what is going on around us.

I demonstrate respect for the experiences and knowledge of others.

One of the best ways to build credibility is to observe those who have gone before us and learn from their experiences.  If we want to be heard we must first listen.

When I challenge the status quo, I offer feasible and thoughtful alternatives.

To me, presenting a problem without considering a solution is not supporting change.  It is simply complaining.  This doesn’t mean that we have to have a solution for every problem.  But if we want to earn credibility, we have to consider not only the problem, but also the possibilities and questions that will stimulate further exploration.

I own up to being human and making mistakes. And, when I make mistakes, I apologize and then do my best to make amends.

Making excuses for the mistakes we make is simply unproductive and, well, not very attractive either. In general, we do not adversely affect our credibility when we make mistakes. We adversely affect our credibility when we try to cover them up, rationalize them away, or otherwise pretend they didn’t happen.

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


Filed under communication, Leadership, Leading Change, Organizational Effectiveness