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Leadership practices for presence and focus

 

 

All leaders experience situations that surprise them, distract them, or knock them off center. These are the events that can trigger us to react in a way that is not what we prefer by assaulting our values and intent.

A practice that helps you to stay present, centered, and grounded will keep you focused, ready for whatever comes your way, and can help you get through the things that are surprising and difficult with grace. This preparation is not necessarily the kind that you are familiar with.

By way of explanation, if you want to be a piano virtuoso, you practice playing the instrument until you reach your goal (and then you set a new goal). But there is another kind of training that is needed. When you observe great piano players, you may notice their focus; the audience and other distractions don’t get in the way of their performance because the best piano players also have an “internal practice” (in addition to practice playing the instrument) that helps them to stay present and focused.

Practicing leadership often requires a similar focus on the present. This kind of focus can benefit from “a practice” – something that takes you out of your normal routine and helps you to focus on the “here and now”. Some ancient wisdom, developed in an earlier, slower time, is making a comeback and with good reason. We have more distractions and a faster pace than centuries past and are losing our grasp on what’s in front of us.

When you’re creating that leadership action/development plan for how you’ll show up in the world, consider also developing a practice to help you to focus and stay present. The practice you choose will assist you in achieving your goals. Fifteen minutes a day is all it takes to give you the focus you need to be more present, grounded, centered, and, ironically, more productive. Some favorite things to try:

Centering and grounding: Our state of mind is more dependent on our physical body than we might realize. To center and ground, consider a somatic (soma = body) activity like yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong. They all have elements of centering and grounding your body – with the added benefit of helping you to quiet your mind.

Meditating: I’m a big fan of meditation or mindfulness training. The simplest techniques can be found by searching those keywords on the internet. Try them out and see which kind you prefer. Even if you think you can’t sit still for fifteen minutes, you’ll find the techniques and ways to handle your distraction helpful in learning to focus.

Listening: Simply sitting in a quiet spot (I prefer sitting in nature), and noticing the sounds you hear is a great way to focus your distracted mind. Count the sounds. Try to identify them. If you find your mind wandering, gently and with self-compassion, bring yourself back to listening.

There is a reason why these things are called “practices”; they prepare us for our performance as a leader and help us to be at our best. What are you practicing to increase your presence and focus?

 

 

 

 

 

Five steps for having tough conversations

 

You don’t have to look hard to see that there are tough conversations that need to be had all around you. You may tend to avoid them, which isn’t a good strategy if you’re a leader. You must model the work of a leader including stepping into uncomfortable dialog with others.

Perhaps someone who reports to you is not working up to their potential or an individual on your team is disruptive to efforts to move the team forward. Maybe a peer is undermining your efforts or your boss is not supporting you in the way you think she should.

Ignoring these things is not very leader-like. And similar to that little light on the dashboard of your car that says “Check engine soon”, if you don’t take action on the things that need to be addressed they can get worse. And that’s when you have an even bigger and tougher problem to deal with.

If you’ve been in the workforce long enough, you’ve seen it all. Do you use any of these excuses for avoiding or ignoring tough conversations?

  • The problem will go away if I ignore it
  • It’s a small thing
  • I’m afraid that my emotions will get out of hand if I address it
  • I don’t want to hurt their feelings
  • I don’t want to make a scene and am concerned about their reaction

What will it take to have those tough conversations? Some thoughts about how to proceed:

Set an intention for your behavior: The better you can manage your own behavior, the better the likelihood that the person you need to have a tough conversation with will respond well. You may expect defensiveness or even blame. Yet you might be surprised when it doesn’t happen because you’ve managed to have a dialog while remaining calm and expressing care for the individual.

Breathe in compassion: The breath is a wonderful tool to calm yourself. Before the conversation begins, take a few moments to breathe deep belly-breaths full of compassion for the person you need to talk to, because your feedback may not be easy for them to hear. Remember that this person is a complex human being and may not be aware of the harm they’ve caused.

Let go: Release any assumptions or judgments about the other’s intent; they will not serve you (or them) because honestly – you don’t know why they did what they did. You can’t read their thoughts and really don’t know the reasons for their actions. Letting go of assumptions and judgments opens you up to learning about them in a good way.

Be direct: Say what you have to say in a direct but respectful way. Most people will prefer that you don’t beat around the bush; it can be frustrating and create misunderstanding. Tell them what you’ve observed and the impact it has on you, the team or the organization. Realize that this is your truth – not THE truth. Be open to surprise that there may be more to their story than you expected.

Listen: After you’ve said what you need to say, stay silent and let them respond. This is a conversation, which means it’s two-way and you don’t have to be the person who does all of the talking. Check your need to control the conversation. You never know where it will go, and that’s okay, go with it. If emotions get out of hand suggest a break and resume the dialog later.

Leaders have tough conversations. Don’t ignore things that require your intervention. You can manage how you conduct yourself and do it with respect and care, even if the other person doesn’t.

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.

 

 


The courage to listen

 

People want to have your answers to even the most routine of issues. If you notice your reaction when they ask for your advice or thoughts, you might feel a little “hit” of adrenaline kicking in – your breathing and heart rates increase with a subsequent increase in energy, perhaps a feeling of wellbeing. You like it when someone wants to know something that you know, and you especially like telling them about it.

You are rewarded for your knowledge. You see a direct link between your personal knowledge base, your performance rating and your pay. Your manager appreciates that you are a deep well of information because it takes some pressure away from him to be the one people come to for answers.

It’s exciting to be smart and reap the tangible rewards of feeling appreciated by your boss and your peers. People notice your intelligence and they respect you for what you know.

Listening is foundational to your performance

Performance evaluations and 360’s might provide feedback on your smarts but they rarely gage your ability to listen. Yet listening is foundational to all other qualities we expect to see in our leaders such as decisiveness, strategic thinking, influence, and getting results. In the noise of our organizations, listening gets little attention.

Listening isn’t easy. Not only do you have to stop talking, you also have to give up your agenda, your judgments and your assumptions. You must be fully present and intent on seeking to understand the person in front of you, even when you might disagree with them.

Listening in this way takes courage because:

When you’re listening, you’re not talking: The urge to speak is sometimes overwhelming. It takes work, requiring you to find a way to tame that impulse.

You don’t get to impress people with everything you know: You’ll need to wean yourself off the adrenaline hit and become more self-observant about when to speak and when to stay quiet and just listen.

You have to be still: You need to listen with your body, heart and mind. Your body needs to stay still, but so does the rest of you. The thoughts that run through your mind want to manifest through your lips. You’ll need to find a way to quiet them to listen at your best.

So what’s the payback to having the courage to listen?

Understanding the other’s point of view which leads to compassion, empathy, and better relationships. These are important qualities that help you to be a better leader.

New knowledge. You’ll find what others know to be amazing and useful. It can be humbling (and we all could you a little humility) to discover that you don’t know everything.

Better decisions. Listening fosters creativity. When people feel heard, they also feel free to speak up with their own thinking and ideas. This leads to better decisions.

People will think you’re brilliant. Listening to others is an ideal way for them to notice your brilliance in a different way. Haven’t you noticed that the quiet ones who are really listening are often pegged as being very smart?

Find the courage to listen and you’ll be a better leader because of it.

 

 

In praise of leaders who give meaning to labor

 

This labor day, I’m reprising a post from 2010. I’d love to hear your stories about the leaders in your life who made a difference to you.

 

Although the labor movement has changed significantly since the first labor day in 1882, one thing has not changed. Work – labor – is a huge force in most people’s lives and in our society as a whole. Work can be a source of joy and celebration or it can be a source of sadness and obligation. Workforce leaders have a central role in helping to define how people feel about their work.

Most leaders are unaware of the intensity of their ability to shape the climate of the workplace and to influence the attitudes of the people who work there. They may choose to influence in such a way that the people working there feel as if they are making a contribution or just taking home a pay check. Every action, every gesture and every word out of a leader’s mouth can influence in a positive or a negative way; either way impacts the bottom line.

Like you, I’ve known (and sometimes worked for) leaders who are able to instill a sense of pride, accomplishment, and fun into even the most mundane tasks. On this Labor Day, I give homage to those who shaped my own early career:

Mom: Who taught me the art of domestic engineering: how to wash dishes, vacuum floors, make beds, and do the laundry with a sense of pride in the finished product. She was excellent at praising a job well done and discreet in letting me know when I could have done better.

Helen: The woman who owned and operated the historical lodge where I worked as a maid in my teenage summers and told vivid stories about the people who stayed there in summers gone by. She helped me to see that the people who stayed there loved a place to connect and celebrate with others, and my role in keeping it clean was one way to carry on that tradition.

Dr. Smith: A mentor who treasured microbiology. He felt a need to take me under his wing in the research he was doing for the Michigan Blueberry Grower’s Association. Although I was charged with the less-than-exciting task of inoculating, cleaning and sterilizing Petri dishes, his love and dedication of the research helped me to see the connection between what I was learning in class and what the world offered to me when I graduated from college.

Supervisors too numerous to remember when I worked in factories during the summers of my college years. Working as a riveter, a punch press, and extruder operator could be some of the most mind-numbing work I would ever do. The supervisors seemed to know this, and were very patient with this college kid who couldn’t wait for summer (and her college education) to end. Some of those supervisors had done the work I did at one time and helped to ease the routine by organizing shop-wide picnics or potlucks at break times.

Paul, my first boss after college graduation who was on a mission to eradicate atherosclerosis, diabetes, and obesity within his lifetime. He passed his infectious enthusiasm on to anyone who came in contact with him. He brought everyone carrots from his garden for Christmas (yes, he dug into the frozen ground to get them; he said they tasted sweeter at this time of year). He is the guy who made Quail Tuesday special. He also told anyone who would listen that hiring me was the best thing he’d ever done, giving me confidence in the work I was doing.

Who are the leaders who have given your work meaning?

 

 

Leadership from the inside out

 

There is an interesting story about the shortest letter sent to the Daily Mail, an English newspaper. The editor asked readers to respond to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”. The following response was reported to have been received from C.K. Chesterton, a well-known writer in the last century:

 

Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours Sincerely, C.K. Chesterton

 

When I learned of that story, I wondered how many leaders realize that the impact they make begins with what’s inside of them. The good “human” qualities that are expressed outwardly by leaders – courage, respect, restraint, empathy, compassion, generosity – the list is long – start from within.

What that means is that when we look inside to develop these qualities, they can then manifest and become expressed through us to make an impact on the world around us.

So you, as a leader, have the opportunity to impact what’s right with the world through the positive qualities you express.

Stop and think about your own favorite leaders. What human qualities did you see in them that you admired beyond the more obvious ones that we often associate with strong leaders (“getting results”, “strategic”, “direct”, etc.)? I’ll bet that there was something they exhibited that increased their effectiveness as a leader that went beyond this list.

Perhaps they showed kindness toward you or respected your opinion. Maybe they exhibited compassion when you had personal troubles, or they displayed courage in having your back when you took some heat from others at work.

Some leaders I know have been told they need to develop one or more of these “softer” qualities. Perhaps you do too, and you might wonder if that’s possible. I’m happy to report that it is.

Surprisingly, these qualities can be developed using a strategy. This is how you might begin:

Reflect: Spend some time thinking about what qualities you know you need to develop. Ask yourself: “Is this quality one that will make a positive impact on the way I lead?”, “Do I deeply desire to improve this quality in myself?” and “Do I believe that this quality is something that I can develop?” if the answer to these questions is “yes”, then you’re ready to make a commitment. When you fully commit, you can be successful.

Get ideas: Read about the quality you want to develop (there are books, blogs, and research on almost all of them). Discuss your thoughts with those close to you. Reflect on how you’ve shown (even snippets) of the quality you want to develop in yourself. It’s always surprising to me how creative we can be in finding specific ways to develop ourselves. It’s not always a direct route; just because you want to develop a specific quality doesn’t make it happen. For instance, I once worked with a leader who learned to empathize with others by listening deeply to them. Another developed compassion by working with the poor in her city. Experiment and find what works for you.

Create a plan: Now that you’ve got some ideas about how to proceed, create a plan. Create a written development/action plan outlining the steps you’ll take, how you’ll take them, and the people around you that can assist in holding you accountable. Check in with your plan frequently to assure that you’re still on track and make any changes you need to make. I can’t resist suggesting that you might also hire an executive or leadership coach to help you to stay accountable and provide structured reflection time on your plan.

Practice: Look for opportunities to practice your new skills. Adjust as necessary if they don’t work well. Be patient because you are replacing old habits with new ones, and that takes time. Make sure you get feedback from others on what they’re noticing. At some point, the new behaviors will become automatic and a part of you.

It’s important for you to be strategic, direct, and to get results. But there is more to being a great leader than that. Think about developing the human qualities that will make you a great leader, and commit to working on them.

 

This post was originally published in SmartBlog on Leadership.

 

 

Living into integrity

 

Many leaders I know gasp when I tell them about the vacation that Ken and I take (almost) every year. We both own and operate businesses that require a lot of our attention. We love what we do, but yearn for time away doing something that energizes us and makes us feel whole. So we spend a week in nature with little outside contact (i.e. we don’t have cell phone service or wi-fi except when we’re on the road between stops). We tow a small camper and hike, wade, observe, photograph, meditate and rest. This is our time away from work and it helps us to live into integrity.

Many leaders will claim that one of their top personal values is integrity. Since integrity is a noble value that includes honesty, morality, and a sense of civility or decency, I can understand why. Yet when questioned about how integrity plays itself out in their behavior, their answers can be tilted toward their work life; they haven’t thought about how integrity plays out in their life outside of work. Integrity is important in all areas of life and this is especially true for leaders who need to model what that means.

There is another meaning of the word “integrity” that might make you stop and think about whether you’re truly living that value in every part of your life:

“The state of being whole, entire, or undiminished”.

It seems that if you truly want to live out the common definition of integrity (being honest, moral, and decent) it would make sense that the foundation to doing so is to be whole, entire and undiminished.

 

Work on being whole by working on what diminishes you

What makes a person whole is individually defined and you may get some clues when you consider some “shortages” in your outside-of-work life:

Not enough sleep

A shortage of family and friend time

Unhealthy food

Lack of exercise

Too much screen time (computer/tablet/smartphone/television)

No time to think

Not enough “you time”

Absence of artistic/creative/sports pursuits

 

The list could go on, but if you think about “what’s missing” in your life or consider what you yearn for more of, you might find that you don’t feel whole. Although integrity may be an important value to you, you may be leaving out important activities that boost your ability to be at your best and to truly live into the whole meaning of integrity.

Integrity is a meaningless word that only transforms into something of value when you live it in all areas of your life.

If integrity is important to you, you’ll find a way to stay “whole” by taking care of those things that are missing or lacking. When you are truly living into integrity in all areas of your life you’ll notice significant impacts on your ability to be the best leader you can be. What commitments are you willing to make?

 

 

 

Passion needs persistence

 

The truth is that passion for leadership is only a good start to being the best leader you can be.

Leadership for most of us isn’t easy since there are hurdles to jump over and obstacles in the way to success. There are lots of things you need along with passion in order to be a successful leader, but persistence comes in at a strong second place. Without persistence, you don’t get to express your passion. Without dogged determination your craving to be a great leader lies dormant all clouded over with excuses about the things you “should do” but don’t.

My story of persistence

I was reminded of the importance of persistence over the last couple of weeks when a former U.S. Government client called to let me know he had some people in his organization that he wanted to work with a coach. I discovered that a lot has changed since I worked with him long ago. It’s a lot harder to work for the government than it was back then.

Now I have to compete for the work with an RFQ – a request for quote. It required no less than four days of my time to prepare. All the while the final product was on a timeline, and I was confused about many of the details needed to submit a successful bid.

I experienced government websites that didn’t make any sense and sometimes just didn’t work. They slowed me down as the clock was ticking and knew I had to cross every “T” and dot every “I”. Help desks that were compartmentalized into tiny chunks of responsibility couldn’t help me because they said I needed to talk to someone else, who sent me to someone else who then decided I needed to call another government organization. Government regulations needed to be read. And I had questions, lots of questions.

I was frustrated, but determined. I reminded myself how much I love what I do. Somehow, I muddled through the government requirements and submitted the final paperwork with twenty minutes to spare. I don’t know if I’ll get the work that I put my persistence into bidding for. I was persistent and it felt good to figure it out and get it done.

We need you to be persistent

Sound familiar? If you love being a leader, consider your passion only the beginning of your work. There are obstacles in your way. You must be persistent in everything you do because it can be hard. You’ll never get a chance to use your passion unless you’re tenacious.

So find someone who can help you*, get up and take action. Bust through those barriers when the going gets tough. The world needs great leaders, and you might just be one of them. We’re waiting for you to shine.

 

*I didn’t do this alone. I had assistance from PTAC: The Procurement Technical Assistance Center, a busy group of wonderful consultants who helped be interpret the “what and how”, checked over my submission, and cheered me on to completing the bid on time.

 

When you decide to lead

 

Three years ago the Michigan International Coach Federation chapter needed a Board President. Nobody came forward to fill the slot, and when asked, I said “no”; I was too busy and besides, I preferred to stay on the board, but not to lead the organization. I liked the idea of staying behind the scenes a bit.

A month or two went by without a successor willing to take the spot, and as a founding board member, I had a stake in the matter. So I asked myself, “What would a leader do?”. I made the tough decision to step up to the plate as the Board President. I knew that meant that I also had to step out of the shadows and lead. It required time and a willingness to do some of the hard things that needed to be done. In other words, it required a commitment and a willingness to behave like a leader.

The decision to lead is (or should be) a conscious choice. It isn’t a position on an organization chart. Whether you are an individual contributor, manager, director, or a CEO, you must make a decision about whether you will be a leader. The title leader “leader” isn’t automatically conferred on you because you have a position on the organization chart. It has to show up in your behavior.

When you commit to lead, those who participate in your leadership will expect you to:

Know what it means for you to lead. How will you behave, and what outcomes do you expect from your behavior? What are you expecting from from those who support you? What will be different in you that will express itself outwardly to those around you? How will you change, and where will you get the support you need to make the personal changes required to lead? Spend time reflecting on these questions and be prepared to demonstrate and communicate your commitment to the answers.

Have a vision of how your organization will perform and the legacy you will leave when you move on. One of my favorite vision questions is, “If an alien looked down on your organization three (or two or five) years from now, what do they see you and your team doing?”. What behaviors do you expect of others in regards to the vision? How will you define and communicate it?

Honor their well-being. The well-being of your stakeholders doesn’t just happen after work hours. Webster’s dictionary defines well-being as “a state characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity”, so if you consider this definition holistically, it applies to how you treat others. What do you want your stakeholders to say to others about how they are treated? What values will you impart in your relationships with them?

In deciding to take the Board President position, I thought about all of these things before actually leading. They helped me to define myself and the way I wanted to be seen. They put boundaries around my expectations for myself and for the team. And they helped me to make a commitment to lead.

When you decided to lead what questions did your commitment require of you?

 

 

 

Giving space and light for others to grow

 

Last winter, we had an old apple tree in the yard topple from sub-zero freezing temperatures and the weight of more snow than we’ve seen since we’ve lived here. When we lost that tree, we gained a patch of sun that we hadn’t had before. Excitement ensued when we envisioned the possibility of having our first vegetable garden in many years.

So in the spring we tilled and fertilized the soil. We shopped for starter plants. We made sure we kept the hungry vegetable-eating critters at bay. It was a spring of just enough sun and a summer of plenty of rain to foster vegetable plants that look like jungle growth. We have six-foot tomato plants and zucchini leaves that appear to belong along the Amazon River.

The problem is that in this harvesting season, the yields of edible vegetables have been less than ideal. We have more tomatoes than we can use, but they aren’t getting ripe. And if you’ve ever grown zucchini, most of the time you’ll have more than you can possibly eat* – not so in our garden.

Our poor yields are the result of not having enough space and light between the plants.

 

Your team needs space and light too

When you give your team enough space and light, it’s a win-win situation. They learn and grow while allowing you to ease up on managing them. This letting go of your need to control becomes a virtuous cycle that leaves space and light for you to become a better leader.

In other words, those you lead will be happier and more productive when you give them space and light. And you get to lead at your best.

Help your team to grow by:

Leaving space: Let go of the things that you really can’t control. Establish and communicate a vision for the work so your team has an understanding of what needs to be done to achieve success without your need to manage them with a heavy hand. Let them figure out the how the work can get done while you coach them to success. Set the expectations and stop meddling in their work or giving them constant advice. Have regular dialog where you listen well and ask questions that will guide them to find their own way to complete the work.

Letting in light: Illuminate the things that are important for the team to accomplish. Find ways to communicate the vision, goals and mission of your organization often. This will allow you to step back and count on them to do the work while they learn and develop. And remember to give positive feedback often; let them know that you’ve observed the good things they’re doing to achieve the mission.

Get feedback from your team on how you’re leading. Reflect on what’s working and what isn’t, and adjust to let more space and light into your leadership.

 

*Give your extra zucchini away this week. Believe it or not, August 8 is national “sneak a zucchini on your neighbor’s porch day”.

 

How to see others as people

 

I spent much of the weekend reading a book called The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. It’s been on my reading list for far too long. It continues the story of Lou who was featured in an earlier work by Arbinger called Leadership and Self Deception. Both books dig below the surface to explore the beliefs and mindset (that impact behavior) of a fictional leader.

The Anatomy of Peace book prompted me to think about how we choose in each and every moment how to treat people; even when we believe we don’t have a choice. There is an important distinction for leaders: the difference between seeing people as people or seeing them as an object. This distinction – and the choice that is made – has enormous implications for the way you engage and lead others.

If you’re choosing to see (and treat) others as objects, you perceive them as a means to an end. There is little room for compassion or kindness because you’re only viewing them as instruments to complete the work at hand. They may not follow you willingly, and they won’t give their work everything they have.

If you’re choosing to see (and treat) others as people, you empathize and seek to understand them. They can see that you care and know that you have their best interest in mind. You will influence and inspire them to complete the work while using every bit of their hidden potential to the very best of their ability.

At any moment any of us can choose the way we see others but we must recognize the choice we have in that moment in order to make a conscious decision about our actions and behavior. How will you recognize that moment?

You are treating someone like a person when:

You withhold judgment of them: You aren’t thinking about whether someone is good or bad. You see them only as a person who is complex and messy, knowing that when they act up, they’re being human. In fact, you look beyond the surface flaws to see something more, even as their behaviors may drive you crazy.

You have compassion: You listen for understanding, treating others with kindness and empathy. You relate to them with an emotional connection because it is what you should do, not for any other reason that might serve your purposes. Put simply, you “get them”.

You do the right thing for them: When decisions and judgments must be made (because that is part of what you get paid to do), you do the right thing for them. You are able to set aside what others think and all of the politics that draw you in to treat them as the individual they are.

You see them as an equal: Even though you may be in a position of authority, you see them and treat them as an equal. They feel comfortable and valued in your presence because you don’t see them as something less than yourself.

You see their potential: You know that everyone is brimming with potential and as you listen and watch carefully, the person in front of you is no exception. Rather than seeing them as an object that gets the work done, you see them as full of possibility.

Think about the interactions you have. Are you choosing to treat others as objects or as people?

 

Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo
A former executive in a Fortune 100 company, I own and operate a leadership solutions firm called Aspire Collaborative Services. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. I am married, have two daughters, and a dog named Edgar the Leadership Pug who exemplifies the importance of relationships to great leadership.
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