Leadership, Impact & Responsibility: How Do These Go Together?
Leadership, Impact & Responsibility: How Do These Go Together?
Years ago, I learned about an important leadership relationship. The significance of this particular relationship has been profound in my world, shifting the way I lead and am led. In the wake of learning this lesson, I have been so cognizant of this particular relationship that I cringe when I see other leaders ignoring it.
One of the most significant leadership relationships is that between impact and responsibility.
It’s true that in and of themselves these concepts are essential to effective leadership. Leaders need to be aware of their impact. And leaders need to be responsible for what happens around them. Too often, however, leaders ignore taking responsibility for the impact that they have on the space around them. By failing to do so, they create tension, rifts and angst where such qualities need not be.
Last week, I had a great experience of this. Sitting in a meeting in which a difficult topic was being addressed, the leader of the meeting was answering questions and addressing concerns. Despite the difficult content, the meeting itself was going very well. The leader was sensitive, transparent and open in her dialogue. Until she wasn’t.
There came a moment where, on the heels of an answer she had provided, a participant asked if she could add something. Without explanation, the leader said “no”. Moreover, she said it in a firm tone, without making eye contact with the questioner, and without looking at anyone else in the group. The group as a whole giggled nervously; the one who asked permission let it go. And you could feel the collective air in the room get sucked out. People held their breath and waited to see what would happen next.
What I recognized in that moment was that the issue – the sense of angst – wasn’t so much about the denial of the request. After all, simply put, permission was asked and denied. The angst was around how the request was denied, and the lack of context around it.
So, what could have been done differently?
The leader could have spoken to her decision, providing a context for it. Or, assuming that such a context would somehow have been inappropriate, she could have acknowledged that her denial had created tension and that the group needed to trust that that wasn’t her intent. Or, she could have changed her body language to soften the delivery. Eye contact alone can soften impact.
All of this, of course, requires an awareness of impact and a willingness to be responsible for it. As I indicated, for all intents and purposes the meeting continued without anyone rumbling – and at the same time the sense of angst was palpable. Any questions that were asked after that exchange were asked with trepidation. Which means that something was lost that didn’t have to be.
Here’s the bottom-line folks: as leaders, we know (or we should know) we have an impact. Moreover, it matters. And if our goal is to be truly effective leaders, then we must take responsibility for the impact that we have – always. Leadership, impact and responsibility are inextricably entwined.
Leadership and Setting Boundaries: Why It Doesn’t Work
As leaders, there is so much for which we are responsible. At times, it can feel as though the troubles and challenges of the whole world are on our shoulders. It’s as though every challenge that arises, every dilemma that is faced by anyone within your team needs YOUR input, expertise or suggestion to resolve.
Leaders are often seen as the ones with all the answers.
The challenge, of course, is that as leaders we generally collude with this perception. When someone comes to us with a challenge or problem, there’s a tendency to, in fact, solve it. Sometimes this is done because we’re flattered; sometimes it’s done in the interest of time (it’ll take too long to allow the solution-seeker to solve the problem on his own); sometimes it’s done out of habit. Regardless of the reason, when leaders provide solutions rather than source solutions, they unwittingly feed the story that they alone can be problem solvers. And so the burden builds.
Boundaries are the key to avoiding the problem-solving burden of leadership.
In any leadership development program, you will be told that truly effective leaders draw good boundaries. They tell people what they can and cannot approach them with, what challenges to bring their way and what to handle on their own. And, in my experience, in practical application, the drawing of boundaries is not enough. In and of themselves, boundaries are ineffective at lifting the leadership burden.
In order for boundaries to work, you have to stand by them, consistently.
This is where too many folks fail. It’s easy enough to say, “my expectation is that you will __________.” What’s hard to do is stand by that expectation when it isn’t met. Need an example? Imagine that, in an effort to increase your own self-care, you establish a “closed-door” time period in your day. This block of time is set up to ensure that you get 30 minutes of time that you dedicate expressly to eating lunch, meditating, and going for a walk (or whatever is suitable to your situation). The rule is, while your door is closed, no interruptions. For the remainder of the day, you hold an open door policy. Seems simple enough, right? One would think.
The first time you close your door (after having told everyone about your new boundary), there’s a knock after 5 minutes. Someone “needs” you to deal with a scenario. “Need” is a powerful word – it implies an indispensability on your part and it can be a powerful lure. You have two options here: succumb to the lure, or stand by your boundary. Too many leaders follow the first choice – which is why boundaries, in and of themselves, DO NOT WORK.
It takes courage to stand by your boundaries.
It takes confidence, and a belief that your boundaries actually serve the big picture. You’ve got to understand that boundaries, effectively articulated and consistently honoured actually make for smooth-running systems. If you want to relieve the perceived burden of leadership to some degree, then it’s time to start HONOURING boundaries, not simply establishing them.
Bottom-line: boundaries are good things. And, they cannot work if you don’t enforce them. Without enforcement, they’re not boundaries, they’re suggestions. And they add to your burden rather than decrease them. Establish your boundaries and honour them. This is the key to more ease-filled leadership.
The One Question You Must Ask When Things Go Wrong
No matter who you are, where you work, or what you’re working toward, at some point things will go wrong. As a leader, the sooner you can get your head around this idea, the better for all concerned.
Human nature being what it is, our general tendency when things go wrong is to look for someone to blame. And if we’re not looking for someone to blame, we’re certainly looking for a CAUSE of some sort – some circumstance that resulted in mistakes.
In and of itself, this search isn’t problematic. After all, if you don’t look for the source of the problem, you can’t very well remedy the situation. That being said, most of us stop short of asking one critical question. And avoiding this question pretty much guarantees that the problem will never be fully resolved.
How did I contribute to this problem?
This is the question that every leader has got to get comfortable with. Whether you’re talking about a budget oversight, a scheduling snafoo, a missed deadline, an agenda going off the rails, or something else altogether, when a problem arises, leaders must be prepared to get curious about their role in it.
Admittedly, for many people, this is hard to swallow. And, truth be told, there may well be times where a leader’s role in a problematic scenario was negligible or, in fact, non-existent. Until you ask the question, however, you cannot know this for sure.
Too many leaders assume that the problems around them arose solely as a result of others’ mistakes. In many cases however, there was a way in which a leader’s presence (or lack thereof), choices, decisions, directions, expectations, etc; played a part. By holding the question, “how did I contribute to this problem?” with a curious energy, leaders can model what it is to be accountable, and take corrective action to ensure similar problems don’t arise in the future.
Don’t get me wrong; if you didn’t do something wrong, then there’s nothing for you to own. More often than not, however, there is something that a leader can take responsibility for, that would result in a different outcome going forward.
Bottom-line: in every relationship, all parties bear responsibility for whatever outcome transpires. In the case of problems arising, all folks – leaders included – need to look at their role in those very problems coming about. Getting curious about one’s contribution to a problematic scenario is far more productive than playing the blame game.
The Key to Being a Flexible Leader
One of the qualities of a great leader is the ability to be flexible.
Leaders who are flexible are those who are able to adapt their ideas to fit with the circumstances at hand. Flexible leaders have a clear vision, and go with the flow when it comes to bringing that vision to life. Leaders who the ability to be flexible are those who listen to their teams, finding ways to blend and incorporate diverse thoughts, rather than ignoring the ideas of others in favor of their own.
Generally speaking, flexibility is a quality that is much admired in leaders. People like to feel like their requests will be accommodated, their ideas will be considered, their thoughts will be given merit. Flexibility – otherwise known as the ability to accommodate – and effective leadership go hand-in-hand.
It is possible, however, for flexibility to be an undesirable leadership trait.
When flexibility starts to look like “wishy-washiness”, things can quickly go off the rails. This usually happens when a leader becomes more concerned with being liked, than leading effectively. In other words, when leaders confuse flexibility with likeability, problems arise.
The ability to be flexible is not about ensuring that people like you. Instead, flexibility – or the ability to accommodate – is about understanding that as a leader you might not have all the answers, and that others may well have ideas that can enhance, enrich and evolve direction. From this understanding, when one is flexible, choices and decisions are made in service of the team’s big-picture agenda.
So, how do you know when your desire to be flexible is actually serving the team’s agenda? It boils down to your motivation. If, as a leader, you feel called to be flexible because you don’t want to upset someone, you’re not really be flexible, you’re striving to be likeable. If, however, the flexibility you want to demonstrate comes from a belief that a change in plan will serve the bigger picture, then you’re on the right track.
Bottom-line: as a leader, being flexible can be a very good thing – unless you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Flexibility that moves your team closer to its agenda is what is called for. Anything else is likely about winning popularity – and that will always end in tears.
Cut to the Chase: How Brevity Makes Communication Better
Wah wah wah wah wah.
Admit it. You have been in conversations where that is all you’ve heard. You’ve zoned out. And when asked for a response, you couldn’t give one. Odds are there was so much detail being provided that you got lost. This scenario happens a LOT. And as leaders it’s a scenario you’d best avoid.
Leadership requires clear communication.
Often, we confuse clarity with details. While details can be helpful, they can also create murkiness. From a leadership standpoint, your communication must provide NECESSARY details, without traveling into that murky space.
The ability to “bottom-line” is the key.
Bottom-lining is the art of saying what’s needed – nothing more and nothing less. Bottom-lining keeps things simple. You assume a certain level of competence and understanding. You give listeners credit for being able to ask for more information, if they need it. In short, you trust yourself to share what you need, and your listeners to ask for what they need.
So, what is it that prompts us to “overshare”?
Simply put, we don’t create containers that are conducive to clear communication. Instead, we create environments where we are constantly moving. We don’t give people time to share. Within this framework, there’s a fear that something will get overlooked – so we try to cram everything into the time and space we have, which leads to detail-overload.
What’s the solution?
Slow down. Think. Trust.
It’s a simple process – and it’s an effective one. It’s about being present to what is – the question being asked, the problem being presented, the person looking for a solution. Then, as the old adage says, think before you speak. Say only what needs to be said. And trust that it’s all that’s needed.
Bottom-line: details aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. When used in excess, they can actually be more trouble than they’re worth. So cut to the chase, and allow the rest to unfold.
Are You Doing Your Best?
Always Do Your Best.
Four weeks ago when I started this article series based on Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, I shared with you that the book was an easy read, albeit with challenging concepts to implement. The paradox of this book is part of what I love. Intellectually, each of the agreements is very easily understood. From an implementation standpoint, however, to say that the agreements pose a challenge is a bit of an understatement. First, Be Impeccable With Your Word; Second, Don’t Take Things Personally; Third, Don’t Make Assumptions; these are tall orders! And yet, the fourth agreement really does bring it all together, providing a framework – a context – that facilitates the implementation of the agreements, such that you don’t have to berate yourself or give up on yourself at any time.
Your best isn’t always what you think it is.
At first glance, the fourth agreement can seem as challenging a mandate as any of the others. I mean, is it really possible to be at the top of your game 100% of the time? Isn’t it likely that you’ll slip up once in a while?
Well, according to Ruiz, YOUR BEST isn’t about being at the top of your game 100% of the time; instead, your best changes from moment to moment, depending on circumstances and situations as the case might be. What constitutes your best when you are highly energized, enthused and motivated is different from the best that you can deliver when you are sleep-deprived, ill or pre-occupied with other considerations. From Ruiz’s standpoint, this is what he wants you to bear in mind and use as your gauge for determining how you’re measuring up.
This agreement is NOT about letting you off the hook.
The fourth agreement is in no way a free pass to be less than optimal, and then excuse your way out of honouring any of the preceding agreements. In other words, it does not serve for you to ignore your health needs, be sluggish all the time, and use this as a reason for taking things personally. Your objective is to endeavour to be at your best at all times, so that you can deliver your corresponding best at all times. With that being said, it is absolutely necessary for you to understand that your best will fluctuate. So the question for you to hold and always be asking yourself is, “am I doing my best in this moment?”
To hold yourself up to someone else’s benchmarks doesn’t serve.
The whole question of whether or not you’re doing your best is the only gauge that matters. To measure your progress against expectations set up outside of yourself isn’t nearly as meaningful as measuring yourself against what you know yourself to be capable of. The key is complete and total honesty; you must honestly push yourself to deliver your best, even while knowing what your limits are and what you’re best actually is. Yes, this agreement allows you to cut yourself some slack, in that it recognizes the perfection inherent in your human imperfection. That being said, it also challenges you to find ways to be at your optimum, so that your best can actually be your best. When you’re not delivering your best, and you know when that is, you are provided with the opportunity to do what needs to be done so that your best improves the next time you’re presented with a similar circumstance.
Bottom-line: as challenging as the four agreements can be, you are not required to be perfect in your interactions. You will make mistakes along the path of any and all of your relationships; that’s part of being human. Your job is to know yourself well enough to know what you’re truly capable of, know the factors that change what you’re capable of, know how your best changes when these factors change, and then always do your best. If you want your relationships – personal, professional and everything in between – to be their best, ensure that you always do your best, however that might look. Always Do Your Best. Now THAT’s the way to measure success.
Distinguishing Assumptions from Truth
Don’t Make Assumptions.
This is the third agreement put forth by Don Miguel Ruiz in his book, the Four Agreements; and let me tell you, it’s a doozy. In my experience – with clients, colleagues, friends, family and myself – this agreement is often the most challenging for folks. Why? Because of a specific human tendency that looks as follows:
When we don’t know the complete picture, we fill in the gaps with assumptions.
Moreover, we generally mistake many assumptions for truth. In other words, you’re going around thinking and believing that something is a truth, when in actual fact, it’s an assumption – an inference based on a fact or two, but not the actual and complete truth when it comes right down to it. Need an example? Try this on for size:
Your friend comes over for a visit and walks in the door with what appears to be a stoic face – no smile whatsoever – and tosses her bag down. Based on what you see, you “assume” she’s angry about something. Now, you might be right. And you might not be. The truth is that your friend is not smiling and she’s tossed her bag down on the floor. If you act on your assumption without checking it out – maybe by saying something like, “what’s bugging you?” you may very well prompt legitimate anger as your friend wonders why you would assume she’s angry. If you choose a more benign approach, something like “how are you ?” you afford your friend the opportunity to clarify what’s up, what she’s feeling, and then you can respond appropriately, commiserating if need be, supporting as the case might be, or laughing at a funny encounter that has your friend perplexed. In other words, while your inclination may be to assume that you know your friend so well that you can read her like a book, you could very well be wrong.
Standing in the place of assumption can get in the way of meaningful relationship.
This is true, whether you’re talking about personal relationships, professional relationships, neighbours, classmates – essentially, any relationship that is part of your life. Which means, when you make assumptions, you set yourself up for less fulfilling relationships, and less productive interactions.
Assumptions happen all the time.
To a certain degree, it’s how you’re hard-wired as a human being. You’ve been trained to take data and piece it together into truth. In the context of relationships, however, this “piecing together” doesn’t necessarily serve as well as you think it would. There really is a way that assuming you know the whole truth, and holding your assumptions as truth can hinder the building, deepening and strengthening of meaningful relationships.
So what’s the solution? Challenge your assumptions. Ask questions. Stand in curiousity. Remember, you might not have all of the information, even when you think you do.
Bottom-line: if you want your relationships to be the best that they possibly can, whether personal or professional, guard against making assumptions. Take the time to discover the truth – the actual truth – and use that as your basis for action and interaction. Assumption and truth are not one and the same. For the sake of the relationships that truly serve, don’t make assumptions.
What Do YOU Think About You?
Don’t take anything personally.
This is the second agreement in Don Miguel Ruiz’s fabulous little book, The Four Agreements. I’ll confess, when I first read it, I thought “no problem, easy-peasy.” And then, when I started to work with it in my own world, I realized just how tall an order this was. Why? Because, so often, when we interact with one another, we internalize what’s being said. We make it our own, forgetting that personal perspective factors into everything. This means that when someone speaks to me – even when they’re speaking about me – they’re speaking from their own vantage point. Essentially whatever they’re sharing is actually about them.
Not taking thins personally isn’t about abdicating responsibility.
Instead, what Ruiz says is that whatever someone says or does is all based on where they’re at in that moment. When someone looks at you and says, “you’re terrible in your line of work” or “goodness, that colour looks brilliant on you!” that comment is based on their experience of you, which is being poured through their own filter. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. The question to hold isn’t “what does that person think of you?” but rather “what do YOU think of you?” That’s what really matters.
“What others think about you is none of your business.”
This quote is generally attributed to Jack Canfield, and I must confess, I like it. I like the wisdom it contains. I like the freedom it entails. It’s pretty applicable to me because I do find it very easy to wonder what others think of me. My “image” is very important to me, and yet, what I know is that I can only control my own thoughts, choices, and actions. I actually cannot – let me repeat CANNOT – control how others receive or experience said thoughts, choices and actions. Nobody can, not even you.
When you take things personally, you abdicate power in your life.
Why would you do that? Why make somebody else’s opinion of you matter more than your own opinion? Yes, of course, you want to take into consideration the feedback you get from others. This is especially true when you’re in a leadership role – teaching, parenting, or organizing. It’s called using feedback responsibly. That being said, you also want to filter it and recognize that another’s opinion is exactly that: their opinion. It’s not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Does this mean that you have to live with your head in the sand, holding yourself as better than (or worse than, as the case might be) you actually are? No, of course not. It does, however, mean that you must at all times recognize and give credence to the fact that how others are expressing themselves is always – ALWAYS – about them. Your job is to understand this and use this understanding when filtering the opinions that come your way.
Bottom-line: when it comes to living your life, remember, you are your own judge and jury. How you behave and show up is about you; how others behave and show up is about them – always. And the place where those two perspectives meet is where magic happens. Don’t let another’s opinion railroad your ability to negotiate in good faith, to make responsible choices, to lead effectively. Be clear on how you want to be experienced out there in the world then make the choices that align with that. Seek out the opinions of others if you must; and ultimately, don’t take anything personally.
How Good is Your Word?
Be Impeccable With Your Word.
This is the first agreement in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements: (one of my all-time favourites, and one I revisit at least once every year, in case you’re interested).
This agreement sounds simple enough, I know. In a nutshell, it feels a little like Barbara Coloroso’s “say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’re going to do.” It’s certainly got that sort of quality about it on the surface. When you go a little deeper, however, impeccability of word is about so much more than that.
It’s about understanding that words are powerful.
Words can create or destroy. Words must be treated with respect, especially in your relationships.
Think about it. Your relationships form the frame of your life to a large extent. The people you associate with go a long way to defining who you are and how you’re perceived. In light of this, you want to ensure that these people know what you’re about, that they experience you the way you want to be experienced, and a big way in which you’re experienced is through the words you use with one another.
Ruiz likens words to seeds, saying that as such, words can grow in ways that go beyond what our intention might be. This is why IMPECCABILITY of word becomes essential. When words are simply thrown about, without thought being given to how that word is landing, or the context in which it’s being planted, it’s too easy to overlook what might grow as a result. For example, if you play a team sport, and you poke fun at a team-mate, suggesting that he or she is the weak link on the team (think of some version of “you can’t catch a ball to save your life – just kidding!”) there’s a way that that statement as a whole leaves a mark. ALL of the words land, and which ones grow depends in large measure on the soil in which they’re landing, so to speak. If you’re talking to someone whose self-esteem is in any way low, the “just kidding” will not have that much weight, certainly not enough to override the first part of the statement.
This does not mean that you have to sugarcoat things
Impeccability is about honesty married with an understanding of the power of language. When you speak, when you write, when you convey words, you leave an impression. Being impeccable with your word is about understanding this impact, and using words to create the impact you truly want, not the impact gets created by chance. Creating the impact you want, also means paying attention; you must notice how your words land, and tweak accordingly.
Bottom-line: Ruiz’s first agreement is about conscious, deliberate, intentional use of language. Words are powerful and must be used with reverence. Tossing words about without consideration of the consequence isn’t acceptable, not if you want to nourish and nurture your relationships. No matter who you’re with, be impeccable with your word.
You’ve Totally Screwed Up; Now What?
Leaders are people too.
Leaders are not gods or demi-gods. Leaders are not exempt from human foibles of any sort; which means, leaders make mistakes from time to time.
Sometimes, leaders make huge mistakes. Errors in judgment, offensive remarks, displays of extreme emotion, actions or decisions that result in detrimental consequences – any and all of these can be made by leaders as much as they can be made by anyone else. And, when mistakes are made by leaders, they are often more glaring and subject to more scrutinty than when they’re made by others.
What’s a leader to do?
I ask this question because one of the unspoken truths when it comes to leadership is that we actually hope that our leaders will not make mistakes. Even though we understand that leaders are people too, even though we realize that all people make mistakes, leaders are held to a higher standard. And the degree to which your leadership is visible to others, the more your mistakes are subject to scrutiny. And ridicule. And, sometimes, condemnation.
So, I ask again, what’s a leader to do?
Simply put, accept responsibility. This is where too many leaders fail. Why? Because of fear.
Mistakes, generally speaking, result in some sort of undesirable outcome. Nobody likes an undesirable outcome. We’re afraid of them. As a result what many of us do in the face of errors is we defend, deflect, or otherwise distance ourselves from mistakes. We try to make it seem like the mistake didn’t happen or, if it did, it wasn’t as detrimental as others might think, or that it really wasn’t our fault.
Defending, deflecting and distancing are not helpful actions when you’ve screwed up.
In the face of a mistake, no matter how grave, you must accept responsibility. In other words, you have to suck it up, buttercup, and push through the icky feelings that may arise as part of the accountability process. When you do this you can come out on the other side having learned from your error and able to move on.
So, how do you accept responsibility? How do you be accountable?
- Take a breath. Anything is more manageable when you’re conscious of your breath.
- Name your mistake, in as public a forum as necessary. Gauge this by taking stock of who is impacted by your mistake. The people who are impacted or will be impacted, those are the folks to whom you are accountable.
- Acknowledge that there may well be fallout – and accept it for what it is. This is perhaps the hardest part. Trying to avoid the fallout, or pretend it couldn’t possibly happen to you, doesn’t serve anyone.
- Make amends. Sincerely apologize, fix what you’ve broken, do the time that’s appropriate.
- Learn from your mistake; make changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again. One of the things to remember when it comes to mistakes is this; the first time, it’s a mistake. After that, it’s a choice.
Bottom-line: Leadership does not preclude you from making mistakes; neither does it preclude you from taking responsibility. Leadership in any form requires you to own your mistakes. If you don’t, rest assured, your mistakes will come back to haunt you. And the fallout at that point, is likely to be greater than what it would have been in the moment.