The Story We Tell Ourselves

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Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

This series on situational awareness is principally about how we learn to relate to people in situations outside of our comfort zone.

To do this we need something more than tactics for making conversation. We need to be able to know who we are, what matters to us, and why.

What I've learn by working with a wide variety of people and groups, who are in the midst of change, is that we need a story that we tell ourselves. This story distinguishes us in every situation we are in. It is a story that enables us to know who we can trust, and who we can't. It is a story that tells us, don't go there, or, let's find out more.

Another way of understanding this story is as a foundation, a platform, upon which we stand, while everything whirls around us. It is the story of our inner strength and commitments in the context of the external world.

It is not necessarily a story that I will tell people. This story is private, not public. It isn't a branding or a promotional story. It is, rather, a story of the values that matter to us, that we are unwilling to negotiate away by our accommodation to others. It is the story that enables us to walk into any situation and not feel compromised.

In this post, I'm going to describe two ways to create this story. One way out of reflection on who we are and what we want. The other through a more analytical approach using the Circle of Impact. 

Let's start with the first method which creates the story by looking at a couple of  scenarios.

Seeing the Situation

For example, when you go on vacation, what do you want to gain from it. Are you like some of us who enjoy adventure and discovery, or, like others, seek to be quiet and still. What appeals to you here is a part of your story.

I know folks who love going to the beach. They love sitting in a chair at the beach, reading a book, watching the waves come ashore, and then going out for a seafood dinner at night. They don't enjoy a manic schedule of biking, card playing and trips to the outlet malls. They have come for peace and quiet.

In this instance, that is their story. As a result, they need to be honest with their family members who love an action oriented vacation. That is the story which they tell themselves.

As a result, both types of vacationers need to be honest and respectful of the other. Both have to give in a bit, let the other have their approach, and plan to join them for some of the time that they enjoy, whether quietly on the beach or riding a jet ski jumping waves.

Here's another scenario. You are invited to a business after hours networking social event by a friend in your industry. You've never been to one of these meet-n-greet things. You don't really know what to expect. You are meeting your friend there. As you walk in the door, he texts you to say that he is running late, and will be there in 15 minutes. What do you?

The story you tell yourself, about who you are and what matters to you, guides your response in this awkward situation. You can stand outside and wait for him. Or, you can go in, register at the door, get your name tag, get something to drink, and stand near the front waiting for your friend. Or, you can immediately begin to introduce yourself to people you do not know. If you are somewhat shy, this may take some effort. However, I believe, what you will find is that many of the people in the room are experiencing the same uncomfortableness.

If being uncomfortable in social settings is the story you tell yourself, then you will be. If, on the other hand, the story you tell yourself is

"I'm not here to impress people. I'm here to listen, and learn, and make one new contact with whom I'll schedule a follow up meeting."

In effect, the story is a plan of action which sets specific boundaries, and is focused on one goal. Once there, and the goal is met, then, a release of pressure will be felt, and our story changes.

This shyness thing used to be me. Those of you who know me personally may find that hard to believe. But it is true. The story I told myself in those days was

"What do I say? How do I start? What if I look weak and silly?"

It took time but the story I told myself changed. I began to walk into those situations looking for someone whom I could befriend. I would not go to a mingling of 3 or 4 people, but to the person who was standing by themselves. I'd introduce myself, and just start asking questions. Each question was not planned other than the initial one,

"So, what do you do? How do you spend your days?"

After they told, me, I'd ask a question about that thing. If they said,

"I sell insurance."

I'd respond with,

"What kind?"

Then they say, something, and then I asked, something like.

"How do your new customers find you?"

Or,

"What is generally the first question people ask you when they come to you for insurance?"

My story shifted from being about my fear to about my curiousity and interest in the other person. The rapport that comes from asking questions is the kind that builds trust, at least when the questions are kind and respectful. Now, I am not afraid to meet any person regardless of who they are.

Another Approach

The story we tell ourselves is not about what we do, but about who we are. If your sense of identity is murky, then the story you tell yourself will be too. As a result, it may then be helpful to take a more analytical approach to developing your story. My Circle of Impact model can be a help.

3dLeadership - Purpose-Vision-Values

To develop the story that we tell ourselves, we don't start with the Three Dimensions of Leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure. Instead, we work from the Four Connecting Ideas - Values, Purpose, Impact and Vision. Let's take them one at a time.

Think of this discovery process as a conversation between us right now over coffee or dinner. Just the two of us talking. We aren't looking for the perfect answer, but an honest, beginning point of understanding. We've just met, and I'm just asking questions because I'm curious, not nosey, just interested getting to know you.

Values:

I ask:

"If you didn't have to work for a living, and you had access to all the financial resources you would need, how would you spend your days, and why?"

"What do you think are the values that are important to you in doing those things? Do you think those values define you more than any other? Do they please you, make you smile, get you excited about the day ahead?"

In discovering the values that matter to us, we are identifying the foundation upon which we have built our lives. These values help us to establish the boundaries that guide us. If this is new to us, then we may have to live into this awareness. These values may not be evident, active or relevant at a particular moment, with some people, and then, some comment, triggers in us an awareness. This is how we grow into the values that matter. We try many, discard many, from our emotional investment in them, and then come to realize what is truly important to us.

These are the values that tell us who we are, and are the ones we want to have always present. I have five of these values, and I'm looking for them in every thing that I do. I, personally, have decided that if three of the five are not present in the opportunity before me, that I'll not participate. Knowing the values that guide and give meaning to our lives is a way of saying No to situations that are not supportive of the values that are important to us. This is why knowing what our core values are is so critical to being able to walk into any situation and function well.

Purpose:

I ask:

"How do you spend your days? How did you end up doing this kind of work? Does it give you a sense of purpose, a sense that you are making a contribution?"

The conventional thought is that we all have a singular purpose for our lives. I find that very limiting. Instead, I see purpose as an intentional focus on applying our values in a specific way in the situation that presents itself to us. Here's how this could work.

One of my values is integrity. It is so that I don't live with regret or fear, or, even the sense that I've compromised by values to accomodate some person or situation. The purpose of integrity beyond that is to provide me a basis of relating to every person from the same position of respect towards them. My purpose, then, in social situations is to act with respect, by listening, being honest and truthful, without being beligerent. The purpose of my integrity is to establish a basis of friendship that is open, mutual and filled with opportunity for shared work and contribution.

Purpose is a way of translating the values that matter to us into action. While our values may become clearer and more specific over time, they rarely change in any radical sense. Our purpose, however, can and should change. For purpose is the mechanism for focusing our values in the situation that is before us right now. Even if we are talking about our purpose as sort of a life mission, it still is subject to change. With our values as a foundation, we live out a purpose in an adaptive manner to fit the time and place in which we live.

While our purpose is about what we do in acting upon our values, it is also about the effect that we want to have.

Impact:

I ask:

"Tell me what difference you think your work makes? Why is it important? Who is impacted by what you do? What do they tell you?"

The way our world works is by an exchange of products or services by an agreed upon price. Money is the most tangible medium of measure we have. It is simple, straightforward, and for that reason obscures many of the signs of value that actually exist, yet we never really see.

To look at the difference a person makes, we have to look at what our expectations are, right now. This requires us, on both sides of a relationship, to have an idea of what we want, or, what our purpose is. If we can define our purpose, not as what I do, but rather the difference I want to make, then my story takes on a very different feel.

Let's return to our business after hours event. In that room, our purpose is what? Is it to meet people? Or, is it something more. Is it primarily about "my" interests or about the other person's?

My friend and colleague Meridith Elliott Powell told me years ago about her strategy for after-hours business events. Her focus was to go, meet people, and leave as soon as she had three follow-up meetings with new contacts. She would go to alot of these events, and built up a substantial client list through that focused approach to business relationship building. She's one of the best I know at this. I found her approach incredibly helpful, and focused on the purpose of the event, which is to initiate new business relationships. Then she works her "magic", she's really good, in the interaction she has with people within the context of their business.

When the story we tell ourselves is not about what we do, but what we create, the difference that we make, about the relationships that we form, then we approach everything with a different level of confidence. If we measure our lives by our activity level, then we never really see clearly the outcome of that activity.

Measuring by activity comes out of the old factory production model focus. The most tangible measure of that work was the paycheck. Measuring by impact is a change model focus. One is repetitive. Let's see how many events I can go to this month. The other is a creative relationship with people where together we learn to make a difference. How many relationships do you have right now that if asked they would say, "She makes a real difference in my work." And, then be able to describe precisely what that impact is.

The Four Connecting Ideas are not isolated from one another, but, are interconnected as a way to understand how things can fit together in our life and work. To be able to see the impact of our values and purpose in real life, then our perspective changes, and our story does too. It opens up possibilities that may have been present, but were hidden behind the production measure mindset.

Vision:

I ask:

"Where do you see yourself in a year? What's your plan for today?"

The vision we need is not some grand, epic adventure into the future. Instead, our vision is our story lived out in real time, right now. It is the story we tell ourselves every day that enables us to make decisions. In the context of the Circle of Impact, it is about people, and the organizational structures in which we live and work. Our vision emerges and is lived out every day through the story we tell ourselves.

A vision then is simply what I do and the decisions I make, based upon my values and my sense of purpose for this particular moment, all through a deep desire for impact, with the people that I work with and encounter everyday.

The story we tell ourselves is a guide in the unexplored land of today. It helps us to know the boundaries that will both protect us from the unwanted compromise of our values, as well as, opening us up to the possibilities in every human relationship and situation.

When we find the story we tell ourselves, and, we grow into it, it ceases to be a story "out-there" that we tell myself. We become the story. We become the living embodiment of the values, the purpose, the difference and the vision for being an authentic person regardless of where we are and with whom we are with.

The story that we tell ourselves is the secret to being situationally aware. If you are a person who finds him or herself overwhelmed by circumstances, people and change, then you need a story which helps you live in those moments that are threatening and uncomfortable. 

Where do you begin to write your story. Here are two suggestions.

1. Think of the situations where you are most comfortable. What are the values at work in those situations that you'd like to see in those uncomfortable situations.

2. Write a three sentence introduction of yourself that describes the person you believe you actually are. This is not what other people think of you, but you at your strongest, most impactful, most free and at peace self. Write it down, carry it with you, and edit it until you've found the story you really want to tell yourself. Then toss it away, and let your story unfold.

It all starts with personal initiative. One step. Then another. And another. If you need to share your story with someone outside of your world, send it to me. I'll not critique, but will ask questions to clarify, so you can be clear. Then you can go live the story you tell yourself.

Find other posts in this series on Situational Awareness:

Three Keys to Situational Awareness

The Speed of Change

The Social Space of Situational Awareness

Social Conformity and Situational Awareness

In the Moment of Situational Awareness

The Story We Tell Ourselves


Leaders Open Doors - by Bill Treasurer - A Leading Questions Review

Some things that touch me emotionally very deeply. LOD cover

People who have special needs, and the people who care for them.

And people who are servant leaders who inspire others to take initiative to make a difference.

Bill Treasurer accomplishes both in a very simple, compelling, authentic way.

Bill is a leadership consultant and writer who has just published a much needed book for all leaders. It is a timely message that should resonate with leaders all over the world.

Leaders Open Doors: A Radically Simple Leadership Approach to Lift People, Profits, and Performance describes six strategies that leaders can deploy to provide new and better opportunities for people.

Many leaders must acquire a new mindset in order to fully appreciate the simplicity and genius of his message. He writes, 

Being an open-door leader requires having an understanding of what an open-door leader does. It also means having an opportunity mind-set, a significant shift from the more common threat-focused way of leading.  ... Open-door leaders view challenging as opportunities not problems. Instead of injecting people with fear, the help peole see the opportunities that challenges provide, inspiring them with excitement and hope. The resulting optimism lifts morale and performance.

Is this just more of the same relational rhetoric that leadership writers are producing lately, or is this an important insight that we should each stop and reflect upon?

One way to answer the question is by asking to what degree are your people reaching their potential. 

Do you have any way of measuring your employees potential? Do you know what potential is? Do you have a program or methodology for developing potential?

These are important questions for an organizational leader if they hope to get great performance out of their staff.

Bill Treasurer's open-door approach is place to begin this development. 

It isn't just a mechanical process of looking for more work for people to do. Rather, it is a way of building trust and initiative for impact within the business.

Trust grows when employees recognize that their boss or supervisor believes that they can do great things. This is different than heavy expectations for performance that are not reasonable and fear-based.  When doors are opened, and opportunity presented, then personal initiative produces benefits that no other way of managing people can do

Opportunities Make a Difference; Opportunities Create Change

Every opportunity to excel is an opportunity to make a positive change. Bill Treasurer's six open-doors are thresholds of change.

They provide people the opportunity ...

to prove themselves,

to find new meaning in life and work,

to have a second chance to make a difference,

to practice open-door leadership for others,

to become a person of integrity and authenticity, and,

to know how to build relationships of loyalty and trust.

Change your relationships, change your life and work. Change them within your business, change your business. Opening doors is a way to make it happen.

The Difference Matters

Bill Treasurer's Leaders Open Door is the right book at the right time. It is ideal for a leaders retreat, for discussion in a mentoring relationship, or to share with family, friends and colleagues.

By buying and giving this book away, you are opening doors. Not only for business people who may learn how to change their leadership method, but also because all the proceeds from sales of the book go to help special needs kids. Here's a video to explain.

 


From Fragmentation to Wholeness

 Structure - Collaborative into Hierarchy

To create order is to create a structure for control. To release control creates a opening for initiative and collaboration. This is the transition point that modern organizations are passing through from hierarchy to the network.

If you know me, you know that meeting people from diverse walks of life is a passion for me. I find people infinitely interesting, their background, their thinking, how they found themselves doing what they do, their hopes and dreams, and their perception of their strengths and potential.

There is a reality that I see in many of them that is equally interesting.  Many of them are unfulfilled in their life and work. It isn't that they don't have a passion for something, or don't know enough about themselves to know what their strengths and gifts are. No, it is that most have never found themselves in either the social or organizational setting where they could flourish as human beings.

As I write this I'm mentally scrolling through the places where I live and work. I'm thinking about the people whom I've met and known over the years. Thinking about common characteristics that distinguish them and united them together.

What are the common characteristics of non-fulfillment and of life fulfillment.

Here are three.

Do you have a purpose, a mission, or a calling? Can you define this as something more than what you do as an activity, and more as something you create and achieve?

Do you have a supportive, encouraging, open and honest network of family and friends? Are there people who understand you, who stand by through thick and thin, who believe in you, your mission and the impact  you want to achieve?

Does your workplace and home life provide a context where your purpose and your relationships can flourish? Are you constrained by the structures that frame your life? Or, does the lack of order within your calling mean that there are opportunities that you fail to achieve?

My observation is that these characteristics are in descending order of occurrence. More people have a sense of purpose, fewer people have a truly healthy social network, and by a large margin, the fewest people work and live in social and organizational contexts where they can flourish.

The Circle of Impact


Circle of Impact- simple
For a decade, I've been using this diagram as a conversation / thinking tool to help leaders and their organizations understand where the gaps are in their business.  Here's a simple description of what I see.

Leadership is a function that every person can perfom to take "personal inititative to create impact." 

I am not defining leadership as a role or an organizational postion. Like many leadership theorists, I see these roles as management, rather than leadership.

Therefore, the Three Dimensions of Leadership that every leader must address are Ideas, Relationships and Social & Organizational Structure. Ideally, every person within an organization takes personal initiative through their ideas and relationships, within social and organizational structures to create impact. As a result, a company becomes a leader-filled organization, rather than one starved for leadership.

The four Connecting Ideas of Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact provide the glue, the ligaments and tendons that create the wholeness of an organization.

Each of the three leadership dimensions must be aligned with one or more of the Connecting Ideas. Here's how.

The social and organizational structures are aligned with the organization's purpose. If these structures aren't, there is conflict and fragmentation.

The relationships within an organization are aligned with the values that create a common identity and character as a community of people.

However, it is not enough, to have values. Many organizations have a strong value system, but lack purpose. A community of people need a vision for how their purpose that makes a difference that matters.  It must challenge them to grow, to remain open, and to inspire leadership initiative all with their community. 

The Connecting Ideas permeate all aspects of an organization. Every person, every unit, office, group, committee, or board needs purpose that guides, values that unite, a vision that inspires, and an understanding of impact that defines the future of their organization.

The Structure Dilemma

Having been working with this perspective for over a decade, I've come to a challenging conclusion.

The problem in most organizations isn't the attitudes and behaviors of people. The reality is that people are products of their environment, or the social and organization structure of your business dictates what attitudes and behaviors fit within that system.

Most organizations work from a hierarchical stance. There are bosses and managers who direct employees work. This industrial model of management worked well when the tasks of work were non-creative, repetitive and mechanical skills based. Today, we live in a world of creativity, information and the skills require are for human interaction, communication and collaboration. The old structure doesn't align well with this new reality. Network

As I wrote in The End and The Beginning, this shift from hierarchy is an epic one. As I said recently, "Imagine Proctor & Gamble without bosses and managers, just leaders."

The emerging structure for organizations is the network. Each person participates by their own initiative. Each person contributes through their own unique offering to the network.

I call this "leading by vacuum," which simply means that people do what they are gifted or able to do, which opens up the environment for people with different talents and skills to contribute.

In an hierarchical structure, the efficient ordering of the parts and their compliance are primary. This structure is highly susceptible to fragmentation, compartmentalization and corruption through concentrations of power.

In the network, personal initiative, collaboration and communication make human relationships central.  This is an emergent reality, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The power resides in the network and those who know how to engage more people to contribute. It is a leadership of facilitation and ingenuity, rather than control.

I first saw this reality in mid-1970's when I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet in concert. Sitting in a large concert hall with these quiet instruments I saw these four musicians communicating through them. Here is MJQ playing one of the signature tunes, Django. Watch for how their unspoken communication and timing work together.

 

Each person in the band is essential. Each person has their part to play. The impact is a sound which transcends one instrument, and blends the four into something evocative.

The Quest for Wholeness

If you know that your business or organization is fragmented, splintering apart, difficult to hold together, then what you are experiencing is the end of the viability of a traditional hierarchical structure. You feel it before you can truly see it. By feeling it, you know that others do too.

Bringing wholeness to your structure begins with the Connecting Ideas.

Reaffirm your purpose.

Identify the values that build connections between people.

Create a vision that inspires personal initiative.

Define the difference you seek to create so that you and everyone else can be absolutely clear as to what your impact is.

Begin this process in conversation. Use the Circle of Impact Conversation Guides. Hire me to come facilitate the conversation, if necessary. I'd welcome the opportunity to work with you and your leaders.

Creating a network business structure starts with establishing relationships of respect, trust and mutual reciprocity. Out of those healthy relationships, the network emerges to provide a platform for leadership initiative to create impact.

As the network grows, allow it to establish the organizational structural components that it needs. Remain open to change. Stay vigilant in affirming and acting on the Connecting Ideas.

The future is the network. And the future is now.

Creating a Network of Relationships

Here are some additional conversation guides that can help you understand how to create your own network of relationships.

How Social Networks Work
How To Expand Your Social Network
How Information Flows Through a Social Network


The Social Bond

Troop in Edinburgh - Night

"If this afternoon, you were to lose everything, become a failure in all that you had sought to create, who would stand by you?" 

This is the question I asked of a number of men during a six month period a many years ago.

At the time, I did not realize how traumatizing my question could be. Most of them answered with reflective silence.

The others? "My mother."

None of them were confident that their spouse, their children, their neighbors, the people from their congregation, work, the club or any other social association would hang in there with them during a time of humiliation. In effect, these recognized leaders of their businesses were isolated and alone, alienated from a community of support and caring.

It did not take long to realize that I had to stop asking the question.  It didn't help them. I also realized that I had to become a person who could stand along side of them when they would go through the worst experiences of their personal and professional life. It changed my approach to being a consultant. It elevated my understanding of the relational nature of leadership.

Why is it that these men thought that no one stood with them?

Is it something personal?

Or is it something embedded in the way leadership, professional life and the structure of organizations have developed?

Failure of the sort that I described to them could come as a black swan, out of the nowhere, without expectation. Over the past three years, many people have found themselves in this situation. It points to a fragility that exists in our lives that is buffered by relationships of trust.

Trust is basic to healthy human interaction and the functioning of society.  We diminish the value of trust when it is understood as little more than the basis of economic exchange.

In my post, The Emergent Transformation, I distinguish between human experience that is series of transactions of information and encounters between people, and a transformational one where our interaction creates a higher level engagement.

Here's an example of what I mean.

The closest Starbucks to my home is in my neighborhood grocery store. For most of the baristas, I'm a customer. I come in, order my coffee, pay for it, and leave. Whatever banter we have is rather meaningless, just the sort of talk that accompanies any transaction.

However, there is one young woman who is different. She engages me in conversation. She recognizes me, tells me about her day, asks about mine with genuine interest.

One morning, I walked in and said, "Grande bold, room for cream, please." She starts to laugh. She stops and says, "Sounds like the names of your pets." We both laugh. It is one of those situational jokes (You had to be there.). So about once every three or four visits we talk about my dog, Grande bold, and my cat, Room for cream.

Granted, the barista and I will never become BFFs or colleagues in business. However, the moment we shared that day transcended the typical economic transaction that was the purpose of my visit, and has transformed my relationship to that store.

The Social Bond Online

Over the past decade, an interest in human connection and social networks has grown dramatically. Much of this interest is taking place online through social media platforms. You only have to look at the rise of Facebook to see the extent of the desire that people have to be socially connected to other people.

Many people denigrate the trend towards connection by social media.

"They are not real relationships." 

The relationships that develop are viewed as the online equivalent of a large cocktail party. Lots of meet and greet (search), exchange of contact info (befriending), and a superficial staying in touch (status updates.)

There is a social bond to this shared experience.  Real relating is taking place. Some of it is at a low level of social interaction as describe above. However, some of it is at a personally meaningful level. Social transformation is taking place as our connection deepens with each interaction, and possibilities open up for good things to result.  This is my own experience. 

The social bond is not the online space where we meet. The bond is the connection that we share through a common interest. Our interaction is real and provocative. Like many people, I find people whom are asking similar questions, seeking similar solutions, and who are open to learning from others.

There are two conditions that determine whether the social bond online is superficial or substantive.

The first is the transformational potential of the ideas or common interests that bring people together.

The second is the willingness for participants to allow their interaction to lead the interaction where it needs to go.

As you can see, it isn't being online, but what we do online that matters. By being a particular kind of person, we engage others in such a way that the social bond emerges from its hidden place in the social setting..

Learning to see a social bond

Earlier in my career, I worked at a small college. One of my roles was to develop a student leaders program. For three years I failed as I sought out the top student leaders to form a group focused on leadership. They simply were not interested. Persistence is sometimes not the answer. Changing your approach is.

Over time, and through my doctoral work, I came to see what was in plain sight, but virtually all of us miss when we talk about leadership.

We see leadership as a set of transactions or rather interactions and moments of decision within an organizational context. We think of leadership as a function of process. Is it simply a series of transactions made between people and groups within an business, or is it something more?

When we think only transactionally, we miss seeing the social dimension. 

We touch on it when we talk about collaboration and team work. But if you listen, most talk about improving those aspects of their business is not about the social dimension, but rather the tactical dimension of business processes.  My observation is that most leaders don't address the social dimension until it has become problematic. By ignoring the social dimension, we create a self-profiling prophecy as issues arise that not subject to easy process change.

Let me say it this way.

The last remaining unexplored leverage that leaders have now is the social dimension.

Tactics and processes, while essential, do not address the issues that many businesses now face. Leaders must identify the social bond that exists within their organizations if they are going to find the edge they need for sustainable growth in the future.

I learned this in addressing my own failure with my student leaders program. My approach had been abstract and tactical, lacking in a context for application. So, I shifted my focus to mobilizing student groups through the social bond that brought them together.   

In a college context, there are sports teams, fraternities, sororities, academic clubs, religious groups, advocacy groups and residence halls. In each, a group of students discover each other through a common bond that unites them together. It provides each person connection, a place of belonging, and a sense of identity.  For the group it provides purpose, a reason to exist and possibly as they develop a way to understand the difference they can make as a group.

Connecting Ideas2
In a business context, there are associations based on interest, skills, industry and locale. The social bond unites the executive team, the administrative staff, the sales staff, and back office as uniquely definable groups whose shared work experience provides a basis for connection, belonging and identity.

The leader of the organization has to discover the social bond that unites all the different groups to make them one group. That social bond is wrapped in what I call the four Connecting Ideas. 

When I discovered this perspective, I made two changes to my student leadership program.

The first change was to shift my attention from the individual leader to the group.

The second was to shift my leadership emphasis from teaching abstract principles of leadership to learning to lead within the context of doing it. 

I did this by starting two new activities on campus. One was a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity International. The second was an afternoon play group for the elementary age children of adolescent mothers in our community. For each, I went to the groups on campus, asking them to sign up for a service weekend with a Habitat affiliate in a nearby county or one of the play days with kids during the semester.  In both instances, groups eagerly stepped forward to sign up and participate. They saw it as a fun, meaningful activity for their group. The leaders within those groups rose to the top as organization as they took on responsibility, with the added benefit of new leaders coming forth who wanted to focus on these new campus activities.

The transcendent character of a social bond

A group's social bond is not a branded idea. While ideas may describe the bond, it is more than an idea. It is instead something emergent. It is something that is whole, that draws people together into a relationship that transcends the moment.

Here's the difference. Your college's basketball team wins the national championship. The streets of town fill up with cheering, celebrating fans. The experience brings people together around their shared joy for their team. But once the cheering stops, the bars close, and baseball season begins, the bonding experience of the post-game celebration is gone.

The social bond is something that people draw upon for meaning and purpose in their relationships within a particular social or organizational context. This is historically been one of the core strengths of religious worship. It isn't just the ideas of faith, but the shared experience of faith that matters. It is a whole shared experience that elevates one's perception of who they are and how their life matters.

For military personnel, the experience of battle is the archtypical bonding experience. This became quite clear to me when I watch for the first time the HBO documentary,  We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company that accompanies the mini-series Band of Brothers.  Lt. Dick Winters commander of the 506 Paratroop Infantry Regiment,Company E speaks about the men under his leadership.

I look upon them ... each man with great respect ... respect that I can't describe ... each one of them proved himself that he could do the job.

The respect which is difficult to describe is the bond that unites them as soldiers. It comes through a shared experience where they were tested as men and as human beings in the crucible of battle during World War II. Shifty Powers describes it.

"You know these people that you are in service with ... you know those people better than you will ever anybody in your life ... you know them right down to the final thing .. that comes when you start your training .. that progresses."

Listen how these men, in many ways not different from people we encounter everday, describe their relationships with one another.

 

The social bond that these men have exists beyond analytical description. It can't be simply broken up into a collection of ideas or stories.  It goes deeper than that.  Their relationships matter more than just as as a group of acquaintances. Rather, they are forever connected by the bond of shared experience. You can hear it in what they say. 

Here's what Ed Tipper said in the video.

There is an intimacy develops like nothing I've ever experienced anywhere, not in college, not with any other group of people.

It is like the union leader who commented to me during a values identification process with his company.

"I want us to get back to where we were twenty years ago when we were family."

Embedded in these emotions is the social bond that made working for the company or serving in 506PIR Company E something more than a job.  What formed was something fundamentally important to their experience as human beings. We are not solely individuals. We are not simply interchangeable parts in a system of organizational processes. And potentially not just list of friends in a Facebook profile.

Attention to the social bond that exists in organizations is largely missing in our society today. We treat the shared work that human beings do as mechanical scientific processes that are to be performed and measured. By removing the human social element we think we are removing ambiguity and creating efficiency and consistency. Rather, we are diminishing the organization's ability to maximize the potential that resides in each employee. It produces a rush to the bottom of the lowest common denominator level of social experience. The potential that resides in each person cannot be released because it must be done so within a social context that shared purpose and experience. Our potential is not realized solely by individual initiative, but by collaborative action.  At the heart of every team is a social bond waiting to be recognized and released. It is the hidden potential that awaits recognition by organization leaders world wide.

The challenge we confront

Years ago, when I asked people who would stand with them if they failed, unwittingly, I was revealing the absence of the compelling connection that the social bond in an organization can create. The reason for this is not solely the mechanistic principles modern scientific management.  It is also a national culture that seeks to remove risk and danger from every day life. 

When I first watched the We Stand Alone Together documentary of the actual members of Easy Company, I turned to my son and said,

"If you ever find yourself in a group where this is your experience of friendship, consider yourself to be one of the lucky few. Most people go through life never having this kind of experience of human community."

At the heart of the social bond is the recognition that we need one another. Not because we are weak, but rather because we are incomplete as individuals. The togetherness that is realized when this social bond is strong enables men and women from diverse backgrounds to join together to achieve greatness beyond their individual potential.

The challenge before us is to believe that this is true, and to act accordingly. For if this is true, then how we organize our businesses will set the stage for the elevation of the social bond creating a culture of shared human endeavor, that is required more today than every before.

First steps in discovering the social bond that exists in your organization.

I could give the standard analytical process of a set of processes that focus on the development of values and organizational purpose. But I won't, even if at some level that is important.

Instead, just treat each person with openness and honor.

Learning how to do that (I'm assuming we all need to learn to be more open to others, and to honor the best in them), a new social context will emerge that can elevate your company to a new place of shared endeavor.

To be open simply means to listen, to understand, to affirm, to let people try and fail, and to create the expectation that others will be open.

It means letting new people have the opportunity to influence decision-making and direction. It means not assuming control over every aspect of the organization's life.  And from my experience, openness is a powerful attractor for talented people to come work for your business.  It is a signal of authenticity and opportunity.

To honor is to appreciate the value and dignity of each person (see my post Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomacy) .

This is more difficult because it requires us to pay attention to the other people in the room. We must look at them not as human resources or representatives of particular social ideologies. We look at them with dignity and respect, with appreciation for the potential contributions that they can make. In many cases their contribution can only be realized when the social bond creates social strength for the depth of trust and collaboration needed for a challenge moment.

In one way or another, much of our lives is lived standing alone. But it does not have to be this way. To stand alone together is the product of intention, initiative, openness and persistence. It emerges from the thousands of individual encounters that we have where our connection to one another begins to matter beyond getting tasks done.  It is where genuine transformation happens.

Discover the social bond in your business, and you discover the path to a future that is yet to be realized.


Organizational Obsolescence

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Walk into most book stores, and look at the books on leadership that line the shelves, and you'll see very few that address the actual organizational structure of a business. If there are, the focus is primarily about measuring performance, not about how the business is structured.  As valuable as quality programs are, as change mechanisms, they are incremental at best if the real need is a reinvention of the culture and purpose of the business.

The chief problem affecting organizational performance today is not the ability of people to perform, but the structure within which they do so. 

This video is a snap shot of a conversation between two military officers. We have two cultures clashing in this conversation. One is the culture of the careerist who is a slave to the structure of the system. The other culture is of the leader who understands the organization's mission (which is not the perpetuation of the structure) and the leadership of the people who serve to achieve that mission.

If you are familiar with the HBO mini-series Generation Kill ( I highly recommend it.) you'll see these same two cultures colliding. You see the officer corps who are concerned about the unit's mission (which is in effect is reduced to their concerns about their own career advancement and longevity) and the NCO culture, where the concern is for the men who are charged with the dangerous mission that combat soldiers have.

The bureaucratic structure that constrains many large, complex organizations requires dramatic levels of change in order to function well in the future.

Network-Hierarchy Image
This image is one I've used before as a way to visualize a collaborative team working within a traditional hierarchical structure. Hierarchy does not necessarily exclude collaboration. Rather, when the system has turned in on itself to the point that the organization's mission is now the perpetuation the its structure, then you end up having the clash of cultures that is seen in the video.

The longer I work with issues affecting leaders the more convinced I am that structure is the last frontier of organizational development. There are three things to say about this.

1. The structure of an organization exists to serve the mission and the people who are employed to bring to fulfillment. 

It is a tool. Nothing more. To make it more brings it into conflict with the organization's mission. Yet, what I see is structure dictating what the mission should be, and how people are to function with in it. The structure of a business exists to facilitate the leadership of each individual member of the organization. By leadership, I mean the personal initiative that each person takes in collaboration with others to fulfill the mission of the organization. 

2. Structure is ultimately determined by leadership.

If a structure functions as it does in the animation above, then it is because the leadership of the system has allowed it to degenerate to that point. The relation between executive leadership and structure is a moral one. As a tool, structure serves a purpose. Just as a hammer can drive a nail into a board to build a house, it can also break a window to steal a briefcase from a car. The hammer remains what it is. It is the human use of that tool that determines its moral value.

3. Structures, not aligned with the organization's mission, and not open to the individual leadership of its members, will ultimately fail.

There is no such reality that a structure is too big to fail. They are failing all around us. Evidenced by the disparities in compensation, high unemployment rates, and the inability of many organizations to adapt to a changing economic environment.

The Leadership Question for 2011.

As we begin a new year, I want to raise some questions that we all reflect upon during the coming year.

Is your business structure obsolete?

Are your employees reflecting enthusiasm, independent initiative, collaborative decision-making and a passion for mission?

As the senior leader of your business, are you a liberating force for change or a careerist seeking to maximize your own personal benefit from a broken, declining system?

If any of these are true, then you need to take some time to consider what your alternatives are.

Every structure is just a tool. Resolve, then, to develop the very best structure to serve your business.

The challenge is before us all. The time to address these issues is now.


How to be a Local Leader

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My previous post - The Ascendency of the Local - was a big picture look at the difference between local interaction and global approaches. It is a view of the trends impacting our lives and work as we move toward the future.  I want to take this down to a more practical level.

Here's where I want to start.

Every individual has the capacity to lead. We lead when we act from our point of view, values and commitments. We do this within the context of our life and work. We do this when we look at our local community and see needs.

Where I live in Western North Carolina, a group of people at the church our family attends became concerned about homeless people in our downtown community not having a place to get in out of the cold on Saturday afternoons during the winter. For some reason all the shelters and ministries that serve them during the week close that one afternoon a week. These individuals made an appeal to the leadership of our church, and within two weeks, had a program started that is now in its third winter season. 

This is an example of leadership because a few people took initiative to address a local need. Through their interaction a proposal was presented that resulted in action to address the need.

This picture of leadership through local interaction can be understood through these four steps:

Idea, Initiative, Interaction, Impact.

Remember those four words. Everything happens through them. Let's explore them.

Ideas come from our engagement with the world around us.

It may be a situation where people are are in need or an emotional desire we have, or some notion we pick up for a book or the newspaper.  The ideas that connect with us are related to other ideas, like our purpose in life or the mission of our business or values that give our life and work meaning, or a vision for a better world. These are all ideas that are ways we try to make sense of the world we are apart of it. At some point, it all comes together in a singular idea that motivates us for action.

Initiative is the beginning of all leadership.

Without it nothing happens. Lots of people have ideas, but many are never acted on them. When an idea is compelling enough, we take action. The action may be to research it further, or have a conversation or to ask for permission or clarification, or go do it. Intiative is some action that starts the process of leadership. The most significant, sustainable and impactful initiatives are those that are connected to the values that we have in life.

Interaction is where action and progress take place.

There are very, very few instances in human history where human interaction was not involved. I've yet to identify one. This means that our individualism never functions in isolation from our relationships. The life and work we create is always within a context of interaction. It may be verbal. Or it could be a response to some incident or person in the past. When we begin to interact, we open ourselves up to new ideas, and new paths towards seeing our idea take root and find its impact.

Impact is a way we can talk about the results of our ideas, initiative and interactions.

What we seek through those aspects of our life and work is change. Not random, discontinuous, purposeless change, but meaningful change that makes a difference that matters.

Let me return to my earlier example to flesh this out a bit.

Through an idea, individual initiative, and collaborative interaction, a Saturday afternoon program called Saturday Sanctuary began in the winter of 2009. What began as a program for our church's members to serve, now has people from across our community serving our downtown neighbors.  New people are joining every month.

Today, ideas for how to serve our guests still emerge from the interaction that we have with them.  At one point, someone to the initiative to show up with a hot meal for the 50-70 people who regular come.  I know I was glad to be there the day Andy showed up with Buffalo wings he had grilled at home. Christmas day, which falls on a Saturday this year, will be a time of feasting as all sorts of food will be served to the 300 people we expect to come.

In your local community, there are people today who are taking initiative to make a difference. They may be helping the poor and homeless, or working to alleviate poverty, or trying to provide affordable housing, mentor in middle school kids in math or improving the downtown environment for residents, businesses and guests.

Take initiative to interact with them. Work beside them. Learn how to start and lead a project. Make a difference that matters where it is already happening. As you do, a discovery will begin to happen.

You'll see that ...

You have ideas that matter.

Your perspective has value and is worth sharing.

There are many ways for you to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

You don't have to take on a leadership role to be a leader. All it requires is for you to act upon the ideas and desires that you have for people and your community.

You'll also discover that your circle of interaction grows.

If you really let yourself go, you'll find that your local community is global. You'll meet people, and find ways to engage with people so that together you'll make a difference that matters. You'll discover that someone in France or Omaha has dealt with the same issue, and your interaction provides you a way to understand what you need to do.

You'll discover that you are a person of impact.

I've learned that people measure their life experience in three ways. They want it to be Personally Meaningful because it is connected to the ideas and value that matter to them. They want it to be Socially Fulfilling because relationships matter.  And, they want to Make a Difference that Matters. When we take initiative to act upon the ideas that we have through our interactions with others, we discover that our life and work makes a difference in ways we could never imagine.

This picture is what "local interaction" implies. It isn't just talk, but action. This is what genuine leadership looks like.


Fragmented and Compartmentalized or Connected and Aligned for Impact?

Circle of Impact

The Circle of Impact is designed to show how the Three Dimensions of Leadership work together.  It is a picture of connection and alignment that leads to impact.

Unfortunately, most of us don't think this way.

Our thinking is often fragmented, compartmentalize, lacking in meaningful connection and alignment. 

It was only through conversations with people where we were trying to sort through this fragmented, compartmentalized picture that the Circle of Impact came into being.

It could have been a long or brief conversation about a specific problem or something quite general and obscure, regardless, the issue had one of three origins.

Either it was an Idea problem, which could either be characterized as a thinking problem or a communication one.

Or, it was a Relationship problem, due to either a personality conflict, a difference in values or the lack of personal engagement.

Or it was an Organizational Structure problem, related to issues of governance, program, operations or resources. Later, it became clear that the Social Structure of an organization also can be setting for these kinds of problems.

In this week's Weekly Leader column - The Subversiveness of Gratitude, I write about the importance of connection.

What we are discovering, and the practice of gratitude is showing, is that truth is not in the discrete, isolated parts, but in their connection to one another. On a human scale, this means that our identity is not our position, title or place in a system, but rather the function that we have in connection. Collaboration and shared responsibility is the ground for understanding who I am within any social and organizational setting. The connection between the parts is where the action is, and the organization lives.

What is the connection between the Three Dimensions?

Ideas are the tools for connection.

Social and Organizational Structures are the settings.

Relationships are where connections are made, and the action is.

The Ideas that matter in helping people make connections are Purpose or Mission, Values, Vision and Impact. If there is a hierarchy of importance, it is found with Values. Our conception (Idea) of our Purpose or Mission, our Vision and definition of Impact are formed by our Values.

For example, my Mission is to help individuals discover and act upon a purpose for their life and work. The ideas that give meaning to my purpose are values centered in human purpose, potential and impact.

It is also true that social and organization structures are tangible expressions of the values that are either intentionally determined or become the default values through inattention. Those values maybe about order, productivity, respect, trust or integrity. Or they may focused on wealth creation or personal freedom. Whatever the values are, they are the ideological foundation for these structures. They are seen in the effect or impact of the structure on the people who work wihtin the organization.

The three dimensions are not equal, but complementary. Look again at the Circle of Impact picture.

Purpose is an idea that is connected to Structure. The key focus here is to align the structure with the purpose of the organization. Without that alignment, the organization works a cross-purposes with itself.

Vision is an idea that is connected to both Relationships and Structure.  The focus here is a picture of activity showing what it is like for people working within the structure of the organization to achieve the desire impact. 

Ultimately, what this means is that leaders are not interested in ideas just for the sake of the ideas themselves. They aren't interested in having healthy relationships just because their values say they should. And, they aren't interested in structure just because it is needed for a business to function. 

Instead, leaders are looking for ways to utilize Ideas to strengthen Relationships and inform how the Structure of the organization can be aligned with the company's Mission or Purpose.

The Impact of the Three Dimensions of Leadership should be better communication, collaboration and coordination.


The Common Ground of Shared Responsibility

Creating an effective business structure is a very difficult proposition. I am not talking about a business or marketing plan. I referring to how a business is structured so that it functions well. 3Cs of Alignment - image

As you know, I look at this challenge through the lens of the Circle of Impact. My sense is that we need to foster alignment between the three dimensions of leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure. We do this by focusing on the conditions that create effective Communication, Collaboration and Coordination.

For me this is a baseline from which all organizations need to begin. What happens beyond that is a change in the function of each of the dimensions.

Communication ceases to be a major problem; your message gets out; and work related issues seemed to be less intractable.

Collaboration grows, new ideas emerge from the improvement of relationships, and the organization needs to change to accomodate a higher level of engagement and initiative by people.

Coordination, though, lags in improvement across departments, remote sites, and programs. The reason is that the system of organizaiton is always the last to change. It has the highest resistance to adapting to changing circumstances.  As a result, the optimism that initially rose as communication and collaboration grew also begins to lag. 

After a few months or years, a growing impression of either being at a plateau or in Transition Pointdecline begins to be discussed openly.  Whether rightly or wrongly, the perception that the organization has reached a Transition Point begins to take hold.

In reflection, we can see that the easiest things to change, did.  New, fresh, inspiring ideas infused new confidence and motivation in people, impacting how they communicated and collaborated together. This is what is happening in many organizations.

The jump from one inspiring idea to the next ends up artificially propping up the emotional commitment of people to the company and their relationships together.This is not sustainable.

The resistance of the organization's structure to change remains the primary obstacle to a well functioning, fully aligned organization.

The distance and disconnect that employees have from the mission and outcome of the business is the most basic identifying mark of a structure out of alignment. Indifference that people have to their workplace grows.  The desire to be left alone to do their job so they can get on to what really matters in their life becomes the defacto attitude of the workforce. In effect, there is no emotional access point for them to invest their whole selves in the work they do.

When this scenario is widely experienced in a company, inspiring ideas and motivational team building programs don't have a lasting impact. The problem is a structural or systems one. Issues of communication and collaboration are symptoms of the problem. 

Assumptions about the Product of an Effective Organizational Structure

As I analyze organizations during various projects, I'm looking for various intangilbes that matter. Let's call them assumptions about what an organizational system should produce.

1.  Initiative by employees measured by higher rates of engagement and contribution. 

2. Interaction by employees that is open and collaborative and that transcends organizational barriers to achieve higher levels of efficiency and impact.

3. Impact awareness by employees who can express their own contribution to the organization's impact as a change that is a difference that matters.

These assumptions are difficult to measure, yet relatively easy to see.

Their performance is more evident when they are missing. People not taking initiative. When there is little interaction between people from different parts of the organization. When employees show little appreciation for the organization's mission and impact. 

The question that many of us then have is how to do we redesign our organizational structures so that we realize a higher level of initiative, interaction and impact.

One way to address this issue is through strategic organizational redesign to creates an environment of Shared Responsibility.

Shared Responsibility

Every organization has a responsibility or accountability structure. In older, traditional hierarchical systems, Responsibility resides in varying degrees throughout the organization, but not accountability, which is top down. Shared Responsibility
A shared responsibility structure creates a shared space of mutual, collaborative, coordinated accountability. This illustration shows an organization where management, staff and the board of directors have a common ground of shared responsibility.  The shared space is common ground because the expectation is that each person engaged in this space has an opportunity to contribute out of their own talent, knowledge and expertise within the strictures of their position and role in the organization.

For example, while some members of the management team would not ordinarily work along side of members of the Board of Directors, in this scheme they would because the structure is is organized to provide a shared space of contribution for impact. This approach lowers the organizational barriers that typically make it hard to create a common ground for work.

The purpose of this structure is not order or standardization, but alignment of the functions of communication, collaboration and coordination for the purpose of impact. It is the mission of the organization, not the structure, which drives the change in structure. RK- Org Design

This approach is currently being developed for an international non-profit organization whose constituents are in all 50 states and 20 countries globally.  The board is small in number; is highly active in collaboration with the staff; and works with a large number of advisors and supporters from around the world who contribute  according to their ability.

This organization's aim to create an environment where participation is not boring or disconnected from its mission, but is marked by personal initiative, collaborative interaction, and an organization environment each person has the opportunity to make a difference.

The way an organizational design of this sort works is when the Connecting Ideas of purpose, mission, values, vision and impact are well defined and aligned within the structure, and the leadership of the organization serves as a faciliator of interaction and contribution. Because the organizational structure is a shared space for collaboration, the barriers for constituents to lead through their talent and abilities are low, producing a more highly engagement staff and board.

This kind of structure and leadership must be intentionally designed and developed.  This is not a radical departure from the past, but at the same time, it is also not a logical step forward for most of the legacy structures that exist today.

This approach fosters a shared leadership of responsibility. Leadership from this perspetive is the impact or influence that is the result of the personal initiative take to create impact. When the senior leadership of an organization understands that this is where the future of organizations lays, it requires a change in their own leadership approach.

The Ultimate Question

Can legacy organizational structures change to this model of shared responsibility? 

I believe it can. The pathway to this approach is in appreciating the importance of the relationship dimension for the creation of the strength and impact of an organization.  From that perspective barriers to interaction and collaboration lower or are removed, enabling people to become more engaged with the purpose and mission of the organization, and to do so in relationship with other members of their organizational community.


The Unnameable Problem

People

Leaders of every organization face an unnameable problem. This problem is hidden in plain sight. Yet not recognized.

This problem is also an opportunity, even an asset, yet it is shied away from because it requires a different approach that what is typically practiced.

I learned of this unnamed problem two decades ago as I began to form a student leadership program at the small college where I worked. For three years, I tried to identify the top leadership talent on campus, and attract them into a program that would development their leadership potential. I failed in virtually every way.

What I learned was something that has driven my insights about organizations ever since. Yes, people want to be treated as individuals, but the pull of the social can be equally motivating.

Within every organization there is a social context. It functions on many different layers depending upon the intricacy of the organization's operating structure. It is close and so immediately alive in our experience that we don't truly see it. Except when serious conflicts arise.

The unnamed problem/ opportunity/ asset is the social bond that unites people together in a setting.

This social bond has many sources. In every case, it is formed by a shared experience or set of ideas that creates a common bond. It could be the shared experience of being the administrative staff on the senior executive floor. It could be a shared experience as franchise holders in a region whose challenges are different than other owners. It could be a shared value that inspires a high level of performance by a team. It could be any number of things. And what that common bond is may or may not have anything to do with the business or organization.

When I finally saw this in my work with students, I realized that people are not just individuals, but social beings. Their identity as individuals is not entirely personal, but also social.

When a kid wears his favorite team's jersey, he is signalling to us a part of his social identification. When you see a bumper stick advocating a social cause, or telling a joke, or celebrating their hometown's initials, they are signalling to us a social connection that matters to them.

In business, this is an unnamed problem because leaders, typically, don't want to deal with the social element. They want to deal with quantitative issues that lead to decisions, actions, results. Many don't even want to deal with people as individuals. They are human resources, or workers, or employees, not people, and certainly not individuals.

The reality is that our identity as individuals is not wholly self-determined. In fact, I'd say very little of our identity is self-determined. Read this excerpt from Shoshanna Zuboff and James Maxmin's The Support Economy.

"In the second half of the twentieth century a new society of individuals emerged - a breed of people unlike any the world has ever seen. Educated, informed, traveled, they work with their brains, not their bodies. They do not assume that their lives can be patterned after their parents' or grandparents'. Throughout human history the problem of identity was settled in one way - I am my mother's daughter; I am my father's son. But in a discontinuous and irreversible break with the past, today's individuals seek the experiences and insights that enable them to find the elusive pattern in the stone, the singular pattern that is "me." Their sense of self is more intricate, acute, detailed, vast, and rich than at any other time in human history. they have learned to make sense of their lives in unique and private ways, to forge the delicate tissue of meaning that marks their lives as their own.

In all other times and all other places, psychological individuation was unimaginable. It was, at best, the emotional precinct of an elite group of artists and spiritual seekers - rare, elusive and precious. But today that unique human capacity for individuation has been put within the reach of millions of people. Their individualism, long regarded as the basis for political self-determination, has also become the foundation for the one sure thing they have in common: a deep and abiding yearning for psychological self-determination."

I think they over simplify this change. It isn't as clear or as positive a step forward as they suggest. The impetus for self-determination is partly a reflection of the failure of organizations and institutions to accommodate change.

We are not a world of atomistic individualists who each stake out our private turf to celebrate and defend. We are also social beings whose need for connection outside of the interior space of our own minds and emotions is exhibited in the social networking that takes place on line.

The 500 million people on Facebook are not all just projecting their own individual profiles. They are engaged in real interaction that makes a difference. As I write this post early this morning, one friend has responded twice to two posts of my Facebook posts from yesterday. 

The challenge for organizational leaders is not just to begin to treat people as individuals, but to recognize and elevate the importance of the social dimension in their businesses. This is partly addressed by a greater emphasis on collaboration. However, if collaborating is simply a tactical exercise in getting a task done, then its value is not being fully realized.

The unnamed problem is the reality that our individual identities are products of the environments that we are in. To embrace my parents' values or to reject them is a reflection of the influence with which that particular social setting has upon me. The work place is no different.

The hidden asset in the workplace social environment is our inherent need for a social bond with those whom we work. To be treated only as individuals is to miss what is also true. We thrive on social interaction because it helps us to center our own sense of who we are in the larger world of other people and places.

How then should leaders begin to address both the individual and the social nature of the human environment of their organizations?

The first step to do is recognize that the social bond exists, lies hidden in the relationship of the people in your business, and is an asset that awaits development.

The second step is to realize that a shift in strategic direction is called for.

The third step is to begin to see that the decisions and actions function within a social context, and therefor how communication of information, collaboration between people and groups, and coordination of plans and programs matters in developing the social assets of the company.

The fourth step is to identify and operationalize the values that is the social bond that unites your company.

The fifth step is to recognize that as a leader you are not just managing business processes, but the leader of a social culture that either advances the business or detracts from it.

A vibrant social culture builds upon the company's values to strength the social bond that unites people together to achieve the goals of the company. This means, therefore, that the goals or purpose of the company must be aligned with the values that unite people for their work together.

Most leaders are not trained or equipped for this kind of work. The future viability of their business is dependent upon their gaining those insights and skills.

Implementing a social context strategy

When I came to see the social bond that existed at the college where I worked, I changed my approach to working with students.

I looked for where students were self-identifying themselves as belonging to an identifiable group: academic clubs, fraternities/ sororities, resident halls, sports teams, and other campus organizations.

I started two programs that provide groups of people the opportunity to serve: one a program working with the elementary age kids of adolescent mothers, and the other, a Habitat for Humanity International campus chapter.

The rationale behind this step was the realization that if a group participated in one of the projects, someone within their group would need to take the lead to organization their involvement. Those leaders became the focus of my efforts. A second set of leaders also emerged who committed to working with the program because it matched their interest and values. The residual effect was immediately noticable as out of our fledgling Habitat chapter, a local affiliate was born.

There are two realities that we need to recognize if we are turn the unnamed problem into an asset for an organization.

First, that people are individuals.

Second, their social context is a reflection of their own self-identity.

The social bond in an organization is between people who share similar values and expectations for the experiences that they have.

When leaders see this, and act on this strategically, the hardened resistance of organizations to change begins to soften. It can be trite to say that people are a company's greatest asset. It is only if we ignore the social context as a strategic asset that has hidden value waiting to be realized.


After 15 years, this I've learned.

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide

Earlier this week, I quietly celebrated the 15th anniversary of the beginning my consulting business, Community of Leadership, LLC. There was no time for celebration or fanfare, just another day of trying to make a difference that matters.  However, a road trip this week gave me time to reflect on the past 15 years.

Here's some of what I've learned.

1. You don't know what you don't know, and if you did, you'd be so overwhelmed by it, you'd never act.

I was young and naive when I began my consulting practice in 1995. I started with a desire to help leaders develop their organizations and communities. That purpose still remains. What I didn't know then is just how ill-prepared I was to go into business on my own. If you remain open to learning, to trying new things and fixing what is broken, you can make it. But it isn't necessarily easy. The Five Questions That Everyone Must Ask that is a part of my Circle of Impact model developed from my experience and that of others, especially #5.

2. What you THINK you are doing, and what you ARE doing aren't always the same. The difference you think you are making, and the actual difference you are making are not always the same either.

Focus is a good thing. However, if it is practiced too rigidly, you can miss what is right in front of you. While relationships have always been important and central to what I do, I'm not really selling a relationship. Instead it is a process of discovery and development where the relationship is integral to that process. At the end of the day, real progress often comes from the conversation that takes place within relationship.

The actual project, while beneficial, is often a secondary benefit compared to what happens in the relationship. The project deals with an immediate or current need. The development of the relationship prepares us for the future. The lesson, therefore, is to realize that nothing is ever exactly like you think it is or want it to be. The task for us is to be aware of the peripheral or ancillary processes that are taking place, recognize their value and give them attention.

3. Work is a context for personal growth. As a result, everyday we can afflict ourselves on our loved ones because we are not the person whom we or they think we are, not always living up to what we say we believe or are committed to doing.

My family has lived through my many personal transitions over the past 25 years. It has not always been easy for them. The old joke of asking "... when is Dad going to grow up and get a real job" is a familiar refrain in many homes. There are two sides to this situation which are important to address with our loved ones.

If you remain the same person over the course of your lifetime, you may never reach your potential. Growth has it price, and often that price is in our relationships. If your family expects you to remain the same person you were when you married or before you began a dramatic growth curve, then there can be conflict.

What I've seen in too many situations are families where the structure of the family is what is important, and not the actual relationships. And when Dad or Mom begins to change, it creates conflict, because what we are used to, what is comfortable, secure and predictable, is no longer there. Ambiguity and change get thrust into an already volatile cultural social environment.  As a result, families grow apart, members go looking for support and intimacy in other places. So, if you are growing into being a new person with a new focus and purpose for your life, then know that it has its effects upon your loved ones and you need to address it openly and with genuine humility.

One of the ways that I've seen these situations addressed is an appeal to balance between life and work. I'm not sure that balance is achievable. It assumes that we can compartmentalize our lives into the personal and public or work and measure out our time and attention in proportion to our priorities. I've concluded that alignment is a better approach. We create alignment by elevating the importance of living out our purpose and values, and allowing for the social settings and organizational environments where we live and work to adapt to our core beliefs. In other words, be willing to change what you do so that you can become the person you are destined to be.  Again, this is not necessarily an easy path to take.

If your life's trajectory is taking you through many stages of personal growth so that you are becoming a different person at 40 than you were at 25, or different person at 55 than you were at 40, then it is very important that your family grow with you, and you with them. If your growth happens too dramatically, too radically, over too short of time, without their input or support, you'll find yourself becoming estranged from them. The lesson is that every transition we go through in our lives is filled with opportunity and challenge. How we meet both determines what comes next. As you change, care for the people who matter most to you. Keep them close, so they understand and can support you as change happens. If they genuinely love you, then you'll make it through the hardships of change.

4. After 15 years, my original purpose and the values that sustain the vision for my work remain the same. The structure of my work has constantly changed.

This is not just a good lesson for personal growth. It is a lesson for businesses and organizations develop. I find the reverse to be often the case, where the social and organizational structures dictate to us what our purpose and values are. Purpose and values are internal strengths. Structure is an external form that provides a context for living out our purpose and values. People whose security is in the external world of things and order, often find themselves frustrated because it is impossible to control their social and organizational contexts. Those who rely on the internal world of their purpose, values and a vision for impact, find these ideas provide them the strength to manage the chaos of change in the external world. As a result, when your personal strength is internal, you can move into a wide variety of contexts and make a difference that matters. You remain the same person regardless of who you are with, and what you are doing. This is what we mean by integrity and authenticity. This is why it so important to know what you purpose is and what you value. They are foundation of sustainability and opportunity in life and work.

5. Opportunities may abound. However, not all opportunities are equal. We usually don't know this until we are half way into the project. Then, we realize that it isn't going to work out or there is something better that we didn't initially see.

While I'm not an advocate for quitting, I have learned that ending something sooner than later is usually better. Know what you want from life and work. Know what you are committed to giving to a particular situation, and don't forget it. Often the reason why these opportunities don't work is that there is not sufficient follow through and effective execution of the plan. In addition, I've learned that what someone says is the opportunity or the problem is probably only part of the story. You'll find it out soon enough, and that is when you'll know whether you should increase your participation or quit.

Life will teach you lessons that you can then turn into growth and benefit for yourself and others. If you let it. Personally, I'm looking to another 15 years of work before I retire. I feel that everything up to this point is just preparing me for the main act which is coming. In other words, if you have a plan for your whole life, make sure that you leave open the possibilities of changing your plan so that at the end of your life your legacy is clear and secure. Your legacy may come in the last half of the last chapter. So, be committed to staying true to your purpose and values through the end of your life.

I look forward to collaborating with many of you in the future. All the best.  Thank you very much.