Leading Fully

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One of my favorite one-liners came from a friend of mine who works a lot with senior executives: “There are two things you never get as a CEO: A bad lunch, and the truth.” People usually chuckle when they hear that – because like all good humor, it has a grain of truth in it. This should be disconcerting for leaders. How can you run a company, division, or even department if nobody will tell you the truth?

Do You Hear The Truth?

For most executives, one of the most difficult things is making sure that you are getting critical feedback from people in your company. One client, a newly minted VP at a major multinational company quipped to a friend as they sat down for lunch: “I used to be able to say whatever I wanted. Now, I have to watch what I say, because suddenly, what I say matters. Whenever I say something, people run around doing stuff!”  This is the good news/bad news of being in charge: People pay attention to your actions and words!  The good news is that when you talk, things happen. The bad news is that if you haven’t gone out of your way to make sure that the truth is coming your way with intentional regularity, then it won’t – because people are waiting to see what you think before they tell you risky truth.

…or Does the Emperor Have No Clothes?

There’s a reason why the story about “The Emperor Has No Clothes” has lived on for so long. Like all lasting stories, there is an intuitive truth expressed in the story – that people are afraid to deliver tough messages to the boss. It seems irrational (even infuriating) when you are the boss, right? You know what a nice person you are. What we miss is that it is a perfectly rational response when viewed through the lens of human survival. We’ve seen other people pay the price for offering a point of view that differed too far from that of  the boss. Most of us don’t even think about it. We know that there is a line that you just don’t cross, and like dogs who have been trained to know when they are approaching the boundary lined out by the invisible fence, we instinctively stop when we sense that we are getting close to the edge.

Six Tips to Engender Candor in Your Organization

1. — Ask for feedback. Especially if there is an area of your work that you are trying to improve, ask people for the bad news. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t tell you right away. If there is a longstanding pattern of treating the boss with kid gloves, it may take a few tries. If you demonstrate that it’s OK to tell the truth, it’s amazing how much people will tell you if you ask. It’s equally amazing how long they will let you trundle along, blissfully ignorant of your shortcomings – unless you ask. People have learned that it is usually safer to not tell the boss she has warts.

2. — Listen to the feedback. This one is so important, I was inclined to put it first (if not for the temporal sequence of asking for and then receiving feedback). If you are not prepared to listen to others‘ points of view, it is better not to ask. I’m always surprised by the number of times I have seen people ask for feedback and then not ignore or discount the response.

3. — Thank them for the feedback. If someone has enough courage to give you feedback, the first thing you should do is thank them, irrespective of the substance of the message. If you are hurt, disappointed, or frustrated by an aspect of the feedback, don’t react. Thank them sincerely, take some time to reflect on it, then when you are able to see the value of the feedback, go back and thank them more specifically, letting them know how the feedback helped you.

4. — Develop Powerful Listening Skills in your leaders. Listening well is a skill. Some leaders are naturally gifted listeners, but even those are pressed for time. Leaders need to recognize and value that an important part of their job is listening to the people that rely upon them for leadership. Make it a priority in your organization, and make sure your leaders understand how to do it well.

5. — Develop feedback skills in your leaders. It’s one of the most difficult tasks to do well, and it’s one of the most important skills that a leader can have. The most effective leaders are able to deliver feedback that leaves the hearer feeling stronger for having received it, irrespective of the message. It’s easy to imagine how someone would feel stronger for having heard an encouraging feedback message. It is equally true of a well thought out, meaningful constructive or corrective feedback message. Click here for more about delivering powerful feedback.

6. — Never underestimate the power of the truth. In my years in Human Resources, coaching, and developing others, I am always surprised at the number of times that managers will say “I don’t know what to tell her/him.” They are often shocked to hear me say “Why don’t you tell them the truth?” This is not a license to be rude. You often have to think carefully about what is the useful piece of information for the hearer, and then speak clearly, simply, and with compassion. Too often, managers will deliver a tough feedback message couched in so many qualifiers that by the time it reaches the recipient, they think everything is great. It’s much better just to speak plainly.

If this sounds simple, well, that’s because it is. It does not have to be complicated to work. Don’t mistake simple for easy, however. The reason more people don’t do feedback well is not because it is complicated, it is because it’s not easy to do well. Even so, doing these six things can be a good start toward building candor and feedback into the culture of your part of the organization.

In my time flying jets for the USAF, one of the things that I learned is that feedback can be a matter of life and death. For most of us, it’s not literally life and death, but it can seem that way. When we live our working lives in a “feedback desert,” as a client once said to me about her organization, then well-delivered feedback can seem as life-giving as water when it does finally come.

Feedback is a Gift

Think about it this way: if you were barreling around a curve on a country road, and a bridge was out just around the corner, wouldn’t you be grateful for someone shouting at you to slow down? My favorite image illustrating this is the commercial aired during super bowl XLV showing a beaver who dropped a tree in front of a speeding car which was headed for a washed out bridge. (Click here to watch it on YouTube.)

While this perspective is most useful when receiving tough messages, it can also be useful in spurring us on to do the hard work of giving meaningful feedback to those around us. Remember the times that someone had the courage to tell you the truth when the message was tough. Have you ever heard “I wish you’d have told me sooner…?”

Feedback is Powerful

Giving effective feedback is possibly the most important job you have as a leader of people. It can be one of the most powerful motivators and performance improvement tools. Done well, it forges a personal connection, gives dignity, and taps the wellspring of hope in each of us. It helps keep us aligned with the direction of the organization, and gives us the clarity we need to improve.

If It’s so Great, Why Don’t People Do It More Often?

Many managers view thoughtful feedback as a once-per-year event, linked to performance reviews (if you do them). This may be the result of being trained by habits borne of processes endemic to most organizations.

It’s also true that doing it well isn’t easy. I think that leaders mostly don’t do it because they aren’t confident in their ability to do it well. Psychologists call this “self-efficacy.” You are more likely to do things that you have confidence in your ability to perform. The trick, then, is to build your confidence in your ability to do it well.

How do I do it Well?

My 7 year old nephew was playing video games with Grandma, and soundly clobbering her in every aspect of the game. Sensing his frustration, Grandma said “I’m sorry honey, I just stink at this.” My nephew sighed heavily and replied “I can’t say anything.” His mother had taught him what many of us learned at that age. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” A minister once gave me a more sophisticated version of the same coaching. Before offering corrective feedback, ask yourself: “Is it true, is it necessary, and is it kind?” If it passes these three criteria, then go ahead. Here are a few tips that build upon that foundation.

Six Aspects of an Effective Feedback Message:

1 — The deliverer has the intent to help and not to harm. That’s where the kindness comes in. When thinking about the message, try to put yourself in their shoes. Think about what benefit it will be to them, and explicitly communicate your desire to help them improve.
2 — Dialogue. Any meaningful developmental conversation I have been a part of has been a dialogue. Meaningful dialogue about the context, actions, and impact surrounding the feedback helps you to get to a mutual understanding of the facts and the significance of the issue to the organization and the individual.
3 — The feedback is true. This can be a challenging one. While you may want to believe everything you think is true – it is important to recognize that we are all subject to our own biases. See #5 below.
4 — It makes a difference. Think about whether the feedback you want to offer will help them to improve in some important way. You may not know exactly what the specific improvement will be, but you should be able to see the possibility of improvement.
5 — It distinguishes between the objective and the subjective, and responsibly communicates both. I’ve heard it said many times that you should keep the feedback purely objective – I disagree. Objectivity is important, but so is subjectivity. What’s more important than both of them is to recognize and distinguish the difference. The objective part of the message is “what happened” – the observable, verifiable facts. The subjective part of the message is the impact of their actions, which lets them know why the feedback is important.
6 — It gives everyone a path forward. Even when delivered well, corrective feedback can be difficult, and positive feedback can feel good but have little impact. A meaningful discussion about the path forward can help both parties understand the path forward. This includes next steps, agreements, offers of support, requests, and commitments.

If you’ve not been doing this well, give yourself some grace – very few leaders do. Don’t, however, give yourself an out. this is one of the most important skills you can master as a leader of people.  The reason more people don’t do feedback well is not because it is complicated, it is because it’s not easy to do well. Even so, doing these five things can be a good start toward building your skills as a developer of great performance in others.

Many times, leaders who attain a level of success by advancing through their technical discipline reach a level where their strengths don’t seem to be getting them the results they expect at the next level. “What got you here won’t get you there” is the title of a recent business book by Marshall Goldsmith. The reason the title is so catchy is that it’s idea that’s been around for awhile, and has some intuitive truth in it. There are valuable lessons from this idea. I’ve also seen some logical fallacies often applied in the wake of this insight.

Tone it Down?

Too many times I have heard a well intentioned coach tell someone they need to “tone down” their strengths. I ‘m not sure I agree. I understand where this idea comes from. All of us have known leaders who are insufferable know-it-alls, or leaders who leave people bewildered as they rapidly jump from initiative to initiative, or many of us have experienced the pain of working for a “control freak.” I won’t disagree that we could point out aspects of overused strengths to each of those leaders, and all would agree that they seem to need to “tone it down” in some way. I would further suggest that in each case, it’s often not a simple matter of toning down a strength. Rather, it’s more often a matter of better understanding and judiciously applying the real strength, and/or balancing that strength with new talents and perspectives that help to make more productive use of the best of who you are.

By way of illustration, let’s look at the first example on the list: the “know it all.” This is a reasonably common scenario. For the purposes of this illustration, we’ll narrow it to a specific variety of know-it-all;  a technical expert who became a leader of people. In this case, let’s say the leader’s name is “Kelly.” Kelly is a brilliant technician, and clearly and quickly sees to the heart of most technical issues, effortlessly fashioning elegant solutions before most people understand the problem. Suddenly, when leading other competent people, his best skills don’t seem to be helping. His skilled engineers don’t want his elegant solution — they want to create their own. Truth is, he probably wants them to do that also.

Misapplied Strength

Very often, this is the point at which some well meaning coach will say: “You need to throttle back your analytical and problem solving skills.” Not so fast. While there is merit in the intentions, the suggestion is rooted in incomplete logic: “If a skill is getting in the way, don’t use it as much.” What this misses is that the skill or “strength” as we’ll call it, is not the issue. The issue is behavior. A subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference when making an adjustment. In this situation, the behavior of solving direct reports’ problems for them is one aftereffect of applying the problem solving strength – or more accurately stated: misapplying that strength.

OK – Now what?

The real question, especially for the practical minded among us is: What do I do with this insight? Here are five things you can do to move the needle

  1. The starting point is to work hard to gain clarity about your unique mix of strengths. Sometimes the mere action of building self-awareness will move you in the right direction. There are many ways to do this, the most effective of which collect input from others which feeds a meaningful dialogue about your unique gift mix. Multi-rater questionnaire based feedback (often called 360 feedback) can be a very cost-effective and efficient way to gather feedback – when done properly.
  2. Work towards balance. Very often, rather than simply “scaling back” your strengths, better results can be gained by identifying counterbalancing strengths, that, if present, could help you be more effective. In our example, Kelly (not his real name) could be more effective by strengthening his receptivity behaviors. By intentionally developing behaviors that force him to elicit solutions and be open to the input of others, he would be able to mitigate some of the counterproductive effects of overusing his own analytical ability.
  3. Look for ways to reframe and reapply your strengths. Sometimes the shift can be achieved by reframing the challenge to which you are applying your best self. Back to our example: Rather than being a great engineer managing his team of engineers, Kelly could become a leader of great engineers. First and foremost a leader of people, whose depth of knowledge in engineering strengthens him as a leader. When you apply analytical skills to being a leader, the subtle shift results in  solutions that support their analytical prowess rather than highlight your own.
  4. Build in mechanisms for ongoing feedback. Development is, by its nature, a challenging and somewhat risky endeavor. If you are really developing and growing, you will be trying out new perspectives, approaches, and behaviors. Rarely do we get it right the first time. Find people you trust to give you meaningful feedback. If you have direct reports, cultivate dialogue with them that will allow them to give you meaningful feedback.
  5. Make sure that you don’t do this alone. Develop relationships with leaders you respect through which you can get meaningful, objective coaching. When you can find these relationships within your company, they can bring the added dimensions of providing some specific insight about the company and building influential allies. There can also be value in having someone outside of your company as an objective observer and coach.

Leading up to the final climactic scene of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, an on-screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famous tale, Alice is preparing to face the Jabberwocky, a fearsome creature unleashed by the evil red queen. The Mad Hatter and Alice are watching as the Jabberwocky approaches. Alice, seeing the monster, says, “This is impossible.” The Hatter’s reply: “Only if you believe it is.” Alice quips: “Sometimes, I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” to which the Hatter replies, “That is an excellent practice.”

I tend to agree with the Hatter. That’s often one of the most important jobs a leader has to do – make the impossible real, and even believable. Whatever your chosen field, there are always challenges. Very often, those challenges masquerade as impossible obstacles. It’s then that we, as leaders, find ourselves in the role of making the insurmountable seem possible — not only for others, but for ourselves as well. How do we adjust our mental focus so that we can help ourselves and others see what’s possible rather than the impossibility of the obstacle that lies ahead. Difficult, yes. Sometimes even scary; but doable.

What Do You Believe is Possible?

What do we have to believe to make it happen? Let’s use Alice’s six “impossible things” to challenge our beliefs about what is possible.

1. “There’s a potion that can make you shrink…”

I can remember wondering what it would be like to shrink to a microscopic size. Imagine what you could learn about the inner workings of the world around us. It would be a leap to say that early inventors of the microscope were thinking of a “potion that could make you shrink” when developing a tool that gave us insight at the microscopic level.  But it’s the kind of curiosity stimulated by imagining such things that can lead to new discoveries. Just read up on recent advances in nanotechnology – it will stretch your mind.

2. “…and a cake that can make you grow.”

My youngest son Jamie has a way of stretching my imagination, often at bedtime as we lay staring at the bottom of the top bunk. On one such occasion, Jamie asked with a distant look in his eyes and dreamy smile playing at the edges of his mouth, “what if I was so big that I could hold the world in my hand?” I don’t remember my answer, but I ask you, what if you applied the same thinking to your business or your career? Do the answers excite you?

It’s popular to talk about growing your business in terms of what it would take to make it happen: grow market share, increase top-line revenue, profits, etc., but have you thought about it in terms of “what if?” Generally with a phase-change level of growth comes an entirely new set of challenges, demands, and expectations. Many times, we know the answers to the “how” questions, but our fear of the answers to the “what if” questions keeps us from moving forward.

3. “Animals can talk.”

OK, not really. Sometimes, however, there are assumptions that we make which may not be true. In our way of thinking, it looks as impossible as animals talking. Assumptions are natural, sensible, and often useful shortcuts that allow us to make sense of our world. We know, because it’s always been that way. Where are you or others in your organization limiting your view of what is possible based on past history? One simple question can help you look beyond this: What if (animals could talk)? What would then be possible? What would we be able to accomplish?

What is the equivalent of animals talking in your business? Who or what are you underestimating based on your history? Have you considered what would be possible if that were not an obstacle?

4. “Cats can disappear.”

The Cheshire cat, with his disappearing act and enigmatic grin, reminds me of a particular breed of person I’ll call the “savvy survivor.” They are keen observers and have learned (rightly or wrongly) when and how to avoid notice. They step in to help when the outcome is relatively certain, but when the going is dangerous, they stay out of the way.

The people in your organization usually know more than they are letting on, and often know more than you imagine. When your organization faces difficult challenges, there are almost certainly people in the organization who have a pretty good idea of what is limiting your business and how you might tackle these issues. This is a leader problem. Your challenge as a leader is to identify and draw out the sources of expertise and talent.  Are there hidden abilities that members of your team have that are not being expressed because of our limits as leaders?

5. “There’s a place called Wonderland.”

I have often wondered whether Lewis Carroll started with the story or the title. I could easily imagine it happening either way. I guess I like to think that he started with the title – fashioning a world on the proposition that it is filled with wonders that challenge the imagination. If there were a place filled with things that challenge your imagination and excite possibilities, what would be there?

6. “I can slay the Jabberwocky.”

There is almost certainly a Jabberwocky somewhere in your business. Is there a problem that seems too big to overcome, a competitor that seems unassailable, or a dream or hope that is suppressed by your belief in its impossibility? It is impossible because of your belief that it is so.  There are times that we don’t take the risk because we are sure that it’s impossible to realize our dream.

One thing that most of us learn early in life is that we can’t control our outcomes because there are so many influences beyond our control. That may be – but the real question is, who are you in the matter? Are you willing to pursue the purpose of fulfilling the worthwhile hope that is hidden in your heart, or are you going to give it up as lost, rather than dealing with the uncertainty inherent in pouring your life into something with an unknown outcome? What is your “Jabberwocky?”

The other day was “Pajama Day” at school for two of my sons – so Jamie (our youngest) went to school wearing his pajamas: Sponge Bob shirt, blue and green flannel plaid pants, and he had his “Lightning McQueen” slippers in his backpack, ready to whip out upon his arrival at school. He did not walk, he bounded through the house on his way to the door, such was his eagerness to get to school in his pajamas.

It never occurred to him that his ensemble clashed with a rarely achieved intensity. The only thought in his mind was that he was “in.” His participation was never in question. He talked about it the previous day, and when reminded of it the morning of, his face lit up, and he dashed upstairs to change back into the appropriate (?) garb.

How many of us would show such unrehearsed and unabashed enthusiasm, especially when we aren’t sure we have it all together? As the end of the year approaches, it is traditionally the time of year that we begin thinking about what we will do for the new year. Very often, we start with a list of what we wished we had done this year. Not a bad place to start, but did you ever wonder why we so reliably can call to mind the things we wished we had done (but failed), rather than those things which are really exciting? Here are 5 tips for doing (rather than thinking about) those things that are important to you:

  1. Be honest with yourself. Sometimes, we go after things because we think it’s what is expected of us. You know what’s most important to you, so start there. If it’s not really important, there won’t be sufficient impetus to get through the times where you miss the mark. Get clear about what matters, and write it down. There’s enormous value in seeing it written in your own hand. Don’t allow your thoughts to be edited by past failures. There may be good reasons you didn’t get it done in the past, but that’s not a reason to give up. If it’s important, then write it down. Leaders are different because they look for what’s missing and provide it. Don’t allow your thoughts to be overly influenced by what other people think – at this point, the idea is to get it clear in your mind.
  2. Let yourself get excited about the possibility. Visualize it. Some find it useful to do a visual exercise, such as a collage, to help yourself visualize what you’re going for. When Jamie imagined himself in pajamas at school, his face lit up with excitement. He was ready to be there. Pajamas (and slippers) that did not match were not an obstacle next to the excitement of participating.
  3. Identify one thing you can do right now. If your idea is big enough to be exciting, odds are that there’s a lot to do. The risk is that you will get overwhelmed when you consider all that needs to happen, so just focus on one thing at a time. A long journey is always comprised of a series of shorter steps – so identify the steps, and act. Abraham Lincoln wisely quipped: “The best thing about the future is that it only happens one day at a time.”
  4. Share what’s important with someone important. When you get clear, make sure you share it with someone who matters to you. They can help keep the dream alive and keep you accountable to take action.
  5. Celebrate progress – as you make progress, allow yourself to celebrate. That begins to fuel your enthusiasm about the original idea (step 2), then you can use that momentum to continue to energetically pursue action towards your goal.

(from “FTL Update, Nov 24, 2009. Click Here to Subscribe)

Developing Character as a Leader

Over the years, I have spent many hours in dialogue with corporate leaders about how to define leadership. Most of these conversations were in the context of identifying and developing internal leadership talent or identifying and selecting external candidates based on leadership characteristics. More often than I care to admit, the conversations would end in an unresolved exploration of the “it” factor — that certain inarticulable attribute of leadership; the thing that you can see in leaders but can’t describe. Some have called this the “leadership gene.”

Who Do You Think Of?

When I think about that difficult to describe set of attributes, I am reminded of my grandfather. He was respected by his friends, colleagues, and family members. He was a well-known geologist, and known as a gentleman. He was fun-loving and yet wise, competent, and hard working. He was widely respected for his integrity and fairness in business dealings, and he was kind and respectful to all people. His life was rooted in core moral values. I can remember writing a college application essay about him – the topic of which was “The Person I Most Admire.” Retrospectively, I can see that what I admired in my grandfather was the “leadership gene.” The “it” factor.

Great Leadership is Not Out of Reach

The ‘undefinable’ “it” factor is not out of reach, and does not defy description. This is good news, because until you can describe what comprises good leadership, you’ll be limited in your ability to grow yourself as a leader, and you will struggle to select and develop leaders in your organization – often without results.

Much has been done to describe leadership over the past quarter century based on competencies, loosely defined as “skills and abilities.” We have myriad models describing the competencies of a leader.  Competencies certainly can have value, and have driven the development of training programs, degree programs, and books that have grown up around the topic. However, colossal leadership failures in recent history (Enron, Tyco, Madoff, others) have challenged our conception of leadership, suggesting that perhaps competencies are not enough. It is difficult to describe and measure leadership well, but it can be done. There is a name for the “it” factor. It’s called character.

Great Leadership: Defined — Then Developed

Further, character can be described, and therefore can be measured. I’ve heard it said that character is difficult to develop. While true, this is only part of the story. I’ll agree that it’s not easy, but to say categorically that it is difficult lets us off the hook too easily. It’s more useful to look at why it is not easy and/or what is difficult about developing character. The same challenge that defies executives in defining the “it” factor is the chief difficulty that stops most people from effectively developing their leadership character. They stop short of a rigorous description of what it means to be a leader, so their efforts are diluted by an ineffective description, or in many cases, a failure to describe it at all (“I know it when I see it” is not a description).

What Does It Mean, Really?

By character, do you mean “honesty,” or “integrity,” and “perseverance?”

Yes, these are key aspects of any model of character. We also need to think carefully about character in the context of leadership, and what other attributes contribute to great leadership. We need to challenge ourselves to look through a broader and yet targeted lens at those attributes that are evidenced in a leader that actively pursues leading well. “Leading” in this context does not simply mean charging ahead or being first. Leadership in this sense of the word is about creating the space in which others can achieve great things. When looking at the character of a leader, we are seeking to understand who they are that influences others, not simply what they do.

Adding The “How To”

Even with a useful description of leadership, we are still left with the question, “How do you develop the character needed for great leadership?” Here we have to look to the body of knowledge around development. There is much written on the topic, and at the risk of oversimplifying, I will lay out three straightforward steps that can be taken:

  1. Increase awareness of leadership. Awareness in this sense occurs at two levels:  First, awareness is a recognition that leadership is describable and learnable. Unless we are willing to distinguish poor leadership from mediocre leadership and great leadership from mediocre, then we have not even arrived at a basic level of awareness of how leaders can influence the world around them.  Second, leaders can build self-awareness of their own leadership character. Who are you as a leader, and what unique gifts do you bring to your organization? As self-awareness increases in the context of an awareness of what it means to be a great leader, powerful possibilities emerge.
  2. Increase understanding of great leadership. Leaders can spend time educating themselves about what it means to be a great leader. Further study of great leadership against the backdrop of general awareness and self-awareness can help to focus the direction of development efforts. This can take the form of independent study, course work, training programs, well-chosen mentors and coaches, and observation.
  3. Practice the disciplines of great leadership. This is where change happens. Through focused coaching, well-considered action, and on-the-court practice of leadership, leaders grow. It’s important to remember that practice done correctly is comprised of the right lessons applied in the right way to real issues of import. So application of what you learn is essential, and it is important to carefully think through how you apply those lessons. As we are reminded by Warren Buffett: “Practice makes permanent — not perfect.” It is perfect practice that makes positive changes permanent.

Enter Tilt 360. The Tilt Leadership Model describes the essence of leadership in everyday, actionable language. The Character of a leader as described by Tilt includes 48 Commendable Traits which comprise 12 Core Leadership Strengths. These 12 Core Leadership Strengths make up four Meta Factors: Humanity, Courage, Wisdom, and Resilience. It is through balance and mastery in these dimensions of leadership that one can intentionally develop character towards greatness as a leader.

The Choice

Developing your character is ultimately a choice that then informs a series of purposeful choices and actions. The question is: are you leading fully?

Choose well.

(from “FTL Update” July 16, 2009) click here to subscribe.

What are you bringing to your organization as a leader? Whether they say
it or not, people in your organization are looking to you for hope where
they might not otherwise see it.

Offering Hope in the Swirl that is Today: What Difference Does a Leader Make?

Humans are intrinsically spiritual creatures, and as such, we are fueled by hope. What is hope? A credible expectation that things will get better. We want to know that things will get better, and we need a credible expectation that the belief is real. Real hope is not a feeling or an ambiguous promise for something different. It is a concrete expectation (or set of expectations) based in rational evidence. Leaders are uniquely positioned to offer hope. They are people to whom others look when asking themselves if they should be hopeful. A leader offers hope because she/he is able to offer (and demonstrate) a well reasoned perspective that shows not only that things can improve, but how and why so.

Finding Reasons to Hope

When Rudy Giuliani spoke publicly in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on Manhattan, he expressed his confidence in the indomitable spirit of New Yorkers and Americans. He went further to he cite specific, real examples of actions that he witnessed in the midst of the crisis. Others told similar stories about his actions during the crisis: Simple things, like being there (at ground zero), giving hugs, sharing words of encouragement, expressing genuine concern for fellow New Yorkers in their suffering.

Being Authentic

Giuliani’s example demonstrates another simple truth: It is equally important that the leader’s actions are consistent with her/his spoken word, because this reinforces the sometimes fragile hope that each of us cautiously harbors deep in our hearts. We want to know that the hope that the leader offers is real, true, and trustworthy, and where we look to confirm that is in the actions of the leader. In a US News Article about America’s Best Leaders, Writer Anne Mulrine quotes Nathaniel Fick, a former platoon leader for the US Marine Corps when he comments on the importance of the example set by the leader’s actions: “It’s pretty easy to look another human in the eyes and say, ‘This is going to suck, but I’m going to be there with you,’… “It’s harder saying, ‘I need you to do this, and while you do, I’m going to be sitting in the [command center] tent with a cup of coffee.”

The whole family was together, gathered on the back patio and around the pool to celebrate my youngest son Jamie’s fifth birthday. My siblings and I were talking about the state of our economy and the political climate, which can hardly be discussed without emotion, especially among those of us who care about the future. As a family, we tend engage topics with passion and spirited debate. I engaged, and in short order, my brother and I were in a high-energy, full-on debate about nothing (interestingly, we agreed on this topic). As I look back on the incident, I’m embarrassed by my conduct.

One thing that leaders have in common with everyone else is that we are human. None of us has a 100% record in living up to our ideals. What differentiates a leader in such circumstances is what you do when you fail. Do you have the humility to take responsibility for your failures and the courage to make it right? If you are challenged (as I am) by that question, pick the thing that made the skin prickle on the back of your neck when you read the word “failure” – yeah, that one – and do something about it. Whether you need to get more honest with yourself about what you did or didn’t do, or whether you need to garner some courage and act, now is the time. Action is the only effective antidote for regret. Honesty, humility, and courage are required to make it work.

Camping with my sons often lends perspective to matters that are relevant to us all. Most recently, I had the privilege to enjoy a full week of camping with two of my sons (ages 7 and 9) at the Heritage Scout Reservation in the Laurel Highlands of PA. The camp is operated largely by current or former Boy Scouts, ranging in age from 14 to early twenties. While there, I could not help but notice that the young scouts hang on every word coming from the counselors. When the counselors showed enthusiasm, the scouts followed. Most notable to me was a moment at dinner when Nick, one of the counselors, engaged Grant (my 9 year old son) directly in a conversation about how camp was going. In that moment, there was a visible change. Grant’s eyes brightened, and his whole attitude changed.  His participation in the camp changed qualitatively — any remaining nervousness faded away and he was free to fully engage the experience.

Nick had some awareness of his role as a leader for the young scouts. And yet, when I thanked him pointedly for the impact that he had on the boys and what he did to make a difference, he was visibly affected, and reminded of the call to leadership. So it is with each of us. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. Most of the time, we walk through life and work with a very limited appreciation for the impact that we have on others as leaders in our home, community, and workplace. You are always leading. As a leader, people are watching you. This presents to each of us a great opportunity – and a great responsibility. Are you leading fully… engaged, conscious, intentional?