leadership dot #2940: only forward

Ah, the turtle. It’s often dismissed as a creature and I’m sure it’s often ridiculed as a college mascot. They seem so slow!

But while turtles may not win any speed records, they have several characteristics to which we should all aspire. In the farewell address of the University of Maryland President Wallace Loh, he talks about the Terrapin turtle (UMD’s mascot) and points out that it only walks forward. “And how does he do this?” Loh rhetorically asks. “One step at a time by sticking its neck out.”

Think of how your life would be different if you only walked forward. Instead of harboring regret, backtracking, reversing decisions or even standing still you could accomplish so much in your life by persisting one step at a time. You don’t have to be fast; you merely must be consistent.

Take a lesson from the misunderstood reptile. Forward, even slowly, is a great way to get ahead.

leadership dot #2923: counsel

A colleague of mine asked me to review an important memo before she sent it. After I sent back a few comments, she replied: “Thanks. I usually know the answer when I send it to you, but it always helps to hear you say it.”

For some reason, we trust the counsel from others more than ourselves although it doesn’t have to be that way. It is great to have another set of eyes, but if you don’t have a mentor at your disposal consider the advice you would give someone if they asked you the question you are asking yourself. I’ll bet you are surprised at how often the two align.

Pretending that you’re giving advice to others is a valuable technique not only for work projects but for relationship issues, decisions about home issues or how to approach most problems. If a trusted friend asked, it’s likely we’d quickly have advice to offer. The key is following our own suggestions instead of just giving them.


leadership dot #2919: toward

When the University President* spoke to my class, I asked him if he had any leadership advice for my students. His reply: “walk toward the heat.”

He recounted times in the early days of his presidency when the press about both him personally and the institution was less than favorable and how he was tempted to stay home and avoid addressing it. Instead, he headed to the popular activities in town, the crowded restaurants and the busy spots on campus to face the issues head-on. Now, 25 years later, he still attributes that practice as a fundamental lesson for students and continues to engage in it himself.

Think about this mantra the next time someone or something turns up the heat in your world. It may be tempting to ignore the ruckus or to hide behind a shield such as social media or email but a quarter-decade of wisdom says that is the wrong action to take. Instead, have that tough conversation with your partner or employee; continue to attend public events instead of hiding out in your office; put the tough topics on your agenda instead of letting them fester.

You have no hope of dousing a fire if you allow it to burn unattended. The mere act of walking toward the heat will go a long way in extinguishing some of the flames of fury.

*President Jeff Bullock, University of Dubuque

leadership dot #2917: bottleneck

I had to have the “tough love” talk with a client that I am coaching about his dissertation. Each week, we talk about tasks that should be done and too many weeks went by when I was having the same conversation over and over. It seems that the problem boiled down to the fact that all the tasks were small, therefore, it seemed like no big deal to push them off a day or two – or ten. We talked about the implication that each delay caused, and, as we plotted the calendar, he realized that the targeted graduation date was at risk unless he took the little tasks more seriously.

The dissertation process is similar to so many other things where a big project is broken into hundreds of smaller tasks. In fact, many time management experts recommend that specific strategy. The problem comes in when those little things become too easy to put off. Eventually, a bottleneck ensues, and no matter how small the tasks, there are just too many of them to finish in the allotted time.

It happens when getting ready for a board meeting, preparing for the holidays, writing a grant, submitting an RFP or leaving on a major trip. All the little things become a big thing as they back up and get condensed into shorter and shorter time frames.

Don’t dismiss the minor things on your to-do list if they are the initial steps to making a big thing happen. The importance of a task is not always proportionate to its size.


leadership dot #2912: surrender

I was able to get my hair cut yesterday after missing four appointments as a result of the virus. There are many times between my regular three-week visits that the length or thickness of my hair makes me crazy and I am anxious to see my stylist, but, unbelievably, this wasn’t one of them.

When my hair started to grow out during the early days of shelter-in-place, it made me go nuts. But after a while, I just gave up and by last week, I was wearing it around the house using the band from my journal as an improvised headband. It wasn’t worth the mental energy to fight with it anymore.

The same is true in many other situations. People are bothered by being “a little” wet, but at some point, to fight it is moot. It matters when you are somewhat tired but then you reach a stage where the exhaustion turns to giddiness and you stop suppressing the yawns. You may try to stay clean when working outdoors, then a little mud turns into a lot and you just give up. You may get worked up every single time you do your expense reports, but is it worth it?

The trick is figuring out where that resignation point is and acknowledging it. Save yourself the annoyance and mental energy that it takes to fight with yourself as you try and manage something which is futile to control. To use Elsa’s famous phrase: “let it go!” Surrender and you can be at peace.

leadership dot #2911: what and how

There are two parts to storytelling – you have to know the story and you have to know how to tell it. We often consider the process as a whole, but the two elements are distinct and separate.

There are many examples where this challenge plays out. I see people of all ages struggle with articulating their strengths – understanding what they even are, let alone communicating them in a resume or cover letter. Leaders are often aware of the accomplishments of their organization, but become challenged in making them concise and compelling in media or grants. Organizational leaders right now are wondering whether or not to put out a message about the social unrest – they have a vehicle to share a message, but are wrestling with what to say or what story they have to tell. Every day I have to dig deep to determine not only a message for a dot, but a lesson that has relevance to those reading it.

I think it makes our communication more effective if we treat the knowing and telling as two components instead of one. Begin with the story itself — raising your consciousness of what makes you or your organization different from others in a similar role, keeping track of anecdotes and figures that bring the story to life, and always being mindful of the environment and the messages that are currently relevant to your audience. Then you can focus on how to tell the story – relying on past experiences regarding the most effective media to reach your clients, drawing on lessons you’ve gleaned from other writing that struck a chord with you, and utilizing an established look/tone/voice to communicate your messages.

Think about what you’re best at – what you say or how you say it – and work to find others to help you enhance your weaker part. To be effective, you need to have both elements in synch.


leadership dot #2910: how to

YouTube has become the go-to resource for learning how to do things. Want to fix your pipe? Learn how to record a podcast? Know how to teach your child math? There’s likely a video showing you precisely what you need to do. YouTube is the second-most visited site in the world with 30 million visitors and 5 billion new uploads – each day!

This kind of volume makes YouTube a great resource for learning – and its heft shapes the consciousness and expectations of everyone. Over a trillion people have used the service, frequently finding it a straightforward and easy way to fix or create something.

But there are many things in our organizations and lives that can’t be taught in a short video snippet. Systemic change, deep-seated healing, organizational culture and relationship building don’t occur in a 30-minute how-to. People may wish they did, but it doesn’t work that way. There is no YouTube video on how to magically cure the virus, mitigate the impact of racism, stop police brutality or revitalize a crippled economy.

The serious work that needs to be done – the real work that makes an impact – doesn’t come with a 5 Steps Checklist on how to do it. As an organizational leader or concerned citizen, you may be tempted to focus on the urgent and look for that quick fix. But if you can put your strategy on YouTube, it’s the wrong one. The answer you need requires grace, time, openness, action and missteps. “How to” on the important stuff is all about hard, not easy, but must begin within each of us.


leadership dot #2909: OPOQ

Back in the day when I worked at a drug store, we had coding on the shelves that served as our inventory and ordering system. Two simple numbers helped keep the shelves stocked — OPOQ: Order Point Order Quantity. In other words, a 2/4 meant that when there were only two of those items remaining (order point) it was time to order 4 more (order quantity). It took the guesswork out of the process and allowed a high school student like myself to manage the ordering for the department because there were clear guidelines on when it was time to act.

I think that OPOQ can serve as a useful point of documentation for not only office supplies and pantry items but as a type of gauge to have conversations about comfort level with risk. Think of Order Point as Action Point – at what stage should action be triggered?

You and your manager (or partner) should agree on parameters by which action should be taken or when the other needs to be informed. You likely won’t quantify it with a simple two-digit number, but a shared understanding is very helpful of whether tolerance is low or high, whether you have the autonomy to act or need to check-in, and the level of communication that the other would like to receive. If one person is likely to observe a situation and let it play out before intervening (a high action point), and the other believes in course corrections as soon as a deviation is noted (a low action point) – it would be beneficial to know this and come to some agreement before being faced with a decision-warranting scenario. Similar discussions in advance about the amount of action that is required (action quantity) in hypothetical situations could also prove worthwhile instead of learning the information during real dramas as they are playing out.

What’s your personal OPOQ? Pay attention to your own behavior and see if you can develop an understanding of where you fall on the action/response spectrum to allow you to communicate those values to others.

P.S.  Happy 8th Anniversary Leadership Dots!


leadership dot #2898: time and space

A colleague shared a tough conversation that he had with an employee, then wisely said that he was leaving its resolution until tomorrow. “Time and space give things clarity,” he said.

I couldn’t agree more.

Allowing yourself time to reflect on a situation often produces insights that are hidden at the moment. When I am stuck on writing a dot, I often take the dogs for a walk or do something else. I watched the Senate debate and was unsure of my candidate until I slept on it and suddenly had a clear choice. I recently did a quick analysis of some data and only after I re-examined it did I realize my initial error in the setup.

In the workplace, time and space allow people the opportunity to consider the broader consequences. I disliked answering a request made in the hallway because while it may seem like a good idea on its own, I needed time to think about other implications. Time can provide a buffer to soften disagreements and retain relationships that may be damaged if the conversation continued in the moment. Walking away from a vexing issue allows time for incubation and new options to emerge.

We face a lot of pressure to constantly be “on” and respond instantly to the barrage of communication and issues thrown our way. It doesn’t have to be that way. Set the expectation with others that you need some time to think. Don’t apologize for saying “I’ll get back to you on that.” Shut off the input at a certain point each day to allow time and space to process what you have already encountered. You’ll be wiser and less overwhelmed if you give yourself the grace to ponder.


leadership dot #2897: mouse and monster

One of the more challenging skills for new leaders to learn is how to be appropriately assertive. Many people suppress their own position or do not express their needs in order to avoid conflict, while some are at the other end of the spectrum and become demanding or domineering in their statements. Neither is helpful.

One technique to help people grasp the differences between assertive behavior, non-assertive behavior and aggressive behavior is through the use of a children’s book The Mouse, The Monster and Me. Whether you utilize the actual book or just adapt its lessons, the three distinctions help people consider which mask they are wearing into a given situation:

  • The Mouse mask – which you hide behind to subordinate your own position, feelings or wishes and demonstrate non-assertive behaviors
  • The Monster mask – that shows indifference to other people’s feelings or rights and comes across as too direct or self-enhancing
  • Me (mask-less being true to you) – in which you stand up for your own rights without violating the rights and feelings of others. It honestly, directly and appropriately expressing your needs and opinions.

If you introduce this language in your organization, the metaphor provides a shorthand to call someone out who is veering too far from their authentic center. A colleague or supervisor can simply say: “It sounds like you’re wearing your monster mask today,” and convey the message without further explanation or drama.

There is enough mask-wearing these days with COVID; you don’t need to add another layer. Think about what you are hiding behind in your communication and vow instead to consciously avoid being a monster or mouse.

The Mouse, The Monster and Me by Pat Palmer, 1977.