Tag Archives: leadership in context

Leadership: Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

We have family in town this week for Nate’s graduation. We’ve all been involved in sports for years as players from the time we were young, as coaches when we got older, and in the case of my father-in-law, even as administrator in athletics at the university level.

We’re were stunned this week to hear yet another story of a university that has failed a long time coach. By allowing a small group of disgruntled players who didn’t get the playing time they “thought they deserved”, backed by a group of helicopter parents who have collected their children’s participation trophies for years, encouraged by a athletic department that just wants smooth sailing, to run off a coach with 25 years tenure the university has failed.

To be clear this is NOT a Penn State situation. This is just a group of people who have gotten used to having their way at the youth level and now think they can run the show in college. Apparently they can.

We’ve heard this story a few too many time in the last couple years. When a coach consistently delivers wins and graduation rates, when a coach has developed a group of alumni fully willing and capable of funding the program, when a coach has multiple decades of investment, this is not a failure by the coach. It is a failure by the university athletic administration.

It is a failure of leadership.

How can we, as leaders, avoid looking just as ludicrous? By remembering a couple simple rules for keeping the main thing THE main thing:

1. Define it
What does success look like?
For a college coach it is wins, graduations, and fund raising. For a corporate executive is might be about top line growth, bottom line efficiencies, or people development. For a Pastor it might be nickles, noses, and congregational maturity.

In any case it is important to define success. THAT is where you should be headed. If you don’t know where you’re going you’ll never get there.

2. Defend it
Once you’ve defined success you need to be willing to stick to that course when the road gets rough. That isn’t to say we can’t change to a different target for success mid-stream, but that course change needs to be deeply considered before being made. Too often leaders change course quarterly or yearly in response to some temporary set of circumstances.

If you want to keep the main thing THE main thing you have to be more concerned with where you’re going than you are with how things are going.

3. Deliver it
Once you’ve put a stick in the ground to define direction and success, go after it with gusto! Performance reviews can almost become fully objective, did we deliver or not? The better you’ve defined success, the better you’ve stayed the course and defended that direction the easier it is to measure progress…or the reason progress has been inhibited. Deliver the main thing validates that it ought to BE the main thing.

In the case of these coaching stories the schools in question forgot all of that in favor of smoothing out the waves. The funny thing is, as any sailor knows, if you perfectly smooth out the wind and waves, you wind up becalmed and you never get anywhere.

Where have you seen leaders either fail or succeed at keeping the main thing the main thing in the midst of stormy circumstances?

Personal Note: All the best to Coach Gary Podesta. The lives you’ve changed cannot be measured solely by the number of individual players in the program. It is multiplied a hundred or a thousand fold by the lives we’ve each gone on to touch. Thanks Coach. You kept the main thing the main thing.

4 Reasons to Recognize Milestones

Today we reached the end of an era in the Fletcher household…we’ve most likely seen our last minivan.

With the price of gas continuing to rocket upward we traded in ol’ blue for a used Honda Civic Hybrid.  The small car payment and a month’s gas will still cost us less than we were paying per month for gas in ol’ blue. I have to admit I’m kinda sad.

I’ve been thinking about random milestones all day.

Way back at the turn of the century, funny when you put it that way, I was working as the Director of eCommerce Marketing at Corporate Express. During my tenure in that position we saw a pretty cool milestone heading our direction. We knew, probably 4 weeks out, that we were going to hit our first million dollar sales day on our eCommerce site.

As the marketing director I wanted to recognize the efforts of everyone who had made the site a success as well as generate excitement and so we started a pool to see who could pick not only the right day, but closest to the right dollar amount.

Our final sales numbers from the previous day typically came in between 10 and noon and on the day we got the news that we’d hit the mark we went crazy. Most of us has seen the first day the site launched, bringing in I believe a total of five dollars, and here we were at a million dollars in a single day!

We sent announcements out to our field offices congratulating the sales folks and throughout headquarters lauding the team that had built and maintained the site. By 3:30 it was time to really celebrate so I invited the entire eCommerce team to happy hour. Several VP’s came over to join in the fun and the CEO even came by for a beer and some congratulatory words.

As a corporate leader I learned the importance of recognizing milestones that day.

1. It honors accomplishment
Our guys were beaming that day from the newest support person to the senior most developer. They knew and understood anew that their work had created significant value for the organization.

2. It measures success
Milestones are stakes in the ground that are tangible measure of success, a goal line crossed. It’s one thing to say, “good job”. It’s another thing to have a measure of just how good.

3. It shows engagement
For a leader to pause and recognize a significant milestone shows that they’re engaged in the business and the efforts of their people. Celebrating even in small ways says more than just “attaboy” it says, “we’re in this together.”

4. It inspires effort
We hadn’t finished even the first round of libations before people were asking when we’d hit a 2 million dollar day. We didn’t dwell there, but we had already started setting our sites on what it would take to get to the next level.

Whether you’re running an organization, leading a family, or building customer loyalty recognizing milestones along the way helps inspire your people to follow your lead and strive for the next level.

What milestones do you have on the horizon? How do you think they ought to be celebrated and, more importantly, with whom?

3 Ingredients that Help Leaders Innovate

I’ve been fortunate throughout the majority of my career in that I have been consistently asked to innovate.

Whether I’ve been in operational roles and redesigning process, technical roles and delivering new solutions, or serving as CTO and re-branding entire companies I’ve had the opportunity to bring innovation, change, and new goodies to the table.

Unfortunately for a lot of people when they think of the word “innovator” they see a picture of Steve Jobs in their minds eye and resign themselves to thinking they could never be THAT good. (Hint: Steve probably wouldn’t have thought that way.) But the truth is that EVERYONE in a leadership position has the opportunity to be an innovator.

That doesn’t mean everyone has the skill set developed, or the desire, or maybe the need but every leader does have the opportunity to innovate, it’s part of the nature of leadership. So if opportunity IS knocking at your door let me suggest three ingredients that every innovator has to have in order to bring out the mad scientist.

1. A desire to break things
When I was about 5 my dad and I built a model helicopter, one of those plastic model kits that requires that stringy, smelly, Testors model glue. As soon as it was dry I broke it into pieces. I think in part to see if I could get it back to its original state and in part because I’d had fun putting it together with my dad. Needless to say he wasn’t as excited by my actions as I was.

Throughout most all of my life I’ve been taking apart stuff that has been labeled “I dunno, it just doesn’t work”: An old electronic vibrating football game, a car cassette player, (remember those?), a camera. If they didn’t work then there was no harm in taking them apart but if I DIDN’T take them apart there was no chance they’d work.

An innovator is someone who is willing to break something that isn’t working in order to make it work. (AND sometimes they’re even willing to break stuff that isn’t working as well as it should)

2. A desire to indulge dreams
How often have you said to yourself, “If only we could…” or “I wish there was a way to…” ? Innovators are the people that see inspiration in those statements. Non-innovators sigh deeply, shrug those ideas off and get back to the pile on their desk.

Innovators find sustenance in those kind of questions, blow out the wildest answers they can find, tear them down and build them back up again. They allow their minds to race ahead of their inner critic as though it were death on their heels.

As my younger brother, who actually IS a rocket scientist by education, used to say, “hey, define the limits…and start there.”

An innovator is someone who chases after their dreams to see where they lead.

3. A desire to make time
Innovators often run the risk of appearing to be lazy. If you come by my office and I’m leaning back in may chair with my feet are up on the desk I’m not sleeping. I’m imagining. (I sleep with my chin tucked to my chest facing my computer screen, it looks like deep thought.)

Th trick is that you don’t innovate in your spare time, unless inspiration hits you out of the blue. Spare time is your down time. You innovate on work time which means you have to have time in your work schedule to dream. If you don’t have time in your work schedule to dream as a leader…IT’S NOT WORKING. Break it apart and fix it.

An innovator is someone who make sure they have time in the schedule to dream.

Creativity, ideation, strategy, they’re all nice, but without the desire to break things, the desire to indulge dreams and the desire to make time you run the risk of merely creating prettier sameness.

What are some of the places you need to take a look at how you do business today and break it apart?


What’s the Difference Between Life and Sports?

I’m bummed.

Last weekend the Broncos lost, which I thought might happen anyway, but tonight the 49ers lost. I really though they had a shot at winning it all.

I grew up rooting for the 49ers. I’ve personally known some of the players. I DJed a couple team parties back in the day. I’m bummed. And that has made me wonder…

How is it that we can get SO passionate about a team, or a single game, or a season and we rarely experience that kind of passion in the rest of life? Allow me to share a couple observations:

1. Sports span a wide emotional gamut.
There are studies that show that fans actually like games better when there is a chance their team could lose. Blows out are humdrum either way. If we blow out the opponent that’s nice, if we get blown out that’s too bad, but if the game is close our elation of depression are much more deeply felt.

We’re emotional beings so that range of emotions is intoxicating. Threat, risk, despair, hope, anticipation, elation…they’re all there. We like the emotional ride.

2. Faster team sports generate bigger emotions
I don’t have any science on this, I just think it is true. You don’t see fans of individual sports like golf or tennis go as crazy as soccer, hockey, or football fans. I would contend that baseball fans are less crazy too, except perhaps on a hot afternoon when there has been a lot of beer consumed.

We’re social beings made to be in relationship. Team sports are about relationship and interdependence and team work. We love it when all the parts click and wish we could be a cog in that well honed relational mechanism.

3. Sports require split second decision making.
This plays into why faster sports spawn bigger emotions. It is also why soccer fans pick on football fans and football fans pick on baseball fans…the amount of relative dead space in their games. This need for instant decision mixes physical, cognitive, and intuitive skills in an oft times artistic mix that amazes us when it all comes together.

We’re creative beings. When adrenaline courses through our veins our cognitive and physical functions work at max capacity and we are at our most creative. We not only love to feel it, we love to see it in others.

So if that’s how we’re wired why isn’t day to day life more like that?

Probably because we spend a large proportion of our time at work!

1. The workplace engages fewer emotions.
At work we’re asked to operate predominantly out of our brain, sitting on our butt. Emotions are against company policy to a large extent. It’s not: go big or go home, it’s: go big? and we’ll send you home. We’re asked to dial back the range and the volume on every emotion. We must be in control.

2. “Teamwork” takes on a different connotation.
We may be “team players” or “individual contributors” but we rarely, if ever, find ourselves in a place where teammates must connect one after another like a quarterback getting time in the pocket and completing a pass.. (I’ve never worked on an assembly line but I do wonder if it feels more like a team in that setting.)

3. Decisions are generally made over time
…and then second guessed, and then changed. Sports contests are confined to 90 minutes, or nine innings, or the couple hours it takes to play four quarters. Sales cycles are days, weeks, months or sometimes even years. Product life cycles are even longer.

What if we allowed emotional expression in the work place without fear of reprisal? What if we created teams that had to consistently connect the dots one after the other? What if we set up cycle times that put teams in a position to have to do that daily, or even before lunch time?

Would we find ourselves being as passionate about work as we are about sports? And if we were…what might we accomplish?

What can you do to bring the fan experience more realistically into your workplace?


Four Tenets of Servant Leadership

Whether you are a Christian or not the story of Christmas is the story of God becoming man.  That is to say, you don’t have to believe the story is true to understand that this is what the story is all about.

I’m not really too surprised then that in this Christmas season I have found myself involved in several different conversations on what it means to be a servant leader. I know, I know, much has been written on the topic, some good, some not so good but from the conversations I’ve been fortunate to be a part of four particular themes have emerged.

Even if you only give credence to the Christmas story as historical fiction these four principals or tenets, examples of what it means to be a servant leader, are startlingly relevant today.

Tenet 1: It takes a leader
It amazes me how many people miss this and land on some very spongy, soft definition of servant leader. The phrase itself indicates a leader, modified by the word servant. This is NOT the servant who leads. This is a position of strength, of authority, not egotistically swung about like a cudgel but judiciously exercised on behalf of those being lead.

Read the narratives, the stories of Jesus life. From a young age he displayed leadership characteristics. As he grew into a man people followed him. He lead, and served those he lead.

If you don’t know how to lead you can’t be a servant leader.

Tenet 2: It takes commitment
Servant leadership is not a string of random acts to occasionally help someone out. It is a commitment to regularly set the needs of those you lead as primary. Not in some sort of socialistic/Mr. Spock “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” thing, but in a way that sacrifices self promotion in favor of people development.

Jesus went from being God to being man, not transformed into a full blown adult but born as a baby. That’s not a one time act. That’s not a string of wishful helps from a genie. That’s a commitment, probably a bigger commitment than we can even imagine.

We’re talking about a commitment to develop and grow those whom you lead.

Tenet 3: It takes proactive movement
The servant leader is not one who sits around and wits for his followers to make requests. He doesn’t stand at the proverbial door like a butler waiting for orders. The servant leader anticipates the needs and desires of those being lead and seeks to meet those needs. This isn’t a posture of gift giving benevolence but rather an anticipation of what will contribute towards growth, development, and the achievement of organizational goals.

Jesus didn’t stand next to the door as the disciples came in to the last supper and ask if he could wash their feet. “Foot wash today Simon? John? anyone?” He took the proactive step.

The servant leader doesn’t wait to react to a request. The servant leader proactively anticipates needs and meets them.

Tenet 4: It takes succession planning
If you’re going to commit to helping people develop and grow you’ve got to have a target of some kind in mind. Whether you are growing YOUR successor or growing folks who can move up into other positions in your organization you’re growing people in a direction.

Jesus didn’t show up, do his thing, and bail. He grow up some guys who could further His efforts after He’d gone. He was quite intentional about preparing them for the role. In fact, in an interesting twist, the less you believe in Jesus as the Son of God, the more you have to believe that the disciples did a great job growing a religious movement beyond the guy who trained them! In either case Jesus was quite the succession planner.

The servant leader doesn’t just grow an organization. She grows the people who will continue to grow the organization after she is gone.

At the end of the day it is about heart, you can’t adhere to these tenets over time without a heart commitment. Lead, commit, move proactively and take your people to the next level. Watch what happens. You might just change the world.

Have you ever had a leader who exemplified these tenets? What did that look like?

10 Leadership Responses

It’s been a long week. For some reason this week almost everyone I know has been posting pithy quotes on their Facebook status. In response to this rash of pith, i offer my hastily compiled top ten responses to leadership quotes:

1.”You manage things; you lead people”                         

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

From the rear apparently…

2.”Success for leadership is . . . knowing the great art of directing others without their noticing it.”



3. “Consensus is the negation of leadership.”

Margaret Thatcher                                                                            

All in favor say ‘aye’?

4. “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

John C. Maxwell

Or was that a cab driver?

5. “Leadership is diving for a loose ball, getting the crowd involved, getting other players involved. It’s being able to take it as well as dish it out. That’s the only way you’re going to get respect from the players.”

Larry Bird

Unless you’re a ball girl at Wimbleton …

6. “Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.”

John D. Rockefeller

And paying them minimum wage…

7. “There are many elements to a campaign. Leadership is number one. Everything else is number two. “

Bertolt Brecht

I’d agree, most things in a campaign ARE number two

8. “Do not follow where the path may lead.
Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Harold R. McAlindon

Unless you’re in a national park…

9. “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

A la Tom Sawyer

10. “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

But truly brilliant minds conjure the ideas the drive the events that astound the people

Got some to add? Please share with the class.

Leadership styles in Lord of the Rings

ring photo courtesy of pirateninjagabs @deviantart.comI confess I am a huge fan of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien particularly the Lord of the Rings. I have read the trilogy multiple times and thoroughly enjoyed the films. While you may not remember all the characters listed below you’ll probably recognize a leadership description that fits your style:

ElrondElf Lord, bearer of one of the three elven rings.

  1. Leads from a base of wisdom: “counted chief among the wise”
  2. Leads from a safe haven: Rivendell, “the last homely house”
  3. Leads as a counselor, not as a participant.
  4. Leads out of enough experience to have become somewhat jaded.
  5. Provides a sense of big picture direction

GaladrielElf Lord, also a bearer of one of the three

  1. Leads out of a safe haven: “Lorien, a place where time seems to have stood still”
  2. Leads rooted in an ancient traditional past.
  3. Leads as a counselor not as a participant.
  4. Leads out of specific commitments rather than overall purpose
  5. Provides potential operational direction: “The mirror of Glaldriel”

TheodenKing of Rohan, the horse lords

  1. Leads from a deep association with his people.
  2. Leads out of militant participation.
  3. Leads with compassion.
  4. Leads with a sense of his historical place within his organization.
  5. Is the prime example of redeemed leadership.

DenethorSteward of Gondor

  1. Leads out of a fortress mentality
  2. Leads out of ancient traditions
  3. Leads out of militant participation
  4. Leads out of an ego that forgets limitations and boundaries
  5. Succumbs to temptation and evil in the end

BoromirEldest son of Denethor

  1. Leads with a sense of his own strength.
  2. Leads as a militant participant.
  3. Leads with fervent passion.
  4. Leads by putting the world on his shoulders.
  5. Succumbs to ego and temptation.

FaramirYoungest son of Denethor

  1. Leads out of a sense of duty.
  2. Leads out of a love that inspires.
  3. Leads as a militant participant.
  4. Leads with a sense of nobility.
  5. Leads out of a humility that is almost his undoing.

TreebeardAn Ent (talking trees)

  1. Leads out of long tradition.
  2. Leads out of deliberate thought not sudden emotion.
  3. Leads out of a commitment to purpose and his people.
  4. Leads as a militant participant.
  5. Is the prime example of a long dormant leader rising to meet a new need.

FrodoA hobbit, ring bearer

  1. Leads out of reluctance.
  2. Leads out of a sense of purpose.
  3. Leads out of compassion.
  4. Leads for a project, not a period or a program.
  5. Retires from leadership after having accomplished his “task”.

Sam A hobbit, Frodo’s “man Friday”

  1. Leads out of devotion.
  2. Leads out of humility.
  3. Leads only reluctantly.
  4. Leads without knowing it.
  5. Easily moves back and forth from servant to leader.

Merry and PippinHobbits, cousins of Frodo

  1. Lead out of a desire for something better.
  2. Lead as militant participants.
  3. Lead out of organizational and inspirational strength.
  4. Lead through crisis and on into stability.
  5. Are the classic examples of leaders being “grown up”.

GandalfA Wizard

  1. Leads out of wisdom.
  2. Leads as a steward.
  3. Leads with a fervent passion.
  4. Leads as a militant participant.
  5. Occasionally allows his passions to overrule his compassion..

AragornKing in exile

  1. Leads out of patience and longsuffering.
  2. Leads with an acute knowledge of the mistakes of his predecessors.
  3. Leads with a sense of timing and purpose.
  4. Leads as a decisive participant.
  5. Inspires others to greatness

I love looking at leadership styles using these characters because we’re given a view of them in the context of an epic story. Your life is an epic story, even if you don’t have to battle orcs, nazgul, and evil wizards. So as you read the above descriptions ask yourself the following questions:

Did you find one that matches your style?

Try watching the film that features the character you chose (or reading the book). What are that characters strengths, weaknesses, blind spots?

How is that character tempted? How do they respond?

Any parallels in your real life?