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Fan the flames of bigger dreams


Perhaps you’re one of the lucky leaders who’ve had someone in your life that inspired you to think bigger. Look back at those moments when you had an insight into something that you could build, create, begin or complete. Someone you know opened a window that let the fresh air of a dormant dream take you in a new direction.

What was it about this person that sparked your insight? What did they do that provoked you to dream bigger than you would have on your own? I’ll bet I can guess, and the behaviors you notice are some that might help you and your team to dream bigger too.

Thinking bigger can help to create a greater vision and goals for your organization as well as help individual team members to set personal development and organizational goals with more ease. When you as the leader dream bigger, you can help others to do so as well. Some thoughts to get started:

Engage in the world around you differently. Try things you haven’t tried before, meet people you’ve never met, read books that you wouldn’t normally read and go to places you haven’t gone. Get outside of your comfort zone. When you stretch yourself, new thinking happens and big ideas can be fostered. Small ways to incorporate this into your everyday world might include doing some community service, volunteering to work with a non-profit, and setting an intention to learn new things at that next conference.

Block out thinking time. I sense your resistance to this one. You may think you are paid to take action, or you may believe you don’t have the time to daydream. After all, blocking out time to think feels unproductive. Yet the further up the organizational ladder you rise, the more you’re expected to think bigger and to bring others along with you. Start small if you wish – 15 minutes a day. Use that time to set an intention at the start of your day to do something – anything – that is not part of your usual routine; use it at the end of the day to assess your progress on dreaming bigger dreams.

Ask big wide-open questions. Have you noticed that when you ask questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”, it shuts down thinking in others? Instead, ask questions that start with the word “what” and notice how their big thinking wheels turn: “What values will define our organization?”, “What kind of leader do you want to be?”, “What goals can we set that will stretch us?” and “What has to happen for us to be fully committed to reaching our goals?” are the kind of questions that help others to dream bigger.

Respect and encourage others’ ideas. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable with ideas that may differ from your own. You don’t have to agree with them all of the time – but you do need to stop accepting only the ideas that you agree with. Listen without judgment and respect the fact that your team is trying to think bigger; thank them for their ideas and let them percolate. You just might find a gem or two that will be useful.

Be the instrument for fanning the flames of bigger dreams as you foster it yourself and encourage it in others!





What happens when you have real conversation

You may not see the importance of authentic conversations at work. That’s understandable because you (think) they consume valuable time and you don’t get rewarded for talking with people. Meeting organizational goals, hiring, firing, managing performance and the boss may seem like the most significant things to do. These are vital, but think about it: none of these things get done without people and they all require conversation.

Nothing happens without conversation. When great conversations happen, relationships become established and organizational goals can be met and exceeded.

Real conversations – the kind where all involved parties listen to each other, are curious and non-judgmental (even when you disagree) are the foundation for rich learning and deep connection as well as thoughtful action. New possibilities are created in dialog where wonderful connections happen as people co-create together.

When you have these kinds of conversations, you’ll find that you – and organizational results – change for the better:

From being weighed down by your responsibility to solve it all to believing that people are whole and resourceful. How could you ever possibly trust that your stakeholders (including your direct reports, your boss, and your peers) have something to offer without genuine, honest conversations? Listen deeply and new worlds emerge that are full of possibility and potential that, when thoroughly discussed, lead to shared goals and great accomplishments.

From making errors based on faulty thinking to recognizing that the most creative solutions happen when people think together. Do you look back on decisions you’ve made and feel that they could have been better? When you think together with others, you just might be surprised about the range of solutions that emerge. Be curious about what materializes as well as your own desire to hang onto your own solutions. Let go of your desire to hold on to your truths and consider the new ones that evolve through the power of real conversations.

From a primary focus on moving too quickly to action to understanding that a reflective practice with others can foster more effective action. Have you noticed that taking action is different from taking thoughtful action? Thoughtful action, based in a reflective practice that involves open conversation with others can be more effective than taking action on the fly. Exercise non-judgment in your conversations and see if you don’t find this to be true.

Being a leader is tough. Adding in the burden of being a leader who feels solely responsible for coming up with all solutions, innovation, and action can kill you (or at the very least derail your leadership). Open up the conversation to include others and notice the positive impact on you and your organization.


When your “bias for action” has its limits


The leaders who move to the top of their organizations are often those who are fast paced, focused on taking action, and results-oriented. Yet those very qualities can derail leaders who don’t pay attention to the needs of the people they lead.

At some point if they continue on their action-focused trajectory, these leaders who have a bias for action might find that when they turn around nobody is following them.

Does this sound familiar to you? If you’re impatient and frustrated at the pace of your team or the number of mistakes they’re making – look to yourself before you place blame on them. Your results-oriented bias for action has its limits – and your team may have bumped up against boundaries that they can’t pass through without your help.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. You may have a very good idea about where things need to go, but your team is having a tough time keeping up with you. There might be some assumptions you’ve made that need to be questioned. Take a step back and consider:

How well have I articulated the vision and expectations? You may believe that others are on the same page as you are, but they may not grasp the vision and your expectations in the depth that you do. These things need to be articulated and repeated often, and in as many ways and venues as you can. Find ways to insert your vision and expectations into casual conversations, emails, and presentations. People won’t always grasp things the first time, but when they are repeated, they can be absorbed over time.

Is my team ready for this? It could be that you’re making assumptions about your team’s readiness to do the work required to achieve the vision. All of the vision and expectations that you articulate won’t get put into action if the
people responsible for making things happen don’t have the tools or the know-how to move ahead. Training or your intervention to coach them may be required to help them take action that’s aligned with the vision.

Am I supporting my team in the way that works for them? Each of your direct reports may need something different from you. Some will require more assurance that they are on the right path. Others may do their best work when you don’t interfere. Some prefer different kinds of support at different times. Get in the habit of asking, “What can I do to help you to do your best work?” and then follow through with whatever you agree to do.

All of these assumptions require conversation with those who support you. Assuring that the vision and expectations are clearly understood rests with you. There are lots of options available to you to help make things happen, and you might not be thinking of all of. Include your team in discussions about what you can do better to move the vision ahead!



Curiosity: a pillar for great relationships at work


I was a curious kid who roamed the wooded area around our house, poking at things, observing, taking notes. I collected lizards, mice, injured rabbits, bottom scum from ponds and observed the wildlife. To many people, these things would not be interesting, but to me they were (and still are) endlessly fascinating.

I went on to study biology in college in a nurturing environment with amazing teachers who fostered my curiosity even more. I put hard work in book learning and loved the hands-on laboratory work where sometimes unexpected things happened that fueled my inquisitiveness and encouraged further exploration. My first professional position was in an experimental laboratory, and I had the good fortune of having a good boss who allowed me plenty of leeway to explore freely.

At some point, my curiosity turned to people – their motivations and stories. These new objects of my wonder were everywhere: at work, in the park, in the airport. I would tell my husband the stories of the people I met and he would comment about how strange it was that I’d heard such intimate detail about stranger’s lives. I believe it was my attention to them that encouraged them to tell their stories.

Curiosity is the fuel for creativity and a foundation for great relationships; it blasts through the assumptions and judgments we make about other people and it calms conflict. As a leader, you can foster respectful curiosity by modelling it with:

Presence: Be intentional about where you put your attention. Turn off or turn away from distractions when you are in conversation and turn fully to the person in front of you. In those moments, do whatever you need to do to focus completely on them.

Listen: The kind of deep listening where you turn off the chatter in your brain and focus to understand the other person will help you to become more curious. If you start to judge them or make assumptions about their point of view, you won’t have the benefit of learning about them. When that happens, notice and go back to listening to understand their viewpoint.

Inquire: It can be magical when we’re focused on the other person in this way, as your curiosity arises on its own. You may find that want to know more; ask some respectful questions that are open ended (not yes/no) and begin with “what” or “how”. If you have any doubt about whether your questions will not be taken as “respectful”, ask permission to ask the question: “May I ask you a question about……?”.

People love to feel heard and respected. If you consider the times you’ve really felt like someone listened to and respected you, you’ll remember what that feels like.

What if you tried being as curious about others as you are about how to read a financial statement or how to make your quarterly goals? Your curiosity is a great way to engage others and model the building of great workplace relationships.



Meeting them where they are


Visualize someone at work who gets under your skin. Do you remember all of the (often small) things they’ve done that bother you? Your tendency may be to carry someone’s habits (the ones that you don’t like) and forget that they are capable of something more.

You may have to work closely with them; they may be a peer, direct report or even your boss. What happens when you’re in conversation together? Your mind is chattering away, making less-than-complimentary judgments about their intent or ability. Your emotions are running high based on past history, and your thoughts are somewhere else making up unflattering stories about them while you aren’t listening to anything they say.

This damaging thought process has put you right back in a past where there is little hope for a change in your relationship. You feed on it a little bit (it’s not entirely unpleasant, a quirk of your shadow side), but you’ve recognized that you’d really like to change how things are. You know that if the relationship stays stuck in the past, the work you do together will too.

There’s magic in that desire to change, and it’s the beginning of snapping out of the negative thoughts you hold on to. The next step can change the way you see them and upgrade your relationship (and consequently, your leadership).

This is the secret to a better relationship: Meet them where they are. Forget about the past and all the irksome things they’ve done. Start over by:

Forgiving them for those things they do that bother you. Forgiveness is an inside-out process, and you have to do the inside work to let those things go and help your relationship (and work together) flourish. Although they may not change their habits, you can change yourself and how you react to them through forgiveness. Trust that when you forgive, everything else has potential to change in a relationship.

Discovering what’s good. Let go of the negative memories and look for their strengths. Listen and show curiosity; discover their admirable qualities, what they do well, and what they can contribute to the relationship and work you’re doing. Let them know what you noticed, and ask them how they can use those qualities, and how you can help them to shine.

Seeing something new in the way they are now and the future potential they have. The old habits that got under your skin before may still crop up, but they’re now overridden by possibility. In that future, your relationship flourishes and great things can happen as you support each other over every hurdle that comes your way.

For now, you’re meeting them were they are, and the difference it makes in your relationship and their performance is magical. The bothersome past is gone, and you can start over because seeing potential in others is something the best leaders do well.


Courage is a muscle


It’s easy to deceive yourself that your ability to be courageous isn’t an issue for you. In your rational mind, you may avoid stepping into conflict, decisions, and speaking truth with (what you believe to be) logic. When self-deception happens, you can miss opportunities to make a difference in your organizations and those you lead.

Think carefully about where you mislead yourself because most of the things that require leaders to exercise courage aren’t big splashy acts; they’re the everyday things you avoid. Some examples and their deceptive self-talk might include:


  • A critical feedback conversation with an employee: Self-talk: “They’ll never change anyway, so why bother?”
  • Making an important decision that might be unpopular: Self-talk: “Nobody will support this decision.”
  • Speaking truth to power: Self-talk: “I will lose my job (the promotion, prestige, a raise) if I call this person out on that.”


Courage is like a muscle. It can be built every day in the small actions you take. One of the best ways to find out where you need to build your own leadership courage is to think about what you are avoiding or putting off. Take a deep breath and then take the first steps toward exercising your courage:

Talk to someone you trust: Do you have a friend, colleague, or coach who listens and asks great open ended questions that can help you think through your fears? Find someone without a vested interest in the fearful thing you need to do, and discuss your options. If they are good at being non-judgmental, they can help you consider possibilities you may not have thought of. Imagine what it would be like to step into and overcome your fear: what are you doing and saying? How will you show up? How will others see you as you bust through your fear with confidence?

Weigh out the risk/benefit ratio: The scenarios that you’ve imagined in your head about how this will play out may be blown out of reasonable proportion. Would you really get fired? Will the others involved really go on a rampage or create the alliance against you that you imagine? Think about the best things and the worst things that can happen when you are successful at being courageous. Somewhere in between you will see realistically and clearly.

Write down the steps you need to take: You’ve advanced this far so you’ve already taken some of the first steps toward gaining the courage you need. Write down a plan for the next steps. Step by step and bit by bit, you’re getting closer to being more fearless. You might even be ready to do what needs to be done.

Now just do it. The next time it will be easier because you’re strengthened your courage muscle. Exercise it regularly on the everyday things that you are fearful of and you’ll be ready – confident and courageous – for the big splashy stuff.



What kind of leader do you want to be?


You, like most leaders, spend a lot of time on what you need to “do”. Long lists of action items, email and text messages waiting in que, phone calls to make and meetings to go to are enticing you. Being busy and feeling needed is seductive and addictive; crossing “to do’s” off a list feels really good, giving an impression that you’re moving forward.

You’ve forgotten something. In the midst of your adrenaline-addicted pace of doing, have you stopped to consider who you want to be as a leader?

I know – thinking can feel unproductive. It doesn’t feel like you’re getting anything done. Yet the kind of leader you want to be is one of the most important areas to reflect on; it will set the tone for your future successes.

This is a significant because the truth is that leadership is not about managing things, it’s about influencing people. And to influence people you have to form relationships with them. To successfully form relationships, you have to be true to who you are in your leadership (have you ever known someone who “does” leadership, you’ll know the difference). And those relationships are the engine that powers your ability to lead others.

Even if you’ve been a leader for a long time, you should still revisit the kind of leader you want to be, since leadership is an ongoing journey, and there are always adjustments to be made along the way.

So settle in, pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, close the door and ask yourself these questions to help understand what kind of leader you want to be (P.S. for many, capturing the answers in writing helps to solidify any forward action to be taken):


  • What qualities do I aspire to exemplify in my leadership? What makes them important to me? What makes them important to others?


  • When I move on to whatever is next, what do I want to leave behind? How will people remember me as a human being and leader?


  • What will it take for me to truly stand out as a leader?


  • What actions will I commit to in moving my leadership to the next level?


  • What is the first step I can take to be the leader I want to be?


  • Who can help me?


  • What other questions need to be asked to help me to be the kind of leader I want to be?


(That last one is a trick question, but I really want to know what you would ask!).


If you are driven to be a better leader, you won’t let these questions rest. Move forward! Find someone to support you, create an action plan and practice demonstrating and refining your new behaviors in your leadership and your life. Don’t stop learning and getting better! There is always more to do in becoming the kind of leader you want to be.



Leading people you don’t like


It’s happened to you, as it happens to all of us at some point. You have an employee (or more) that you manage who is challenging you. When you’re honest with yourself, you just don’t like them and this bothers you. They are “average” at their work yet you sense that they have the potential to be even better.

If you look closely at how your dislike for this person impacts how you interact with them, you notice that you avoid having the kind of conversations you need to have, and you don’t give them the feedback and encouragement you give to others.

Perhaps they deserve more from you.

In other words you just can’t see your way through to thinking clearly about the potential they might have to be better at what they do because you don’t like them. If you changed your thinking about them, what might happen for the better?

This requires you to rethink how you view this person and it takes work on yourself. This is hard work because it may surface some pretty unpleasant personal beliefs you have. You can start here:

Set aside time to reflect on your judgments. Turn the mirror back to yourself and ask:

  • What biases or judgments do I cling to about this person?


  • What stories do I tell myself that cause me to cling to those biases or judgements?


  • How might my personal beliefs be impacting their ability to perform at their best?


  • What potential am I willing to see in them?


You might find it helpful to write down your responses to these questions, and to reflect on them again later. Next:

Consider the actions you might want to take now. What value might there be in changing your behaviors toward them? Assuming you can see that you may be complicit in the average performance of this person you don’t like, what do you want to do about it? Remember, you are working on yourself, not them. Maybe you are questioning your beliefs now, and thinking that there is some new way you can show up with this person. What new behaviors do you need to take on?

Be patient. Be patient with yourself and your new actions toward the other person. You may notice the old feelings of dislike toward them coming up. When that happens, return to your new ways of thinking about them and the potential they have.

Your personal beliefs, biases and judgments about others can get in the way of your ability to engage, motivate, and lead them to be at their best. When you recognize and change your thoughts about those you don’t like, their hidden potential can be unleashed.


The opposite of good leadership


The following is not meant to be a political commentary – I’ve made a conscious decision not to wave any political flag in this space. Yet I couldn’t miss the opportunity to point out some disconcerting observable behaviors in a public leader that demonstrate what good leaders shouldn’t do.

Sometimes you can learn how to be a better leader by noticing other leaders who do things that you find objectionable. The leader featured here is everywhere in the news; bigger than life, demonstrating many things you might dislike in workplace managers and leaders. I often hear that people like him because he “tells it like it is”.

This leader, who is running for President, demonstrates some opposing qualities that are important for good leaders to observe (for what not to do). If you pay attention, you may notice that:

He doesn’t listen: This leader continually interrupts others, talking over them before they are done speaking. Although many (most?) politicians dodge a question, this one interrupts before the speaker is done asking it. Learn to listen for understanding – it will go a long way toward making you a better leader. The hardest thing to do is to listen to those who have different opinions than you, but it’s also the most important.

He doesn’t demonstrate respect and civility: Disrespecting and demeaning other people seems to have increased everywhere. That doesn’t make it acceptable. This leader’s hurtful speech directed at individuals can cause suffering. Yes, he is often fighting fire with fire, a strategy that rarely works to develop relationships. Leaders take the high road even when they are under fire. Learn to choose that road while drawing others in and engaging them in the work that needs to be done.

He doesn’t explain his reasoning: This leader may “tell it like it is”, yet much of his speech is peppered with his opinions, deflections, and blaming others. Yes, he’s direct (as a leader should be) in what he says. There are few, if any facts or reasons to back up his opinions. Do your homework and back up your decisions and opinions with facts and reasons so others have a good foundation in how you think.

He doesn’t accept personal responsibility: This leader has the uncanny ability to deflect responsibility for his demeaning comments about others, often putting the blame on the people he hurts (they deserved it after all). This takes a human toll on many people, especially when done in a public forum. Don’t excuse away your actions and words. Have the courage to apologize for hurting others and work to gain their trust again.

Being direct by telling it like it is can be a great quality for a leader. Today we also need leaders who can connect and develop the kind of inclusive, trusting relationships that foster a sense of commitment and teamwork. That kind of leader is one who listens, respects others, explains their reasons and accepts personal responsibility for their behavior.


The top 10 things you’re resisting that will make you a better leader


There are certain patterns of resistance I’ve noticed in the leaders I’ve worked with that are really good at their craft – but have the potential to be great. These behaviors that leaders resist can increase their potential to lead at the top of their game. Perhaps as you read through the list, you’ll notice some of your own resistance poking through as you tell yourself:

  • “I don’t have time.”
  • “It’s not as important as meeting our goals.”
  • “What will they (my boss, my employees, my peers) think?”
  • “Tried that once, and it didn’t help me.”

Listen to those inner voices of resistance. They might be telling you that it’s time to stop resisting and start doing something different. So without further ado, Here are the top 10 things you may have been resisting that can help you to become a better leader (in no particular order):


  1. Making time to think: Most leaders spend their days “doing”. You’ll be a better leader if you delegate some of the doing and make time to think about your organizational vision, values, decisions, what’s going well, and what could go even better. Block out regular time to stop “doing” and start “being” a better leader!


  2. Developing relationships: I have worked with a great leader who told me he spent almost all of his time developing relationships with his stakeholders. He set the bar for his own staff to realize just how important relationships were to their ability to lead others. Start now to be intentional about reaching out to your stakeholders!


  3. Having actual conversations: When was the last time you slowed down enough to have a real conversation with your team, your boss, or your peers? This conversation is the kind where you aren’t doing all the talking and you’re listening to what matters to them. Ask what others think and listen to them!


  4. Taking a break: Breaks from your daily work need to be varied: short, long, at work, away from work. Take a 10 minute walk in the middle of the day. Take ALL of your vacation time. Join a local organization. Help to feed the poor. Hang out with people you like and love. Breaks away from work will rejuvenate you!


  5. Coaching and developing the team: You need to do this because it’s part of your job, even if it’s not written in your job description. Every one-on-one status meeting you have with your direct reports should include some intentional coaching and development. This not only helps your team members, it helps you and your organization!


  6. Exercising, eating better, sleeping more: I know you might not see how these things will make you a better leader, but when you exercise, eat well and get enough sleep you’ll have more energy for your day and for the long haul. Leading people takes a lot energy!


  7. Turning off devices: Seriously, do you really think that the world will come to end if you turn off your cell phone when you’re having dinner with your family? When you’re watching your kid’s soccer game? When you’re deep in conversation with someone? Your distraction is annoying and harmful to your relationships!


  8. Developing a personal vision and plan: What kind of leader do you want to be a year from now or five years from now? What do you want your followers to say about you when you step out the door? What do you need to start doing to get there? Spend some time making a plan for being a better leader!


  9. Praising employees: Don’t worry about your employees getting “too big for their britches” – they need to know what’s going right every bit (maybe more) than what’s going wrong. Be intentional and be specific and expressing your thanks for what they’re doing well. They can’t function on criticism alone!


  10. Delegating more: You’re not the only person who can do whatever you’re doing. Every leader I know who has people reporting to them can delegate more. When done well, it frees up time to do almost everything on the list above!


The best leaders pay attention to the things they’ve been resisting and courageously make them daily habits. Choose one or two of the above to begin with , get started, and pay attention to the difference it makes for your leadership.


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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