Lately, I’ve been wondering what kind of leadership this moment in history is calling for. It’s an obvious question for an executive coach to ask, yet not necessarily easy to stick with. So many other questions distract the mind: what’s happening in the stock market today? Will the bailout do any good? What’s going to happen in the next Presidential debate? Should I keep all my cash under the pillow or diversify by burying some in the backyard? Why is my little toe purple? (Answer: stubbed it).
Another distraction is to talk about what type of leadership we don’t need. This is an easy conversation to fall into. Give me even one friendly ear, and I can carry on for five or six hours about Dick Cheney, the damage he’s caused, and my sense that he will end up as one of history’s great villains. I could also tell you why, even today, we underestimate him at our own peril.
But is solving the problem of Dick Cheney–or any other leader you or I don’t like–by itself going to make a better world? Probably not. In my case, I would be able to fall asleep better at night but not necessarily have any greater impetus to get out of bed the next morning. That’s why criticizing leaders we consider dangerous (or at least lousy) is mostly a waste of time and energy.
These are not technically odes (elaborate three-part lyrical verses), nor do they correspond with individual leaders I have coached. But I so enjoy the word “ode” that I had to use it. And I feel so honored to know leaders like these that it was only natural to create such composite portraits.
Ode to the Skeptic (Who Wasn’t)
They told you to stop pushing back against decisions, to quit being the Devil’s Advocate at every meeting. They said they were tired of the doom and gloom, wanted you to lighten up, stop furrowing your brow and smile more. Most importantly, they said, it was time for you to start offering solutions rather than complaining about problems.
At first, you thought the feedback was a bunch of crap. First, if you didn’t point out all the obstacles to success, then who would–and then where would the organization be? Second, you had a word for what others called doom and gloom: realism. Finally, even if it would help the company for you to act differently, why bother trying? After all, people don’t ever really change.
Over the past year I received similar introductions to five bright executives in different organizations. Before each assignment began, I was cautioned, “(S)he’s very hard-nosed. Doesn’t like touchy-feely. We advise you focus on business outcomes. No soft stuff.”
In each situation, I took this advice with several grains of salt. In fact, you might say I ignored it entirely. Sure, the coaching focused on outcomes at each stage of the program. I don’t know any other way to do it. But it also included the soft stuff–quite a bit of it–and the results were universally positive.
In all five instances, I began the first face-to-face meeting by asking these executives to tell me (among other things) what gets them out of bed in the morning and what keeps them up at night. All of these “hard-nosed” leaders answered the questions and did so in a way that felt real to me. I learned about the twists and turns in their careers, their early role models, the causes they cherish, the people (and pets) who matter most to them, and the disappointments and anxieties that eat away at them.
This month we explore a powerful way to create successful organizations and happy people: increasing flow. No, not the flow of cash (though that doesn’t hurt!), but the experience of doing what we do best and loving every second of it. New research suggests that when people are in flow in the workplace, they’re more engaged, and their organizations produce better results. To help me understand flow and what it means for leadership, I sat down with Bill Hefferman and chatted over smoked salmon omelets at a restaurant in Northwest Portland (Oregon) called Besaw’s Cafe. Bill works at Intel Corporation, where he is highly sought by managers interested in using a strengths-based approach to elevate team performance.
What is flow and why does it matter in the workplace?
Bill Hefferman (BH): Flow is the state of peak performance, a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. People lose track of space and time. It is a time of high productivity, high creativity, and high innovation. Flow occurs when there is a great match between a person’s strengths and the challenge at hand. Strength equals competence combined with passion. There is positive affect, often deep enjoyment that goes with it but not necessarily in the moment flow is happening because flow is an emotion-less state. You’re so engrossed in what you’re doing that you don’t feel emotion in the midst of those flow activities. It’s when you step out that you say, “Wow, this is so great!”
When are you in flow?
BH: I’m in flow when I’m presenting to a large group of people on a topic I know well and care about, when I think the information I am sharing is of use to the audience, and when they are at least neutral to somewhat receptive about the topic.
Practicing leadership is tough. It involves both learning something new and unlearning something habitual. Thus many leaders find practicing itself to be uncomfortable if not painful.
Last month we explored one upshot of this: Fakery, which is when people say things that are completely out of alignment with what they think and feel inside. This led to a simple injunction: Don’t be a Faker.
This month, we look at different phenomenon: the Sincerity Police, which you’ll recall are those critical voices inside and outside of you saying that unless you are 100% sincere, you are being fake. These voices are a tremendous barrier to practice and, therefore, to more skillful leadership. That’s why I advise:
Accelerate past the Sincerity Police
Contrary to popular assumption, I believe that sincerity in communication is not all-or-nothing. At any given moment, we can be 100 percent sincere or 0 percent sincere, but these are not the only options. Sincerity actually exists along a spectrum. This is because human beings are complex. Although we live in the present, we hold within us both the legacy of our pasts and unrealized intentions for the future.
Last month’s issue highlighted the importance of practicing leadership every day. We looked at the Rule of 300/3000: 300 repetitions produce bodily memory. 3000 repetitions allow you to fully embody the new skill. This is as true for becoming competent at difficult conversations or framing decisions strategically as it is for learning to drive a stick shift car. Thus, I advised: start practicing today.
Now, here’s the rub: practicing a skill, particularly something new, is frequently uncomfortable and sometimes darn painful. A major reason Americans fear public speaking more than death is that most of us have little practice at it, and most of the practice we do have is as beginners. This is true of so many activities, even those we look forward to with excitement. I remember how thrilled I was a decade ago to take classes in swing dancing, first in Ann Arbor, then in San Francisco. The energizing music, the elegant moves, and the romantic environment-all of it felt hip and fun. It was also a chance to get a taste of an earlier era. Yet my actual experience in class was about 85 percent embarrassment at my own awkwardness and 15 percent glee when my dance partner and I actually pulled off a move. This was on a good day.
I remember this experience when I ask the leaders I coach to try something new. As with swing dancing, most shifts in leadership behavior involve both starting something new and ending something habitual. Consider, for example, someone who has made a commitment to negotiating around interests rather than positions (as described in Getting to Yes and its successor books). He not only has to learn to assess his interests, listen for others’ interests, and speak from a place of win-win. He also has to unlearn his old habits of unconsciously identifying with narrow positions, listening for whether or not the other person supports his position (and what it will take to persuade them), and speaking from a place of win-lose. These habits are neither minor nor new.