It makes me crazy when someone (often with “director” in their title, no less) claims that they are not empowered to do something. I wonder what they are waiting for: someone to describe the task that is to be done, explicit permission to begin, or maybe they want an up-front guarantee that they won’t be reprimanded if the project doesn’t go as planned. Unfortunately for them, none of those options are likely to happen.
In Moments of Truth, Scandinavian Airlines president Jan Carlzon put it this way: “Nobody puts a proposal for a new comprehensive strategy on your desk and asks you to make a decision about it. You have to put it there yourself.”
Leadership is a verb, not a position. Leadership requires claiming empowerment, whether you believe you have a position that corresponds to your initiative or not. It is having the courage to risk saying or doing what you believe is in the best interest of the organization, even when the idea is unpopular. It means using your voice and experience to define what needs to happen, not just implementing what others have crafted.
The problem in most organizations isn’t that people are overstepping their bounds, it’s that they aren’t stepping up at all.
Technology is the area where I most freely ask for advice or admit I don’t know something. I’m not afraid of looking stupid because I’m “a dinosaur” and am not expected to know much about how modern devices work. No one is surprised or shaming when I ask because social norms say my generation is not supposed to be tech-savvy. As a result of this liberation, I ask often and have learned a lot.
I think what limits people from this exchange of knowledge on other topics is the hesitation on the part of the asker not the respondent. The hang-ups people have about appearing incompetent or uninformed cause them to feign wisdom that they don’t have or to spend unnecessary time trying to figure something out on their own. It’s not that others wouldn’t freely assist on topics other than technology; it’s that people craft excuses in their own mind about why not to ask.
To create an environment of trust, break the stereotype that those in charge are “supposed” to know the answers. Take the lead in asking for assistance or sharing that you don’t know something. Admit when you messed up and need someone to help you figure out why. Be vulnerable enough to say that you need to learn how to do something, even if it may seem obvious or basic to others. Saying “I don’t know” is the fastest way to accumulate that knowledge. Be brave enough to raise your hand.
In the movie Apollo 13, engineers in the simulator are trying to determine in what sequence the space shuttle computer systems can be re-started given the power that remains after an explosion. One of the options offered is to draw power from the lunar module but another engineer cautions that they will lose considerable power in the switch. In the end, they do utilize that supplemental power source and, as we all know, the shuttle returns successfully.
We aren’t all so fortunate as to have an alternate source of power or to have the capacity to lose energy but still have positive consequences. I am feeling this first-hand this week as I try to divide my focus between a looming grant deadline and preparation for an upcoming residency, as well as attending to the ongoing projects that are always on my plate. It’s all important and as I go deep in one task, the sense of urgency of the other beckons me to work on it for a while. Not a good plan!
As our minds and attention alternate between projects or address interruptions, we lose energy when we try to re-power our work. If you take a phone call or stop for an appointment, you can’t just pick up where you were – it requires a bit of backtracking to reconnect with the thought you vacated. If you work on “this” for a while and then “that” for a bit, you’ll produce less than if you had stayed with one or the other for the same period.
One moment of lost power is inconsequential, but several of them throughout the day can alter your productivity on all your work as you never really obtain full focus on anything. Solid, uninterrupted big chunks of time are rare, but carve out precious, uninterrupted smaller bits of time in your calendar. Then align your to-do list with the time increments you’re likely to have available and stick with one thing during each of them. You’ll find that your best work happens in blocks, not bites.
In the introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Jim Collins wrote: “I think of what he [7 Habits author Stephen Covey] did for personal effectiveness as analogous to what the graphical user interface did for personal computers…Covey created a standard operating system – the “Windows” – for personal effectiveness and he made it easy to use.”
What a high compliment that was – how nice for someone to say that I am the graphical user interface for supervision or for the organizational behavior or leadership classes that I teach.
The wisdom of simplification is often overlooked. On too many occasions, people feel like they need to make their message or proposal sound sophisticated or full of big words and jargon when in reality it would be much more powerful if it was communicated through an analogy or story. Synthesizing the key lessons into a memorable list (e.g. 7 Habits or STAR supervision) is harder to accomplish but far more memorable than having tomes on the subject.
Covey sold over 25 million copies of his 7 Habits book and Microsoft claims over 400 million users of Windows. The next time you are working on a project, think about the graphical user interface and attempt to elegantly simplify the complex.
Elton John recently posted: “29 years ago today [January 27] I was a broken man. I finally summoned the courage to say three words that would change my life: ‘I need help.’” As a result, he has been sober for nearly three decades and continues to inspire others with his charity work and music.
John’s plea for help was on a significant scale, but people are challenged to request assistance for far less. People don’t want to admit when they are depressed, overwhelmed, or scared – and as a result, solider on carrying their burden alone. Even asks for small assists, such as help with a project, aid in making dinner or help in processing through a problem seem like they are impositions rather than strength-building activities.
Asking for help allows us to develop relational bonds with others, lightens our load, teaches us new things and, as in John’s case, can literally save our lives. Your ask doesn’t have to be monumental, but the next time the going gets tough summon the courage to say those three magic words.
Thanks to my friend Tracy, my car has a decal that makes it appear as if an actual golden retriever is riding in my back seat. It’s so realistic that dogs bark at it and many people have pointed to it while driving next to me. I’ve also had literally dozens of others seek me out to ask where to buy one, including several who waited for me to come out of a store so they could get the information.
When asked, it would be easy to demur and say that a friend gave it to me or I didn’t know, lest the proliferation of these decals lose the uniqueness and become the next “Baby on Board” phenomenon. But why rob someone of the joy?
People who hold back recipes, don’t share books, or won’t generously give information on where they bought something are just robbing themselves of the pleasure of giving.
If someone admires something of yours, freely help them bring that joy into their own lives.
[the decal, which comes in several animals and famous personalities, is called a Joy Rider Window Cling – available at Amazon, of course]
Setting boundaries comes with two challenges: first, you have to find the courage to speak up and articulate the parameters, and then you must come to grips with the frequent guilt that arises because you denied someone what they wanted.
People often allow themselves to be taken advantage of because of the difficulty in establishing limits that leave them feeling good. Never mind that the boundary was appropriate; it’s still far too easy to feel like you “let someone down” when you drew a line, so people often remain quiet.
I found myself in this situation recently: I said no to a request that I felt was unreasonable, then second-guessed myself, wondering if I should have just shut up and done it anyway. I felt bad for not doing something, and I would have also felt bad if I had given in and done it. Which is better?
I am working to reframe setting boundaries. Instead of seeing them as saying “no” to someone, I’m redefining it as saying “yes” to my needs. It feels good to say “yes”, and that habit can carry over to other disciplines where it is helpful to answer in the affirmative, such as with new experiences and taking appropriate risks.
Setting boundaries on small asks builds the muscle to create strength to say no when the situation truly warrants it. Say “yes” to what is reasonable for you, and opt for “let’s talk about that” when others draw the line too close for your comfort.