Tag Archive for leadership

Your Walk Talks, and Your Talk Talks

Recently, my family came together during a difficult time, when my father had a stroke.  As we gathered together in the hospital, with much uncertainty over the eventual outcome*, often our conversations would turn to our memories of the words of wisdom he had shared over the years.  Some of it was quite funny, but all of it was wise, so I thought it would be appropriate to share some of the wisdom I have learned from him through the years.  Some are a repeat of previous posts (because I had already been sharing his wisdom), and some are topics I haven’t shared before.  This week, I am sharing a post that I shared some time ago, and it centers around something he often said when he talked about the importance of your example to others.

*My father went home to be with His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, on Sunday, May 8, 2016.  I grieve at the loss of my hero, mentor, and friend, but I rejoice at the celebration of his arrival in heaven.

“Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.” I heard my father say this many times when I was growing up, in his effort to teach the importance of being genuine. The lesson, which was reinforced to me on numerous occasions, was that my words (what I say) and my actions (what I do) need to match. In fact, the reality is that people will judge me more by my actions than by my words.

As I grew into an adult, I eventually realized that I had unconsciously taken on many of my father’s characteristics that I had learned by watching his “walk.” Interestingly, I think the same thing is true in organizations: people within the organization, over time, take on many of the characteristics of the leader. I’m reminded of the classic parenting line, “Do as I say and not as I do,” which we all know is not what really happens; we tend to do what we see. That same conclusion was reached by Albert Bandura in his studies on behavior modification and observational learning, most notably in his classic “Bobo doll” study (1969, 1986, 2003).

One of the primary applications of this truth is the importance of consistency in leadership. In essence, do what you say you will do. I found strong affirmation of this in a recent study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, which was undertaken to identify “what separates the competent from the exceptional individual performers” using over 50,000 360-degree evaluations on 4150+ individual contributors over a five-year time period. Stated in an article in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, they said, “Walk the Talk. It’s easy for some people to casually agree to do something and then let it slip their minds. Most people would say that this is mere forgetfulness. We disagree. We believe it is dishonest behavior. If you commit to doing something, barring some event truly beyond your control, you should follow through. The best individual contributors are careful not to say one thing and do another. They are excellent role models for others. This is the competency for which the collective group of 4,158 individuals we studied received the highest scores. That means, essentially, that following through on commitments is table stakes. But exceptional individual contributors go far beyond the others in their scrupulous practice of always doing what they say they will do.” (Zenger & Folkman, 2014)

Consistency in what you do is one of the most important factors in your credibility as a leader. It gives you trust, makes you believable. John Kotter made the same connection between consistency and credibility when he said, “Another big challenge in leadership efforts is credibility – getting people to believe the message. Many things contribute to credibility: the track record of the person delivering the message, the content of the message itself, the communicator’s reputation for integrity and trustworthiness, and the consistency between words and deeds.” (HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, 2011, p. 48) I had the opportunity to live this out in one organization that had an absence of trust between leadership and employees when I arrived. In my first year, I became very intentional about communicating publicly what I would be doing (both minor and major things), and then making sure that people saw that I did those things. I wanted them to know that I would do what I said I would do, so that they could trust me. My efforts were affirmed when, during an evaluation process at the end of the first year, the consensus of the employees indicated that “trust of leadership” was one of the most positive aspects of the year.

I also want to go one layer deeper in this principle. The consistency of doing what you say you will do is critical to effective leadership, but it will really only work well if it is genuine, and it is only genuine if it is who you are. In other words, it’s not simply about your actions matching your words, but your life matching your values. Jim Collins calls this “consistency of action – consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time.” (Collins & Hansen, 2011, p. 21) Consistency begins with what you say, is demonstrated by what you do, but is validated in who you are. It is actually at this deeper level that you will find the strength and courage to resist the pressure to compromise in ways that make you inconsistent, especially when circumstances are difficult.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (2003). On the Psychosocial Impact and Mechanisms of Spiritual Modeling. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(3), 167.

Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. (2011). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2014, April 11, 2014). The Behaviors that Define A-Players.

 

What did you learn from your feedback?

Early in my school leadership experience, I had a very difficult conversation with my boss – difficult because I was receiving feedback that I thought was unfair and untrue, in a way that was harsh and hurtful.  My dad helped me navigate that conversation well, and I learned from the experience (including, learning how to grow from feedback that I disagree with, as well as learning to see how I contribute to the issue even when the approach makes me instinctively become defensive).  How about you?  Share an experience, positive or negative, in which you received feedback that helped you grow.

Either it’s true or it’s not

A couple of weeks ago, my family came together during a difficult time, when my father had a stroke.  As we gathered together in the hospital, with much uncertainty over the eventual outcome, often our conversations would turn to our memories of the words of wisdom he had shared over the years.  Some of it was quite funny, but all of it was wise.  Although, at the time I am writing this, we still do not know what will happen next, I thought it would be appropriate over the next few weeks to share some of the wisdom I have learned from him over the years.  Some will be a repeat of previous posts (because I had already been sharing his wisdom), and some will be topics I haven’t shared before.  This week, I am starting with one that I shared about a year and a half ago.

“Either it’s true or it’s not.” That was one of the phrases that I heard frequently from my father when I was younger, and, while it seems to be a simple statement, I have learned that it contains great truth. It makes me think of a recent television commercial for an insurance company in which a woman tells her friend that she is going on a date with a French model that she met online. When the “French model” shows up, he is obviously not what he claimed to be, but in her response, she claims that it must be true because she read it on the Internet. Or think about the typical statement made by a politician, the typical news story, or frequent social media claims (including the wealthy widow from Nigeria who needs your help to get her millions out of the country). Often, what is said comes from a personal bias, from a desire to win approval (or re-election), from incomplete information, or is simply a flat-out lie. And many (most?) people are quick to accept what they hear as truth, without question. The reality is, just because someone or something claims to be true does not mean that it is.

This is not a problem that is new to the current digital age. On October 30, 1938, a dramatic broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds caused a reaction due to its realistic portrayal of an alien invasion from Mars. In actuality, few people believed it to be true, but it still sparked a media outrage from the printed news on the believability of broadcast news. And history is full of rumors and legends that caused reactions and responses because a story was believed to be true.

This leads me to the importance of having an “either it’s true or it’s not” mindset. You will inevitably hear claims, statements, and rumors from every direction, whether from an employee, a supervisor, a constituent, or an external source. When you do, sometimes the tendency is to jump, and then to react immediately with a response because of what you have heard. But that’s dangerous, because it may be that what you have heard is not true, or contains misinformation, or is misleading or incomplete. And if that is so, your response could potentially make matters worse and reflect poorly on you.

When you understand that everything you hear may or may not be true, you will learn to respond to information by first confirming its truth. What a difference that makes in your response! On a surface level, this is as simple as checking facts and data to make sure that they are accurate. When it involves people, it requires asking questions to determine the full story and get all of the available information. And on a deeper level, it requires identifying nuances and implications to see if what is being stated is a valid application, because, as the study of statistics teaches us, “correlation does not imply causation” (which means that, just because two phenomena happen together, one did not necessarily cause the other even if it appears that way).

So what should you do? A wise leader, upon hearing information, will remind himself that “either it’s true or it’s not,” and be diligent to determine the truth. Ask questions, look up facts, differentiate between causation and correlation, and get the full story. Then, whether it’s true or not, you will be more equipped to respond appropriately and will therefore make better decisions.

Week of May 2, 2016

The Value of a Merry Heart

It was when I was in graduate school doing research that I think I finally fully realized what it means to say, “All truth is God’s truth.” It clicked when I was reading a particular book that was drawing lessons on leadership from principles of Chaos Theory. As I worked through the book, I began to see – underlying its principles – a clear representation of God’s sovereignty. Then I began to recognize, in many of the books I was reading, that the truths that most resonated with me were truths that I could see were expressions of biblical truths. And as my advisor and my instructors kept pushing me to identify “the theory behind the practice” for much of my research, I realized that the reason why there was truth in these theories, evident in how it worked in practice, was because of the “theory behind the theory”: original truth, found in God’s Word.

 

This became apparent to me again recently when I was reading a book called The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor.   This particular book is in the realm of positive psychology, and is based on research; in it, Achor describes seven principles related to the way that your attitude, choices, and behavior can benefit your personal growth.   More pointedly, the first principle in the book (‘the happiness advantage’ principle), discusses how a positive outlook improves fulfillment and success. Within this principle, he explains:

 

  • How happiness gives your brain – and your organization – the competitive edge
  • That when we are happy, we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful; happiness precedes success, not vice versa
  • That happiness (a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future):
    • Primes and enhances creativity and innovation
    • Is an antidote to physical stress and anxiety
    • With intentional effort, can raise your daily baseline level of happiness
  • That our brains are hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative, or even neutral, but when they are positive.
  • That happiness and optimism fuel performance and achievement

 

The reality is, this is true. A positive attitude helps you do better, an optimistic outlook helps you respond to defeat and difficulty better, and a joyful approach helps to prevent discouragement. You probably don’t need to see research to believe that this is true, because you’ve seen it lived out in practice. And that’s what takes me back to my point. You believe that this is true because you have seen it in practice, but a book like The Happiness Advantage provides “the theory behind the practice,” the research that explains why it is true in practice. But there is theory behind that theory, found in the Bible long before any studies in positive psychology were ever conducted.

 

Specifically, Proverbs 15:13-15 says this:

 

13 A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken. 14 The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge,
but the mouth of fools feeds on foolishness.
15 All the days of the afflicted are evil, but he who is of a merry heart has a continual feast. Proverbs 15:13-15

 

Verses 13 and 15, in particular, point out two very important truths. Verse 13 points out that your internal emotions and attitude directly impact your external response and reaction: positive on the inside leads to positive expression on the outside, and negative on the inside leads to brokenness on the outside. Then verse 15 points out that your outlook on and experience of life are a direct reflection of how you perceive your life circumstances: a “woe is me” or “I am a victim” mindset sees every day as bad, but a positive outlook finds value in all circumstances.   So it is true that choosing to have a positive mood has great benefit for your life, but the reason why it is true is because it is God’s truth.

 

Now, the practical application is that you can improve your performance (and as a byproduct, your results) by intentionally cultivating a positive outlook and response to life and its circumstances. But I also want you to understand that the real theory behind it, the theory that backs it up, is truth that originates from God’s Word – a merry heart (positive attitude) makes a cheerful countenance (external expressions of happiness) and has a continual feast (positive view of and response to life).

Then, I would encourage you to take two more steps in this line of thought. First, begin to look for other places where you can see that there is biblical truth behind other leadership principles that also appear to be true when put into practice. Second, reverse the process by looking for biblical principles that can be translated into leadership principles, with the confidence that if it is a biblical principle, it will be true, and therefore will have legitimate and credible application to leadership. My hope is that, at the bottom of your own study and research, you too will see that all truth is God’s truth, and will learn to identify principles that work, because they are principles that reflect His truth.

If Everything Is a Priority, Nothing Is

For years, my wife and I had envisioned having some sort of “mini-farm” in our backyard, and had dreamed about what that might look like. We did lots of research into various plants and animals, talked about which ones we thought we would want, and even sketched out plans and ideas. But just as often, this led to feeling overwhelmed with what it would take to get started, and how much we didn’t know about how to do it well (and how to keep everything alive!). But then, several months ago, we did three things: committed ourselves to action, changed our approach from “all at once” to “one step at a time,” and accepted the fact that it would take time to see the fruits of our labor. And so we entered into the world known as “urban farming.”

Rather than trying to start all of our ideas in one season, we decided to do only one thing first – plant a couple of potted dwarf fruit trees. We believed this would be a simple and low-maintenance way to start, so we purchased and planted two pear trees and an apple tree, and placed them on our patio. When that was done, we planted two different herbs in pots, and only after they were growing did we move on to the next step, which was to assemble a small chicken coop and purchase two laying hens, so that we could have our own fresh eggs. Now that we are comfortable with caring for the chickens, we are finally moving on to constructing our first raised bed garden space, but (like everything else) a little bit at a time (in this instance, one 3’ x 6’ box at a time). Finally, piece-by-piece, in a manageable process, we are becoming urban farmers.

There are two valuable leadership principles that I believe we can draw from this experience. The first principle is referred to by Shawn Achor, in The Happiness Advantage, as “The Zorro Circle.” This is the idea of starting with small victories and accomplishments, and gradually working your way outward to larger ones. That’s what we did when we started with a couple of plants and gradually expanded what we were doing, but not until we had experienced victory with each step along the way. We didn’t plant herbs until the trees were successfully growing, we didn’t start the chicken coop until the herbs were growing, and so on. The successive victories boosted our confidence and kept the grand vision from becoming overwhelming.

The second principle is found in Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up, when he talks about prioritizing priorities. In other words, if everything is a priority, nothing is, so even if there are many needs, in order to be successful you need to select only a small number of those needs to make as your top priority, and only when those are in order should you move on to the next one. If every need is receiving priority attention, you will be spread too thin to manage each one well, so address them sequentially, one after the other and not all at the same time. This also means you have to choose which ones to address first, and work to keep the other needs from distracting you until the first priorities have been addressed. In our tiny “urban farm,” we didn’t give our attention to fruit trees, herbs, chickens, root vegetables, and other vegetables all at once, but chose the order that would work for us and tackled one priority at a time.

I’m sure you can see how these two principles compliment each other: choose the most important need and make that the priority, work at it until you see progress, momentum, and success, achieving smaller victories, and then expand your efforts by moving to and/or incorporating the next priority. One victory at a time, you will grow and accomplish goals, and eventually you will look back and be pleasantly surprised at the progress that has been made, and you will find that you are maintaining much more than you could have if you had tried to start out by doing everything at once.

In the first year at my new job, this intentionally became how I approached my leadership. I first took time to listen, observe, assess, and learn, and saw the variety of needs and issues in front of me (as well as the plethora of good), and I knew that I couldn’t give my attention to all them at once. So, I prioritized those needs, and began addressing them one or two at time. I shared with people the needs I saw so that they would know that I was listening to them, but I also shared – out loud – that if everything was a priority, nothing would be, so I would be tackling needs one at a time, and then I shared the order in which I was starting. This helped me to keep the other needs from distracting me, helped people to be patient, and built trust that I would eventually address all of the needs as they saw me accomplishing the first priorities. Prioritizing the priorities, and then achieving the initial victories, paved the way for a succession of victories and a pattern of growth and accomplishment.

You have heard the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The same is true with the tasks and needs in front of you. Sort your priorities, and begin to address them one at a time. Achieve small victories. Move to, or add, the next priority. Continue the cycle. Your confidence will grow, your successes will grow, and your leadership will grow.