Category Archives: Leadership

Reflections on the Art of Leading

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

Why the art of leading?  Why not the skill or competency of leading?  Or the science of leading? Whatever your beliefs about leadership or experience as a leader, there is something unique and distinctive about every expression of leadership.  This is true because in the end the primary tool of a leader is the self, and there is no one paradigm or formula to which the self must conform.  We are all unique beings with multiple dimensions to who we are. Similarly, art is the manifestation of a unique perspective on the world created by someone whose passion defines his or her expression, most powerfully in a way that engages others, transporting them to new insight and understanding.

Consider how the art of leading informs your experience, most especially with attention to: (1) perspective; (2) passion; and (3) expression.

The artist brings a perspective that invites new ways of viewing the world, disrupting or challenging our most comfortable and familiar modes of interacting with our usual environment and ourselves. As leaders we must provide vision, going where no one has gone before. Too often we are inadvertently drawn into the heart of the battle, seduced by the tasks at hand, despite our best intentions otherwise. The art of leading requires daring expression of alternatives that others have not yet embraced or even imagined. And that requires some distance and perspective from today’s most urgent and imminent demands.

Without passion we can go through the motions of leading but will seldom engage others for the long haul of transformational change and sustainable development. The artist persists sometimes for years, if not decades, laboring to bring to life that which others may not appreciate or recognize as having any value whatsoever. Passion is the breakthrough virtue that differentiates the “art of leading” from just managing to keep things stable but failing to achieve breakthrough.  A leader must know his or her own heart, honoring that place where one’s deepest yearnings meet the world’s greatest needs.

Whatever school of art or leadership model you may embrace, you are one of a kind.  There is no other you.  Expression of your unique gifts and talents as well as acknowledgment of your limitations (and failures along the way) is what brings your leadership to life.  An artist may seek to emulate a Picasso or learn from a Chinua Achebe or sing like Youssou n’Dour, but in the end, while art might be reproduced, it cannot be copied authentically.  Similarly, leadership cannot be faked.  Great leadership is never a caricature of some other’s modus operandi.  A leader must find his or her authentic expression aligned with one’s sense of identity and purpose.

How might you categorically establish new perspectives?  Where is your passion ready to be ignited in distinctive creative ways?  How will you risk unique expression of your self as leader?   Try practicing more the art of leading today.

(written for the 7th annual African Leadership Network Gathering)

The Problem with Politics

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

I abhor politics. That’s rather uncomfortable for me to admit. The consequences are substantial. An immediate impact for me is my recurring and persistent resistance to writing. There seems to be a kind of internal power struggle when I try to put pen to paper. Whether real or imagined, I would rather ignore or even deny the forces of power and control that stifle my creative self-expression than risk – what? What is the risk? I fear disruptive if not destructive conflict that threatens to re-align or maybe even redefine me. Politics messes with peoples’ commitments and loyalty. I know I am not alone.
Organizational Politics can be like an inter-personal game of chess

Politics has been banned from my book club. I have been a member of a local men’s book group for more than 15 years. We read diverse fiction and non-fiction. Along with discussing the characters, themes, and worldview in what we read, we inevitably share something of ourselves. One member, in reviewing his concerns of the previous month, shared his disgust with Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s run for the U.S. Presidency. At least one other book club member was offended. After that evening, we agreed via email not to discuss “politics” at book club. I gave my passive consent. But I felt something had been lost. What? Our willingness to respectfully disclose and perhaps debate our respective values and beliefs without self-censoring.

Organizational politics has many faces. From years of leadership consulting, I have repeatedly witnessed the consequences of avoiding discussion and debate. The very act of avoidance is political. The scrubbing and sanitizing of corporate messaging to avoid difficult realities (e.g. yet another round of lay-offs) and inadvertent implications (this is not the end of the down-sizing) recurs on a regular basis. The intent is clear communication. The impact is often further disillusionment and skepticism. The political games are played upward as well as downward in the hierarchy. As one project leader in a Fortune 100 R&D organization stated, “It’s a fine line between telling the truth and keeping a project alive.” He was not being dishonest. He was telling it like it is. Organizational politics prevail just beneath surface in every company.

“Politics is not a dirty word! Politics is the inevitable and necessary consequence of people seeking to establish order and exercise influence.”

Families are also political. We seldom talk about them in terms of power and influence but the political dynamics are prevalent, whether we think of it that way or not. When a child learns to go to her father to request an extended curfew after her mother has already said “no,” (but before her father can confer with her mother), that child is learning how to manipulate the system to her advantage. She is political. In my family of origin, as I and my siblings matured and became more independent, the simple act of a parent asking one of us to say a prayer became political, though no one would name it as such. The request to pray was perhaps an unintended but nevertheless powerful expression of wanting continuing influence and expressed loyalty.

I hate politics. Yet I write about it. And I am thinking more and more about organizational politics. Why? Because I want to identify and name power and influence for what it is wherever people gather. As I write I am becoming more familiar with myself and the power at play in my life, past and present.

Politics is not a dirty word! Politics is an inevitable and necessary consequence of people seeking to establish order and exercise control, hopefully for a greater common good. Leadership that fails to acknowledge political realities casts a shadow that diminishes trust and destroys loyalty. Face it, we’re all political!

5 Reasons to Debate Core Messaging

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

Any truth worth propagating is a truth worth debating.


At recurring persistent intervals I hear well-meaning leaders describe how they need to “drive down” yet another new message to employees throughout the organization. Like Moses coming down from the mountain, a new PPT deck is meticulously crafted, peppered with corporate speak to deliver an encouraging, if not inspiring, message to the masses. Despite good intentions, the outcome is frequently more skepticism than enthusiasm.

A structured well-moderated debate is a novel and powerful alternative to another webcast or town meeting. I recently facilitated the design and implementation of a debate for 100 top tier R&D leaders in a client organization. The debate topic, delivered as a proposition statement, was clean and crisp. It was the heart of the Sr. Vice President’s core message to inform strategy implementation for the coming year. All participants were assigned to discuss only one position, either pro or con. The ten debate team members, 5 pro and 5 con, were identified through a small group selection process.

“Inviting opposing viewpoints disarms whatever resistance resides in the system.”

The anxiety about subjecting core messaging to debate was palpable among the meeting organizers as well as senior management. “What if the cons win?” “This is going to take too much time!” “How can they debate this in front of the head of the labs?” “What if no one wants to speak up in opposition?” “What if we can’t stop the debate and it derails the whole meeting?”

At the end of the day, our client wrote: “I am delighted to say that we went forward with the debate, and feedback from all participants was resoundingly positive! Furthermore, the debate turned out to be a centerpiece of the launch day activities.”

Five reasons why debate is worth the time:

  1. Identifying point and counterpoint for even the best-crafted message only strengthens the argument.
  2. Inviting opposing viewpoints disarms whatever resistance resides in the system.
  3. Designing a well-structured clearly articulated format for debate creates a safe environment for people to speak up.
  4. Uncovering significant opposition, if it exists, is better done sooner rather than later.
  5. Debating can be surprisingly engaging, energizing and fun.

In a resource-constrained environment where flashy media presentations and costly meeting arrangements can quickly decimate any discretionary budget, creative alternatives to the usual executive briefing do exist.

With thanks to Mrs. Sedgwick, my HS debate coach, I encourage more leaders to invite debate rather than simply deliver their latest greatest corporate message. You will discover that it actually promotes more powerful communication.

Dancing in the End Zone

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

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!

21st Century Leadership

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

What does it take to be a leader in the 21st Century?

I recently spoke to a group of HS students at a Student Leadership Conference convened by the Dalton School in Upper Manhattan.   This was the question on the table.  Here is my response: It will take something different, something more, than what got us here.

Beyond the unusual itemization of what it takes to be a leader (vision, communication skills, managing change, etc.), three specific competencies will differentiate tomorrow’s leaders:

  1. Embody Integrity: In the past having integrity largely meant being decisive and firm in one’s beliefs.  But the global community which students of leadership today must embrace is full of diverse perspectives and abundant contradictions. There are no simple solutions to creating stability in the Middle East or solving “climate change,” for example.    Aspiring leaders must have the capacity to hold extreme differences without jumping to quick answers or easy solutions. While decisiveness is sometimes essential for a leader, embracing ambiguity and the ability to re-frame and re-visit complex dilemmas is equally as important. To embody integrity, tomorrow’s leaders must have new visions of completeness and wholeness on a global scale.
  2. Manage Uncertainty: The paceof change in today’s world continues to accelerate exponentially. Moore’s Law applies to more than computer chips. The ability to plan for the future must be juxtaposed with the agility to deal with the unexpected. This is something more and something different than what has typically been referred to as “managing change.” Leaders are too easily tempted to assure some stable outcome, a defined end-state.  In the 21st century, a readiness to admit that you don’t necessarily know whatthe future holds or what the specific outcome will be, paradoxically, encourages trust and generates loyalty.
  3. Invest in Social Capital: Knowing the difference between Connections and Relationships is essential for the 21st Century Leader.  Vast and expanding social networks have long since replaced the limited rolodex and business card collections of the last century.  Most Connections are largely transactional; but Relationships require mutual commitment, trust, and shared values. In a world of 500 million friends, tomorrow’s leaders must be capable of standing close with those whom they aspire to lead, knowing that their influence can be transmitted instantly to thousands but that sustainable leadership requires trustworthy Relationships.

Steve Boehlke - At the Dalton SchoolEmbody a sense of integrity that embraces new expressions of “wholeness”. Manage uncertainty which is something more and different than believing there is a defined end-point. Invest in social capital, affirming the value of vital relationships in the midst of burgeoning connections. Aspiring young leaders will be better equipped for the 21st century by learning these leadership competencies.

The Paradox of Leading Like Steve

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

The Paradox of Steve Jobs and his style of LeadershipEven as the world remembers the accomplishments of Steve Jobs and his powerful brand of innovative leadership, we are tempted to want to emulate him. You don’t need to like or even know Steve Jobs to respect and admire what he accomplished. Jobs himself sought to re-constitute and renew Apple University in the closing months of his tenure as CEO. Today Apple U is tasked with the challenge of “institutionalizing” the insights and wisdom of this remarkable man, seeking to assure continuity and sustainability at Apple. There is, however, a problematic paradox in this: emulating others is not what made Steve Jobs great.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma, living with the results of other people’s thinking…” Jobs himself declared in his Stanford 2005 Commencement Address. As the articles and accolades are piling up, he readily becomes a larger-than-life leader. We too readily forget the unconventional path he followed. He “broke the rules”. He was not afraid to fail. He knew that leadership is born from the courage to be who you are.

We all need to learn to think more for ourselves. This requires time and effort, most especially in an era when the answer to most everything can be “googled”. Young entrepreneurs and aspiring leaders may be tempted to follow Job’s example – including his reputed harsh, often impatient, sometimes out right dictatorial leadership style. The rules which you and I need to break, however, cannot be dictated by someone else. Nor can they be “institutionalized”. What worked for Jobs will not work for you or me.

“If you look at my life, I’ve never gotten it right the first time. It always takes me twice.”

From the very beginning Steve Jobs was a leader who took risks. He took enormous risks financially to innovate in the late 1970’s. From his early “two guys in a garage” Apple computers all the way through Apple’s early success, his work at NeXT and then Pixar – Jobs invested in his own beliefs, his own truths. He put his own future on the line and found himself veering way outside the established norms of innovation, company structure, and certainly management.

Steve Jobs wasn’t afraid to fail. As he said, “If you look at my life, I’ve never gotten it right the first time. It always takes me twice.” This is a bold way to live and lead – always ready to fail at least once before actually finding the best solution or any kind of success. “Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to me, ” he declared in the same Stanford Commencement Address.

A young Steve Jobs

The difference between Steve Jobs and most of us is having the courage to live into the power of his own deepest convictions. Whatever models for effective leadership have influenced you, learn the value of being different. Discover how to capitalize on the more “marginal” aspects of your personality. Be creative; don’t force fit yourself into others’ leadership mold. These and other “development skills” will equip you to empower other leaders even as you engage with the challenges and dilemmas of the world around you by courageously being yourself.

“Have the confidence to follow your own heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path,” he said. Courage in the face of obstacles, even life-threatening illness, characterizes Job’s leadership.

leading like steve jobs

In breaking the rules, Steve Jobs not only helped to revive and renew Apple; he has left his mark on history. Job’s leadership, whether he was likable or not, was authentic. It was his. He led from his center. He broke the paradigms of technical design as well as many traditional leadership maxims.

Following the example of Steve Jobs, think for yourself, be yourself, lead from your center. Do not simply try to emulate someone else, even Steve Jobs.

Breaking the Rules Uncovers the Shadows

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

A recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, “Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules”highlights the fact that three new children’s books published this month were eachwritten by best-selling authors who, in significant ways, broke culturally accepted stylistic norms for children. Yet Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, and Theodor Geisel a.k.a. Dr. Seuss have taken their place among the most read and most beloved of all children’s storytellers.

“They brought a shock of subversion to the genre – defying the notion that children’s books shouldn’t be scary, silly, or sophisticated, “ writes the essayist, Pamela Paul. Each in their own way brought to their writing more candid and explicit depictions of the trials and terrors of childhood. In short, they abandoned the notion that writing for children should be about what’s desired, what’s good, what’s acceptable – and started writing about what IS. Their cleverness and humor is found in the dark and foreboding places as well as the more peculiar and awkward experiences of childhood.

The leader who is unwilling to take seriously the “inner journey” avoids confronting the monsters and dragons which need to be slain.

Much of the literature on leadership focuses on what could be or should be rather than what IS. Whether describing desired leadership competencies, or explicating a theory for change management, or singing the praises of successful, even heroic, “leaders,” much attention is devoted to what individuals and organizations aspire to be when it comes to leadership.

Parker Palmer, author and educator, now with the Center for Courage and Renewal, is one of the few writers that has explored the dark side of leadership. In his essay, Leading from Within, he argues that we must “pay special attention to the tendency we have as leaders to project more shadow than light.” The leader who is unwilling to take seriously the “inner journey” avoids confronting the monsters and dragons that need to be slain. They live in all of us, regardless of our age, because we are human. With such avoidance comes the serious risk of inadvertently imposing unintended, and potentially harmful consequences, on those who follow.

Drawing upon the courage of writers like Silverstein, Sendak, and Seuss, we need to be more attentive to how we describe our own leadership as well as those whom we admire. The scary as well as the silly, the awkward as well as the peculiar, the shadows as well as the light, certainly exist in our organizations and communities. We need to learn along with our children how to see with new eyes what’s real in our midst. And laugh more along the way.

The Foundation of Leadership

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

Machu Picchu - FoundationsI marvel at the profound stability as well as the natural alignment that characterizes Machu Picchu!

While visiting this renowned city of the Inca Empire last week, I found myself comparing the meticulous attention to the “natural” fit of the rocks and stones with the recurring re-engineering and re-organizing I encounter week after week in large business enterprises. Even the most agile leadership teams are struggling to find enduring stability in an environment of continuing economic turmoil.

The stone foundations of Machu Picchu were built and shaped to fit in place without any mortar or joints. Some stones were used in their natural state with little or no alteration. The natural landscape was optimized for purposes of sustainability. Furthermore, the entire complex is situated in alignment with the sun, the moon, and the stars. At the seasonal equinoxes, natural light is framed and focused by openings designed to cast bright beams in otherwise dark places.

More than ever today we need leaders who build foundations that are sustainable, aligned with the Laws of the Universe.

A client recently asked me, “What are the foundations of leadership, Steve ?” Without much hesitation I responded, “passion and purpose”. I could have given a short list of critical leadership competencies or core leadership skills. But I did not.

More than ever today we need leaders who build foundations that are sustainable, aligned with the Laws of the Universe. We need to evaluate how we strive to survive by using our own versions of “mortar and bricks” – the latest org re-design, or the newest IT system, or the most recent effort at process improvement. Do we really need all that? Do those efforts deter us from dealing with more fundamental questions? The challenge is to establish an enduring relationship to one another and a cause greater than ourselves which creates value rather than depletes it. We need better alignment with the Universe. We need to assess our foundational work.

I may be idealizing what the Incas built. And how they did it. (How DID they do it?!) But the foundations remain on the mountain top. How do you answer the question: What are the foundations of leadership?

Leadership Connections and Relationships

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

In a world of 500 million friends we easily confuse or even fail to consider the difference between a connection and a relationship. But when you are 40 feet off the ground ready to take your next step out on a limb, it makes all the difference in the world. ‘

Leadership requires investment in vital relationships as well as a network of connections.

At the inaugural African Leadership Indaba last week we talked with students about the importance of developing and nurturing social capital. Our leadership capabilities are very much linked to how we invest in others including what we do to build and maintain trust.

Leadership risks leaning into some connections knowing that if you fall they are still there for you. And the the commitment becomes mutual no matter how high the stakes.

The Art of Enlivening Information

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

Presentations need not be boring. In fact, they can be exciting and even fun!

Across the years I have attended various scientific poster sessions and symposia sponsored by corporate R&D; clients, featuring the work of scientists and engineers . I note that most often some kind of “template” or requested “design format” has been distributed to those presenting, thus assuring some level of standardization, if not outright conformance in terms of how data is presented.

Last week was different. I had the privilege of attending the 2nd Annual Scientific Research Symposium of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. 16 students presented on topics ranging from “Quantum Entanglement and the Possibilities of Temporal Teleportation” to “Which Biofuel is Most Feasible for Use in African Countries” to “How Impressionable Are We?”

Beyond the content of the presentations, some of which I understood more than others, I was struck by three elements which made the event lively and engaging:

1. Intense intellectual endeavors were represented in a creative, even fun way, for a diverse audience. This intro video captures the spirit of the evening.

2. By asking thoughtful questions, the presenters effectively engaged the audience rather than just talking at us. e.g. “What do you think time is?” “What’s the difference between authority and power?”

3. The students were encouraged to explore a wide range of topics, from “Is God a Mere Philosophical Product or a Physical Entity?” to “Technology Development for Cinematic Arts” along with others mentioned above. Encouragement to inquire about what truly interested them resulted in a high level of commitment and even excitement, not just compliance to an assigned project.

Kudos to David Scudder, the science teacher who inspired these students.

Many a corporate R&D; symposium might be more lively and engaging by incorporating more of these three elements.