Leadership Development In The Trenches:

A series dedicated to examples of leadership actions that grow business effectiveness

Risking Your Identity to Grow Your Leadership Effectiveness

My Canadian colleague, Lisa Chandler, and I have the privilege of working with a senior leadership team through a year long program called Leader to Leader™ to increase their individual and collective leadership effectiveness. We know empirically that even small increases in overall leadership effectiveness can have a significant positive impact on the business.

Many leaders say they want to be more effective. This group means it. Not only are they investing a significant amount of money and time, but they are putting their very identity on the line for the sake of leadership growth. As developmental thought leader Robert Kegan puts it, “We spend a lot of our time [at work] doing a second full-time job that no one is paying us to do: keeping our identity and self-esteem intact”. As leaders, once we become aware of this, we can challenge ourselves to drop the job of protecting our identify so we can focus our full energy on growing our people and the business.

So what does this getting real actually look like in a Leader to Leader™ program? Repeatedly pushing one’s self outside their comfort zone with a heavy dose of candid feedback from peers. At our most recent session, one 20 year veteran of the business and a valued technical contributor, set the tone for the peer coaching session by admitting to the entire senior team that he lacked clarity on his role on the organizational chart with accelerated growth of the company. He also told the group that he had a tendency toward being passive about his own career path. By sharing this, he challenged himself to take charge of his own leadership path. His admission cut through all the clutter and was grounded in a bedrock of honesty. His peers gained insight into his struggle and realized they also needed to be 100 percent responsible in helping him gain clarity and a defined role.

Another leader, newer to the team, had the group laughing when he shared that he had put a ton of energy into not being perceived as an “egotistical jackass” when he had first joined the company and that sadly, the very thing he had tried to avoid happened anyway! His 360 feedback, while very strong in some areas, showed him that his drive, ambition and need to be right were impeding his effectiveness as a leader. Most leaders don’t like to reveal their foibles. This leader risked his safety in order to be authentic with his colleagues. He owned his failure to lead as effectively as he could and he opened himself to support from his colleagues going forward.

As you can see from these examples, leaders who want to grow:

a) reveal themselves honestly,

b) challenge themselves to take personal risks to create outcomes that matter, and

c) open themselves up to A LOT of feedback.

You can also see that we’re really proud of this group. This work is difficult after all (and life long). One leader’s final comment went along the lines of “this is the most vulnerable I have felt in a very long time”. Enacting these behaviors lead to business effectiveness because they get to the heart of the matter quickly. By courageously being honest, and challenging each other to get real they are accelerating their conversations to reach solutions more quickly. More to come!

What Can Abraham Lincoln Teach Us About Leadership Today?

With the publicity garnered through Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln and the related book Team of Rivals by noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, new attention has been focused on how President Abraham Lincoln moved the country forward during a time of great crisis. These media allow us to reflect on events of the past and determine what lessons can be learned and applied in today’s world.

There is no doubt that the world has changed significantly in the 150 years since the 1860s. One of the most striking story lines of the book is how children and adults died from diseases that we don’t even think of today. But one thing has not changed. When you want to accomplish big things, you have to work with other people. And people are complex creatures who have different motivations, wants, and desires. Lincoln has certainly gone down in history as great president, but what was it that made him so successful? I would argue that it was his amazing ability to understand people and his skill in navigating a variety of factions.  As the title of the book states, Lincoln assembled a team of his rivals to serve in his cabinet – an idea copied by President Obama when he asked Hillary Clinton to serve as Secretary of State. Two men in particular were his chief political competitors for the Republican nomination in 1860- William Seward of New York and Salmon Chase of Ohio. Lincoln appointed Seward to be his Secretary of State and Chase to be his Secretary of the Treasury. While Seward quickly became one of Lincoln’s most trusted confidants, Chase focused on his own political aspirations. Despite this, Lincoln realized that to keep the country on track at a time of great crisis, he needed to include people who represented different factions even if those same people were trying to undermine him. At one critical juncture in late 1862 after the Union Army had experienced yet another difficult defeat at Fredericksburg, Lincoln faced a political crisis. The Congress wanted answers on the Union’s battlefield catastrophes. Chase happily scapegoated Seward by feeding rumors to the legislature that the Secretary of State had too much influence over Lincoln – often circumventing other members of the cabinet on major decisions. As the Congress became inflamed with the rumors, Seward offered his resignation. However, instead of acting immediately, Lincoln reflected and considered his options. He knew the rumors were untrue, but he couldn’t have the members of Congress turn against him. How Lincoln decided to proceed was brilliant. He invited key legislators to an emergency cabinet meeting where all concerns were to be addressed in the open. This gathering accomplished several goals:

1) It allowed the members of Congress to hear first-hand (not from the rumor machine) what the cabinet members were really thinking and feeling about how they functioned as a group.

2) It unified the cabinet members in supporting one another and Lincoln – as they didn’t want to see the legislative branch interfering with them as executive branch appointees.

3) It exposed Chase as self-interested and disingenuous – and both the legislators and cabinet members put him back in line.

In the end the political crisis was averted, and Seward remained as Secretary of State. By promoting direct, honest dialogue and bringing together different factions, Lincoln was able to move past petty personal squabbles and ego-based maneuvering. Had the President taken a different course such as personally isolating or reprimanding Chase, Lincoln risked alienating members of Congress, especially those who were political allies of Chase. Lincoln also realized that this internal strife was a distraction from the big issue at hand – preserving the Union. In many ways, it was Lincoln’s approach that cemented him as one of the greatest figures in United States history. He was an intent listener to different opinions and was not authoritarian in his style, dictating orders. However, this approach wasn’t always appreciated. One of Lincoln’s other rivals for the 1860 GOP nomination was Edward Bates of Missouri – who served in the cabinet as Attorney General. An entry in Bates’ diary “reveals frustration with Lincoln’s loose management style, which left the administration with ‘no system-no unity-no accountability-no subordination’” [Team of Rivals p. 674]. Even today, Bates’ desire for direction and order from Lincoln is what we sometime expect from a “leader”. However, a top-down approach often does not incorporate the full input and value of the people involved. Goodwin suggests that “Lincoln’s ability to retain his emotional balance in… difficult situations was rooted in acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways” [p. 609]. He would deal with stress by engaging  others with his storytelling, and amusing people with his anecdotes. A good reminder that we all need to find an activity or hobby that allows us to release tension and free our minds to think more clearly. Decisions that are made purely on emotion or in-the-moment don’t often let us consider the range of possibilities.

So as you go about your work and tackle the challenges that you face, remember to:

1) Take a-step-back and gain some perspective on the situation. Write down some overarching thoughts on a challenge you are working through. What is the real issue? Who is involved?

2) Listen to the people with whom you are working. What do they want to see happen? Draw a picture of each person (stick figures are acceptable) and write a few phrases about what is motivating them.

3) Think about the range of options to move an issue forward. Combine your thoughts with the variety of insights provided by the people with whom you are working  to map out a few possibilities of how to proceed.

By deliberately carving out the time to map a situation and develop options on moving forward, you can – in your own way – follow the approach of one of the great men of history. Also, remember to create time for yourself to relieve stress. Doing  so will allow for you to make decisions with a clearer mind. And thankfully as you chart a path forward, you do not have the weight of preserving the United States of America resting on your shoulders.

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It’s Not Personal, It’s Just Business — NEWS FLASH — IT IS ALWAYS PERSONAL!

Employees want less command and control and more conversational interaction.  Yet how do some Theory X’ers still choose to interact with their staff?  With an attitude of “its just business, its not personal.”  Wake up and smell the employee engagement surveys, people — IT’S ALWAYS PERSONAL!

The jury is back on employee satisfaction, and engagement wins overwhelmingly with strong links to organizational performance and profitability. “But our shop is unionized,” whines the non-creative supervisor.  “We can’t engage THOSE people that way.” I disagree, and know several people personally who work in tough unionized shops who make it work on a daily basis.  What is their secret to success?  How do they engage people to get results?  They follow three simple steps.  Whether they know it or not they are doing three things very well:  they Connect with people personally/conversationally, they Inquire and ask questions that open up conversation, and most importantly, they Respect the workers they lead by the way they interact with them.  So the model is simple and not rocket science, but are you taking the time to do it – Connect, Inquire, Respect.  It should echo in your head like a broken record (what are records? say the Millenials,) burying itself deep in your unconscious.

Connection, aka small talk, is the social lubricant that allows people of all walks of life to meet on common ground.  It is that moment that says to the other person you are connecting with, “You’re not a part in the machine, but a human being.” It helps people know that you see their humanness and want to treat them with dignity.  That is probably more than you expected from a phrase like “Did you see the game last night?” Or, “What did you do this weekend?” However, that is exactly the symbolic impact or subtext of those phrases.  (Note to others/self: those statements only work if you actually listen to the answer – “What you mean I have to listen?”)  It is that moment of reaching across boundaries that allows you to enter into their world and have a meaningful conversation.

“Ya, Ya, Ya, I connect with people just fine, but that doesn’t get me or my organization moving forward. I don’t see more work getting done because of that.  I see just the opposite – a manager standing around jawing with his staff.” Inquiry is the next phase of the conversation that starts to improve  productivity.  People want to know they have a say in their destiny.  It is one of the base motivators, (just ask Dan Pink).  If you want a person to engage in problem solving, or find out what happened in a certain situation, you need to ask (inquire.)  Most people crave “airtime” and want to be heard.  A leader can gain a lot of valuable insight from asking people their perspective on the matter (You also get smarter, as you learn from your employees.) Most of all, this draws your employees into their work and helps them to feel like a valued person.  If they feel like their leader DOES care about their opinion, they are more likely to be engaged in the work process.  Again the studies show that the more engaged in the work the employees are, the more productive they are – A win/win all the way around.

You can be a rock star at Connecting and Inquiring and fail at the last, most important hurdle, Respect, and it will all be for naught.  Have you ever been asked your opinion on something, then told that your opinion is wrong, not valid, does not count?  How you handle the Inquiry phase of any interaction makes or breaks the relationship.  As leaders we don’t have to agree with everything, but we do have to respect the opinions of those whom we ask for it.  How do we do that?  This is what separates mediocre leaders from great ones.  Respecting someone’s opinion happens when we acknowledge it as a perspective that could be legitimate.  It does not mean we will always go along with it.  For example, You (leader) ask team member Kim for his/her opinion on something.  Kim comes back and shares a perspective that you know will not be viable based on knowledge you may have, which s/he does not.  We can validate her perspective by saying something like “I can see what your are saying, AND I also have to consider (blank) in the decision.” What you have done here is used AND instead of BUT which says Kim’s perspective has merit AND this other one does also.   It raises his/her opinion to a more level playing field.

Another way of respecting Kim’s perspective is to Invite him/her To The Dilemma. This is a method of responding that invites Kim into your perspective to wrestle with the issues that your are considering in your decision-making process.  The subtext is, I heard your opinion, and I wonder how you would see that fitting into this situation as I unpack it more for you.  You can then ask Kim what s/he would do in that situation.  Watch out you may learn something!   I have used this perspective many times to gain engagement into a process that may have been faltering previously.

Overall, when people say it’s not personal, it is just business, there are several possible assumptions that your average person might conclude:  one that takes a somewhat noble spin on the statement and one that brings up assumptions about business which would make the likes of Gordon Gecko proud.  The former could be intending to say that this is the best decision for the good of the company, and all things considered it is the best option for the most people.  The latter assumes that business is always a cutthroat enterprise and that it is a given that you are swimming with sharks.  Both don’t consider the human impact business decisions have on people.  Connect, Inquire, Respect is one method of trying to acknowledge the humanness of the business world – IT’S ALWAYS PERSONAL.

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How Do YOU Lead in Tough Economic Times?

By Michael Pochan

It is January 2012. Not only are your sales down, fuel prices are still up… and your people’s morale is suffering  (we have been in tough times since Septemeber 2008 with little good news).  If your reality is like that of General Carbide Corp. of Hempfield Township in Western PA , you need to cut operating costs, but you do not want to lay people off if you can avoid it. But it is a tough call. You cannot ignore the situation, so you act.

See their story here

Hempfield plant workers get $250,000

by Joe Napsha, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW  Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Here are the key takeaways from what company president Mona Pappafava-Ray did:

1) She tried to avoid any layoffs; that would disrupt production; everyone took a pay cut INCLUDING she and management; everyone shared the pain to save the business; she was compassionate and led by example.

Here is what not to do: “Heinz celebrates biggest profit jump ever with… mass layoffs” – May 31 2011…AND the CEO is back to taking huge compensation; would you want to kick in and help him if he asked for cuts from everyone?

2) She understood the operating numbers of her business and was able to take action with a clear path to recovery; great leadership requires a plan.

3) Pappafava-Ray was open and honest with everyone; maintain your ethics always!

4) She kept her promise to the people.

Not only did the company survive and recover, it is growing in a poor economy. And each worker got their lost wages plus more. Want to guess how the morale is ?

This is an example of great leadership.

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Delegation In Leadership

I have often gotten the following question: “How do you delegate effectively?  I have trouble delegating projects to people.  I tend to yank them back when times get hard.  I don’t mean to do this.  I just can’t seem to resist sometimes.  I always end up feeling like I could do it better myself.

Here are some thoughts on this subject:

The struggle in effective delegation is a common one for leaders. I will address two things in this response: One, a practical how-to guide on delegation that covers the tactical nuts and bolts, and a deeper dive into the real reasons people have trouble deleburiedgating. The deeper dive first.  Have you ever asked yourself why you feel the urge to yank back control?  One common reason for this Yo-Yo effect is that people truly do want to release power and authority, but they have a deeper stronger need to feel (fill in the blank) maybe in control, not humiliated by a project failure etc.   When you give away power to someone (i.e. give them the power to make a decision) you do give up some control.  There are other benefits to delegating that should be looked at.  The other benefits such as developing others around you and being able to get more done because of division of labor far outweigh the downsides to delegating. We cannot be leaders if we don’t learn to get work done through other people. A leader/manager’s job is to help coordinate work so that more may be accomplished through the whole and not as a collection of individual contributors.

One place to look for a culprit in the Yo-Yo effect is you.  What deeper commitment is at play in your life that keeps you from letting go of that control? We need to identify this deeper need to get any traction on delegating.  Once you identify the deeper commitment, one has to ask what do you believe deep down about that commitment.  For example, one may identify the need to not be humiliated as a competing commitment that you hold that is stronger than the commitment to release power to someone else (delegate).  Next you need to ask yourself where did I learn that commitment to not be humiliated?  Where did that come from?  Is that always true?  From there we need to find ways to modestly test whether that commitment is always true and can we find data that proves otherwise. Once we can prove that it is not always true, we can continue to look for more data (examples) of when that is not true in our lives.  Are there examples of times when we did give up control or delegate something that did go well, or where the person exceeded expectations?  In actuality, we need to prove to ourselves that the opposite of what we have previously assumed as true is not always true.

Now on to some  tips on how to effectively delegate to subordinates. First you need to clearly know the picture of what you want done.  You need to be able to clearly articulate the end goal.  So often a leader will not take the time to slow down to vividly and clearly paint a picture of what the vision of success is in this instance. Be specific on what you want, don’t just say, “I want a report on XYZ.”  Explain to them what you expect in the report in detail.  The more detail you give the better the end product.

Next you need to set goals on when you want the project done.  Don’t leave it out there with a nebulous date.  Get a firm commitment on when you could expect the project completed.

Finally, you need to follow-up with that person to see how they are doing with the project and give them permission to ask you any questions they need to move the project forward.  Give them the no “dumb” questions speech — There are no “dumb questions” just “dumb people” who are afraid to ask them.  Invite them to ask you questions. A thirty-second exchange could give them the guidance they need to complete the project successfully – You can spare thirty seconds can’t you?

For an even deeper dive on making traction on developmental goals check out this book:

Immunity to Change by Kegan and Lahey.

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Having Hard Conversations With Subordinates

This is a skill that every leader needs in spades.  It is a must have, not a nice to have, skill if you want to become the leader you always wanted to work for.  This was a recent post to Ask Eli. Ask Eli is a great place to get practical answers to all your leadership and organizational cultural questions.

My subordinate is performing his duties well, but his interactions with co-workers are abysmal.  He talks too loud and too often in meetings and pretty much bowls people over in one- on- one interaction as well.  What do I do with this guy?

Hard conversations at work are a reality of any work situation.  How we handle them is what separates highly effective people from average performers. The conversation to be had here is about delivering potentially unsettling news to a subordinate.  This conversation is about helping a subordinate understand the destructive effect his influence has on those around the office, as well as making efforts to preserve his identity (ego) in the process.  When people can separate their behavior from their identity, they are much more apt to hear the feedback, and make positive changes.  Let’s look at how an effective leader would handle this situation.

Leading others is primarily about our influence relationship with our followers.  Do we have the track record in place with them to be influential or not?  If you can honestly say yes, then we will have an easier time setting up the conversation.  If not, then you have a little more work to do.  Let’s assume you do have a positive track record for the time being.  First, this is a face-to-face conversation and not one to be done via email or phone call.  You need to be able to read all the cues that are being presented during that conversation, and email and phone drastically limit your ability.

Set up a time when you and your subordinate can meet.  Let’s call him John.  If he asks what the meeting is about, you can tell him it about leadership development.  This will initially set the tone that this is not a meeting about coming down on him.  As his supervisor, you owe it to him and his fellow workers  to bring John’s perceived behavior to his attention.  It is the most caring and effective action you could take.

You will want to do a little bit of preparation before the meeting.  I find that committing the following to writing really helps to clarify the conversation.  What is the ideal end goal of this meeting?  What is your purpose for calling the meeting?  What is not the purpose of this meeting?

Here is what I would write down.  “The purpose of this meeting is to bring to John’s attention that a perception of him is keeping him from being a more effective executive in your company.  The purpose is not to negatively criticize him or come down hard on him.  The ideal end goal would be for John to hear the information you brought to him and seriously consider it as something that could increase his influence around the company and beyond.”  By doing this little bit of homework you now have a very straightforward and helpful way to start your conversation.

After you use an introduction such as the one seen above, you need to take another  vital step: ask permission from John to share the perceptions with him and then brainstorm some ways to increase his influence via addressing the perceptions.  This step reinforces that you are on his side and want to help him become a better professional, not just reprimand him.  It is also inviting him to an adult conversation where you and he look at the behaviors as just that, behaviors, and not John’s identity.

If you gain John’s approval, which most likely you will, then you need to give him some concrete examples of how his past behavior has kept him from being influential with his fellow employees.  Often people need to see their behavior linked to consequences in order to see how it is affecting them.  This is another place you need to do some prep work and have your examples very clear and prepared.  Make sure you don’t water down these examples .  Sometimes when people talk to stronger personalities like John, they weaken their stance because they are afraid of the response.  Remember, that if you can help John see what he is doing with others, it will benefit him in the long run.

In this process you want to invite John to share his perspective of the situation.  He needs to have some say in this conversation.  Hearing his perspective can help you and him figure out the best course of action.   You can do this by saying something like, “Now that I have let you know my perception of the situation, what is your take on the it?” If John can see that he may at times be bulldozing people, then you are ready for the brainstorming phase of the conversation – figuring out ways he can create more space for others, and figuring out why he feels the need to bulldoze situations.  If John is very defensive in his reaction, you will need to back up a step and reiterate the purposes for the meeting.  You need to reassure him that this is not about criticizing him unfairly, everyone has growth edges, and that you are trying to help him professionally by bringing this to his attention.

One of the actions you can have John take is to track how much he is talking in group settings.  He could track how many times he feels the need to respond to what is being said.  If he finds  that it is a large proportion of the things being said triggers a reaction,  then he will have to pick and choose his moments better.  He needs to reflect on the acronym WAIT – “Why am I talking?” Ask him to write it on top of his notepad at meetings as a visible reminder.

Another way to handle this situation is to introduce a concept called “Limited Resources”.   “Limited Resources” is an experiment he can conduct in public settings where he is only allowed to add comments to three things within in the meeting unless specifically asked to do so.  This will cause him to prioritize what he thinks are the items important enough to comment on.

Another exercise he could try is to make sure he is capturing the message before he responds.  John is only allowed to comment when he has demonstrated that he has heard and understood the message others are sending before adding his opinion on the matter.  That could be by paraphrasing back to the sender the essence of the message, or by simply repeating what he has heard.  This can operate as a mechanism to slow down John’s thought process to more of a listening stance.  People probably feel that he is not a good listener. Reassure John that practicing these newer behaviors will have a positive effect on his ability to influence others.  Offer your support and coaching on the matter and follow through with him. Changing ingrained behaviors can be challenging.  Only with the support of a leader who shows genuine interest can John make progress in his leadership development.

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Team Essentials for Effectiveness By Seth Hufford

Take a minute and think about a positive team experience. What was it about that team that made things work well? Maybe it was your ability to get along or the trust that you built with other team members. Perhaps it was the clear focus on what you were trying to accomplish.  Chances are you can identify several important elements that contributed to your team’s effectiveness.  Sometimes you can luck your way into a positive team environment without being deliberate about it.  However, to ensure that your team is most effective, it is better to be deliberate than lucky. Taking time at the beginning of a team’s formation to sort out key issues can go a long way toward creating an effective team. Moreover, team development is an ongoing process, and it will take more than just dealing with these issues at the beginning of the team’s work.  As long as the team exists, you will need to dedicate time to talking about how you work together.

Before we begin, it is important to be clear about what we mean when we use the word “team”.   In his book Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni defines team as a small number of people – no more than a dozen – that:

  • Share common goals
  • Share rewards and responsibilities for achieving the goals
  • Set aside personal needs for the good of the group

Now that we are clear on what a team is, ask the question: Why does the team exist?

The answer to this question will serve as the team’s purpose – an essential first step for creating effective teams.  Why should you articulate a purpose?  Here are some key benefits:

  • It gives meaning to the work
  • It provides  common understanding and direction
  • It enables team members to function with clarity and focus
  • It serves as a beacon to guide the team through adjustments and changes

It is imperative to develop a short, but meaningful purpose statement.  One example for a team might be: To develop new media strategies for our product launch. Even if a team purpose has been assigned to you – handed down from an executive or superior, it is important for the purpose to be overtly articulated and discussed within the team to create buy-in and avoid confusion later on.

A good second step is to create team agreements that document how you want to work together. My experience is that there are four areas in which it is most important to come to agreement:

  • Participation – how do team members contribute?
  • Communication – how do team members interact and share information?
  • Conflict – how does the team deal with disagreements?
  • Decisions – how does the team make decisions?

It is best to work through each of these areas (and any other key ones that the team identifies) and capture your outputs in writing.  Once they are drafted, each team member can sign-off on the agreements to create accountability.   These agreements will have to be revisited on a regular basis – and will need to be honored and enforced by all team members.

The third step in creating effective teams is to be clear about roles that team members will assume. For starters, make sure each team meeting has a facilitator, a timekeeper, and a note taker.  These roles can often be rotated to give each team member a stake in the smooth and effective operation of the team.  When meetings conclude, it is imperative to be clear about the actions for which each team member is responsible.  Some teams use a regular format that makes it easier to keep the meeting agenda and minutes consistent.  This creates accountability and empowers people to contribute.  As a challenge, use the team environment as a place to stretch the roles that people are accustomed to.  If there is someone who always likes to do research, have him/her do something different and suggest someone who is less comfortable doing research assume that task.  This way, team members are able to develop new skills.

Creating a team purpose, crafting team agreements, and establishing roles will go a long way to ensure the effectiveness of your team. Remember teamwork is an on-going process. Talk about these items when your team is just beginning and constantly revisit what you developed together.

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Do you cast a vision like a toddler with a Fisher Price rod, or a Bassmaster with a Pflueger Supreme.  For the non-fishing enthusiast, professional anglers have a knack of casting their lure far and accurately.  Landing it just where there are fish that grab that lure hook, line, and sinker (forgive the cliché.) Giving people a solid vision is a primary method of leading well.  Ancient wisdom literature stated that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Are your people perishing?

Vision gives people direction, hope, and motivation - three things vital to success.  Direction allows people to multiply work efforts because they know what tasks/work need to be accomplished.  Hope given by a strong vision lets people envision a brighter tomorrow.  A brighter tomorrow gives meaning to a person’s work.  Meaning in work overwhelmingly produces better quality work.  The other things a well-painted vision does are to create urgency, innovation, and focus for your staff in the midst of unclear times. If I can look back at a compelling vision when I feel a bit lost, it focuses me and I keep pressing on towards the goal.  Urgency is created because of a strong call to action that needs to be part of the visioning process.  So how does one cast vision for those you lead?  Here are a few guidelines to consider in order to improve your vision-casting ability.

Visions are value laden.  They give people meaning.  Too many people lead their vision casting with the “Whats” -What needs to happen.  This is exactly opposite of how you should start.  You should start with the “Why”.  Why do we do what we do, and why is it important? Communicate a larger belief behind the “Why” before you communicate the “What”.  For further study in this area please reference “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek or check out his TED presentation.

Make it personal for yourself and others.  Connect your personal belief in the larger Why,  and invite others to hitch their wagon to that larger belief. A good vision connects people’s personal missions and beliefs to a larger cause.

Make your thoughts crystal clear – I have to vet my ideas sometimes until they are clear and understandable, and most importantly, compelling.  So know what you want to say before you say it.  This is not the time to speak spontaneously.  Refine your ideas and the wording as much as time permits.

A Couple of Technical Notes:

  • Use vivid language and paint a picture for people to visualize.  If you can create a vivid image that people can recall, the vision is more likely to be remembered.
  • Use allegories or stories as a way to communicate the vision.  It lends itself to creating that memorable vivid image.
  • Involve others in fleshing out the details of the vision.  Once you have a direction established, let others make input into that vision.  It allows them to paint themselves into the picture of the future.  It empowers them.  You get buy-in. It helps create a richer vision.  They can now see a future with themselves in it.

To Summarize

1.     Start with the Why. Connect larger core beliefs with the intended outcome .

2.     Make it personal for you and them.  Help them to see “Why should I care.” or “What’s in it  for me.”

3.     Vet your vision before you present.

4.     Use vivid language that powers  the story and creates  a memorable image.

5.     Involve others in vision creation to promote buy-in.

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How to Raise Objections Without Putting Others on the Defensive

This is a leadership skill that is a must for influencing others.  Leaders who can disagree with the ideas of other people without making them feel like they are being alienated are ones that gain allies and attract people to them.

Here are a few basic tenets we need to keep in mind as we approach ideas that we disagree with. When people volunteer an idea, they have taken a risk to share that idea.  We need to recognize that risk and honor it. We honor it by not “blowing it out of the water.” You may not think it is rational, but the way they are seeing things seems rational to them.  Try to understand the model from their perspective not just yours.  Seek clarity in understanding their model.

Certainty about your position is the fastest way to kill a conversation. It communicates, “I am better than you are.” Demonstrate some room for negotiation in your response to their idea. Don’t get trapped in Binary Thinking. – black and white, yes or no, right and wrong.

Often the best solutions are a combination of several ideas.  You need to be open to different solutions that solve the problem. Overall, the goal is moving the business forward while protecting each other’s dignity.  Now that we have discussed a few generalities about raising objectives, let’s turn to a model that you can use to actually do it.

  1. Acknowledge what you are hearing from them (clarify the model they are proposing.)
  2. Let them know what parts of their model you agree with (acknowledge that the model as a whole has merit.)
  3. Raise concerns about the parts of the model, which seem problematic from your perspective.
  4. Ask them if they know how to meld the two models or suggest your own way to work the models together.
  5. If you notice defensiveness reassure the person you don’t think the entire idea is problematic and that you want to work towards a solution.


“So Jan, what I hear you saying is that we should pick Wile E. Coyote and the Acme company as a technology partner. I think that Acme is a cutting edge company and has a lot to offer us as a technology partner. However, I have some concerns with Wile E. Coyote working with us.  He tends to be a bit erratic in his approach, and I do not trust his ability to interface with other prospects without being off-putting.  Is there a way we can work with Acme without working with Wile E. Coyote or controlling his time with possible prospects?”

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Leadership Is Not A One Way Street

This brief article is focusing on one aspect of leadership.  It is the idea that Leaders do not have all the answers.  Exceptional leaders display a dual nature of courage to act as well as the humility to learn from those around them.  Sounds a bit like level five leadership (Good to Great), but it has a few twists and turns to it. Let’s explore those twists and turns.  The law of reciprocity states that in order to influence others you must be able to be influenced. No one follows a know-it-all for long.  Eventually, we grow weary of always being told that our version of reality is skewed or that it is not a valid perspective at all.  We then tune out that person, and stop letting them influence us.  So, how do we balance exercising our own voice when we are in authority, but also let room for others to influence the process?  As usual, this leadership practice it is about balance, and not about picking a side.

People who excel managing the polarity of influencing and being influenced need to see themselves in a certain light in life.  It starts within.  A recent Harvard Business Review article titled, Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, stressed the importance of never casting yourself as a victim of your circumstances.  Further, the authors said this:

“First and most important, they [leaders] frame their life stories in ways that allow them to see themselves not as passive observers but as individuals who develop self awareness from their experiences… Over and over, you replay the events and personal interactions that are important to your life, attempting to make sense of them to find your place in the world…Rather than seeing themselves as victims, though, authentic leaders used these formative experiences to give meaning to their lives. They reframed these events to rise above their challenges and to discover their passion to lead.”

If you are not a victim of life circumstances you can listen to others openly without having to control the situation.  If you are a victim, you try to control the circumstances so you will not be hurt again.  It is the source of immense power in your life if you are not the victim.

You are then free to let your passion direct and influence others in order to mobilize them in a particular direction.  You are free to Challenge the Process as Kouze and Posner write.  You can proactively look for ways to improve whatever system, process, or project you are working on.  You can experiment with innovative ideas and learn from them if they are not an instant hit.  Moreover, you can passionately pursue making a significant difference because you are not wasting energy casting yourself in a victim’s role and all the protection mechanisms involved in that behavior.  Next time you find yourself in a tight spot at work, ask yourself this:  Am I letting circumstances shape me, or am I actively shaping them around me? The former is the victim’s stance, and the latter is not.

There is another part to this polarity that we mentioned earlier and that is letting others influence the process or us.  This is as important as trying to influence others passionately.  Leaders need to create space for others to lead the processes that go on around them. Otherwise you will quickly train your staff to be reactive to the boss’s lead.  I often hear people in authority complain that their people are not proactive problem solvers.  Usually that is because we have trained them to be reactive to what we want, and not to create their own solutions to the problem.  If I am a subordinate in this case, I say to myself, “I will just wait until my boss tells me the answer because if I suggest something it will be corrected anyway.”  How do you create proactive problem solvers?  You can accomplish this by drawing the vision out of your people, not bringing it to them.  People want to be part of creating their future. When you create space for them to do that, most will get on board with the plan.  If they are resistant at first, it is a sign that they have been well trained to be reactive.  Fight that urge to take over and continue to draw out that vision.  Then when you have helped them create a vision of the future, make sure that you trust in the plan to help them stay accountable to it.

Other Author’s Works Referenced:

Discovering Your Authentic Leadership by George, Sims, McLean, and Mayer

The Leadership Challenge by Kouze and Posner

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