An Attorney Called

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The last two years have started in the same way - a call from an attorney.

"Is this Dr. Ray Wheeler?" the voice on the other end of the phone began the conversation.
"Yes, I am Ray, how may I assist you?" I asked.
"I am Sam Smith (pseudonym) attorney at law and one of my clients has a challenge I would like your help with. My client is a privately owned business run by three brothers. They have been in business for 30 years but have recently been unable to agree on anything. They need someone to facilitate their board meetings and help them work through their conflict. Do you do this?"
And so the year began. As I have reflected on the year, I realized that the diversity of client requests I have had this year paints a compelling picture of the reason coaching is so powerful. The following is a list of client engagements in descending order of intensity as determined by the size of the engagement.
Executive team building - engaging the strengths and perspectives of executive teams when key members have changed or when the team has hit a stalemate in disagreement (this is more often rooted in interpersonal tension than in strategic direction). In one case the executive team was caught in a pattern of behavior that grew out of working around the dysfunctions of their former CEO. They realized that their behavior toward the new CEO was stuck in the same patterns and that as a team they were not making decisions or moving forward.
Organizational health - refocusing the organization's vision and communication. When the owner of one company called, the urgency of his voice nearly pushed me against the wall. "I need help," he began, "I recently bought a new agency and developed a new partnership - I have three different cultures and ways of looking at the market that will undermine everything we meant to accomplish by the mergers. Can you help with this?" We talked about the steps we could take together in coaching to work with his employees and key influencers to shape an organizational culture that supported the strategic direction of the new agency.
Executive coaching - with a focus on developing people skills, purpose, and communication skills. These CEOs felt the need to develop themselves to face new challenges in their organizations. They took the initiative to find a coach.
Board facilitation - like executive team building this board was caught in interpersonal conflicts that played the same disagreements over and over with varying levels of intensity and undermining. This engagement facilitated their meetings and engaged each member in executive coaching.
Coaching for change - with a focus on perspective in the face of rapidly changing market dynamics. These owners/executives simply needed a voice to help them go the balcony and identify the opportunity in the chaos of change.  These leaders understand that without someone to help them think through their situation they would either remain stuck in the rut of their past thinking/analysis or caught in the bog of panic. It isn't that they lacked analytics or business acumen. Rather, they simply needed a nudge, the right questions, to analyze their situation and the data from a different perspective.
Remedial coaching - this client had managers who were stuck in their development and needed to see themselves and the impact of their behavior from a different perspective.  The reality is that in many organizations mid-level managers and supervisors are promoted into wider responsibility without the benefit of coaching to help them redefine their people skills or the self-understanding to know the impact of their behaviors. Coaching raises their self-awareness and helps them define their strengths in constructive ways.
What impresses me most about the diversity of these requests is that more companies have made a commitment to (a) develop their team members and (b) face and work through conflict because they understand both the cost of conflict and the high cost of losing/replacing talent.  It is an interesting year. How does your organization manage the need for coaching?

Beware your ascension to power

hand-fist-power1Motivations are sometimes difficult to isolate. The variety of experiences one gleans through a career of interactions with those in power has a significant shaping effect on how power is perceived. I have observed a sometimes benign and other times toxic reaction to bad leadership that sets the stage for amplified emotional impact at work.  I call this reaction, "backdoor leadership lessons." Backdoor leadership lessons are those insights one gains by watching leaders act in a way that contradicts constructive leadership action. Leaders who fail to manage their stress resort to manipulation, frustration, insults, or rage to force things through the system. Because they have power they have initial success as people comply out of fear. However, over time, the success are fewer and farther between as people feign compliance with a head nod, avoidance, and passive impertinence.

The benign and even constructive backdoor leadership lessons emerge from observation and an internal commitment to be a different kind of leader. If one could listen to the self-talk inside the emerging leader's head they might hear thoughts like, "I will never treat my team like that. I will never cut innovative people off out of frustration. I will never be that headstrong." These backdoor lessons often lead to constructive self-awareness and the development of emotional intelligence and skill. Stepping into benign or constructive backdoor leadership lessons requires the exercise of forgiveness and the rigor of critical reflection on both the actions of a toxic leader and oneself. Without forgiveness and critical reflection, a toxic backdoor lesson emerges in the life of the leader.

Toxic backdoor leadership lessons also emerge from observation but take a subtly different road when it comes to internal commitment. Instead of rendering a commitment to be a different kind of leader toxic lessons result in a commitment to expunge the influence and legacy of the toxic leader. Rather than forgiveness and self-reflection, smug self-confidence emerges that sees the eradication of a prior leader's influence and legacy as a primary objective to the acquisition of power.  The self-talk that occurs in this emerging leader yields thoughts like, "I will destroy his/her toxicity.  I will redirect this organization to a more profitable or more effective strategy. I will pull this ship back into its rightful competitive position."  Both forgiveness and critical self-reflection are absent in this response which yields hubris more than insight.

Hence, I state, beware your ascension to power. If you think the acquisition of power is the solution to the bad decisions, poor interpersonal skills, inadequate strategy, or abusive arrogance you are on the trajectory to be a step worse as a leader than the individual you react to. Why? Because that leader becomes the model of your leadership by an inability to step away to a different focus. I ran across this observation the first time in a heavy equipment operator in my first congregation. Jim (not his real name) was a man's man kind of guy. He didn't speak much but when he did he often had great insights I benefited from. I didn't know the trauma that made up his personal life - that is until the day he dropped by my office.

Jim collapsed into one of the chairs in front of my desk and broke into sobs, the kind of sobs that men cry when they can no longer hold in the pain of their experience. "I hate my dad," he blurted out between heaving agonizing howls of emotional pain. "And I have become him."  Jim identified a connection that seems to me to be unyielding - the person you hate the most is the person you become because they are the target of your attention and affection.

In the words of one of my early mentors, "Ray, you will hit what you aim at."

Beware your ascension to power. Strategy and vindictiveness are not the same. I have watched men step into roles of power with the only objective of erasing the memory and work of their predecessor. They present themselves as innovators and prophets of a new day. They tirelessly work on change. However, they don't bring strategy, they bring destruction. They amplify the worst characteristics of their predecessors because they hit what they aim at.

Experience can teach leaders a tremendous amount of powerful lessons. But leaders gain little without the discipline of self-reflection and the exercise of forgiveness. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you see the dad, the boss, the mother, or the teacher that you hate?  Have you come to the revelation Jim came to?  Step back, consider your own behavior. Find a mentor or therapist who can help you walk back through the years of pain, bitterness, and the quest for revenge to get to the healing work of forgiveness. Don't confuse vindictiveness for strategy.

If you talk with Jim today, you see a different man entirely. He emanates a grace, a wisdom, and life insight that is almost under spoken but has the effect of causing others to reflect on their own trajectory in life. He is no longer trying to not be his dad. He is discovering what it means to be himself. His ascension to power nearly broke him. Now, his ascension to power has become a source of dynamic innovation and healing. Those around him no longer give him head nods of passive impertinence. Instead, they engage each challenge with vigor, courage, and initiative - all of which they have learned from Jim. What are you aiming at?

Define Your Ambition!

Ray at summitWhat is it that you want to accomplish? How clearly can you state your ambition? Ambition defined is as an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.

Ambition has a bad rap with many and for good reason. There are those whose ambition for power, prestige, or pleasure has made them into users and abusers of people.

But does the abuse of a trait by some make it negative in every instance? Can ambition be good? I argue that ambition is imperative. It helps people clarify their goals and purpose and live/work with focus and impact. Jesus, the master leader understood the power of ambition and its potential for abuse. Consider for a moment that Jesus often asked people directly and indirectly to clarify their ambition.

Jesus' questions intended to elicit honesty about what his listeners really wanted. In addressing the crowds about John the Baptist Jesus asked, "What did you go out to see?" He queried their deepest desire - people didn't go to see John because he was eccentric, they went because he offered hope for change. In confronting religious leaders on the tyranny that resulted from their dishonest ambition Jesus told a story about two debtors both forgiven their debts. Then he asked, "Which of [the two debtors] will love him [the creditor] more?" The answer exposed these leader's warped self-centered ambition. When approached by James and John who requested positions of prominence in Jesus' kingdom Jesus asked, "Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?"

Jesus' response refocused the ambition of James and John. Jesus did not rebuke their ambition - he shaped it and showed it to be misdirected. The question any leader faces is whether they will come out from inside themselves to be as honest as James and John about what they are really after. Ambition exposed can be shaped, challenged, encouraged, or redirected. Ambition hidden only warps, deceives, tyrannize, and suppresses others. Have you been honest about your ambition? Are you willing to allow God to reshape and redirect it? Like James and John honesty will result in a much larger commission than their original ambition was able to conceive. God will "blow you mind." Go ahead, expose and submit your ambition to God and see what God does in you.

Conceptualizing Leadership Development

Look at Leadership Three Dimensionally Thinking about leadership development.

“This looks like it is built for business, it seems like it only loosely applies to me,” the statement stemmed from wonder – having just completed a 360 degree assessment of leadership competencies Terry was looking for a way to integrate the concise definitions of competencies into his experience. “How do I integrate these insights into my role in leading a mission organization?” he asked.

The question is not uncommon. The contrast in purpose and metrics between a church or mission agency and a business seem stark. However, the way business and non-profit leadership is defined reveals far more about the degree to which a person has integrated their faith and work than it does any inherent difference in purpose between these two entities. Why? Because business fundamentally seeks to define needs and answer them.  Faith based ministries fundamentally do the same thing. Each works in a different sphere of human experience that often crosses into the domain of the other.

True, some businesses seem driven solely by profit and are sometimes willing to sacrifice friendships, people, family, and care for the environment to make a greater profit. But before I go too far in raising straw man arguments of false comparison; it is equally true that some non-profits are pure and simple charades designed solely for the enrichment of the founder or pastor or evangelist. Abuses happen in all sectors – the banality and reality of evil is ever-present. So, making false comparisons that vilify either business or faith reveals only mental laziness.

Understanding leadership is not an easy chore.  Often the challenge is that leadership is defined one dimensionally i.e., as a matter of applied skills or competencies (as happens in business) or as a matter of applied values and purpose (as happens in ministry). However, it does not take long to discover that leadership is as much about one’s self-awareness and personality as it is skill. What’s more, endurance, resilience, and consistency over time as a leader have more to do with a sense of meaning or purpose that we associate with spirituality.  Loehr & Schwartz (2003) writing on managing energy as a leader point out that the physical, emotional, and mental capacities of a leader are dependent upon a leader’s spiritual development.[i]

It helps to have a comprehensive model of leadership development that illustrates a three-dimensional approach to defining leadership. I use the term three-dimensional to point toward the necessity of seeing leadership as actions that stem from and are dependent upon the spiritual, personal, and skill development in a leader’s life. These three dimensions of a leader’s life represent the leader’s sense of empowerment, motivation, and learning posture. These three dimensions are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Components of Leadership Development[ii]

Critical Developmental Categories

Possessing a model like Figure 1 allows a leader, or those charged with developing leaders, to imagine a holistic process of development. Terry’s integrative work needs a model such as this to help categorize his thinking and conceptualizing.  Competencies are categorized as skill development in this model. Skills build competence. The importance of develop skills recognizes the truism that good intentions not only pave the road to hell, they undermine a leader’s credibility when not accompanied with the competencies needed to do the work of leadership.

Terry’s consternation in attempting to synthesize what he knows about leadership was compounded by the fact he has participated in a variety of assessments. The Birkman Method® Assessment, Strength Finders, Meyer’s Brigg’s, the Birkman 360, DiSC, and others do not measure the same thing to the same degree. It is important to categorize assessments by development domain. Terry for example, threw Strength Finders and the Birkman 360 into the same bucket (Personal Development in Figure 1). These two instruments are better categorized and Personal Development and Skill Development respectively (Figure 1). An integrative model such as Figure 1 accelerates understanding the relationship between personality and skill development.

Models also help diagnose difficulties faced by leaders. I sat with Ted, a CEO of a privately held firm with annual revenue of $50M. Ted expressed frustration with his team, the direction his company was going, and the mediocre performance of his company. It could be argued that Ted lacked certain competencies (e.g., vision casting or dealing with conflict) but this did not fully explain his own sense of aimlessness. The longer we talked the more clear it became that Ted’s real lack emanated from the fact he had lost his sense of purpose and ultimate contribution. Ted was in a spiritual crisis that undermined his ability to cast vision for the future. His company was disintegrating into a series of silos competing with one another for a dwindling pool of resources. In the absence of a clear purpose the company was collapsing into turf wars between strong personalities jockeying for power.

I saw in the real struggles Ted expressed the same patterns I found reading through the Prophet Amos (common to both Christian and Jewish Scriptures). I was struck with the fact I could synthesize my model of leadership development with Amos’ commentary on the disintegration of his social context to define derailed development see Figure 2.

Figure 2: Symptoms of Derailed Development in Leaders

Derailed personal develop Amos

Amos outlined three destructive cycles of derailed development. Each of these cycles corresponds to categories of development: indifference stems from derailed spiritual development, anger stems from derailed personal development, and destructive behavior is the result of derailed skill development. I have seen all three of Amos’ destructive cycles in the workplace. Notice in Figure 2 that Amos provides symptoms to each of his destructive cycles. Figure 2 serves as a diagnostic model from which to name the root problem that derails leadership development.  Ted for example had started his company with the desire to model servant leadership and social responsibility. Yet his lack of skill in knowing how to build strong teams and deal with conflict eroded his sense of purpose to the point he withdrew from leading. He looked at his team with suspicion and contempt. The fact is he looked in the mirror with the same emotions and projected them onto others. He became angry when I asked him to define his sense of purpose. He deflected the question by telling me to work on enhancing the skills of his leadership team. He became even more agitated when I suggested that the root problem was a lack of purpose not skill and that even with improved skills on the part of his leadership team he would be not happier than he was now. In fact improving the skills of his leadership team would only guaranteed more conflict as his team attempted to cast vision without him.

Conclusion

Leadership Development models offer a way to guide development, integrate new material, measure behavior, and diagnose derailed development. Is there a bottom line for leaders? Yes, leaders who do not think critically about their own and other’s development are leaders who eventually find themselves caught in cycles of indifference, anger, and destructive behavior. If you want to be a leader who finishes well then do the work of reflecting on and encouraging your own and other’s development from a three-dimensional perspective.

[i] Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal (New York, NY: The Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2003).

[ii] Raymond L. Wheeler. Change the Paradigm: Learning to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015). (Not yet released - coming this fall.)