Leading is About Courage

I have become very mindful of my growth as a leader. I run an academic library. I have been given additional, interesting administrative experiences at my college. Incredibly, there are people who trust me and seek my opinion. It is all very humbling and makes me grateful for the generosity of the excellent people who have mentored me over the past 20 years.

I am thinking of the high school teacher who encouraged me to pursue my weird passion for learning new things and to share that weird passion with others.

I am thinking of the boss at my first job who didn’t berate me when I made a huge mistake and, instead, helped me work out my own plan for correcting and preventing such mistakes in the future.

I am thinking of the college administrator who let me dream big and fail big, testing and discovering the limits of personal ambition.

I am thinking of the colleague who constantly encourages me to look forward, move forward and engage with change in a positive, proactive way. That is the only way we can shape the future.

All of these people have, in their own unique way, taught me one valuable lesson: leadership is about courage — having courage and lending courage.

Every team has a leader. Sometimes that person is officially paid to be the boss. Sometimes that person is the leader by default. I have worked both ways. In either case, there is always a leader and the members of the team look to that leader for confidence. A leader demonstrates confidence by clarity of vision, simplifying complexity and acting with consistency in changing circumstances. A leader acts with confidence and models courage. This is essential but also pretty basic.

As a leader grows, he or she is able to not only have courage but lend courage to others. Courage to try something new. Courage to sit with a problem and figure things out. Courage to voice unpopular opinions. Courage to accept responsibility. Courage to fail.

Nothing useful happens on a team that has no courage. No matter how much intelligence, experience, and vision is tied up in a team, nothing worthwhile happens without courage.

This is the lesson I work with everyday. I work to keep myself mindful and worthy of the example of those who have invested their trust and confidence in me. I struggle. I fail. I disappoint. I hope I also give courage where courage is needed.

The world is a difficult place. Everything is in flux. Nothing stays still. A leader’s job is to keep everyone moving bravely forward. We can accomplish nothing when locked up in fear. There is an openness and a lightness that comes when working with courage. When that courage is shared, there are no limits on what can be accomplished.

Having Power vs. Giving Power: Leadership Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are many reasons why Dr. King still matters 45 years after his death.

He gave hope to millions of people who had lost hope.

He gave voice to people who had never had the chance to find and use their own voice.

At a time when many believed that social change required violent revolution,
Dr. King recognized that non-violent social change penetrates deeper and lasts longer than violent change.

He helped people separate hatred of others from hatred of their behaviors.

He reached past habits of prejudice and suspicion to see that white was not the enemy of black and black was not the enemy of white.

His was a voice of eloquence and inspiration when America was tired, demoralized and cynical.

Dr. King gave power rather than held power. This is the leadership lesson from Dr. King all people can still use.

The relationship between leadership and power is often confused. Leadership is about influence.

Some leaders seek to gain and hold power. Power, for them, is a scarce commodity. Few people possess power, and those who do must recognize their advantage and wield that power like a blunt instrument. In this way, the power of leadership to influence behavior is coercive and compulsory. People obey the power so long as it is exerted and forcefully applied. We have, I think, a long list of leaders who followed this model. Some have been presidents, elected officials, business leaders, and preachers. We often celebrate these kinds of leaders, yet, when we do, we celebrate what they were able to accomplish. There is a sense of separation, an apartness that comes from knowing that their accomplishments were not our own.

Some leaders seek to gain and hold power. Fewer are the leaders who find power so that they can give it to others. This is the kind of leadership Martin Luther King, Jr. showed. His Dream was not a personal fantasy of power and control. His Dream was creation of a society that allowed everyone else to recognize and develop their own dreams. He worked to create a society that gave everyone access to the tools of success as well as the opportunity to use those tools. He worked through the structure of power to make power more accessible and available. Rather than give a vision to his followers, he inspired his followers to develop their own vision. The people who marched with Dr. King 50 years ago were not marching to fulfill their leader’s vision. They were marching to fulfill their own.

Today, as we commemorate Dr. King’s contributions, we also inaugurate a president. This is a good day for America. I believe Dr. King would be humbled to know that his ability to inspire and share vision has helped Americans reach beyond broken habits of thought and elect talent and ability where found. Let us be ever mindful that the president is only one person yielding enormous power. Let us remember that leadership makes lasting change only when power is shared with others, never when it is held.And then, let us work together to use that power we share to rediscover our sense of focus, optimism and common purpose. Let us work together to make the world into the kind of place we need it to become.

One Thing You Need to Know: Marcus Buckingham

I’m a big fan of Marcus Buckingham. If you don’t know about Marcus Buckingham, you should probably start by watching this:

So much about the way we measure ourselves is based on our personal weaknesses rather than our personal strengths. In school, a student who is really great at writing but not so great at math is usually given more math and less writing. This is done to help remediate the deficiency. Helping students get better at math is a good thing, but the remediation often comes at the expense of time spent practicing areas in which the student is naturally gifted. The student is frustrated because all of the school time is spent doing things he isn’t good at and by the time the remediation drills are done, he is so tired he doesn’t have energy to dig in on the other stuff. The problem here is that the amount of time and energy working on weakness control probably yields small gains. Not very efficient. A person who is naturally bad at drawing is never going to be an artist. Mediocrity is the best outcome that can be expected. The problem is that this mediocrity in an area of weakness detracts from time spent becoming excellent in the only area a person can become excellent — in an area of personal strength.

Job evaluations are most often designed and delivered to help call attention to areas where the employee can pick up the slack. I can think of many job evaluations where I walked in expecting to talk about the things I wasn’t doing and the areas in which I needed to contribute more. The problem here is that I am naturally limited in some areas, like organization. If I am told to focus more time becoming highly organized, then I am also, in effect, being told to spend less of my time developing and sharing new ideas (a personal strength).

Time and energy are limited. Poor performances need to be addressed, but time and energy are most usefully invested in developing on existing strengths.

That’s the core concept of One Thing You Need to Know. Marcus tries to provide one central organizing insight for successful managing, leading and personal success.

Great managers discover what is unique about each member of their team and capitalize on it.

Great leaders articulate a clear, common understanding of what the team’s better future will look like. Being clear about the future is way more important than being correct.

Successful individuals discover what they don’t like doing and figure out how to stop doing it.

This probably sounds rather trite, but the discussion of each of these elements is quite profound in its simplicity.

My biggest takeway: as we grow older, we become more of what we already are. A strong, satisfying career is built on a person’s ability to focus almost exclusively on developing excellence in areas where natural strengths already exist. Successful careers are also built on a perpetual, allergic avoidance of doing things that do not express one’s strengths. Don’t throw your time and energy into developing your weaknesses toward mediocrity. Partner with people who can do things you can’t. Be passionate. Be relentless. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t love what you are doing, you should probably be doing something different.

This is the kind of controlling insight I want my work team to have. This is the kind of experience I want every student I work with to develop. This is the kind of confidence I want my daughter to carry with her into the world.

Every one of us is limitlessly strong so long as we don’t dwell unnecessarily in our areas of weakness.