Self Leadership – Leading As A Work Of Art

“One’s self is at the base of everything. Every action is a manifestation of the self. A person who doesn’t know himself can do nothing for others.” ~ Eiji Yoshikawa

Understanding leadership from the perspective of techniques and tools is like trying to appreciate a painting by analyzing the strokes or the brush of the painter. It might be interesting, but it doesn’t get to the essence of the painting or the substance of the painter.

You don’t become a painter by putting on a painter’s beret and sitting at behind an easel. You become a painter through years of disciplined action, attentive observation, thorough study, and, above all, rigorous practice.

The life of a leader is akin to the life of an artist. It’s not a destination to be achieved; it’s a journey, a continual work in progress, a life to be embraced. Of course there are techniques to be learned and tools to be developed along the way, but it ultimately comes down to one’s self, the essence of who you bring to the work.

To transform others and the world around you involves staying engaged in your own transformational work. You cannot guide others where you have not been. You earn credibility as a transformational leader by investing and engaging in your own transformational journey. Following are some disciplines for strengthening your leadership presence, your capacity to inspire and influence others through your presence:

  1. Set out on adventures.
    These could be external adventures, like taking up a new sport or instrument, climbing a mountain or starting a new career. They could also be more of an internal nature like getting through a divorce, facing an addiction, or becoming a new parent. What have you done recently where you are a “novice?” Where have you traveled to unfamiliar territory? Adventures build internal resources, compassion for others, and confidence.
  2. Embrace challenges.
    People of strong leadership presence, what some refer to as character, find a special attractiveness in difficulty, since it is only by coming to terms with difficulty that they can realize their potential. Victims and those with entitlement mind-sets never inspire anyone. Welcoming challenges as opportunities to grow give you the self-leadership courage and clarity needed to lead others.
  3. Embrace the darker side(s) of your nature.
    We all have a darker side living below what we show to the world. If we do not bring to the surface and face the this part of us that we may be unaware of, or blind to, it will bring pain to ourselves and/or others. Within this shadow side of our nature lies immense creativity, wisdom, and interconnection. Transformational leaders make room for this dark side of themselves and of the systems they lead, recognizing it for what it is: a natural part of the larger system. What worries you? What makes you anxious? What upsets you? What gives you a strong negative emotional reaction? Name it. Claim it. Learn from it. Experience what you are avoiding.
  4. Make room for reflection and stillness.
    Self-leadership, developing a stronger, more influential presence, means making time for daily solitude, silence, and the space to attend to the voice within. Spend time in nature. Create a sanctuary in your life, a place where you can get away from life’s demands and listen to the wisdom of stillness. Take time for rest, renewal, and refection in periods of months, weeks, days, or even five minutes at the beginning of a day. If you are only following the voices of the crowd around you, you aren’t leading; you are merely managing.
  5. Build a community around you.
    Who are your friends, people in your life you can be wholly yourself with, who will support you to be true to your inner voice, help you foster and express your gifts, your unique talents; people who will not be afraid to tell you the truth? Who leads you to your authentic voice? Who supports you? Who holds you accountable? How would you describe your community?
  6. Be willing to stand alone.
    Leadership means being willing to stand apart in order to impart. You can’t lead by being part of the crowd. Leadership is, at times, lonely. If you haven’t felt lonely as a leader, you haven’t gone far enough in your development.

How would you describe a “personal transformation” you have experienced in the past 1-2 years? How has your own transformational journey made you a more credible leader?  I’d love to hear from you.

How Honest Can You Be With Your Boss?

My colleague and friend, Murray Hiebert, world renowned in the field of helping professionals become more powerful and useful in their organization (, recently shared some intriguing trivia: Most airline crashes in the last few decades have taken place while the senior pilot, the Captain, not the less experienced and lower-ranked First Officer, was flying the aircraft. Most crashes are a series of errors culminating with poor Captain-First Officer communication. Most of these crashes occurred in airlines where the “Power Distance Index”— the degree people of lesser status may challenge those of higher status— is greatest. Did you know Captains generally use commands, while First Officers predominantly use hints?

Murray cited Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Blink, as to how many airline crashes have been caused by power differentials and cultural norms (from Outliers). “It’s not that the pilot has to negotiate some critical maneuver and fails. The kinds of errors thatcause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other pilot. Airlines have worked hard at lowering the ‘Power Distance Index’ to encourage open, straightforward communication between air safety employees of unlike status. Typically, First Officers need to step up the strength of their requests, while Captains need to lower their barriers.”

How hard is your organization working at lowering your own “Power Distance Index?” How hard are you, as an employee, working to strengthen your requests, and how hard are you, as a positional leader, working at lowering your barriers? Do you have a culture where, when you see ethics violated, you can speak up against it, even if it is your boss or a person with higher positional power than you?

Here are three ways to lower the “Power Distance Index” in your organization:

  1. Practice speaking up in a respectful way.
    Challenge the status quo. Ask good questions that push for positive change. As long as your motive is to build, to move the organization forward, then challenges are both necessary and useful.
  2. Get used to being challenged.
    I’m not talking about criticism. There’s no place for blind criticism without a supporting solution. What I’m talking about is being open to learning. The best leaders are humble. They are confident because they learn not to take a challenge personally. It’s about working for the greater good, not protecting people’s egos.
  3. Encourage a “speak out culture.”
    Former GE CEO Jack Welch lauded a “speak out culture”—an organizational atmosphere where all are encouraged to speak what is on their minds. Jim Collins recommended much the same in Good to Great where his research showed great organizations “Confront the brutal facts.” I wonder how much of the tragedy in the Penn State football program would have been prevented had they established a “speak out culture.” Jerry Sandusky’s sickness would not have been allowed to spread if people would have spoken up. Penn State showed us that the “brutal facts” will come out eventually.

How honest can you be with your boss or with people who depend on you in  your organization and in your life? If you are a boss, how honest are people with you? Do you find your employees coming with the “brutal facts?” Speaking out respectfully is a muscle that is under-used in many organizational cultures. It needs strengthening. And strengthening requires patient, persistent practice.

What are you doing to encourage a “speak out culture” in your organization? It’s also something to encourage in your family or any place where you spend your time.

Should we be expecting our leaders to “Walk The Talk?”

I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard the phrase, “The leaders in this place don’t ‘walk the talk.’” I’d be wealthier than a lottery winner. I’ve heard this said about leaders in every walk of life – business, politics, and government.

I understand the frustration when people see a lack of congruence from their leaders between what is espoused and what is lived. It’s called an authenticity gap. While the frustration is legitimate, the problem is the way we see the problem and the way we approach it. A lack of congruence will prevail as long as we continue to see this as a leadership problem. In fact, I contend that we are actually contributing to the problem by the way we view the situation.

There will always be an authenticity gap in our positional leaders because of the nature of our expectations.

No one will ever meet our expectations completely for “walking the talk” because we are human. Think about it. Where in your life have you maintained all the habits that you know are important? Do you exercise as much as you say you should? Do you always eat what you say is a healthy diet? Do you spend as much time with the people you love as you say you should? Do you ever watch more TV than you know is healthy? Where do you have perfect alignment between your espoused values and your actions? Where in your life have you completely closed this “authenticity gap?”

I contend that it’s not the gap that’s the problem. The real problem is that we aren’t talking about the gap – directly, honestly, and respectfully. What authentic, accountable leaders do, rather than pretend that there is no gap, is create a space for people to honestly and respectfully discuss the gap and work toward closing it. What authentic, accountable employees do, rather than complain about the gap with a sense of entitlement, is have the courage to face the incongruence directly when they see it.

If you are working in an environment and feel that your positional leaders are not “walking the talk,” here are some suggestions:

  • Strategy #1
    Start by giving what you expect from your leaders. Take a careful inventory of yourself. Where are you not “walking the talk” in your professional or personal life?  Where is there an authenticity gap in your life? Try taking the focus off your leaders and bring it back to yourself. Deciding that you have co-created the world around you – and therefore you are the one to step into healing it – is the ultimate act of accountability.
  • Strategy #2
    Once you have earned self-respect and credibility by working at closing your own authenticity gaps, initiate courageous, open, and respectful conversations with your leaders about that gap in yourself and in your culture. Be sure to bring your solutions, not your complaints to these conversations. Bring a copy of your corporate values to the discussion and ask for feedback about how you can better live these values as an employee.  If you don’t have clear corporate values then make up your own and bring these to the conversation for open, respectful dialogue.
  • Strategy #3
    If you are a positional leader, be aware that you are always being watched and there will always be people in your organization who perceive you as not “walking the talk.” Talk openly about this. Invite feedback continually. Turn your value statements into concrete behaviors and commit publically to living these values, while simultaneously fessing up that you are human, that you won’t ever be perceived as getting it perfect, that you are open for constructive feedback when you get off track, and that you expect the same commitment from your those who report to you.

What’s your experience with leaders not “walking the talk?” I’d love to hear from you.

Organizational Culture: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest

To be engaged today, people need to feel a sense of passion, personal vision, and to express their unique talents. But this is only half of what full authentic expression – the heart of a culture – is about. This week, in a committee meeting of a local non-profit group, I was reminded that a commitment to contribution – choosing service over self-interest – is the other component to authentic expression. It’s like the wings of a bird. Without both passion and service, your organizational culture simply isn’t going to fly. It’s the law of giving.

The universe operates through dynamic exchange. Culture is ultimately about energy, and authentic expression inspires us while giving keeps the flow of energy moving. In our willingness to give, we keep the abundance of the universe circulating in our lives, and the energy of a culture alive.

You don’t have to go to Africa to be of service. There are plenty of opportunities to practice giving right in our own communities. Here are three ways:

  1. Wherever you go, bring a gift.
    The gift may be a compliment, a smile, a word of encouragement, appreciation, caring, kindness, gratitude, a generous spirit, or even some patience and grace. As you circulate what you have been given, you keep the energy of your culture alive, because cultural energy is simply universal energy.
  2. Practice receiving all the gifts that life has to offer.
    Recognize, and look for all the ways that people you work and live with are conspiring to help you. Take time to experience the beauty of a sunset, a spring flower, the sound of birds singing, a child in love with life, the wisdom of an elder, or the attempt of a colleague to bring excellence to a project. There are gifts all around us every day, if we just s-l-o-w d-o-w-n long enough to notice. And what you notice, you focus on, and what you focus on grows. Try it.
  3. Be a giver, not a taker.
    There appears to be two kinds of people in the world: those who help, and those who hinder; those who give and those who take; those who lift, and those who lean; those who contribute, and those who consume. Which kind of person will you decide to be? Make a commitment to look, each day, for opportunities to support others, to contribute in some way to making the world around you a better place by your presence, to choose service over self-interest.


The Secrets To Performance Management: Lessons From A Swan

Why is it that so many bosses dread performance management discussions with their employees? Why are performance conversations often so tough? Why doesn’t everybody get inspired about performance?

The secret to turning those tough performance conversations into inspired action, into discussions that you genuinely look forward to, is one word: passion. If people aren’t passionate about their work, they will never achieve their performance potential. If you can’t get to people’s passion, you won’t get the results you need – you’ll always be trying to motivate them, and you will always fall short.

It’s pretty obvious that passion precedes performance. So how do you get to it? And how do you sustain it? Over a hundred years ago, the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem that sheds some clues. Here are some lessons from a swan.

This clumsy living that moves lumbering as if in ropes… reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go of the ground we stand and cling to every day, is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down into the water, which receives him gaily and which flows joyfully under and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown, more like a king, further and further on.

The swan in this poem doesn’t cure his awkwardness on the land by moving faster, working harder, beating himself up, being evaluated in a performance review, or by developing a better performance plan. He frees himself from the stress of his environment simply by moving toward the element where he belongs: water. Simple contact with the water breathes life into his tired body.

Touching the essential waters in your own life — discovering your authentic self — will change everything. As simple as this is, letting yourself down into the water from the familiarity of the ground you stand on can be difficult, especially if you think you might drown.

Employee engagement is really nothing more than this — creating safe places where people can connect with where they belong. Here are five lessons from the swan to start building passion into performance management:

  1. Make passion a priority.
    Before you talk about “performance,” spend time with each of your employees defining their “essential element.” Make it clear that passion must precede performance and when you connect with your “essential element,” passion will arise. Before you talk about organizational goals and expectations, invite a discussion about personal goals, unique abilities, and passion. Identify strengths and talents. In one-on-one sessions, ask some of the following questions: “What do you do that comes easy to you?” “What do you do, that when you do it, you loose all track of time?” “What are you passionate about?” What are your unique strengths and talents?” “What do you do well that you don’t remember learning?”
  2. Get clear – before you get accountable.
    Clarity about the answers to the questions above takes time. Most people have never taken much time to answer these questions for themselves. Getting to your essential nature is not a muscle that is well developed. Like getting into the gym for the first time, you have to start small. You have to make it easy. And you must be persistent. Start with some clarity about when, in their work, they are in their “element,” and when they aren’t and the percentage of time in both. There’s no right or wrong answers. Bringing your own clarity into the discussions can help lead the process.
  3. Fit people; Don’t fix people.
    Having complete alignment between your “essential self” and your job is unrealistic. Unfulfilling chores and the necessary slogging through them is a part of all employment. What’s important, if you want an inspired performance management process, is to take the time to seek greater alignment between organizational goals and personal passion. Where can your employees bring more of their passion and strengths to their work? Are there projects they could let go of to allow space to bring their unique strengths to work? Look at your job description and ask if there is a way to increase the percentage of work time spent doing work that is aligned with your essential nature.
  4. Seek alignment through win-win solutions.
    You still have to achieve organizational goals and expectations. But if you help your employees win by getting to their passion, their essential nature, and their goals, then you are far more likely to get a commitment from them to work with you to achieve organizational goals. Loyalty breeds loyalty. Loyalty from your employees starts with loyalty to your employees.
  5. Make expectations clear.
    Like all effective performance management systems, you need a clear understanding of what you expect and how you can support each other to achieve these expectations. Don’t be afraid to set high standards; just be sure to include in those standards a high expectation of support. But when expectations are cushioned in passion, when employees are engaged in the process, when passion precedes performance, then high standards and achievement of results – through sustained commitment – are the standard. This kind of dialogue and commitment will turn tough conversations into inspired action.


12 Keys To Authentic Leadership: You Do Know When It’s Real

Below are 12 key messages that underlie my fundamental philosophy of leadership. Most of these messages aren’t mine. I’ve borrowed them from many of the great leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years:

  1. Leadership is about inspiring and engaging people to work toward a compelling vision – by seeing the gifts and potential of others more clearly than they see it in themselves and being able to communicate it in their own unique way. Martin Luther King never said, “I  have a strategic plan.”
  2. There are too many consultants and speakers telling organizations how to be leaders. Leadership is contextual. The best an outside consultant can do is help you decide what kind of leadership is needed in your organization to achieve your purpose and help you get there.
  3. Leadership is about presence, not position. Great leadership cannot be reduced to technique or title. Great leadership comes from the identity and the integrity of the leader. Leadership is the way you live your life. Your power as a leader comes from being an integrated and real human being. This makes every person in your organization a potential leader.
  4. You don’t get promoted to being a leader. You get promoted to being a boss but you don’t get promoted to being a leader. There’s a big difference between a boss and a leader. Holding a position of leadership is like having a driver’s license. Just because you have one doesn’t make you a good one.
  5. You aren’t a leader until someone decides that you are. You have to earn the right to be a be called a leader, and you aren’t one until you have earned it in the eyes of others. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
  6. As a leader –  whether it’s in the home, your community, or in your organization – you will continuously need to balance supports with demands. You don’t help people by pushing them when they need to be supported, nor do you help them by supporting them when they need to be pushed. You never get this balance perfect, but great leaders work at it – every day.
  7. Great leaders achieve organizational goals. Authentic leaders help you find your voice in the process. Authentic leaders align the interests, values, and goals of the organization with the interests, values, and goals of the employee. This is employee engagement at its finest, and it’s what attracts, retains, and inspires greatness. Authenticity is about finding your voice and inspiring others to find theirs. Authentic leaders earn their credibility by being authentic. You know when it’s real.
  8. Leadership is ultimately about service. Turn your organization chart upside down. Take care of your people so they can take care of the customer. Serving, however, is different than pleasing. Serving is about meeting people’s needs so they can get their job done. Pleasing is about meeting people’s wants. Serving breeds commitment. Pleasing breeds entitlement.
  9. Your best leadership program will be over a cup of coffee. You’ll never be able to lead by sitting at your computer. Make building trust your number one leadership priority and spend a large portion of your time connecting with the people you serve. Find out what matters to others and do all you can to meet their needs. Listen relentlessly.
  10. Leadership isn’t about you. It’s not about how great you are, how noble you are, or how profound you are. Leadership is about others and what you do to give credit to others. If you are going earn the credibility to influence others – long term – you better have a strong enough ego that you can leave it at the door. Credibility comes from giving credit, not taking it. People don’t remember what you said; they remember how you made them feel.
  11. Leadership is largely a matter of love. If you aren’t comfortable with the word love, call it caring, because leadership involves caring about people, not manipulating them. If you don’t care about people or about your work or about why you get out of bed in the morning, you might consider doing yourself and your organization a favor and get out of the position of leadership.
  12. If you want to improve your capacity to lead, put your focus on finding ways to enjoy leading more. While I’ve met a few incompetent leaders who actually enjoy leading, generally speaking, the best leaders I know enjoy what they do. Put your efforts in finding joy in your work as a leader, and you’ll be a better leader.

What is your leadership philosophy? Have you shared it lately with the people you serve and love?