Improvisational Leadership: Part 3 – Tools


Ethan, Hunter (dog) and the “Table”

Not all tools are created equal.

My youngest daughter is about to get married.  I like the guy she is saying “yes” to.  He totally reminds me of myself – but that’s beside the point.  He bought a house about a year ago and wants it to be nice for my daughter.  One of the things that my daughter has hinted at is the desire to have bigger dining table.  Taking the hint, my future son-in-law decided to build the table for her – himself.  Lest you think my daughters’ hints about the table were subtle…she has been pinning tables on Pinterest for him for quite a while.  So, after some research, he found the plan he wanted to undertake and he went for it.

He invited me to help him out which I was glad to do and on the day of the big build I asked him if he had everything he needed.  He said he did.  I showed up to find his Jeep full of lumber and ready for unloading (this was going to be a rustic table).  As I looked around I noticed that there weren’t very many tools.  So I asked, “How are you going to cut your lumber?”  He said, “I’ve got a hand saw.”  I answered, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like for me to get my power saw?”  As we processed it together, we agreed that the power saw might be the better way to go.  When I went home to pick up the saw I picked up several extra tools as well.  I think we were both glad we had them when the project was over.

Now – lest it appears that I’m trying to one-up my future son-in-law – I’m not.  There was a day – that I was him.  I was just starting out, my tool budget was low, I had lots of ideas, I was in love (and still am) with a girl that I wanted to do nice things for and I was sure I could do it myself (I had no other choice – I couldn’t afford to buy it).  The issue was that when I tried to build things with my small tool box I never seemed to get the results I wanted.  On “This Old House” their work always looked so pretty and precise.  Mine looked like it had been mangled, chewed up and spit out.  My heart was in the right place – I might have even had some innate skill to pull it off – but my tools were woefully inadequate.

Rabbit chase…I can even remember a time that I tried to open a bottle of wine in our early marriage with a lag screw.  I don’t recommend it – unless you want bits of cork in your wine.  Take my advice, spend the money and get a good cork screw…just sayin.

Bottom line…the right tools matter.  They matter in construction and they matter in leadership.

You might expect that at this moment that I would jump into a rant about the top five tools to have in leadership but I’m going to resist that for now.  Actually, there are many great tools out there.  Too many to mention in this writing.  But there are equally as many interpretations about which ones are the best.

So rather than talking about specific tools let me offer an idea.  Before you and I can get a sense of the best tools to use we have to have a sense of our worldview (see prior blog posts).  Why?  Because tools follow worldview.  Think about it.  What you and I value out of our worldview drives what tools we will ultimately want (and use) in our tool belt.

Here’s an example. PBS is filled with all kinds of “fix-it” shows.  I’ve already mentioned This Old House.  Another show on PBS has a guy who builds things using no power tools at all.*  He is quite the minimalist…and seems to love it.  What’s more…he seems to get great results.  The stuff he builds is very nice.  But his tools are so different from This Old House.  How can that be?  Shouldn’t all craftsmen use the same tools?

Consider this, there are all kinds of people making all kinds of cool stuff using all kinds of different tools.  In our lifetime you and I will choose certain tools and call them the “best” – because they make sense to us.  Not only that, the more we use them, we will develop skills around our tools of choice (we’ll talk about skills in the next part) and we will accomplish a certain level of proficiency and results with them.

But make no mistake – those who use power tools will tend to process the world differently than those who don’t.  I know this sounds corny but stick with me.  We can declare one way better or worse if we wish – but I would say that that isn’t the point.  The bigger question is what tools resonate with your values and worldview?

An example.  Several years ago I was introduced to a book that really resonated with my leadership worldview and values.  It was written by Pat Lencioni.  It was called “The Advantage.”  Simply put, the idea from the book that resonated with me was that of culture.  Lencioni said that building a healthy organizational culture was arguably the most important thing that any organization could do.  More specifically, he spent a lot of time talking about how to build team and consensus which he considered critical to healthy culture.

I totally drank the Kool-Aid on that book.  It made perfect sense to me.

As a result, in the years since that read, I have tried to leverage this concept (tool) in many different conversations, jobs and coaching opportunities.  It felt so natural – so right.  It was obviously the greatest tool that had ever been created so it should impact everyone just like it impacted me – right?

Guess what – it didn’t.  At first I was kind of dumbstruck.  “Why don’t you get this?”  “This is the greatest idea ever!”  But slowly I began to realize – if you have a John Wayne leadership worldview – consensus building is probably not a tool that makes a lot of sense in your tool box.  It doesn’t make the tool any more or less valuable.  It’s simply that a tool’s worth is found in the hands of the person whose worldview and values leverage it for what they view as progress.

At the risk of mixing my metaphors – in my leadership worldview – I totally riff on the works of Pat Lencioni and Jim Collins.  But in your world it may be something totally different.  The search for the best tools is a lifelong effort – but it’s my effort – and yours.  I can share with you the tools that make sense to me – but ultimately you have to do the work of discovering your own tools.  The tools that you will keep in your toolbox.  These are the instruments that you will use to improve with.

So – a few final thoughts that have tended to serve me well.  First, don’t underestimate the work of discovering your values and worldview – no tool will inspire you apart from getting those straight.  Second, constantly be on the lookout for tools that resonate with you.  Read, research, watch a TED Talk, experiment and see what really offers the results that undergird your values and world view.  The proof is always in the pudding.  Finally, keep an open mind.  Just because a tool may not resonate deeply with your worldview now don’t declare it useless forever.  You never know when you might need that little tool that is seldom used in the bottom of your toolbox.

Stay tuned…


*The Woodwright’s Shop with Roy Underhill.

Improvisational Leadership: Part 2 – Values


I’m totally showing my age here but when I was growing up Peter Frampton was kind of a big deal.  For those of you who don’t know who he is…let’s just say he was/is a rock singer.  Well – he had a song called “Do You Feel Like I Do.”  I don’t think the song ever lasted less than ten minutes.  Not because the song itself was written that way but because it was always played with an extended guitar solo.  Frampton would sing a few verses and then the band would land on a “riff”… a three chord progression that the band would continue to play behind him as he rocked out.

Riffs are a set of repeated chords that basically give parameters upon which the improviser (soloist) can do their work.  Just listen for it.  Riffs are the foundation of the improvisation – the boundaries upon which the improviser must play or things just get ugly.

Just like good rock and roll — good leadership has a riff.  It’s called values.  Values are the foundations upon which action is supported.  If actions and values don’t align then the system (the song) doesn’t sound right.  It’s off.  Therefore, unless you’ve got a set of really solid values (chords) then be careful taking off on any improvisation because it will sound confusing at best and just downright terrible at worst.

I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here but one of the most visible examples that I see of this in current days is connected with the political world.  I don’t think I have to name any names here because it feels that everyone has an opinion about the current American political game.  If you consider yourself a conservative you probably see great incongruence with Barack Obama and if you are on the other end of the spectrum you might say the same thing about the current republican candidate/s for president.  In fairness, most of us only get a small portion of the larger story that is behind many of the decisions these people have to make.  That said, when someone’s actions don’t appear to line up with what they profess their values to be it’s a sure pathway to distrust.

So, what are values?

Values are the underpinnings of our lives.  They’re the non-negotiables – the “I will do this” of our existence.  For instance – family could be a value or your work or watching every episode of MASH.  Just like worldview these aren’t necessarily about right or wrong – but they are about what we believe and who we are – deep down.  What we value will always win the day no matter what we say.  It may not be easy but what we truly value will always emerge like riffs that keep coming to the surface no matter what the tune is that we may say we are improvising on.

A personal story.

Almost six years ago my wife and I moved several hours from our home of almost twenty years for me to take a new job.  At the time she had a job she really loved – and she was good at it.  It was a big sacrifice for her to move so that I could take the job – but she did it.  Thankfully, in the years since the move she has found her way into a new position where she is not only using her best gifts but (in my opinion) making a big difference.

Well – about two months ago I lost that job.

Now – in public I say that I value my wife and her opinions but one of the first thoughts when this all came down was NOT – “Wow, I wonder what Darla would like to do?”  Actually my thoughts were very selfish.  I wondered if we were going to have to move again.

When I told her about the job loss she was very supportive.  She gave me time to process – even when I would mention the ideas of jobs elsewhere.  Thankfully, at some point along the journey, a value decision was made and I asked her what she thought about a possible move.

When we talked, not surprisingly, she had an opinion.  She wanted to stay in our current location.  Her preference was to keep working where she was at.  The more I thought about it the more I knew that she deserved that.  The idea that I might have to eliminate vocational options for myself was hard for me.  It pushed up against other values in my.  But the decision was made – “I will not take a long distance job that will require a move because I’m committed to my wife and this season needs to be priority for her – and us.”

Now – before you think too well of me – this was not a cake walk for me.  I’m a pretty selfish guy.  My Dad was always the main breadwinner and I still have trouble being the secondary income guy.  You’d think I would be over that by now – but no.

Decisions like this take effort.  Sometimes they take a bit of stumbling in order to get to the right place.  But at some point – my actions will either line up with my values or I will need to declare different values.  Either my wife deserves to have the vocational top spot in this season (just like I had six years ago) or she doesn’t.  That will be the riff that I improvise on – period.  The great leadership improvisations of our lives are always – always based on solid, congruent riffs (values) – always.

Values are not about ease – they are about clarity.  They are constantly being refined and tested.  Heck, I’m in my fifties and I still wrestle with what it means to own what I really believe – not only when I get it right but when I get it wrong.

So, what is the riff behind your improvisation?   I promise you – it’s playing.  Do you hear it?

Stay tuned…

Improvisational Leadership: Part 1 – Worldview

So I live in a town where poverty is very live.  In reality, if we look close enough, I’m guessing all of us do.  So recently, in an effort to understand poverty better, I decided to attend a Saturday morning seminar on the topic.  It was led by a person I greatly respect in the community.  In his morning session he introduced me to a lot of facts and ideas on the topic but one concept kind of put me on my heels.  I had never entertained it before.  It was the idea that poverty (in particularly generational poverty) was actually a “worldview” – a linear way of thinking about how life and living works.  It wasn’t about good or bad.  It wasn’t about right or wrong.  It just was.

He went on…in the same way the “middle class” think about living or the “wealthy” think about living – those in “generational poverty” also have a way of thinking about living.  And for many – they feel that it works just fine.  More than that – they might even say that their way is the right way.

The more I thought about it the more this idea just got all over me.  Having been raised in the middle class I thought, “How can this be?”  I know that the middle class way of thinking is the right way.  I’m sure all you middle class worldview folks would agree.  We’re obviously the sane ones.  Right? (said facetiously).

Bottom line – we all have a worldview – SURPRISE!  And guess what – it’s not just connected with income levels.  There are all kinds of other things that impact how I evaluate the world.  Being born in the USA effects my worldview, being raised in the Midwest effects by worldview, being a white male, being raised in the Christian faith, being raised in the 60’s and 70’s, having a Star Trek lunch box – I’m just saying – this stuff effects a guy.

Right now you might be saying, “Wow, this guy needs to get out more.  I already know all of this.”  If so, all good.  But hang with me because I’m about to make a little jump.

Imagine if this is all true about leadership too – that we all have a leadership world view.

Consider this.  I’m betting that many who grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s took their cues in leadership (in part) from a guy named John Wayne.  Yep – the actor.  Why?  Because I think that popular movies reflect culture and the movies of that day always celebrated him engaging in the all-or-nothing, go-for-broke, live-or-die actions of the great independent thinker.  John embodied and Hollywood endorsed this worldview as the very definition of leadership.  And as a result it became the worldview of an American generation.

Remember – I’m not calling this good or bad – I’m just calling it interesting.  These stories and pictures taught an American generation how leadership should be understood and appreciated and, as a result, we lived our lives accordingly.  What’s extra interesting is that in many cases this leadership worldview gave us a tangible argument to personally opt out of leadership as an activity.  Why?  Because leadership was viewed largely as a role – a position that could only be held by the few.  It was for the strong willed, the independent minded and the “damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead!” individuals.  As a result the greatest hope of the masses was that one of these leaders might show up to save us…our country…our community….our business…our home.  For many this was the logical way of thinking about the world…and for some it may still be.

But this isn’t the only worldview of leadership.

Let me offer a personal story.  In 1980 I was sixteen and working at a summer camp on the boat dock.  I had a supervisor.  His name was Phil.  He was probably in his forties although, at the time, I would have guessed him to be much older (a standard teenage miscalculation).  Anyway – this was my second summer to do the dock thing and I was feeling rather cocky regarding my knowledge of how to do this job.  Phil wasn’t present the year before and the last thing I needed was some old guy coming down to MY dock and telling ME how to do MY business.


My beautiful picture

Me and Phil in 1980

I can still remember him coming down to the dock for the first time and introducing himself.  I was all ready for him to go all John Wayne on me when something very different happened – within the first five minutes of our meeting, rather than giving directions – he started asking questions.  “So – Ron – what’s the best way to run the dock this summer?”…and he listened.  I can honestly say that is the first time I can ever remember an adult actually asking me (a kid) a question so as to be truly interested in my opinion.  I had had several adults ask me questions in my lifetime so as to make a point – but I could not remember ever having had someone do that so as to truly seek my opinion (I’m not saying it never happened – I’m just saying it is the first time I can remember).

I felt valued.  And this was more than a onetime event.  Phil was that way the entire summer.  By the end of that season WE had accomplished a lot – WE.  More than that…by the end of the summer I would have climbed a mountain for this guy.  I didn’t understand it at the time but Phil had introduced me to a new worldview of leadership – one that I had not been exposed to before.  It was more about questions than directives.  It was more about staying curious than making a point.  It was more about learning than being right.  I’m not saying it was right or wrong…it was just different…powerfully different…and it impacted me.

So – there is more than one worldview of leadership?  Yep – There are actually many.  Not only that – there are all kids of hybrids too – all built around variations of one or another.  Is that good or bad?  I’ll let you be the judge of that.  But at the bottom of it all is a point – all of us have a leadership worldview.  All of us.

Do you know what your leadership worldview is?  It’s worth thinking about – because as you and I view the world we will lead (or not lead) accordingly.

So…how do we discover our leadership worldview – and own it?

Stay tuned….


Improvisational Leadership – An Introduction

Okay, a confession.  As I get older I’m finding myself with a greater appreciation for the art of improvisation.  Improvisational musicians, comedians, speakers…and even leaders.  Yes leaders.  Improv is the art of spontaneous performance.  It is the work of using whatever is there at the moment to make something happen.  Even if I don’t necessarily enjoy listening to a lot of certain types of music, comedians, speakers or even following certain leaders one thing I absolutely appreciate – someone’s skill in the art of leveraging the “riff”.  Someone who is able to think on their feet.

prince 1

For instance, the news of Prince’s death is much in the news these days.  Don’t hate me but I’m not necessarily a fan of Prince’s music.  (Please don’t stop reading.)  I know many others are.  All good.  But last night, while roaming through the video tsunami that is YouTube I ran across a concert video of Prince performing an extended version of Purple Rain.  I had to admit – the guy had some chops on that electric guitar.  He had skills.  These skills allowed him to take a moment and make something more out of it.  It wasn’t totally planned.  He just went with it…and it worked.

Now – here’s a thought.  Is it possible that most (if not all) of life (professional or otherwise) is largely improv?

As a younger man, I wanted to think otherwise.  Not all younger men think this way – I’m just saying I did.  I liked to think of life as largely predictable.  My calling was simply to declare the things that came my way as good or bad.  Sounds noble doesn’t it?  Kind of immature…but noble.

But in these days I’ve chosen to adopt a different world view…a more improvisational one.  I’m not saying that there are no rules.  Neither am I saying that there is no way to prepare…just ask musicians, comedians or speakers…they do a lot of preparing for those improv moments.  I’m just saying that, in my opinion, life is coming over the hill and neither you nor I can fully prepare for it.  So our ability to improvise with what is coming at us seems pretty dog gone important.

This feels especially real to me in the realm of leadership.  Yes – leadership.

Let me try to explain.  Let’s assume for a moment that leadership is a verb – an activity – as opposed to a role or a designation.  As a result all of us are bringing some form of leadership to the circumstances that are all around us.  At work, we’re trying to get along with that coworker that irritates us, at home we’re trying to get along with that family member who irritates us or at church…well…you know what I mean.  Or maybe it’s a different challenge.  Maybe you’re trying to make change that you feel is for the better.  Or maybe you’re just trying to pay the bills.  Whatever it is – you are working to make some progress.

So – in the midst of the challenges that are being handed to you – how are you doing in the art of improvisation?

Let’s face it – as much as we might want to control all of these things…we can’t.  Anyone who says that they can has either not experienced much of life or is living in a dream world.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t act – even lead – in a way that can make something powerful out of the moment or season.  I’m not saying we can fix it.  I’m just saying that we can affect its progress.

But isn’t improv only for the gifted?  The highly skilled?  We can’t do this.  Right?

When my kids were small we lived in a house that had a real cool fireplace hearth.  It was elevated like a small stage in the living room.  It even had a spot light above it.  On a regular basis I was called into the living room for a show that was being created, produced, directed and acted out by my daughters.  They may have started with an idea…a song, a costume…but believe me when I say that it was not necessarily all planned out.  They had to take their idea and make it happen in real time…and it was awesome.

The art of improv is shaped out of moments like this.  We might say – “but that is just kids playing.”  To that I say, “Exactly!”

So – a question – what might it mean for you and me to play around with the ideas of leadership improvisation?  To take the small living room stage with that little spot light and make something more out of what would have otherwise been just a span of time?  Is it possible that we might, over time, build the skills of the pros?

Stay tuned…