June 2012 1.11
This issue of the Unfolding Leadership Newsletter focuses on courage. You'll find:
- Reflective Leadership Practice -- The Courage to Learn
- Leadership Links -- stimulating articles from across the web
- Leadership Edge -- links to articles from the Unfolding Leadership weblog
- Leadership Conversations -- Q & A with Professor Bret L. Simmons
- Leadership Odds and Ends -- More links to foster reflective learning
If you would like to review earlier issues, you can find them in the archive. As always, I appreciate your feedback and suggestions.
Wishing you the best for your reflective practice!
The Unfolding Leadership Newsletter will not be published in July and August but will return in September. Have a wonderful summer and thanks for being part of the subscriber community!
REFLECTIVE LEADERSHIP PRACTICE
The Courage to Learn
In September 1986, Chris Argyris' article, "Skilled Incompetence," came out in the Harvard Business Review. Shortly thereafter, my boss at the time threw a copy of the article on my desk and said, "You might like this." I'd just completed my first course in organization development at the University of Washington, and he was being thoughtful about supporting the interests of one of his employees. That article, in turn, led to my long-term interest in organizational "undiscussables" -- the range of topics in organizations that are threatening to deal with directly with those who can do something about the problem. We learn not to challenge the "sacred cows" or mention the "elephant in the room" -- a boss' pet project or dysfunctional behavior, for example, or how the executive team hypocritically stifles creativity while demanding innovation. What does it take to get these challenging topics on the table? Courage -- specifically the courage to speak up and stay with a risky conversation. Not dumping and running, or some other form of passive-aggressive behavior. Not repackaging the message to the point it really can no longer be heard. But honestly and tactfully working through the tough stuff -- often balancing gutsy truth-telling with a positive view and deep care for those central to solving the problem.
We know this dynamic intuitively, and some of us experience it daily. And it's not a dynamic that is going away soon, as you will read in this month's Leadership Conversation with Bret Simmons.
My sense is we over-emphasize "training" people to speak up as if the problem belongs mostly to the messenger. Organization after organization spends dollars and hours training staff to engage in "crucial" or "fierce" conversations, but the context is not touched. Of course, it's not the messenger's dilemma alone. The whole dynamic can't be taken out of culture as a whole -- as Argyris knew so well. Defensive communication is everyone's problem. And if there is a breakthrough, it is because courage has, as Winston Churchill said in a familiar quotation, two aspects:
"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."
It's the sitting down and listening part that I've grown more passionate about over time, and that vital balance between speaking and listening. Listening is essentially the courage to stop defending and start reflecting -- the courage to learn. More to the point, it is the courage to peer into our own darkness, and to understand ourselves -- the courage to not just hear but truly take in the truth. None of that happens very well, I believe, without a catalytic agent. Courage, although essential, in the end may not be enough to help us reinvent ourselves. Underneath that courage there must be something that takes us beyond even listening -- something found sometimes in a quality of inner quiet, or beauty, or a sense of timeless perspective, and most often found in love.
Readings & Tools to Help You Lead
* What It Looks Like. Master coach Mary Jo Asmus reminds us just how many day-to-day opportunities there are in "30 Overlooked Acts of Leadership Courage." "I'm surprised and humbled," she writes,"at the courageous things leaders do that we don't think of as brave."
* Short-term and Long-term Costs.
Ed Batista of Stanford expands on Chris Argyris' seminal perspectives in his post, "Risk Taking (The Importance of Speaking Up).
" Ed outlines ten points beginning with "If it feels risky to say, it's important."
* A Powerful Model. Years ago, Leadership philosopher Peter Koestenbaum created a leadership model based on four different areas for personal and professional development: Vision, Reality, Ethics and Courage. In which of these four areas are you strongest? Which offer the best opportunities for your growth? Access Philosophy-in-Business.net, noticing the "Leadership Self-Assessment" page in the menu to take a free, short profile and get a summary of this useful model as it applies to your own leadership. Find an in-depth discussion of the model in Koestenbaum's classic, Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness (one of my absolute favorites -- it includes a very down-to- earth discussion of how to build your courage).
* Courage Draws on Human Individuality and Human Connection. Monica C. Worline at Emory University's business school is another strong voice for understanding the essence of courage in the workplace. This Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship article is a nice summary of what it means to "transform organizations into vessels for courageous action" and includes a powerful 9/11 story. See, "Sustaining Courage in Trying Times."
Personal Essays from the Unfolding Leadership Weblog
"Stuckness is the Heart of Change" One of the most troubling phenomena and stumbling blocks for leaders is responding appropriately to passive-aggressive behavior. Passive aggression is common as a way to balance the formal power of a boss with the informal power of employees. Passive-aggressive means simply that people indirectly leak their negative feelings through their actions while seemingly agreeing or going along...Read More...
"Consciousness is the Only Real Power" Of course, there must have been plenty of evolutionary advantages to the enriched consciousness of being human. That goes without saying. As we grow as individuals and as a race, it becomes more apparent exactly what those advantages are. I am coaching someone just now -- I'll call him, Dave -- who is working on a part of himself that is supremely reactive and aggressive... Read More...
"Responsibility As Abdication" I once worked with the CEO of a hospital who took responsibility for personally ensuring that every single piece of furniture purchased would fit the hospital's existing decor. Now, to be fair, the decor was a little different for other health care facilities and had a relationship to brand. But it was difficult to imagine that only the CEO had the good sense to keep the design congruent. When I asked him about it, and how his control over furniture decisions might be viewed by his senior team members, he was a bit embarrassed, but he also quickly added that he saw this as his "personal responsibility"... Read more...
Bret Simmons Explores the Need for Courage and
Appreciation for Understanding
Bret L. Simmons is a professor of management at the University of Nevada where he teaches classes in organizational behavior. He previously worked in government and industry. Bret's forte is his ability to meld philosophical and evidence-based standpoints on leadership. His popular blog, P.O.B. Positive Organizational Behavior, embraces acute essays on leadership behavior, branding, research findings and book summaries. You can find out more about Bret on this site, including his research interests plus the corporate training and speaking opportunities he offers through his company, Sierra Management Research, Inc. Bret brings a strong, clear voice on the nature of organizations today and need for personal responsibility and courage.
Bret, let's talk about courage in organizational life. Why is this topic so important to you and why should it be more important for organizations?
I believe courage is a critical concept for leaders. I take my definition from Ira Chaleff's much under-read book, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders. He defines courage as the ability to move forward through fear. Since leadership involves real change, uncertainty and risk, and those are all accompanied by fear, courage is necessary. Leadership lives and dies on the ability to move yourself and others through fear. I call that encouragement - helping others move forward through fear. Discouragement is enhancing and supporting the fear that is already present and keeping people from the courage they need to change and improve. Our organizations today are full of discouragement - some do it purposefully, some inadvertently. Real conversations about things that matter are rare. There are so many people who hedge their words and are afraid to say what needs to be said. Our organizations currently are full of people who have been robbed of courage and rob others of courage, in turn. But this may not be obvious. Many leaders and organizations try to mask it. We play charades in organizations when we assume roles and play parts when everyone knows the truth is radically different.
Many suppose that charisma is the same as courage, but it's not. A courageous person may not be charismatic at all. Charismatic people have a talent for how they carry and package themselves, but the things they say and do may not touch what actually matters. A charismatic leader may be a wonderful talking head who in fact discourages others completely.
Given the state of our organizations, how do any of us develop our courage to change things?
Springboarding off Chaleff's perspective, I'd say the courage you find as a follower is essential to your courage as a leader. If you as a follower never experience the importance of doing and saying the right things regardless of how others react, as a leader you'll develop that same behavior in others. You will enact rules where it is not acceptable to receive a challenge. Some of the most discouraging leaders seem not to be mean at all, but they still express a rhetoric of control, a rhetoric of "sit down and shut up." There are a lot of micro-behaviors that give this away, including their use of such terms as "loyalty," "respect" and "professionalism" that in fact kill the messenger. There's a sugar coating that contains an implicit threat. To stand outside of all that means first to learn how to courageously challenge your own assumptions, to challenge the way you think. Thinking about thinking is crucial but it's a rare individual who actually knows how to do that, to create a radical change in his or her own mind first, so that when the leadership opportunity presents itself day-to-day, that person is ready.
The other thing I would say is that to develop your courage you have to become a "purposeful actor." To be a purposeful actor means that you understand why your work matters and behave according to a larger organizational purpose. To be other than that is to be selfish and egocentric. It's difficult to be a purposeful actor because it requires courage; however, the larger purpose is its source. There's got to be a reason why you would risk stepping forward, and that's what you have to find. Part of the encouragement process, if you are acting as a true leader, is helping others see the larger purpose of what they do. Real leaders guide others through the discovery process because it has to touch each individual personally. The leader helps give that purpose voice, but it would be inauthentic to just say, "Here it is" or "This is why," and leave it at that. That's asking for compliance not each person's process of personal reflection and discovery. If you want your people to be more courageous, help them become more purposeful.
Let me take that a step further. I think it's everyone's responsibility to discover their purpose at work, and having an unpurposeful leader can never be used as an excuse. If you don't learn how to do it for yourself as a follower, you won't have it when you are given the privilege to lead others. The question is, "Why does this organization matter, and why does my work matter to this organization?" If leadership does not formally provide this, then you must find it. It's your responsibility and discipline. For any activity you must ask yourself: what's my role here and how can I enhance that larger purpose through this role. Purpose provides self-authorizing direction to daily behavior.
Bret, in your own life, how did you achieve this perspective?
I do wonder how I got this way. I think at an early age I discovered a passion for work. I realized somehow what a critical role work plays in our lives, how it touches every aspect of our experience - economically, emotionally, and spiritually. Work permeates life. Once I adopted that perspective, I was hungry to learn more, and fortunately I stumbled on influential voices, like Peter Senge, W. Edwards Deming, and other big picture, systems thinkers, a group that includes today Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford. Such voices are more essential than ever, but less listened to.
In terms of my own voice, it's important for me to reflect what it means to be a current organizational participant. The universities where I have worked are as political as any organizations I've ever worked in. In these hyper-political environments, the rhetoric of discouragement is high. Top leaders can come off as jovial, light-hearted - and then take little if any responsibility for the blame shifting, belittling conduct, and career assassinations that routinely go on. When I talk about the courage to speak up and the dynamics of fear that surround it, I'm coming at it as real world, my world. I am writing about myself and those I work with.
Why do you think that big picture thinkers are less listened to today?
We live in a world where the snapshot dominates. Now more than ever we are struggling to grasp what's right in front of our faces. But there's less desire to step back, to understand how the snapshots got there, to learn how to change the pattern of snapshots. The information overload of the internet and social media is a symptom of this. It's awesome, but it needs to be counter-balanced by a passion to learn, and learning is so much more than being informed. How do you help people actually want to dig deeper? There's a risk our societies will be dominated by people who can describe but do not understand - in the sense of appreciating why things work the way they do. And the best you can do if you don't have understanding is to copy what has already been done. You won't be prepared to craft new process, but only to reinvent what others have created in the past. As we develop capabilities based on how's that we know but not the underlying why's that we don't, the best we can ever hope to achieve is competitive parity. Even though we have access to more information than any other time in history, I think we are living at the end of the age of understanding.
Unfortunately, I see this trend in too many of the MBA students I teach. Very few of them act will on what they learn, and most of what they want to learn are the answers to the wrong question - how.
Asking why always leads to what is risky and uncertain, and that's why we need a most basic kind of leadership courage right now. Asking why also requires the skill and discipline to think differently. That makes people in my business - education - crucial, but unfortunately I have to say my profession, too, is asleep. We should be examining ourselves and radically transforming education. But the fact is we do not have the courageous leadership needed to re-examine ourselves, to reflect and learn. Instead we are letting the politicians reinvent what it means to be educated, and that will mean less is better. Neither less nor more of the same thing is better - only different is better. Radically recreating the process of education will require deep understanding and tremendous courage.
LEADERSHIP ODDS & ENDSMore Links to Foster Reflective Learning
* The Nature of "Humanist" Organizations. Tim Leberecht, chief marketing officer of the global design innovation firm, frog, articulates the underlying premises of truly human organizations in his Fast Company Co.DESIGN article, "5 Keys to Building A Business That Doesn't Bury The Humans At Its Core." "Any organization with grand ambitions must be built around a human soul." * A Fascinating Collection. Like a mirror, there is something about the photograph of a well-known leader that invites reflection...or avoidance. In this World Photo Collections post, find images from the lives of familiar world leaders showing their transformation from childhood through youth to adulthood. For whatever reasons, a number of them -- after a few minutes of looking into these faces -- can become unsettling.
* What It Means to 'Have a Good Day.' Cinematographer Louie Schwartzerg colorfully celebrates life in this ten minute TEDx "talk" that is mostly a sample of his stunning art. "Nature. Beauty. Gratitude" is a deeper look into the world and into the human heart.
Click the image, find a poem