Step into the Leadership Vacuum

I’ve been working with a senior leadership team of late that has, shall we say, quite a forceful executive at its head. Having been in the role just over 18 months, he’s been instrumental in reshaping the direction of the organisation and lifting its performance. Things are tracking well, morale is lifting across the board, and the future looks bright.

Leadership Vacuum 1 (1)

Until, of course, the shit hits the fan.

Recently, the team held an offsite meeting for a day to discuss critical issues and make decisions about their priorities over the coming months and years. It was all progressing smoothly until said executive took a phone call which saw him leave the room for 30 minutes.

What unfolded during that time was interesting. Can you guess what happened?

Leadership Vacuum 2 (1)

Yep. The group went into paralysis. No-one around the table wanted to progress the discussion without their leader in the room. The general sentiment was “we can’t do anything else until he’s back.” So, people went to their phones and checked emails, or had off-topic sideline discussions.

I pointed out what I was noticing in the room. I asked, “What could leadership look like when he’s not here?” The group struggled to provide a coherent answer. Then someone pointed out that their leader was going on three weeks’ leave in a month’s time. Hmm. Opportunity or threat?

I see this dynamic at play time and time again. Deep down, we all seek a leader to provide stability and make our decisions for us. To take the blame when things go wrong. To save us from having to expose ourselves to risk. Walt Whitman wrote his poem ‘O Captain My Captain!’ after the death of Abraham Lincoln, lamenting the loss of stability and direction that his president had provided him and the nation during deeply troubled times. When the single point of leadership is lost, we are all lost. A vacuum remains.

Too much of a good thing can make us lazy. We can forget that we too must play a part in the dynamic of making something successful or failing. We can hand over leadership responsibility to another, and we wait to be told what to do.

In a group, a leadership vacuum can represent an opportunity for someone else to step in. And, more powerfully, it’s an opportunity to reshape the group’s definition of leadership. What does individual leadership responsibility look like when we are together? How will we work collectively work to provide the leadership that’s needed? It’s not easy. It’s a more sophisticated way of operating that future-proofs the organisation from single points of failure.

It asks you, and your colleagues, to speak up and speak out. It asks you to reach out and inquire into others’ views. It asks you to invite potential messiness, confusion and disagreement where once there was polite silence and passive agreement. Don’t just move on to the next item. Go beyond the threshold. Get deep into the conversation. Make it rich, alive.

Here are some tips for making that happen:

Will this group go that way? That remains to be seen. I really hope so.

The more important questions are: where are you allowing a leadership vacuum to be?And what will you do about that?

Leadership Vacuum 3 (1)

 

Photo: Pexels.com

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Flat Mojo? Do A ‘Hell Yeah’ Audit

Got a flat mojo? Do a ‘Hell Yeah’  audit.

Hell Yeah With Text.001
Derek Sivers talks about getting to the point where you only say ‘Yes’ to stuff if it’s a ‘Hell Yeah!’ Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that some of the stuff I’ve been delivering hasn’t been feeling as much of a Hell Yeah as I’d like. So I decided to do a Hell Yeah audit.

I printed a list of my invoices over the last 6 months and rated each piece of work on a scale of 1-5, 1 being ‘crap’ to 5 being ‘Hell Yeah!’  75% was over 3, 50% was over 4, and 30% was a ‘Hell Yeah!’.

Maybe you don’t do invoices. But you probably have a way of tracking your time. Some sort of calendar perhaps. Or a diary, or a notebook. In whatever way works for you, I recommend checking how you’ve spent your time recently, and what activities are giving you the most energy.

Doing this exercise has helped me to take stock of what sort of work I’m saying ‘Yes’ to that I could maybe change. Now I’ve got a choice: I can stop saying ‘Yes’ to it, or I can reframe to be more of a ‘Hell Yeah’.

Just knowing that makes my mojo rise.

Hell Yeah!

 

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Courage is a Practice

When people face something big and scary, they’ll often say “I need to muster up the courage to tackle that.”

Courage Pic by E (1)

Kind of like courage is something that’s scattered around the place in small bits, and they just need to gather up all of those small bits and create a big courage ball. Then they’ll be OK, and they can lean into the big thing and do what it takes.

Kind of like courage is something you need to draw on only occasionally. Like this:

Baseline Courage Graph 1

The rest of the time you just cruise.

You wish. Life doesn’t work like that.

What if you viewed courage as a daily practice? Like going to the gym? Where you focus on building up your courage muscles so you can be ready to use them anytime something scary comes across your radar. Like this:

Baseline Courage Graph 2

Daily living offers us heaps of opportunities to be courageous:

  • Saying ‘no’ when you usually would say ‘yes’ (and vice-versa)
  • Letting go of the need to control things so tightly
  • Approaching the person that makes you nervous
  • Speaking up and speaking out
  • Making a decision even when you don’t have all the information
  • Letting someone know bad news
  • Challenging your story about what you believe life is all about

When these types of challenges are thrown at us, we often let them go through to the keeper. If we do take them up, they can feel like hard work, and we shake in our boots. All because we haven’t developed our courage muscles enough.

Develop your courage muscles through daily practice, and when the big gnarly ones come along, you’ll be ready. The big decisions won’t feel so big anymore.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “do one thing every day that scares you.” She was on about what I’m on about.

So, what will it be today?

For more on building courage, check out a couple of my other posts:

 

Illustration: Elizabeth Scott

 

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Find Your Rhythm

Are your days ‘lurchy’ or ‘flowy’?

For many of us, it’s more often the former, when we’d love it to be more of the latter.

Let’s get some definitions down:

‘Lurchy’ = you’re moving from one thing to another, feeling fragmented, scattered and often ending feeling unproductive and shattered.

‘Flowy’ = stuff feels effortless, you’re in sync, you can get deep into your work and nail it, it’s fun and energising. You’re not trying too hard.

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For most of my adult life, I’ve struggled with getting more into ‘flowy’ and staying there. More recently, I’ve learned a few tricks about how to do that. It’s all about finding your rhythm.

Finding your rhythm is like when you’re doing exercise, and you get that ‘click’ moment. When you’re walking, running, riding, in the gym, whatever. You hit a certain rhythm, a certain flow, where it feels ‘right’ for you, your performance lifts and it all becomes effortless. You know the feeling.

You can find your rhythm in how you structure your time, too.

Cal Newport wrote a powerful book called Deep Work, which argues that if you want to produce anything of value, you need to carve out uninterrupted time to do it. He builds on the ideas of Paul Graham, who wrote about two types of schedules: The Maker’s Schedule, and the Manager’s Schedule. They are both quite different: the first needs unstructured time to be effective, and the second is all about structuring your time. If you’re trying to do ‘Maker’ work (wrangling new ideas, writing, deep problem solving) you generally need big blocks of unstructured, focused time. And, we all need Manager time as well. That’s when you allocate your time into segments to hammer through your do-list, hold meetings etc.

I’ve learned:

  • I need to allow time for both types of activities if I’m going to be effective.
  • If I don’t deliberately carve out the Maker time, Manager time takes over. And I get into ‘lurchy’. And that’s frustrating.
  • It works for me to allow for Maker time across different time spans: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually.

Here’s how I structure each of those time blocks with my Maker time:

Daily: first thing in the morning for at least an hour, I journal, scribble or listen to an interesting podcast.

Weekly: every Friday is a ‘client free day’ where I write, think, and create (including my blogs).

Monthly: I build in three to four concurrent days for ‘Making’ work every month, which is often when I design a new workshop or programme.

Quarterly: I take a week off from any sort of client work to decompress.

Annually: I take all of January off (holidays, yes, and also it’s also a great time for reflection, deep thinking and writing). And, of course, my annual two-week windsurfing trip in October, which keeps my edges sharp. You can learn more about my annual approach in my post Your Year By Design.

Does it always work perfectly? Rarely. Life gets in the way all the time! However, without a structure like this, I reckon I’d always be in Manager time, and I’d feel like I’d not be doing my best work, or producing anything of value. I stick to my structure about 80% of the time. As a result, I get into plenty of ‘flowy’ experiences, create good work, and feel good about how I’ve spent my time.

We all need to experience more ‘flowy’ times. Especially when we need to create new ways for our teams and organisations to be more agile, more innovative, and more bold. More lurchy meetings aren’t the answer.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you or your people follow my exact schedule. I am suggesting you think about what works for you across each of these time spans, and what’s possible for you given your current situation. And then take the first step, however small, to make it happen.

Go well.

 

Art: Tim Borgman

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Be An Explorer, Not A Tourist

I was in Bali in June last year, chasing some much-needed sun in the midst of the dark New Zealand winter. I took a surfboard with me, of course. Like about one million other people who had the same idea that I did.

I’d never surfed in Bali before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. When I arrived at the beach on that first day, the swell was up, and it looked pretty awesome. Except for one thing: there were around 100 other surfers in the water, spread across the break like ants that had discovered a honey-smothered piece of toast on the ground.

I sat on the beach, feeling heavy in my chest, wondering how I was going to have a good time out there. I’d almost resigned myself to paddling out and being surfer #101, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted another sweet looking break about 400 metres down the beach. Except that this one had only two people on it. Curiosity piqued, I picked up my board, wandered as slyly as I could down the beach, and paddled out.

It was perfect. The three of us spent a couple of hours riding countless waves that we had all to ourselves, while just down the beach the hoards were all bunched together on top of each other, fighting for a spot in the lineup. We couldn’t believe it. We kept joking to each other “shhh, don’t talk too loud, they might see us!”

Afterward, I got to thinking that it’s all too easy to go with the herd. Especially when you find yourself in a new situation. You can think: “well, that’s what seems to be the go around here. These people must know what they’re doing, so I’ll do that too.”

It’s the Tourist mindset versus the Explorer mindset. The Tourist follows the crowd. The Explorer watches what the crowd is doing and then makes up their own mind about whether they want to follow the crowd or not. The Tourist’s agenda is to tick the box. The Explorer’s agenda is to discover. The Tourist’s main concern is to stay safe (“don’t get lost, Myrtle!”) while the Explorer’s main concern is to create an interesting experience.

We have both mindsets available to us all the time, of course. The tourist mindset is useful to help us scope things out. But if we want to forge new and better ways, it’s not enough.

I reckon our world has too many Tourists and not enough Explorers. It’s too easy to accept ‘what is’, even though ‘what is’ is clearly not working as well as it could be. Explorers find new ways, show them to others, and help other Tourists tap into their inner Explorer.

Where in your life are you being too much of a Tourist, when you could be more of an Explorer? What would happen if you chose to dial up your Explorer?

Here are three ways to tap your inner Explorer:

  1. Do one thing each day that scares you (thanks, Eleanor Roosevelt)
  2. Ask yourself “what’s the normal routine around here?” and do the opposite (e.g. if you usually have meetings where everyone sits down, make it a standing meeting. Call it an experiment).
  3. Hang out with other Explorers. They’re infectious.

Back to my surf session. Maybe there were rules that I didn’t know about. Maybe the first spot I went to was known as ‘the place’ to surf in the area, and that’s where the cool people go. Maybe the spot I ended up surfing at was full of taboos and stories about the bad things that will happen if you surf there. Who knows? What I know is that I had a great, memorable surf and I felt the better for it.

Sometimes you need to separate yourself from the herd.

 

Photo: Digby Scott

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Ripples vs Bow Waves

You cannot not impact.

This is one of those sayings that you can’t refute, right? I first heard it when I did my Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) training years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Whenever you show up, you have an impact. Whether you consciously intend to or not. Even your silence, or your absence, has an impact. The mere fact that you exist causes ripples. Those ripples land somewhere. And they have some sort of impact.

Remember that.

Drew Dudley gave a short and brilliant TED talk on this idea when he spoke about Everyday Leadership. His idea was that our words and actions can have a profound and lasting impact, and often we don’t even realise it. We can forget what we did or said until someone tells us about the powerful effect we had on them.

So, it’s good to be mindful of what we’re saying and doing.

Here’s the thing. Why be content with ripples? Why not create bow waves? If we only have a certain number of years on the planet, we might as well put them to good use, right?

I was recently working with a group of leaders in Christchurch, helping them to think through how they could make lasting change happen in their communities and organisations. When sharing how they were dealing with their challenges, many of them were using the metaphor of ‘learning to ride the wave’. The wave of complexity, they said, is bigger than them, so the best way to be effective was to try to understand the system they were a part of, and ride with it, rather than try to fight it.

Maybe.

I think this form of thinking is a useful way of acknowledging that you need to see and work within a system. However, to me, it speaks of limited personal agency. It’s ripple thinking.

What if you were to upgrade your thinking from creating ripples to creating bow waves? Bow waves travel further and have more impact on their surroundings. They’re still a product of the system they’re in, and of the agent that creates them. They’re just bigger.

What would that look like to you?

It’s all about the engine, and how you use it.

How big is your thinking? Are you creating ripples, or bow waves? What do you want to create?

 

 

Photo: Digby Scott

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The Other…

Where my driveway ends at the footpath, there are two high walls on either side. So, when I drive my car out, I can’t see who might be walking along, or maybe flying past on their skateboard. So I deliberately slow down and gently nudge the front of my car out beyond the walls, so whoever might be coming can have time to adjust.

As I did this today, I realised that it’s a great metaphor for relationships. We can so often be focused on our own stuff that we forget others are dealing with their stuff too. To pay more attention to ‘the other’ as we go about our daily lives is a quality I think we can all develop. Otherwise, we might cause some unintended damage.

What’s your circuit breaker to be more mindful of ‘the other’?

 

Photo: Asphalt Heritage

 

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