Leadership


I just conducted some training with my company’s leadership team on building high performance teams.  The first topic I covered was the importance of choosing the right people for your team and putting them in roles that maximize their impact.  As I researched the topic of putting people in roles that maximize their impact, I came across the following quote from Albert Einstein:

  “Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Unfortunately, we miss the boat on this one in many workplaces.  Rather than putting the “fish” in a position where it can swim, we try harder to make the fish climb a tree.  We offer it books on tree climbing, send it to a tree climbing seminar, and buy it tree climbing equipment – whatever that may be.  After throwing all of these resources at equipping the fish to climb, we conclude that the fish is an underperformer.

The poor fish feels awful.  It knows what it needs to do, it has been educated on how to do it, and it has tools to make climbing easier, but it still struggles.  Its confidence is shattered.  It starts to believe that it is stupid and this belief is affirmed by a frustrated manager that can’t get what they want out of their associate.  Usually this ends in one of two ways:  either the fish goes on an improvement plan and performs marginally enough to just get by or the fish loses its job.  Either way, we have an unhappy fish and an organization that goes on with an unmet need.

What if the manager took the time to find out what the fish did well and left the tree climbing to the squirrel that is currently working in the swimming department?  I’m taking a little liberty with my example, but this sort of thing happens every day in the workplace – fish are told to climb trees while squirrels are told to swim and both are frustrated because they can’t do their job well.

If you are a manager, you owe it to your team to make sure you have people in the right position to maximize their gifts.  There are few things more rewarding than finding the right job for the right person and just stepping out of the way and letting them work in their element.

But don’t just think of this from a leader’s standpoint.  You may be that fish desperately trying to climb a tree.  This can be very dangerous for talented people who are capable doing numerous things well even if it isn’t what they were made to do.  They can improvise enough to perform at a satisfactory level, so the issue of them being a tree-climbing fish is never really brought to light.  The problem with this is that they will go on being an adequate tree climber when they could have been a masterful swimmer.

Know your giftedness and spend as much time as you possibly can using it. 

It was a typical late summer morning.  At the time, I lived in central Florida and worked at a manufacturing plant that made needles and syringes.  I know – exciting.  As I walked between rows of mold press machines, the supervisor of that department stopped me and asked if I knew anything about the plane that hit the World Trade Center. 

I hadn’t heard anything about it.  In my mind, I pictured a small private plane that got off course or had some kind of mechanical failure and hit a building.  I was busy doing something that must have been irrelevant because I can’t remember what it was now.  I didn’t give the news a whole lot of thought and got back to my daily irrelevancy.  A little while later, someone else told me that a second plane hit the other tower.

I decided to go to a conference room that had cable and see what was going on.  It was there, along with a handful of other managers, that I realized the planes that hit the towers were anything but small private planes.  Moments later, the news reported that a plane hit the Pentagon.  Not long after that, the South Tower collapsed.  Almost immediately, the news came of Flight 93 crashing.  My mind started racing.  What was going on?  Who was doing this?  What was going to happen next?  Was this the end?

Finally, I watched as many of you did, as the North Tower collapsed.  I didn’t know what to think at this point.  I felt anger, pity, fear, and confusion simultaneously.  By this time, I realized that whatever it was I was doing all of sudden seemed completely unimportant.  For about 24 hours, we were numb – our emotions drained, we just watched the news for more information and kept asking the same question – why?

I also remember those days and weeks that immediately followed September 11, 2001.  For a little while, we were nice to each other.  We talked.  We listened.  We cared.  Heck, even Republicans and Democrats stood side by side and sang God Bless America together.  All of the sudden our differences didn’t seem to be that big of a deal.  We were more interested in helping each other out than putting each other down.

Let’s not wait for the next tragedy to remind us that we’re all in this thing together.  E pluribus unum.

What if the private sector acted in the same manner as our government?  Could you imagine a board room where the meeting participants with one opinion sat on one side of the room and the people with another opinion sat on the other side of the room and the two sides made little if any effort to work together for the good of the company?  Now let’s say that the company had not turned a profit in 11 years and was in debt to the tune of about $55 trillion?  Would you invest in that company?  Guess what… you already do! 

I’m not going to get political here.  If you want a political blog, I’m sure you can find one with ease.  In fact, I’m being anti-political.  I think it’s time the American people stop being political and start being practical.  We can start with our elected officials.  The problem with politics today is not a product of the Republicans, the Democrats, the Libertarians, the Tea Party, the Whips, Team Jacob, or Team Edward.  The problem with politics is politics!

We have career politicians who have spent most of their lives in a fantasy land of “public service” where they have never experienced the repercussions of the very laws they conceive and vote on.  I say get them out, establish term limits for Congress, and fill the vacant seats with people who understand what it’s like to be unemployed, taxed to the brink of bankruptcy, accountable for their decisions, and frustrated with political rhetoric.  Of course that will never happen because Congress would have to vote on giving themselves term limits, but I think it would be one of the best things to happen to US politics since we signed that piece of paper back in 1776.

The primaries will be heating up soon and the propaganda machines of both parties will really get cranked up with the presidential election next year.  I just wish the parties would put as much effort into responsibly governing the American people as they do into trying to win elections and make the other person look bad.

During the last election, there was much discussion about how important that election was and the need for unifying the parties.  Well, the chasm between the parties has only grown deeper and wider, the economy is on shaky ground, and people are even more frustrated than they were three years ago.  Some blame the President, some blame the Tea Party, some blame El Nino, but I put the blame squarely on the political system.  We’re getting further away from the ideals of our founding fathers and there is no indication that we will change direction soon.  I have disagreements with people at work.  I disagree with people in my church.  I disagree with people in my family.  I even disagree with myself sometimes.  But we make it work – those disagreements do not lead to stalemates of ideology.  We have to find common ground.  We sometimes even have to compromise for the greater good.  I know those aren’t always the best tactics for maintaining constituents, but leadership is not a popularity contest.

There are some projects that I begin and later wonder why in the world I ever started them… only later to be glad I finished them.  We had a gorgeous weekend with temperatures in the low 80s (as opposed to the upper 90s as they have been for what seems like the better part of a year now).  The sky was blue with those big-puffy clouds that look like cotton balls floating through the air and a gentle breeze that persisted just enough to keep it comfortable. 

I decided to tackle a job I’ve been putting off for a while primarily because I knew it would be backbreaking work.  Our driveway crosses a creek and once had large stones along the bank leading down to the creek.  Heavy rains swelled the creek a few years ago and deposited mud and sediment all over the stones.  Over time, their weight caused them to sink deeper until they were out of sight.  Eventually there was enough soil on them for some weeds to take hold and … you know the rest of the story.

Inspired by the beautiful weather, I decided to get to work on this project.  First, I cleared off all the weeds (did I mention that we have rattlesnakes and copperheads in our yard?), and then I began unearthing the stones.  They were all sizes – some no bigger than a baseball and some about the size of a large watermelon.  All together, they weighed several tons.

This was grueling work.   I had to stand in mud on a very steep slope and pull with all my might to retrieve the stones from the uncooperative earth.  Not only did I have to deal with the additional weight of the mud, but also it created a suction that would not let go of the stones.  As I dug deeper, I found that there were about three layers of stones awaiting rescue.   This is the type of work only really, really bad prisoners have to do on black and white movies.

My plan was to pull out the stones, stack them up in a few strategic locations, lay down landscape fabric, and put the stones back in to place.  After a few short minutes, I forgot how nice the weather was as I wiped sweat out of my eyes with a muddy glove.  I know I’ve mentioned how sweaty I am before, but I have to comment on it again.  It’s uncanny.  If I wanted to, I am quite certain I could grow mushrooms on my body. 

After several hours of grueling work, I completed my task – and it looks great.  Of course, no one but I will fully appreciate the finished product because no one else knows how much work went into it – as I write this I feel my back preparing to launch a protest against me.

This seems like a good metaphor for leadership to me.  Whether you’re leading coworkers, friends, your spouse, children, or even your dog, you first have to know that there is something in that person (or dog) waiting to be unearthed.  There is something just below the surface that no one else can see.  Getting it out will take a lot of work.  It will be messy.  It may even come out muddy and slimy.  However, if you maintain your faith and you keep working, the payoff is a beautiful finished product for which you have full appreciation because you know what went into bringing it out for the world to see.

Don’t be afraid to sweat and get dirty.  Sweat and grime are frequently prerequisites for beauty.

We went to a corn maze for the first time ever last weekend.  When you consider that I lived in places like Indiana and Nebraska, I guess it’s a little surprising that I’ve never been to a corn maze before.  Then again, a corn maze in Nebraska would probably take weeks to escape. 

I lead the college and career group at our church, so we met up with them right around dusk on Saturday night at a corn maze near our house.  This is a suburban area and the maze was on a relatively small property (around six or seven acres).  I drive past this maze just about every day and frequently wonder how the field could be big enough for a maze.

We paid the person at the entrance and she gave us a map and an explanation.  I always wonder why people feel compelled to explain a map.  I mean… it’s a map.  You figure out where you are, where you want to go, and connect the dots.

It was a perfect night for a corn maze.  A massive orange moon hung low on the horizon just above the cornstalks.  It looked like a giant pumpkin in the sky.  Being a guy, I pocketed the map and ventured into the maze.  How difficult could it be?  After a series of dead ends and a making a couple of circles, I thought it was time to consult the map.

There was one problem.  Since I wasn’t paying attention to where we were going previously, I had no idea where we were on the map.  That’s when it occurred to me that you can know where you want to go and you can have a map on how to get there, but if you don’t know where you are, you’re still lost.

How many people are in the exact same situation in their careers, in their relationships, or concerning their finances?  We know where we want to be and there seems to be an endless supply of maps out there, but if we don’t take the time figure out where we are, we’ll just be stuck in a maze.

We eventually made it out of the maze (after about an hour), and interestingly I lead two other groups out as well.  When we know where we are, where we want to go, and understand how to get there, people tend to follow.

Olivia had her first soccer game last week (number 13 in the picture).  As I stated in a previous post, this is one of those leagues where they don’t keep score (we won 9-5).  All of the other girls played in a league last year, but this is Olivia’s first year.  I don’t think her lack of experience is that much of a handicap.  Essentially, everyone on the field runs to the ball and attempts to kick it… sometimes in the direction of their goal.

After a while, Olivia ran away from the ball and started looking at me on the sideline.  When a play brought her near to where I was sitting, she whispered, “I can’t hear you, daddy.”  I told her that I wasn’t saying anything and she needed to listen to Coach.

For some reason, that quiet plea for help was a little painful for me.  She was running around, obviously in need of direction, and the place that she usually went to for direction (me) was silent.  I felt like I was failing her, but if soccer instruction was what she needed; her coach would be a better source to fill that need. 

I guess this is one of many situations to come where I have to yield to another person’s authority to meet my child’s needs.  I got to thinking about this and it’s not that far removed from the world of management.  While I am submitting to another person’s authority, I am not delegating responsibility.  I am still responsible for making sure that the authority figures in her life are credible sources of authority and I am responsible for ensuring that listens to, respects, and is obedient to those credible sources of authority.

Fortunately, her soccer coach is great.  He knows infinitely more about soccer than I ever will (giving him credibility) and is wonderful with the girls (making him respectable).  I dread the day that we have to deal an authority figure that is either not credible or respectable.  I know it is inevitable (especially with my standards).  I just hope I have the wisdom to handle it well.