Maintaining A “Margin” of Safety

It is interesting that our culture perpetuates the myth that more is better. Many feel guilty if they have down time with nothing planned. The need to be busy is somehow perverted to equate with success. After all, how many people who do nothing are successful and so the thinking goes to the extreme. We need to remember that busyness does not mean success. It seems we have forgotten the concept of cherishing margin.

Margin is that critical stopgap in one’s life. Richard Swenson says it best in his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.”

When I hear about overloaded schedules or not enough resources to accomplish tasks by a leader I think, “What a poor planner.” Typically, I’ll listen attentively and respond in some validating manner, “Sounds like you have a full plate,” or “Wow! You need an assistant,” or “You are way too modest.” Make no mistake, leaders with little or no margin in their lives do so intentionally. Like anything else, lack of margin wears on a leader. It can wear an individual down to the point of producing significant failing decisions and judgments. Sometimes lack of margin is used as a crutch. It is an excuse for not being productive or not stretching one’s capability. What’s the cure?

Establishing margin requires a plan. It should be a visual of everything that is required and then built around that. Margin plans need to be adhered to so when circumstances arise leaders are fit and fresh to address whatever is thrown at them. The most important reasons for leaders to maintain healthy margins are personal and professional. When one considers all the people in a leader’s life with family and the profession it only makes sense that margins of safety are incorporated, if anything, for one’s own sanity.

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Imagine A Leader Who…

I want to write something very special on the occasion of this 100th blog post. Camping by a lake this past weekend with a rainbow shining through the clouds just 20 minutes before sunset, the thought occurred to imagine. Imagine what great leadership looks like. So, in honor of the occasion let’s put away whatever baggage or busyness exists and imagine a leader who…
*Leads with humility 24/7
*Places the success of the team before anything else
*Possesses not one ounce of narcissism in his or her character
*Is confident
*Is not fearful of being confronted about his or her actions, decisions, and past
*Listens to others carefully including board members, elders (church world), and those who might have opposing viewpoints
*Believes in total transparency not partial, piece meal, or obligatory transparency
*Always maintains margin
*Has nothing to hide
*Is a servant first
*Mentors and guides others
*Believes in the concept of community
*Is always thinking about “passing the baton” and shaping future leaders
*Has vision
*Has the right amount of discernment and wisdom
*Is persuasive without being overbearing or threatening

The list can go on but if we take a close look at the leaders within our organizations we might call them by a different name since they do not fit the role of a true leader. Some don’t even come close. Others can be poster children for what leadership really means. Let’s take a minute out of lives and just…imagine.

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What Does Leadership Really Mean?

I recently had the great experience of reading a colleague’s blog (Jim Moore of that relates primarily to education. Let’s put things in perspective. Jim teaches part-time to prisoners incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Jim loves what he does. He makes a difference.

The topic was leadership and how people define it. From personal experience it’s always a challenge to have students define leadership and know the difference between leadership and management. One of Jim’s IDOC students came up with a very simple and non textbook answer to what exactly is leadership?

“A leader is someone who keeps their promises, keeps it real, and always puts his people first”.

This first struck me as a basic tenet of Greenleaf and his servant leadership model. The simplicity of such a statement reveals the authenticity of the individual who said it. How more real can you get with everyday life than in prison?

The thought occurred to me that in all the organizations, public and private, and even churches I have analyzed with leadership if this one simple sentence could apply. Imagine any CEO or CFO keeping promises, keeping it real, and always putting his or her people first. Imagine a college dean doing that or even a directional leader of a church keeping promises, keeping it real, or always putting his or her people first. Actually, imagine any person in any kind of leadership role doing that.

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The Well Guarded Secret to Discovering Personal Giftedness – Shhhh!

One of the most important things anyone can do is determine his or her own giftedness. There are few things more satisfying than working in one’s giftedness. Everyone has individual gifts. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The key is to find out what they are.

Here are three simple points about giftedness:
• True giftedness energizes. One looks forward to using and developing these gifts the minute one’s feet hit the floor in the morning. They add verve and excitement every time they are used.
• Some people might be good at something but the activity doesn’t energize or uplift them. These are more “have to” abilities that a person possesses and can do well. I can do administrative budgets really well, i.e. line item budgets, zero based budgets, program budgets, etc. but I certainly don’t wake up thinking, “Gee, I can’t wait to do a budget today!” I do these types of things well but the activity does not add excitement to my life.
• The final type of giftedness category are the things we like to do and might even enjoy doing a lot but we only might perform at a mediocre or average level. Most of the time we call these things hobbies. For me, this is called golf.

The trick is to do a personal inventory of what you have done in the past and identify specific tasks what you really enjoyed doing and did it well. Be careful of some so called “personal giftedness inventory tools.” Like any assessment they might lack content validity or have questions skewed to be answered in a certain direction. What a person wants to be gifted in might not be the reality. Consider the hypotheticals of a person who thinks he’s a great leader of a church team and the divisiveness on the team indicates anything but good leadership or the college professor who may be good in the classroom but being elevated to a dean’s position is catastrophic. In the latter case a different skill set is required and the Peter Principle took hold. The Peter Principle suggests that many people perform well in their jobs and then get promoted to the point where they are inept in a new position where they are no longer using the skills they were good at in previous jobs.

The best way I have seen to identify giftedness is to actually track a week or month of activities and list what you love to do and what you hate to do. This is a great start. After a short time a pattern starts to develop that indicates where one’s talents lie and these talents excite us to use them.

Further, be careful when other people actually make personal judgments about your own giftedness. It is easy to tell someone, “You have the gift of discernment” or “You have the gift of leadership” or “You have the gift of teaching.” In fact, some people may exhibit skills in these areas but their true giftedness may lie elsewhere that energizes them. Once again, that’s the key. If they are not energized when they go to work that is a huge red flag they are not in their true giftedness.

Finally, leaders who really possess the quality of leadership do not dread everything or every challenge and consider every issue a land mine. Teachers who really possess the gift of teaching are full of excitement when preparing a lesson and then delivering it. People with a gift of hospitality look forward to planning events and seeing them happen. The secret to discovering one’s giftedness is no secret at all. It’s really common sense.

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Restructuring: Avoiding the Insanity Trap

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. We won’t get fooled again.” The Who (1971)

After a period of great stress within an organization many people breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to reorganization and change. When a toxic or predatory leader departs the organization those on the inside and out anticipate better times ahead. It is important during these critical times the right choices are made so change is for the better.

Remember the adage defining insanity as doing the same behavior over and over again expecting different results? Avoiding the same behavior holds true for effecting positive change in organizations. After the leader problem child has departed there has to be a close look as to what is left for leadership. Sometimes that situation is sad. Toxic leaders have a unique knack of choosing yes people and those with minimal skills for management and leadership. Toxic leaders intentionally choose those who follow blindly and question little. This pertains to finance people, boards, middle management, and in church world, sometimes elders. Church world people can be particularly problematic when they are told they have giftedness in areas in which they do not have giftedness. You can tell giftedness when you see it. People get excited to use their gifts. If not they really need to take personal inventory. Replacing the leadership with people in positions who were previous followers and work horses for the dysfunctional leader is a poor decision. Why?

Consider those raised in a dysfunctional or abusive environment. Research reveals these people tend to be dysfunctional themselves unless they receive some type of intense intervention. The same holds true for those under previous toxic leaders especially new and emerging leaders handpicked by the toxic leader. All they know is how they have been trained. All they know is dysfunction.

So, it should come as no surprise when after the honeymoon period is over for a new regime and some of the same behaviors start to surface.
• Lack of complete transparency
• Lack of authenticity
• Avoidance of issues
• Development of an us versus them attitude
• The lack of welcoming outside the box thinking
• Decision-making by a lone leader or a collaboration of former managers under the prior toxic leadership exhibiting bad behaviors
• Providing a “show” to the community all the while failing to address dissension within the organization

These are just a few of the dysfunctional behaviors. Some might even smack of the narcissism left behind from prior leadership. All too often, a new regime might say the right words but actions and behaviors don’t correlate with a positive change. In essence, it’s business as usual. When there is no accountability internally or externally the inevitable is in the making, i.e. another disastrous organizational implosion. This time it might be permanent. “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. We won’t get fooled again.”

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Complacency and Ambiguity: Organizational Poison

If I were asked what are two of the greatest internal dangers to any organization hands down the answer would be complacency and ambiguity. These two elements will kill an organization faster than even a toxic or predatory leader. Toxic leaders stick out like a sore thumb and can can be dealt with more quickly than complacency and ambiguity. These concepts are like a slow acting poison or fatal disease that eats away at the core values and morale of the organization.

Complacency lulls leadership into a sense that all is well when, in fact, stagnation is occurring. When the verve and excitement wans in leadership or staff that is a sure sign complacency is not far away. I am not saying when there are no pressing issues an alarm should sound. A good leader can sense when day-to-day activities in an organization get to the point where the mundane is prevalent and staff and leadership is running out of ideas for growth and forward motion. Nobody is looking forward to anything going on or very little, if anything, is on the radar.

Ambiguity gives mixed signals to staff. This can range from gross disparity in job descriptions, performance criteria, discipline, or even metrics. Can you imagine a hypothetical where staff is being held accountable for a metric that has a variable over which they have no control? How about a newly changed performance evaluation that doesn’t have a defined performance criteria or isn’t revealed to staff until individual performance is reviewed. Conflicting policies or policies that don’t coincide with what is actually done within the organization is discouraging to employees. The worst example is an organization failing to develop a policy where one is sorely needed and when the issue arises middle management varies with its actions. The bottom line is that organizational ambiguity quickly burns out employees This happens way too often in all sectors in business.

The elements of complacency and ambiguity will kill an organization. They will contribute to employee turnover and even lawsuits against the organization. Complacency and ambiguity have no place in any organization and need to be eliminated as soon as they are detected in any way.

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Burning Bridges or How to Sink an Organization

It is interesting there are managers in the workforce who have no problem burning bridges yet they’re surprised when the issue comes up later to haunt them. One thing is for sure. There are many industries were the pool of quality people is extremely tight knit and even closed. Word gets around quickly about these problem children in management no matter what their title or how many educational initials they have after their name.

Consider the hypothetical where a manager refuses to hire someone from a particular organization because the hiring manager’s family members disagreed with a product or service of the company the applicant came from. The issue has absolutely nothing to do with the applicant’s abilities or his or her qualifications. The hiring manager decided to seize the opportunity and make a point for what purpose? This is pure gamesmanship at the expense of the organization. A potentially good employee was lost but the end result is the hiring manager has now established a reputation within the community for him or herself and for the organization that tolerates such behavior. Fast forward to a point where the rejected candidate is now elevated in the industry and the community and you now have a great recipe where colleagues and peers want nothing to do with the organization. How unfortunate but people and organizations reap what they sow.

In this case the ego and self serving narcissism of the hiring manager trumped what was good for the company. This is an ethical issue that warrants termination of the hiring manager. Some companies might choose a lesser form of discipline or might not do anything at all and sweep the issue under the rug. In a case like this the damage has already been done. Word travels quickly and that develops an elephant in the living room regarding the hiring manager and his or her organization in the community and industry.

Leadership has only two decisions to make in regard to such circumstances. The personal biases of some managers need to be eliminated so future bridges are not burned. Leadership needs to either eliminate the manager or educate the bias from the manager. If neither of these two is done the result is probable future burned bridges to the detriment of the organization.

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