Category Archives: creativity

Are You Willing to Be Seen?

At the end of each semester I accept invitations to visit student clubs and selected writing classes to share about our leadership offerings at MSU. During my leadership course pitch I like to ask, “What do you think of when I say someone is a leader?” Responses usually include, “She’s confident,” “a great public speaker,” or “charismatic.” As I have written earlier, I like to add that I think a leader is anyone who wants to help. In my view, if we care about the world, we’ve all got a position in the leadership game.

Lately, I realized I have yet to hear students throw out that a leader is willing to be seen. It seems that a willingness to show up as “the decider” when times get tough, or to be marketed as a company asset should be added to my leadership traits list.

For some, being seen may be why leadership appears fun. At the helm of a new idea or initiative we get to be its poster child. “Isn’t she brave and wonderful?” can be a seductive phrase. Others admire us and acknowledge our gifts. However, this can be a dangerous pursuit if we are in the leadership position only for the praise it might engender.

A couple of years ago, I was able to speak personally with Jane Goodall who models for me a solid willingness to be seen for the greater good. We had about twenty minutes before she needed to stand up (she actually chose to stand on a chair so all could see her!) and speak to a gathered crowd of about 100 on a local eco-preserve.  As we chatted about her Bozeman visit and the beautiful view from the home in which we stood, Jane remarked how delightful it is that when she appears at events animals are at their best and the weather is wonderful. She went on to tell me a story about giving a short sermon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on the annual “Blessing of the Animals” Sunday. She recounted how the church was filled with dogs, cats, birds and other pets that initially were “talking,” as pets like to do. When she got up to speak, the animals all shut up and remained quiet throughout her speech.  I had heard a similar story from someone who had traveled with Jane to Baja California years before to watch whales. In that case, a huge school of dolphins suddenly appeared and surrounded Jane’s boat for a prolonged visit.

Jane’s ability to captivate animals was not only a neat fun fact, but I was also struck that it was Jane who telling me the story. She seemed completely comfortable and seemed to convey that the “I” that she was speaking of was part of something bigger, doing what “it” was supposed to be doing.  There was no ego engagement and she seemed as fascinated as I was by this capacity.

Leadership entails a willingness to play the role for all its worth. Be it a team captain or spokeswoman for those living beings who can’t speak Human. Jane seem to have a healthy detachment from the “I” that is me, but somehow not.

For my part, I find that I am most willing to be seen when I am called to support greater compassion and others fulfilling their potential. If I am engaging in what feels like my work, I am more interested and able to stand in that tricky limelight.

Before I was to teach my first graduate level course on resolving conflict close to a decade ago, I went to a wise long-time teacher for advice. I shared my nervousness and fears and she simply asked if I knew what I was teaching to be true. I said I did and she responded, “trust in the material and you’ll do fine.”   This advice continues to serve me well.

Devil trees and leadership

Over the holiday break, a contingent of our family stood on a hill overlooking Panama City. As we took in the view, our son Cameron remarked, “It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? I might suffer a terrible death. From a personal perspective that would be catastrophic. In this city, that might make news. Yet, from a historical perspective, that is nothing. How many millions have suffered the same? It becomes nothing.”

We listened to the sounds of the city and watched women hanging laundry out of windows below. We surveyed the skyline, a building fashioned to look like a corkscrew, and the ocean etching a border.

Senya, Cameron’s sister, then encouraged us to contemplate that cities, or systems, like this were rocking and rolling, moving and shaking across this country, across Central America and beyond. She brought up the struggle of actually comprehending how interdependent actions were madly occurring all around us and that we were somehow affecting the melee, even as observers from above. How many people were hanging their laundry at that exact moment? How many were laughing, crying or walking to work? How many were watching like we were? How did each of those actions mess with another?

I appreciated this conversation and how it shifted my perspective in those moments. I was remembered a Jewish proverb that reminds us to place a piece of paper in each of our front pockets. On one we are counseled to write, “I am unique in all the universe,” and on the other, “I am nothing but dust.” The art is to know which piece of paper to fish out when.

I was brought back to Cameron’s initial statement four days later floating down a creek in a small fishing boat, or panga, near Bocas del Toro, Panama. Our captain and guide hailed from the local Nôbe-Buglé tribe.  After pointing out caimans and sloths, he added, “and that tree over there is called a devil tree. Some people will go make offerings in front of trees like those to call out the devil to get things that they want — jobs, a girl or money.  On Good Friday they wait to make their request and spirits will appear sometimes in the form of a monkey to answer them.”

He had my attention. I have been long fascinated by how trees play a role in cultural practices. In Thailand, you can pray to a tree to save your child from illness or to get a job. If rewarded, you return to the tree and give it gifts. Apparently, tree spirits are feminine as when traveling in the country, I witnessed a number of trees awarded very fancy dresses.

In Crow culture, trees might be adorned with prayer bundles or gifts if prayers are answered as  you can see in the included photo.  

And, Deidre, how are you going to  connect this to leadership?

Harkening back to Cameron’s statement, leadership is all about perspective. For example, how often does your average Westerner walk past a tree without notice? How many of you reading this knew about the potential importance of trees and tree spirits within these cultures? More importantly, how often do I remember that what is standard to some is sacred to others?

Leadership calls for humility. I know well that my personal perspective is not the only one on each situation, yet I need constant reminders. Too often I want to barrel ahead ignoring this fundamental fact.

Like the death example above, what might be a catastrophe for me could be interesting news to another, or have no significance at all. As simple examples, take the cutting down a tree or filling in a wetland. Therefore, as leaders some of our most critical tasks must become sharing, gathering and shifting perspectives.

And so, I am walking into this work week with the mantra, “It’s all about perspective.”

What’s your job?

Fall term has begun at Montana State University and I am once again teaching two sections of a leadership course I was lucky enough to design. So, Mondays and Wednesdays 30 students and I explore what is leadership and why it matters.

Since I designed the course, the overarching definition for a leader comes from one of my favorite quotes by Meg Wheatley — “A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time.”

So in my class, if you care,  you are a leader. This broad definition keeps all of us on the hook to learn leadership skills over the semester. The students are then accountable to apply the techniques through service learning. I’m also constantly reminded that because I want to help the students, I am leading until December 15th when the semester closes out.

I also like this big definition since it keeps me on the look out for what I like to call, “every day leaders.” These aren’t folks who are holding formal management roles, but ones who are simply trying to help. Today, I’d want to pass along two such leaders that inspired me over the past week.

First, check out this story by Joyce Hackett from Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project website (click on the link). Here the small act of observation combined with storytelling could profoundly change lives. The just act of reading this essay touched mine. I’d call Joyce’s courage to act and honesty admirable leadership skills.

And second, I have to pass along how Amy Pankratz of Souix Falls, South Dakota impacts lives around the country while serving as a stay-at-home mother of three.  This too is leadership in the highest degree. Notice how she:

  • changes paradigms
  • inspires imagination and creativity
  • empowers
  • elegantly reframes a situation

Is this not what we are calling for from our board rooms and corner offices?

I hope you enjoy her story.

As in soccer, as in life

As I was tracking the World Cup statistics from FIFA.com, I found myself recalling a local soccer match I had watched with my mother a few weeks ago. Based in California, my OD consultant mum was in town for the weekend and accompanied our family to Billings for a state tournament.

We both shook our heads as we witnessed the teenaged girls on the field struggling. A month before we had seen this same team play with success and hold strong against their opponents.  “Well,” I remarked, “we’ve both now got a great leadership case study to share.”

This was a set of strong players who played in the fall on a rarely-defeated high school team. Some are fantastically aggressive defensive players, others can run like the wind, and still others have beautiful ball handling skills. Yet, hearing the coach yelling at the girls from the sidelines, I figured she had not gotten the memo on why managing from your team’s strengths is a winning strategy.

As we caught snippets of the coach’s assessment of what the girls were not doing right, I was reminded of a manager from the beginning of my career with IBM. A favorite story whispered around our department recounted when our manager, we’ll call him Bill, began giving one of our senior software developers, Terry, some actions to complete. As Terry listened and mentally noted the “to do’s,” Bill couldn’t stand it. “Pick up the pen, here’s a piece of paper. Now, write this down,” he stammered.  That Terry was African American and probably 10 years Bill’s senior made this slight even more inappropriate. Bill was the same manager who asked me if I was going to have children because that might affect if I could continue to be “on the fast track.”  Perhaps he missed the interpersonal skills, sharing confidential information and EEO sessions during manager’s training, but we were all quickly looking for ways to escape his leadership.

Tell me long enough I am a bad employee/soccer player/partner and I’ll probably begin to believe you. In contrast, focus on what I am good at and notice how I square my shoulders, show up and perform well.

Strengths-based leadership is the concept of focusing on what team members do well, while giving each the opportunity to improve our skills in other areas. As one high tech sales executive illustrated for me, “A new sales rep will land in my office and say, ‘I can’t write,’ and I have learned to say, ‘Let’s not worry about that now, because I know that you are great on the phone. Focus on selling on the phone, and if you’d like to learn to write better we’ll work on that later.’ By acknowledging everyone’s strengths, I have a top-selling sales team.”

Gallup survey of more than one million work teams, which also conducted more than 20,000 in-depth interviews with leaders, tracked why participants followed the most important leader in their life. The research uncovered that, ” the most effective leaders are always investing in strengths. In the workplace, when an organization’s leadership fails to focus on individuals’ strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when an organization’s leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, the odds soar to almost 3 in 4 (73%). When leaders focus on and invest in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged goes up eightfold.”

A friend asked me to come into her 5th/6th grade classroom last week to tell a story. When I arrived, one of the 12 year olds looked me right in the eyes and said, “You are the best storyteller.” Another added, “I love when you tell stories.” When my friend hugged me and told the class that I was giving them a wonderful gift by dropping by and that they were so lucky to have me, I thought, “what a contrast to the soccer weekend.” Instead of doubting myself as those teenaged athletes did, I sat up straight and delivered a tale from China as best I’ve ever told it in the past 10 years. I bought their assessment of me, just as we are all prone to do.

Intuitive Leadership

Much has been written of late about how intuition plays into strong leadership. For example, Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, describes how our initial split second assessment of a situation often yields better results than months of belabored “rational” research.

Gladwell cites three art historians examining a supposedly authentic 6th century kouros sculpture. The first, Federico Zeri found himself fixated on the figurine’s fingernails. Evelyn Harrison, saw it and immediately expressed regret that the Getty museum had purchased the piece, although she couldn’t say why. And, Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unable to cite a concrete reason, exclaimed, “They just don’t come out looking like that.” No one could articulate the problem, but their intuitive knowing was at work.

Valuing the three historians “knowing” pushed the museum to dig deeper and found that the accompanying documentation was faulty and the statue, although it had passed rigorous chemical and X-ray testing, in subtle ways did not match the proposed time period. As a result, the Getty Museum updated their catalog to state that the sculpture might be authentic or a forgery.

Depending on our educational training or discipline, allowing our intuition to play into decision making might be a foreign concept. Meeting with a  high tech business executive this week reminded me of that fact. He remarked, “I have worked most of my life to find rational answers to problems. I try to put the science behind all that I do. But, after 10 years of working closely with potential clients, I can tell you if someone is going to buy from us, and if not what will trip up the sale. I can’t give logical reasons why I know if an opportunity is worth pursuing, but time after time I’m usually proven right.”

In my experience, intuitive leadership is a two-part process. First, we need to pay close attention to our gut reactions and see them as potentially valuable information. Next, it is practicing deciphering our internal tea leaves.

I notice that placing ourselves in novel or even uncomfortable experiences fosters better intuitive leadership.  When we are in situations that do not allow us to fall back on logical approaches to make our decisions, we are forced to step back and look at any data that might be coming our way, even if it is a tightness in our chest or a strange thought that drifts through consciousness.

In May, my “practice point” was to spend two weeks walking with our son Cody across half of northern Spain. A 1,200 year old pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, is now a cultural icon of Europe. Folks come from around the world, to walk through rain, snow and heat to reach the western edge of the country, once considered the end of the world. Together, the travelers stay in dorms or “albergues” and work their way at different speeds along the established trail.

Cody and I would awake each morning with hopes of walking somewhere between 20 to 35 kilometers. Each afternoon, we would also hope to land somewhere that had space for us to sleep. In some towns you can call ahead for reserve a bed or two, in other places it is first come, first serve.

Since we didn’t know how long other travelers would walk, how many were on the trail and how early they would leave, Cody and I could guess and estimate, but we were clearly information short on many fronts.

Trying to pay attention to how a decision “felt” became a helpful guide in our choices. I can’t say I felt psychic, but after a few days on the trail, we started to be able to guess pretty darn well what might be a good next step. I appreciated that constant practice in listening and am noticing it has further refined how I am making decisions.

I must add that I was lousy at intuition when I was exhausted! As Cody will tell you, there were times when I wasn’t be able to problem solve my way out of the simplest of situations. Tired and hungry clouded any insight I might have had on our circumstances. Deduction — good listening depends on good living.

I thus pose the following questions:

  1. How much attention do you give to your intuitive nature
  2. What might provide you practice in intuitive leadership, or
  3. How might you actively place yourself in a place of discomfort so you can learn to listen better?

I have a hunch that answering these questions might provide valuable data as you move forward as leaders. 😉