Tag Archives: Control

Want to live outside your comfort zone? Try being in charge.

Have you ever looked at someone in charge of a team working under pressure and wondered, how can he or she be that confident?  How can they remain so calm when all they seem to be getting right now is bad news?  How do they know which decision is the right one?  They seem to – after all they give clear instructions, smile, and move on to the next problem without ever looking back.

Or do they?

As someone who makes a career out of leading teams, I can tell you that most displays of confidence under pressure are the product of high school drama classes.  Every one of us suffers from moments of self-doubt, usually found gnawing away at the deepest part of the stomach.  Every one of us actually develops eyes in the back of our heads to allow us to look back as we move to the next problem; that’s how the stomach knows when to act up.

A few weeks back I was talking with a friend of mine who worked with me at sea during a huge international navy exercise off of Hawaii.  He and another officer had just joined our ship, fresh from a year-long course designed to make them into warfare leaders, known as Operations Room Officers or OROs.  Being an ORO can be a tough job – you are responsible to the skipper for almost everything and have to coordinate a huge network of sub-teams and equipment.  On top of this, add being responsible for aircraft and other warships assigned to you for the current activity and now, as they say, we are in business.  My point?  Many people look to the ORO for guidance and direction.  He or she is expected to wade through mountains of information to seize clarity in order to provide sane instructions to everyone else.  In other words – a busy job with periods of impossible requirements.  The key to success?  Confidence and experience.  And if you have just arrived and don’t have much experience?  That leaves confidence…  In fact, my shipmates had the same conversation at watch turnover for almost two weeks  – “Figured out this job yet?”  Pause.  “Nope.”

Imagine sitting in a room without windows and coordinating this... Pressure.

The take away?  It’s OK to be human and feel like you’ve left your safe zone because leading under pressure is uncomfortable.  Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or doesn’t understand the question.

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Want to Avoid Mission Creep? Practice.

One of the hallmarks of leadership under pressure is the ability to generate strong, actionable plans without the luxury of either time or all of the facts.  How do you make sure that your team can do this?  Practice.  Followed by more practice.

The Canadian navy uses search and rescue (SAR) response exercises to test this very thing.  Consider this example – a warship at sea off the west coast of Vancouver Island receives a distress call from a sinking fisherman approximately one hour away.  Several things need to happen and they need to happen quickly.  First, the obvious step – move to the scene.  Second, gather all of your expertise (in this case, representatives of all departments in order to blend situational awareness, logistics, medical and technical knowledge all in one place) and assess all of the factors in order to create a plan.  Because the situations are never the same, each plan differs slightly from what could be considered standard operating procedures.  After all, there is nothing standard about a burning fishing vessel in five-metre waves during the dead of night, is there?

Good time to discuss the group dental plan? Mission creep.

My point?  If you place this problem in front of five ship’s teams, they will construct five different plans.  One or two will be outstanding, two more will be realistically achievable and one could be a complete “disasterpiece” in the making.  What causes the difference?  Excellent question; after all, although our teams are made up of different individuals, they all have similar training and experience.  In theory, they should all come up with realistically achievable plans, shouldn’t they?  One direct cause of this difference is something known as “mission creep.”

Mission creep can affect even the strongest of teams.  Wikipedia defines it as “the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes.”  It occurs when our team of heroic leaders are drawn off track by needless details or dead ends within the plan.  In extreme cases, mission creep occurs when we add so much detail to a plan that it literally collapses under its own weight.  Although the term is a fairly modern one, the actual concept has been affecting organizations for hundreds of years.  For example, Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition grew by a factor of five from plan inception to execution.  Definite mission creep…

The SAR response example allows us to see mission creep in action.  What should the priority of search and rescue be?  It should be just that – search and rescue, or more simply put saving lives. Therefore any discussion (and believe me, it comes up every time) about saving the stricken vessel (remember, it’s sinking and people need to get off) is quite clearly mission creep.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t consider saving the vessel if possible, but with an hour to sort ourselves out while positioning at speed to the scene, an animated discussion of what pumps we need or how many damage control folks to send over by the same boat that should be transporting victims is… you guessed it, mission creep.

Avoiding mission creep can be challenging.  After all, you don’t necessarily want to shut down the bright folks on your team by harshly snapping them back to your mission – they are subject matter experts and bring skills to the table that you don’t have.  My two cents?  Try some team problem-solving exercises when you have the time.  Not only can you streamline your processes, you can tease out mission creep in a smiling environment vice a pressure-charged frowning one.

Emotional Intelligence – Leadership’s Missing Link

You will not believe what I found while strolling around the leadership blogosphere.  I actually found a top 25 list of the worst bosses of 2009.  I’m not naive, I know these people exist.  I know that we are surrounded by far more bad leadership examples than good ones.  Unfortunately, I also know something else: we learn by example.

Curious, I looked further.  The publishers of this terrifying list have a Facebook page.  And a hugely strong Twitter presence.  In fact, they have over 8,000 followers on Twitter and almost 400 folks that “like” them on Facebook, meaning that a requirement exists to highlight and share examples of sickeningly ineffective leaders.  If you take the time to review these sites, you’ll see something somewhat disturbing: there is no lack of material for them to publish.

eBossWatch’s list is extensive and includes everything from garden variety harassment to felonies.  Some highlights from the list?

  • One super-genius was sued for workplace bullying and disability discrimination by a former soldier who received a Purple Heart and who lost his hand and suffered other serious injuries in an explosion while serving in Iraq.  Great example, don’t you think?
  • One so-called leader’s employees recorded a four hour meeting that took place late last year where our “hero” used hundreds of obscenities and ordered one of the supervisors to physically attack an equipment operator.  Imagine running across that in the boardroom?
  • One former city manager  was fired in April after only 18 months on the job after creating what City Council members called “a culture of fear” that included publicly embarrassing several employees.  While a “culture of fear” seems vague and nebulous, can we agree that it’s not a good thing?

After the requisite 20 minutes of processing time, I found myself wondering what these characters all had in common.  It isn’t that they are stupid – that’s too easy and doesn’t account for the fact that they were able to find themselves in these positions – after all, one of them directed NASA…  The answer I arrived at?  They all lack emotional intelligence.  EQ, as it’s known, is critical to leadership success because it allows us to interact appropriately with other people.  An example: consider Sheldon in this video clip from the  The Big Bang Theory; he’s really bright but not so good with people.

Sheldon Cooper - EI's poster child?

Here are some of the traits of the emotionally intelligent leader (drawn from Daniel Goleman’s mixed model of EQ):

  • Self-awareness.  This involves recognizing your own emotions and the impact they can have on your decision-making process.  Ties into “listening to your gut”
  • Self-management.  Once aware of your emotions, the next step is to control them.  This step is critical in the face of changing circumstances; after all if you’re anything like me, you might not always be getting your own way…
  • Social awareness. This refers to empathy, or understanding of the feelings and emotions of those around you and comprehension of how they all tie into the social framework.  This category is at the heart of people skills
  • Relationship management. This refers to our ability to create and manage interpersonal relationships, inspire others, influence groups, and act as mentors to develop people.

Now, armed with my almost criminal over-simplification of the vast body of work that’s been done on emotional intelligence, have another look at eBossWatch’s dreaded list.  See what I mean?  These people are all missing something and I think we know what it is.

Do you have an example of a really good leader who has these traits?  How about a really poor one who doesn’t?  C’mon, tell us a story…

The Elusive Command Presence

Edward Fox as Lt. Gen Horrocks in "A Bridge Too Far"

Over the last 20 years, I have been assessed on my command presence.  I have been given vague guidance about what this elusive presence is.  I’ve even been told a few times that I don’t have it.  Other times I have been complimented on it.  But what is this thing, this so called “command presence?”

It’s one of those nebulous concept that doesn’t really have a concrete definition.  Command itself refers to concepts like coordination, direction and control.  Presence, in this case, refers to one’s force of personality.  When I combine these two concepts in my mind, my imagination produces someone 12 feet tall.  Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any of these commanding behemoths in my travels, so I guess it’s back to the drawing board. Or is it?

John Baldoni’s recent blog for the Harvard Business Review was all about this very thing – leadership presence.  He breaks it down nicely into manageable chunks that serve to reduce my mental image down to a human of average height.  He concentrates on some broad areas: situational awareness, confidence, humility, and hope.

Have a read of John’s post.  Close your eyes and see if you can conjure up a mental image.  Let me know what you see.

The Symphony Conducter Isn’t All Bad

I just read another great post by Wally Bock on leadership. In his most recent post, Wally takes aim at the management metaphor that is provided by the symphony conductor.  Wally provides a great argument against this leadership example; the conductor stands out in front, above his orchestra and exerts utter control.  To make matters worse, the conductor gets to take the full credit for the orchestra’s performance – in fact, the conductor is often the only performer to take a bow.  When you view it like that, Wally’s right; this model can’t possibly reflect the modern collaborative approach to leadership.  Or is he?

Management or leadership?

Consider the concept of the high reliability organization (HRO).  These organizations are defined by the price of failure.  They are exemplified by places like submarine control rooms, hospital emergency rooms or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.  For these organizations the price of failure is measured not only in big money, but in lives.  The people who work in HROs, much like our orchestra, are professionals who don’t need to be told every aspect of their job.  They do, however, require someone to coordinate their activities and set the priorities – I can’t see anyone putting together an orchestra, handing out sheet music to provide the goal and then stepping back – the result would be very hard to listen to.  In other words, they need a conductor.

Let’s go over the conductor’s role again.  As the leader, he or she selects the music – or, perhaps better seen as the organization’s goal – and then sets the tempo.  Communicating using nothing but body language, the conductor coordinates the activities of a vast array of highly trained specialists.  With a gesture, he or she influences the outcome – bringing in the violins to take over the melody, initiating the flute sections’ counter-melody, reducing the volume of the percussion section so that Swan Lake can continue to awe and amaze.  As Wally points out, the conductor doesn’t wade through the orchestra pit to begin moving somebody’s fingers around the strings of a violin.  Quite the opposite – as the leader, the conductor steps up so that he or she can see and be seen.  Armed with the whole situational picture that cannot be seen by the 3rd flute, the conductor tweaks the machine to make magic.

So what is the conductor really doing?  Is he or she conducting a management activity? Nope.  When you roll in coordination, influence and communication, the conductor is coming dangerously close to exercising command.

Web 2.0? Meet My Friend, Leadership

So there I was, minding my own business and checking through some feeds that I follow, when I found it.  An article that really hit at some of the things I have been learning and combining concepts with some of the things  I believe.  This article, by Rawn Shah of Forbes.com, took a look at the impact of social media on the traditional forms of leadership.  Shah’s point, and it’s a great one, is that social media is a game changer.  It allows leadership to emerge regardless of place within an organization.  It lets someone who is miles away from a key to the executive bathroom speak with authority and influence.  In some cases, these new leaders can become as influential over their corner of the world as the titular head of the company.

What to do?  I mean, if you are running a business, you would like to think that you are, after all, actually running the place, wouldn’t you?  Here’s the good news – you can get out in front of this.  You can get out in front of your organization.  And you can do it without the drain of initiative and drive that typically follows the clumsy assertion of authority.  How?  Easy.  Get involved.  Find the location of the discussion – be it Twitter, email, newsletter, whatever (I didn’t forget Facebook, it’s  just not everyone wants to be Friends with the boss…) – and take part.  Don’t take over, be part of the discussion.  This, in my opinion, doesn’t erode your position as a leader; it enhances it.  After all, you can discuss, participate, listen without necessarily taking the organization off track.  No one said that you had to read a blog or Twitter stream and tear up your mission statement.  There are days you may want to, but that’s a different subject altogether…  At worst, you learn where pressure points are and who/what are their causes.  At best, a small kernel of an idea that would never have seen the light of day leaps off your Blackberry and proves to be the next iPad or cure for cancer.  And in the middle lies the more likely outcome – engagement at all levels.

In the article, two executives provided a pretty good definition of command:  “Establish command, not control.” Or as Shah amplifies, “Command means influential and inspirational leadership, as opposed to the simple exercise of power.”  I like that definition.  Perhaps even enough to blog about it another day.

Nice job Rawn Shah – you nailed it.