This blog is not really about politics.
It’s about the long and bitter relationship between two Senate leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. According to a news report, these two men—in their 70’s!—have had such a difficult relationship for so long that their fellow senators recently staged a relationship intervention. Clearly the bitterness runs deep. Despite the intervention, and the specter of plunging the country and the world into chaos over the debt limit and funding the US government, their relationship remains troubled.
As leaders, how they work together affects everyone around them (and pretty much the rest of the world). Where in your life do you have a poisonous relationship that others witness? What would it take for you to shift your own ego aside, however briefly, to see your rival as human just like you?
This blog is not really about politics.
Thank you, Sheryl Sandburg, for your great book about women at work who are "leaning in."
The advice I find I am actually taking and giving lately seems to be "lean back...."
With my youngest daughter, who often says, "Mom, I am almost 18," I will lean back so she can freely lean in to the life she chooses, not the one I envision for her.
When I ask this question of a few leaders: "What would happen if you leaned back?" their answers ranged from, "don't know, worth a try" to "maybe they would step forward?"
And, finally, in my work mentoring coaches at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership Coaching Certificate program, this is what keeps coming up: how can coaches notice when they are physically leaning in? How can they tell whether leaning in or leaning back would best serve the coaching client?
So, where are you leaning in and when do you need to lean back?
Nothing like disruption to get the stories going. And when the uproar is about the newspaper business, we get more than the usual number of critics thinking and writing about what it all means. So when Jeff Bezos bought the Wash Post, using his personal fortune from founding Amazon, the stories were flying like Angry Birds.
My personal three favorites: Bezos accidentally clicked on the Washington Post.
Then, his two pizza work group rule: when it takes more than two pizzas to keep a work group happy, you have too many people on the project.
And, finally, the story about him when he was nine years old, riding in the car with his grandparents: using a formula he just learned about smoking and the relationship between number of cigarettes smoked a day and shortening one’s life, he blithely announced to his grandma smoking in the front seat that she would be losing nine years of her life. After she burst into tears, his grandpa said, “Jeff, one day you will understand that it is harder to be kind than clever.” .”
Stories are coming my way this summer, stories from people who have totally unplugged for up to two weeks…..”I went overseas and didn’t set my phone up for overseas calls.” “I went somewhere where there is no cell service.” “I left an in-charge and asked her to escalate to my boss, if necessary.”
Even more compelling is what happened next:
- I was able to just be in the world and enjoy my family
- It was so deeply relaxing to let everything go except figuring out dinner
- I really needed to step away because the stress was building
- I finally had a chance to reconnect with myself
- I can’t believe I am still relaxed several weeks later but I think it was because of the technology break
So I am taking some coaching from this and for the first time putting up an away message for two weeks, and heading out to the beach…..
Seems like everyone is talking about creativity and innovation these days. I just read a great WSJ Opinion on the link between creativity and leadership.
The author, Justin Brady, argues that three leadership traits are needed to foster creativity: the ability to listen, to empathize, and to trust. He says that true listening opens the listener up to insights and the talker responds to being listened to with even more creativity.
In empathizing, leaders make it a priority to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and to find the truth in their words, again creating connection that spurs more innovation.
And, finally, in choosing to trust others, leaders set up the potential for valuable experimentation (think rapid prototyping and agile development), messy processes which can lead to innovative results.
So leaders need to embrace the chaos of collaboration and respond by listening with empathy and trust.
I have been reading novels lately and just finished The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. Late in the book the author writes this amazing passage:
“She was learning bits of the Somali language, and her willingness to be strikingly wrong opened his heart with tenderness. It was because of her that he had started to try to increase his English.”
What we tend to give up as we age: the willingness to try something at which we will probably be strikingly bad. But notice how the willingness to be vulnerable opens the heart and fuels the courage of someone else?
Where could you move your life forward?
Originally this post was going to be about rats and empathy, from a WSJ article on some research about rats helping other rats escape before sharing some chocolate. But that’s not the real story.
The real story is how researchers keep designing experiments which fail to show that animals exhibit human-like traits of self identification, empathy, fairness—because the research is set up to reflect a human’s approach to the problem. For example, in a study that failed to show that an elephant can recognize herself in a mirror, researchers painted a white mark on her forehead—but they used a mirror that was only large enough to reflect her feet and ankles! Years later when the research was repeated with an 8-foot mirror which allowed a full view, the elephant scrubbed her forehead with her trunk where the mark had been placed, exhibiting the capacity of self-knowing.
Don’t we do this all the time with each other? We set up an experiment with a colleague or boss, and we observe what happens and we see what we expect to see?
How do you escape yourself long enough to observe without attachment what someone else is up to? Is it possible to interact with other humans without having to be right about them? Can we just help each other, then have some chocolate?
Being in the know is always compelling to the ego, and often dangerous.
Here is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s take on it, from her new autobiography, MY BELOVED WORLD, a fast-paced story about her rise from the South Bronx to the Supreme Court. She identifies many character traits which propelled her along the way, and the one that struck home was her learning how to say “I don’t know.”
Quoting from a Washington Post story, “I think that one of the worst mistakes that not just kids but many adults make is being ashamed of admitting they don’t know something.” Her first big ask was of her 6th-grade schoolmate who won all the gold stars: “How do you study? …Throughout my school days and now, even as a justice, if I don’t know something I ask.”
Well, gee, if asking questions and being open and curious got her from the slums to the Supreme Court, what could it hurt for us to stop trying to prove we know it all?
What are you curious about?
What do you want to know?
Who can you ask?
Fairness is a big issue with us humans—in fact, in any reward system, our concern for fairness comes quickly to the front.
Apparently this trait is so innate that it can be observed in dogs. National Public Radio ran a story on fairness from the perspective of dogs.
Basically, the research went like this: dogs were lined up to perform stunts that they usually performed for praise alone. After the dogs performed, two of them were rewarded with a piece of bread, and two were not. After this occurred a second time, the not-rewarded dogs looked carefully to see if they were seeing things correctly. The third go around they performed a different trick they knew to see if that would elicit the reward. On the fourth round, they quit trying and wouldn’t look their trainer in the eye.
Of course we humans have a brainy prefrontal cortex with which to analyze and reason, so we are much more adept at understanding why things are the way they are and that life is sometimes unfair.
But something for leaders to notice: If morale and engagement are low in your organization, what might fairness have to do with it? Are you willing to ask about fairness and really listen to what you hear?
Are you rewarding leaders for the right behavior?
A new study published late last year suggests a different way to look at leadership.
The study measured productivity in technology-based service jobs by looking at what the best supervisors do and how that impacts results. The study found that those leaders who focus on teaching and coaching their teams get the results of ten associates from a team of only nine. Spread throughout a people center, this has a big impact on the bottom line.
Some questions for you to think about during performance management reviews:
- Do you reward leaders who spend time coaching, developing, and teaching? (Or is it easier to notice and reward "heroes" who are focused on special projects and driving their own results?)
- Does everyone you reward look like this: smart, driven, single-minded, intent on what can be personally achieved?
- How do you support leaders to become better coaches of others?
Final question: How do we develop leaders who are heroes AND coaches?