Category Archives: Leadership

Pope Francis I’s First Moments: Matching Word and Deed

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The world was witness to a remarkable series of events today with the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the head of the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Francis I.  Just two days ago, I reflected on leadership lessons culled from past popes, here.  I’d like to extend those remarks, focusing on the leadership notes that played out in my eyes in Francis I’s first moments as a world figure – in which he succeeded brilliantly, I believe, in matching word with deed (any leader’s most telling task).

Setting a Tone
Biographical reports on the new pope universally remark on his humble nature – regularly avoiding the trappings of his office as cardinal by taking public transportation to work, and living in his own apartment instead of the bishop’s palace.  This humility came through loud and clear in his first action – choosing to wear a simple, wood cross instead of an ornate, bejeweled one.  Most tellingly, before he gave his first blessing, he humbly asked for the crowd’s prayers and blessing on him, that he might be strengthened by those he will lead – servant leadership of the simplest but most powerful order.  (Wishing the crowd a “good night and a good sleep” in the manner one would speak to an old friend or family member was a simple and endearing moment of the same nature).

Drawing in Your Flock
Putting aside the worldly powers of the papacy, it is – in its essence – a spiritual role, meant to draw the faithful to God.  Rather than offering a sermon or Continue reading

On the Papal Conclave’s Eve: Leadership Notes from the Past

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John Paul II proclaimed, “Be not afraid.” Ronald Reagan spoke of “a city on a hill.” Both teamed up to stare down communism, backing strong words with resoluteness.

Having had the good fortune of studying in Rome as an undergrad, I recall with sweet fondness standing in the shadow of Bernini’s great colonnade many a time to see  Pope John Paul II bless the crowds from his window overlooking St. Peter’s square. Now, I wait with eagerness along with billions of Catholics and other interested observers worldwide to see the white smoke emerge and a new pope step out to greet the world.  As we wait, I have been reflecting on events from recent papacies that speak to leading organizations of all sizes.

The Unexpected

When the former Angelo Roncalli became Pope John 23rd at the age of 77 in 1958, few expected the portly unknown cardinal to be anything more than a “caretaker,” keeping the papal seat warm for a few years and not doing much else.  No one foresaw the seismic shift he was soon to usher in with the simple but dramatic calling of the conference (known as Vatican II) which more than any other single event brought the Church into the modern age.

  • Lesson: Sometimes one simple but profound, singular leadership decision can change everything – shaping and re-setting all prior agendas.

Bestriding the World Stage

If no one anticipated John 23rd’s actions as pope, even fewer predicted Karol Wojtyla’s election as the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.  From the very first moment of his introduction in 1978, though, the then 58-year old Continue reading

Failing to Prepare the Ground

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Do your planning and prepare your fields before building your house.
Proverbs 24:27

I’ve recently been observing a business saga that I fear isn’t destined to end well.  Sam, a sales and product development director, is preparing to submit an exciting new product proposal to his company.  If accepted, it could transform a significant aspect of company operations and further enhance its industry-leading standing.  Unfortunately, I believe Sam’s proposal is likely to be rejected for, as ground-breaking as his concept is, he has failed to prepare the ground so that the project might be accepted, take root, and bloom.

The Good

Sam’s idea represents the culmination of years of blood, sweat, and tears to understand and serve the needs of his customers.  The concept addresses their needs in a way that gives both his customers and his company a platform for growth and collaboration, and it pushes the state of the art in their field forward by several steps.

The Bad

The success of the venture depends heavily on a partnership with another organization.  However, the leadership of Sam’s company has a very negative Continue reading

Pope Benedict’s Resignation: Leadership Lessons in Humility

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(Disclosure: As a practicing Catholic, I have a deep affection for Pope Benedict.  However, people of any or no faith tradition should read on without trepidation, as this post focuses solely on leadership issues, not religion or dogma).

This morning’s announcement that Pope Benedict was resigning the papacy for health reasons absolutely stunned me, as it did the rest of the world.  Still taking in the impact of this historic event — something that hasn’t happened in 600 years — a few initial leadership lessons come to mind. While a pope has many roles (as a head of a Church, head of state, and world figure), in secular terms, each role can be reduced to one simple but powerful word: leader.  Here’s what I believe his resignation teaches.

  • Some things don’t need outside counsel
    The fact that even his closest aides didn’t have a hint of his pending resignation indicates the depth of conviction that he felt about his decision.  “Unto thine own self be true,” we’re advised.  In this case, the truth was clear to him, and he acted decisively, with clarity of purpose and (I imagine) clarity of mind and heart.  When clarity is present so strongly, no outside deliberations are necessary to provide “cover” or comfort—clarity is the comfort.
  • It’s not all about you
    By canon (church) law, the pope has the right to preside over the Church until his death.  As a world class theologian, no one would be more fully aware than this pope of the unprecedented nature of his resignation and how it might affect his place in history.  In this act, though, he has chosen to place the needs of the many — leadership of more than 1.2 billion faithful — over his personal, ego needs.In a statement, the pope said in order to govern “…both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” In doing so, he put the good of his organization — of a size and scope that requires active, day-to-day leadership, especially during these complex modern times — ahead of himself.
  •  Set up the next guy for success
    Perhaps the most startling part of the announcement for me was the date of the resignation (two weeks from now).  As a colleague noted with great surprise, this has him stepping down in the middle of the holiest and most important season in the Church calendar (Lent) — setting up a most unusual Lenten Conclave of Cardinals to select his successor.Few would have blamed him for “hanging on” a month longer, so that he might have the satisfaction of leading one more season of Easter services. With this timing, though, the pope has guaranteed that his successor will greet the world at the most sacred and impactful of moments — the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday — thus launching the new pope forward to put his own stamp on his nascent papacy from the very first moment.

In organizations, major change can sometimes occur at unexpected moments—and with great change comes opportunities for (and insights into) leadership.  The impact of Pope Benedict’s decision will be assessed in the days, and months, and decades to come.  Today’s immediate lesson for me is the power that acts of humility can have on our organizations and ourselves.  If we know our own hearts, and look to the needs of others, we will lead through service, for the greatest good.

Promotions That Change Lives

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A close colleague recently received a well-deserved promotion, and I am thrilled for her and her manager.  I believe that this sort of thing – “promotion” in the very best sense of the word – has the power to change careers … and lives.

Why Promotions Matter

It’s always nice to get a raise (more money) or a promotion (a loftier title and/or higher-level job responsibilities), of course.  But I find that when done thoughtfully and purposefully, it can be much more than a “nice to have” or a brief shot-in-the-arm for morale purposes.  In my friend’s case, the promotion:

  • Showed her that she and her contributions were valued by the organization
  • Gave her increased standing and confidence to interact with clients, colleagues, and vendors on a more equal footing as professional peers
  • Changed her own thinking about what future steps her career might hold in store —what possibilities could become realities for her
  • Increased her already strong appreciation for her manager, knowing that he had gone to bat for her when he didn’t have to
  • And, in part that she’s not aware of yet, the promotion sets her up for other jobs (inside and outside the company) for which holding her new title/level is an unstated (but very real) requirement.

In the manager’s case, the promotion demonstrated: Continue reading

Building Confidence

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We’re all familiar with the idea that part of a leader’s job is to build up the confidence of employees in the organization — particularly those just starting out in their careers.  A recent experience reminded me, however, that sometimes we also need to build up the confidence of those who we assume are already very confident: executives and other accomplished professionals.

When Things Get Overwhelming

I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day planning meeting for a group of executives contemplating a rather ambitious project: developing a training academy and certification program that would become the standard in their industry.  Working diligently in a very pleasant conference facility in the Arizona desert, the team soon had several whiteboard’s full of potential curriculum designs and course outlines spread around the boardroom.  As we did a brief re-cap before dinner, I was quite struck by the group’s reaction.  As each person took in the array of courses and materials noted on the boards, they vocalized a reaction I wasn’t expecting: they felt a bit overwhelmed.

I was quite startled by this.  The participants were all very accomplished in their field and prominent leaders in their respective organizations.  And yet, even for Continue reading

Gifts of the Season

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The holidays are a season of lights, and a season of gifts–gifts given, received, and cherished. In that spirit, I wanted to take a moment today to share with you some gifts that I have received from family, friends, and colleagues that have deeply touched my professional and personal life.

I have been truly blessed to have had many role models, guides, and mentors who have been so kind and caring to share their wisdom and their life’s example with me. To those named below, and to the many others not named but who have contributed a warm smile, a caring thought, or a helping hand, I thank you for all you have done for me and for the many lives you touch each day.

  • For my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles – for showing me how to care for and about people every day, with kindness, support, compassion, and dignity
  • For my brother James – who showed me how to conceive and develop the systems and  processes you need; and for my brother John – who showed me that success is showing up and getting the job done day after day with excellence
  • For Kathy – who showed me that drawing clean lines and tidy policies is great, but reality isn’t always so neat and clear, and taking care of people’s needs is the important thing
  • For Vicki and Gretchen – who both taught me that having a good answer is important, but doing the hard work to prepare the fields in advance is what helps the answer be accepted and take root
  • For Doug – who showed me what thinking outside the box looks like, and that taking people out of boxes and putting them into positions where they can do their best work is really the only way to recruit and sustain excellence
  • For Jeff – who taught me that the best way to support the business is to know and love the business
  • For Martin – who showed me that the best “employee relations” starts with the question, “How can we help?”
  • For Paula – who encouraged me to say what I needed to say with a clear voice and a strong heart, and that people would respond to clarity and sincerity above all else
  • For Vicki – who taught me that executives are just like you and me–if you remember that they have their doubts and fears and want some peace and comfort and milk and cookies at the end of the day, you’ll be able to work with them all just fine

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and wishes and blessings for a year of peace, healing, happiness, and fulfillment. May we all have our milk and cookies and comforts today and always!

Leadership: For-Show, or For-Real?

Do we lead as good shepherds … or simply as hired hands?

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep. ( John 10: 11-15)

Today’s post departs from my usual focus on business leadership to examine political leadership in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s massive destruction in New York and New Jersey.  My comments reflect not the sentiments of any political party or ideology, but rather a deep disappointment with what I observe to be a failing of leadership from many quarters—as many succumbed to style over substance.

The Approaching Storm

As Hurricane Sandy approached, leadership at the local, city, and state levels seemed to do a very good job getting the word out to the people.  And then, when the storm hit as hard (or even harder) than expected, political leaders were everywhere to be seen—holding hourly press conferences, surveying the storm damage, and generally maintaining everyone’s spirits with calm pronouncements, heartfelt compassion, and a palpable presence.

At the worst of times, political leaders rose to the challenge and showed their finest colors.  For 24, or 48, or 72-hours, it was inspiring to watch. Resources were marshaled, hope was spread, and there was a clear sense of direction, engagement, and can-do, we’ll-repair-and-rebuild, by-your-side-every-step-of-the-way leadership.

And then a funny thing happened… as the days passed, and  the tv spotlights started to dim, the politicians–who seemed to be everywhere only days before–suddenly became harder and harder to find. Continue reading

Unleashing Potential

Do you have employees who you are penning into a limited role — but whose skills and background (if not current position) enable them to contribute great things to your organization, if only “discovered” and given the chance to excel?

An under-employed friend recently shared her frustration at not being permitted to contribute at the level which she is capable. Empathizing with her plight (one that is shared by millions), I wonder whether companies need to attend more directly to this post-recession phenomenon.  Is there a way to unleash the potential of this vast untapped reservoir of talent, energy, and ideas?

Point of Reference: The Survey Says

While pondering this, I noticed that SHRM’s latest national job satisfaction survey included a shocker.  For the first time, “opportunities to use skills and abilities” displaced job security (63% to 61%) as the most important aspect of job satisfaction.   The bottom line: we want to be secure, but even more than that, we want to be fulfilled in our work.  President Kennedy once defined happiness as “the full use of one’s talents along lines of excellence.” In this way, we all want to be “happy.”

Recognize These People?

Do any of these folks work at your company?

  • MBA-educated customer service rep—She has fifteen years of prior professional experience, but when she makes process improvement suggestions, she’s told “We tried that once and it didn’t work” (with the unstated subtext being, “Besides, managers make those kind of decisions here”).
  • Non-degreed manager—You’re happy to have him managing the day-to-day HR affairs of your large retail operation (keeping you out of expensive lawsuits on a daily basis)—but when it comes to managing a high-visibility nationwide project, those are tacitly reserved for designated “high potential” (degreed) junior executives only.
  • Receptionist-Playwright—Did you know that your friendly receptionist spent a dozen years as a budget analyst and project manager for a major bank and, in her spare time, is a playwright who founded and leads her own non-profit, community theatre group?

If so, you may have individuals who are vastly under-employed—i.e., highly under-utilized assets.

Unleashing Potential

So, what can be done?  Each company and individual circumstance is different, of course —but just using the three examples above, how would it improve your organization’s performance if …

  • You sought out the MBA-educated customer service rep, let her know that you appreciated her process-improvement suggestions, and you wanted her to keep them coming.  Separately, you ensure that the status-quo manager changes their tune and opens up to change in no uncertain terms.
  • You realize that you’ve advertised a senior HR director role for months without success—all the while possibly having an ideal candidate in-house.  You loosen the degree requirements, focus on who can truly do the job, and invite the non-degreed HR manager in for a serious interview / career planning discussion.
  • You’re reorganizing a chronically under-performing department and are about to advertise for a project manager to lead the effort.  Then, you remember the receptionist’s background and wonder if this is the sort of thing she has done in a past life.  When she jumps at the opportunity and hits the ground running, you smile in satisfaction (and relief at finally solving the problem).

With managers at all levels just as overwhelmed as their employees—having little time to think deeply about the latent skills, talents, and experience of their employees—the “what if” above might strike some as unrealistic.  But what if it’s not?  It might just take some time and a  commitment to dig a little deeper to see answers that might be right in front of us.

Lighthouse Leadership

I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42:16)

This week, Hurricane Sandy’s massive power left millions seeking a light in the darkness (both literally and figuratively).  The news photos and stories of devastated communities longing for relief brought to mind the image of a lighthouse—a beacon of light, hope, and safety.  It strikes me that this is a good and proper depiction of the role of leaders in both good times and bad—pointing the way forward, toward light and safety.

Organizational Needs

I’ve had the occasion recently to help two organizations implement performance management and employee development systems.  In both cases, they were organizations run by experienced, dedicated, and charismatic leaders, with strong leadership teams, and healthy and positive employee cultures.  Remarkably, though, in both cases, leadership felt that well less than fifty-percent of their employees had a clear understanding of the organization’s direction, why they made the decisions that they made, and where they were heading—a circumstance that the leaders attributed to poor communication on their parts (sins of omission, if you will).

It really struck me that two otherwise high-performing, well-respected leaders openly acknowledged they needed to do a much better job of communicating the organization’s vision and direction to their employees (instead of taking for granted that “everyone knows where we are headed”).  After coming to this realization, both were determined to redouble and refocus their communication efforts.  And both were certain that this would have any number of tangible and intangible benefits to performance, productivity and morale.

It is axiomatic that everyone looks to their leaders for direction.  These leaders believed firmly that if their employees had a clearer sense of where the organization was going, they would advance in that direction much more confidently, quickly, and directly (and with considerably less anguish and costly uncertainty).  This is leadership time well-spent, they reasoned.

Lighthouse Leadership

Strong leaders serve as lighthouses for their employees, offering:

  • Light—shining forth, cutting through the fog of an uncertain environment
  • Hope—giving confidence that the organization has a plan (or at least a direction) for the future (and a path for getting there)
  • Safety—reassurance that someone is standing watch, guiding their ship toward safe harbor

Even in good times, the leaders I worked with this week recognized the need to communicate vision and point the way forward with clarity and confidence.  In difficult times—of economic, operational, and environmental distress and uncertainty—this is doubly and triply true.

Let us remind ourselves often of the need for clearly communicated vision—and let us help leaders point the way with confidence. May we all help steer our organizations to safe harbors.

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Our thoughts and prayers are with all those suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy.