Leadership_ _I'll gladly go in the middle._

Leadership: “I’ll gladly go in the middle.”

I could tell as soon as they walked in the room that this was going to be a fun group to work with. My task for the afternoon was to take a corporate leadership team of about 40 people through some team building activities. As I stood before the group I explained that our session would include some fun games as well as some activities that would help them get to know each other better. Heads were nodding and people were smiling. I could sense that the culture in this company was healthy and that people were engaged in the development process.

As we began our first game they came alive. This group was having a blast and laughing so hard. After just a couple of minutes, I felt like I was a part of the group and hanging out with old friends.

The game required the group to be in a large circle with one person standing in the middle of the circle. The objective was to get out of the middle by walking up to someone on the outside of the circle and saying one of several silly phrases. The person on the outside had to reply with the correct silly reply. If they said the wrong thing they had to switch with the person in the middle. If they said the right thing they got to stay on the outside and the inside person had to try again. About halfway through the game, a woman was in the middle and she was having a hard time getting someone out. She was a quieter person and after failing to get four people out she said, “this is why I hate games. I’m not good at them.” The group fell silent, you could tell they genuinely felt for her. And then she walked up to a man on the outside and said her silly phrase and he said nothing in reply, which meant he was going in the middle and switching places with her. The room was still silent as he quietly said to her, “I’ll gladly go in the middle.”

At that moment, my point of contact looked at me and said, “and that’s our CEO” and I suddenly understood the significance of the exchange.

Effective leaders understand the value of letting people fight their own battles, the growth often happens in the struggle and great leaders allow this to happen. But great leaders also stay close to their people so they can help when help is needed. They will gladly take the place of someone else when the request for help comes in. That is exactly what this leader did. He was on the outside, but close enough to help, and willing to step in.

Be the leader that lets people fight their own battles, stay close enough to help, and step in when people turn to you.

Take care of your people and they will take care of you.

Good leaders

Can good leaders make bad decisions?

In the last week I’ve had several people reach out with an underlying common question; can good leaders make bad decisions? The conversations have been broached by leaders who have made what they believe to be a bad decision and in turn, are questioning their own ability to lead, as well as by others who are struggling with the decisions of their leaders. I believe that good leaders can and do make bad decisions, but I think there are additional layers to unpack in determining how to feel about those decisions.

Leadership is often about helping a group move from here to there; from where they currently are to where they want to be. This may require calculated risks as you step into the unknown. As a result, there may be decisions you have made that in hindsight are considered to be bad decisions. I would argue that there are two kinds of bad decisions:
1. A bad decision that you learn and grow from with no harm done. There might be a set back in terms of a timeline but ultimately the people you lead are safe and intact as a team.
2. A bad decision that does damage, often that damage is to people.

I believe that bad decisions which do damage can be the deal breaker in a leader’s career. These decisions may cause harm to a consumer, financial loss to franchisees, negatively alter the reputation of your employees, stunt or limit the growth and potential of your staff, or force your people to compromise their values. My experience has been that this is a quick way to sever trust and when trust is broken leaders shift from having engaged followers to people who function as anchors unwilling to move. Bad decisions that do damage often come from leaders who fail to recognize that the collective input of those around them is their most valuable asset. Willfully ignoring your people is simply not an option as a leader. A team, business, or organization can rebound from many things but a loss of trust is not one of those things.

The best leaders I know consistently do the following when making a decision:

  1. They hire great people and trust them when they point out a blind spot.
  2. They listen carefully to the opinions of their people and they ask the necessary questions to dissect and understand how a decision will impact others.
  3. They share the direction they are leaning to allow those around them to share dissenting opinions or to potentially to lean in as well.
  4. They communicate their decisions to reinforce the belief that their people matter in the decision-making process.

Leaders often have to forego what they want in order to move a group forward. Check your ego, it’s not about you. Do what it is best for the team, continue to see the big picture, purposefully consider the impact on others so you can help to move the group from where you are to where you want to be without losing your most valuable asset; your people.

As you move into unknown territory you may still make bad decisions but if your people are valued and protected in the process then a poor decision won’t be seen in a negative light but rather as an opportunity for all to learn and grow.

When you protect and value your people in the decision-making process they will do the same for you when decisions don’t go as planned.

Put your people first. 


Yes and no

Great Leaders: Say yes & no

I arrived early that morning and ordered some sweet tea, I know, not really the breakfast of champions but I love their sweet tea. I grabbed a table in the back of the restaurant and got my laptop out knowing I had hours of work ahead of me.

For the next few hours I got a lot done, but as the clouds rolled in so did the parents with kids who wanted to play in the indoor play area. I happened to be seated directly across from the play area entrance.

A mom arrived with her young daughter, I would guess the child was about two-years-old. She was at the age where she believed she was independent but her vocabulary consisted primarily of “yes” and “no.” At one point her mom stuck her head into the play area and asked, “Kailee, do you want to get an ice cream cone?” Kailee came running towards the door and loudly shouted, “yes.”

When they came back to their table, which was next to mine, I noticed that Kailee had an adult size ice cream cone which required her to use both hands to hold on to it. Within seconds Kailee made her way to the play area door and tried to figure out how to open the door while holding her ice cream cone with both hands. Her mom asked her if she wanted to eat her ice cream cone and Kailee replied, “yes!” Her mom explained that if she wanted to eat her ice cream she couldn’t go in the play area. This caused a look of pure shock and horror from the young child! Her mom then changed the question and asked if she wanted to go in the play area and Kailee also replied, “yes!” And her mom explained that if she wanted to go into the play area she would have to hand over her ice cream cone. The idea that she could only do one of those things was turning this young girl’s world upside down!

I think a lot of leaders make the same mistake that this two-year-old made. As leaders, when we say yes to leadership we naturally say no to other things. When you say yes to being your team Captain you also say no to yelling at the referees. When you say yes to being a Division Leader at work you say no to ignoring the unethical decisions of a team member. When you say yes to serving as the Director of an organization you say no to public behaviors that would taint the reputation of that organization.

Great leaders understand that when we say yes to leadership we must say no to other things, but too many leaders want to yes to everything. They frequently behave like a two-year-old who wants to eat her ice cream cone and go into the play area. When leaders behave this way it’s their people who suffer because they are the ones who have to clean up the leader’s mess.

An immature leader takes her ice cream cone down the play area slide leaving a sticky mess behind her.
A great leader understands that leadership requires choices.

When you say yes to leadership make sure you have a clear understanding of what you are saying yes to and what you are saying no to. When you say yes to everything you create a mess and no matter how wonderful you may be, no one wants to clean up your mess.

Great leaders say yes & no. 

-Leadership is like driving in the dark.-

“Leadership is like driving in the dark.”

The truth is, I’m getting older. For last few decades, a few of my best friends from college and I have spent four days of March Madness together. We lay in recliners, live off of appetizers and finger foods, drink gallons of southern sweet tea, and watch every single basketball game for four straight days! But this year we struggled to stay up for the late games, we talked about eating a salad, and even suggested going for a walk between games. And then there is my friend who has self-prescribed reading glasses because she can’t read her March Madness Bracket. So she bought some reading glasses at Walgreens but she decided it was just her right eye that was bad so she took out the left lens. I can’t take her seriously when she is looking at her Bracket while wearing her one-eyed reading glasses! Yep, we are getting older.

As I was preparing to leave I explained that I wanted to get on the road because I didn’t want to drive in the dark. There was a time in my life when I felt invincible and driving all night didn’t bother me, but at this stage in life, I like to see what is up ahead.

But driving in the dark is a lot like leadership; keep your headlights on and you’ll be fine. Pay attention to the road signs, recalculate as need, and take care of your passengers, that sounds a lot like leadership to me.

Great leaders are aware of the fact that we can’t see too far ahead but that we need to keep moving. Some people want to wait until they can see the entire journey before they even get started, but not great leaders, we have to be able to drive in the dark only seeing what our headlights allow us to see.

When driving in the dark with just our headlights to guide us we need to do three things:
1. Pay attention to the signs. This is true in leadership as well. There are signs everywhere telling us what is up ahead and how we need to navigate the road we are on. As leaders, we need to understand that signs come in different forms. Sometimes they are tangible, like a quarterly report which reflects the financial health of an organization. Other times they come in the form of feedback or insights from those around us. And then there are the moments when signs appear as our intuition.  It is important as leaders that we pay attention to the signs.
2. Recalculate as needed. The signs will tell us what we need to do but as leaders we but have the courage to take action. When you are in your car and you see a sign that says to slow down you do that just, but too often leaders want to continue at a high rate of speed regardless of what the signs say. There are too many leaders who refuse to recalculate because their 5-year, 10-year, or 20-year plan says to keep going at this speed. Great leaders recalculate.
3. Take care of your passengers. All great drivers take care of their passengers. Have you ever been driving and found yourself making a sudden stop and your right arm instinctively reaches out to protect the person in the passenger seat? That’s how we need to treat our people at all times. If our people need to us to slow down, to take a different route, or to stop so they can take a picture and enjoy the view then that is what we need to do. Great leaders take care of their passengers.

I once worked for a boss (I say boss, not leader intentionally) who didn’t trust anyone or anything, and oddly enough she didn’t even trust herself. So even when the signs were as clear as day, she couldn’t recalculate because she didn’t trust the information. She just stuck to her plan which might have worked a year ago but was now outdated. As a result, she hurt a lot of people which lead to significant employee turnover.  She ran several athletic departments into the ground because of her inability to pay attention to the signs, recalculate, and take care of her people.

But what’s amazing about leadership is the fact that we can make the entire journey in the dark with just our headlights on. If you pay attention the signs, recalculate as needed, and take care of your passengers you’ll be just fine driving/leading in the dark.

Leadership is like driving in the dark.