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.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Your Attention is Your Greatest Leadership Resource

Our attention is a finite resource and goes wherever we place it.

This is a huge statement! Read it again.

You see. Now it’s back on this line.

You are controlling the quality and placement of your attention. As a leader, the awareness of your attention and how you distribute it become, possibly, the most important and leveraged contribution you make on a daily basis. Is your attention on minor, short-term tasks or on substantial, far-reaching interactions? Is it on your reputation and title, or on the situation in-front of you? A problem employee, or company-wide alignment of purpose, values and vision?

As you can see, it matters. And whether the impact is large or small, the amount of attention expended is roughly the same. Whatever we allow to occupy our attention, gets our attention.

How do we choose?

The expression “Keep your eye on the prize” is crucial for Purpose & Vision Integration, successfully applying our attention where it belongs. Easier said than done.

First, what do we mean by “the prize?” I have found that the “prize” of successful leaders belongs in the realm of purpose, vision and values. What’s important at the end of the day, and what will it look like? What’s the vision, and what I am I doing today to make it a reality?

On one level, as a leader, this seems like an obvious mandate. But in practice, stress, financial pressures, time-constraints, peer recognition, and a host of other so-called realities pull and tug on the prize so severely that none of our attention is left for it. Again, our attention is a finite resource and goes wherever we place it (see first line of this article).

How do we, as responsible caretakers of the vision, ensure it receives the best of our attention?

A number of leaders I have worked with have mastered their attention-allocation habits. There are three things they have done extremely well:
• AWARENESS: They invested the time and effort for self-awareness. Unless one is very clear about their values and personal vision, there is nothing consistent for attention to anchor itself to, so it is dependent on the changing winds of day-to-day details, complaints, compliments, etc., which are inevitable.
• DISCIPLINE: They create structures, time, conversations and measurements that capture and hold this quality of attention, so that it serves as a type of “sentinel,” ensuring the finite resource of attention falls under their leadership, rather than randomly distributed events, opinions and occurrences.
• COURAGE: They courageously articulate, protect and communicate their values and vision to those they lead and impact so that everyone is rowing in the same direction. In other words, the collective attention is a reflection of where the leader’s attention is going. When leaders reinforce purpose, values and vision through clear and constant communication, group alignment creates results that are powerful, efficient, and fun.

If you look at these three points and back it out, you’ll notice they are all dependent on a human being and her or his mind. If there is no attention-management within the leader, there is no attention-management within the team or the structures. It is not enough to simply say "we have a vision" or assume that the proverbial "they" are looking after it.

As leaders, only we can be held accountable for what we do with our attention and how much of it aligns with the purpose and vision of the system we lead. This means we get to place it wherever we want with whatever qualities we want it to have. Fun, isn’t it?

Why don’t we all do it?

Why don’t more of us simply place our attention where it is most needed? Because it requires self-awareness, discipline and courage to develop that habit. It is challenging to control our mind and its distribution of awareness and attention so it can be placed where we want it, how we want it, when we want it. Most of us live in the world of distractions, leaving our attention scattered about, devoid of our own dreams and desired outcomes.

High-level strategic leadership requires the time to develop discipline through activities that engage and strengthen self-awareness. Activities that either enable or disable our ability to be who we really are. To defend the vision we have agreed to integrate in the systems we lead.

Freedom and power is useless if we cannot first develop the freedom to control our mind and our attention. For example, we may have the freedom to be happy, yet when anger or fear come into view, do we really have the discipline—the freedom—to turn our attention away from it? When a “difficult conversation” comes between your team and its mission, do you have the courage that yields the freedom to move through it swiftly, with complete integrity and alignment of purpose, values and vision?

This type of freedom is not found in text-books, business schools or most best-selling novels on leadership; this capacity can only be produced by activities that promote it, that access and engage the mind and spirit in such a way that one develops the mental muscles and habits to truly place attention where we want it to go.

This can be accessed through many activities, which differ from person to person, depending upon their disposition and interests: meditation, bike-riding, hiking, painting, writing, journaling, discussion groups, coaching, mentoring, or calligraphy are just a few ideas. They take you outside your thinking-mind and provide access to spirit, self-awareness and mental discipline.

I have noticed that leaders who ensure these activities are guarded in their day-planners demonstrate a keen and ongoing ability to control their attention, seeing situations more clearly and placing it where it is needed most. Moreover, the quality of that attention is clear, strong and, almost always, caring.

It is important to recognize our attention goes wherever we place it. It is one of the few things we actually are allowed to control in this world. As leaders, we are deeply obligated to recognize this power and master its application, to ensure it is us who are doing the leading, and not the fickleness of external change.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Purpose Integration Depends on the Leader

Every human system—individual or collective—is guided on some level, either consciously or not, by a purpose. Purpose-integration, therefore, refers to the quality of integrating that purpose throughout the system it refers to.

I assert that purpose-integration has more to do with the leader, the very top leader, of the system than any other component of that system. This is a bold statement, for it does not distribute responsibility to other leaders or non-human structures within the system. These are also crucial for successful purpose-integration, but they are ultimately at the mercy of the person with the greatest influence and power, the top-leader—the designated caretaker of the system's purpose. Its integrity resides first and foremost within that person. Therefore, the capacity of that person to be a responsible caretaker of the purpose is paramount and (quite literally) at the heart of the system.

In very general terms, there are external considerations such as resources, internal considerations such as structures, and inner-most considerations such as the propensity of a human being (the purpose-driven leader) to think, speak and act in way that brings the purpose into existence.

All three areas—external, internal and inner-most—are required for full purpose-integration. There are experts and professional consultants for each of these three areas and their respective sub-divisions. Although I do not claim to know everything about purpose-integration from the dimension of inner-most alignment, I have developed considerable insight into this area having worked intimately with dozens of visionary leaders over the last eight years.

Like the story of five blind-men describing an elephant based on which isolated part of the elephant they are in contact with, describing purpose-integration from the point of view of the leader will surely be incomplete. Systems, structures, performance management, communication, resources, branding are just a few from a very long list. But I shall address it in any case, hoping to bring a bit more clarity to this one area of the proverbial elephant, so that we may better understand the entire elephant, and ultimately learn how to ride it.