character, effectiveness, Leadership, Reflection, remembering

Doing Great Work

At this stage of my life, funerals of various kinds are a regular event in contrast to weddings – though I did attend one on Saturday where the bride and groom made their way to a small church on Toronto Island from the mainland by canoe.

Walter Pitman OC Oont would have approved. Doing things a different way was something he excelled at.  He lived a full 89 years with many careers and achievements – secondary school teacher, first elected member of the New Democratic Party to the federal government, member of the provincial parliamentant so much more.  Electoral losses later never slowed him down.  He subsequently became Dean of Arts at Trent University, President of Ryerson Techological Institute, head of the Ontario Arts Council, head of the Ontario Instutute for Studies in Education – and in retirement the biographer of five outstanding Canadian musicians.  He and his wife Ida were inveterate arts attenders and I first met them as delegates of a major choral conference where they joined a massed choir for each of my eight years on the job. Incredibly modest about his own abilities, Walter always said to me, “You’re doing great work!”.

It was good to be cut down to size at his service of celebration.  We heard from a theatre director that he always said the same thing to him.  And we even heard in a moving tribute by his daughter that he said the same thing to his children.  But perhaps the best tribute of all came when she said of her parents, “Any time any of us came into the room – children, grandchildren and now the 10 great grandchildren – their eyes would light up.  A lovely memory of a man whose enthusiasm and support lit up so many of our eyes that evening.

 

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effectiveness, Learning, Reflection

What we want

I am preparing for a long meeting of an organization where I am an active volunteer and reading preparation materials in advance.  Because we work with children and vulnerable adults we undergo something described as Sexual Misconduct Training.

That title here is a good example of a misnomer – and it also reflects an error in thinking. Rather than making something that we don’t want go away, we need to focus on the desired result – a safe and caring place for everyone demonstrated by behaviour that is defined, understood and practised.  As it stands, the title sounds like training in the exact thing that we don’t want.

Rather than fixing problems, focusing on a desired outcome is a good plan for both training descriptions and strategy formation.

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character, effectiveness, Leadership, Learning, Reflection

A different take on leadership

This past week I attended a meeting relating to the roll out of a strategic plan. The agenda was  to review the requirements for leadership and leadership training.  The context was for a mainline church denomination but some of the discussion could apply more broadly.

Several participants had been asked to research and bring  leadership concepts and common key words emerged for leadership roles.  Words like “mediating”, “perfecting”,  offering” and “blessing” appeared in one report.  In another the author had been fond of the letter “C” – and used nouns like “character”, “calling”, “competence” and “community”.  “Servant” leadership was also on the table.

My own contribution came from a longer paper I wrote some years earlier and I focused first on changes in  world view, vision and mission, structural change, personal characteristics and personal development.  My key words echoed some of the others – “disicipline”, “humility” and  “learner”.  I was also strong on “collaboration” rather than “hierarchy” even though we are still working within a hierarchical structure. But leader still assumes followers and someone has to take the first step.

The most interesting submission was a summary of a work by Ed Friedman entitled A Failure of Nerve. The writer of the summary had limited himself to 500 words and boiled down the role of the leader to a non-anxious presence.  We spent little time on Friedman’s idea in the meeting, but I had read his book some years before and its mention whetted my appetite to return to it.

A Failure of Nerve  was compiled after Firedman’s death in 1996 by his daughter and students and has been recently reissued.  It is timely. Friedman was a rabbi and psychotherapist by training and as well as founding a successful congregation he served as advisor to six US presidents as well as to many senior church leaders and individual clients. Even before his death he saw that America in the nineties had become a frightened society, fearing change and seeking safety as opposed to the spirit of adventure of its early explorers and founders.  He’s strongly critical of this stance and challenges us to change our mental models.

Friedman is often caustic and witty – and several readers have collected maxims that represent the substance of his thinking.  Here are some that apply to leadership:

  • Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.
  • ‘no good deed goes unpunished; chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better! Vision is not enough.
  •  Leaders need “… to focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”
  • Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.here

Much of where Friedman is coming from is defining church congregations and enterprise units as  family systems, a concept developed fully by therapist Murray Bowen. It posits that we call rational  in congregations and enterprises is always framed by the emotional responses learned in our personal birth and extended families.  Those families and tribes, like all systems, seek equilibrium.  When things get tense, it’s likely that learned behavior in earlier systems are in play.  When things are going well, Friedman says, expect sabotage.

The remedy is for the leader to develop self-differentiation rather than to try to persuade or motivate others to change.If a non-anxious presence is required it assumes there is already anxiety and conflict in the room.  But it is working on one’s own development that allows others to learn by example – and take responsibility for their own development.

There is much more to  learn in Friedman’s approach – and that will be a feature of future posts.

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Benjamin Zander, effectiveness, Reflection

More on Possibility

seedlingHow do we make change happen?  Pathways to Possibility, a book by Rosamund Stone Zander, a family systems therapist and the wife of noted orchestral conductor Ben Zander, has some important reminders.  Transformation, in her view, involves systems or fields rather than CEOs or heroes. But behavior matters.

She focuses on being rather than doing.  While we try to do the right thing, no one has the full picture. Einstein noted that “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness around it”.  How we act relates to our past experience. Zander describes us as walking stories.

We are affected by what happens to us as children and the strong positive or negative feelings these events evoke.  Both become internalized and part of how we cope.  We bring them into the relationships in our lives, Families and organizations of all sizes become a network of tangled pasts.  We sometimes compare organizations to families and use words like warmth, caring, loyalty and belonging.  But hidden in the family metaphor, says Zander, are control, hierarchy, competition, neglect, coercion and smothering.  Groups of any size may be a living collection of child stories.

As we mature, we may discover on our own that the stories are not valid or universal and no longer apply. Sometimes it takes therapy or life changing events to bring them to the surface.  Zander suggests two strategies to overcome the hurtful experiences – to recognize them as memories located in the past or look at them as stages in our personal development. We don’t have to be stuck in them and entrap others in the process.  We can tell our stories and move on.  She says:

We reconcile by facts and words, we restore through how we relate and how we grow; we inspire through what we build and the art we make; and we cure ourselves by how we care for others and what we give away. In these ways, we bring our hearts into collective resonance and that is where our power lies.

Having dealt with individuals, Zander moves on to larger groupings and the ways we try to change people.  Her list includes management, patience, do as I say, exclusion loving manipulation, bribery and ultimatums.  As a parent and grandparent, I’ve used all of them consciously, if not wisely. It might be less obvious how all of us use them to organizations – but we do.  At a recent meeting, I watched people offer suggestions of what we might do to fix people we thought were less effective in defined roles.  But we excluded ourselves from the picture.

Zander’s insight is no surprise.  If we wish to shift change in an organization, it has to start with ourselves. She calls the process walking into a new story.  It is our being – not our doing – that will make the difference.

Offering good advice is out.  What we need to look for in others is what she terms the infinite self – we know this possibility in ourselves and our task is to see it in someone else.  rather than just look through the lens of our own story.  The task is to see possibility. The result is more likely to be collaboration.

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effectiveness, Innovation, Technology

Disruption and Governance

Former Clerk of the Privy Council of the Government of Canada has written an interesting article published today in The Globe and Mail on the effect that the speed of technological change has on governance.  He focuses on government, but the changes and his recommendations have application to other enterprises of all sizes as well.

Technological Change Necessary Governance Responses
Speed up of pace of change Move from hindsight to foresight
Scope of change: vast and shifting Structures need flexibility
Disruptive change involves risk taking Become more innovative and tolerant of risk
Innovation crosses borders Crowd source public insights
Platform-based technologies with non-linear scalability and low marginal costs Think long term and anticipate the effects of the changes
Changes evolve through trial and error Look ahead to both benefits and costs to the wider society
Creation of virtual communities of interest with unfiltered commentary Use social media well;

When technologies disrupt and cause social problems, distrust of institutions follows.  Not only do we need to grow through innovation, Page says, but we must respond with new policies to meet the present and coming disruption.

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board orientation, effectiveness, Leadership, Reflection

Circles

I attended two meetings on the same day last week – one in the morning and another in the early evening.  There were some common participants – though most were not.  I was struck by how the space and configuration of both gatherings differed and affected how things went.  The key issue was how the space was used.

The first meeting is a regular gathering that assembles around a round table.  There are now so many attendees that we have to move back from the table in order to let everyone in and the circular table functions only as a place to hold coffee cups and refreshments. The meeting has a chair and a common discussion agenda known in advance. Participants can see one another well. The leader starts informally with a question and invites responses.  These are varied and certainly not unanimous, but what marks them is intelligent  speaking and deep listening.  We retain our own points of view but grow by learning from others.  There is high trust developed over years of regular meeting – but it is also possible to invite new members without appearing to be a closed shop.  In fact a newcomer joined us this week, participated, and remarked at the end, “I’ve been looking for a group like this for some time.”

The second meeting was in an a room resembling a rectangular parlor – filled with random furnishings – some sofas and wing chairs and a few dining chairs.  The meeting chair was at one end of the room. There was a small topic list on a display board.  Participants could not see each other well though hearing was not a problem. The dynamic was quite different, partly because it was a newer group, but also because the shape didn’t support the common purpose of moving forward and collaborating.  The shape of the room also didn’t allow participants to see others’ faces.

Others who attend  might have different observations than mine.  But circles go way back in how people gather.  First nations people meet in sacred circles and use symbols like a talking stick to signify respect for and attention to the speaker.  I’ve sat at many rectangular meeting tables through the years as well as being in many classrooms.  What these room shapes share is a different dynamic in the relationship between the leader and the participants. One year on the first day of teaching, I asked the back row of the high school class (all boys, naturally) to come up and take the front row while everyone else was to move one place back.  I then said – “Just, kidding, – but I’ve got your number”.  Similarly even on a small board, the not-so-loyal opposition sat as far away from the chair as possible and made her life difficult in every meeting by opposing pretty much everything  even when the all had a common purpose.

Space and setting matter.  Both are worth consideration before you convene your next meeting.  As a colleague observed recently,  when people say that meetings are a waste of time, they really mean Bad Meetings.

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Benjamin Zander, Edwin Friedman, effectiveness, Leadership, Reflection, vision

Possibility revisited

When I started this blog – which followed one created many years earlier – the tagline was suggested by a book by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander – entitled The Art of Possibility.  I first met Ben Zander on a TedTalk, where he introduced a bunch of techies to classical music.  The Talk has still maintained one of the highest ratings ever – over two million views. Their earlier book showed how both he and his wife have inspired many to bring out the best possibilities latent within themselves.

The new book, Pathways to Possibility, is even more explicit. Written by Rosamund Stone Zander, a family systems therapist, it resonates with another of my favorites in the field – Ed Friedman.  She unpacks the reality that most of our negative aspects arises from our own experiences as children, and unless we recognize and re-frame such experiences, they play into everything that we do as adults.  We can either recast them as memories – things in our past that no longer have control over us – or see them as part of our continuing story and growing maturity.  Her message is simple but profound.  I have seen this in action when another practitioner in the field helped a woman re-write a negative story and it changed her whole attitude in an instant.

Reading this book – and watching Ben Zander coach his music students on YouTube are excellent lessons for anyone who wants to initiate change – as another wise colleague has said – we have to be the change that we want to see happen.  Try these!

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