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.