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Be A Better Leader: Be Excellent (by doing what works)

“Be Excellent” is the fifth 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

Be A Better Leader: Be Excellent (by being intentional)

“Be Excellent” is the fifth 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

Be A Better Leader: Be Excellent (by being flexible)

“Be Excellent” is the fifth 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

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

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

“We cannot ignore the fact that life throws curve balls, and that much of what happens around us and to us is unpredictable. Try as we might to prevent it or avoid it, change happens, and if we are not willing and able to have a degree of flexibility, we will be frustrated, disappointed, and defeated. To be an effective leader, then, you must be able to be flexible. Doing this will require that you are willing to give up control (specifically, over those things that you can’t control), willing to do something different with positive (not a defeated) attitude, and willing to learn to become more creative. Developing these characteristics will help you to have the flexibility you need, in order to lead well in a changing world.”

Be A Better Leader: Be Excellent (by being flexible)

“Be Excellent” is the fifth 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 Knowledgeable.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Excellent,” we will be talking about the need to be flexible, be intentional, and be competent, and then I will share some thoughts on a recommended related book or two.

In the 1993 blockbuster movie Jurassic Park, actor Jeff Goldblum played a character named Ian Malcolm, who was a “chaos mathematician.” His character’s role was to apply the ideas of chaos theory to the operation of the dinosaur-themed amusement park, with the hope of being able to give approval so that the park could move forward. However, in his view, chaos theory purported that everything is unpredictable, because tiny environmental factors and influences mean that nothing ever happens the same way twice. The result was that he believed the forces that the Jurassic Park scientists were trying to control were, in fact, uncontrollable.

The reality is, life is unpredictable and constantly changing, and those changes are uncontrollable. Sure, we can maintain some semblance of control with planning and structure, but there are always circumstances and factors that are unexpected and that we can’t control, like when you drive over a nail and get a flat tire, or you get in an accident caused by another driver, or when severe weather cancels your plans, and so on. These types of things force you to change in some way, but if you cannot adapt to change, you will live a life of eternal frustration. So, since you can’t avoid it, what you must do instead is learn to navigate it, by learning to become flexible, and there are three things you can do to help you with this.

First, relinquish control. It begins by accepting the fact that you cannot control everything that happens. It’s foolish to think that you can. This truth has been reflected often in the financial industry, where unpredictable events impact the value of stocks. Malcom Gladwell, in his book What the Dog Saw (2010), discussed this in one of the book’s articles, entitled “Blowing Up.” In this article he discussed the financial practice of investors, and suggested – according to his interview with one particular advisor – that you must accept that you can’t predict the unexpected event, therefore you must always be prepared for losses.

A number of years ago, I read a book by Peter Schwartz called Inevitable Surprises (2004), in which Schwartz made the claim that certain future surprises were actually inevitable, and therefore could be predicted and harnessed. One of his primary examples was the “inevitable” impending increase of retirees from the large baby boomer generation, which he then identified as a resource to be tapped into. However, what he could not predict was the change in longevity of life, combined with a later retirement ages, which meant that the expected volunteer force of retirees has not emerged (ironically, an increase in volunteerism has occurred among the younger generation, not the older). The point is, you cannot control unpredictable events, and therefore you must be willing and able to accept that lack of control, in order to keep it from defeating you.

Second, be willing to try something different. If you know that some things will happen outside of your control that change your plans, you need to be willing to change your plans and do something different. This is a lesson I learned early in my administrative experience, in the first school in which I served as a headmaster. There was an expectation that I implement noticeable change, because the school had been struggling, and so I began to develop and initiate a strategic plan. However, as you might expect, some of my plans did not work well, because unexpected circumstances would influence the outcome, or people would resist, or it simply didn’t work the way I thought it would. I could tell that people were watching me to see how I would respond to these obstacles and unpredictable events, and so I got in the habit of saying, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll do something different.” This was not only for their benefit, but also for mine, to reassure both them and me that it wasn’t an end, only a change. It helped them to be willing to try something different, and in the process of trying something different, we learned, improved and found the best solutions.

Jim Collins, in Great by Choice (2011), addresses a similar idea when he talks about firing bullets then cannonballs. The idea, he explains, is that effective leaders spend a small amount of resources trying out a variety of ideas (firing bullets), dismissing the ones that don’t work well and pouring more resources into the ones that do (firing cannonballs). We often don’t know with certainty what is going to effective and produce the desired outcome, and we also don’t know what unexpected factors will hinder our plans, therefore we ought to be willing to try ideas and test plans with the understanding that, for various reasons, it may not work (either at this time, or in this place, or under these circumstances) and so we need to be able to let it go, change, and do something different. It may mean changing the time, or place, or circumstances, or perhaps even throwing it away and starting over, but regardless, it means being willing to do something different.

Third, develop creativity. We are not all naturally creative in our thought process or in our expression, but we can all do things that help us to become more creative. When we develop creativity, looking for new ways of thinking, doing, and expressing, we begin to startle people (in a good way), helping us to get and hold their attention. I learned a little about this when I first became a history teacher. I felt like I had had history teachers in the past who were very boring, and so I wanted to get the attention of my students and make history an enjoyable and valuable class. I remember early in the year, in an American History course, when I was teaching on Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the new world, trying to explain what it felt like to be on his ship sailing across the ocean with a hope but not a certainty, when I suddenly leaped on top of my desk and yelled “Land ho!” as loud as I could. The class jumped, laughed, and then engaged in an active discussion. By being unexpected, I helped to develop an interest in the course.

Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind (2006), discusses the value of creative thinking and its importance to leadership and progress. He proposes that those who can learn to think creatively will have an advantage in a global marketplace. He then offers six “senses” that are necessary for cultivating creativity, and provides practical advice on how to develop these skills. The main point is that creativity is skill that can be nurtured and grown, and is necessary for growth and leadership in the world of information and concepts in which we live.

We cannot ignore the fact that life throws curve balls, and that much of what happens around us and to us is unpredictable. Try as we might to prevent it or avoid it, change happens, and if we are not willing and able to have a degree of flexibility, we will be frustrated, disappointed, and defeated. To be an effective leader, then, you must be able to be flexible. Doing this will require that you are willing to give up control (specifically, over those things that you can’t control), willing to do something different with positive (not a defeated) attitude, and willing to learn to become more creative. Developing these characteristics will help you to have the flexibility you need, in order to lead well in a changing world.

“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.