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In 1519 Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz and as legend has it he issued the decree for his men to burn the ships to keep anyone from thinking about running back to the life they knew before. History has since said that the ships weren’t burned, but rather sunk…either way you look at it Cortés wanted to make sure that no one got any ideas about leaving. I don’t believe that qualifies as sustainable leadership!

There are 6 leadership lessons in this story that apply to anyone leading an organization.

  1. Start with building the right team first. A great idea is only a great idea if there are great people (other than you) alongside you to make it a reality. If you start with having all the right people on board you may choose to burn the ships but may not have to.
  2. Remove low performers. If someone does not have the ability to elevate those around them and you want your organization to thrive, you must remove them from your team. Keeping a low performer on your team will keep you from attracting top talent and will cause top performers to leave.
  3. When you lead even one person it’s not about you anymore. It’s about them and their ability to get on board with the vision you have and that requires you to stay committed as a leader.
  4. Your personal transparency as a leader is crucial to leading well. If you hide your fear, excitement, questions, or doubt you won’t be able to lead very far and take anyone along the journey with you.
  5. Clearly articulate your vision. You can rally the troops but you have to know what it is you are going after and include them in the process. People want to be a part of something special! They want to know what they are working for matters, and that who they are working for is clear on where they are headed.
  6. You have to remove all the obstacles. Your job as a leader is to clear the way for your team so that they are able to move swiftly toward the goals that have been set. Sometimes these are physical obstacles and sometimes they are emotional. Either way it’s up to you as the leader to remove those obstacles.

I have a friend named Paige Chenault who is Founder and CEO of The Birthday Party Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring joy to homeless children through the magic of birthdays. I met Paige last year on a flight following a conference we both attended and it became clear to me after one two hour conversation that she was totally committed to her idea of building an organization that served homeless children in the Dallas Forth Worth metropolitan area.

Over this last year I have seen her vision grow beyond DFW to Detroit, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. Along the way she has had her share of challenges in building the organization but failure for her was not an option. She has built a team around her that shares her vision and is surrounding herself with leaders who challenge her to be better. There is a culture of accountability that keeps everyone honest about where the organization is headed. She doesn’t have to burn the ships because she is assembling a team of people who share the vision, and want to be a part of it.

I love the story of Cortés and his edict to burn (or sink) the ships. There is a lot of passion in that story and a certain Braveheart-esque swagger that makes everyone feel good. But in the reality of today’s world that really doesn’t work. The trick is to build a culture where everyone wants to stay and be a part of something amazing. And the way to do that is to build a team of top performers that creates a way to drive results and develops more great people that will carry your vision beyond yourself to the next generation of leaders in your organization.

So if you decide to burn the ships, do it because you want to, not because you have to.

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 When you are leading a team through a time of transition it can be difficult to cast the vision, shoulder the message, and carry the weight of the uncertainty on your shoulders. There are days that turn into weeks that turn into months where you wonder if what you are doing really matters. You may ask yourself is anyone really listening? Does anyone really care? 

As a leader you know all the right things to say. You know the boiler plate language used to describe your company. You know what the organization stands for. You can recite the mission and vision. You want to believe that what you know in your head is actually true in your heart. 

And then there is the moment you believe it. That is the most powerful moment in the life of a leader and in the life of a company. 

The moment you believe what you’re saying is the moment that the mission and vision of your organization come alive and the people around you can FEEL what you are saying, not just hearing the words come out of your mouth. This is the moment where you hear the words that you are saying turn into the vision that your heart aches to accomplish. This is the moment that you can actually see the future of your organization accomplishing your goals. This is the moment where you can’t turn back because the desire to lead your team to greatness is stronger than the pain of getting there. 

That moment, when regardless of the circumstances and challenges you may be facing, you know as a leader that what you believe is true and nothing can change that. Embrace the moment. It’s in that moment that Leadership becomes Art and can change the world.

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Leadership takes a little bit of art, a little bit of science, and a lot of courage. As leaders we are called to wade into uncharted territory, and sometimes we are called to jump first into the ocean of challenge. Even the most seasoned leader faces times of uncertainty and change and it is in those times that our skills are most tested.

You have two choices as a leader. You can sit back, delegate, and quarterback the situation from behind the scenes. You might be successful in that approach for awhile. Over time though you will develop a reputation as a hands off leader who doesn’t roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. You will be viewed as someone who doesn’t have any real skin in the game and you will begin to lose influence and looked at as someone who doesn’t really understand the challenges in the field.

Or you can choose to surround yourself with the best leaders you can, get organized, do your homework, and face the challenge head on by leading through it. You leap first. You take the first step. You face the uncertainty, the hostile environment, the unstable economy, or the brutal reality of the situation. And you do it first. You might fail. You might not recover. You might prevail. But regardless of the outcome you will create a culture of leading first and that will change the world.

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Influence. We all have it even if we think we don’t. Influence is defined by Webster as impact, control, sway, power, authority, direction, and pressure. As leaders we all have some sort of influence on the people we work with, our families, and our friends. So the question isn’t whether or not we have influence, it’s what kind of influence we have, and how are we using that influence.

One of my favorite authors and leadership experts, John Maxwell, defines Leadership as having influence. Nothing more and nothing less. I think John is right. Think about it. If you have some sort of control in a situation, or you set direction and have the authority to create change then you are exerting influence.

I once heard someone say that as leaders our words weigh 1000 pounds and that we need to be careful with the words we choose to say around young leaders. We all have had those times where the moment the words left our mouths we knew we had either overshot our reach, said something without being compassionate, or let our pride get in the way of delivering the right message.

But the beauty of leadership is that we learn from those moments and when we respond in humility and take ownership for our words and action we are able to lead more authentically than ever. That’s certainly been my experience as a leader and I would bet it has been your experience too.

As leaders we are in a position to influence those around us, even those who may not be in our circles of influence, in huge ways. Having influence is a huge responsibility and can also be very satisfying as you help other leaders grow through your leadership.

If your leadership is intentional, your influence will be felt far beyond your circle of influence. That’s leadership…influence beyond yourself. You never know how far your leadership will reach. I believe that every leadership moment leads beyond you to another person who might not even be in the conversation. That type of influence can be hugely positive if the message is delivered in the right context and delivered with compassion, grace, and candor.

As leaders we get a lot of questions. Sometimes it’s a request for advice, and sometimes its a request for specific direction to fix a problem.

One of the best things about leadership is when you as a leader are able to plant an idea in someone’s mind, without giving them the answer to the question they have. What ends up happening, with the right encouragement and influence, is that the person you’re working with comes back to you and tells you what they want to do to solve a problem or fix a situation.

I had a leader like this once in my career, and his name was Matt. He was masterful at turning my question into an opportunity. He wasn’t being evasive. He was leading. It took me awhile to figure out what he was doing but once I did I knew how brilliant it was. I began to anticipate the conversation with Matt, but before I actually had it I ran through the various scenarios and outcomes in my mind and that exercise resulted many times in Matt saying “nice job”.

As a leader when we use our influence in such a way that we develop the leaders and team around us then everybody wins! Influence. We all have it. How will you use yours today?

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Powerful questions asked by you as a leader illuminate the darkness, confusion and uncertainty in the minds of the people you are leading. By asking the right questions, you invite clarity, action, and discovery at a whole new level within your organization.

3 Powerful Questions Every Leader Needs to Ask:

  1. What Seems to Be Happening? Get clear on what the issue really is. Seek to understand where the organization is truly at. Until you understand the situation completely, you and your team will never be able to make the improvements you want to see.
  2. What Possibilities Do We Face? As a result of the situation you are in, what can you do to be even better as a result of it? Great leaders see problems as possibilities to become even stronger as an organization. They look at operational challenges as opportunities to become leaders in that area. Help your team understand that while things may not be great today, they control tomorrow.
  3. What Are We Going To Do About It? By creating a true, cooperative environment where your team feels like they can fully engage with you in an open, honest, and fact-based conversation you will create synergy that other organizations only dream about.

One of the key things a leader has to do is to immerse themselves into the situation and become part of the solution versus approaching it from the standpoint of “it’s not my problem, it’s yours”.

Defensiveness, denial, and deflection are not what an organization needs when facing a problem. Great leaders understand that they are accountable for everything that happens on the team and by including themselves in the solution they provide a true feeling of teamwork and accountability. When leaders exhibit this kind of accountability it serves as a beacon for the rest of the organization and builds the right culture to support a healthy team.

By asking the questions as leaders with ourselves as part of the solution we can open up honest dialogue about a problem and can help facilitate a solution much quicker and eliminate the bureaucracy. This sets the stage to create an empowered culture in our organizations to help our teams perform more confidently in the future whenever difficult situations arise.

Generally speaking, the most best questions you can ask are the open-ended ones, but the most powerful questions are asked with YOU in the equation.

Sometimes the best question you ask is the one you already know the answer to, but by doing so you are giving your team a platform to succeed by sharing their ideas and owning the solutions.

failure
It sucks to fail. True story. Nobody likes it. I certainly don’t like it. Every time I have an idea that doesn’t move the organization forward, or worse yet, creates a setback I have that little voice in my head that says “See. I told you this wouldn’t work.” But it’s in those moments that we are closest to success personally and professionally if we just pay attention. We just need to learn the lessons from failure.
  1. Failure can breed determination. We’ve all heard the story of Thomas Edison and his struggles with creating the light bulb. When asked about his repeated failure, Edison replied “I have not failed 1000 times. I have successfully discovered 1000 ways to NOT make a light bulb. As cliche as that may sound, it’s true. Many times our failures can lead to our greatest successes.
  2. Failure keeps us humble. There’s nothing worse than being around a leader who’s “always right”. You know the one. The person in the office who is so worried about looking good that they don’t create or ship anything meaningful. A little failure gives us the ability to dig deeper, to truly make a difference, and to teach that lesson to someone else down the road.
  3. Failure makes us human. Nobody’s perfect. I wrote a post recently about how vulnerability is important for every leader to exhibit. When we are honest about where we’ve fallen short, or are willing to share our failures, we open up a whole new level of dialogue with our peers and the folks that report to us. We become authentic when we share our failures and make our successes even more powerful teaching moments.
  4. Failure opens new doors. Sometimes a failed idea or concept leads to breakthrough thinking. It’s important to understand why something didn’t work and in your analysis you find a different perspective to approach your challenge, and that approach could change the world.
  5. Failure isn’t fatal. One of my favorite movies is Elizabethtown (2005). Directed by Cameron Crowe (and seen by only my wife and I seemingly!) this film chronicles the story of Drew Baylor (portrayed by Orlando Bloom) and his creation of a new shoe that is a huge flop in the marketplace. The journey he goes on to find redemption is a journey through his life and understanding what is important and what’s not. In the end he may have failed at what he created, but he succeeded in getting his life back which led to future success.
We don’t always get it right as leaders, but we always work hard to get it right. We need to learn from our failures and take the appropriate time to reflect, remember and reset. Use your failure to fuel your success. Then move on and get back to work creating something meaningful. The world needs you.
busyness

Busyness does not equal productivity, much like eagerness doesn’t always equal excellence. I hear from people all the time about how busy they are, how much they have on their plate, and how full their calendars are. If we aren’t busy, we find something to make ourselves busy, or look busy. We equate extreme busyness to our self-worth, and that is not a healthy place to be.

I know from experience what a trap this is. The wheels never stop turning and there is always one more thing to do, one more email to answer, and one more project to tackle. The problem with all of this is we all have limits. There is a wall we all have and we need to be aware enough to see the wall approaching and change course, slow down the train, and avoid the wall. If we don’t we can do irreparable damage to our careers, our families, and in the worst of circumstances, to ourselves.

Earlier this week I wrote a post on the benefits of developing the people around you and empowering them to achieve great things. This post highlights what happens when we don’t do that. No one is indispensable, and no one is capable of operating at the breakneck pace we pretend to be able to do for prolonged periods of time. We are not machines. We are flesh and blood. We need downtime to reflect, regroup, recharge, and rest.

A few weeks ago I was at the airport in Austin, TX and I was watching all of these people rushing hurriedly to their gates from another flight, or barely making it through security. They were on their phones the entire time, never pausing to take a breath, let alone assess their surroundings and the other people around them. I remember wondering, “Where is everyone going in such a hurry? Did they eat? Drink a glass of water? Did they do anything to refresh themselves?” I used to be that guy, and honestly sometimes I still am. I need a gut check and reminder that nothing is more important than my health and my family.

Busyness is everywhere. And it’s only getting busier. Unplug, Unwind. Undo. Be present. Make a difference. Stay focused. Assess if everything you are currently doing is really necessary. And if it is necessary, honestly determine if you need to be the one doing it.

But whatever you do, don’t lose what’s most important. Yourself.