To Whom Did You Give Power Today?

At Big Think today I wrote about the power we give to others who least deserve it. Happiness, success, and sense of self worth are influenced by dependence on others.   And so, we should choose wisely the people on whom we depend for what matters most.

Sometimes giving away power makes sense.  It’s important to trust.  As human beings we have social and physical needs.  We may want praise, understanding, support, care, financial backing, love, commitment or any of a host of other things.  The question to ask is whether we are seeking them from the right people.  Going over and over to a dry well for water is unproductive at best.  Depending on people unable or unwilling to provide what we need is similar.  In the latter case, however, we give people the power to make us miserable when with a little rethinking we could do so much better.

 

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On The Loss Of Robin Williams – The Anatomy of Humor

On Huffington Post I blogged today about the loss of one of the funniest men ever.  His passing stands in stark contradiction to the joy he brought.  And yet humor is a great healer.  Williams noted that in an interview.  In the midst of adversity, humor is a comforting companion.  I remember that after being diagnosed with breast cancer in my early thirties my humor teacher ratings were off the charts.  I always inject humor, often spontaneously, into teaching and speaking, but apparently even more when times are particularly hard.  Does that make the humor disingenuous?  No.  It shows, as if we hadn’t noticed, why we have humor in the first place.  It lightens the darker days, lifts when least expected and sparkles our interactions.

I remember my father and mother having a disagreement.  My father called from the living room to the kitchen, in all seriousness, that he knew she was drawing his face in her hand and slapping it.  I fell off the sofa laughing.  The image was ridiculous.  They forgot their differences.  My mother came into the living room, looked at my father and proceeded to trace his face into her palm before giving it a good punch.  You had to be there.  It was hysterical.  And we never forgot it.  My mother would use her right index finger many times after that pretending to trace his face in her left hand.  It always brought a smile.

Humor is the best companion to sadness and a great dissipator of anger.  It lightens and lifts.  Robin Williams was exceptionally blessed to have such a companion and we were equally blessed that he shared it with us.  Despite years of battling depression, he made us smile.  Perhaps he was so gifted because he carried an awareness of the darkness.  He fought it valiantly and to the benefit of generations to come.

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Learning Leadership from Warren Bennis

This past week my colleague Warren Bennis passed.  He was an exceptional scholar, a generous mentor, an excellent teacher and speaker, who taught by example and scholarship what it means to be a true leader.  Two paragraphs from the University of Southern California memoriam captures the primary thrust of Warren’s work on leadership:

“Bennis’ work was based on the notion that truly inspiring and powerful leadership lies in promoting openness and discussion, and allowing room for others to shine. Fundamentally, he believed in valuing people, and his contributions to creating a more human and humane business world are the cornerstone of his legacy.”

“Enfolded within Bennis’ approach to teaching and scholarship was his ability to implement his ideas, and connect theory with application. This was epitomized by his observation that leadership cannot be taught, but it can be “caught.” As a leader, he taught by enactment and example. As an adviser to countless students, numerous colleagues, CEOs of major national and international corporations, he imparted wisdom by living out his leadership philosophy.”

Warren had little regard for people who flaunted their status.  He was as interested in students as he was in presidents.  He believed in providing opportunities for others to excel.  I often found articles in my USC mailbox with notes attached indicating that he thought of one of our discussions when he’d read it and so passed it along.  You wondered how he found time to think of the many people he cared about and they about him.  One day when walking back from lunch, he told me that each week he set aside time to thank people or to share articles.  It’s so easy to let opportunities like that pass, to allow our relationships to flounder because there is so much to do every day.  Warren took the time to stay connected in ways that demonstrated he’d truly thought of you and of ideas you’d shared on your last meeting.

Disagreeing with Warren fascinated him far more than mimicking his words or nodding in response.  He wanted to know why you thought differently, and learned every day from people far junior to him.

As Associate Director of The Marshall Leadership Institute and Director of the Institute’s Presidential Fellows Program, I worked closely with Warren.  Leadership for Warren was about connecting, not in a shallow way as so many of us do each day, but really touching the lives of others and being touched in return.  This is not to say that he did not stand up for what he believed.  He did.  But when I wrote The Secret Handshake he made a point of telling me that he particularly liked an idea expressed early in the book.  I’d written:

There are just too many smart, capable people out there.  The hard truth is that the ones who get ahead are usually those who know how to make highly placed people feel good about having them around.

I can’t even begin to describe the number of times Warren influenced my work and life in positive ways.  After one disappointing event, he called me at home and said, “It’s not like you to take something like this sitting down.  Feel bad for a day, maybe two, and then fight for what’s right.”  That’s what I did.

He was an exceptional man whose extensive work on leadership will influence people forever.  Some of us were fortunate to know him as a person and that was truly a gift.

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How We Limit the Calibre of Our Thinking

When I teach persuasion or negotiation, the first day of class I write a word on the board.  That word is “assume.”  It is the enemy of effective persuasion and negotiation, and yet most of us rely on assumptions much of each day.  Some are necessities.  We need to assume that the sun will rise and set, other drivers will stay largely in their lanes and when they signal left will not go right.  We assume certain rules will be followed lowering the risk for all.

Then there are assumptions about people.  Many of these are based on very sparse evidence, inferences, generalizations and often stereotypes.  I wrote yesterday about the hazards of stereotypes.  Like all patterns, they can become modes of thought that cease to be challenged.  When that happens, our choices are influenced by very weak observations.

Not only are stereotypes potentially harmful as we see throughout the world now, they limit the complexity of our thinking.  They’re like crutches that we’ve continued to use long after we could have been moving fine without them.  They cause us to limp when we could run.  Stereotypes hold us back.  They demean others and reduce us to small thinking.

There are ways to break out of reliance on stereotypes.  These ways are much like those we’ve discussed regarding “choice points” and unwanted repetitive episodes (see categories of blogs in right column).  Breaking free of stereotypes, at least not allowing them to function as fact when so often they are largely fiction, raises the calibre of our thinking.

See Big Think blog here http://bit.ly/1tG2RMa

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Vulnerability as a Skill

“The Power of Vulnerability” is my latest post on Big Think.  We don’t often think of vulnerability as anything other than something to be avoided.  Yet, communication cannot work effectively if none of the parties involved is willing to relinquish some power.  Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues developed a perspective on communication which included recognizing utterances as complementary or symmetrical.  If two people are constantly trying to one-up each other, retaining power over the direction and nature of talk as well as the relationship, then disagreement, argument and even dissolution of the relationship are almost inevitable.  When people engage in some degree of complementary interaction in which power is occasionally given to the other person, then listening and learning from each other is given a chance.

Here is where vulnerability comes in.  If you must always be in control or be right when interacting with others, unless they are obsequious, in awe or frightened of you, the likelihood is that they will either resist by countering your one-up moves with their own (symmetrical), retaliate in some way, or leave the relationship entirely.  The skillful communicator knows that other people must be given a chance to be right and to lead conversations.  Being wrong or not having seen what the other person provides, and admitting that, can do wonders in opening communication and improving relationships.

And so, it pays to look at how you talk to others — even to children.  It’s easy to fall into habits of being in charge or, as discussed in the Big Think blog, defensive routines.  In my studies with colleagues at UMass Amherst and in subsequent books, problematic patterns are often called “unwanted repetitive episodes” (URPs).  The most effective way to break out of such patterns is to say something slightly different — to utter the unexpected.  It’s fascinating to watch how even small tweaks of our normal modes of interacting with others can change the entire course of conversation and even of relationships.

We are constrained by others in our lives, by their communication choices.  This is especially true at work if bosses are overbearing.  But we always have the prerogative to extricate ourselves from such ruts.  First, you have to notice you’re in them.  Then the fun and benefits begin as you alter what the other person expects you to say or do.  This is not manipulative.  It’s engaging in thoughtful instead of  reactive communication.

Rather than get angry at someone with whom you disagree, occasionally saying something like “I’d never thought of it that way” can do wonders.  ”I can’t say I agree entirely, but I see your point” is another option.  Sometimes the other person will attempt to draw you back into the URP or routine, because that is what they know when communicating with you.  So, it may at times take a couple or several  unexpected comments to change the course of conversation.  Skillful communication requires having the patience to do this and taking the time to practice.

Posted in Choice Points, Managing Your Boss, Uncategorized, Unwanted Repetitive Episodes | Leave a comment

Are Real Leaders All That Tough?

Common wisdom is that they’re tough when they need to be.  ”Don’t let this sweet face fool you,” was one of my favorite, slightly humorous warnings now and then throughout my career.  But there’s a difference between being tough and being indifferent and outright mean.  And that’s what the blog I wrote for Big Think is about this week.

It’s time we took the time to examine when leadership needs to be commanding and insistent upon strict cooperation and when showing civility and empathy is more effective. No leader worth his or her salt is the same all the time.  My article with Kevin Reardon and Alan Rowe on the Five Stages of Radical Change used by the Air Force and many organizations, describes how different challenges requires leaders to have different strengths.  Often one leader cannot do it all.  He or she needs a team and on that team should be those who remind the more task focused that there are people to consider in any effective leadership equation.

Hope you enjoy the read.  http://tinyurl.com/qdct38n 

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Shifting Focus to the Good

I was just reading an article posted on Linkedin about the tendency women have to take on feelings of failure — to not see a bump in the road as an opportunity for growth.  You can’t really blame any of us for these feelings.  It’s hard to lose a job or not get a promotion.  Smiling through all adversity is asking too much.  But it doesn’t hurt to now and then remind ourselves of the need to focus on the positive.  So here’s that reminder, published yesterday at Big Think.  Hope it helps whether you’re a woman or a man.  We can all benefit from focusing a little more often on the good.  Here it is.

 

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The Hypocrisy of Killing The Messenger

It’s a rare person in business of any kind who has not heard people at the top say that failure is an inevitable and valuable experience on the road to success.  And yet, how many of these same leaders run organizations where they’re constantly protected from bad news?

Isn’t it a form of hypocrisy to keep bad news away, delegate all problem-solving so negative information never reaches your door while advising others to embrace their failures?

If more senior executives and those high up in government considered this and acted accordingly, significant problems would be nipped in the bud.  The types of crises we’ve been seeing far too often lately could be largely averted.

See more at Big Think —  What If We Didn’t Kill The Messenger?

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What if Honesty Had Been a Priority at GM?

At Big Think today, I posted a blog on “The Power of Honesty.” We live in a time when it is less valued than playing along to get along, staying under the radar, passing the buck, and a host of other forms of ugly politics described in The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics.

What if honesty had been a priority — a valued strategy even — at General Motors?  As we learn more of the faulty ignition switch known about years before now, “nods” that led to inaction and placing responsibility and blame elsewhere, it’s obvious that a culture of neglect and dishonesty permeated GM.  As a result, people died.

It would take more than a single blog to explore how such a culture takes root.  It’s an insidious process of people learning that dishonesty is rewarded — honesty punished.  No one appears to be at fault, it’s just the way things are.  But no one steps forward to put a stop to it either.  Or else those who do are silenced or fired.  It takes a crisis or whistleblower to expose the deviousness that has become second nature, often defended as a part of business.

Dishonesty corrodes individuals and organizations.  It starts small with little lies.  We learn as children to bend the truth — often to spare others.  What would society be like if everyone were to say exactly what they thought at any given moment in time?  But where is the line?  That’s what every organization, every individual, needs to decide.  And then the hard work of rewarding honest efforts at improvement can begin.

 

 

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Maya Angelou on Courage

In a blog on Big Think today, I looked at the challenge Maya Angelou took up herself and passed on us.  According to Angelou, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

Virtue has been taking a hard hit of late with selfishness and greed rewarded handsomely.  The baton Angelou passed to us is one of turning this condition around —  of having the courage to stand up to degeneracy.  Courage, after all, is more often a calculation used repeatedly rather than a one-time spontaneous expression of heroism.  It involves blocking the path of  those who spend much, if not the whole of their lives, seeking to raise themselves at the expense of others.

http://tinyurl.com/mgeznsp 

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