Friday, January 4, 2013

Exploring Ineffectiveness - 5 Leadership Lessons

"One million kids leave school each year or roughly 7,000 drop-outs every day" (Source:
Source: -
Wow, that's pretty incredible. Still, there are a lot of folks who "drop out" of their lives and jobs each day. That's why when I read this list of 9 beliefs of ineffective people, I immediately jumped out of my chair and started to reach for a pen, keyboard, whatever. Unfortunately, I had something else to do and it's only a few hours later that I have a moment to reflect. I didn't find the list personally helpful, but it occurred to me that I had my own list and I thought I might share that.

The list of beliefs is preceded by a sage observation:
It is nearly impossible for anyone, even the most ineffective among us, to continue to choose a life of tedious grief after becoming fully enlightened to the fact that ineffectiveness is a choice.  It is the direct outcome of unproductive beliefs and behaviors.
The way I interpret that is, How can I persist in being ineffective in the face of the grief it generates and the realization that *I* decide my level of effectiveness? The truth is, it's darn depressing. Each of us chooses our level of effectiveness. You decide if you're going to serve up excellence with a dash of dastardly, or perfection with a touch of terrible.

Allow me to share some examples from my own life, since I've acknowledged my ineffectiveness as I work to combat it. What leadership lessons can we glean from these stories?

1) Not finishing or failing to deliver on enthusiastic start. This has to be the most pernicious, most hated of my flaws. I love to start new projects, make the big announcement, and then find myself a few months later wondering, "What happened to that initiative?" Somehow, it has slipped off my radar even though I promised myself I wouldn't let it happen.

As a person in a leadership position, you can well imagine that this just drives me crazy. "Miguel," one team member said to me some time ago, "how do you manage to keep track of everything?" When I hear remarks like that one, I realize that others perceive my ability to track projects as positive, but my own perspective is quite different--I realize that I have an obsessive need to ensure that I don't drop the ball. I am ineffective to the extent I forget about an initiative and allow it to languish.

To keep track of projects, I rely on a paper notebook. I've found that the physical act of writing, more than using a wiki or Evernote, helps me cross things off the list. When initiatives are moving slower, I can rely on an electronic document or wiki. But when it all goes to heck, I reach for my notepad and pen. Pretty sad for a technologist to admit, huh? It goes back to deeply ingrained habits from my high school years when my brain couldn't remember anything. I had to write it down to remember it.

2) Fail to speak up or act in the moment. Leaders often try to slow down work interactions, so that they can be carefully considered and acted upon. I've often been in the situation of wanting swifter action from a supervisor or decision-maker, not realizing that the decision-maker is pressing the "slow-motion" button. "Let's back up for a minute before we make a decision," I've heard myself say on more than one occasion. Yet, sometimes, acting in the moment is what defines one. Allow me to share a story that illustrates this for you think my assessment is wrong?

While at the gas station the other night, my wife waiting in the car, I huddled beneath my black hoodie. Unfortunately for me, the cold wind whipping around my bare legs, I'd chosen to wear shorts. As my wife laughed at the goosebumps arising on my "chicken legs," I set the gas pump to automatic then proceeded to "laugh it up" with my wife, safely ensconced in the car.

On the other side of the gas pump, two cars pulled in, one overshooting the pump. A woman--with her teenage daughter--immediately parked behind the first car, cutting it off from the gas pump. As I made faces at my wife, I heard angry yelling. The driver of the first car, a man, was yelling at the woman. He stalked back to the second car, yelling at full volume, waving his arms. "You c#@t!" he yelled at her. He stood less than 5 feet away from me. I started to move forward, hesitant as to what I might do. He seemed violent and the woman just stared at him in shock. His vehemence shocked me and I didn't know what to do.

As he walked away, he kicked the car. The exchange had lasted no more than a minute, from start to finish, but I couldn't help but second-guess myself. Why hadn't I interfered? I consoled myself with the thought that if he had gotten MORE violent, I could have easily stepped in. But there are times I ask myself, why didn't you jump in at the start of the conversation? I confess to feeling inadequate to the situation.

The failure to speak or act at a critical juncture in a conversation or confrontation is something I worry about. As a leader, I want to make sure I take appropriate action as necessary. That is my responsibility. Yet, to be effective, I feel I need to more clearly delineate the rules of engagement and to anticipate unpleasant situations. Still, would anticipating unpleasant situations predispose one to the wrong set of responses for a unique situation?

3) Only you can solve...whatever. This is a challenge for any leader, and I've found myself often struggling with this. Often, it's easy to imagine that you are uniquely prepared to resolve issues, conflicts, problems that arise. Solving problems, after all, is what gets many of us into leadership roles. Learning how to solve problems together with others, though, that's what grants us influence and the authority that flows from that influence.

An ineffective leader will always try to solve problems by themselves. Or, another way of putting it, an ineffective leader will always try to get others to solve the problems. You see, it's a balancing act. The leader needs the right balance of engaging a team, as well as stepping in themselves as a team member.

4) You are always right. One of the hardest lessons I've learned is realizing that I'm not always right. It seems obvious to say that, but I've often heard myself and others playing the "Ain't It Awful?" game. That's the game where you share how miserable a day you had, how others failed to do something or did something that completely goofed your day up. At the end of that conversation, there's the idea that you were right, they were wrong, but circumstances worked against you, and you suffered unfairly.

As children, we play this game all the time in our interactions. As we get older, self-righteousness and high blood pressure go so well together that before we know it, our blood boils with the wrath of the righteous. That's why subjugating our desires, carefully asking ourselves what we really want out of a situation, and how what we really want needs to be the goal of the organization we serve, some higher purpose is critical.

I've found that if I start with the goal of achieving organization's mission, asking myself what I really want out of a dialogue, I'm able to avoid the path of righteous anger, the roller coaster ride of good and evil adventure story that characterizes our mock heroic life journey. Thank goodness for that.

I love the Crucial Conversations approach to this and quote it again for my sake, if not for your's (smile):

When preparing for a crucial conversation ask yourself: What do I really want for myself? What do I really want for others? What do I really want for the relationship? 

The Process: 1. Start with the Heart. Focus on what you really want. For me, for others, for the relationship? Refuse the Sucker's Choice. What do I NOT want? 
2. Learn to look. Look for when the conversation becomes crucial. Am I going to silence or violence? 
3. Make it Safe. Apologize when appropriate. Why is safety at risk? Have I established Mutual Purpose? Am I maintaining Mutual Respect?
4. Master My Stories. What is my story? What should I do right now to move toward what I really want? 
5. STATE my Path. Share your facts. Tell your story. Ask for others' path. Talk tentatively. Encourage testing. Am I really open to others' views? 
6. Explore others paths. Am I avoiding unnecessary disagreement?
7. Move to Action. How will we make decisions? Who will do what by when?
5) Taking action that stops short the goal. This is something I've wrestled with in my personal life. As a person who is conscious of his weight (I want to avoid hereditary heart disease and diabetes), I try to exercise an hour each day. For the last few years, I've been doing quite well, exercising an hour or more each day. Usually this involves jogging in place on a mini-trampoline. However, I've plateau'd at my current weight, and find myself asking, "Why don't you vary your routine?" The answer is simple--I've gotten comfortable with the routine I have. I need to push myself, endure the pain to achieve a gain.

As a leader, I worry that the actions I'm taking in facilitating initiatives, projects aren't getting the job done. I keep asking myself, What else can be done to ensure success of an initiative? Simply, have I gotten too comfortable in what I'm doing and need to keep pushing towards the goal? Perhaps, the goal isn't clearly defined. Maybe, I need to adjust the goal to keep it constantly out of reach. Or, I need to set in place better ways to assess progress, successful or not. In the end, I don't want my effort to be wasted simply because I'm comfortable with the routine.

What are some of the ways that you are being ineffective, and what can you do to resolve that?

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

1 comment:

Susan Bearden said...

You make some insightful points in this post. Your comment about "Not finishing or failing to deliver on an enthusiastic start" really struck home for me as I have to be careful about this myself. It's easy to get excited by a great idea but not always so easy to nurture it and follow it through with the "grunt work" needed to turn it into a meaningful accomplishment. I also appreciate your question, "What else can be done to ensure success of an initiative?" I'm going to post that one on my bulletin board!

The Courage to Lead