Leadership as Art

darknessI recently read an article, “Every Leader is an Artist” at the Harvard Business Review web site.  The article, written by Michael O’Malley, author of a book by the same name, makes the argument that great leaders are artists.  He compares the artist to the leader to show those similarities.

While I agree with O’Malley, it raises the question:   “How do we get leaders in business to see themselves as artists and, therefore, embrace art?”

It’s a big question.

Many in traditional leadership positions favor the “left-brained” way of thinking.  Spreadsheets filled with numbers certainly doesn’t feel like art.  On the surface most of the decision-making activities of a leader don’t feel like art.

But the interconnectedness of those numbers to real-world solutions is a form of art.  It takes not just analysis but the ability to see through the numbers to the bigger picture.  It isn’t just about one product or service but the implications of it’s existence in the marketplace.  It isn’t just about customer as consumer but customer as partner.

All those connections, some more abstract than others, reach far across both the left and right sides of our brains.  It is art.  It is analysis.  It is a combination of both.

So how do we get leaders to embrace art?

Is it in the ability of the artist to embrace analysis?

Is it in the joining of forces, the bringing together of both artist and business leader?

Where and how can we begin to create the threads that will bring them both together?


VisualsSpeak Improves Existing Leadership Programs

A few months back a large bank was looking to beef up the effectiveness of their leadership development program for new supervisors. At the same time, they wanted to get people up to speed more quickly. So they called on Doug to come onboard and rework the program.

Doug’s an experienced facilitator and developer, and after looking at the previous program, he decided to bring in the VisualsSpeak system. Now, one of the first things he does in the program is ask people to create images around “What is a leader?”

As the group discusses their images, they start thinking about everything that changes when you move from being an individual contributor to being a leader. Just tacking that on at the beginning was, well, just the beginning.

Now Doug has reported they used VisualsSpeak every session of the program, with great results. By incorporating these activities, people are understanding their new roles more quickly, and effectiveness has really grown. Well done, Doug!


Hidden Innovations


The most costly disruptions always happen when something we take completely for granted stops working for a minute.

Or so says Aaron Sorkin, writing for fictional president Jed Bartlet on TV’s The West Wing. And upon reflection, that’s probably true. If water service just stopped altogether, for instance, or (as in the case of the fictional TV episode) there’s a US outbreak of mad cow disease that threatens the nation’s beef supply.

But perhaps a corollary to that is that the most significant innovations are those that alter things we take completely for granted. Yet it seems like the pace of these innovations is pretty slow.

Open Wide

As an example, think of your teeth. Good practice in taking care of your teeth involves taking a stick, slathering some pasty substance on it, and jabbing it in and out of your mouth. Multiple times a day! And more or less, that hasn’t changed in 5000 years!

In an age where pills can unclog blood vessels, robots can clean our carpets, and lasers can polish surfaces, doesn’t it seem like there could be an innovation in this department, too? And if such an innovation came along, think of the worldwide ramifications!

What’s Next?

To come up with a new form of cleaning teeth takes some degree of knowledge and skill in dentistry, of course. But we each have our own areas of skill and experience, and surely we could apply those to the banalities and ubiquities of our lives.

The other prerequisite for such an innovation, though, is something we all can do — and something we all too rarely do. And that is observe. Really observe. As I sit here writing this, I am noticing the surface of my work table, the swivel mechanism of my chair, the hum of the lights and computer fans. I’m seeing how the curtains wrinkle at the bottom and how, if I listen hard, I can barely hear some birds chirping outside. Each of these sensory experiences (and there are many more) could be opportunities for innovation.

Observation is the foundation for innovation. So why not see what you can see?


Confusing Motion and Progress


ClockI usually lead a fairly busy life. Chances are, you’re pretty busy, too. So why doesn’t it always feel like we’re getting lots done?

Often, it can be the difference between motion and progress. But how do we get stuck in these ruts, and how do we get out again?


There’s overhead to almost everything we do. Hassles. Whether it’s something mundane like getting Girl Scout Cookies (where the overhead may include getting cash from an ATM or finding a checkbook — and certainly finding a Girl Scout) or something significant, like having a wedding (which is nearly overrun with administrivia — or Highly Important Decisions, depending on whom you ask).

Either way, there’s detail. Heaped on the details of everyday life. Like laundry. Groceries. And so on.

One way to avoid spending all your time on administrivia is to structure it. Contain the time you give over to it. So if you’re spending lots of time on personal administrivia, constrain it to one weekend day and two hours two weeknights a week. Or whatever works. But move from it being an ad hoc draw on your time to a structured one, and you can regain some bandwidth.

SImilarly, at work, there’s such minutiae everywhere. Most common is the siren call of e-mail. The same advice applies — set aside blocks of time to attend to it all, and when it’s not in that block, don’t do it. If you get distracted by the notification that new messages (whether they’re tweets, e-mails, or whatever) are coming in, then quit the program and come back once an hour for 5 minutes. Or whatever schedule works for you.

Spending Time on What’s Important

This has been covered in other blog posts, but an easy way to fall into the motion/progress trap is to spend too much time on what’s not really important. This can often be triggered by Shiny New Thing syndrome. SNT syndrome is where one gets overtaken with what’s new, whether or not it’s important.

For example, take a small crafts business that is just getting up and running. They’re relying on sites like 1stdibs and others to market their wares, and they enable people to pay with PayPal. Ahhh…but just last week, there was an announcement of a nifty new way for people to use their credit cards and you can swipe them with your smartphone. So why not spend some time looking into that and playing around with it? It might be useful sometime in the future.

Why not? Because it’s motion, not progress. Is is important now? Will it move the overall objectives ahead today? If not, move along; there’s nothing to see here. When it comes time to re-assess payment options, it won’t have gone anywhere.

A Time-Study Man

There’s a great song in the Adler and Ross musical, “The Pajama Game” called “Time-Study Man.” It’s a song of braggadocio where a key character talks about how he saves time all day long. (One of his methods includes shaving each morning in bed, an act of messy dedication to the clock.) And although the song is farcical, the underlying ethic isn’t such a bad one.

Think efficiency while you’re working. Train a small piece of your brain to consider how you could be doing your current task faster. Over time as you build that muscle, you’ll be able to increase the pace of what you’re doing, too.

Between compartmentalizing administrivia, focusing on what’s important, and always considering efficiencies, your level of progress may double or more — with as much (or even less) motion. Whatever will you do with your new free time!?


Prevention or Promotion?


Look before you leap. Better to be safe than sorry. Or maybe: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You never know until you try.

We have a lot of sayings about risk in our culture. And Americans in particular are reputed to be a pretty nervy bunch, taking big risks and reaping big rewards. But, as Heidi Grant Halvorson points out in a Harvard Business Review blog post last week, it seems we’ve become a more timid bunch lately.

Drawing on social science, Halvorson shows dichotomous ways of being motivated — the prevention focus and the promotion focus.

The prevention focus thinks, before a decision, “what are the potential downsides here?” This attention to the possible negative consequences of a risky decision can often lead to fewer risks being taken.

The promotion focus thinks, before a decision, “what are the potential upsides here?” By looking at the possible rewards of taking the risk, people tend to risk more often (and potentially garner more upside).

Which Is Better?

Well, like many things in the world of motivation and personality, it’s not really about ‘better’ — both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Prevention-focused people tend to execute strategies that are accurate, deliberate and thorough. Promotion-focused people tend to execute strategies that are fast, innovative, and, well, more risky.

Halvorson goes on in the article, though, to point out that in this American period where more decision-makers tend to be preventive, people with innovative ideas need to shift their approach. Not the approach to their ideas, but to selling their ideas.

Find the Frame

It’s a truism of presentations — whether sales, musical, or comedic — that one needs to know their audience. This certainly holds true here. If you’re trying to pitch a prevention-focused person on an innovative idea, frame it around the risks your idea will mitigate.

As the author points out, if you propose an innovation and frame it as being the thing to keep your rivals from catching up — “everyone else is starting to move this direction, and we don’t want to be left behind” — you’re more likely to appeal to a prevention-focused person.

Especially when VisualsSpeak began, lots of people find our tools to be “out there” — so innovative that they look weird. Now that we have corporations, governments, nonprofits, and individuals around the world using them to great success, we can hone that prevention-focused message. But in the beginning, it was tough.

Sometimes you have to leap before you look.


Lessons From The Bottom


Made by Great Stella Software. http://www.software3d.com/Stella.htmlAbout a decade ago, C.K. Pralahad wrote a book that focused on what he called the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (or BOP). Pralahad looked at the upsides of serving the very poorest, both from a financial and innovation perspective. Recently, his daughter, Deepa Pralahad wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review which distills some design lessons learned ten years later.

Whether or not you serve this population, the lessons are still instructive — and can be applied to our work everyday.

Pralahad points out first that economy is required, of course, but just as important is usability. Because BOP populations have been ignored for so long by designers and manufacturers, this is a big adjustment for the big companies.

But I’d argue that usability is something that we all gravitate toward — and something that we all miss in too many products. How long did we suffer through programming the VCR before we got something that was menu and content-driven? How many of us use bad consumer products every day?

Pralahad also talks about responding to customers’ income volatility — certainly something more pressing at the BOP, but just as present throughout the economy. Although we seem to be slowly recovering from the economic disasters of the last few years, people still look in the immediate rearview mirror and are worried. This hardly seems limited to those with small incomes.

Her third point, though, is the one that resonated the most: understanding customer pain points. If you don’t know where people are having trouble with your offering, then you aren’t in a good position to make it better. This is true whether you’re making widgets or delivering training.

In the moment of a training or coaching session, things can seem like they’re going well. The participant(s) interest level and enthusiasm is strong, and momentum is flying by. Yet some weeks later, there’s virtually no change in behavior. Why? If you don’t know, you’re in trouble.

At VisualsSpeak, we focused a lot on that last point as we were developing the system and the facilitation approach. We didn’t consider our initial tools “ready” until they had been tested for thousands of hours. Even with that, we continue to make refinements as we target specific outcomes, populations, or media.

So perhaps we can all draw some key lessons from service to the poorest populations — whether focused on design, on delivery, or on manufacturing.


Futurist or Visionary Leader?


Victoria WoodhullIt seems as though there are lots of futurists out there. You know, people who spend time envisioning life some ways down the road. Some of them even call themselves “thought leaders.”

Setting aside the pretension of that phrase, it’s still a far cry from being a Visionary Leader. An example will highlight the differences.

Picture It

It’s 1870 or so, and in post-Civil War America, the country is dealing with reconstruction and dealing with advancing the rights of all people. In the US, in fact, there’s a mini-boom of civil rights going on. The futurists of the time can even foresee a time when the women suffragists win and women can vote. They may even, one day, run for important offices.

This is the Thought Leadership of the day.

Then there’s Victoria Woodhull. Today happens to be her birthday, and her story is a markedly different one — much more of a leader.

Woodhull believed in women’s equality, too. But more than prophesizing it, she lived it. She and her sister were the first women to open and run a brokerage firm on Wall Street. (Today, we might think she just was in the family business, since her father was a huckster and snake oil salesman.)

She was among the first women to start a newspaper, which ran for six years and is perhaps most famous for being the first to print an English version of Marx’s Communist manifesto.

Leading By Example

But in 1871, Victoria Woodhull completed the move from speculative futurist to visionary leader. She announced that the federal government shouldn’t be all men. And, in the master stroke, she said that the following year, she would be running for President.

One year later, in 1872, the newly-formed Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria Woodhull for President of the United States, the first woman ever to be so nominated. Although she didn’t end up getting any electoral votes, she did get some popular vote. And she tried again to get on the ballot in a couple of future elections.

So Are You a Futurist or a Visionary Leader?

Given the popular sentiment of the time and prevailing attitudes toward women as well as non-whites (she was also associated with Frederick Douglass), Woodhull may be an extreme example of “walking the talk” or of getting off the sidelines and getting into the game.

But on a more contemporary note, consider our political, business, and societal leaders. Are they “exerting leadership” by commenting on the situation, pointing out flaws and describing a better future? Or are they actually engaging in moves to create that better future?

Which one is really the leader? I suspect Victoria Woodhull would have a clear answer. Happy birthday to her!


Leadership and Organizational Structure


Scaffold and StructureWhen we began working on our leadership development tools a year or so ago, we first had to confront a fairly basic question: what did we mean by leadership? The models are all over the map, after all.


At one extreme is the organization that depends on strong hierarchies and closely-defined spheres of influence. Military organizations are often cited as examples, although some pockets of the military are actually much more flexible than this end of the spectrum would lead you to believe.

At the other end is the organization where everyone has vague roles and job descriptions, other than to help move the group forward. It’s not that the organization is flat; there really isn’t a structure to flatten in the first place. Here, we often see high-tech startups as examples, although as with the military stereotype above, it’s rare to find them all the way at the extreme.

What About Leadership?

You’ll notice that in describing these leadership extremes, the explicit idea of leadership was never mentioned. But the implications of the organizational structures are profound for the definition of leadership.

In a group with rigid structures, the constraints that maintain order can also lead to a “truncation of leadership.” That is, leaders are those who have a structure beneath them. A minimum requirement for leadership is management, although it’s not always the only thing you need.

Conversely, in the unstructured group, there’s usually an implicit understanding (sometimes made overt) that everyone is a leader — a co-leader, really. In that setting, if you aren’t demonstrating leadership, you aren’t advancing the group as much as you could be, so you’re some form of drag.

So What?

Armed with these extremes, we dove into the research. What we found was mildly surprising. There are examples of effective organizations at most places along this structural spectrum. The key difference is the pervasiveness of the leadership, and its definition. Although in a structured group, they may define only a few leaders, successful organizations push some subset of the leadership skills and behaviors downward throughout.

So what does that mean for leadership development? Well, it turns out that the core set of leadership skills are practiced by the most people in the most successful organizations. In other words, the better the group, the more leaders there are — regardless of their title, span of control, or surrounding constraints.

It’s heartening to know that, after spending a year working on leadership development tools, they really do make a profound difference!


Microbiology, anyone?


Bacteria invading a cellOne of the key characteristics of most effective leaders is curiosity. How do things work? Why do they work? (Or not!) Great leaders are always learning. Of course, this has the positive side effects of keeping our minds healthier as we age, and also of being just a bit more interesting at cocktail parties.

It has been written that Peter Drucker, for instance — famed management/leadership author — takes up a new area of study every few years. So that got me to thinking. What areas would be fun to explore next?

Of course, the answers will be different for different people. For me, it has to be something that’s at least superficially interesting (or it’ll be a struggle just to get started), and it has to be something sufficiently different from my day-to-day work that it really is a diversion. Beyond that, it’s open season.

Which led me to, of all things, microbiology. You know, tiny living things. You take a drop of water from a pond or stream — just a drop. And there’s a metaphorical ton of stuff in there! How do these little creatures adapt to their conditions all the time? As such small beings in such a large world, how do they go about their life?

These are questions that come up in the context of teams, leadership, and group dynamics all the time. So it leads me to wonder about how those questions are answered in nature — especially very tiny nature.

Your answer to the “what new thing to learn” question may be very different from mine. But as we end 2010 and look toward 2011, I encourage you to at least ask the question. Immerse in something new for the new year!


Developing Leaders in Different Organizations


CoinsAs a part of our monthly series of free conference calls, Tuesday Topics, we sat down with the lead developer of our leadership development toolset, Aaron Munter, and talked about models of leadership development. In this excerpt, Munter talks about defining leadership and about how different organizational definitions can affect leadership development:

Int: It just seems that so often, people are thrown into these positions, and they don’t know what to do and so those kind of icons in the culture [like The Office and Dilbert] are what they fall back on, and it seems that they get into trouble before they even get started.

AM: Well, I think it’s because of the cycle that fulfills itself. Because if you don’t have a lot of great leaders “out in the wild”, so to speak, then you don’t have really good mentors or role models or people that are suddenly thrust into a leadership role can look at and say, “Oh, this is how I should comport myself, this is the way I should handle these kinds of situations, this is the way to go.”

And so I think by not having some of those figures in culture very clear to look at, it becomes much easier just to go with the mocking version and not really realize that you are doing yourself and your team and your group a disservice by being such a poor leader.

Int: So what do you think is a better way to go about it, or what do you think can be a model, a general overview of how to deal with these problems that we see out there with people being thrust into leadership roles, not being prepared?

AM: Well, I think it would probably be useful to stop and do a quick kind of definitional check. Because I think leadership looks and feels different in different kinds of organizations and in different kinds of contexts.

There are organizations that, I would suggest, are healthier organizations in which leadership is not a position, it’s a process. It’s a role. It’s a way of being. And as a result, people can be leaders—and are leaders—in all parts of the organization. So you visit their corporate offices or their team office or whatever, and the administrative assistant who greets you at the door is a leader in the organization. So is the person down the hall in accounting. Everyone takes on the leadership role.

That, I think, is a great model. And it’s a model that is difficult to achieve unless you have someone with positional authority who can really adopt that, and believe in that, and proselytize that in the organization.

At the other side, sort of the other extreme, leadership is really associated with positional authority. So a leader is the more traditional executive leader, the head of the team, the CEO, someone like that.

When we talk about leadership development, those kinds of skills and attitudes are similar in those two organizations, but the way you go about it is a bit different. So to answer your question of a different way to go, the first thing to think about is the kind of environment in which you are doing the leadership development. So a good model is one that takes into account some of those differences.

One of them is, as we’ve talked about, is what does leadership mean there? Another is, regardless of where you are on that continuum, the question becomes: Who is in the room?

Are the people who are being invested in—in terms of their development and leadership development—are they representative of different parts of the organization? Or are they the executive leadership team? Are they people who have been doing these kinds of roles for a long period of time? Things look and feel very different depending on who’s there and what their experience is, because the kind of skills and the kind of behaviors you need to successfully transition into a new leadership role are very different than someone who is a seasoned leader who may just need some nurturing in a few different areas of existing strength, or perhaps, of some weakness as well.

To hear the full interview, head to our audiocasts page. There, you will find free recordings of our past interviews. To sign up for future Tuesday Topics calls, head to the Tuesday Topics page.

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