A topic of leadership that has challenged and exhilarated me in recent days is that of keeping the work where it needs to be. As a recovering, “I know best how this should be done” guy – I find this issue extremely relevant for my growing edge. I was sure that I was going to blog about this soon but today I read the following excerpt from the 2002 Harvard Business Review. As I read it I thought – why would you write your own article when this one says it so much better than what you could? So…in an effort to keep the work where it needs to be…and giving full credit to Heifetz and Linsky…I offer you the following…
A Survival Guide for Leaders: Place the work where it belongs.
Because major change requires people across an entire organization to adapt, you as a leader need to resist the reflex reaction of providing people with the answers. Instead, force yourself to transfer, as (President) Roosevelt did, much of the work and problem solving to others. If you don’t, real and sustainable change won’t occur. In addition, it’s risky on a personal level to continue to hold on to the work that should be done by others.
As a successful executive, you have gained credibility and authority by demonstrating your capacity to solve other people’s problems. This ability can be a virtue, until you find yourself faced with a situation in which you cannot deliver solutions. When this happens, all of your habits, pride, and sense of competence get thrown out of kilter because you must mobilize the work of others rather than find the way yourself. By trying to solve an adaptive challenge for people, at best you will reconfigure it as a technical problem and create some short-term relief. But the issue will not have gone away.
In the 1994 National Basketball Association Eastern Conference semifinals, the Chicago Bulls lost to the New York Knicks in the first two games of the best-of-seven series. Chicago was out to prove that it was more than just a one-man team that it could win without Michael Jordan, who had retired at the end of the previous season.
In the third game, the score was tied at 102 with less than two seconds left. Chicago had the ball and a time-out to plan a final shot. Coach Phil Jackson called for Scottie Pippen, the Bulls’ star since Jordan had retired, to make the inbound pass to Toni Kukoc for the final shot. As play was about to resume, Jackson noticed Pippen sitting at the far end of the bench. Jackson asked him whether he was in or out. “I’m out,” said Pippen, miffed that he was not tapped to take the final shot. With only four players on the floor, Jackson quickly called another time-out and substituted an excellent passer, the reserve Pete Myers, for Pippen. Myers tossed a perfect pass to Kukoc, who spun around and sank a miraculous shot to win the game.
The Bulls made their way back to the locker room, their euphoria deflated by Pippen’s extraordinary act of insubordination. Jackson recalls that as he entered a silent room, he was uncertain about what to do. Should he punish Pippen? Make him apologize? Pretend the whole thing never happened? All eyes were on him. The coach looked around, meeting the gaze of each player, and said, “What happened has hurt us. Now you have to work this out.”
Jackson knew that if he took action to resolve the immediate crisis, he would have made Pippen’s behavior a matter between coach and player. But he understood that a deeper issue was at the heart of the incident: Who were the Chicago Bulls without Michael Jordan? It wasn’t about who was going to succeed Jordan, because no one was; it was about whether the players could jell as a team where no one person dominated and every player was willing to do whatever it took to help. The issue rested with the players, not him, and only they could resolve it. It did not matter what they decided at that moment; what mattered was that they, not Jackson, did the deciding. What followed was a discussion led by an emotional Bill Cartwright, a team veteran. According to Jackson, the conversation brought the team closer together. The Bulls took the series to a seventh game before succumbing to the Knicks.
Jackson gave the work of addressing both the Pippen and the Jordan issues back to the team for another reason: If he had taken ownership of the problem, he would have become the issue, at least for the moment. In his case, his position as coach probably wouldn’t have been threatened. But in other situations, taking responsibility for resolving a conflict within the organization poses risks. You are likely to find yourself resented by the faction that you decide against and held responsible by nearly everyone for the turmoil your decision generates. In the eyes of many, the only way to neutralize the threat is to get rid of you.
Despite that risk, most executives can’t resist the temptation to solve fundamental organizational problems by themselves. People expect you to get right in there and fix things, to take a stand and resolve the problem. After all, that is what top managers are paid to do. When you fulfill those expectations, people will call you admirable and courageous—even a “leader”—and that is flattering. But challenging your employees’ expectations requires greater courage and leadership.
Taken from: A Survival Guide for Leaders, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Review, June 2002. https://hbr.org/2002/06/a-survival-guide-for-leaders/ar/1
About a year ago I was given the task of working in a community with high poverty. Part of my work was listening to the people of the community and learn what was on their minds. In one interview a single woman with children gave me an enlightening soundbite. She said (and I paraphrase), “There is no vision here. People have no sense of the future beyond this place. Kids don’t believe they will do any better or have any more than what their parents have…and their parents don’t believe it either. What they see around them is the extent of their vision. This is it.”
To those who don’t live in generational poverty that soundbite might leave you perplexed. That’s what it initially did to me. The idea that poverty could be more than about a lack of money – it could be about a lack of ideas – a lack of vision.
There are seasons where I feel walled in by my circumstances. Times that leave me cynical and stuck. Times where I would like to make progress but I don’t even know where to start. And even if I did I’m not sure that it’s worth the effort because the road to a fix seems so daunting. It just feels too hard. And for some reason – I just begin to feel like I’m all alone.
Sounds kind of dramatic doesn’t it? But maybe not so crazy.
This aloneness can be pretty pervasive when I am in the eye of the storm. In a world that surrounds me with stories of the BIG WIN it can be tough to get a healthy perspective on what it might mean to just take one healthy step forward.
I was watching one of my favorite TV shows last Sunday – CBS Sunday morning. One of the stories on the program was about a guy named Colin O’Brady. He had just completed an adventure called the “Explorers Grand Slam” – reaching both poles and the summits of the tallest mountain on every continent (7 of them). But this guy didn’t just accomplish this. He did it all in 139 days. A new world record.* It’s mind blowing isn’t it? In less than five months – mission accomplished. Drop the microphone. This guy has made it!
Do you feel inspired?
The problem for me is that IF Colin’s story represents “making it” – then my life, by comparison, leaves me feeling a bit underwhelmed. Now – to be clear – I’ve got no issues with Colin – nor his story. As a matter of fact – way to go man! Amazing! But Dude – the rest of us are just trying to make it through the day out here. Know what I’m sayin?
It took me a while to begin to wrap my mind around this (about 52 years as a matter of fact) but I’m beginning to realize that when I look at Colin’s adventure for some reason I kind of block out all of his struggle and just picture him at the summit of his life. Yes – Colin’s story includes struggle – I know it does. But for some reason my mind doesn’t process that. It only processes the ultimate triumph. He is a winner! Me – a bit less.
FAIR WARNING: I’m about to get all passionate and stuff…so please just hang with me.
Very few of us have the luxury of being able to view our lives in seven minute television soundbites that celebrate our victories. Quite the contrary. Many of us are still trying to figure out what we even want our story to be about – much less live it.
One of my life’s great passions is helping organizations, causes and people move forward right here. The exhilaration of helping organizations and people wrestle with deep questions of purpose and culture is about as good as it gets for me. This is my holy ground. Not because I feel like I have the magic answers or a bag of tricks – but because this day-to-day jumble feels like the stuff of real life.
When a nonprofit board wrestles with a renewed sense of purpose and engagement with their mission – that’s rich for me. When a person thinks deeply about what healthy next steps look like and risks an experiment to test something new in the uncharted waters of their future – its holy ground for me. This isn’t the stuff of program or slogan. This is the stuff of learning, experimentation and discovery. This is the hard work. This is the stuff worthy of our greatest effort – because it is what YOU have declared as valuable – YOU!
(I’m using exclamation points. Now you know I’m really getting wound up).
Who has the credentials to declare what is truly valuable in your life more than you do? And if it is indeed you – then whose work is it to make progress on it? It’s yours! In the same way, for those in organizational leadership – who has the credentials – the calling – to declare what is truly important, foundational and strategic for your organizations next steps? It’s you! Hey – I know it’s hard. I’m not picking on anyone – I have to do this work too. But it’s critical to remember that no matter who tells you differently – it’s not about perfection – it’s about progress. It’s about making one more strategic step in a direction that you, with the best of your ability, have determined to be the right one.
This is why the idea of “Improvisational Leadership” feels so relevant to me. It’s not a program. It’s not a seminar. It’s not “three easy steps.” It’s the stuff of life and struggle. It’s about doing the hard work of recognizing your worldview and declaring your values – and realizing that just because your neighbor doesn’t share either of those with you it doesn’t make them a bad person. So stop waiting for their approval or trying to convince them to change and just get on your way.
What if each of us thought harder about the tools of our trade and doing the work of broadening our skills with those tools? I’m not talking about a weekend retreat. I’m talking about the work of a lifetime and, in reality, isn’t that the timeline for all deeply purposeful stuff? A lifetime?
(Phew! End of sermon.)
So what now?
For me, I want to do the work that helps me improvise well. Not off some random riff – but off of a riff of my declared and articulated values – and built off of a worldview that I recognize impacts me. And God willing – with a lot of practice – I’ll not only keep accumulating good tools but I’ll get better at using them. Not just for my sake but to encourage everyone around me who is on this improvisational journey as well.
I look forward to jamming with you along the way.
Years ago I ran across a guy that so impressed me as a musician. He was a “Piano Man”. Initially I had seen him play in church but I had also seen him in a restaurant/bar context. You could throw out almost any song and he would just begin playing it. I was working on a project once that I needed some background music for. I sat down with him for just a few minutes to tell him what I was looking for – and he just started playing. Right out of the box he began playing exactly what I was looking for. In my opinion, this guy had the gift. I tell people that he spoke the language of music fluently.
Being able to speak a language fluently (any language) isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes real discipline and practice. Yes – some people have the ability to assimilate and process languages more quickly than others. But people don’t just wake up speaking other languages. It takes real discipline and practice.
I have a new granddaughter who came to visit me for a couple of weeks recently. She is almost a year old. She doesn’t have very many words in her vocabulary just yet. Maybe a “ma-ma” or a “da-da” here and there but most of her communication comes from smiles, laughter, playful growls and cries. It’s really interesting to watch her. When the room isn’t paying attention to her she is already learning what to experiment with in order to get all eyes on her. She’s learning what people tend to respond to and she is leveraging her actions to get the desired result. She is learning to speak the language and she doesn’t even speak words yet. Bottom line – she is learning how to communicate.
The work of competent leadership requires much the same journey. No matter how many tools or instruments we may have – until we begin bringing some skill to the use of them they are merely decoration. A book or a conference can be great places to gather data but if we will be fluent in the language of leadership we must begin practicing and experimenting with the things we are learning.
I’m a wannabe guitarist. I can crank out some chords and strum a generally competent rhythm. The problem is that I’m an undisciplined and generally lazy wannabe guitarist. That means I’d like to play like Eric Clapton but with little or no effort. Guess what – that’s not going to happen. I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak with a handful of competent guitarists. They all have something in common. They love playing the guitar — all the time! More than one has told me that they would sit for hours in their room as a kid and play along with the radio or work on learning some song. And they did it time and time again. An interesting note – they all got good at it!
You’ve probably figured it out – what I’m telling you isn’t new at all. This principle is real everywhere. Sports, singing, sewing – you name it. Musicians – for the most part – aren’t born – they are made. Sporting greats – the same. It’s true for leaders too. Yes – there’s some inherent skill in all of us for one thing or another but – if we will be fluent – we must keep engaging in the work of discipline and practice.