Saturday, February 11, 2017

What Makes Me Feel Good About Work?

To borrow a term from Dan Ariely, in his 2013 TED Talk “What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work”, I can definitively state that I work in a “knowledge economy” and have done so for my entire career, both as an Air Force Officer and as a defense support contractor and consultant. As Mr. Ariely said, in a knowledge economy, it takes much more than money to motivate people (certainly to motivate me) at work. Don’t get me wrong, I would always like to make more money but if I am honest about it, the type of work that I would do would have to be something that I really liked – something that had meaning to me – before I would change jobs or (especially) career fields. To say that money has little to no effect on me is not entirely accurate, but meaningful and fulfilling work is also a significant determinant of what I am willing to do for a living. In that sense, I feel fortunate because I have always had the luxury of a career rather than merely having a job that I had to do to put food on the table. I have been blessed to be able to perform meaningful work instead of having to do something that perhaps I may not have liked because I needed a paycheck and had no other choice.

This is not to say that I have always, and every day, loved my work. Acquisition program management in the Department of Defense can prove extremely frustrating when you deal with bureaucracy; you may even have a project in which you have investigated a great deal of time, effort, and care thrown on the trash heap in an instant. Sometimes that is just the way things happen, or so it would seem, and the aftermath leaves you quite discouraged, angry, even ready to quit. But, more often than not, I have also been blessed to see the things that I poured my heart and soul into turn out to be successful. A major acquisition strategy briefing was approved and even praised, an entire fleet of aircraft was delivered to an operational command – a group of pilots and maintainers – and is flying missions today, to everything in between has been the result of work that I have done. I should hasten to add that I never did anything entirely on my own but, as I enjoy the most, always with a team of similarly motivated professionals.

As an Air Force Officer, my most enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding times came through the leadership of teams, or entire organizations, on a successful project or program. I especially enjoyed the challenge of taking a program that was in trouble (over budget, behind schedule, and/or not meeting its technical performance requirements) and turning it around. When I took over programs that were seemingly hopeless, and made them successful, I felt as though I was doing not only meaningful work but also doing what I was “born to do”. I thrive on challenges and even chaos, meeting those challenges, and turning chaos into the orderly execution of an acquisition program. I’ll give you an example of one mental and physical challenge that I will never forget.

Back in 2001, when I was assigned to the Joint Strike Fighter (now the F-35) program and we were in source selection to select the winning contractor of the competition to enter the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase of the program, I was working especially late one evening with one other guy still in the office. Around 9:30 in the evening, the Marine Corps two-star general who was the Program Director at the time came into the office and told me that he wanted me to brief the senior acquisition leadership of both the Air Force and Navy the following morning at 8:00. He wanted a detailed briefing on my (and my team’s) work on avionics open systems architecture – what we had learned, and what we thought about the contractor’s demonstrated abilities in that area. He told me that I could brief whatever I wanted and what I thought was right. As he left, he said that I needed to be in his office the next morning at 6:00 to go over my briefing. The two of us left in the office looked at each other and said simultaneously, “It Looks like we’re working!” We finished the briefing and left the office at 2:30 in the morning, then drove the 43 miles back to the commuter lot where I had left my car at 5:00 the previous morning. I drove to my house, took an hour nap, shaved, and put on a fresh uniform, and met my ride in the same commuter lot at 4:30. We were in the general’s office by 6:00, and I began my briefing promptly at 8:00. The senior leadership proved extremely interested in what I had to say; they asked many questions and my briefing lasted 90 minutes. It was among the best briefings that I ever gave and when it was over, I felt elated! Then the fatigue set in and the rest of the day felt almost endless until I could get back home and get some sleep. But I was motivated! I felt extremely good about what I was doing and had done. These are the kinds of challenges I lived for.

Now retired from the military and working as a defense support contractor/consultant, I don’t get nearly the thrills that I used to get as a leader in the military. My role now is generally advisory; I generate reports, I work with some pretty massive spreadsheets dealing with budgetary issues, and I provide advice to senior leaders. But so long as my work and my advice are appreciated and put to good use, I find great satisfaction in what I do. I am in a spot where I am paid sufficiently well that the issue of money is off the table and all that is left are the intrinsic motivators. As always, I do what I do first and foremost to provide for my family. But beyond that, I do what I do because I believe in the objectives of our program and I believe that my work adds value. If it were otherwise, I would be looking for other work.

I am also at the stage now where I have a strong desire to give back to the profession, so I mentor junior government civilian and military members who work with me. I enjoy teaching them about program management, and I enjoy seeing them succeed in part because of the help that I was able to give them. For me, it has always been about achieving the mission or objectives in a team setting. Seeing a new aircraft parked on the ramp and knowing that I had something to do with putting it there gives me a feeling of deep satisfaction. And the brilliant and motivated people that I have had the privilege of meeting and working with across the years has made my work so much more interesting. I have had opportunities and experiences that many people my age have never had. These things have kept me motivated throughout my career as both an Officer and a civilian.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Supportive Communication

A520.4.3.RB - Supportive Communication

As a leader, the quality of your communications with your subordinates, team, or staff, and your boss is crucial to developing and maintaining the kinds of relationships that you need to both get the job done and foster a healthy work environment for all concerned. One’s workplace should be pleasant, with only healthy stress in the air. This blog will reflect on eight key aspects of effective and healthy communication practices that will help you to establish the good relationships that you require. These eight characteristics of supportive communication are mutually reinforcing. Imagine receiving the following email from your CEO in your Inbox on a Monday morning:

“We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our EMPLOYEES. The parking lot is sparsely used at 8:00 A.M.; likewise at 5 P.M. As managers – you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing, or you do not CARE. You have created expectations on the work effort that allowed this to happen inside [fill in the blank Company], creating a very unhealthy environment. In either case, you have a problem and you will fix it or I will replace you. NEVER in my career have I allowed a team that worked for me to think they had a 40-hour job. I have allowed YOU to create a culture that is permitting this. NO LONGER.”

Would you, as a manager or supervisor, think, “Wow, I must really be doing a bad job in motivating and managing my employees; I need to get better!” I think not. The first thing that I would think…well, I can’t say that here…the second thing that I would think is probably along the lines of “leadership neither understands nor appreciates the hard work and good job that I and my people do here.” I’d be angry and defensive. I might also be fearful of a vindictive and vengeful CEO who has just destabilized my work environment. The leadership is really watching the parking lot as a measure of how well they think we’re doing our jobs? “What an idiot; how did this guy get to be the CEO?” I would also instantly notice the words in all-capital letters and interpret those as meaning that the leadership clearly thinks that all of us employees are second-class citizens (and expendable at a moment’s notice). I was taught a long time ago that using all capital letters in an email is tantamount to shouting at someone. The tone is clearly condescending and threatening to say the least. Leadership here has set up an us-versus-them relationship with all of the mid-level managers and workers. It is a classic example of disconfirmation, where the workforce will feel significantly put down, unappreciated, valueless, and insignificant. In short, I would never write an email anywhere close to the one above; not if I wanted a productive, motivated, and stable workforce. Furthermore, I’d start looking for a new job with a healthy, intelligent, caring hierarchy of leaders who had a clue.

To be effective, especially when dealing with a contentious situation, communication must be supportive. One characteristic of effective communication is “congruence” where the communication (both verbal and non-verbal) exactly matches your intended message. Congruence goes a long way to establishing sincerity as perceived by the receiver(s) of the communication. This is not to say that if you are angry, you should send angry emails or speak in anger to someone. Cool down first, collect your thoughts, decide on a productive way in which to approach the situation, then prepare your message. Incongruence is the opposite possibility where, perhaps without your conscious knowledge, you may be angry but trying to be objective and respectful in your communication; the anger nonetheless comes through to the receiver, making you appear less than genuine or trustworthy. Congruence enables the development of supportive relationships. Think through what you intend to say, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling, and make sure that your actual message and your intended message are in synch. Never react to an email that has made you angry by replying in kind. Take the high road in your response, if a response is even warranted, and keep negative emotion out of your writing.

Another quality of supportive communication is that it is descriptive rather than evaluative. A message that comes across as evaluative means exactly what the term says: you are evaluating or judging others negatively, which almost guarantees a defensive response or emotion from the receiver(s). Descriptive, on the other hand, refers to a message that is objective in that it sticks to the facts without ascribing any blame or negative assessment to another person or group. Descriptive communication greatly facilitates the quality of congruence as discussed above. In being descriptive, you describe what the situation is and not anything about the person or persons involved. In other words, there is no inference of negativity toward anyone. Thinking through the facts, and again removing the emotion, to state only the “what” of the matter will help ensure that your communication is descriptive and enable you to then talk about what “we” (important that it is a team effort) need to do to improve or solve the problem.

Closely related to descriptive versus evaluative, your message should focus on the problem and not on the person (or persons) involved. This is another facilitator of objectivity and congruence. If your communication is problem-oriented (not person-oriented), then chances are you are being descriptive (not evaluative) and your message is much more likely to avoid sounding like an evaluation of an individual or group. Again, focusing on the person will only get you a defensive reaction. Problem-oriented communication sticks to the facts and avoids the inference of blame; this in turn sets you up for a “we” type discussion of how to effectively resolve the problem.

Supportive communication seeks to validate a person or group by recognizing people’s positive contribution, their importance, and their worth to the organization or the project at hand. Any communication that invalidates someone will instantly become contentious. People who do not feel valued will never give you their best effort, and certainly not their loyalty. Even when facing a problem, you must begin by assuring folks that they are highly valued and that there is certainly nothing at all personal involved or at stake. Avoid condescension, edicts, being impersonal or impervious in your verbal and written communication. If people feel as though they are being talked down to, given rigid orders or ultimatums, are not recognized as anything more than a number, or their feelings and opinions do not count, you have set yourself up for failure as a leader. Show respect for your people, solicit their inputs, allow them to talk instead of making the communication strictly one-way. This fosters a “we are in this together and I need your help” atmosphere, and people will give you their best.

Make your communication specific so that you are understood. Vague or “global” messages will cause your people to read (or hear) your message and interpret it in their own way, or fill in the blanks, and your intended message will become distorted. Vagueness engenders uneasiness among employees; it may foster distrust as if you have a hidden agenda or don’t really know what you are talking about. People look for clear, unambiguous messages so they know what they are dealing with. Messages that are specific, concise, and objective speak to a strong, decisive leader who cares enough about his or her people to tell it like it is.

Tie what you say to something that has come before. Anchor your message with the message(s) you receive, whether in a two-way verbal conversation or through exchange of emails. This is known as “conjunctive” communication. It seeks to join what you are saying with what your people are saying so that you are not talking past each other. Conjunctive communication makes it easy for people to identify with your message because it ties in with what they know or believe. Conjunctive communication also helps people to feel understood and therefore validated.

Own what you say. Say “I” think, feel, believe, perceive, etc. Avoid references to the ubiquitous “they” or “It was decided that” wording. If you are sending a message, shouldn’t you refer to yourself directly as the sender? Owning your message avoids the perception of ambiguity or a hidden agenda. Your people are interested in what you have to say; if you fail to own your message, you will come across as bureaucratic or institutional and your people will tune you out. In other words, don’t make your messages sound like a policy document.

Finally, listen. Actively listen. Engage with the person or group; give the communication your full attention and avoid interrupting other people. Listen to understand, not to merely respond. Through your verbal and non-verbal actions, let people know that you are keenly interested in what they have to say and that you have a strong desire to thoroughly understand what they are telling you. When it’s your turn to speak, ask clarifying questions and remember to be conjunctive. You may also wish to avoid trying to solve the problem right then and there, but rather to ensure that you gather your people’s full message, as they intended, and think about what they said before engaging in analysis and problem solving. If you try too soon to solve the problem, you may shut someone down and miss the full extent of what they are trying to tell you. Also, avoid making judgements in your mind about what is being said; that will make you distracted. Focus on gathering the information coming your way.

It’s safe to say that the email quoted at the beginning did none of the eight things that I just described about supportive communication. Don’t ever write an email like that or you will permanently lose the respect, loyalty, and best efforts of your people. Instead, practice and be mindful of: 1) congruence, 2) being descriptive, 3) remaining problem-oriented, 4) validation of individuals, 5) being specific, 6) being conjunctive, 7) owning your message, 8) good listening. One wrong move in any one of these eight areas and you may never get a chance to recover.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A520.3.3.RB - Constraints on Creative Problem Solving

The Creativity of the Phoenix

Pablo Picasso said “every act of creation is, first of all, an act of destruction. The mythical Phoenix comes to mind when I first hear that statement. The Phoenix lives for a time, then the old bird is destroyed in a fiery display, and a new, young Phoenix arises from the ashes to take the old bird’s place and begin the cycle again. Nature, or Creation, is replete with similar examples. After a forest fire kills or destroys all of the trees, plants, and even animals over a wide swath, soon there are new, green shoots sprouting from the blackened ground. In time, the charred land is filled with young trees and vegetation; animals return to live in a place that was once beautiful and teaming with life, then dead, and once more full of beauty and life. Or witness the familiar caterpillar that undergoes a complete metamorphosis to emerge as moth or butterfly from its cocoon. Likewise, anyone who has lived, or spent time, on a farm is indeed familiar with the cycle of planting, cultivating, harvesting, turning the earth and destroying the remnants of the previous crop (thereby enriching the soil), and replanting again in the spring. After the leaves change color and fall from the trees, there ensues a dormant season where all is seemingly dead, only to witness re-birth and renewal once the snow melts and the warmth returns.

But each of these re-birth or regeneration processes and cycles may be arrested. A warm spring where trees begin to bud, followed by an unexpected harsh freeze can kill young fruit, new leaves, or even the entire tree. Mudslides or bulldozers after a forest fire can prevent new life from arising and the return of the animals. New crops may likewise experience a killing frost if planted too soon. Like the interruption of creation or rebirth in nature, we too can arrest or kill off our creativity, personally or in the workplace. We either constrain our own creativity through self-doubt or fear, or find it constrained by organizational bureaucracy that won’t tolerate one who does not conform. It would follow from Picasso’s statement that to be creative, we must first destroy that which prevents us from performing creatively and allow something new to be created within us.

To become creative, we may find it necessary to destroy or supplant our existing management and leadership techniques, processes, or understanding to replace these with the creation of new and different leadership and management skills. In her TED talk, “How to Manage for Collective Creativity” Linda Hill (2014), stated that, “If we want to build organizations that can innovate, we must unlearn conventional notions of leadership”. In other words, we must first tear down or destroy what we think we know (or have learned) about great leadership to enable ourselves and the organizations which we lead to become creative.

One thing that we need to destroy is the idea that no one can argue, even constructively, with the boss. Creativity requires the airing of different, even contradictory ideas; healthy, even heated, debate is essential for creativity and innovation. Another thing that we must discard is the notion that the boss tells the subordinates what to do and the subordinates do what they are told. Creativity and innovation are instead about working with the unique talents and perspectives of everyone in the work group. Experimentation is required, even if it means going down some blind alleys. A third construct that we must unlearn for the creative organization to flourish is that it is the leader who sets the vision for everyone else to follow. In a creative organization, the vision is something that is collectively developed by all members. As Linda says, leading innovation is not about creating a vision and inspiring others to execute it. Instead, leaders of innovation bring together people with great diversity and passion, to create a “public square” type of interaction where all of the “disruptors” and “minority voices can speak up and be heard.

If the common precepts of leadership must be effectively destroyed for organizations to be creative and innovative, it would follow that each of us as individuals must also destroy the manner in which we are accustomed to functioning within the typical organization and replace our own habits and self-imposed constraints with new ways of thinking, contributing, and interacting within the workplace. We must rid ourselves of the fear of speaking up and out for our ideas. We must discard the notion that we cannot have ideas, opinions, or perspectives that differ from the boss and from other members of the organization. Probably most importantly, we must train ourselves to think and solve problems creatively. Whetten and Cameron (2017) discuss this need to learn how to solve problems creatively, citing four “conceptual blocks that inhibit creative problem solving”. Those blocks are: 1) Constancy, or the tendency to define a problem in one way without considering all of the alternatives; 2) Commitment, which is the tendency to define new problems as mere variations of problems that we have already encountered and are used to seeing; 3) Compression, or not filtering out irrelevant information and; 4) Complacency, which is failure to be inquisitive and ask questions – in short, the failure to actively think about the problem. These then are some of our personal tendencies or traits that we must destroy if we are to become creative and innovative.

Many times, I have missed essential information about a new problem because I have defined it using the familiar terms and patterns that I learned from years of experience. Such experience is not an inherently bad thing, provided it doesn’t blind you to new information. Right here, in the second week of this course, I approached an assignment with the thought pattern that I have used repeatedly in my schoolwork and in so doing, I read right past one key requirement: to pose “intriguing questions” about the topic in my presentation. When I read the assignment, I said to myself “Got it; I need to build a Prezi presentation about the topic”. And that is what I did, completely overlooking the last piece of instruction; the part of the assignment that required some creativity at that. Lesson learned. I fell victim to constancy and commitment (and perhaps a bit of complacency). In the future, I will read (as I’m doing now) and re-read the assignment and ensure that I have covered each, individual requirement therein. I crashed and burned on one assignment because I thought I had done everything that I was supposed to do, without carefully examining and double-checking each requirement.

Each time the Phoenix arises from its ashes, it is faced with the opportunity to begin anew, to experience life differently than it did in its prior incarnation. Its destruction enables the possibility of a fresh perspective, of different ways of accomplishing tasks than it may have learned in past lives. Like that Phoenix, if we are to become innovative and creative when called upon to do so, we must first destroy our old selves (figuratively, of course) and become new in our habits, thoughts, and interactions within our organizations.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

10 Minutes a Day
The topic today is about remaining or living in the present, moment to moment, and the value of spending ten minutes a day doing nothing in pursuit of that objective. Another way to refer to this practice may be “mindfulness” or even “meditation”. Whatever term you wish to ascribe to the practice of spending ten minutes every day doing nothing, making an effort to remain focused on the present, and quieting your mind, the aim is to reduce stress and enhance well-being by removing yourself from the daily busy-ness and noise that occupy our mind and keep us distracted from living in the present. In Andy Puddicombe’s TED Talk (2012), he discusses both the problem of our daily distractions that prevent us from being present in the moment and suggests a few strategies for taking ten minutes each day to do nothing. Andy makes the excellent point that even though our minds are probably the most important determinant of our overall physiological health, we spend almost no time taking care of our minds; instead, we spend time taking care of our cars, our homes, and perhaps even our physical bodies and yet we neglect our minds. He says that we are so distracted by our thoughts that we are no longer present in the world in which we live. The result is stress and perhaps even clinical depression or anxiety.
We were assigned to practice spending ten minutes a day doing nothing for at least three days in a row and report back on the value of this practice, what we learned through this practice, whether or not this is something we will continue and even encourage others to practice, and how remaining in the moment can provide stress reduction. I have long been intrigued by meditation and its advertised benefits; I have read a few articles and books on the subject, and yet I have yet to become a successful practitioner of the kind of thing that Andy talks about. I desire the benefits, but I have found that meditation, for me, is extremely difficult.
In her book “The Type A’s Guide to Mindfulness: Meditation for Busy Minds and Busy People”, Melissa Eisler mentions a long-used term called the “monkey brain” to describe the common condition of people’s minds and thoughts on any given day, where the mind jumps around from thought to thought like a monkey swings from tree to tree. (Eisler, 2015). She says that in any given day, people have approximately 50,000 thoughts go through their mind and that this noise is something from which we need to learn to detach. We cannot expect to shut these thoughts off, nor should we try (our stress will only increase if we do so), but that we should learn to disconnect ourselves from these thoughts, become a dispassionate observer, and recognize that this massive jumble of thoughts is not really at all who we are; those thousands of thoughts need not define us and keep us from being present in each moment.
I have long been fascinated by the concept of time, and the passage of time as we understand it. The idea of time travel I find especially intriguing; not the theoretical basis for it so much as the possibilities that might open up if we could travel back and forth through time. And the older that I get, the faster that time seems to be passing by. As I think about these things, I wonder what the duration of a “moment” in time is. What does it truly mean to live, or be present in the moment? Again, as Eisler says, there is a continual conversation going on inside our minds all the time; disjointed and jumbled though it may be. For these reasons, and a host of others, I find any form of meditative practice extremely challenging. Here is a moment, am I truly present in it? Oops, there it went, and here is another one. But wait, I was just thinking about the last moment, so I just missed living in this one. I have not yet learned how to successfully disconnect from these kinds of thoughts, and as a result, I have not yet learned to be truly mindful and enjoy the benefits of quieting the mind to be present in the moment.
I once read an article about eastern philosophy that dealt with the martial arts and meditation. I don’t have a reference to cite here, but I remember that this article discussed the analogy of our being like water as a martial artist and in our meditative practice. Water flows effortlessly around obstacles and is persistent in its action. Likewise, as this article stated, we were to let our thoughts simply flow like water, never attempting to grab hold of any one thought and possess it, but to instead let all thoughts pass by as we observed without emotion. To me, that is one of the better analogies that helps me to understand what I am supposed to do when I spend ten minutes (or whatever duration of time) doing nothing. As Eisler says, we are to simply watch the thoughts come and go as we allow our mind to relax. As a psychologist might say, we need to stop “playing the tapes” in our mind and instead to simply be aware of what is.
Practicing mindfulness is indeed something that I intend to pursue and would recommend to anyone seeking to reduce their stress levels and improve their mental and physical health. I say “practicing” because I believe it to be a lifelong endeavor. Becoming “good” at meditation requires practice and effort. As Andy Puddicombe says, our mind is lost in thought (on average) 47% of the time. It is drawing our attention away from living in the present and thereby robbing us of living our lives. This leads to unhappiness as we begin to feel and understand that we are missing out on our life; time passes quickly and we often have no idea where it went as we allow ourselves to be distracted by the thoughts in our own head. Through practicing mindfulness, we can change the way that we experience life, enriching each moment of each day. Obviously, we cannot detach from our thoughts all the time. Writing this blog, for instance, required focusing my thoughts and listening to the conversation in my mind about the topic. But taking ten minutes, or twenty, or even more out of our day to meditate can do wonders for peace of mind, just like taking time to recover from a stressful workout can do wonders for our bodies and is indeed essential for healing, recovery, and increased capacity for exertion in the future.
Failure to practice mindfulness regularly results in stress, unhappiness, and a feeling of missing out on your life as it unfolds. Our monkey brain is a common condition that can cause us to worry. If you dwell on the past, you may end up depressed, guilty, angry, or regretful about things that you cannot change; this leads to a perpetual cycle of “if only I had done this….”. If you try to live in, or figure out the future, you may end up worrying about things that may (or may not) happen and conjure up situations or scenarios that will almost always prove inaccurate as the future becomes the present. Luke, Chapter 12, verses 25-26 say, “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?” We would all do well to think on these things as we contemplate our individual need to practice doing nothing for ten minutes every day to improve our mental, physical, and spiritual health.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A520.1.3.RB - Self-Awareness

Self-Awareness So Far…

Whetten & Cameron define five core aspects of Self-Awareness (Whetten & Cameron, 2016) that, to me, at this relatively early stage of my studies in Embry Riddle Aeronautical University’s Master of Science in Leadership degree (MSLD), are only just beginning to come into focus. This is my third class in the degree program, which will constitute a cumulative of nine credit hours toward the 36 credit hours required for graduation. What I believe has occurred thus far for me is a growing awareness of at least some of the five core aspects of Self-Awareness: emotional intelligence, values, cognitive style, attitude toward change, and core self-evaluation. I’d like to address each of these five in reverse order in this short blog.

Self-evaluation is like a tape that is always running just beneath the surface on a personal level. Although I have only been exposed to a single, formal self-evaluation tool (the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory), I have taken that assessment multiple times throughout my career. My results have shown that I started as an INTJ (introverted) and over the years have drifted into the ENTJ (extroverted) realm. I think that this change has occurred over the years due to the necessity of having to learn how to better work with people and, as I got practice with business and other, social type relationships, some fundamental changes took place in my personality. But beyond the MBTI assessment, in my line of work there are always “lessons learned” endeavors or “hot-washes” after every major undertaking, briefing, or meeting with senior leadership that seek to understand and analyze what took place and how we could have done things better. In those respects, self-evaluation is a routine part of my professional life. In the courses that I have taken so far in this Master’s program, critical thinking (e.g., walking around “the circle”) and a class that dealt with leadership styles have both caused me to do some soul-searching personally and professionally into what kind of leader I am (or aspire to be) and how I think about critical or important questions in all areas of my life. In that sense, my attention to self-evaluation has been awakened.

My attitude toward change is probably still my biggest challenge among the five core aspects. Certainly, my classes thus far have awakened my senses in this area, but I have a way to go yet before I will be as comfortable with change as I am with routine. When we looked at leadership styles, there was a section on leading change; the leadership style was called “Adaptive Leadership” (Northouse, 2016). The material in this section really opened my eyes to the challenges of leading a team, or an organization (or even myself or family) through difficult change or adaptation. The chapter on Adaptive Leadership caused me to think in detail about how I would face change or adaptation, particularly if I did not agree with changes in attitudes or beliefs required to accept the change. In thinking through these issues, and relating them to the kinds of change we see in society and the workplace in modern times, I was likewise awakened to the necessity of analyzing or re-evaluating my own, long-held beliefs on various societal issues of the time. I don’t want to make this blog into a socio-political treatise, so I won’t go into the issues. But suffice it to say that as a result of that course, I definitely came to a greater awareness of self and the necessity of my perhaps changing the way that I view and approach changes in society, at work and at home as my wife and I continue to adapt to being empty-nesters.

My cognitive style was challenged in the coursework that I did in our first course that dealt with critical thinking. I had considered myself a fairly logical, clear thinker up until I was exposed to the excellent and challenging material in the book “Learning To Think Things Through” (Nosich, 2012). Suddenly, critical thinking became a lot more involved than I had heretofore thought. But the concepts introduced and the thoroughness of the process of critical thinking suddenly opened my eyes to much more structure, and logical methods of addressing questions or problems than I had ever before seen. Wrapped up in critical thinking is the concept of intellectual perseverance, which is something else that opened my eyes regarding not only how to do a better job of critical thinking, but also about an entire field of study about the intellectual obligation we have as critical thinkers to wrestle with difficult topics and work tirelessly to get at the truth or facts of a given question or situation. Becoming more aware of how we think (and need to think) engenders the realization of where we need to improve. This, in turn, increases self-awareness.

Values is (or are) closely related to attitude toward change and cognitive style. When we confront change, or leading change, our values can be tested as can our reasoning or critical thinking skills. Wrapped up in adaptability is the concept and need for embracing diversity, whether cultural or personal. This course has re-opened my eyes to the many components of our values and, when combined with critical thinking, provides a sound basis for evaluating those same values. And with the process of examining values, we gain maturity in our values. I discovered in my reading that my values are probably residing mostly at the conventional level, which is to say I am a conformist. Not surprising, given my long history with the military and in working within that same environment as a defense support contractor. Where I aspire to be is at the post-conventional or principled stage, moving beyond conformity to a state where my values are both well-reasoned and wholly my own. This realization has opened up yet another aspect of self-awareness for me.

Finally, we come to emotional intelligence which is probably my weakest area. Even after years of dealing with other people in a wide variety of situations, I find that I really have to work (and have much work yet to do) on my ability to “diagnose, understand, and manage emotional cues”. (Whetten & Cameron, 2016) In the first place, I dislike conflict and intensely emotional situations. I am not comfortable in those settings. I also am a work in progress with respect to self-control. I don’t blow up much anymore, but I can get intensely angry and stew about something for long periods of time even when I give the outward appearance of being calm and collected. I do not yet have the emotional intelligence to deal effectively with all cases of conflict, anger, and the negative emotions. The entire discipline of emotional intelligence I find both fascinating and elusive. Clearly, the manner in which we handle our emotions, and recognize and respond to the emotions of others is a large component of our own self-awareness. This course and others that follow I’m sure will continue to shed light on, and challenge, my abilities in this aspect of both my skills and my knowledge. Developing emotional intelligence, I believe, is a lifelong pursuit. There is always room for improvement. I welcome the opportunity to continue acquiring knowledge and practice in emotional intelligence. Becoming aware of our own predilections where emotional intelligence is concerned seems to me to be at the core of our development of self-awareness. And the application of critical thinking about emotions should bear much fruit.

Becoming a truly great manager and leader is largely a journey of self-discovery and self-awareness. Technical acumen is a necessary but not sufficient condition for good leadership and management. As leaders and managers, we are (or should be) all about dealing effectively, fairly, and ethically with people who truly are the heart of enterprise. It would follow, therefore, that a MS in Leadership should focus heavily on the development of the self to become an effective leader and manager. The inaugural chapter of our text “Developing Management Skills” was on developing self-awareness, which is foundational for all that follows. The work that I have done so far in the MSLD program has aided in my enlightenment when it comes to how I think, how I assess and reason, how I deal with people, and what areas I need to work on. Such is key to increasing self-awareness.

Friday, October 7, 2016

MSLD 511 Organizational Leadership Course Reflections

At the outset of MSLD 511, Organizational Leadership, as our very first assignment, we were asked to develop and write down our own, personal definition of leadership. How entirely appropriate that as our very last assignment in this course, after studying several leadership approaches and theories, we are now asked to determine if we would make any changes to our definition of leadership. My original definition, from that first assignment, follows:

“Leadership is a person, or persons acting in coordination, who: oversees the activities of other persons assigned to them, or hired by them; develops and communicates the vision, goals, objectives, work assignments, policies, and constraints of the organization or team; provides direction or instruction and necessary resources; evaluates performance and provides feedback; inspires and coaches their people to achieve the vision, goals, or objectives of the organization or team; evaluates and manages the organizational interaction with the outside environment; and otherwise enables individual, organizational, or team success in fulfilling the stated vision, goals, or objectives; assumes responsibility for the organization or team performance and its continued viability; sets and communicates the standards and expectations for performance, fairly rewards good performance, and takes corrective action when necessary.”

The first thing that strikes me about my original definition is that it contains elements from several of the leadership theories that we studied in this course. For example, “communicates the vision, goals, objectives” is found, or implied, in several of the theories that we read about, from the Behavioral Approach, to the Situational Approach, Path-Goal Theory, Leader-Member Exchange Theory, and especially in Transformational Leadership where “Inspire a Shared Vision” is listed as one of the early and essential steps of leadership. (Northouse, pg. 174) Similarly, in his chapter on Servant Leadership, Northouse lists “Conceptualization [as an] individual’s ability to be visionary for an organization, providing a clear sense of its goals and direction”. (Northouse, pg. 228) Finally, in my Leadership Interview, setting the vision came out as one of four key “must-do” activities of a leader. The other three were: getting the chain of command rightly established, align the organizational structure with the vision, and hiring talented people and letting them “run”. I would daresay that the development and communication of an appropriate and clear vision for the organization, however that is done, is at least as important as all of a leader’s other actions, behaviors, and talents, if not more so.

The second element of my original definition that I would like to highlight are the words “inspires” and “coaches”. These leadership actions or behaviors stood out prominently in our study of Transformational Leadership, the Situational Approach, and Path-Goal Theory where the role of a leader to encourage, support, motivate, and even to inspire were brought out as essential leader activities and behaviors in situations where followers either needed help with figuring out a task, or where the communication of direction and vision to inspire already highly developed and talented followers would help energize the organization to excel. The leadership style of “coaching” was explicitly stated in the Situational Approach, where the leader needs to be both highly directive and highly supportive for followers with low to some competence and low commitment to the organization and its objectives. This also relates to the words “provides direction or instruction” in my original definition. In all approaches or styles, development of the follower was either explicit or implied.

Providing resources and “otherwise enable[ing] individual, organizational, or team success” figured prominently into Path-Goal Theory as the leader was seen as one who removed obstacles between followers and the successful achievement of the stated goals or objectives of the organization or team. Specifically, in Path-Goal Theory the leader “defines goals, clarifies [the] path, removes obstacles, and provides support”. (Northouse, pg. 116) However, Path-Goal Theory, as do the others, goes above and beyond my original definition, citing greater complexity regarding the type, or level of development of the follower, the complexity of the scenario in which the leader may find himself or herself, etc.

So while my original definition did contain several key aspects of the various theories that we studied, it also omitted key details and even entire theories (e.g., Adaptive Leadership and, to a large extent, Servant Leadership). This leaves me with the rather obvious question of “How do I improve on my initial definition?” Developing an accurate and concise definition of leadership that includes all of the key styles, approaches, theories, etc. remains a truly challenging task and I’m not entirely certain that I can do so without introducing yet more inadvertent exclusion or error than I did the first time. I think that Leadership Theories can be defined, and I believe that each of those theories provides ideas, techniques, and even prescriptions for the myriad of combinations of environment, objectives, follower development, constraints, and scenarios which a leader may face. But whole chapters and long articles were devoted to the adequate definition and description of each theory; again, how to come up with a concise and clear definition of leadership that one may find satisfying?

In reading about each of the leadership approaches or theories, I recognize portions of each that I have used in my career, without necessarily knowing the formal definition of same. I find therefore that, much like struggling with a revised definition of leadership, I cannot label myself as one particular brand or style of leader. My initial definition I know was heavily influenced by my experience and my tendencies toward leadership. I have long recognized the importance of, and tended to favor things like vision, supportive and directive behaviors, coaching, removing obstacles from the path to success, and also aspired to be an inspirational leader who tries to motivate (rather than coerce) followers to achieve our mutual goals and otherwise succeed and grow in talent, knowledge, and character. Within the past few years, primarily through church and also the works of Ken Jennings, I have heard about servant leadership and done a lot of thinking about, and aspiring to, that style. But I’m not there yet.

Along the way, and especially in this course, there has also been introduced Authentic Leadership. This is the theory or approach that I find most satisfying. A leader who possess high moral standards and integrity, who is transparent, who is self-aware, and able to be balanced in his or her processing of information; this is the type of leader that I most want to be. I realize that such is a lifelong process as Authentic Leadership inherently grows out of significant life events, extensive experience, the process of self-discovery and awareness, and the sharpening of moral reasoning and commitment. As such, it does not seem probable or suited to the young and impetuous.

So what of this definition of leadership? Perhaps it should go something like this:

“A leader is someone who understands the various leadership theories and approaches, who has experience with each, and who, based upon the particulars of environment, organizational objectives or requirements, and follower development and needs, selects and uses the appropriate leadership approach, or elements from several approaches, to successfully guide or enable the organization to succeed, while having a positive influence on its members.”

To be continued….

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Inner Work for Authentic Leadership

Most places that you go these days, and with most of the people that you talk to, we appear to be suffering from a dearth of leadership.  I frequently hear this lament at work; society at large (fueled by the media) is bemoaning lack of leadership among the leaders of The Congress, President, and other elected or appointed officials. And corporate scandals (e.g., the bank failures and home mortgage crisis of late, as well as the need for government bailout of two of the big three automakers) abound. Instead of leaders with integrity, a moral compass, and a backbone, we instead see corruption, indecisiveness, and otherwise weak-minded “leaders” who are in it for the big money. It is the in-authenticity of many of today’s leaders that seem to plague us in all areas, from corporate, to non-profit, to governmental sectors. In fact, Barbara Kellerman wrote a book back in 2012 entitled “The End of Leadership”, in which she makes the case that we have “lost the recipe” when it comes to leadership; universities and training centers no longer teach good leadership principles and the “leadership industry” (the vast array of seminars, etc. available) largely don’t know what they are doing.  So it should come as no surprise that, collectively, we find ourselves in trouble where leadership is concerned. True, we still have some notable exceptions, but by and large we appear to lack authentic leaders to lead us into this 21st century.

What is Authentic Leadership? At present, there is not one single, unified definition.  Northouse (2016) cites three points of view on Authentic Leadership.  The first is the “intrapersonal perspective” that focuses mainly on the leader and what goes on inside the leader’s mind.  Self-knowledge, self-regulation, and self-concept are the three main components of the intrapersonal perspective.  Through these well-developed qualities, an authentic leader leads with conviction, not by necessarily emulating someone else. Also, life experiences and their meaning are critical to the development of the authentic leader. The second perspective, as described by Northouse, is interpersonal; in other words, the leader-follower relationship. “Authenticity emerges from the interactions between leaders and followers [ with the emphasis on the reciprocity of the affect each have on the other]” (Northouse, 2016). Third, authentic leadership may be addressed from the developmental perspective wherein authentic leadership develops over time and influenced (or triggered) by major life events (e.g., death of a loved one, loss of a job, etc.).

Bill George, developer of the Authentic Leadership approach, in a short YouTube video, talks about how you become an authentic leader, or a better (more authentic) leader, and touches on three main points: 1) real-world experiences to help you gain self-awareness; 2) the need to process the experience(s) through some type of introspection (e.g., meditation, prayer, or some sort of intimate relationship where you have someone whom you trust to talk to); and 3) receiving honest feedback from a person (or persons) with whom you have a more intimate and trusting relationship, and who will tell you the truth.

As I think on my own leadership experience in the real world of acquisition program management within the Department of Defense, and as a defense support contractor (now on the “other side of the table” in certain situations), I too lament the on-going decline in leadership within DoD and the federal government at large.  Failed programs, huge cost overruns, contractors caught defrauding the government, a crop of leaders who seem to prefer to not “rock the boat” by making any tough decisions (and who operate on political correctness instead of unvarnished truth), a lack of mentoring…the list goes on and on to make the case that we lack authentic leaders; and it would appear that we aren’t going to get well anytime soon.

For me, though, the real-world experiences that have had the most impact have included observing and working with what we would have called authentic leaders some 25-30 years ago. I had the extreme privilege of working with The Lockheed Skunk Works as I was starting out in my career.  In observing the kind of up-front, no-nonsense, completely honest, and attention-to-detail practices of that company, I learned how successful acquisition leadership and leadership practices could work. I learned the value of operating on a person’s word and a handshake. I learned how to cut to the chase on complex acquisition programs and focus on the essentials. And I learned what a leader with integrity, morality, and a solid work ethic looked like, acted like, and performed like.  I learned the essential qualities of forming good, trusting relationships with folks at all levels of the hierarchy, from the production and assembly floor worker, to the Vice President and General Manager for Aerial Reconnaissance Programs.

I also remember one experience that literally made all the difference for me with another contractor with whom I was working and trying to solve some significant production and performance issues.  Along with our contracting officer, I negotiated an “omnibus” contract settlement where the contractor owed the government some things and vice versa.  During that negotiation, I agreed upon a particular contractual arrangement with the contractor for production deliveries.  Two weeks later, a briefing chart on that very issue was presented by the contractor during a program review with my boss and our chief of contracting in attendance.  They both stopped the presentation and questioned the arrangement since they had a different interpretation of how things should read. The contractor person giving the briefing turned to me and asked point blank, “Which is it, Dan? The way I have it written up on the screen, or the way they just said they believed it to be?”  Moment of truth. I took a deep breath and said, “The words up on the screen are what I agreed to in negotiations.” A huge sigh of relief was felt around the room, my boss and our chief of contracts said that was okay too, and we moved on. I could have acquiesced to what I thought were the wishes of my boss and our chief of contracts and said that their interpretation was the one we would go with. I could have gone back on my word at the negotiation table, but I didn’t. The amount of professional respect that I earned that day paid huge dividends with the contractor as we made our way through the problems on the program.

So, real-world experiences (especially real-world tests) I believe are essential to the development of leader authenticity. And leaders need to reflect on these experiences, both before they may occur (if such a thing can be foreseen), and afterwards.  Like the old saying goes, “Always tell the truth and it’s much easier to remember what you said.” My two main forms of reflection are “daydreaming” when I have the chance; to just sit and replay the experience in my mind and relive the emotions and thoughts that were running through me at the time; and prayer, where I also replay critical successes and critical failures in my career and my personal life. Part of reflection is the absolute necessity to learn to forgive yourself for mistakes that you have made; learn from your mistake, then move on.

Many times, it is essential to have a close, trusted friend or two with whom you can share your experiences and receive honest feedback, grace, emotional support, and encouragement for the way ahead. I am lucky enough to have two such friends, to whom I can tell anything and not be judged, but instead be understood, constructively criticized, and supported to move forward with either new ways of looking at a problem or affirmations that I’m on the right track.  These two gentlemen are both older than me, they both understand the DoD, and they are also exceptional mentors to me along the way.  Though they are senior to me, we talk on an equal footing.  We learn from each other; it is not simply a one-way street where I go talk about my problems and they tell me what to do. And we share and analyze successes as well as failures. These two confidantes are my lifelines when I’m stuck and need advice. They are also accountability partners, mostly when I ask them to be and sometimes even when I don’t.  Relationships liked these are difficult to find sometimes, but essential.  I have known and worked with these men for 12 and 24 years, respectively.  We talk regularly, and without their guidance and inputs, I would be left to fend on my own. These relationships make and keep me authentic out there in the world.

The last bit of advice on authentic leadership that I’d like to close with is to find and attend at least one good leadership seminar or summit per year where you can hear directly from proven, great, and authentic leaders. It’s inspiring; it’s insightful; and in my mind it’s essential to “recharge your batteries” when it comes to leadership and leadership in the context of your own life. I’m not trying to “sell” anything here, but if you are unsure of what I mean, look up the Global Leadership Summit online and you’ll see one such example of such a gathering. Day-to-day work inside any organization can take a toll on you, and seeing and hearing great leaders of our time not only reminds you that they still exist and authentic leadership is still possible, but it can prove inspiring to you as you face your own leadership challenges. All leaders should be authentic; I would go so far as to say that if you’re not authentic, then you aren’t really a leader.