Category Archives: Leadership is

Leading with the Artist

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“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…”
-Mary Oliver, the poet

Some months ago I was challenged by a trusted friend to lead more with the artist in me. I wasn’t even sure there was an artist in me, though I believe I have some artistic sensibilities. In any case, I chose to try leading more with that intention – to discover and honor the artist in me. I am already aware of three specific outcomes:

  1. Less concern about performance and more attentive to expression
    I have a strong feeling function (Myers-Briggs). Still, I am perplexed by how much I can over-think how I want to show up in the world. Consequently, I fail to step into action as much as I would like. Expressing myself with more heart and choosing to think less about what is happening is one consequence of leading more with the artist in me. I am calculating less how I am performing and choosing to explore in action new ways of being myself.
  2. Don’t necessarily need to scale
    My work with social entrepreneurs and innovative leaders immersed in design thinking reinforces the belief that one’s “project” should always be capable of expansion and growth. Bigger is better! The world certainly needs visionary change agents who can transform an entire enterprise or maybe even a whole continent. But as John Seely Brown astutely contests: “Artists are not included in our debate on how to build the economy for the future.” I am more at peace with myself these days as a professional whose contribution may be less about replication and more about insight.
  3. See the world differently
    The artist sees the world with more color and texture, different nuances and variations, greater depth and broader perspective. In the spirit of Mary Oliver’s poetic wisdom, I am frequently more animated and enlivened by what I encounter these days, whether close to home as part of my routine or distant venues as I travel. My blind spots are less prevalent perhaps.   My vision is changing. New energy results.

I am learning not to be so self-conscious.

Dancing in the End Zone

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When it comes to leadership, imitation will not cut it. If you want to make a difference, you need to be willing to be different. And you need to be yourself.

Last weekend I spoke to a group of college athletes gathered for the Annual FCA College Classic here in Minnesota on the theme, “Dare to Become the Leader You Are”. Tim Tebow dares. Tim Tebow, who is very much in the spotlight these days, is an athlete who makes a difference (at least to Bronco fans). Others may mock his falling to his knee in prayer, but he isn’t afraid to break the usual public conventions on the field. For better or worse, he’s become a verb: “tebowing”. While some may be uncomfortable with his expression of Christian faith, it is difficult to contest his optimism and genuine spirit.

Jesus is exemplary in this regard. He defied all the social conventions for religious leadership of his day. He certainly was not afraid to be different.

And then there’s NY Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. Just prior to my speaking engagement I was perusing the New York Times. I was amused and inspired by the dance review I found, in the sports section no less, of Victor Cruz. Victor Cruz is distinguished as much by his salsa dance in the end zone as he is by the touchdowns he’s scored this season.

I am inspired by Cruz as well as Tebow because they have no reservations about being themselves in public. Laugh at them if you will, but don’t try to compete with authentic self-expression. I was amused because I myself have started taking ballroom dancing lessons with my wife. While I won’t be dancing the salsa like Cruz or dropping to my knee on the field like Tebow, I respect their lack of self-consciousness and freedom of expression. I can only hope as much for myself whether on the dance floor or anywhere else I need to lead.

Whatever end zone you may be running toward, don’t be afraid to be yourself. Dance your own dance!

Becoming the Leader I Am

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Leadership is as much or more about who you are as what you do. This has been a basic tenet of my work for years. Our identity shapes us even as we struggle at times to know who we really are.

Last week I had the opportunity to reclaim some of who I am. I was with some 50 graduates of the African Leadership Academy, first at the Princeton Blairstown Center (PBC) and then on campus at Princeton University the end of the week. Returning to Princeton re-connected me to parts of myself that indeed have helped form the leader I am today.

Those moments revived in me my deep awareness of the soulful dimension of leadership.

Engaging in the outdoor activities, including the high ropes course, at PBC brought back so many memories of how important that place is to me – the site of high impact experiential learning. While I have incorporated such activity in my leadership development work in years past, I am powerfully reminded of how trust deepens and community consolidates when faced with the elements outdoors. Nature’s learning lab is so incredible! Beats a stuffy conference room any day.

One evening sitting under the stars at PBC, a close-harmony quartet of four male students sang a wonderfully rhythmic song, as only sub-Saharan Africans can do. Music stirs the soul! All of us wanted more. Finally, one of the members of the quartet, Oswald, gave in, stood up, and sang an acapella solo, “Peace Like a River,” with the repeated refrain, “It is well with my soul.” For me, time stood still. Those moments revived in me my deep awareness of the soulful dimension of leadership. Oswald embodied it, even as he co-hosted the Conference at the University later in the week.

A trip to a University town is not complete for me without an hour or so in the University bookstore. This is most especially true of Princeton. I wandered among the tables of books, picking up volume after volume, many by Princeton professors. I lingered especially in the philosophy section. I purchased Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being among other paperbacks, despite my growing practice of downloading e-books. I was reminded of the discipline and rigor of my undergraduate studies. My intellectual curiosity becomes stale too easily.

Leadership learning is most powerful when experiential. It necessarily has a soulful dimension. And it requires astute inquiry and continual learning. As I launch my new website, I am reclaiming more of who I am. It feels great! And strangely it feels new in a familiar sort of way.

Leading Without Solutions

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Tough times surface tough dilemmas. Furthermore, complex systemic issues seldom have a simple solution. Recently I have encountered more than one extremely competent leader who has been reluctant to initiate discussion on an organizational issue because they do not yet have a “recommendation”. The operating assumption is that I do not go into a meeting to address a difficult problem unless I have a solution.

In one organization, for example, the Research budget is being shaved away, while Development is consuming inordinate amounts of resources on small incremental improvements on product already in the market. While there are indeed inherent issues that must be worked in terms of business strategy, meanwhile, redundancies and inefficiencies between these two functions are not being addressed. Neither one of these functional leaders can imagine how to engage in a productive conversation.

Abundant contradictions as well as conflicts increasingly characterize the shrinking world in which we live (e.g. protect resources/secure freedom; manage uncertainty/generate loyalty; push the message out fast/engage others). The “solutions” to such contradictions are not self-evident. Effective leaders nevertheless must work such contradictions without pre-conceived solutions.

Readiness to lead by engaging in powerful inquiry and skillful dialogue requires conscious suspension of our need to have “the answer” a priori.

Hurry Up and Slow Down!

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“I am not this steeply sloping hour in which you see me hurrying.” Rainer Maria Rilke, German Poet

I am not hurrying even though I am in motion, constantly. I am managing my fear that everything I am supposed to be doing will end in my termination. The relentless pace of meetings and reviews hides the hopelessness I feel. Productivity trumps innovation; activity supplants creativity. My attention is not focused because my purpose is unclear. I have passion, but it mostly scares me these days. If I lead with passion and inquire about purpose, I’ll lose my job. Meanwhile, I am losing me.

Identity precedes productivity. The courage to be is rarer today than the impulse to do. This is not just an excursion into philosophical speculation. It is a fundamental principle of high performance.

Are we a Research organization with a capital “R” or a development organization that will continue to place our bets on short-term incremental improvements on products already in the market? A student with whom I spoke not long ago at the African Leadership Academy in Joberg described himself as “an Egyption from Cairo who is Muslim who is also African, though my skin is not black, who wants to be a global citizen.” He is actively claiming who is!

I am enacting the motion of working hard but am hardly working, in terms of my own deepest values. No matter! Management just asks for more. And I keep on keeping on.

Do you know who you are? Will you speak up? It does matter!