Sunday, October 30, 2011

Waiting to Lead

Note: I am repeatedly reminded of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by such great people. The below post (my first guest posting) comes from a Shipmate whom I have yet to meet in person. Though we haven't met, we have created a few side projects and have plans for a few more. He's a guy who cares more about IT getting done than about WHO does it, and as a result, he makes IT happen. LCDR Chuck Hall is not one who waits to lead and I can assure you in time, neither will his son. Thanks for making the time to share your thoughts, Chuck...

My son was assigned a group project at school, to be completed over a three-day weekend. On Monday, I noticed that his group hadn't had any meetings and I was curious how the project was proceeding. Shortly after dinner Monday night I inquired as to his progress. He really wasn't sure who in the group had completed what, or even how the tasks were divided. Obviously, I wasn't happy with the answer. When I asked him who was in charge he told me that no one had been designated the leader. More on that in a minute...

In the Navy we rarely lack designated leadership. We all wear our rank on our sleeves and everyone fits into the chain-of-command in one way or another. Yet situations wanting of leadership happen more often than we think. Peer groups, like my son's class, often lack a designated leader. Working groups and committees may wait for a natural leader to step forward. Even when leadership is designated, that leader may fail to lead, or produce a less than desired result. All of these situations, like that of my son's, represent opportunities to lead.

Leaders aren't always designated by higher-authority, or senior in rank or position. Oftentimes leaders are simply those who don't wait to be led. Given the opportunity they take charge, the outcome often better for their efforts. They don’t wait around to be told what to do. Instead, they understand what needs to be done and they do it. Think back a few days or weeks, or even over the course of your career, and you will probably identify an abundance of these opportunities to lead.

I just completed serving nearly four years in Naval Special Warfare (NSW). I had never before served with this community and found the opportunity and experience to be truly remarkable. Of the many things the NSW community does well, leadership is one. In my experience, rarely was a leader designated. Yet rarely was there a wanting of leadership. As I completed my tour I promised myself to take the things I had learned in NSW and apply them in future tours. Encouraging spontaneous leadership is one of those lessons.

The recently released Cryptologic Community Foundational Principles represents a call to action for those waiting to lead. The document focuses on collective ownership of what is truly our community. In its summary, the guidance challenges the community to, “err on the side of action” and “demonstrate personal initiative.” Ultimately, this document emphasizes one of the key traits I observed in NSW -- fostering spontaneous leadership.

So, back to my son and his school project. After relaying a similar message regarding leadership, I had only one question to ask him -- what are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wanted: Elephant Killers

For the unindoctrinated and according to my favorite reference Wikipedia, "Elephant in the room" is an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is being ignored or goes unaddressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss. It is based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there have chosen to avoid dealing with the looming big issue.

I've been to my share of meetings and I have enjoyed many conversations. Working repeatedly in team settings has allowed me to gauge the level of shared commitment to what we profess to be a common objective upon the size and number of elephants in the room. One of the many things I enjoy about the current team with whom I serve is the growing number of Shipmates who take pride in their roles as Elephant Killers.

I have found that the best way to rid ourselves of elephants and ensure we are properly focused is by acknowledging the elephants that we see. Saying what we mean and explaining why we do the things we do, or feel the way we feel, is empowering and speaks to our commitment to progress. In fact, it's contagious. A culture of such honesty is difficult to build and I would be fooling myself if I said that I was ever on a team where the majority conducted themselves as elephant killers. That said, I have always respected those who are willing to say what others won't and make it a point to tell others what they need to hear vice what they want to hear. I am not advocating bullying, but I do repeatedly ask myself why so many refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Truth is I understand why, but I refuse to accept it.

I've had my ego bruised many times and on occasion my feelings hurt, but in the long run, I am better because others chose to kill the elephant. I have tremendous respect for them because I am a big proponent of continual improvement and have been known to share my unsolicited opinions with those willing, or with no choice but, to listen. I also make it a point to explain what shaped those opinions. Some appreciate such honesty, some don't, but if I didn't conduct myself in this manner, I wouldn't sleep at night.

I recently had a conversation with a senior officer who spoke my language. He went out of his way to break some news to me (not what I wanted to hear), explain why he felt the way he did, and share thoughts on what he'd like me to do about it. He didn't want me to get the news from anyone other than himself. In essence, he wanted to preemptively address the potential for birthing an elephant, he wanted to ensure our ongoing dialogue remained authentic, and he wanted to re-enforce the fact he expected the same from me. Refreshing!

Being an elephant killer comes with risk (not everyone enjoys such honesty), but the risk elephant protectors create for a team far outweigh any perceived benefits resulting from silence. I want to be on a team that helps each other by pointing out the elephants, cooperatively killing them and then thanking each other for caring enough to do so. I want to be on a team of Elephant Killers.

As for the 800 pound gorilla, that's another story all together.

Note: No elephants have actually been harmed in our continued quest to speak the truth.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Speaking Decisively

It never fails. Whenever I consider a new purchase, it is made very clear to me just how abundant that very item is. If I am shopping for a new car, the road becomes filled with the same make and model of which I am most interested. If I am researching a new electronic gadget, everyone else seems to have one. I know I am far from alone on this and clearly, this is nothing more than the result of being more subconsciously aware of certain aspects of our surroundings.

Recently, I reached my tipping point regarding the use of noncommittal language and now I find myself surrounded by it. Think about it, how many people do you know who hide their true feelings through the use of such words as "Sure", "Interesting", "I don't care", and the latest "Just sayin'"? It started when I began noticing a colleague of mine repeatedly responding to most things he observed as "interesting", nothing more and nothing less. Now, don't get me wrong, with a little amplification, that can be a powerful response. For example,

Q: I've been working on this project for two months now, what do you think of it?

A1: I've read it and your use of non-traditional language and unique graphics to creatively communicate the message was an interesting approach and it really made things stick.

A2: It was an interesting approach but something that you need to rethink. I think you missed the mark on this one.

A3: Interesting.

I would take A1 or A2 anytime over A3. A simple "interesting" without any explanation as to why we find things interesting is absolutely useless. When information is shared or feedback is invited, a thoughtful and clearly communicated response is the reciprocation of choice. I told my colleague that his standard response bothered me and that I interpreted it as his way of saying he disapproved of the information I was sharing or didn't like my idea and just didn't have the guts to tell me. I also reminded him that as a teammate, he had a responsibility to either refute or validate such an assessment.

I don't know about you, but I like to be with people who are constructively honest with each other, will tell the emperor when he's not wearing any clothes, and choose to acknowledge any and all elephants in the room. I don't want to spend time with people who choose to appease others only to share their honest opinions or point and laugh after the fact. I guess I like people who care enough to share their true feelings and speak frankly.

When someone asks us where we would like to eat dinner, why is "I don't care" a response we consider? When someone asks us to do them a favor, why would "sure" even roll off our tongue? Truth is we do care where/what we eat (at least we should) and we either want to help another or we are unable to do so. An "I don't care" doesn't help with the decision on where to eat and if we really don't care why are we even going (our only care might be that we go to a place those with whom we are eating would enjoy, but we still care)? If another person needs our help, why not an emphatic "yes" or an apologetic "sorry, I can't right now" (intentional or not, "Sure" implies at least a hint of reluctance)?

Lastly, I hear the phrase "Just sayin'" over and over again more and more...

"The door is open and it's cold outside, just sayin'."
"We're all out of coffee, just sayin'."
"The house is a mess, the bills are stacking high, you don't have a job..."just sayin'."

Odds are we're never "just sayin'", just afraid to speak directly. Why not...

"Would you please close the door?"
"Would you please make some more coffee?"
"I'm concerned about our situation as a family and think we need to do something about it."

Let's care enough to be authentic, let's care enough to speak decisively.