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Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

2012 Gift Book Pick: The Elephant in the Room

December 4, 2012 3 comments

Elephant in the Room book coverAt first glance, I wondered why Diana McLain Smith called her latest book about relationships The Elephant in the Room. Surely, interpersonal relationships are now understood to be an essential part of organizational life; every leadership competency model includes relational skills and every workplace development office offers classes on conflict resolution.

But as I delved into this highly readable, story-rich book, I increasingly appreciated Smith’s insight into two important ways that relationships at work are like that proverbial elephant—seen but undiscussed; or at least under-discussed and misunderstood.  By providing a practical roadmap and tools for identifying, understanding, and strengthening key relationships, Smith has created an excellent resource for leaders and coaches poised to push past their limitations in this domain.

The first way that we typically under-discuss relationships at work is by relegating them to the “soft skills” territory, making them a quality of life concern rather than a life or death concern. Smith moves relationships into the “hard” category, not just in the sense that they can be difficult (we all know they can be!), but in the sense that relationships are critical business assets. The behind-the-headlines stories she shares amply illustrate the significant bottom-line consequences of relationship issues left unaddressed. For leaders reluctant to venture into relationship matters too deeply, an amplified awareness of what’s at stake may help them embrace the work as a strategic investment.

The second way we tend to under-discuss relationships at work is to regard them at arm’s length, as structures outside ourselves that we can learn to “build” and “manage.” But with her finely-honed systems instincts, Smith exposes the inadequacy of this framing and guides us to see relationships as dynamic human systems that we inhabit and continuously co-create with each other. She provides tools that empower us to see how we contribute to the very patterns we feel trapped by and how, together, we can interrupt and disarm those patterns in the interest of forward progress. By inviting us to engage with relationships as a matter of perspective rather than of skill, Smith has elevated the conversation and made it easier (though still not easy) to talk about them productively.

If there is a leader or a coach on your holiday gift list, I think they’ll welcome The Elephant in the Room as a source of new insights and action in the coming year.

Go First

October 9, 2012 3 comments

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.   — Lao Tzu

First Turning LeavesThis inspiring thought from Lao Tzu is often quoted, and I think, is often true. A leader succeeds best when her followers have adopted her vision as their own; embracing it so fully they don’t even recognize that it came from outside them.

It’s also true, though, that sometimes a leader has to be visible in her willingness to go first, literally to lead—and I am not only referring to “hero leaders” in positions of formal authority. Each of us, from time to time, has the option to go first from the middle of the pack. When all the other leaves are green, one leaf has to say, “Well, it’s time to turn orange now.”

“But,” you may object, “I don’t want to be the first leaf to turn. That leaf is dying!” Yes, it’s dying, and leadership often involves a kind of dying. We have to acknowledge the death of the system or the process or the product or the relationship that until now was the way we knew. We have to trust in the rightness of what’s next. (I’m aware, by the way, that leaves don’t actually have a choice in the matter…but you get my point.)

We go first when we become aware of something that the others aren’t aware of yet, when we get unhooked from something that is still getting in the others’ way, when we love the others enough to take the risk.

Where is your opportunity to go first right now?

Powerful Questions in Action

apple picking“I always have a question that I can’t answer just by thinking about it.”

That’s how Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison recently responded to an interviewer’s question about how she decides what to write about.

As befits her status as an international treasure, Morrison captured in this simple comment not just an insight into her own creative process, but something broader about the very nature of learning. She models for us the essence of action learning.

Many theorists have explored the inextricable connection between action and reflection in human learning processes. Kurt Lewin, David Kolb, and W. Edwards Deming are noted for their contributions to our understanding of this dynamic. And I often point to their cyclical models in encouraging my coaching clients to make room for reflection in their busy lives. “Reflect so that your next actions incorporate the wisdom you’ve gained.”

But what Toni Morrison hints at is an organic learning process in which action and reflection happen simultaneously; something closer to Bill Torbert’s theory of action inquiry. When we enter into action with awareness and the intention to absorb the learning it has to offer, it enhances the quality of the action we take. We not only find the answers we set out to find, but we expand our capacity for learning and leadership. We discover the creative power of inquiry itself.

What’s a question that you’re living with right now that you can’t answer just by thinking about it?