Thursday, April 7, 2011

Leveraging Your Unique Ability – the strategic value of building leadership around your greatest gifts

“This above all: to thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet

There is a principle of personal growth and development that is far more potent than it is popular, let alone practiced. The concept is as old as humanity, but a new term to describe it is emerging: Unique Ability. This term has been trademarked by Dan Sullivan, founder of a Toronto-based company called Strategic Coach.

Sullivan noticed that a group of handicapped individuals showed varying degrees of contentment and contribution in direct proportion to the degree to which they understood and applied their Unique Ability. I have witnessed similar results after coaching and consulting extensively with over 90 professionals over the last eight years, I not only concur with Mr. Sullivan, I would say it is the point of greatest leverage for successful leadership coaching and development, not only for the individual , but for their team and organization. In my view, it is the single-most strategic decision a leader can make.

The description of a Unique Ability, as found in the book, Unique Ability, Creating the Life You Want, by Catherine Nomura and Julia Walker, is as follows:

Each of us is born with a potential Unique Ability that has four characteristics:

• First, it is a superior ability that other people notice and value;
• Second, we love doing it and want to do it as much as possible;
• Third, it is energizing both for us and others around us; and,
• Fourth, we keep getting better, never running out of possibilities for further improvement.

So what, therefore, is the strategic value of fully deploying one’s Unique Ability, within the context of a team or organization? Much of the answer may be intuitive, but allow me to elaborate.

I have been graced with the opportunity to work with some remarkable people, seeing into their hearts and minds, sharing in the great responsibility of determining where to put their time, energy and talent. In the process, uncovering and applying one’s Unique Ability with full conviction consistently serves as a flawless guide.

At the center of any system is its leader. For better or worse, when the leader sneezes the system catches cold. Inevitably, the return on energy invested into the system is greater for the leader than any other individual within that system. Consequently, when a leader’s Unique Ability is applied consistently in its purest, undiluted form, the rest of the system functions with uncommon efficiency, drive, direction and impact.

John Wood, Founder and Executive Chair of Room to Read, an organization that builds educational infrastructure and opportunities in the developing world, learned about the power of applying one’s Unique Ability to his earlier role of CEO. Room to Read was founded in 2000, when Wood left a senior position at Microsoft to figure out how to provide libraries, books and education to the developing world. Well, he figured it out – Room to Read has now established over 10,000 libraries (at a current build-out rate of 6 per day!), 1,000 schools and 10,000 scholarships for girls.

This wasn’t always the case. In 2003, when I began working with Mr. Wood, he and Room to Read were making progress, but finding it challenging to scale – a key priority for the organization. Working with Mr. Wood, it was clearly evident to me that he suffered the fate of most founders and many leaders; he was working in and on nearly every aspect of the organization. Leaders are often talented individuals, capable of doing many things better than most. This is the trap. Not only does it lead to hyper-multi-tasking with mediocre results, it prevents them from bringing their Unique Ability to the majority of their time and attention.

During my first meeting with Mr. Wood in San Francisco, where Room to Read is based, we crafted a deceptively simple and profound assignment; for one week Mr. Wood was to avoid licking a stamp. Pretty easy, you say? Well, not if you have built a rapidly growing organization from the ground-up and feel obligated to respond personally to every letter that comes in, especially those addressed to you. However talented he may have been at it, handling the mail was clearly not Mr. wood’s Unique Ability. What was? Being in front of people—individuals or large crowds—inspiring them with big, hopeful, strategic visions that made sense and alleviated considerable suffering in the world.

Every hour Mr. Wood spent on envelopes and stamps was an hour lost from doing what he loved most—inspiring people. The unleashing of Mr. Wood’s Unique Ability into the world has now helped attract tens-of-millions of dollars and tens-of-thousands of devoted supporters.

The key to leveraging a leader’s Unique Ability is to first identify the leader’s Unique Ability, then restructure every aspect of the system to support, nurture and deliver the gifts of that Unique Ability. In Mr. Wood’s case, instead of being in front of people only 10-percent of the week, while he managed the other “important” aspects of the business, the organization was restructured to allow him to spend the lion’s share of his time in-front of donors, volunteers, television cameras and influential world leaders. In other words, those were very expensive stamps!

To be sure, internal and external strategies are paramount to organizational and team success; however, the most critical strategy may very well be the leader’s decision to understand their own Unique Ability and have everyone figure out how to bring it into the organization as fully as possible.

Oh, and by the way, to all those leaders who decide to explore this further, if you discover you are being more effective than ever and having fun at the same time, please don’t feel guilty.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What Makes a Purpose-driven Leader?

Purpose is an ephemeral word that is often misheard to mean some sort of pre-ordained master-plan that a creator or force has in store for us. Although there may be some degree of truth in that, such assertions are beyond the scope of this article.

The purpose I speak of is functional, practical, intelligent and most of all, strategic. So far, so good; all terms we can comfortably toss around in any MBA program. But it’s not the whole story; purpose does have an element of a “higher calling” which must be investigated and uncovered on some-level before the more functional-based interpretations can reach their full potential.

When one dissects the anatomy of purpose-Integration a bit more thoroughly, one will discover it did not originate in structures and systems, business plans or marketing plans, performance reviews or salary contracts; it originated within the mind and/or heart of a human being. A person. A life! And, as part of the human species, I feel, and many concur, that there is some “purpose” that we hope to actualize. A vision, if you will. For some, it is clearer than others, but for virtually all of us it is not completely dormant.

For reasons I understand more each day but cannot explain fully, successful leaders have found a way for that purpose to emerge strongly enough that it guides their actions and decisions towards the emergence and integration of a vision. How does that happen? The specifics will reveal many different approaches, such as seminars, conferences, coaches, mentors, teachers, journaling, meditation, nature expeditions, and perhaps most important, time. But there are some commonalities among successful professionals and leaders:

• They are willing, even hungry, to discover who they are.
• They are courageous enough articulate the outer-edge of their own realization to others and back it up with action.
• They make one thing most important rather than everything or many things.
• They are willing to endure the discomfort of isolation, confusion, doubt and absence of immediate results.
• They recognize even small doses purpose-driven success and work hard to replicate that success.
• None of them—none—laugh or balk at the importance of personal development and self-awareness.

The beginning of purpose-integration begins at the level of self, integrating our own awareness with the mental objects we call thoughts, plans, road-maps, strategies, outcomes, etc… Without this, of course, success is still possible; however, it is often derived from chance opportunities that accumulate short-term rewards, accolades, fame, and other conditional and volatile measures of success we often look towards for indicators of how well we are doing in life or business.

The responsible caretaker of purpose-integration measures success on the level of integrity and alignment between what they are observing or experiencing and what they know to be true. When this level of awareness, or consciousness, is weak, the leader’s propensity to integrate purpose diminishes accordingly. When it is strong, the leader can return to the purpose again and again without being distracted by the discomforts of setbacks or the absence of short-term conventional “success” indicators that may appease others.

After all, leaders are leading, and purpose-driven leaders understand, even anticipate, the isolation that may accompany being ahead of the curve. They will stand out and often alone for quite some time, until others catch-up. They gain the confidence and stamina to endure criticism, confusion, and general uncertainty to allow for the time necessary for purpose to gel into something concrete enough for others to pick-up on and support.

And where did this Herculean strength come from? Passion! When one is on-purpose, passion fuels the journey.

I have seen time and again how successful leaders keep their purpose close at-hand at all times. When they are jolted off-course, purpose brings them back. When competing values are at-play or gut-wrenching decisions need to be made, purpose makes it a no-brainer. And when people around them begin to “get it” and become inspired, throwing their support and resources behind the leader, purpose can be readily found in the new DNA of everyone onboard.

At this point, the systems, structures and other critical elements of purpose-integration can effectively strut their stuff. And if you look carefully at the anatomy of successful purpose-integration—at what has been coursing through the veins of organizational structures, systems and communication channels—you will find purpose to be ever-present. Even if it is an unconscious purpose, or a an ego-driven fear-based purpose, its propagation is being facilitated by the systems and structures in-place. Therefore, it is paramount to ensure the highest quality purpose goes into the systems and structures that permeate the entire system and all its people and decisions.

The purpose-driven leader knows this and recognizes the enormous impact it can have. For this very reason, much of the leader's attention focuses inward, integrating their own awareness with the core purpose at all times to produce a vision and strategy of highest integrity, then speak and act with maximum conviction and alignment to integrate their purpose into the world, and thereby realize a part of their purpose for being here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Courage is Not Comfortable; but Comfort Can Be Worse

At first blush, I was tempted to leave Courage out of a leadership model I developed in 2009, because it felt too “emotional.” However, the objectivity of observation made it clear that Courage was essential to the success of Master Integrators of a key vision and absent in those cases where Vision Integration was low. At the end of the day it is merely a matter of physics; an absence of Courage leads to a dilution of the Vision, whereas its presence strengthens it. It is beyond clich├ęs or opinion, it is as it is, an observable result of cause and effect.
Courage is not comfortable. Unfortunately, we live in a society that places comfort above all else. We work for the weekend, early retirement and summers off. Nice homes, bigger homes, plush cars and Heavenly Beds at the Westin. I have nothing against these, per se; but left in the realm of the unconscious, we are easy pray to the siren’s call for comfort. Advertising and so-called market forces perpetuate the message that suffering can, and should, be alleviated. We are bombarded by images of smiles, success and happiness in 30-second sound bites and overpromising self-help methods (including my profession, coaching) that hold out the carrot of perpetual comfort.
As a by-product, our capacity, let alone our desire, for discomfort significantly suffers (ironically, increasing suffering itself). In fact, discomfort is so loathed in our society that we often ingest our own discomfort as a sign of “failure.” Marital problems, a downturn in sales, a state of confusion: these are all precursors to embarrassment and self-deprecation. When success doesn’t simply “flow” or we are not “in the zone,” we beat ourselves up, thinking there is something wrong with us and look for a way out as quickly as possible.
Nothing could be further from truth—or practicality.
Master Integrators of their own vision accept the discomfort of integration. Without apology, they endure uncertainty, confusion and fear itself, to stay the course. A course whose destination they “know” without knowing the course itself. A knowledge they continue to cultivate through more refined levels of Awareness and Discipline. The joy of honoring this “knowing” surpasses the short-term roadblocks and inconveniences of discomfort. This is Courage. And this is perhaps the make-or-break quality of a Master Integrator.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


(in collaboration with John Frost, Director, Values Based Leadership Ltd., United Kingdom)

Patrick Lencioni’s popular leadership model, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is brilliant in its simplicity and comprehensiveness, allowing team-members to get onto the same page easily and begin using common language around team development. As a result, team-members can quickly begin developing the functional elements of Lencioni’s model, namely Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability and Results, respectively. Lencioni suggests that each element serves as a pre-requisite for the next, and the absence or avoidance of any element invites dysfunction into the team.

Unfortunately, like any other model or remedy, it is not entirely prescriptive; much depends on the patient.

One of the key learnings from working with individuals and teams over the years is that leadership initiatives fail when the leader does not walk-the-talk around their team’s core-values. During the offsite, many teams do good work, going beyond comfort-zones, building alignment and committing to forward progress.

Then something happens. Or more accurately, it doesn’t.

There is considerable variance in post-offsite results and effectiveness among teams. Why is this? There may be a host of variables at-play, however, none more important than the leader’s ability to follow-through and walk-the-talk.

Quite frankly, if the leader’s commitment to team-values is weak or non-existent, the benefits of Lencioni’s model (or any other model for that matter) will evaporate rapidly. Lencioni, himself, says: “Teamwork is extremely hard to achieve. It can’t be bought, and it can’t be attained by hiring an intellectual giant from the world’s best business school. It requires levels of courage and discipline—and emotional energy—that even the most driven executives don’t always possess.”

Values-based leadership can go a long way in strengthening a leader’s commitment and accelerating the benefits of Lencioni’s model around The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Here, we’ll have a quick look at these five dysfunctions (given below, according to Lencioni) and add a few words on why values matter to the removal of each dysfunction.

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust: Members of great teams trust one another on a fundamental, emotional level, and they are comfortable being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears, and behaviors. They get to a point where they can be completely open with one another, without filters.

Why values matter: Leaders who have high-levels of adherence to their core values have very little difficulty being vulnerable, a pre-requisite for trust, according to Lencioni. For a team to feel safe enough for vulnerability, it must be modeled by the team leader; otherwise, the perceived risk is too high and defensiveness (or filters) will also be high, while trust remains low.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict: Teams that trust one another are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decision that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.

Why values matter: When team values are clear, and the team is confident that the leader stands behind them, there is a greater willingness to enter into conflict, because team-members know they will eventually return to their core-values in moving forward. The exploration that emerges through conflict is anchored in meaningful, relevant principles that support the team’s mission and transcend the turbulence of emotional discussions. Without core-values in place, conflict is feared or misused, for the outcome is often determined by the loudest or most persuasive voice, rather than by alignment to core values.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment: Teams that engage in unfiltered conflict are able to achieve genuine buy-in around important decisions, even when various members of the team initially disagree. That’s because they ensure that all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, giving confidence to team members that no stone has been left unturned.

Why values matter: Again, values anchor heated discussions and varying opinions, allowing the dust to settle around previously agreed-upon values. The team’s core-values provide a litmus test for new commitments, generating alignment, consistency and leverage. Moreover, team members are more likely to test-drive initiatives they may have initially disagreed with if they know the core-values will not be compromised.

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability: Teams that commit to decisions and standards of performance do not hesitate to hold one another accountable for adhering to those decisions and standards. What is more, they don’t rely on the team leader as the primary source of accountability, they go directly to their peers.

Why values matter: When a team has a clear, solid set of values in-place, backed by the actions and behaviours of the team-leader, it instills a sense of objective standards and guidelines for individual accountability. In particular, when certain values have standards of performance built into them, accountability becomes part of the team’s DNA, reinforced over time, project after project, challenge after challenge.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results: Teams that trust one another, engage in conflict, commit to decisions, and hold one another accountable are very likely to set aside their individual needs and agendas and focus almost exclusively on what is best for the team. They do not give-in to temptation to place their departments, career aspirations, or ego-driven status ahead of the collective results that define team success.

Why values matter: Values clearly and consistently define “what is best for the team,” leaving little or no room for ego. If the team and its leader build a proven track-record for making values more important than any one project, complaint, career or department, then values-based results are likely to be the dominant force at-work. When core-values are clear and consistent, the group can refer to the same playbook, keeping selfish individual motives in-check, allowing collective results to emerge.

Patrick Lencioni’s model on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team has become extremely popular worldwide, because it is intuitive and easy to comprehend. However, comprehension, alone, will not suffice. Without a solid grounding in core-values, and consistent, courageous leadership that ensures their relevance at all times, dysfunctional teams will continue to scratch their heads, going from one leadership model to the next, offsite after offsite, wondering what it will take to finally create a highly functioning team.

Values do not merely exist on their own, offering some magical manifestation of team functionality. Values integration is challenging, and it is mostly in the hands of the team leader. It takes awareness, discipline and courage to be the responsible caretaker of team values:

Awareness: When a leader remains ignorant about their team’s values and how they relate to themself, their team and the situation, much is left to chance. The result is often an endless series of one-off conversations and confrontations, relying more on opinion and persuasion than consistent values being integrated over time.

Discipline: When a leader is not consciously and consistently aligning resources, including people’s time and attention, with core-values, decisions tend to be made on a case-by-case basis, depleting energy, motivation and efficiencies that come from reliably integrating core-values over time.

Courage: When a leader does not bring courage to defend team values during opposition from team members, other constituents or challenging circumstances, the integrity of those values weakens, diluting their power and credibility with each passing incident. Before long, the core-values erode to mere words on a paper, unable to guide the team forward, or counter the impact of Lencioni’s five dysfunctions.

The magic of values integration is not hocus-pocus; it’s hocus-focus. There are no shortcuts or lottery tickets—either the team and, most importantly, its leader, walk-the-talk around values, or the talk takes a walk—and dysfunction takes its place.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Responsible Leader Must Remember their Impact on the System

Everything counts.

It is challenging to be human. We can’t easily, let alone always, align our thoughts and actions with our ideals. I have great empathy for this ongoing challenge in execution at the most intimate level. Nonetheless, the ever-changing interdependent relations that may find us at the centre of a system rely on our ability to line things up—structural integrity, if you will.

Nothing I will ever say or write will be new or beyond what the audience already knows. But that does not diminish the value of expressing it again or presenting it in a way that reinforces what we already know so that we may more easily remember. Many great sages point out that to remember to remember is the hardest thing. Yet, the most important.

As leaders, we must remember to remember that we are inextricably connected to the systems we lead. At the highest level, exceptional leaders connect their thoughts, words and actions to what matters most — often expressed as values, purpose and vision — so that systems, structures and process are imbued with meaning and function. Alignment.

This, of course, is a discipline. But first things first. The leader must be aware of this relationship. When they sneeze, the system catches cold. Everything counts.

Of course, some leaders are content to have “most things” count, while inadvertently lowering the bar on other things. These leaders usually end up being "OK" at Vision Integration, but end up somewhere below the 50-percentile mark.

The work of Vision Integration Mastery, however, does not cater to that crowd.

Most of us have worked for bosses who look the other way on certain issues, thereby clogging the arteries of organizational culture. Subordinates, highly dependent of the boss’s payroll signature every two weeks, smile awkwardly and return to work, carrying with them a diluted version of the values and vision that once provided motivation, inspiration and direction. The organization’s DNA becomes altered and propagated in its new, distilled, form.

The same employee may then be responsible for hiring new recruits, project management or quality control. The bar has been lowered, and over time, the values and vision are nowhere to be found other than posters and company websites.

Everything counts. And everyone is looking!

Leaders are in a fishbowl. When a leader compromises the cultural integrity of the system, everyone knows it. For example, if “Respect” is a corporate value and the leader publicly humiliates and employee, “Respect” is no longer a corporate value. It is simply a matter of cause and effect -- physics. It is just the way it is.

All of this is not to bemoan or frighten leaders. Rather this serves to remind leaders of their impact on the systems that enable the values and vision they have pledged to uphold. These systems require endless investments of time, energy, emotion, intillect and money to maintain; consequently, ignorance can be very expensive, on many levels, not just financial.

So take a minute, pause and reflect on the system you are impacting. Where can you make some first-step modifications to bring your thoughts, words and actions into greater alignment with the values and vision you espouse? Where can you begin to make structural improvements to your own awareness, discipline and courage so that your “house”—be it your company, your team or your own life—has more structural integrity to it? Don’t be overwhelmed by the task at-hand. Simply start somewhere. Anywhere. Everything counts.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mastering Our Attention is Key to Integrating Vision

Buddhism states the nature of mind has three main qualities: it is conscious, cognizant and aware. Buddhism also states that the nature of mind is the nature of everything. So this is a pretty big deal. What are the implications of this on our leadership?

For me, the container of “conscious, cognizant and aware” is the word attention. Where is it focused? What’s the quality of it? How aligned is it with the vision we are aspiring to?

All spiritual traditions, as well as science, medicine and philosophy, tell us that our mind is tremendously powerful. Far more powerful than we can comprehend. Whether we support it with the data of using only 7% of our brain, or that “intelligence” also resides within our body, or use a term like “transcendence” to describe what language can never describe, all schools of thought seem to acknowledge the power of the mind.

As leaders, we are responsible for the application of this power. As Vision Integrators, we are responsible for applying it to the vision, in service of the vision and those who will be impacted by it.

Mastering our attention and aligning it with our core values and vision is a practice and a discipline. It’s not easy, simple or straight-forward. And it’s not necessarily “fun,” in the traditional sense of the word. However, as one cultivates the ability to “tame the mind,” one experiences more and more Fun (capital “F” fun) on a regular and more reliable basis. Imagine how much Fun it would be to know that no matter what life throws at you today, you will still be able to direct your mind and its attention wherever you want it to go. To simply bring it back, whenever it gets thrown off-centre, and place your attention on whatever is most meaningful for you: what could be more Fun than that?

When you’re a leader wanting to make a difference—either in the world, your life or the lives you are effecting—your capacity to remain “conscious, cognizant and aware” in the depths of complexity and challenge becomes paramount to your ability to responsibly integrate a vision into the system you are leading (i.e., your life, group or organization). It’s not paramount because of some lofty ideal one might hold for so-called great leadership; it’s paramount because it’s physics—the simple correlation between cause and effect. As it is.

So, how do you do it?

The top-leaders I’ve worked with around vision—the Master Vision Integrators, as I like to call them—find the discipline to direct their attention towards the vision continually through cultivating Awareness, Discipline and Courage. The mastery comes from the cultivation, not the mastery itself. They actually care enough to become better and better and better at it.

But how can you care if you don’t care?

This is the fundamental question. The answer, as I have observed in working with leaders of varying capacity to integrate vision, is at the heart of what makes a vision magnificent or mediocre. It distinguishes the manager from the leader. The answer is: to truly care you must trust the investment in your core values! With even the slightest discipline around aligning your actions with core values, a natural and energized form of “caring” emerges.

Specifically, “investing” means to direct your attention, your mind, to better (and better and better) identify, understand, articulate and integrate your core-values and vision through uncommon levels of self-awareness and personal accountability.

Identify: There are virtually countless ways to help uncover and identify your core-values and vision; however, you need to be looking. The first step comes from you heart—to care enough to find out. Without this, you will not be able to progress.

Understand: Once you identify your core-values and vision, you need to really understand the true meaning as it pertains to you, not some generic dictionary-defined version of that value. You need to connect on a visceral level with its importance in your life or your group.

Articulate: This is the first step in converting the wisdom, insight and strategy embedded in our values into the outer-world. Words are important (if not the only) place-holders for what we want and need to communicate to others or ourselves to get the job done, to manifest our vision. The written version of our core-values, purpose and vision provide something concrete for us to take to others and figure out how to actualize them.

Integrate: This is where the rubber hits the road, and requires increasing levels of awareness, discipline and courage to find the appropriate form, function and venue for the values and vision to take-hold. This is filled with uncertainty and challenge at almost every step. And for that very reason, it becomes ever so important to develop the “certainty” of controlling our attention to come back again and again to what matters most. To what we value most.

The mind is a powerful thing. It is worth becoming allies with it. Invest in whatever method, support or structure you are comfortable with to better understand your mind and how to control the quality and placement of its attention. Many ways will work. The Buddha, himself, taught in 84,000 different ways to address the different perceptions and needs of various audiences. But the Buddha also warned, repeatedly, even if he sat by your side and taught directly to you all day, he cannot make you enlightened. You have to do the work. You have to care enough to want to get better. That’s the first place your attention must go.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Courage: Vision Integration Depends on It

Courage! This is where a vision can become severely diluted or even stopped in its tracks. It will be required; every leader gets challenged at some point, if not many points. Their response determines whether the vision moves forward or not -- whether it becomes diluted or maintains its full integrity.

I would be remiss if I didn’t place extra emphasis on the realities and less-heroic aspects of visionary leadership. We often read about the fait-acompli, looking back at how everything just fell into place. But from my privileged seat, as a leadership coach, as well as being on my own journey, I assure you it doesn’t go like that. It often times has as much to do with a solid gut-check as a solid strategy and brilliant foresight.

In all the leadership books I’ve read and all the text books we covered in my MBA program, I cannot recall a single chapter on this crucial piece of vision integration. For those leaders who are willing, able and supported enough to get through these challenges that test the limits of courage, the vision moves forward; for those who fear it too much and look for easier ways through, the vision weakens, stalls or dies.

To this end, of course, leadership or executive coaching can be a great benefit, allowing the leader to reflect, challenge, and be supported with integrity to their values and adherence to their vision. This may sound personal, but it is purely professional—and strategic. If the leader can endure the doubts, fears, and emotions that are certain to accompany the implementation of a vision, then the business objectives embedded in that vision can play out; if the leader cannot work through these, it becomes a diluted vision, or another path altogether, that does not hold the strategic benefits of a powerful, inspired, unified vision.