Make Curiosity Key to Your Leadership Growth

“My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” ~Peter Drucker

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What is your development plan for growing as a leader? The Law of Curiosity says growth is stimulated by asking Why? Curious people possess a thirst for knowledge and they live in a constant state of wanting to learn more. Asking questions can actually do more than just make you smarter and help you learn more new things—it can also make you a better leader. Curiosity is critical to growing as a leader.

Three areas where questions help you as a leader:

1.  When you ask employees questions about their lives, it helps you to connect with them. It also lets them know that you care. When you ask questions about what is going on in the organization, you learn information that can help you make better decisions. When you ask for their ideas and opinions, you get better options and sometimes get out-of-the-box solutions.

2.  You also become a better leader when you answer questions from employees with another question. When they ask a hard or tricky question, reply back with, “What do you think we should do?” This gives them the opportunity to find the answers themselves. When we are given this opportunity, most of the time, we realize we actually know more than we think we do. Good leaders give people the tools to answer their own questions.

3.  You have heard the truism that you learn from your experiences, especially your mistakes and failures. You only learn if you evaluate and reflect on your experiences. This begins with asking you questions. Why did I do it this way? What could I have done differently? What do I need to change before I do this again? You can come up with many other questions to help you reflect.

I have found throughout my career that the more curious I am and the more questions I ask, the more I learn and grow as a leader. You can learn much from books and courses but there is an unlimited source of information and knowledge around you if you take the time to be curious and ask questions.

John Maxwell has said, “The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, poke at it, question it, and turn it inside out.” He describes the process like this: Questions precede discovery. Discovery precedes action. Action precedes change.

If you want to make changes in your leadership or organization, if you want to grow as a leader, if you want to grow your organization, then be like Peter Drucker in his quote above and make asking questions your greatest strength.

4 Things I Learned from my College Fraternity

I attended my college fraternity chapter’s 65th Anniversary Celebration this summer. As I reflected back on my time in the chapter, here are some things I learned during my four years as an undergraduate at Arkansas State University.

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1. There is strength in diversity.

You couldn’t put a label on my Teke chapter because we didn’t fit nicely under any one description. We had varsity and intramural athletes, ROTC cadets, scholars in various majors, musicians, artists, comedians (lots of those), and members with many other talents and gifts. We had and did it all. I am convinced that is why we won Top Teke Chapter so many times, won Greek grade point average, had ROTC cadet commanders, Student Government presidents, sports mascots, won intramural sports competitions. We excelled at  just about everything we did.

2. Teamwork makes the dream work.

I learned a lot about teamwork. Nearly everything we did as a fraternity was in teams or groups. Even when someone did something as an individual, there was always a team supporting him in the background.

3. A cause or a purpose is the key to excellence.

When we won something or did something great, we always had a purpose. Whether it was going for Top Teke Chapter, rolling kegs for St. Jude, competing in intramural sports, competing in homecoming displays, sorority follies or working on grades, we had a purpose that drove us and focused our efforts. And a lot of the time it was a purpose greater than ourselves.

4. There is a leader in all of us.

We had a lot of leaders in the chapter but time and time again, I saw individuals step out of the background and take the lead on something in their strength or area of interest. The chapter provided opportunities for everyone to find the leader inside them and influence others to action.

I continued to see these four things in most all of the successful organizations I’ve been in or observed:

  • diversity in skills, talents and passions
  • teamwork
  • a cause or purpose
  • an environment that provided opportunities for leader development

What about your organization? If these four elements are not present, what can you do to add them? What other critical elements of successful organizations would you add to this list?

Steal Your Way to Becoming a Better Leader

“The best leaders are the best note takers, best askers and best learners – they are shameless thieves.” -Tom Peters

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This is an interesting quote by Tom Peters but it points out that good leaders are continually working on improving themselves. How do you rate yourself at taking notes, asking questions, continually learning something new and always looking for ideas to adapt or implement yourself?

One of my favorite little books is “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon. His thesis is that nothing is original. All creative work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.

This is encouraging to me. I have always believed that I was not that creative. But I can “steal” a good idea and make it better, adapt it to something I am doing or build on it. I feel less pressure to create when I am freed to take what is already out there and put my own ideas and take on it.

Kleon writes about how Conan O’Brien has talked about how comedians try to emulate their heroes, fall short, and end up doing their own thing. Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny but ended up Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson but ended up David Letterman. And Conan O’Brien tried to be David Letterman but ended up Conan O’Brien. In O’Brien’s words, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”

One of the best ways to learn how to be a leader is to watch and emulate other good leaders. I have always tried to do this. I will never be able to become the great leaders I watch, but I can learn and “steal” from them to help me become the best leader I can be.

The flip side of stealing is to be open and share your ideas. Kleon adds that if you are worried about giving your secrets away, you can share your dots without connecting them. If you share with others, you can learn from them and they can help make your ideas better. From a leadership perspective, sharing power by empowering others is a foundational principle.

I hope this helps you look at your heroes and other people’s ideas in a different light. Become a better leader. Keep taking notes, asking questions, learning everything you can.  Steal the best ideas and practices and improve on them, learn from them, add to them or just be inspired by them.

 

Top Three Leadership Developmental Experiences

“To every man there comes in his lifetime that special moment when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered that chance to do a very special thing, unique to him and his talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for that work.”  ~Winston Churchill

What are you doing to prepare and develop yourself as a leader? If you believe that leaders are made, not born, then you need to figure out the best way develop and grow your leadership abilities. 

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Common learning challenges for leaders are what to do and when to find time to do it. Attending schools, reading books and going to seminars are good activities to learn about leadership.

But according to senior military officers the best development opportunities are right around you. Officers attending the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leadership at the Peak program participated in a survey of their key developmental experiences and the lessons learned from those events. The goal was to answer the question, how do military leaders learn the lessons of leadership?

You might think it would be from classroom leader development and battlefield experience. Respondents were asked to reflect on their careers and to share the key developmental experiences that led to a lasting change in the way they lead or manage.

The top three developmental experiences were:

1. Positive Role Models

2. Negative Role Models

3. Failures and Mistakes

Were you surprised? You have heard the saying, “people do what people see.” Just as children learn from observing their parents, we learn much about leadership from observing other leaders, both good and bad.

Jack Welch said, “Everybody is a mentor. Learn something from each person. Keep your eyes and ears open and wanting to learn. Keep a constant growth mindset.” When I think about my own best leadership lessons learned, I come up with several good leaders that I worked for and several not so good.

Some of my most vivid leadership lessons were learned from observing bad leaders and vowing never to lead like that. I also had many good leaders that made me want to emulate them as close as possible.

Turn the workplace into a classroom. Seek out those leaders that people agree are doing a good job. Look at how they interact with people. Observe how they make decisions. Notice how they communicate.

When you study a great leader, you get the amplified boost of studying the very best and shortcutting your learning. Just make sure that:

1. You are intentional about your efforts.

2. You record, then reflect on your observations.

3. You use these lessons, good or bad, to guide your development as a leader.

The third developmental experience, learning from our failures and mistakes, is also a great teacher, but that is a lesson for another day. Be all you can be as a leader today!

 

7 Useful Checks for Decision Making

Leaders make decisions. Good leaders delegate decisions down to the lowest level capable of making the decision. In doing this, the hard decisions that only the leader can make end up on their desk.

check-mark-hiMajor General Perry M. Smith, USAF Retired, lists 7 important checks to apply when preparing to make a final decision. How many of these do you use?

1. The sanity check. If a decision doesn’t make sense, it is the leader’s obligation to reject it and give further guidance to the staff on how to proceed.

2. The dignity check. Will the decision enhance the reputation and dignity of the organization and leadership, or will it undermine that reputation.

3. The systems check. Is there an internal consistency and coherency of all parts of the decision? Does the decision fit within the overall goals of the organization? Individual parts of the decision may make sense but do all parts fit together? Are there any unintended consequences for parts of the organization not directly affected by the decision (at least on the surface)?

4. The CNN check. How would the decision appear when written up in the media?

5. The safety check. This should take in the physical and psychological safety of employees and customers alike.

6. The strategy check. How much will the decision help or hurt the future of the organization?

7. The integrity check. This is the basic ethics issue. This concerns both the means and the ends of the decision, as well as the long-term reputation of the organization.

One of the ways leaders accomplish their goals is by making decisions. Effective leaders make quality decisions. A decision-making approach using these 7 checks will lead to better quality decisions. Try them out on your next big decision.

Leadership Lessons from Napoleon

Helping others to achieve their goals — that is the essence of leadership. A story in the December 1979 Bits and Pieces Magazine recounts how Napoleon did this:

napoleon1“Half of what he achieved,” said a historian of Napoleon, “was achieved by the power of words.”

Few Leaders in history have been able to stimulate men to action as Napoleon could. The secret of his leadership was simple: he first determined what his men wanted most, then did all in his power to help them get it.

Most of us take just the opposite tack: we first decide what we want, then try to persuade others to want the same thing as badly as we do. Napoleon knew better. He always keyed his plea to what his men wanted most at the moment.

When his army was half starved, he promised them food in exchange for victory. When they were homesick and thinking of deserting, he appealed to their pride by asking them how they wanted to return home: as conquering heroes or with their tails tucked between their legs? When they were fighting in Egypt under the Pyramids, he appealed to their sense of history: “Forty centuries are looking down on you,” he told them.

Do you help others get what they want first, or do you try to convince them that they want what you want?

 

10 Useful Short Phrases for Leaders

How many of these powerful, short phrases do you use?
1. I don’t know.
2. How am I wasting your time?
3. Give it to me straight, folks – what did I do wrong?
4. I made a mistake.
5. Perhaps it is time for me to take another look at my position on that issue.
6. Let’s try it.
7. This setback was my fault. I didn’t give you the support you needed.
8. Well done!
9. Your wise counsel has been very useful. Please forgive me for not using it this time.
10. What good books have you read lately?
Short, powerful phrases are an effective way to make a point, pay a compliment, ask for feedback, take the blame for failure, ease the tension level, etc. Do you have a phrase that has been effective for you as a leader?

Are You Driving the Culture in Your Organization?

Culture is the most powerful factor in an organization. Culture eats Vision for breakfast. Culture eats Strategy for lunch.

If you believe this then you, as a leader, ought to be driving the culture in your organization. Culture is a way of life cultivated over time through:

1. Behavior

2. Symbols

3. Systems

These three things are visual displays of what is valued in an organization. Culture is created as a result of the messages employees receive about how to behave in the organization. You, the leader, influence these messages with how you demonstrate the core values of the organization.

If you have a core value that says people are your most valuable asset and you don’t treat employees like they have value, then that will not become the organizational culture. People do what they see and they especially look at leaders. You can talk about valuing people and have it on posters all over the building, but if you don’t act that way, employees won’t develop that culture.

Symbols in organizations that influence behavior include: how time is spent, how money is allocated, office space (who gets the best offices), who gets promoted and favored, and how communication works. All of these must be congruent with organizational values.

Systems such as what gets measured, what gets reported, reward system, and budgeting and goal setting are also critical. I once worked in an organization that had a value of collaboration and the leadership talked collaboration all the time. However, the compensation system was designed to reward individual effort and not collaboration. So, how well do you think people collaborated with each other?

Do you remember the news story about the nuclear missile operators at Minot AFB that were fired for cheating on proficiency exams? Analysis of the incident said Minot senior leaders failed to foster a “culture of accountability.” One document said, “Group testing was viewed as taking care of each other. Missileers felt pressure to score 100 percent on every test.

The Air Force Core Values are: Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in all That We Do. So, how do you think leaders in that unit demonstrated these values? The Air Force has a good vision of where they want to go and strategy to get there. In the case of Minot AFB, the organizational culture was not congruent with Air Force Core Values and kept the unit from succeeding.

So, how do you develop a culture consistent with your core values? Employees must understand the values and what they look like being lived out in the organization. The best way to do this is have leaders throughout the organization demonstrating the values by their actions everyday. Also important is to make sure symbols and systems reflect the values.

What would the ideal culture in your organization look like? How would that match your core values? What behaviors, symbols and systems could you implement to bring that culture into being?

Leaders know the way, go the way and show the way.