On saying what you mean

Gender-based violence. Those words are powerful. Say those words to someone and they mean something, even if they have never heard the term before. Female genital mutilation. These words conjure up images of brutality, of violence, of pain, of discrimination and sexism. Even sexually transmitted disease, maybe something you’re more used to hearing in its abbreviated form STD, is more powerful when spelled out.

If you work in global health or international development you’ve probably called gender-based violence “GBV” and female genital mutilation “FGM”.  You’ve probably written PMTCT, short for prevention of mother-to-child transmission (of HIV), and heard SAM (severe acute malnutrition), SRH (sexual reproductive health), FP (family planning), MCH (maternal child health), NTDs (neglected tropical diseases), NCDs (non-communicable diseases), OVC (orphans and vulnerable children), DALY (disability-adjusted life-years), my newest one is EVDS (Ebola virus disease survivors)…the list goes on and on. This alphabet soup is endemic amongst institutions working in social impact, government, and policy, so even if you aren’t familiar with these specific to global health, I’m sure if you work in this space you can come up with laundry list specific to your field.

There’s the obvious argument that using these abbreviations alienate people who aren’t in the aid, development, human rights or health fields and don’t know the wonky lingo and so by its nature acronyms are elitist and pretentious, and I would agree with that. But there’s something even more important – we dilute the meaning of these words and phrases by bunching them up into comfortable little packages of letters. We start to forget what they really stand for. This shorthand stands for words that articulate inequity, describe human rights violations, elucidate real issues that need to be described with real words. These letters represent circumstances that describe the trials of being a human being in the face of injustice and the work being done to try to solve some of these pressing issues. This isn’t LOL and BRB and IDK.

As a leader, it is so important to say what you mean. Language is essential, not only because it is the vehicle for people to understand what you mean but also because the words that you choose communicate your values. And while I’ll talk more about communication in another post, the first part of communication is being intentional with your words.

So, while I might vaguely understand people’s desire to shorten things up, I would advocate that it’s important to take the extra few letters, take the extra breath and say the actual words. They mean something. And isn’t it so much more powerful to call things out by their names?

This post was modified from it’s original post “Alphabet Soup” in January 2014 on my other blog themoreisee.org 

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Intention Setting – The new New Years resolution for the modern leader

Starting off the new year, many people make their resolutions – go to the gym, eat healthier, write more, read more – the list goes on. But most of those resolutions don’t live on in people’s hearts and minds past a week or two into the new year. Are we so uncommitted to accomplishing the things we want to do for ourselves?

I would say, no. The problem with New Years resolutions, or resolutions in general, is that they are focusing on the wrong things – the what and the how – when instead they should be focusing on the values behind it, or the why. Our why is the heart of who we are, it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, what gives us reason and meaning, and yet we rarely contemplate or verbalize it in an intentional way. When you list off a bunch of arbitrary things that you want to do, with no underlying reason as to why, you can see how easy it would be to allow them to drop to the bottom of your priority list. And so I propose a new type of ritual for the new year, or for any important milestone moment in life – a new job, a new relationship, a new day – that rather than focusing on resolutions, focus on personal intention setting. Nietzsche wrote “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” and so understanding and being mindful not only about what you want to accomplish, but why you want to accomplish it, is core to being a values-driven leader, especially because it recognizes that there are many hows to getting there.

The practice of intention setting gives you the space when you are about to start something new to ask yourself – “Why do I want to do this?” “Why is it important to me?” “What are the deeper, values-based lessons that I want to learn?” “What do I want to get out of this or achieve?” “What is the impact that I want to have?” “Why do I want to have that impact?” The why is your North Star, while the whats and the hows are the different roads you could take to follow it. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, if you haven’t drawn yourself a bigger picture to be your guide, you may find yourself wandering blind. It’s also worth checking out Simon Sinek’s TED talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” by leading with their why.

Writing out your reasoning is the best way to live intentionally. Setting this out from the start doesn’t mean that you need to be inflexible or that you have an agenda, your intentions can and should be fluid and grow and change as you learn and discover. What intention setting does do is give you the insight to experience your life and your work in a proactive and present way.

And so for this new year, I challenge you to practice intention setting, and to revisit it time to time to help yourself stay on track.

As for my intention setting for this site in the new year – I believe that if everyone spent time working on their own personal leadership and building up the qualities needed to be a modern leader, the world would look very different than it does today. Because I enjoy thinking about leadership and what those qualities are, I want to continue to contribute to people’s leadership identity and thought process by pushing them to consider some of my interpretations of leadership through the pieces that I write on this site. As I go through my experiences in life, it is my intention to capture them in writing and share them with anyone willing to read. And I sincerely thank all of you who do.

Happy New Year!

 

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Yes and Yes, And

In previous posts I’ve discussed curiosity as one of the fundamental pillars of being a great leader. The only way to continue to learn is by constantly seeking out novel experiences that expose you to different perspectives and ideas, and cultivating boundless curiosity is a great way to do that. The easiest way to fuel and feed curiosity is by saying “yes” to everything.

The great thing about saying yes is that it often triggers a chain reaction. You say yes to go to a conference or a party or an event. There, you say yes to meeting new people. They, in turn, invite you to other events, or ask you to collaborate on something, and you say yes, which turns into something else. And on it goes. For each yes, you get countless more opportunities to say yes. You should particularly jump at the chance to say yes to things you normally wouldn’t, perhaps to attend something you don’t know anything about, or meet with people who don’t necessarily share the same opinions as you, or go to something alone where you don’t already know anyone there. This doesn’t only allow you to grow your network and experiences, it will also lead you to places to push you out of your comfort zone and into new territory you haven’t yet explored. Staying insular and only orbiting around the same groups of people who validate your world view constrains your ability to see the larger picture and striving to be well-rounded will allow you to be a leader who has the context to represent and take into account all people.
Saying yes is also a motivating tool to be more proactive. When you see an opportunity to write an article, or volunterring yourself to speak at a conference, going after those things is another way of saying “yes” by putting yourself forward, even if you’re not directly being asked. Don’t only wait for opportunities to say yes to come to you, seek them out for yourself.

 The first rule of performing improv is that you always have to say “yes, and?” The philosophy behind this is that when you negate your improv partner and say no, instead of yes, you kill the forward momentum. Instead, you need to accept whatever reality is put forth by your partner, no matter how crazy, and then build upon it. Most of us have had the frustrating experience of having a boss who loves to say “no.” Think about the stifling feeling that no creates and how it affected your motivation to bring new ideas in the future. Like saying yes to everything, adding the “and?” allows you to also grow that idea and see where it goes. This isn’t only great for you, it’s also great for the people you are working with because it gives their ideas room to be heard and explored.

Approaching things in the positive instead of the negative can often feel like a risk. It’s much easier and safer to say no, since when you say no, generally that means nothing needs to change, it maintains the comfortable status quo. But think about where “no” leads you – nowhere.

Hopefully this goes without saying, but it’s important to state regardless, that there are obvious times where it is important to say no – especially around your safety or at the expense of your self-care. Every person has a different threshold, so use your common sense and gut check, and say no in those situations. 

But on the whole, err on the side of “yes!” and see where it takes you. Why not?

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On Meeting the World Where It’s At

I’ve always loved the practice of harm reduction in public health work. The concept is, rather than ask or expect people to change, we recognize that they are going to do the things that they are going to do, and so we put practices in place that at the very least will help people to not do more harm to themselves than necessary. To illustrate an example, drug users are a common group in which the harm reduction model is used, where organizations not only offer resources to help people stop using drugs, they also recognize that while people are using, it’s important to provide things like clean needles and safe spaces to reduce any further harm.

I find that I have been generally dogmatic in my opinions around what I expect the world and people to be. I believe that people should be more discerning, caring, human-centered, insert myriad other words to describe conscious and compassionate living practices. I believe that companies should be more responsible to their employees, in their supply chains, and to the environment. I believe that government’s predominant purpose should be to set a level playing field for all of its citizens so that every person has the opportunity to achieve greatness without systemic and institutional obstacles in their way.

But what purpose does rose-colored glasses of idealism really serve? The world isn’t going to change overnight, and many will even argue that it shouldn’t. So all you are left with is judgment and disappointment that soon slips into cynicism and jadedness. To be a great leader, you must meet the world where it is at. Like the practice of harm reduction, recognizing the steps, however small, and however long they take, even if it means just keeping the status quo in order to avoid any further harm, is an important part of the change process. It’s not holding people to your sometimes righteous and unreasonably high standards, even if those standards come from the genuinely good place of wanting the world to be better than it is. It is understanding why things function the way they do, and however frustrating and sometimes painful, it is pandering to those ways, even if you disagree with them, so that you will be able to start to move the needle.

Practicing radical incrementalism is a helpful way to navigate and strive for your idea of what should be while also being rooted in reality. Radical incrementalism is exactly what it sounds like, making radical, strategically mapped out, micro-shifts that don’t completely disrupt the existing paradigm at once, but slowly and methodically over time. Instead of taking the revolutionary approach of wanting to tear everything down and start over, employing a tactic of radical incrementalism may get you much closer to the just and equitable world that you want to see.

As a caveat and a confession, as practical as this all sounds, writing this was hard for me, because I feel that so much does need to change now and that not making those changes immediately has profound and deleterious effects on people’s lives and wellbeing, and the revolutionary in me sometimes feels like all of this is just a fancy excuse for conceding or giving up. But in marrying the fantasy with the practical, I realize that to be a successful leader in these complex times, we need to be well versed in reality, recognizing there are many players with many stakes, that at many times are at odds with one another, and to be productive and effective we need work within it’s confines, rather than without, to successfully make the change we want to see.

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Navigating human complexity

Navigating complexity requires a mix of systems-thinking and human-centered thinking. There are a lot of different types of complexities – human, organizational, systemic. This is going to be a series exploring some different approaches to recognizing, getting comfortable with, and understanding complexity.

Navigating complexity among people and relationships

In their book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath dedicate a section of the book to the concept that when you’re facing what looks like a people problem, it’s often actually an environment or situation problem. A simple example of what this means is illustrated in an excerpt from their book: “When some guy cuts you off in traffic, you probably think, instinctively: What a jerk. (Or perhaps your inner voice is more vulgar.) What you almost certainly don’t think to yourself is, Gosh, I wonder what’s wrong that he is in such a hurry. It’s not hard to see why we don’t think that – it seems kind of naive, as if we’re making an excuse for a bad person. But think about your own behavior. Think of a time when you were driving so crazily that others would have been justified to curse you. Was your crazy driving on that day a manifestation of your true character (i.e., you’re a jerk at the core)? Or was it sparked by the situation you were in?”

When people do a bad job, lack motivation, even do bad things, we often attribute it to their character. It’s easier that way than to take the time and make the effort to try to distill the different factors that might be contributing to their actions. Navigating complexity often rears its head when you find yourself up against challenges with people, and like the excerpt shows, our knee jerk reaction is generally one of the following –they’re ignorant, they’re an idiot, or they’re evil.  But that’s too simple. People are complex, and we are all trying to navigate equally complex systems. And this doesn’t need to be just one individual person, it could be a group, or a community. The same can be said when thinking about behavior change or movement building.

So how do we shift our thinking from going to an immediate assumption of badness when we encounter people who in one way or another, aren’t living up to our expectations? You can start by practicing one part curiosity and one part human-centeredness.

Curiosity is the antidote to judgment. Taking a position of genuine curiosity necessitates the openness needed to properly excavate the situation and get to the heart of the matter. By approaching someone as a puzzle instead of thinking you already know the answer, you allow them to hold your hand as they walk your through their complexities. This is the best safeguard against incorrect assumptions. When you catch yourself assuming, or thinking you know the reason for something, ask a question instead. It’s rare to have real, straight forward conversations with people, and often they are scared to be up front, especially when it comes to their challenges. So if you take the initiative, and commit to having open, honest, curious conversations, and ask questions, what seems complex on the outside, can be decoded for you.

This aligns very much with taking a human-centered approach, where you put the person at the center and create the intervention around and for them. This isn’t about making excuses for someone, it’s about understanding why, because then, you might be able to do something productive about it. In management, for instance, it could be that they intrinsically lack motivation, or it could be that they weren’t set up for success. And if they weren’t set up for success, you have the ability to do something about it.

So next time you’re faced with a person or a group that you can’t seem to wrap your head around, instead of writing them off, realize that between human complexity, and the complex world we live in, take the time to understand, before you make your decision.

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The Leader, as Follower

There is a common misconception that being a leader means being the one to come up with the best ideas, that it’s about being powerful, or about knowing all the right answers. But being a real leader means knowing how to be a follower. None of us will ever know everything, and even more, so much of what we believe we know is subjective. There are two types of followership in leadership, the first is as a servant leader, following your stakeholders, and the second is following your team.

Servant leadership has become a more recently popularized concept, but has its origins as far back ancient China and the New Testament. The idea behind servant leadership is that the people who you are serving come first, and you create everything you do with them at the center. Much like human-centered thinking, servant leadership is about focusing on the people affected and involved, and making sure they are not only at the center of your planning but that their voices are the influencing factors in your decisions. How this relates to following, is that as a leader, you must invert the pyramid, where the base, or the stakeholders are on top, and the point, or the leader, is on the bottom. Leading from the back of the line means helping to keep people on the path that they want to be following, rather than telling them where they should be going.

Secondly, surrounding yourself with a diverse and knowledgeable team and then taking cues from them will allow you to be a more effective leader by practicing followership. Recognizing that you don’t know everything gives you the flexibility to be able to turn to those around you who might know better, or at least can share different opinions, in order to strengthen your programs and positions. The best thing you can realize for yourself is that working alone is not only counterproductive, it’s unnecessary. The more you look to people to break down your ideas and challenge them, the stronger you can build those ideas up into something more well-rounded and effective.

Taking the suggestions, thoughts, and inputs of all of these people and figuring out how to catalyze their collective ideas into reality is a true sign of leadership. This takes practice in being comfortable shifting seamlessly between being a leader and being a follower.

Being a leader who follows is not about playing it safe and doing what everyone else is doing, but rather, having the ability to dig deep into the needs of your stakeholders, empower and hear the ideas of your team members, and work to build a cohesive plan in collaboration with them and using them as your guide and inspiration.

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The gratitude/entitlement shift

You did it. You got the job, or the promotion, won the election, got the raise. You worked hard, you put in the hours, the blood, the sweat, the tears. And now you’re there. Where you’ve been wanting to be.

When does the shift from being so grateful that we were able to achieve our dreams devolve into our belief that we somehow deserve to have achieved them? When does our gratitude – the awe, the appreciation that you made it, turn into entitlement?

Great leadership rests in continuing to cultivate gratitude that you are where you are. And this doesn’t only apply to the people at the top. Every time we get to the next rung of the ladder, we react with a certain sense of disbelief that we did it, but fast forward a few months or years, not only do we take for granted we are there, we also don’t understand how we are not on the next rung already. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be ambitious or have lofty goals or even be satisfied, but rather to remind yourself that there was a time when where you are now is the place you were dreaming to be.

How do you sustain this outlook as novelty and excitement wear off and forward-looking begins? Part of it is recognizing that your success does not exist in a vacuum, but was built on the legacy of those who came before you, those who taught you, those who believed in you, and the fact that the world is the way that it is at this moment in time. And then acting on that recognition by lifting up the people around you and making sure you are contributing to a world in which others can be lifted up too.

It is also remembering your “why?”. So rarely are we challenged with truly answering the question of “why?”. Why do you do what you do? Why do you believe what you believe? Why do you care about this issue? Why did you end up here? The “why” reminds us of our raison d’être. The why is not position specific, it is the greater cause or calling that reminds us of what outside ourselves moved us to act. Your why is the path on the journey. When you challenge yourself to articulate your “why,” every step along the way is significant in and of itself.

But it is so easy to get swept up in the day to day that reminding ourselves not to take it all for granted, and then want more, can be easy to forget to do. So find daily cues around you that will help you be intentional in humbly practicing the art of everyday gratitude.

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On Changing your Mind

Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know. People who change their mind a lot are often called indecisive, are branded as uncertain or that they “waffle.” These qualities are associated with a lack of confidence, or even worse, a lack of leadership. Political careers have been ruined because candidates have been branded as “flip-floppers”; business careers have been tainted because a CEO came in saying they were going to do things one way and ended up doing them another. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes this criticism is more than warranted. But the culture behind our reaction to someone changing his or her mind is dangerous.

By creating or continuing to perpetuate a culture that demands “consistency” and criticizes changing our minds, we risk people not only neglecting to be introspective and analytical about their choices, it also keeps people on the same wrong path because they are too afraid to admit that they have discovered that another path is better.

Why are we so fearful of the openness and curiosity it requires to cultivate a culture where changing one’s mind is acceptable? Why is this considered courageous instead of what is to be expected in a non-static world? Part of it is that we associate our decisions with our identity. In a way, this makes sense, as we have convictions and we feel a certain necessity to stick to them. But imagine if you still believed the same things about the world that you did when you were a kid. Why would anyone, when thinking rationally, believe that what they believed at the outset of learning something, or the first conclusion they made about something, would be the best and most accurate way to think about it? And yet we hold our beliefs to be unwaveringly true, and in the face of opposition, so many times, rather than considering the contrary, we only hold on tighter.

Admitting you were wrong, or changing your mind, is perhaps the strongest you could ever show yourself to be when it comes to leadership. To be able to say – I thought one thing. Then I learned something new. And now I think something different – shows that you are thoughtful, iterative, and understand complexities. As the world changes, shouldn’t we continue to grow and learn and change our mind as new information presents itself that there are better ways?

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make decisions, that everything should be thrown into disarray because people keep changing their mind all the time and can’t make a final decision. It just means, be open, be iterative, be curious, don’t be so sure of yourself, and admit when you’re wrong, and change.

 “That’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Practice: Challenge yourself to look at all sides of a decision, even when you think for sure you know the right answer. Even if this is something that you’ve already decided upon a long time ago, revisit, and see if you still believe now what you believed then and if there is evidence to back up a better decision than the one you made. Allow and encourage others to do the same, and do not think of people as unreliable if they come to you and say that they have changed their mind.

The Role of Empathy in Leadership

The most powerful way to use empathy is as a tool to better understand the people we work with, the people we interact with, and the people we are trying to serve. This will allow us to avoid the trap of “good intentions” that don’t produce good results, but rather strip away our own perspectives and reactions and really hear what is being said to us. Cultivating empathy – true empathy – is an essential attribute of the modern leader. But empathy can often be confused or conflated with sympathy or “I want to help people,” and even worse, is often written off as a characteristic that is inherent within people, and not something that one can hone and practice.

An interesting piece written in the New York Times recently argued that people choose how empathetic they want to be, and are generally more empathetic to people or groups they identify with. With that in mind, as you are practicing cultivating your empathy, it’s important to recognize if you are withholding empathy unconsciously because you are interacting with a person or group that is unfamiliar.

According to scholars there are three types of empathy – affective or emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. Affective empathy is our emotional response to other people’s situation, or the feelings that are roused in us when we hear of another person’s happiness or struggles. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is our intellectual ability to identify and understand another person’s emotions. Compassionate empathy combines both emotional and intellectual understanding someone else’s feelings, but it requires a next step, which is, when appropriate, being moved to take action.

There are a lot of simple ways to practice empathy that you can do on a regular basis.

Active (Radical) Listening: One of the most obvious and sadly most under-used ways to practice empathy is through active or radical listening. This is listening with the intent to understand and to actually hear what the person is saying without injecting your own interruptions, reactions, or thoughts. When practicing radical listening, work on listening instead of waiting to speak. Catch yourself when you start to think of things to say in response and try to clear your mind so you can really hear what the person is saying. Don’t jump to give advice, play the devil’s advocate, or make excuses. For the moment, just listen. Eventually, when it comes time for you to talk, allow yourself to be open and vulnerable.

Cultivating Curiosity: Curiosity is a great way to expand your understanding of the world and work on your empathetic tendencies. Doing this requires asking real, thoughtful questions with a genuine desire to understand on a deep level. This also requires going out of your comfort zone, to explore outside your scope of reference. This could be talking to people you don’t normally talk to, reading things you don’t normally read, and going places you don’t normally go.

Finding shared identity and values: Empathy is very much about finding common humanity, about recognizing that in our own different ways, we are all just trying to get by. Even when you disagree with someone, trying to identify what values and identity you share will help you to find common ground and bring you closer together. In mediation and negotiation, using this form of empathy can help people understand where the other person is coming from, even if they don’t agree.

Even more than disagreement, there is also an important reason to empathize with your “enemies.” Oftentimes, assumptions and miscommunication lead to conflicts that don’t need to be. I was in a national security meeting recently in which someone said during a moment of epiphany “we wonder why single women with young children in foreign countries pick up their lives to move and join ISIS. They must be radical terrorists. But could it be that the current reality of their lives is so dire that joining ISIS actually offers an improvement to their current situation?” And many times that answer is “yes.” Rather than vilifying, blaming, or incarcerating, trying to understand the root of why a person is acting the way that they are is a good way to get to the root of an issue, rather than reacting to its outcome.

Empathy is the opposite of the golden rule – it’s not assuming that everyone wants the same thing as you and then doing unto them what you would want done to you. It’s listening and understanding what they need and want, outside of yourself.

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A Systems-Thinking Leader

An integral skill of the modern leader is the ability to be a systems-thinker. It is important to use systems-thinking when developing new policies, creating new processes, developing new programs, and addressing current problems and challenges.

Working on cultivating your systems-thinking requires stepping back and constantly taking a holistic approach, where you identify and map out the system you are navigating in order to understand the bigger picture. People, processes, and structures all exist and interact within systems, and it is understanding how each effects and influences the other that will help you to gain a greater understanding for an issue at hand.

This practice can be incredibly hard as we navigate complex and often times convoluted systems that sometimes demand immediate response, but taking the time to understand the whole context is often the first and most important step in intentionally practicing systems-thinking.

Systems-thinking and people

Systems-thinking requires taking a human-centered approach, since at the end of the day it is humans who create and must navigate systems. You must not only be asking questions like who are the stakeholders? But also, when making decisions, setting up businesses, policies, or projects, you should also be looking at the greater whole, asking – what would it be like to be a person living with a disability needing to navigate this system? A woman? Someone from a minority background? Someone with children? People from varying socio-economic backgrounds? Someone living with a chronic or terminal disease? Someone who identifies as LQBTQ? People who observe different religions?

Putting people at the center of your system analysis is a good way to make sure that they aren’t forgotten. It’s strange how easy it can be to map out a system and completely forget the people that the system effects. When you look at plans that are carefully organized but impossible to realistically execute, you can see where the people aspect of the thinking was left out of the equation.

Empathy is a skill that will be addressed in a later article, but it’s important to note that working on cultivating and enhancing your tendency towards empathy is a good way to make sure that you never forget about the “people experience” part of your work.

Systems-thinking and addressing problems

Our world has increasingly become one of instant gratification, creating Band-Aid solutions to try to immediately solve superficial parts of the problems we are confronting. But very rarely does a problem exist in a vacuum, and without thinking about how this specific problem plays into the larger whole, you are only creating, at best, a temporary fix to a more systemic issue.

To practice systems-thinking when addressing a challenge or problem, you need to both look back at the root of the problem, and understand the many different factors that contributed to its manifestation, recognizing that is a part of an overall system and did not occur in isolation. Then, you need to practice “emerging future” thinking, exploring different ways to address the problem as part of the system as opposed to reacting to a specific part, and brainstorming what outcomes those different interventions might have, both in the short and long term. By not taking this approach, you run the risk of short-sightedness and generating unintended consequences.

This is the first of what will be several pieces about systems-thinking, and tools will soon be available to help you cultivate your systems-thinking approach.

Practice: As you are either designing new systems (processes, policies, etc), create a map of the system you are trying to develop and the other systems that it might coincide with. Make sure you create as comprehensive a picture as possible so that you can identify gaps before you implement. If you are trying to solve an already existing problem, take a step back and make sure your solution has taken into account the whole history to what contributed to the problem and maps out the short and long term future using the proposed solution.

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