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A few weeks ago I was talking with a dentist about the challenges of running an office. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you work in a huge company or a small office, wherever there are people trying to work together there is inevitably an issue I will call “whose job is it?”. The even more personal version of this issue is “but that’s not my job”. It arises when something isn’t getting done that everyone knows needs to be done.

In my conversation with the dentist we talked about the basics like “whose job is it to take out the garbage?”. He asked, “how does such a simple and easy thing get so complicated?” I’ll suggest it gets complicated the minute we think it’s supposed to be someone else’s job.

So whose job is it to take out the garbage? How about the person who sees that the garbage can is full?

Defining our job descriptions can certainly be helpful, but I think we have gone overboard. Trying to identify all the tasks that define our jobs these days is virtually impossible. And all too often it gets in the way of getting the job at hand done. In the case of my friend the dentist the buck always stops with him anyway. Every job is his job as long as it doesn’t get done by someone else.

Where does the buck stop where you work? What might be possible if we all started to think like we owned the place?

Much has been written about flow and being in the present moment. I have read a ton of it, searching for keys to experiencing more flow in my life and work. I can work so hard at times that I exhaust myself in the process. There have also been too many times in my life when I have worked like crazy and not been particularly satisfied with the outcome or the journey. Does this sound familiar? When I look around at my family, friends and clients I know I am not alone in those experiences. Of course we have all had times of flow as well. However, it can be challenging to find your way back once you get off track.

When Christine Comaford asked us, a group of highly motivated entrepreneurs, this question, I had one of those “aha” moments. It is such a simple yet potent question. It is a simple context for observing your experience in any given moment. What makes it potent is that it also gives us a very clear choice that we can make to shift our experience immediately.

Take a moment and think about these two words. I am not asking “what do they mean?”, but rather “what do they feel like?”.

While both words imply moving forward, each provokes a very distinct experience. If you have ever watched a world class dancer or athlete they make their execution of extraordinary skills seem effortless to us as the observer. They are not trying to get to the end of the performance or the game. They are focused on executing flawlessly in each and every moment. Runners are taught to relax into their stride rather than to push themselves to the finish line. It actually conserves precious energy. Champions, while their eye is in the prize, learn to stride in their execution. If you want to be a champion in whatever you do or even just enjoy the journey more I suggest you learn to stride more and strive less.

WHERE DID WE LEARN TO STRIVE?

In our society, particularly our business culture, there is a lot of attention on achievement. People are striving to be the best and to do their best. And there is certainly nothing wrong with either. Some of us even thrive on the adrenaline rush that often comes along with the drive to succeed. Yet the way we go about achieving anything can either fuel us or leave us exhausted and/or unsatisfied. We can spend too much time thinking and worrying about the future that we forget to be present in the only moment we have, right now. We can work really hard trying to do everything and go as fast as possible only to end up exhausted. We can get so caught up in all we have to do that we miss the moments in our lives that are truly the most precious. Perhaps the most surprising cost of all is that we can achieve extraordinary things and be left feeling unsatisfied, like it is somehow not enough or that we haven’t gotten “there” yet.

WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO STRIDE?

The simple answer is we know it when we feel it. So at best I can attempt to describe the feeling from my own point of view. Nonetheless I’ll give it a shot. I invite you to answer this question in your comments as well.

My first thought is that striding is like flow – that experience when everything just seems to be clicking. We lose track of time. It takes effort, yet feels effortless. We feel inspired and often make remarkable progress. And when we step away from what we are doing, we have this intense level of satisfaction knowing we just did some of our best work.

My second thought is that perhaps the difference between striving and striding can be the difference between working hard and working smart. Chances are if you are working at a frenetic pace, feeling pressured and stressed out you are striving.

SO LOOK AT YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW: ARE YOU STRIDING OR STRIVING?

A final note of thanks… A few weekends ago I participated in a workshop called the Business Acceleration Intensive with Christine Comaford of Mighty Ventures. I want to thank Christine, Paul Keetch and the participants in BAI for sharing your wisdom, your inspiration and for your incredible support. Somehow I think I will be striding a lot more knowing I have all of you in my corner.

If you want to experience Christine’s coaching I suggest you go to http://www.AskChristine.com and register for her next free teleseminar. If you do I highly recommend you submit a question.

While on the way to catch my plane in San Francisco yesterday I realized I left my cell phone behind. After a moment (or two) of panic I realized this could actually be an interesting experiment. It was.

Throughout the day I noticed I was more interested in and observant of all that was going on around me. I interacted with people more and wondered how many times I have bumped into someone and not even noticed. I wasn’t busy rushing off to a corner to sneak in a quick call or check messages. It was actually a lot more relaxing. I didn’t sit waiting in anticipation during the last few minutes of the flight to turn my phone on the minute the wheels of the plane touched down. Instead I had a great conversation with the person 2 seats over with whom I had barely talked to during the 4 hour flight.

There are More Things to Distract us Now Than Ever Before

While the cell phone can be an incredible tool it is also a terrible distraction. It’s a distraction that can even be deadly. They issue tickets for “driving while distracted”: a poor consolation for the person who got hit. The cell phone is just one of so many distractions we have to deal with throughout the day. Many of us have had to learn to manage an expectation of 24/7 responsiveness. The tools we have to meet that challenge may help make us more efficient, but I am not convinced it makes us more effective.

I would venture to say that we try to do a lot more things while distracted than ever before. The cost in our day to day lives of multi-tasking may not be at the level of life or death. Yet I would like you to consider that the cost could be life or death of another sort. It can cost us the motivation of the people who look to us for leadership slowly blowing out the flame of their passion. It can also cost us mutual trust and respect in our relationships with the people who we count on and who count on us. If you invest just a little more time thinking about this you will likely see many more costs to consider.

5 Signs of Leading While Distracted

Do you or did you ever…

1. Engage in a conversation you have no bandwidth for or interest in at the moment.

2. Listen to the conversation in your head instead of what the other person is saying including that little voice that keeps repeating “I hope they will be done soon”.

3. Get on a conference call and answer e-mails or twitter thinking that since people can’t see you, they won’t know and that it doesn’t really matter anyway.

4. Schedule a meeting and show up unprepared or fail to prepare for someone else’s meeting and show up anyway. (NOTE: A really good reason is not a “free pass”)

5. Allowing a conversation to be interrupted by an electronic device (telephone, computer, blackberry, i-phone, tweetdeck, etc.)

There is No “Good” Excuse for Not Giving Someone Your Full Attention

We can justify these and other distracted behaviors with “well everyone else does it” or “there just aren’t enough hours in a day” or “I’m trying my best”. Those reasons may get us off the hook in our own minds, but there is still a cost to the person/people on the other end. We have all done something like the things in this list. If you are like me you have done every one of them at one time or another. The point is not that we should feel bad about it. We can, however, be more awake so we can be 100% responsible for the impact our actions have on others.

If you are thinking, but I’m not the leader or I hate it when my boss does those things, think again. Anytime people are counting on you is an opportunity to lead, even if it is simply by example. Furthermore, the extent to which we allow others to get away with these behaviors with us harms both our relationship with them and with ourselves. Consider whether the message you are sending through your actions or inaction is one you really want to send.

What is the Solution?

The solution falls into the category of “simple but not always easy”. It is to make a conscious choice to give whomever you are interacting with your full attention. (Hint: The grocery store clerk is NOT less important than your boss in this regard.) It is a choice you have to keep making over and over and in countless situations every day. The hard part can be coming to terms with the cost. The good news is we can definitely get better at it with practice. The better news is we are likely to be grateful for all the things we discover that we have been missing out on.

Perhaps the most significant gift we can give another person in this fast paced world full of distraction is our full attention. It can be just for a moment, but it can make THE difference in whether that interaction has a positive or a negative impact on your relationships and even your results.

What could we all do to get better at giving the gift of our attention?

When it comes to teaching people to communicate we have historically focused a lot more on effective speaking, writing and presenting than on effective listening. Yet what has you trust someone more: the ability to speak eloquently or the ability to listen so that people actually feel heard? Too much of the former and not enough of the latter is all too often what causes us to label someone that 10 letter word “politician”.

If you buy into the belief that successful leaders engender a high degree of trust, I would argue that listening is a critical skill. It may even be more important than speaking skills. I’ll even suggest that by learning to listen better you will actually become a better speaker, presenter and writer.

3 SIMPLE STEPS TO LISTENING BETTER

1. Prepare for What You Want to Learn, Not Just What You Want to Say

We spend a lot of time preparing for meetings by putting together speaking notes and PowerPoint presentations. Our focus is all too often entirely on us. Whether the meeting is small or very large it is as though we were preparing for a performance with our attention on what we want to say. Yet how many PowerPoint presentations have you fidgeted or even slept through? I don’t sit still well so these are particularly painful for me!

Whether you are preparing for a one on one meeting or a meeting of 100 I suggest you prepare for a conversation not a presentation.

Think first about your audience. What can you contribute to them? What are their burning questions? Then think about how to engage your audience not just talk at them. Consider what you want to learn from the conversation, not just what you want to communicate. Prepare a thought provoking question or two. Great questions have the power to turn a presentation into a great and memorable conversation. When people are engaged their energy rises and attention sharpens.

TIP: Make one of the goals of your next meeting to learn more than the person or people with whom you are speaking.

2. Ask Questions AND Give People Enough Time to Answer:

To be effective at asking questions we have to become comfortable with what I call the “pregnant pause”. When you are asking a question it can feel like an eternity waiting for someone to answer. The bigger the group the longer that pause can be. It is uncomfortable and our tendency is to want to jump in and fill the space.

Remember that people may need a few minutes to think about your question so they can formulate an answer. And as group size increases the discomfort for many people to actually answer your question also increases. They may need even a little more time to muster up the courage or to formulate their answer so they can speak confidently.

TIPS: Prepare a question other than “do you have any questions?” for the end of what you have to say or present.

Focus on taking 3-5 slow deep breaths after you ask a question (remember to keep eye contact though or you can get so relaxed people think you checked out!).

3. Ensure People Know You Heard Them (and that you hear more).

Nodding your head is a helpful way to let someone know you are listening, but unfortunately we can nod and not hear a thing they said. And they know it, or at least they feel it. You actually have to speak before someone really knows you were listening. You can do that with phrases like “I understand”, “uh huh”, etc. You know the drill. But if you really want someone to know you heard them, try giving them back what you heard.

This is not about being a parrot. It’s about saying in your own words what you got out of what they said, or what you will do as a result of what they said, or asking a relevant question. That is the only way we can ever be sure that we actually understood what was said.

Do we hear what people say or do we hear what we think they said?

We are interpretation machines. We listen through the filters of our personal beliefs, knowledge and experience. All too often we don’t hear what people have actually said, or tried to communicate anyway, even though we think we did. This is a significant cause of mis-communication. Practice this and not only will people feel heard by you, but you will actually start hearing more of what they are saying. I can guarantee you will have fewer communications breakdowns all around if you get really good at this.

TIP: If you don’t feel like you are being heard you are probably not listening.

Any questions?

,,,just kidding!

What else do you need to know or understand to feel confident that you can execute these steps?

Which one of these is the most challenging for you?

Recently I read a post by Heather Fenoughty, an internationally respected film, tv and theatre composer and sound designer. She suggests that if you have writers block when trying to compose that you find a four chord progression and play with it to make it your own. Since you can’t copyright just four chords you can avoid “a crisis of conscience”. Apparently even Bach did this!

I have come to believe that there really is no such thing as original thought, only original expression. So when I read her post and watched the accompanying video what I saw was a perfect demonstration of this in action. Click here to go check it out. It plays a series of songs that are completely different yet use the same four chords.

A great way to develop your leadership is to train yourself to think in new and innovative ways.

But that does not have to mean coming up with a never conceived of before idea. Those are far and few between. What it does mean is bringing a new point of view to an existing problem or opportunity. Sometimes it is about connecting the dots just a little differently. Other times it involves introducing a new “dot” to consider. It can also help to draw ideas from an experience, or something you read that has nothing to do with your day to day work.

Consciously seek to look at your equivalent of the same four chords and ask yourself and/or your colleagues:

1. How could I//we look at this differently?
2, What new element could I/we introduce that could give us new options?
3. How might I/we reassemble the elements we have to create something new?
4. How could I/we use what I/we learned or observed from another experience to this situation?

Your view of any problem or opportunity is by it’s very nature unique. You are the only person with your life experience, knowledge and wisdom.

The question is are you leveraging your unique perspective or are you busy trying to think like everyone else?

…does not exist.

There is not one agreed upon definition in the world despite how much leadership has been studied and written about. As of today 316,641 results returned when searching Amazon for books on leadership. According to Warren Bennis in Leaders (1997) “academic analysis has given us more than 850 definitions of leadership”. I think it is fair to say that defining leadership will be studied and debated for a long time to come and it is likely we will never all agree on THE BEST definition.

Although that is the question I have been asked and challenged about the most.

A very good friend even wrote to me having spent a good deal of time reading what I wrote, thinking and searching the internet trying to help me do a better job of defining leadership. The definition I offered in one of my posts was “Translating vision into reality” by Warren Bennis. Yet she strongly believes that “Vision is not a catalyst for leadership.” Essentially the definition I had offered in her worldview was just wrong. Yet the most interesting thing of all was that everything she said to make her point completely validated what I was trying to say to begin with about leadership and leading.

Could a definition actually be getting in the way?

Perhaps offering a definition of leadership was a mistake. Not because I offered a “wrong” definition. Warren Bennis is well known as an expert in this field so it certainly wasn’t wrong. But because I tried to define something that perhaps cannot be adequately expressed with the simplicity and accuracy expected from the definition of anything.

So why do we keep trying to define it?

People expect you to be able to define the thing you are writing about or teaching. It is a valid expectation so naturally I have offered one. But definitions rarely help you understand and/or do the very thing you are trying to define. For example, I can define balance, but does that help me to achieve the balance necessary to ride a bicycle? In the case of leadership I have never seen a definition that has helped anyone instantly know how to lead.

What do we seek when we ask for a definition? I think we are seeking “the truth” about it. Yet trying to define leadership is a bit like trying to define beauty: it has many interpretations, although we know it when we see it. It is also said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, beauty does not look the same in all cultures. And perhaps neither does leadership. This points to the power of context in shaping our interpretations of “truth” about anything, including leadership.

What could be more useful than a definition?

The notion of a “random act of leadership” is my attempt to take leadership out of the realm of theory and develop a rich context for leading that can give EVERYONE access to leading in their day to day work and lives. My purpose is not to define leadership. It is to empower more people to see and seize opportunities to lead more readily and more often in everyday work and life. My focus is on identifying the actions of leading so we can do it more and make a bigger difference ourselves rather than waiting for “the” leaders to make things happen.

So now what?

I say we create a context for leadership that helps us see opportunities to lead – to take actions that will make a difference in the things that matter to us. So I invite you to start thinking about and sharing your context for leadership. The question I’ll use to start the inquiry is this:

What does leadership look like? I look forward to learning from your responses!

No I am not talking about the theory that red cars get more tickets or have more accidents. Although that is a theory, there actually seems to be little evidence to support it. Besides, the question of whether they do or not is not as interesting to me as why they might. Perhaps it is because of their color alone. Then again, maybe the hype about red cars made them more noticeable. Why do we notice one thing and miss something else entirely? That is what I am talking about.

Pontiac Grand Am (no it's not a 1985 model)

Pontiac Grand Am (no it's not a 1985 model)

When I graduated from college I bought a red Pontiac Grand Am. And from then on I noticed two things while driving around: (1) how many red cars were on the road, and (2) how many Grand Am’s there were of all colors. We notice things that we have some personal connection to, whether that connection is based on our experience, our desires, our knowledge, or something else. Here’s why: because everything we have learned and experienced creates the context or lens through which we relate to the world. It shapes what we pay attention to amidst the daily onslaught of signals and information. It even shapes what we are capable of seeing or observing.

Creating a Simple Context for Observing Leadership in Action

That is why I believe it is so important to create a context for leadership that enables you to see it in action. If our context for leading is limited to grand gestures like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech we will miss leadership in its simplest, most elemental form. If we want to be able to seize an opportunity to act as a leader in any given moment we must be able to perceive the moments of opportunities or they will pass by unnoticed like all the cars you drive by every day, but don’t really see. And if we cannot see leadership in the actions of others how will we be able to recognize it in ourselves?

The challenge here is to define leadership in action and in a way that it can be recognized by anyone. Because if you can recognize it you have access to doing it and to teaching others to lead as well. My equivalent of a “Red Car” for leadership is this: speaking up, stepping up and/or standing up for something you are committed to.

A Recent Example…

Danny Brown
posted an entry on Twitter on January 31st offering a free press release to the first 50 people donating $20 for his 12 for 12k fundraising challenge.

True, he happens to be the leader of this initiative. But the point is anyone could have done something similar – it was as simple as posting a 140 character “tweet”.

Your turn…

What acts of leadership have you observed? If none come to mind start looking for the “Red Car” and come back to tell us about what you observed. And please don’t worry about getting it right. We will all learn from looking at acts of leadership through your eyes.