Leadership Caffeine™—Role Models from Dangerous Situations

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

I had the great honor of delivering two leadership workshops at the Alabama Jail Association Annual Conference recently, and the experience was for me, fascinating, humbling and incredibly educational. (Yes, teachers do learn from students and instructors from participants!)

I wasn’t certain what to expect from this audience heading into the program. I didn’t know this crowd. In fact, as I remarked to the group, I had successfully managed to avoid meeting them my entire life. Also, beyond a few corporate settings that felt like war zones, I had not spent a great deal of time with individuals immersed daily in dangerous settings.

As it turned out, the audiences in the two programs were fantastic! They were hungry for ideas and insights on strengthening as leaders and they were more active and engaged than most corporate groups I’ve worked with over the years. They worked hard on the cases and activities and they generously shared the challenges of their environment as we discussed ideas and approaches to strengthening leadership effectiveness.

Early in the program, we ran a breakout activity where I asked the participants to share stories in small groups about the individual they point to as the leadership role models in their lives. Digging deeper, I asked them to discuss what it was their role model did that had such a profound influence on them and others. I requested they pick one story from their small group to share with the larger audience. And to a group, they shared stories with identical themes.

The role models were either current or former senior officers from the corrections environment. They inspired by leading by example, living and working by a clear code of values, holding themselves and others accountable for fairness and excellence and to a person, caring deeply about their team members.

One example of a number of the officers turned out to be the mother of another participant in the workshop. To listen to others describe the impact she had as a leader on so many present was visibly humbling for the son.

I listened and soaked up the great stories, and as the participants described the realities of their difficult working environment, it was clear to me that the great skill of effective leaders in dangerous settings was the ability to create a leadership and performance environment that transcended the physical setting and dangerous circumstances.

As part of my preparation for the program, I spent a good deal of time catching up on the leadership studies and stories from dangerous settings. Sadly, we have all too much recent data on this topic, mostly beginning with the reporting of the heroics of the law and fire officials during 9/11 and certainly from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The studies showcase consistent behaviors that define effective leadership in dangerous settings, including:

  • Caring at a personal level
  • Credibility earned by backing words with actions
  • Competence displayed…physically and cognitively, particularly via decision-making
  • Trust given
  • Purpose front and center
  • Accountability uniformly and fairly enforced

The consistent display of these behaviors contributes to forming a working environment that transcends the physical setting. While the audience was quick to highlight the flaws and challenges in their workplaces, they were visibly proud of their membership and of their team members. For all of us operating in the relative safety of corporate walls, there’s more than a few powerful lessons on leading we can gain from those operating in harm’s way. The first lesson is humility.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Effective leaders create the environment for success regardless of physical surroundings. Their behaviors transcend the dangers, and the tough circumstances create the bonds that build trust and loyalty and promote performance. And yet again, we hear that the impact of an effective leader has a ripple effect that transcends the years and generations. If you’re looking for a leadership example to model your own behaviors, perhaps it’s time to look to those leading in harm’s way for a meaningful example.

New Leader Tuesday—3 Questions to Bring Your Future into Focus

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesday at the Management Excellence blog is for anyone getting started (or starting over) on their leadership journey.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership legacy during the early part of my career. No one does. After all, who has time to worry about something so squishy and distant sounding when you’re focused on getting things done? And make no doubt about it, I was laser focused on translating the formula for success in corporate life into my own personal gain.The formula in my mind was preoccupied with driving great results by pushing others.

Yes, my style as a young manager was more muscle and not finesse. I was playing a short-game…minute to minute with little concern for the long-term. And for awhile, the scoreboard was in my favor. I grew my responsibilities, title and income at a rapid rate. And then the wheels began to wobble as people cycled through my teams and off to other areas and even my own satisfaction with what I was doing (and how I was doing it) began to decline.

Thanks to a great mentor, I began to understand that the good short-term results were coming at a high price in terms of morale, burn-out and my own professional reputation. I believe he described me as a “machine,” and it wasn’t intended to be flattering. The connotation was more about being demanding and soulless and less about efficiency. He made me think about my approach and my style and I didn’t have to look far to find evidence that supported his case.

The relationships with my team members were shallow…mostly transaction-based, and the environment was demanding. I was demanding. Perhaps a bit of a minor tyrant. I took pride in my “get it done at all costs” reputation. As it turned out, I was running things like a sports team interested in winning a championship now with little concern for the team members or building a culture of excellence that would sustain the test of time.

Over the months following the “machine” comment, he challenged me to think about and then act on the output from three provocative questions. The introspection prompted by these three questions changed the course of my work, my career and likely my life. How will you answer them?

3 Questions to Help You Build a Great Leadership Legacy:

1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?

I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes we are accountable for to our stakeholders, but they’re never the purpose or the drivers. The great quarters and years are like dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement. What I’m most proud of are the many successes of the great people who got their start on my watch. This simple question caused me to pause and then pivot in my thinking about my purpose in leading others.

2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?

I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances. Thinking through this question in the context of great leaders of history (or perhaps your personal history…via family members) is humbling. You recognize how important it was to have vision and then overcome extreme uncertainty and hardship while striving to keep people inspired by the vision. Whether it was the survival of Britain or the retention of the entire Union, neither Churchill nor Lincoln knew how they were going to prevail, they just knew that they had to for the greater good.

3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?

This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day? The environment I had created as a young manager was anything but healthy.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The comment that I was functioning like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of an approach based on my answers to the questions above. I use a question in my keynotes that challenges leaders to offer a pre-post-mortem on their impact on big initiatives. Extend this to your career, and ask: “At the end of your career, what will you want people to say that you did?

It’s time to start doing it.

Leadership Caffeine™—Great Leaders Care

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

“Care for followers is the second most important leader attribute that influences the development of trust… .” from Leadership in Dangerous Situations.

While a leader’s competence is viewed as the most important attribute to engender trust, the fact that he or she genuinely cares about team members is a critical number two.

The emphasis in this excellent collection is of course for military, first-responders and our life-safety (police, fire) public servants, but the content is spot-on for our less threatening but still challenging corporate world. And while I suspect a good many readers may wonder who decided their boss was competent, I’ll leave that for another day and focus here on the caring dimension of leadership.

Simply stated, we can use a whole hell of a lot more authentic caring about our people.

I have the good fortune of gaining hundreds of exposures per year in workshops and classrooms to people who describe the leaders who have helped them change their lives, and it’s no surprise they consistently describe these leaders as people who took a strong interest in them as human beings, rather than as interchangeable parts. Sadly, they also describe these caring leaders as being significantly outnumbered by their more transactional or distant counterparts.

I long ago learned to hire and promote for both brains and heart…my equivalent to the competence and trust highlighted in Leadership in Dangerous Situations. Today, I choose my leadership coaching clients based on a preliminary interview where I have the opportunity to better understand what drives the individual. If it’s all about career climbing based on the efforts of others versus lifting others up and succeeding in the process, I politely opt out. (It’s hard to coach “heart.”)

Some may confuse this issue of caring with being soft. There’s no connection in my experience. Some of the toughest, most professionally demanding s.o.b.s I’ve encountered were the first ones to show up at the loss of a loved one and the first to volunteer help, resources or time when team members faced a crisis. These demanding leaders served as rocks to support rebuilding or recovering. They also suffered visibly when team members they invested in let the team down.

What I love about the caring leaders I’ve known either as an employee, a leader or a consultant/coach, is how comfortable they are in their own skins. They understand their business mission intimately, they take pride in honing their skills and pushing themselves hard and most of all, they recognize and aren’t afraid to show how important each and every individual is as a human and as a team member. They practice what they preach and they unabashedly and unashamedly put the team and their team members ahead of themselves in all things. This takes self-confidence and knowledge of self.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Careers are both long and insanely, ridiculously fast at the same time. In hindsight, there are points in time when I got my priorities out of whack. I suppose I can rationalize my actions as doing what I had to do for the people who mattered, but it’s not always that clear. My advice to my younger self most definitely is to not compromise my conviction for caring…not suspend my humanness in pursuit of someone else’s numbers or transactional goals. Beyond your own competence as a professional, there’s nothing more critical for building trust and ultimately driving results, than showing your team members you genuinely care.







Leadership Caffeine™—Don’t Back Off Leadership Development in a Crisis

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

When things break bad (even momentarily) in an organization, a number of predictable reflexes kick-in. Expenses are cut. Operations reviews evolve into extended, public proctology exams with everyone taking a long look searching for answers and blame. Time horizons shrink, the collective field of vision narrows to a pinhole and the lofty, noble ideals of developing leaders and teams that top management so passionately espoused during good times are reduced to echoes from a different era…when things were good.

Some of the responses are reasonable and expected. Expenses and forecasts merit exploration. Others are destructive. Suspending the work of developing your leaders and managers is destructive. Instead of letting your training budget dictate your team and leadership development efforts, try a return to the powerful and much needed full-contact work of coaching and teaching. Frankly, we should be doing this all of the time but too often we let external training substitute for our own heavy lifting around leadership development. Tight budgets are no excuse to back off. Instead, try these low-cost, high contact ideas to help support your efforts.

5 Ideas to Double Down on People Development when Things Break Bad

1-Get the Right Conversations Started. Encourage the managers and leaders to form their own reading/discussion groups. You buy the pizza, drinks and occasional reading materials and they talk and then act on making things better. Caution, no need to make this a corporate mandate or H.R. driven program. Sew the seeds…and support the efforts but don’t make it feel like work. You’re lighting or stoking the collective fire for individuals to find a new performance gear and you have to inspire not command involvement. My suggested starter book: the latest edition of The Leadership Advantage by Kouzes and Posner. The discussion and potential for idea generation present in Chapter 1 alone will make this one of your best professional development investments ever!

2-Increase Your Coaching Efforts. Because the time horizon is now perceived as short and the field of vision narrowed to a laser focus on the revenue and cost numbers, the soft but hard discussions are often left for some future date to be determined. They just don’t happen, which is counter-intuitive. Effective leaders redouble their efforts to remain attuned to their own managers and senior team leads and both offer coaching to support strengthening and to shore up morale. While there’s always an opportunity cost to your time investments, this one pays significant dividends. Focus on observing, coaching and supporting your people If your calendar doesn’t have the equivalent of 20% of your time on this per week, you’re not taking it seriously.

3-Mind the Gap on Big Decisions. While closely related to the coaching efforts, any process of recovery invites big decisions on people, projects, structure and investment priorities to the table. Big decisions are often decisions that end up stalling out while everyone’s rushing around putting out fires or simply avoiding the discomfort. Hold your key leaders accountable to moving forward on the decisions and commensurate action items. Coach them through the decision-process and ensure that they’re prepared for the critical next steps on people, structure and programs following the decisions. Nothing supports professional development like the ownership of a big decision and accountability for the actions and outcomes.

4-Pick, Prioritize and Projectize the Recovery Efforts. Develop the discipline to identify and prioritize the limited number of critical recovery priorities and then get teams working on them. In a crisis, there’s a tendency to drive a lot of activity with no vector. Instead, help the employees narrow their own efforts to the critical few activities and then provide support for these project teams. Be deliberate selecting team leaders. These recovery priorities are remarkable developmental opportunities for people you perceive are ready for a new and bigger challenge. Again, nothing supports leadership and professional development like team leadership, particularly when the stakes are high. Ensure that each team is aligned with a good sponsor who understands his/her role to support building an effective team environment, and then let the teams and leaders run hard.

5-Bring Your Firm’s Values to Life. Sometimes the best development tools and opportunities are right in front of you in the form of your firm’s values. All too often the values get lost in the noise…they’re present on the wall and in the employee handbook, but mostly invisible in the daily work of the organization. Home grow a program focusing on exploring the meaning and application of the values in the day-to-day work environment. Let your managers grow a grass roots program to recruit these powerful (and aspirational) behavior statements into the hard work of helping the firm navigate the storm. This work can be a game changer for strengthening your firm’s culture.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The best professional development always takes place with live fire activities. While budget cuts might kill the external training activities for a period of time, a crisis shouldn’t mean the end to the good work of leadership development. A crisis is a horrible thing to waste. Use it wisely and you’ll come out of it with a stronger team prepared to take your firm to new levels of success.

Choose to Work in a Culture that Brings Out the Best in You

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth.

I’ve worked in cultures like those ascribed to Amazon.com in the recent and controversial New York Times article, “Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”  These battle-zone firms exist and they can be very successful. And for the adrenaline junkie career climber, these cultures are perfect.

For the rest of us who like our excitement and adrenaline rushes to come from something other than eviscerating our co-workers over stupid ideas and stepping on heads and necks and hands on our way to the promised land of more restricted stock grants, these environments aren’t so great. They’re toxic to our souls.

I don’t find Amazon’s alleged “bruising” battle-zone culture either bad or good, it just is. It’s no longer my cup of tea, but it might have been at one point in my career.

I’m a recovering suffer-no-fools, take-no-prisoners and follow me-or-leave professional who managed to gain control of this personal Jekyll and Hyde battle a long time ago. I remember the game however, and I remember liking it. Ideas flowed, action was the order of the day and strength decided what got done. As long is it worked, your power grew.

While I don’t recall that the work as playground environments so often written about today, existed back then…think nerf gun fights, zip-lines in the office and tree house conference rooms, if they did, I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of these ideas. I cared about stomping my competitors, serving my customers and clearing the dumb-asses and bumbling bureaucrats out of my way so that I could execute. (My heart is racing a bit as I type this. It was work as an adventure.) The idea of work as mere playtime would have been preposterous.

My conversion of sorts to the kinder, gentler side of work occurred after I misread the culture of a new employer and found myself immersed in a genteel environment engaged in a form of internecine war. It was a corporate Game of Thones and it was the wrong kind of war game for me. I was looking for something different…something that would win in the market while positively transforming people’s lives. I was looking for a culture that built people up, without having to break them down first.

It took me eighteen months to unwind that mistake, yet it was an important step on my path. While I didn’t find the promised land of great cultures, I found one where we worked hard to build a culture that brought out the best in people. We appreciated warriors on the front-lines but warfare in the workplace wasn’t how we got things done.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There is no perfect culture. Even the kinder, gentler kinds have some serious downsides. Think: passive-aggressive behavior, complacency born of comfort or widespread naivete on the realities of winning in the marketplace. Nonetheless, we are well served to match the cultures where we choose to invest our time with our own values and aspirations for ourselves as citizens of these organizations. Choose to go to work in a culture that brings out the best in you.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.