Soft Leadership and Tough Compassion

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Too often we have the notion that compassionate leadership is soft. Compassionate leadership isn’t soft. It’s anything but soft. It sets high expectations and expects everyone to perform at their best for the good of the team in all circumstances. It accepts nothing less than a full measure of performance and accountability. The problem is that leaders sometimes run off track when they confuse soft, coddling leadership with compassion.

Tough, compassionate leadership calls for extraordinary commitment that stretches individuals. Stretching recognizes the potential in people and calling them to a higher level of performance shows respect for them. T.S. Elliot said “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Some leaders, fearful of the team reaction to a challenging assignment soften the load before its necessary. Rather than focus on the purpose of the task, they speak of the burden it might cause. There’s no question that the burdens are often real but by apologizing for them in advance or offering an out, we deny the team the opportunity to reach deep inside to discover their best and find a way to overcome them. Every opportunity a leader creates before it’s needed sets up a potential excuse for low performance. Doing so implies the work isn’t worth their best efforts. Lowering the expectation is even disrespectful to the individual. Tough compassion expects exceptional performance and only after its first given should we look to lighten that burden. Doing so then, is truly compassionate.

Tough, compassionate leaders stretch individuals but never leave their side. They’re sensitive to the real and different limits of every individual and respond accordingly. They recognize that while there may be differences of experience, there are no superstars on the team. Everyone is held to the same standard of performance, that being their best. That doesn’t mean though, that they take wounded or weak into battle. No team can be successful when it’s held back by individuals incapable or unwilling to give all they have. Tough compassion protects people while they give their best, not before. It acknowledges the obstacles and problems but believes in the team to overcome them. Soft leaders willing to accept less from the team will seldom see their best.

Compassionate leaders also expect more of themselves than they do of others and in doing so set the example for sacrifice and commitment. Expecting the best connotes how you feel about yourself and others. Strong compassionate leaders are also transparent. They are willing to expose their short-coming and expect others to do the same. By acknowledging their frailties, the team is actually drawn together and made strong like a rope is made strong by the weaving of individual threads.

Compassionate leaders also believe and communicate that the mission is worth their commitment and sacrifice. It says I believe in you and that together, we can do it. Also, in holding everyone, including themselves, to an expectation of high performance, leadership is making a strong statement of the potential they see in individuals and the team.

Compassionate leadership also knows when to rest. Constant pressure will wear down and demoralize any team. Creating toughness and resiliency in people means knowing when to take time off and recover. The compassionate leader watches the signs and knows that from time to time, individuals need to be pulled from the battle so they can recover and return fully energized. Take time also to celebrate the team’s hard work and commitment. Just like lowering the goal devalues the individual; failure to celebrate the win devalues the success of their sacrifice and effort.

If you’d like to discuss how to transform performance through leadership, respond to this post or use the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Job Posting: Truly Compassionate Leader

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On September 8, 2009 Captain William Swenson and his unit were engaged in a fierce seven hour battle with Taliban rebels in the Ganjgal Valley near the Pakistan boarder. On several occasions during the firefight, Swenson braved intense enemy fire to pull his wounded and dying men from the battlefield to safety.

One of the greatest symbols of his leadership style was captured by a helmet-cam and later posted to YouTube. After loading one of his mortally wounded men onto a medevac helicopter, Swenson is seen leaning over and kissing the soldier on the forehead before returning to the battle. Later in an interview, the Captain said he wanted to convey with that gesture that he was proud of his soldier for fighting so valiantly, that his work for the day was over and it was time to leave the battle. He went on to talk about his responsibility to his soldiers and his love and pride for those under his command. For his leadership and bravery that day, Capt. Swenson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

When I saw this I was overcome by the compassion he showed for the people he was responsible for. I began to ask myself, why don’t we see this type of leadership and level of caring in business? In the last decade there’s been much talk about servant leadership. I’ve always found the term to be redundant. I was taught, and as Capt. Swenson demonstrated that day, that real authentic leadership has always been of a servant nature.

It makes me wonder, and you should too, where did we get off track in business? Why is it that the expressions of sincere servant-hood are so absent from many work environments? One answer may lie in the reward systems. In the military awards are given out to individuals who often sacrifice themselves for the good of those they’re responsible for. To the contrary, in business, awards (bonuses, promotions, salaries, etc.) are often given out to those who’ve achieved a lot for themselves, sometimes at the expense of those they’re responsible for. Perhaps we’ve got it upside down. It explains to some extent why books and programs on servant leadership are all the rage. It’s because the standard has become the exception.

Another reason we don’t see enough of truly compassionate, authentic leadership may be rooted in the business culture. Why is it that soldiers will willingly face life and death situations for their leader but you can’t get an employee to complete a report by Monday? It’s not that they love war. It’s that they love their leader and they love their leader because they know their leader loves them first. So how is that communicated? It’s not done with words. It’s done through a commitment of training and preparation ensuring the greatest opportunity for success. It’s done through heat of the battle examples. It’s the officer voluntarily putting himself in harm’s way to protect those he’s charged to look out for. How long has it been since you witnessed that in business? This relationship is no different than raising a family.

The Navy Seals have a code they live by – “Leave no man behind.” Implied in it is the message that there is no more important person than the one next to you and that every member will sacrifice themselves if necessary to protect and stand by their teammates.  It’s rooted in a fierce loyalty and love for one another.

A number of years ago I worked at a company where I had a coworker whose wife was gravely ill. Her condition meant he was going to be off work for quite some time to provide care, much longer than he had vacation benefits accrued. Without any mention or request, employees started offering their vacation to their coworker. Why did they do that? Why was it given up as a gift, compassionately and without a hint of obligation? It’s wasn’t something in the water. It was though, something in the culture. I believe those employees were only acting naturally. They did so because they knew how their coworkers and their company cared about them. They were serving just as they had been served.

If you think business has no place for genuine, compassionate leadership, tell that to a tender warrior like Capt. Swenson. Guard your team. Protect them. Defend them. Love them and if necessary, be willing to sacrifice yourself for them. If you don’t watch out for them, there may be no one left to watch out for you. If you’re truly a servant leader then you must be the first to give and the last to receive. When the team sees the sacrificial love of their leader they will give the same back to their leader and to each other.

What we don’t need today is another leadership program with new slogans, exhortations or clever models. What we do need is a leadership renaissance – one which calls us back to the principles of authentic and original leadership rooted in the basic human needs of every individual. One like that lived out by Capt. Swenson for all to see that day in September 2009 in the door of a medevac helicopter.

If you’d like to talk more about how to create a culture of accountable compassionate  leadership, respond to my post or use the “contact us” tab on this page to reach me.

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4 Pitfalls to Avoid When Planning

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One of my favorite authors and management gurus, Peter Drucker, once said “The only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance.” Businesses left to natural devolution will move from order to disorder, from performing to nonperformance and from thriving to surviving or worse. The call then to business leaders is to take control, to take assertive steps to create the future and avoid the natural degeneration of business.

Few would disagree on the importance and value to having a plan for business. But if understanding the value of something were enough to cause it into existence, we’d all be fit, trim and living healthy lifestyles. Developing a plan takes discipline, determination and the willingness to stick with it. Preparing the plan is just the first step. There’s plan execution, ongoing monitoring and periodic course changes in response to a dynamic marketplace and business.

There are several common pitfalls that can sink a good plan. Avoid these traps and you’ll be closer to your goal of implementing a plan that actually achieves results and improves your business. Here are a few common traps that can derail a plan.

1. Having a plan simply because you think you should. Each semester when I teach entrepreneurial business planning I remind my participants that unless they intend to use the plan as a guiding and monitoring tool, there’s no reason to put in the effort to develop one. As strange as it seems, some businesses go through the motions of developing a plan simply because they believe they should. Don’t do it. You have better things to do with your time. Just like most everything in life, you get out of a plan what you put into it. If you’re going to take the time to write it, use it.

2. Not having the discipline to see it through. We exit the planning process full of energy and optimism but soon get weighed down by today’s activities and have little room for working on tomorrow’s future. Everyone is busy and begins to run out of steam. If not addressed the organization will eventually get the message that the strategy is not as important as today’s work and will stop working on it. This is almost as bad as writing a plan and putting it on the shelf. Unlike wine, business plans don’t get better if their left to age on a cool dark shelf. If a plan is to be an effective management tool, it must be implemented and used.

Markets and industries can also change quickly. It’s possible that a plan may need to be changed in as little as a month or two from when it was written. If that’s not done, soon the plan doesn’t fit the reality of current business and market conditions and it’s abandoned. Don’t become so wedded to the plan that you fail to see that changes may be necessary. Periodically review the plan and adjust it to stay relevant. Without this, it’s tough to stay committed to a process that no longer makes sense.

3. Not having the right people or organizational structure in place to carry out the plan. The best plan and intentions will fall short if the organization doesn’t have the skills and structure to support it. Management must be willing to make tough decisions to ensure the right individuals are in the right leadership positions. The “right” individuals include not only those with the needed skillset but also those who believe in the direction the company is going and the plan it has to get there. Moving forward without the right team is a setup for plan failure and disappointment.

4. Trying to do too much too fast. I frequently write about stretching the organization’s potential with challenging goals, but there’s also a limit to the capability and efficacy of every organization. Plans need to fit the organization. Planning beyond the practical limitations of the business is a recipe for disaster. Leaders should pay attention to changes in the business environment, set meaningful priorities, and understand the need to match goals to the organization. By its very nature, planning is designed to change things and change is never easy. As the organization’s confidence and efficacy grows, so can the size of the goals and the level of optimism for producing the results. By designing a realistic business plan that fits the readiness and condition of the business you’re much more likely to maintain a commitment to the plan and greatly improve the chances for success in your business.

By preparing for some of the expected challenges to your plan, strategies can be developed to deal with them or plans can be scaled back to fit the realities of the business. It’s much better to create a modest plan and accomplish a little than to stall out and get nothing. A small success may only accomplish a little but can create the drive to tackle more the next time. To the contrary, a bad experience with planning can sour the organization to future efforts.

With some intentional and thoughtful planning, companies can take a proactive position against any decline in business performance. Consequently, a little planning that you can get done is better than a lot that goes nowhere.

If you’d like to talk more about how to plan successfully, respond to my post or use the “contact us” tab on this page to reach me.

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Inspiring High Performance in Others

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Do you look forward to going to work most days? If not, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if your employees don’t seem to either. Too few people look forward to going to work. It’s an unfortunate state for many businesses in America and their results reflect it. How is it possible that unhappy, unmotivated and disengaged employees could possibly offer exceptional customer service or develop exciting, innovative products that move your brand forward? Like it or not, it’s your role as the leader to provide the inspiration for your employees to find intrinsic motivation and fulfillment in their work such that the strategies and plans of the company can be realized. There are several steps you can follow.

Fire up your enthusiasm. You can’ inspire others unless you’re inspired yourself. There has to be a reason why the marketplace needs your business. If you’re unsure what that might be, think back to when you began. Your energy was fueled by a passion to make a difference. Simon Sinek in his book “Start with Why” makes the point that, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”. Every inspiring leader is passionate—not about the product or service itself, but about what it means to the customer and the larger world. Apple isn’t passionate about making great computers or phones. It’s passionate about challenging the status quo in everything it does. It just happens to do that through innovative computers, phones and other devices. Big difference.

Paint a picture. Our brains are wired to respond more to pictures than plans. Nothing big has ever happened without a leader articulating a vision and a course of action everyone could wrap their minds around. From putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade to ending apartheid in South Africa, inspiring leaders draw us to a vision that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible and inspires us. And saying it once isn’t enough. Inspiring leaders paint a vivid picture and then talk about it over and over as if it was a forgone conclusion. Bold visions communicated with resolute confidence create excitement and a magnetic draw for employees. They produce inspired evangelists. When you have an army of inspired followers there will be many who are capable of figuring out the “how” of the vision.

Pitch the benefit, not the result. Your employees don’t care about hitting your sales or earnings goals. It’s not inspiring and their performance will reflect their attitude. What you measure is the result of why your employees do what they do. Let them know what your goals are and how you’ll measure them, but after that, talk about the goals in terms of what it will mean for them – job security, stability, new job opportunities, advancement, etc. Your employees are asking one question, “What’s in it for me?” Don’t leave them guessing.

Benefits can also include personal anecdotes or stories about how your products or services are improving the lives of your customers. I recently spent time with a top executive of a large, transportation company. He had very personal, touching stories of what the company’s safety policy meant to him. I urged him to share the story in every opportunity he had with employees to give context and purpose for the safety goals.

Build confidence and optimism. It’s human nature not to let ourselves want something we don’t believe we can create. That’s also the case for organizations. That condition stifles the potential and limits the results of many organizations. Great leaders are generally more optimistic than average. We follow great leaders because they have a way of always seeing things work out. They are resilient in the face of obstacles and treat every setback as temporary.

Your employees’ ability to be optimistic will only grow to the extent they believe they can produce results. It’s their confidence in themselves that sets the boundaries of their comfort zone. Pushing people out of their comfort zone only creates resistance and avoidant behavior. Inspiring leaders have the ability to build confidence and draw them out into a bigger world where they can see the possibility of bigger achievements. Building the belief that “we can do this” is arguably one of the most important roles of a leader. But, you have to believe it first.

The topic of inspirational leadership isn’t talked about enough. So much corporate potential is lost because the fire has gone out of the leader. You don’t have to be a charismatic speaker, you only need to show some passion and excitement for your cause. Historically, employees have looked to their leader for inspiration that leads to intrinsic motivation. Too often, however, they don’t find it and the business results also end up uninspiring.

If you’d like to talk more about inspirational leadership, respond to my post or use the “contact us” tab on this page to reach me.

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Inspiring a Compelling Vision

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There’s a story I like to tell to communicate the value of having a clear and articulated vision in a company. I ask my audience to imagine they’re in a contest to complete a jigsaw puzzle. There are two teams, A and B, and three rounds to the contest.

In the first round, Team A is given the puzzle pieces and the correct cover. Team B is given the same puzzle pieces but the cover to another puzzle. The audience is asked to guess which team will complete the puzzle first. Team A is the chosen winner. In the second round, Team A is given the correct cover and Team B is given no cover at all. Again the audience identifies Team A as the fastest to complete the puzzle. Finally, in the third round, Team A again gets the correct cover and each member of Team B receives a different cover. Again, Team A is predicted to be the fastest. Then I ask the audience, which version of the puzzle game most closely resembles their company. Invariably, the common response is the third; everyone has a different cover to the puzzle.

Unfortunately, this is an all too common situation. Strategies fail or struggle because companies either don’t develop a compelling vision of what they aim to accomplish, or they fail to properly communicate the vision in a clear and consistent manner insuring that everyone is pulling together for the same outcome.

Employees by nature want to engage to make a difference. But it’s hard to experience intrinsic motivation when they don’t know where they’re going and how their effort contributes to a bigger purpose, the completion of the correct puzzle. Not only is the energy and motivation reduced, energy is being dissipated in different directions much like puzzle players arguing over the pieces they believe are part of their cover.

There are three important steps to having an organization embrace and pursue the leader’s vision.

1. Clarify the vision – some leaders don’t know themselves what their picture actually looks like. Nothing extraordinary ever happened without a leader articulating a simple and clear vision. Neil Armstrong would never have made space history in 1969 had John F. Kennedy not planted into the mind of every American the vision of a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The vision was so memorable that those of us who grew up at that time still recall it today. What vision of your organization will your employees remember long after they’re gone?

2. Make it compelling – No one has ever thrown themselves into a vision of growing sales by 10 percent or cutting expenses. That’s not a vision; it’s a goal or outcome. It’s also not inspiring unless there’s a personal connection for the individual. For someone to get behind your vision it has to become their vision. Employees will pour themselves into a compelling opportunity not because they have to, but because they want to. When they do they are following the leader for their own desire to participate in the vision. Rationing in the US during World War II was a major inconvenience for our country but companies and individuals alike willingly sacrificed in ways almost unimaginable today in their contribution to the war effort. What about your vision would move your employees to sacrifice for your cause as Americans did during the war?

3. Repeat the story often – Once, or even a few times, is never enough. Repetition matters in a big way. Hearing something occasionally reinforces with the follower that they’re hearing the leader’s vision. But hearing it often will eventually make it their vision. When it becomes their vision everything they do will be aimed at achieving it. To do that, employees need to hear it often, in different situations and from different individuals. When they start telling your story as if it were their story, you’re on your way to achieving your vision.

“Make the story big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” These are the words of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (205). While his purpose was nefarious and destructive, the basic principle applies equally well to organizations seeking to fulfill their vision. A vision that benefits everyone is one most people can aspire to and support. The process is simple but success rests in the execution.

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