Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Leading From Your Desk

Throughout my career, I have heard many people profess that you can't lead from behind your desk.  I've thought that to be true, but I must admit that I became less and less convinced each year and now I see how shortsighted such a philosophy truly is.  Yes, technology allows us to do more from our desk, but that is not the reason I believe the argument is flawed and grounded in legacy thought.  There are lots of personal definitions of what it means to lead, but for the sake of argument let's use "to guide, to direct, to influence", as this stream of consciousness is more about the HOW than the WHAT.  We can point to many great leaders who lead from the front, lead at the deckplate, and lead through presence.  None of us would argue the fact that leadership through presence is most effective and serves as the foundation for one to lead even from afar.  But what about virtual presence?

As we migrate from tactical leader to operational leader and further to strategic leader, our sphere of influence grows beyond our ability to lead soley through physical presence.  In fact, I am of the mind that truly strategic leaders can only be effective if we choose to lead even from behind our desk.  I believe true leaders educate, communicate, remove barriers, and create opportunities for individuals within the team and the team as a whole.  I offer that all of these can also be done from behind the desk and sometimes with greater effectiveness.

Just last week, among other things, I've observed the following:

- One Four Star Admiral write a single letter to a Four Star General that has generated much action, focused the efforts of many, and reallocated numerous resources
- Peers remove barriers by engaging seniors via phone
- Juniors create opportunities by making a case for the need for a conference by writing a message
- Our Senior Enlisted Leader effectively communicate a way ahead after listening to issues brought before her while sitting at her desk
- Personally educated others by writing blogposts, book abstracts, and sharing operational context using the written word

Like many leaders, I did not sit behind my desk all week.  I was physically present.  In fact, it's the physical presence aspect of leading I enjoy most.  However, I in no way stopped leading when I sat behind my desk, called a colleague, or opened my laptop at home.  The thought that we can't lead from behind our desk is simply short sighted and false.  The truth is we can lead even from behind our desk, we must lead even from behind our desk, and, yes, sometimes it makes most sense to get behind the desk in order to lead.  The greatest form of leadership is leadership through influence and I have yet to find another location where my sphere is greater than when I am sending e-mail, participating in a telephone/video conference, or posting on the internet.

The need to lead through presence is both clear and obvious, but the true leader finds a way to lead even, and sometimes especially, from behind the desk.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Personal Validation

When I go to bed each night and reflect whether or not it was a day well-spent, I merely ask myself if I did my best to make legitimate progress toward a goal of mine or to help someone else make progress toward one of theirs.  A simple "yes" to either or both is the only metric that matters.  Rather subjective and simplistic, I know.  The other potential flaw in such a metric is that I, alone, own the assessment.  No one has to validate my actions, I am judge and jury.  As time goes on, I have chosen to rely less and less on others to validate my decisions, contributions, or performance.  It seems perfectly natural to me that I feel this way, but I know it wasn't always the case. Heck, early in life we all are taught that it is more important what others think of us than what we think of ourselves.  I've grown convinced that provided we have a solid moral compass, the more quickly we unlearn this lesson, the happier we will be.

As young children, we are conditioned to please our parents.  Staying out of trouble and, at times, giving parents reason to be proud is what drives pre-adolescents.  Then we go to school, and we do the same for teachers.  We fill out worksheets, we "behave" in class, we regurgitate memorized information on tests, and we seek validation in the form of grades.  On the athletic field it is all about the trophy we "earn" for being the best amongst a given grouping of peers.  As adults, many of us find jobs or even careers where the performance appraisal that someone senior to us writes is what decides if we are fortunate enough to keep our job or promote.  Heck, last week I listened to a retired football player (Hines Ward for you Steelers Fans) tell the listening audience that he retired because he no longer had anything to prove to his critics.  It should come as no surprise that so many of us go through life (or at least a significant portion thereof) with the focus being proving ourselves to others.  How many Americans go into extreme debt to buy things they don't really need to impress people they don't even know?  We seem to care more about what others think of us than what we believe ourselves.  What an unfortunate way to go through life.

Please don't misunderstand me, I do enjoy pleasing others and giving friends, family, and even strangers reason to smile makes me smile.  The difference is I choose to look at external validation as a potential result and not the desired effect.  It's not about the trophy, it's about the effort.  It's not about the applause, it's about the journey.  It's not about the grade, it's about what we learn.

Making my parents proud pleases me, but it's not my specific intent.  Getting an A in a class is of no importance to me, continued learning is.  High marks on my periodic fitness sports (performance appraisals) matters little, self-satisfaction in leading WITH my team matters much.  Getting the next promotion would be nice, but it doesn't validate who I am.  And if given the choice, I'd wear no ribbons on my uniform at all.    

In my professional career, I have adopted a philosophy of picking myself as opposed to waiting for someone else to pick me.  I take great pride in doing things that are not my job, I don't like to wait to be tasked to do something, and I very much enjoy creating opportunity.  This blog is but one thing I gave myself permission to create.  I write thrice monthly and enjoy it a great deal.  I don't give much thought as to who reads it and I surely don't expect there to be any comments.  External validation is not what drives me to write, to lead, or to simply be.  That said, I am not a robot and constructive feedback is not lost on me.  Truth is I am fond of the thank-yous I receive from others with whom I continue to enjoy life's journey.

Earlier this month, I saw this unsolicited blogpost from Gaping Void (Represents Hugh MacLeod, an artist and author I admire).  Reading it touched me more than I expected and, at first, I was unsettled by the smile it put on my face.  As stated earlier, I was the only judge and jury for my work and I need no one else's approval.  So why did the appreciation expressed in this singular post and the generous donation to my Shipmates fill me with pride?  

It may seem to contradict the message above, but I don't think it does.  I am willing to admit that it does feel good when someone else sees merit in the things we do.  But as good as it feels, I don't believe that should be the reason we do it.  We do it because it matters to us, because it makes us smile, and because we see it as meaningful use of our time.  If others see value in it, all the better.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Enjoy the Taper...

It's less than two weeks until the big event.  I say "event" and not "race" because my upcoming half Ironman is far from a race for me.  It's an "event" and more than that, it is an "experience".   I've only done one other Ironman event and that was Ironman Austria back in 2002.  That, too, was not a "race", it was an "experience".  I like the word "experience" far more than race for a couple of reasons.  First, the pace at which I make forward progress does not make me competitive for any medal other than that of Finisher (I am a mid-packer).  Second, the "experience" is the celebration of months of hard work, the icing on the cake that bakes for the 18 weeks, and the immersion amongst other people who are passionate about reaching their fitness potential irrespective of finishing time.

I have just entered the tapering phase.  For those of you not familiar with this phase, it is nothing more than a reduced training phase that gives athletes a chance to rest, recover, and mentally prepare for the challenge ahead.  For those of us who played football, it is the light pads practice the day before a game.  For those of us going through school, it is the period between the last study session and the exam.  For those of us in the Navy, it is the pre-deployment leave period.  Whether we know it or not, we all have experienced the tapering phase for one thing or another.  I like to think of it as the time where we reflect on the work we have put toward a specific objective.   If we feel good about our level of preparation, the tapering phase is a rewarding period, second only to enjoying the actual event.  If we aren't happy with our level of preparation, then the tapering phase can be extremely stressful and cramming is not the answer.

While I enjoy the tapering phase this time around knowing I am ready, I also acknowledge that my work family is entering a tapering phase.  We have been working hard for the last 22 months doing great things for our Navy and Nation.  We've sprinted at times and we've rested at times, all the while making forward progress.  With three months left at the helm, I now see an opportunity for us to take some time to admire the progress we continue to make, to acknowledge the significant level of effort, and to throttle down a notch or two.  A new Commanding Officer will soon arrive to lead this very team, and the gun will go off once again.  The initial sprint will undoubtedly be swift and the team will be prepared to move forward under his leadership on the same course we continue to navigate.  In order to prepare the team for success under new leadership, it is paramount that they are rested, focused, and grounded in the strategic approach they helped to define.  I had originally planned to have us "sprint to the finish" (as defined by the change of command ceremony) and though we will finish strong, sprinting at this point would be unfair to all.

We will instead taper.  We will rest, recover, and mentally prepare for the next chapter in the NIOC Pensacola story.  We will enjoy the experience that is the transfer of command.

As for me and my upcoming Half-Ironman, I am ready.  I've enjoyed most of the training (some of the long bike rides were a mental struggle).  My fitness level has increased, I've lost 12 pounds, and I've learned some things about my 41 year old body.  Regardless of what happens on 20 May 2012, and like most things in life, it has been all about the journey.  Just like a tour of duty, it's not what someone else chooses to pin on our chest, it's (in the words of Coach Wooden) the "self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."  I have prepared my best for the event and I have done the same as a member of the NIOC Pensacola Team.  We will not completely coast, but we will enjoy the taper...