Leadership Lessons from Hurricane Harvey

hurricane-harvey-houston-street-ap-ps-170828_4x3_992As I sit here in the Houston area surrounded by catastrophe, I can’t help but think about these events through the lens of leadership lessons. Eventually, the experts will publish facts on the human toll and financial cost of this natural disaster. Millions of people are impacted. Thousands are now homeless. The fourth largest city in the US will be shutdown for at least a week.

Like many disasters all over the world, the real story is how the community has rallied. Ordinary people are literally risking their lives to help total strangers. Whether taking a fishing boat through flooded neighborhoods to rescue those in danger, or opening homes for those that are without shelter, or travelling through a flooded street to help keep a grocery store or restaurant open, or just coordinating the thousands of pleas for help on social media, it seems that everyone has found a way to contribute.

So what leadership lessons from this event can we learn?

1. First, as bad as things may seems,there are many that have it far worse. Count your blessings.

2. Focus on the big issues. What seemed a big problem yesterday likely won’t be significant in weeks or months. At the end of the year, what will really matter? Focus on that.

3. Put your energy into what you can do. Blame, complaining, and rumor are destructive and don’t help. What do you have control over? That deserves your attention.

4. Processes, and formal governance provide a framework for normal, repetitive events, but you need to recognize when it’s appropriate to go off script. Not every circumstance can be handled through normal procedure.

5. Everyone can contribute. Titles and authority typically aren’t as significant as we pretend. The best help is often from the people who just desire to help.

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Leadership is for the Courageous

Superhero kid

As a leader, you set a vision, rally energy into that vision, and remove obstacles. The vision you establish should be bold, which requires taking risk. Try making a bold vision without risk, and you’ll end up with a cowardly vision that inspires no one.

Sounds simple, right? But how often do you delegate vision-setting to committees? You ask management to tell you what to do. You ask your clients what they want. You ask peers and subordinates to collaborate and set vision.

No one gets fired for asking management for input, asking clients for input, or collaborating with peers and subordinates. However, too many leaders abdicate their responsibility. They take input from everyone, blend it together, and set a vision that offends no one. In doing so, neither have they inspired anyone.  Leadership is watered down into nothing as the result of the fear of failure and the fear of displeasing others.

Make a deliberate effort to be bold. Yes, you need to collect input and collaborate, but the objective is to set a vision that inspires. That will require making some assumptions and taking some risks. It will require discarding some input from stakeholders. You will draw criticism from those who disagree. You will come under scrutiny by management. Don’t avoid this, embrace it.

Be courageous, be ready for the trial by fire, and be prepared to see it through.

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Transparency and Directness

Leaders focus finite resources onto specific actions and goals.  When goals are difficult and resources are scarce (always!), there can be zero tolerance for noise.

What is noise?  Anything that jeopardizes the efficiency of those scarce resources in accomplishing their objective.  There is a long list of possibilities, but gossip is perhaps one of the most prevalent and – sadly – most tolerated.

Gossip is idle chatter. As harmless as it might seem, it typically has some or all of the following attributes:

  • has a negative and conflict-ridden sentiment – often embarrassing, complaining, or inflammatory
  • is the sharing of unsubstantiated information
  • second-guesses past decisions

What may seem like harmless chatter will instead drive division, poor morale, undermining, and wastes energy.

There are some easy ways to get rid of enablers of this divisive behavior:

  • Have idle time?  Get busy with urgent and important business
  • Have a concern?  Go directly to the individual who has control
  • Have bad news?  Share it early and without sugar-coating
  • Is there a communication vacuum?  Fill it with positive discussion – regarding what is possible, what is controllable
  • Is the discussion on a tangent?  Bring it back to the goal and task at hand

Keep it simple. Lead your team to undivided attention on what really matters.  Stay out of the slime.

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Real Leaders Drive Towards the Goal

As we wrap up one year and enter another, this is a convenient time for self-reflection. For your leadership passion and style, compare where you are now against where you started the year.  What bad habits have you accumulated throughout the year?  Let me suggest one bad habit to be particularly wary of.

Here’s a common scenario. You start the year with great passion and optimism, pushing the envelop, thinking big, and working hard. Then bad news starts dripping in. Nothing individually back-breaking by itself, but that constant drip starts up and won’t stop. Then, your management starts “unfairly” changing things up and micro-managing, making what was once a very difficult but plausible objective now seem foolhardy. So that by the time the last quarter rolls around, everything seems futile and nobody believes in the vision, strategy, or plan anymore. That’s when you’re going through the motions. Doing what is expected and what is comfortable, but not doing what is necessary.

Real leaders don’t do that. Never, ever take a course of action for the reason that it is comfortable or expected. Always take the course of action for what is necessary to achieve the goal. It’s simple to say. Simple to read. Simple to agree with. But so few successfully execute this with consistency.

One of the most difficult things to do as an individual or a leader is to ignore the easy and instead do the necessary. Constantly challenge yourself and your team to stop doing what is convenient or expected, and instead do what is required.

Start by looking at your calendar.  Are you a slave to meeting invitations or are you instead a master of your time?  Eliminate the meetings that aren’t helping you achieve your goals. Force the discussions and teamwork required to be successful.  For meetings you cannot avoid but are not helpful, become vocal.  Don’t sit back and cruise through those meetings, but instead shift the discussion.  Your calendar is just one small part of your job, but it’s a start.  Spend your time where it counts.

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The Trap of Likability

braveheartThere are a number of traps that immature leaders fall into. Few are as prevalent and detrimental as the leader who wants to be liked. They think that being a leader is like being class president – being charismatic and likable.  They envision throngs of followers being so beholden to their leader that they will follow him into any situation.  (Braveheart, anyone?)

This warped view of leadership results in leaders trying to make every single person happy.  Trying to be all things to all people.  Taking personal responsibility for every complaint.  Every perceived wrong the organization has ever leveled against the individual.

What results is an overworked, overwrought leader who may be liked by some, but respected by very few.

Think again about the role of a leader – aligning teams to a shared purpose, putting energy into that mission, and eliminating roadblocks that threaten.  LIKABILITY isn’t the key, RESPECT is.  Between a likable leader and a respected leader, the respected leader will win far more often.  The individuals may not agree with every decision, but with respect they will have faith that the mission is a good one and is achievable.

Being a leader doesn’t mean trying to make everyone around you your friend, buddy, and chap.  This isn’t a popularity contest.  This is about leading a team to win.

Being liked isn’t a winning formula and pursuing it will only result in lost respect and ineffectual leadership.  Make sound decisions.  Explain the logic behind those decisions.  Show common purpose.  Be diligent.  Be consistent.  Earn the respect you need.

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Never Confuse Progress with Winning

hurdle-pano_22496Everyone likes a winner.  In sports, the teams that consistently win will enjoy a more loyal fan base.  Last year’s 1-11 team that finishes 3-9 this year has enjoyed a 200% increase in their wins, yet their fan base is probably no better.  Progress is good because it gets you closer to winning, but progress by itself is not winning.  Winning is winning.  The 3-9 team is still a losing team.

In business, the same applies.  Clients, Wall Street, and top talent all gravitate to winning teams.  The team that consistently loses but is making progress is still a losing team.  That team is still struggling to attract clients, investors, and talent.

Yet how many times do we confuse ourselves by patting ourselves on the back for the simple act of improvement?  Do you really think your competition is standing still?  Do you really think that clients are satisfied simply with progress?  How satisfied is the investor who sees a return below the market?

Said another way: don’t celebrate failure by disguising it as progress.

The next time you are setting goals or evaluating performance, look at whether your team is winning or not. Progress against historical performance is interesting, but what is really important is progress against your win plan and even better is your progress against your competition.  You do have a win plan, right?  How are you doing?  Are you winning?

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Communicating with Executives

RightArrowWhen you have discussions with executives, do you commonly feel like they aren’t listening to you?  Do your recommendations fall flat?  Are you quickly dismissed?  Does it seem like you’re talking to a wall?

It that occurs are a frequent basis, it’s time to check your communication style.  The further up the management chain someone is, the more a) scope of work they are managing, b) issues they are dealing with, and c) disconnected they are from operational reality.  A good executive will listen, but realize that they only have so much time and only have so much context.

As a simple leader, there is a lot you can do to adjust your communication style to this type of audience:

Get straight to the point:  Right at the beginning, state your bottom-line.  Don’t lead the audience on a long journey to your takeaway point.  By the time you get there, nobody will be listening.  Don’t think out loud.  Your internal thought process should stay internal.  If they want to know how you reached the bottom-line, they will ask.

Speak bluntly and plainly: Don’t hide the message behind the words.  Don’t try to use extravagant vocabulary or long sentences to try to sound smarter.  It will backfire.

Simplify the complex: Your job is complicated.  So what?  The point of communicating isn’t to convince everyone of how difficult and complicated it is.  Whatever you are trying to communicate, demonstrate your expertise by boiling it down to the most impactful levers.

Don’t know how to get started?  Pull up a recent email or document that you recently sent.  Challenge yourself to put an executive summary at the beginning with a one-sentence bottom-line at the very beginning.  Challenge yourself to identify what your key messages are, then eliminate all text that does not directly support those specific points.  How short can you make it?  How plain can you make it?  How simple can you make it?

A sign that I am told an ex-CIO had on his desk: “Be brief. Be blunt. Get out.”

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