Sunday, September 30, 2012

Intoxication is Contagious

Last week I received a note from a junior officer asking me to explain the significance of the piece of art included on my business card.

To me art is just about anything that changes our emotion. This particular piece of art arrived at my home unannounced from a mentor a few months into my command tour. We had been sharing many conversations over the years and most of them centered around personal improvement and fully immersing ourselves in the leadership profession. I won't say that I was in a rut, but I will freely admit that I wasn't enjoying as much success in my quest for continual improvement as I had grown accustomed. Despite a lack of visible progress on a few of the opportunities I was attempting to create for the command, he noticed my commitment was not wavering and my resolve was strengthening. He observed that I continued  to look behind every corner to push the envelope, question the status quo, and understand the WHY behind just about everything. At that point he diagnosed me as "Intoxicated by Possibility" and presented me with a nice graphic to adorn a wall of my choice.  I proudly hung that inspiring piece of art outside my office and glanced at it each time I approached my desk. As a fan of Notre Dame Football, it came to be my own personal "Play Like a Champion Today" sign that they touch each time they exit their locker room.  Just as those five words have come to define the culture of the Fighting Irish, these three words and the associated "scribble" (as my son calls it) remind me to stay curious, get outside of my comfort zone, and find new ways to create new and unique value for and with those with whom I serve.

That same graphic had struck a chord with many of the Sailors and a few of the Civilians I am fortunate enough to call Shipmates. Their interest in the graphic made me want to return the favor that my mentor provided me.  I had the graphic put on the back of my business card and presented one to each member of the team upon their departure (and one to those I left behind when I left the command).  I also gave them to each new Information Warfare Officer who went through school during my tenure in Pensacola. It's not so much the personal contact information I provided them (though I certainly hope they choose to use that) as it is a chance to enjoy a constant reminder of the condition that I want to do my part to spread.

Last week, I was driving from Norfolk to Maryland and I listened to "One Click", which is the Jeff Bezos story to date. Amazon continues to change the lives of so many because he cares enough to continually explore the art of the possible.  Shortly after the launch of the iPod 5, I felt compelled and went to the Apple store to hold one. The legacy Steve Jobs left because he was intoxicated continues to strengthen. I am no Jeff Bezos, nor am I Steve Jobs. But I am "Intoxicated By Possibility" and I am appreciative of my mentor for providing me with both the diagnosis and the reminder of my condition. I share the art in hopes of intoxicating others.

I appreciated the question asked by an interested Shipmate and the opportunity to share the WHY behind "the scribble". How intoxicated are you? What are you doing to show the world the art of the possible? How are you infecting others?

Note: For more information on the artist behind the message and to purchase one for yourself, check out Gaping Void, home of Hugh MacLeod. If you'd like a business card version of the graphic, just send me a note.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Try, and Mean It!

I have had the pleasure of spending lots of time with my wife and son during this transition period.  We've played, we've worked, we've explored, we've traveled, we've tried new things, and yes we've made mistakes.  I don't know that my son has had more reason than normal to use them or if I have just been more aware (or present), but I've noticed two phrases he seems to use quite often...

- "I'll Try"
- "I didn't mean to"

"I'll try" seems to be the standard response when I kindly ask him to do something.  And "I didn't mean to" is the default when he isn't pleased with his execution of a given task.  It might go something like this...

Me: "Barrett, would you please pour me a glass of water"
Him: "I'll try" followed by a spill and an "Oops, I didn't mean to."

Whenever I hear him respond with "I'll try", I do my best to refrain from channeling Yoda by saying, "Do or do not, there is no try."  In fact, for a while I was unable to help myself and we had fun playing the roles of Luke Skywalker and Yoda.  I say for a while because I began to see a flaw in Yoda's logic.  While I was using the phrase with the intention of helping him to build confidence and learn that trying (starting) isn't nearly as important as doing (finishing), I was taken by the words in parenthesis.  Many of us are taught that it is not the trying, but the doing; not the starting, but the finishing; and not the execution, but the result.  Over time, many of us develop a fear of trying, an unwillingness to start something, and a deference once it is time to execute.  What happens all too often is that by encouraging the "Do" and falling short, we inadvertently create a reluctance to "Try".  Over time, there is no "Try" and without a "Try", there is no "Do"; without "Do", there is no value creation.  Doing isn't always about the result, but the starting, the action, and the effort.

I submit that our little green friend would be even wiser by stating "Do or do not, but try you must."

When I hear that "Oops, I did NOT mean to" from across the room, my son knows exactly what will follow.  My standard response, "Did you mean NOT to?"  The point being that there are many things in life that we did not mean to have happen, but there is always something more we could have done to increase the odds of the desired outcome.  For something as simple as pouring a glass of water we might ask did we use both hands?  Did we move the glass close enough to the pitcher?  Did we pour slow enough?  Were we truly focused on the task?  And I am sure we all could come up with a few more.

We all should embrace the TRY and if our DO falls short, we ought be comfortable writing it off as a learning experience that we are unwilling to repeat.  At the same time, we all should think more about what we truly mean to do before our result gives us reason to to respond "Oops, I did NOT mean to..."


Monday, September 10, 2012

Lidless Leadership

Though I don't always agree with John Maxwell (example), I remain a big fan of his teachings. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership is my favorite of his books and though I believe in each of the laws contained therein, the one that captured much of my attention over the last few months has been "The Law of The Lid". The basic premise of this law is that one's leadership ability serves as the ceiling for the organization that he or she is attempting to lead. In essence, the team will never be more effective than a leader allows them to be. We may be better because of our leader and we may be great despite our leader, but the leader represents the lid of any organization.

With that understanding, it becomes rather clear that a leader's job is to help the team to realize their potential. Potential is realized only when the team has clear expectations, understands the objectives, is empowered to act decisively, and has leadership that is committed to both giving the team the tools needed to do their jobs and helping to remove identified obstacles preventing progress. Having recently been part of a leadership triad committed to creating a lidless command, it is rather frustrating to see others who don't share that commitment. I see evidence of these leaders amongst some of my juniors, peers, and seniors. I informally help to coach juniors, work to influence peers, and offer insights to seniors, with varying levels of success.

It wasn't until the last 90 days in my tenure as a Commanding Officer that we were able to see any real evidence that the staff to which we reported ("Corporate" for my civilian friends) began to truly understand that they were in fact serving as the lid to our organization.  It wasn't the Division Officer, it wasn't the Department Head and it certainly wasn't the Command Triad preventing the team from realizing our potential, it was a few key personalities a thousand miles away who chose not to make the time to remove barriers on our behalf.  Fortunately for all, they shifted gears and made time at the 11th hour to raise the lid on our behalf.

I have worked for all kinds of people over the course of my career. I continue to enjoy working with those who are committed to lidless leadership, and I despise those who appear to take great pride in telling juniors to get in line, ask permission, and be overly aware of our respective rank insignia. Maybe taking pride is over the top, so I'll assume they are merely emulating the very role that they experienced when they were the junior.

We wonder why so many of our more talented juniors leave the Navy? We wonder why so many of those who choose to assimilate are promoted? We wonder why we make so little progress despite our long hours and the solutions we share? I am convinced that leadership lids are a significant contributor; I know that is why I submitted my resignation 14 years ago (before recommitting to being part of the solution).

Working with and for "Lids" is commonplace. I've worked with and for many "Lids" and each time I recommit to not be "That Guy" (while helping them to see the errs of their ways, which isn't always well received). In fact the biggest reason I have chosen to continue to serve is to do my part to help raise the lid. In a recent post, I made reference to the definition of culture and our "Lids" continually contradict the very culture many are aspiring to cultivate. It seems as though each time we see visible evidence of a collective ownership model, our "Lids" demonstrate that we might not be committed to blocking for each other, we aren't embracing our role as enablers, and we aren't pridefully celebrating the successes across our extended team.  We need to break the cycle and ensure we are each committed to lidlessly leading the team(s) under our charge.  We need to understand that we only succeed when WE succeed.

The ironic aspect of this whole observation is that the leader of the lid organization in this example is the most empowering, action oriented leader with whom I have served. He epitomizes lidless leadership. In fact, I continue to do my best to demonstrate my commitment to many of the philosophies he imparted on me when I served directly with him on a previous staff. Rest assured, that staff was not a lid. It is said that the team is a reflection of their leader. Personally, I have never witnessed a bigger contradiction to that theory than I have over the last year. If the theory was true without exception, we would have accomplished so much more, much more quickly.  This experience has proven to me that the lid of any given organization need not be the leader of the organization.  Action Officers, mid-level management, and even the help desk can serve as lids.

I ask that we all consider the lids that are holding us back and demand that they do better. If after some reflection we see that we might in fact be operating as a lid, let's change.  We talk of servant leadership, but until we all embrace the fact that true leaders are primarily focused on serving others and we demonstrate a shared commitment to mission accomplishment (not just managing our in-box), we will never realize our collective potential.