Are you your organization’s ‘poet’?

“We’re going to miss this man, America. Whatever his flaws, he’s been more than our president. Time and again, he’s been our national poet.”

Frank Bruni said this of President Obama in a recent New York Times opinion piece.

It set me thinking.

When unease ripples through your markets, when anxiety overtakes your organization, when your employees are either confused or believe the organization is not going in the right direction, how do you, as a leader, act? How do you energize your team?

Do you take the role of an organization ‘poet’?

Huh, you may ask. But I mean business. Literally and figuratively.

The ‘poet’ leader has a fierce, tough-minded optimism that lifts the spirit of his people. She has deep convictions, is resilient, and battles change and adversity with creative ideas. He creates positive energy in negative environments. She believes in the future and motivates purposeful performance through well thought out optimism.

Before the second ‘huh?’ escapes your lips on the seemingly oxymoronic phrase ‘well thought out optimism’, hit the pause button. There is a simple but powerful flow to this philosophy that lends it its power.

It starts with a vision of success for your organization. It is a conviction that defines something special. It is a passion that inspires others to stand with you. It goes beyond being the best. It makes you want to be the only ones doing something unique, and doing it in the unique way you do.

This philosophy spells uniqueness not as ‘exclusive’ but as ’care’. Colleagues, customers, partners, vendors…they all matter. As does conduct – both as an organizational credo and as traits of its individual representatives. Care and conduct places meaning above efficiency to weave an emotional connect into the fabric of corporate culture.

The flow of this philosophy creatively looks to the future by rediscovering the past. The ‘poet’ acknowledges that the past is a treasure trove of history, which can create momentum and confidence if not looked at with regret. Through rediscovery he ignites innovation in reinventing the future, even as he is consistent in his priorities.

The ‘poet’ thus starts a movement to take on what is possible. He does not debate why it cannot. She changes her organization’s climate in testing times to enrich its culture. They are resilient, not just to bounce back but bounce forward. They develop a unique perspective of the future. In seeing opportunities that others do not, they display both initiative and humility to tap into the collective intelligence and genius in their organizations.

Fittingly, the New York Times article was titled ‘Freedom from Fear’. Amidst challenges, doubts and fears, the poet leader talks calmly, authentically and forcefully about ‘what we can do’. They personally renew themselves to re-energize their employees. That is why the classic line “I have a dream” was a poetic foundation to historic change. Imagine if it had been “I have a fear”!

Character – the value beyond excellence

A recent HBR article drew attention to a study that revealed organizations with highly principled leaders performed significant notches better. Specifically, their average return on assets was five times over companies whose leadership did not enjoy confidence in their character.

Now that we have dispensed with the need to prove the obvious, let us turn to the trait we call character. The study identified four moral principles—integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion—as the cornerstones of character. Interesting aren’t they? Especially as we use the first two more as jargonized parlance, and look down on the next two as the very antithesis of strength and aggression to achieve results for shareholders.

Character. We are in awe of it when we feel it, and when the leader radiates it. Yet precision eludes us as we grapple to define or describe it.

A bulb tellingly flashes in my mind. Is my character where my head and heart joins? Where my thoughts, feelings and actions seamlessly move in total harmony into my behavior? A behavior that I do not hide in my self, but bring to life through my relationships with others?

Each of us constantly makes signature decisions about how we interact with others. When our behavior enhances the well being of others, character springs to life. It is the discovery and sustained practice of promoting the most good for the most people.

I hear the impatience. Sounds great, but can we be realistic please?

So here goes the realist’s argument. In a bottom-line-driven economy what role can character possibly play in organizational success? Honesty, compassion, forgiveness – don’t tell me these can help deliver the top-line and bottom-line goods.

But the HBR survey did just that, didn’t it? It found a strong and robust relationship between strength of character and business performance.

So, back to the annoying idealist.

Meet goals, crank profits? Hmmm…not enough. Use both head and heart to orchestrate an inclusive high-performance? Now we are talking!

For starters, let us look at the leadership competencies we spout, and tweak them to infuse ‘character’.

“Pursuit of Excellence” – going above and beyond the ordinary to achieve goals, is that what they say?

Character adds transcendence as a vital dimension – to display courage, creativity and positivity to do what is right rather than pursuing the expedient.

“Drive” – the vigor that achieves stretch goals through execution excellence, say the pundits.

Character weaves positive humility into it – self-awareness, the ability to reflect and motivate, and gratitude to colleagueship that makes success possible.

“Accountability” – we look at this as a broad umbrella of ownership.

Character threads humanity through empathy and magnanimity to forge followership as its fundamental strength.

“Results-driven decisiveness” – we define it as the ability to make sound, timely and defensible decisions, especially in crises.

Character percolates integrity, temperance and justice – and lends authenticity to success in today’s profit-maximizing context of business.

 The good news is that it is not important to ascertain if we are born with character. We just need to develop it and keep honing it as we act and lead. As the HBR study reveals, it is neither a subjective construct nor a ‘soft’ and non-quantifiable strength in a world that looks for hard data.

As we move up the ladder, we sometimes become unaware of the repercussions of the outward display of our character. Self-awareness is the key, especially to the nuances that infuse character to critical leadership competencies. Importantly, we do not have to wait for a destination for such awareness to kick in. Frontline and middle-level managers will do well to focus on social intelligence and integrity; senior leaders will do better to be open to honest feedback. For character is as much a winning differentiator by its presence as it is a crippling blind spot by its absence.

Hello professional, what is your shelf life?

I am a successful executive, consistently exceeding performance expectations. I am an engaged employee, a team player and committed to my organization. May I sit back and smile in satisfaction?

Sure, smile you can, says a little voice within me. The voice of my friend, my good sense, I realize. But you need to turn around a little and read the expiry date of your usefulness to your organization.

Really? I wonder.

Hmmm… yes, the voice continues. This date is relative to how you grow yourself with respect to your organization’s growth or change. Without any reflection on your capabilities or potential, you may not have kept pace. Or you may have romped too ahead. In either case, one of you has outgrown the other.

How do I know when this happens, I ask. You can feel it in your gut, it says, provided you are honest to yourself. Provided you do not see it defensively or with a sense of entitlement.

I bristle. Will then my performance that has consistently exceeded expectations have no value? Ahem, interrupts my good sense, this is what I meant by not being defensive. If you are consistently so good, you may have reached your full potential. Think. Are you atrophying? Do you see room to grow? Can you make yourself room to fit you and engage you?

Wouldn’t that be the responsibility of the organization, I demand. I hear my good sense cough another ‘ahem’. See, now you are getting into an entitlement mode of thinking, it gently rebukes. Is it fair of you to expect your organization to offer you lifetime employment? Especially when it may not be able to, due to limitations beyond the blame game on either side? Your excellence is yours. So is your commitment. But do not let them come in the way of your own development, it counsels. Can you think differently? Can you reinvent yourself?

Good sense always makes, well, good sense. It shook me out of my focused but narrow thinking. Just like we are wary of food, however good, that has had an unusually long shelf life, so could my organization. It was up to me to keep my professional life fresh for the future.

However progressive it sounds, reinvention is daunting. But so can spending the rest of my professional life doing a job that is no longer fulfilling. It can frustrate if it is not fulfilling for myself, and it can rudely jolt if it is not so for my organization.

My mind latched on to what Wayne Gretzky the Canadian ice hockey player and coach said. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.”

So here is what I promised myself I would do.

First things first. No stupid self-denials. Change is imminent, let me get prepared for it.

Next, let me chalk my timelines clearly. How much longer do I want to tinker with the status quo for necessary comfort factors? Before I make the leap?

There comes my next sign. Tap both sides of your brain, it suggests. You will need both logical and innovative thinking to develop feasible new skills and turn existing skills into new assets.

Confidence, courage and commitment will be my best friends, I tell myself. Confidence to overcome doubt and leverage strengths. Courage to take a step back temporarily, if needed, to move forward. Commitment to hold myself accountable to the decisions I will make, without regret or frustration.

Yes, as a professional, I do have a shelf life. But I intend renewing myself to attract invitations from various shelves that interest me. And when I finally step off the shelves, it will be my call – with fulfillment and grace.

Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir…

Way back in 1971, the US State Department created its official Dissent Channel. It defines itself as ‘a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels and procedures…’

Responsible dissent. What is it?

Could it be the sustainable quality to stand up for what really matters, disagree and then come together again once the issue is resolved?

If so, how do we push ourselves into the right dissent? And what is the right balance in creating an environment that makes dissent a part of the workplace culture and not a standalone event?

The responsibility and accountability lies on both sides. Employees must learn how to question authority, and leaders should know how to listen to feedback and handle disagreements.

Let me wear the dissenter’s cap first. I disagree with my bosses on an issue – their stance bothers me, and the bother does not look like going away. I realize that speaking my mind to and disagreeing with power can be risky at best and dangerous at worst. Do I or not stick my head ‘above the parapet’?

The voice of reason in me should ask – how personally responsible am I for the thing I am concerned about? What personal level of attachment do I have to the issue? What is the power I have to do something about it?

I realize that the first tough questions are for me to answer, not my bosses! And so my mind makes a practical checklist of the costs and benefits. Job security, professional relationships, acknowledgement of merit and courage, respect…

Once I remove emotions through this checklist, the second set of questions emerges. Is this conflict that I am about to create a healthy one? Do I have a purpose that goes beyond my self-interest? Will it create value? Am I pointing my energy in a productive way in the right direction? Can I look at the road ahead, and not in the rearview mirror?

And what happens when I wear the cap of authority?

As a leader I must be open to constructive dissent. I must recognize and appreciate the courage and professionalism of the person who has stepped forward even if I do not agree with him. If I prevail I must ensure he retains his dignity and is rewarded for his risk taking.

Good leadership creates an open and two-way communication system that encourages speaking the truth to power centers. Only then will the quality of decisions improve – moving as it will from ‘What would my leader do?’ to ‘What do we think and do?’

When such a culture is created, dissent will be compelling and speak the language of what is possible. It will be a discipline and not a war. A discipline that pushes us, on either side, to find our ‘energy sweet spot’ that fires up more of our creative arsenal that makes us unique, innovative, and passionate. A discipline that, over a period of time, will build an auto immune system in our organizations to check and correct power abuses, errors and ambiguity.

I belong. With pride. With purpose.

How does he do it?

I found myself asking this question as I watched him address diverse audiences. He has children, adults, teachers, industrialists and even the apathetic Indian (at home and abroad) involved and roused when they listen to him – and long after too.

Much has been talked and written about Narendra Modi’s speeches and his persona – I am not going to add my tuppence bit to that. But one phenomenal effect that seems to surge in the people he addresses seems to be a good lesson for all organizational leaders.

The pride of belonging.

Excuse me, it says, I am not the rhetoric of happy talk. I am the pride centered on purpose. I beat in the heart of every organization, team and individual. I beg to be tapped from the static company mission statements and brought alive.

Please, it pleads, I am far more profound than being merely appreciated through rewards and recognition programs. I spring from wells deeper than that.

It certainly does.

It is the culmination of the effort, the brainpower and all of the waking hours that people plough into their organizations. They need it to have meaning. They need it to matter.

It is the spirit of the happy people who sling frozen fish at Seattle’s Pike Place Market at slim wages. They want this spirit to find common ground and be part of something bigger than itself. To have an additional pride of membership and connectedness to causes and results that matter.

Belonging in people recognizes the truth that the things they create and craft carry little but sure pieces of their skill, will, heart and soul. For the fire of pride to be lit, the relationship has to be reciprocal. People must feel that they too are transformed in some way by all that they build.

How does this shift the telescope of leadership?

For starters, a considerable U-turn from the Cartesian focus on ‘I think, therefore I am’ to the Ubuntu assertion of ‘I am because you are’. The softness of the latter statement is deceptive, very deceptive. No belief in collective strength can be soft. Any shared intellectual, emotional and psychological power packs a whopping punch!

Two, it also changes leadership’s listening frequency. They need to tune in to their followers’ hopes, expectations and needs with an ethic of service, principles, knowledge, capability and astute alacrity.

Three, their aggression needs to be wise – built on passion, compassion and agility. They need to sense, reflect, resonate and harmonize with their followership.

More than anything else, any leadership can evoke the pride of belonging only if the steward has the moral authority to gain trust and approbation from the people who want to be led. Only if their people respect and appreciate their personhood, not just their persona.

In translating the here and now to their vision of the future, in carrying their people along as they link the organization’s history and destiny, leaders need to make the unerring connection between hope and achievement of their followers. Otherwise the Ubuntu philosophy aptly describes what will happen. ‘Until lions have their own historians, all stories about hunting will glorify the hunter’

Listening to whispers amidst the bugles

“I found that the most rewarding moments of my work-life were not when I got attention, but when I felt good at the end of a hard day’s work”

 So nod the ‘invisibles’, as they are termed, of an organization.

 They are the ones leaders do not see, but experience their strength. The ones whose punch they feel without seeing their fists. They are the squares that do not need managers pegging them into the traditional round holes.

 As a manager, as a leader, how do you manage them? Recognize them? Reward them? Motivate them?

 “Puhleeez!” This is the ‘Invisible’ wincing. “Please do not think of me that way.”

 And that is why they are different. They defy typifying even in being different. So let us just take a tour of their psyche first – enjoying what we see, without even attempting to join any dots.

 Make no mistake, they are extremely crucial to your success. No organization can do without them. Yet, they do not hang their coats on the pegs of the conventional modes of rewards and recognition that an organization must execute to cater to the majority. Their traits are strongly tied to their unique and individual perceptions of achievement and life satisfaction – their benchmarks are as simple as they are exceptional!

 It is a no-brainer to assume that they do not like self-branding. Even as they pursue excellence, they are uncomfortable drawing attention to how good or essential they are. The “Aha” moments they create for themselves exhilarate them and make them feel satisfied in a way that a pat-on-the-back most certainly would not.

 Touch me? Touch me not?

That is the billion-dollar dilemma of managers and leaders. You cannot ignore them, you cannot blaze the spotlight on them. You cannot not see them, you cannot place them on a pedestal. They whisper, but come out louder than the bugles – and they cringe when you silence the noise to hear their whisper.

 And certainly you cannot let them go unrewarded. Like someone so aptly remarked, their lack of self-promotion is definitely not a lack of what they are worth.

 Perhaps a good place to start with would be the work environment itself. Can leaders create an environment that reassures there is no need to toot one’s horn? A team-oriented atmosphere that affirms the focus is on the collective energy of its members and not on individual image building?

 Maybe respect would be a good second on the list. Respect their need to raise performance across the team, not just being singled out for excellence. Acknowledge and allow, as invisibly as they keep their presence, their need to create (and not merely be given) intrinsically rewarding work for their team, not merely for themselves.

 Amidst the possible ‘Dos’ there could be one important ‘Don’t’ in dealing with them. And that is telling them in their performance reviews of the need to be more visible and more vocal for their success. Conditioned as we are to the success factors of relentless networking and stakeholder management, we may perceive the ‘invisibles’ as shy whispering individuals. In reality, theirs could be a powerful attitude and ability to quietly observe and listen to those around them, and guide them to finding the answers themselves.

 In so doing they could teach many a humbling lesson in leadership. Of how to influence with a quiet passion and love for work, and totally without authority.

Ladder, ladder, by the wall – who is climbing it to the top?

Say you are an acknowledged leader. As an individual you have chalked up indisputable achievements. As a team builder too, you have a motivated team that rocks. And you have set your ideals higher and backed a protégé who will perhaps be a perpetuation of your leadership legacy.

But people are fallible, right? Even if you do not think you are, your protégé could be. Could he stumble? Could she fall occasionally? Would you let him fail? So that she can show her mettle in getting up, dusting off her setback and finish the race?

Or would you protect him…hmmm…or yourself…from perceptions?

Tough egg to crack, do you think?

What if you shied away from finding a ‘right’ answer? What if you told yourself there can be no wrong one either?

What if you just gave in to an honest admission and choice?

Do I groom my protégé for my benefit, or his? Am I the ladder, or is she?

(Honestly, this is a totally non-judgmental exercise to tickle your thoughts on an interesting perspective. So that you may wrestle with the answers truthfully in the privacy of just your self as the audience.)

Back to the question.

Can you meet the truth of the answer without the guilt of selfishness or the smugness of selflessness?

Let us step back and dispassionately view this. In such a relationship, both the sponsor and the protégé benefit. The sponsor garners acclaim for leadership acumen through such ‘anointment’ of worthy successors. For the protégé, of course, it is a fairly protected access to success and the limelight.

So, toss the coin. Heads! I chose this person for my benefit.

I targeted this up-and-coming bright person because he is like me. I chose her because she will be my loyal lieutenant. My invaluable contributor. My ruthlessly efficient executor. My innovative problem-solver. Oh, and yes, supremely loyal. He may not fit the throne perfectly nor inarguably demonstrate all credentials. So what? No one is perfect, I have the prerogative of choice in running with levels of imperfection and I am a packaging expert.

Don’t run others down when you see this profile. Neither run yourself down if you are one such…just accept it.

What would I do if such a person fails to the extent he could jeopardize my climb?

The answer becomes easy when the shrouds are removed. Of course, I will give her political cover till it speaks creditably of me. But she is dispensable in the grander scheme of things. And she knows it too. When the heat gets intense, he will step down without a protest, falling on the sword to remain loyal to me. For you see, he knew from the beginning it was not his wont to prove to be the right person for the job. She was aware she was a brilliant pawn, right for my leadership legacy. And I will reward her in other ways that matter to her.

Let’s toss the coin again. Tails! I chose this person for her benefit.

I targeted this person not because I wanted to see myself in the mirror. I did so because she has terrific potential and has demonstrated all the required credentials. I know he can and I am committed to help him elevate his game, dream higher and take my job.

What would I do when such a person stands before the alligator pit?

I know there are pitfalls he will stumble on, and I will coach him ahead so that he knows to be prepared. I will give room for her to fail securely, with safety nets in place so that she is comfortable with and confident about taking risks. And when failure is career threatening, I will step in to totally protect them.

So go ahead, and look at the ladder closely. Do you see yourself climbing it, or your protégé? That is all the answer you need!