Archive for April 2017

“Be intentional about knowing your culture, knowing your community, and becoming a part of it. Don’t spend your time fighting it. Don’t try to be where you’re not. Don’t try to make here, there, or there, here. You are where are, so don’t try to make it someplace else. Learn what makes your context what it is and enjoy it, and use it to the advantage of your organization.”

Be A Better Leader: Be Knowledgeable (by being aware of where you are)

“Be Knowledgeable” is the fourth category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Relational,” Be Trustworthy,” and “Be Excellent.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Knowledgeable,” we will be talking about the need to be teachable, be a learner, be a reader, and be aware, and then I will share some thoughts on a recommended related book or two.

I grew up in a rural Midwestern community, and had very few opportunities to travel outside of the Midwest. I loved where I lived, and thoroughly enjoyed those things that were part of the unique surrounding culture, things like Coney Dogs and Vernor’s, Ginger Ale, snow days in the winter, water skiing in the summer, and the brilliant beauty of the changing colors of Fall. But then, in my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to take a trip to Europe, traveling to seven countries in two and half weeks. I was given the privilege of experiencing new cultures, and I threw myself into it – I ate waffles in Belgium and pastries in France, I bought a watch in Switzerland, I toured castles and Nazi concentration camps and watched a Glockenspiel in Germany, and I stood on the mountainside in Austria where Julie Andrews sang the opening song in “The Sound of Music.”

The result of this trip was that my eyes were opened to new experiences beyond what I had grown up with, and learned to enjoy new worlds. Without completely understanding the importance of this growth opportunity, I learned the value of immersing myself in new cultures, and I came home with a desire to fully enjoy every place I would live or visit in the future. So when I married into a Latin family, I embraced the café con leche ,rice pudding, mofongo, tostones, and arroz con pollo, and I welcomed the new traditions, like celebrating Three Kings Day. When we moved to Philadelphia, we looked for the best place to get a Philly Cheesesteak, and ran up the stairs at the Museum of Art to reenact the iconic scene from Rocky. When we visited New York City, we made sure to get a pizza from Famous Original Ray’s and a cheesecake from Junior’s, and when we visited Chicago, we ate Chicago Dogs and Giordano’s pizza, visited the Navy Pier, and shopped on Michigan Avenue. Most recently, when we moved to a college town in Texas, we began to enjoy TexMex food, BBQ, and tacos, and threw our support behind the college team.

One of the life lessons I have learned is that each place I have lived or visited in my life has a special uniqueness. Every place has it’s own regional cuisine, particular cultural features and traditions, seasonal beauty, and identifiable characteristics. No one place has it all, and even though you can bring ideas and things that you like when you go someplace new, you can’t transplant everything you like from one place to another, so I have learned to immerse myself in the culture and community wherever I am, choosing to take advantage of what makes that place what it is. I see the sights, I eat the food, I embrace the traditions, I support the businesses; in short, I choose to enjoy and become a part of where I live.

The same principle is true for organizations. No two are the same, and each has its own culture, characteristics, and community. Even though, as a leader, you play an important role in shaping organizational culture and can bring in new ideas that you learned and implemented elsewhere, it is also incredibly important that you understand the culture in which you function. You can’t transplant history and culture (I know; I tried and it blew up in my face), but you can affect it if you first understand it. Therefore, you can’t and shouldn’t make it something it’s not. Instead, realize where you are, embrace it, understand it, and immerse yourself in it. Become a part of the organization, an insider and not an outsider.

In your organization or business, be intentional about knowing your culture, knowing your community, and becoming a part of it. Don’t spend your time fighting it. Don’t try to be where you’re not. Don’t try to make here, there, or there, here. You are where are, so don’t try to make it someplace else. Learn what makes your context what it is and enjoy it, and use it to the advantage of your organization.

“Read books that challenge your thinking, books that help you to learn in your particular field of work, books that help you to grow as a leader, books that broaden your general knowledge. All of these types of books shape your thought process and ideas and stretch the muscle of your brain. In the process, they can help you to become a more knowledgeable and effective leader, because you will learn.”

Be a Better Leader: Be Knowledgeable (by being a reader)

“Be Knowledgeable” is the fourth category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Relational,” Be Trustworthy,” and “Be Excellent.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Knowledgeable,” we will be talking about the need to be teachable, be a learner, be a reader, and be aware, and then I will share some thoughts on a recommended related book or two.

When I was in high school, I remember my father often sharing nuggets of wisdom with people (he still does). One such pearl was a statement he would make about the importance of reading: “If you can read well, you can learn to do anything well.” He would make this comment when the conversation around the dinner table was focused on one subject or another in school, or how one of us – his children – was doing in a particular class, or what we were learning. He would say something about the value of that subject, but then he would add his statement about the value of reading.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that I grew up in a family of readers. When I was little, my father read to us every night (I can remember listening to him read the Little House on the Prairie books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I have since read to my own children, along with the Chronicles of Narnia books, by C.S. Lewis). As I grew older, it was not uncommon, on a quiet evening, to find us all sitting in the living room, each reading a good book. And I have continued to read as much as I can as an adult; although, to be honest, there have been periods when I found it nearly impossible to find the time to read.

As I reflect over the time that has passed since my childhood, I can identify several books and/or authors that have had a significant influence on me. The Bible would be at the top of the list; as a follower of Jesus, it has shaped my worldview (and continues to do so), and profoundly impacts how I understand and navigate the world. Reading most of Louis L’amour’s western fiction as a teenager helped to shape my independence and determination, and influenced my perceptions of the characteristics of rugged manhood. When I read Earnest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in my 10th grade English class, the poem by John Donne that was referenced at the beginning of the book and from which the book gets its name, struck me in a way that I have never forgotten: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Although I didn’t realize at the time, this one poem helped me to understand the importance of relationship and connection, which has in turn shaped my views on leadership (I have quoted that line a number of times in conversations about leadership and organizations). I could add a few others to this list of personally influential books: The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien; Man to Man, by Charles Swindoll, All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot; and even Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Waterson, and Gary Larson’s The Far Side had an effect on my sense of humor (or, perhaps better stated, reflected my sense of humor).

When I was working toward my Ph.D. in leadership, two books in particular had an effect on me early in the program. The first was called Leadership and the New Science, by Margaret Wheatley. This book explored the scientific principles of Chaos Theory, and translated those ideas into leadership principles. The impact of this book for me was not so much the content and the leadership principles, as it was the fact that, in reading the book, I began to make connections in my own mind between truths of the Bible and effective leadership principles and practices. I don’t believe that Wheatley is a Christian author, and I’m pretty sure that was not her intent in the writing of the book, but it was a turning point in the way that I read books on leadership. The second important book for me was called The Making of a Leader: Leadership Emergence Theory, by J. Robert Clinton. This book presented a theory on the formation of leadership that, as I read, resonated deeply with me because it reflected precisely how I viewed my own development of leadership. As I read through his stages of leadership emergence, I could look back over my life and see that I had followed the same process he was describing. In fact, the theory of leadership presented in this book became the supporting theory for my doctoral dissertation.

I continue to read regularly, and with variety. My personal habit is to be reading four or five books at any given time – typically one on leadership, one on Christianity or spiritual growth, one on history or general knowledge, a work of classic literature, and a book of enjoyable popular fiction (at the time I wrote this, I was in the process of reading The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Chabris and Simons; Disciplines of a Godly Man, by Hughes, Victory at Yorktown, by Gingrich, and Don Quixote, by Cervantes). Some books I read purely for entertainment and enjoyment, but some I read in order to intentionally learn and grow. For those books (usually the books on leadership and the books on spiritual growth) I take notes on 4” x 6” note cards, summarizing and outlining the main ideas of each chapter, and I keep those sets of note cards stored alphabetically by book title in a file box to keep them handy for reference at a later date.

You don’t have to read in the same way that I do, but you should be reading. You should read books that challenge your thinking, books that help you to learn in your particular field of work, books that help you to grow as a leader, books that broaden your general knowledge. All of these types of books shape your thought process and ideas and stretch the muscle of your brain. In the process, they can help you to become a more knowledgeable and effective leader, because you will learn. So I would challenge and encourage you to be disciplined and intentional about reading. Read for enjoyment. Read to learn. Read.

 

 

“Becoming a learner will stretch your mind, build your knowledge, and open your eyes to new insights. It will help you to make connections between ideas and to understand people. It will help you to be a more effective leader. Leaders are learners. Be a learner.”

Be a Better Leader: Be Knowledgeable (by being a learner)

“Be Knowledgeable” is the fourth category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Relational,” Be Trustworthy,” and “Be Excellent.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Knowledgeable,” we will be talking about the need to be teachable, be a learner, be a reader, and be aware, and then I will share some thoughts on a recommended related book or two.

Years ago, my family was having a get-together at my parents’ home, and while we were sitting around the dinner table, my dad made a comment about someday wanting to build a deck on the back of the house. One of my two brothers suggested that we do it the next day, because there likely would be very few times that we would all be together at the same time again. So, my dad sketched out the plans, and the next morning we went to the lumber store, picked up all the supplies, and then the four of us proceeded to spend the next eight hours building a large deck. What a great memory!

When we were all finished, my dad commented on how he could see certain attributes of each of our personalities throughout the process. One of the observations that he made about me was that I was constantly asking questions, trying to understand why were doing things in a certain way, and learning from the experience. And that observation was an accurate reflection. In fact, on the StrengthsFinder profile, “learner” is one of my top characteristics. As I have continued to study, learn, and grow in my leadership development, I have seen that this is a common characteristic of effective leadership: leaders are learners.

Bennis and Thomas, in an article originally published in the Harvard Business Review, found this to be true in all of their interview subjects for their research. Their interviewees all described opportunities for reinvention that came from transformative experiences, and all of them placed great value on the learning that took place from those experiences. The authors went on to describe this learning by saying, “In the extreme, the capacity for reinvention comes to resemble eternal youth – a kind of vigor, openness, and an enduring capacity for wonder that is the antithesis of stereotyped old age . . . this [is a] quality, a delight in lifelong learning, which every leader displays, regardless of age . . . it’s an appetite for learning and self-development, a curiosity and passion for life” (Bennis & Thomas, Crucibles of Leadership, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, p. 106). What they discovered is that leaders are constantly learning, and doing so with passion and enthusiasm.

I have often told my own children that you learn just about everything from experience – either your own experience or someone else’s, but it’s usually far less painful to learn from someone else’s experience. However, the pain (or joy) of learning from your own experience can often be a much more effective teacher. In another article originally published in the Harvard Business Review, John Kotter pointed out that “leaders almost always have had opportunities during their twenties and thirties to actually try to lead, to take a risk, and to learn from both triumphs and failures. Such learning seems essential in developing a wide range of leadership skills and perspectives. These opportunities also teach people something about both the difficulty of leadership and its potential for producing change” (Kotter, What Leaders Really Do, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, p.53).   A key word in that last sentence is “potential” – the potential for growth and change is there, but only if the leader learns. Therefore, if the leader is a learner, he or she will learn from every opportunity, and in that process will continually become a more effective leader. But if that person is not a learner, he is destined to repeat the same mistakes and will fail to develop.

In essence, learning needs to be part of the nature of an effective leader. Expanding a broad, general knowledge base; increasing an understanding of human behavior; studying culture and history on both a macro-level (globally and nationally) and a micro-level (organizationally); learning more about leadership; taking up new hobbies and interests; asking questions; exploring, discovering, reading, and engaging the mind; all can be part of the growth and development of a leader. Becoming a learner will stretch your mind, build your knowledge, and open your eyes to new insights. It will help you to make connections between ideas and to understand people. It will help you to be a more effective leader. Leaders are learners. Be a learner.

 

Bennis, W. G., and Thomas, R. J., “Crucibles of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Kotter, J. P., “What Leaders Really Do,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.