Tag Archive for Strenghts-Based Leadership

Connect the Dots

Most of us probably remember doing “connect the dots” picture puzzles when we were young.  The page would have dots all over the paper, usually numbered in a sequence.  The task was to place your pencil tip (or crayon) on the first dot, draw a line to the second dot, then another line from the second dot to the third, and so on, until all the dots were connected.  At that point a recognizable picture had emerged (at least, if you connected the right dots together, it did).  The reason they formed that picture was because they were not a random smattering of dots; rather, they were each specifically and intentionally a point on a bigger picture, and therefore, connecting those dots allowed the picture to take shape.

Astronomers do something similar by grouping stars together (constellations) and drawing imaginary lines between those stars in such a way as to form a picture or a symbol.  This makes it easier to identify and remember particular groupings and locations, relative to direction, season, and time.  The real significance of the picture is not the picture itself, but rather the particular arrangement, and the connectedness of the stars in that arrangement.  In other words, these specific stars appear in this particular place, in relation to each other, at this time of the night and year.  This knowledge is what was used by mariners of the past to navigate ships, providing a map in the sky for direction and location.

One of the skills that an effective leader learns to harness is connecting the dots.  Generally, a leader is responsible for providing and shaping vision, which requires the ability to see and communicate the big picture. Part of seeing the big picture includes seeing how various pieces fit together to form that picture.  It is an understanding that certain events, actions, and ideas are going to complement each other in a way that produces a positive impact.  Therefore a good leader is able to identify those connections in order to harness their connectedness.  He also helps others to recognize those connections.  In an article originally published in the Harvard Business Review, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas describe this as the importance of grasping context, saying, “The ability to grasp context implies an ability to weigh a welter of factors, ranging from how very different groups of people interpret a gesture to being able to put a situation in perspective. Without this, leaders are utterly lost, because they cannot connect with their constituents” (p. 112).

Rath and Conchie, in Strengths-Based Leadership (2008), also speak to this when they categorize 34 leadership strengths into four basic categories, and then identify one of those strengths as Connectedness.  They explain, “people strong in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things. They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason” (p. 139). This involves helping people to see how various pieces are parts of a whole, or part of a bigger picture.  The person with this ability recognizes interrelatedness between events, people, or both. It is the ability to connect the dots and then help others see the connection.

This happens to be one of my particular strengths (it showed up as one of my top five when I took the StrengthsFinder profile).  Part of the reason stems from my faith in the sovereignty of God, which in turn leads to confidence that things don’t happen by chance. Part of the reason simply stems from an ability to recognize connections.  The realization of this emerged over time, and eventually I understood that it was one of the things that made me more effective as a leader.  I could identify factors in the environment that were impacting outcomes, or see how specific individuals were influencing culture, or spot the connection between seemingly unconnected events.  This in turn helped me to understand how to shape vision, or make adjustments, or communicate information.

For example, when I began working in one school, I discovered that the students as a whole were performing poorly on standardized tests, like the SAT and the ACT.  As I reviewed curriculum, I could also see that many of the classroom tests were focused on details and memorization, but at the expense of critical thinking and interacting with ideas.  I also learned that most students did not take practice standardized tests (like the PSAT or PLAN), because it was voluntary, and so they little familiarity with those tests.  Although those pieces were not the only reasons, I could see the connection between those factors and poor test scores.  My response was to create tests that improved critical thinking and reasoning, require all students to take the PSAT and PLAN, and create and institute a Test Prep course.  The result was a notable improvement in average scores.  But it began because I recognized the connections.

In two different organizations, I experienced an initial lack of trust, and resistance to my efforts.  When I took the time to do some research and understand some of the history and culture, I learned in each place that the organization had been through a period of harshness, excessive control, and poor treatment of employees.  It was clear that there was a connection between their past experience and their responses to me.  An understanding of that connection helped me to determine my own actions and responses, enabling me to intentionally restore and rebuild trust.

More recently, connecting the dots of environmental factors led to changes that I implemented in the instructional process.  Over the last ten years, I could see that young people were being affected by technology.  The onsite of the Internet, with accessibility to information, social media, and electronic devices are all factors that combined to influence how children interact with the world around them.  Global communication became possible, making the world smaller.  Technology was incorporated into the workplace environment in many fields.  When I connected these dots, the conclusion was clear – digital integration needed to be part of the classroom.  As a result, I initiated a 1:1 program, one in which each student carried an electronic device into the classroom as an educational tool, and teachers incorporated the use of those devices in the learning process.

The lesson for you is this: you will be more effective if you can learn to connect the dots.  Find the connections, and use those connections to make decisions that will result in positive changes and improvements, decisions that will move you and the organization forward.  And here’s a tip: it’s easier to see connections if you can zoom out and see the big picture.

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

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. Gallup Press: New York, NY.

Taking Your Team from Dysfunctional to Functional

I have heard it said (maybe in jest, but maybe not) that there is a little bit of dysfunction in all of us. Whether or not that is true, we probably have all experienced dysfunction in some context, mostly likely in the environment of relationship.  In fact, typically when people are referring to “dysfunctional,” they are applying the idea in some way to people and relationships.  It follows, then, that because they are made up of people in relationship with each other, the same idea can apply to teams.

Peter Northouse defines a team as “a specific type of group composed of members who are interdependent, who share common goals, and who must coordinate their activities to accomplish these goals.” (2013, p. 287)  At times, these “groups,” or teams, seem to be wonderful, but sometimes they seem to be very dysfunctional.  People on the same team will attack and undermine each other, exhibit bizarre behaviors that interfere with the work, selfishly promote themselves at the expense of others, and reflect “disorders” in the dynamics of the team that compare to disorders and dysfunction in family dynamics.  I have personally experienced both extremes – from functional to dysfunctional – and found such great value in being able to work with a good team, but such great frustration and difficulty when working with a poor team.

So, then, what makes a team functional and effective?  Again according to Northouse, good teams fulfill two primary functions, one related to tasks, and the other related to people.  He succinctly says, “Two critical functions of team effectiveness are . . . performance (task accomplishment) and development (maintenance of team),” (p. 299) adding that “superior team leadership focuses constantly on both task and maintenance functions; both types of leadership behaviors (task-focused and person-focused) have been found to be related to perceived team effectiveness.” (p. 294)  Simply stated, a team that is functional accomplishes tasks well and works together well, while the people on these teams are being developed.

When it comes to performance, or task accomplishment, the benefit of a team (as opposed to an individual) is found in understanding that a team brings a more complete combination of strengths.  Recent leadership study affirms the “myth of the complete leader” (the idea that one individual is good at every leadership skill and trait) (Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, & Senge, 2011, p. 179) and recognizes that “the most cohesive and successful teams possess broader groupings of strengths.” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 22)  A good team has a variety of individuals with differing strengths that balance each other out and fill in gaps, and the result is a greater value and performance from the whole than in the individual parts (or, as the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias says, “It is the assemblage of an object that gives it its purpose, not the reduction of it.” (2000, p. 34) Because no one person is best at everything, a combination of people with different strengths will do more, and do it better, than that one person.

However, a team cannot maintain good performance without investment in development; specifically, development in the relationships that exist between the members of the team.  When a group of people are assembled who have different strengths, they also necessarily have other differences (weaknesses, opinions, thought processes, etc.), which in turn lead to conflict, and ultimately can lead to dysfunction.   The single greatest antidote to this kind of dysfunction is trust.  Patrick Lencioni says it like this: “Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible.”  (2002, p. 195) People on a team must learn to trust one another, and in doing so, accept their own weaknesses and embrace the strengths of others.

So how does a team become and maintain “functional”?  That’s the job of the leader.  The leader’s role in this context is to help the team, individually and collectively, to do both “task” and “people” well.  It is an “oversight function in which the leader’s role is to do whatever is necessary to help the group achieve effectiveness.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 303)  Therefore, in any situation or circumstance in which tension or struggle is occuring, one of the primary decisions of a team leader “is to choose whether a task or a relational intervention is needed.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 291) The leader must learn the characteristics and attributes of the team members, as well as the dynamics of the team, in order to best delegate responsibilities, manage performance and process, develop potential, navigate conflict, and intervene when necessary. A team can be more successful than an individual leader, but the leader will determine and guide the success of the team.

For Christian leaders:  later this month, I will be sharing some thoughts on biblical principles related to team leadership from the book of Ezra. Stay tuned!

Ancona, D., Malone, T. W., Orlikowski, W. J., & Senge, P. M. (2011). In Praise of the Incomplete Leader HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 179-196). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.

Zacharias, R. (2000). Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.