The Thoughtful Leader

Category Archives: Business Leadership

An Inspiring Community Leader

I first met Philip Korman in November 2008 when we were both standing outside a polling place waving signs on Election Day. It was cold that morning, but we stayed warm waving signs for the same candidate, and soon fell into conversation. I learned that Phil was the new executive director of a small community non-profit called CISA — an acronym for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture ( – and as we talked, I learned much more about CISA than I had ever known, sensing Phil’s enthusiasm for this project whose mission is to “strengthen local agriculture by building connections between farmers and the community.”

After the election, I read frequently about Phil and CISA in our local newspaper, and I could see how CISA was growing and thriving under his leadership. There was clearly a synergy between our community’s “locavore” culture and CISA’s mission, but Phil was pulling it together in a way that got farmers, markets, consumers, teachers, community leaders, families, and philanthropists connected to each other and working together to turn their shared values and beliefs around healthy food into a reality.

How did Phil do this? What could others learn from his leadership skills that could be relevant in their own communities? I decided to talk with Phil about how he had become such an effective leader. Those of you who have read “Leading a Business in Anxious Times” will know that I believe natural leadership starts at home, so the first question I asked Phil was what leadership was like in his family when he was growing up. He told me that the whole family had a strong commitment to helping people, to family, and to being a responsible member of the community. Phil was the youngest of four siblings (with two much older sibs and a brother very close to his age). Frank Sulloway’s book, “Born to Rebel” (1997), teaches us that youngests (or “later borns” in a family) are often much freer than the older children to be creative and go in new career directions. This was definitely true for Phil. Only one of his four grandparents had been born in this country, and during the Depression, Phil’s father went to work in the garment industry, eventually rising to become Vice-President. Phil’s older siblings were lawyers and he might have been one too if he hadn’t been the youngest. His mother, however, was an activist who took people on and followed her own beliefs, and Phil clearly picked up a lot of her values and functioning style as he was growing up.

Phil chose not to become a lawyer, but has worked for non-profits, small businesses and in the public sector throughout his career. He has often had to raise the monies for his own salary in order to work for causes he believes in. He told me that any work he does must have meaning for him. When he came to CISA in 2008 the recession had just hit, and keeping the organization going financially was a struggle for a while. There were nine excellent employees, and he learned a lot from them since he wasn’t an expert in the field of agriculture when he started nor did he have the lived history of CISA which had existed for fifteen years at that point.

Phil’s leadership at CISA is grounded in respect and considerable autonomy for the people who work for him. He tries hard to figure out how to “enable their excellence,” meeting with them regularly, listening to their thinking, supporting their projects, and avoiding emotional triangles. Phil has spent much of his own time and energy building a local governing board (now consisting of 18 members, one third of whom are farmers), cultivating a donor base so that CISA has become solid financially, and developing CISA into a mature membership organization (it now has more than 340 farms and farm related business members in addition to 650 community members and hundreds of additional supporters). He does a lot of public speaking and writing, and has made CISA a real presence in the community.

Phil’s father never quite understood “mission-driven” work and occasionally used to ask Phil why he was doing what he does (“Can you make money doing that?” he would ask). Other family members have had more understanding of his work, but overall his entire family has always been supportive. Phil is well-connected to his extended family and his community and they all help keep him on track. So his leadership is a natural expression of his family values, his own beliefs, his good humor, and his high-energy enthusiasm for the work.

Do you have leaders like Phil in your community? What makes them tick? What can you learn from them that will help you be a more effective leader in your own workplace? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD July, 2013


The “Lean In” Phenomenon

I’ve been reading reviews recently about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf 2013), and I’m sure you’ve been reading them too.  How could you have missed them!  This book has had a major pre-publication blitz, including a TIME cover story, and the launch of a substantial website that encourages women to form Lean In Circles where they can support each other as they learn to take leadership.  These Circles also have discussion guides for managers.

Sandberg has an impressive resume and has been ranked one of the 50 “Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune magazine since 2007.  She has been COO of Facebook since 2008, and last year she was elected to Facebook’s board of directors.  She should certainly know something about leadership.  And she does. Lean In is her personal story, but it is also a call to arms for women to step up and take more leadership roles in the wider world of work.  Some people have called Sandberg the “Betty Friedan of 2013,” the next pivotal figure in feminist history.

Sandberg dedicates the book to her parents “for raising me to believe anything was possible” and to her husband “for making everything possible.”  She clearly knows that leadership starts in the family, and as the oldest sibling of three, she apparently started honing her leadership skills with her younger brother and sister at an early age.  The book has a number of inspiring chapters that encourage readers to “speak your truth,” learn to give and get feedback effectively, use humor and get what you want.  But from my point of view, it is missing a real theory of leadership.  What is leadership about and what does it require in terms of self-understanding and relationship building?

Stepping up and speaking out are fine, if you know what you are stepping up to, and what solidly grounded values-based message you are speaking.  Can you understand and manage the anxious reactivity of co-workers while understanding and managing your own anxiety about taking the interpersonal risks that leadership requires?  Those of you who have been learning “systems-based leadership” know that this is a challenging long-term undertaking.  Highly differentiated leadership moves us behind the traditional focus on individual leadership characteristics toward a wider systems view of the workplace.

Perhaps some of us should join Sandberg’s Lean In Circles and introduce participants to systems-based leadership.  What do you think?

Katharine G. Baker, PhD

Music as a Metaphor for Business Leadership

I was pleased to read in the New York Times last Sunday that music continues to offer a useful metaphor for business leaders, who have often turned to musical groups like New York’s Orpheus Orchestra, and to a conductor/cellist like Benjamin Zander, author of “The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life” (Penguin Books 2002). Jazz pianist John Kao apparently ,delivered a message to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Saturday as part of a jazz performance, according to reporter Steve Lohr (“Bright Ideas: The Yin and Yang of Corporate Innovation,” NYTimes, Business Section, 1-29-12, p. 3).

In his performance John Kao told business listeners that jazz “demonstrates some of the tensions in innovation, between training and discipline on one side and improvised creativity on the other.” In a jazz combo there is a free flow of leadership that passes among the various instruments, with each taking a turn at exploring the tune with unique features of sound, texture and dynamics. But underlying those improvised solos is a solidly competent group of players and a shared rhythm, melody, and harmony that shape the whole direction of the tune.

In classical performances, like those of string quartets where the music is written down (and is “interpreted” within much more clearly defined boundaries than in jazz), the leadership can also pass around depending on the personalities of the performers. Often the cellist, who has the lowest line in the music and sets the harmony, will lead the other players in setting the tempo for the whole piece. The first violinist, with the highest part, will make sure everyone else is “in tune” before the performance starts.

In every kind of musical performance, whether jazz or classical, all the players must have “training and discipline,” as Kao notes. They have to be able to play their instruments cleanly and effectively, producing a good sound on their own, before they join the others. When they do join the others is when the “creativity” part begins, whether it is jazz improvisation or interpretation of a written classical score. If everyone has the training and discipline to begin with, they can then begin to “cook” together – letting their imaginations soar, catching the energy from each other, and really making music.

I’m a classically trained violinist and I regularly play in a string quartet, so I know what this excitement can be like, but I also know how hard I have to practice my own part before the group gets together. Without this kind of practice, the quartet would sound awful! And I know many jazz musicians who have the same experience as they seek a balance between training/discipline and creativity.

So how does this metaphor apply to the business world? What’s your experience with the balance between training/discipline and creativity in your workplace? Clearly people are hired because they are qualified to walk in the door, sit down at their desks, log onto their computers and begin to do the work of the day. But when does the creativity kick in? Does it emerge from the synergy of the work team? Does it come from excitement with the content of the work itself? From having individual and shared goals for productivity, achievement, and success? Getting to the end of the song and loving it?

What kind of music gets played at your workplace? I assume that your colleagues have the right training and discipline, but do they also play in tune with each other and do they share the harmony and the rhythm?

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD

Recent Debates in Congress

In trying to figure out what the emotional process was that swept through the U.S. Congress over the past few months, I came across an article by Stephanie J. Ferrera, MSW, called “Collective Intelligence and Differentiation of Self” (Family Systems Forum, Volume 13, Number 2, pp. 3-4).  Ferrera describes the difference between the way an anxious group makes decisions and the way a “collection of individuals” makes decisions.  In an anxious group “the combination of togetherness pressure and emotional reactivity plays out in a thousand ways: focus on others, comparing self with others, status sensitivity, low tolerance for differences…, pressure on leaders to take charge but undermining them when they do.”  With a “collection of individuals” each person can be calm, flexible, have a defined mission, focus on goals, and try to develop a climate of “thoughtful collaboration.”

A “collection of individuals” can also take responsibility for their own individual problems, tasks, and opportunities; communication among them is open and clear; and they monitor their emotional process so that they can work effectively together.

This seems to be a pretty good description of the way one would want the U.S. Congress to function when making important political and financial decisions for the country, and yet many of our elected representatives in Washington have apparently veered off course into anxious reactivity, as they express rigidly polarized “positions,” and have a very low tolerance for differences.  The sources of societal anxiety these days are huge, including an economy in a long-term downward slide, high unemployment, housing foreclosures, climate change, resource depletion, and the winding down of two wars.  It’s easy to be critical of the responses of leaders who are faced with making important decisions while under so much pressure to “do the right thing.”  How can one keep one’s feet on the ground, maintain clear, calm thinking, and collaborate responsibly with one’s fellow decision-makers when the stakes are so high, and mistakes have such long-lasting consequences?

How would you be doing, if you had been in Congress this year?  Would societal pressures have swept you into either automatic agreement or automatic opposition to the issues at hand, without giving yourself time to define your own thinking and decide how you could collaborate most effectively with your peers?  Of course it is incredibly hard to predict our own reactivity when the stressors are really high.  We like to think that our “better selves” would prevail, but who knows.

Meanwhile we must all think carefully about who we want to have representing us and making the big decisions in Washington, as political, economic, and social intensity mounts in the coming years.  The beauty of a democracy is that there is a regular evaluation process.  We need to elect and re-elect representatives who are high on the scale of differentiation, whose decisions are rooted in well-defined principles, who can manage their anxiety when under pressure, and who can collaborate effectively as a “collection of individuals.”  We won’t always agree with all their decisions, but we must insist that they are people of integrity and long-term vision, who are not just reacting to the anxieties of the moment, while jumping through hoops to please the voters and get re-elected over and over again.

Who are these people?   What can we learn about how they handled major life challenges growing up?  What does that tell us about their emotional maturity level and their capacity to keep thinking and resisting the contagion of anxiety in other settings?  What kind of leaders have they been in the past that will give us a clue as to the kinds of leaders they will be in the future?  It may be hard to find the answers to these questions, but as voters we must look beyond the superficialities of campaign literature, news headlines, and TV commentary, and seek substantial verifiable facts about the long-term functioning of our elected leaders.  Those we choose will inevitably reflect our own maturity level as a society, and we are ultimately responsible when they fall short.

Please reread Chapter 5 in our book, “Leading a Business in Anxious Times.”  It is entitled, “Differentiation: The Key to Leadership in Anxious Times,” and it may perhaps remind you of the qualities that will serve you best in your own role as an organizational leader, as well as the qualities we want to see in our societal leaders.

Katharine Baker

Collaborative Leadership and Bike Trails

Last weekend was beautiful and balmy in New England, so I decided to take a long meandering bike ride, exploring the myriad bike trails that connect the towns, villages and rural landscapes of the Connecticut River valley. As I pedaled through fields bursting with early spring sprouts of green, I realized that this lovely network of trails was the result of a many year collaborative leadership effort. Wayne Feiden, current Director of Northampton’s Office of Planning and Development, came to the valley more than 20 years ago, and at that time Northampton had 2.4 miles of bike trails that were not used very much. Growing up Wayne had always liked biking, and he developed a vision for an increase in city and regional bike trails that has grown incrementally over the years. Northampton now has $13,000,000 worth of bike trails that reach north to Leeds and connect with extended trails in Easthampton, Southampton, Hadley, and Amherst. Wayne bikes to work every day, as do many others in the region, and he gives two reasons for the expansion of the system – one, is the recreational opportunities it provides, and two, is the transformative opportunity the trails offer for how people travel.
Over the years Wayne and many others have had a shared vision of a greatly expanded bike trail system, and making this vision come to life has been a truly collaborative effort on their part, as they worked with many groups around the region including the conservation commission, members of the city council, and numerous citizens’ groups. There was strong enthusiasm and there was intense resistance. There was hot controversy and there was quiet cooperation. Wayne obtained grant money to pay for the trails, and enumerable citizens’ meetings were held to get eventual community buy-in.
Wayne told me that when he first became a planner 25 years ago, he heard that many planners were being fired – half of them for taking strong positions and the other half for taking weak or no positions on important planning issues. Wayne decided that if he were ever to be fired, he would want it to be for taking strong positions on issues he believed in, so he’s taken strong positions. He believed in the development of bike trails for Northampton, he articulated his beliefs, he collaborated, and he hasn’t yet been fired.
Wayne isn’t trained in systems-based leadership, but he took an “I” position, kept calmly connected with the various interested factions of the community, maintained a long-term vision in spite of the ups and downs of the project, and was an effective collaborator in making it happen. Systems-based leadership defines leadership as a relationship process, and that’s a pretty good description of the leadership that transformed the Northampton bike trail system. There is still a lot more to do, including expanding the bike lanes on city streets, but this project rides the crest of the green movement throughout the country, and it will thrive.
How is your long-term vision? How do you manage yourself when there is a lot of resistance to your vision? Is your leadership part of a relationship process? Does this story trigger new ideas for you as you think about your own leadership? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Katharine Gratwick Baker

What To Do When You’re New

I was coaching a business executive last week who was relatively new to her company’s management team.  She had worked for another company in the same industry for twenty years, and had been considered a particularly gifted leader there.  When there were some shifts in the direction that company was going in, she decided to look for another job.  This was a carefully considered non-impulsive decision, and she took her time exploring professional opportunities before settling on the new position.  Her references were excellent, she and the CEO of the new company connected well on an interpersonal level, and he hired her specifically for her leadership skills.

The management team of the new company welcomed her in a very friendly way, and she jumped right into her new job, energetically expressing her thoughts and feelings in meetings about how things were run and the changes that needed to take place.  Strangely enough the management team did not seem interested in her views and opinions and, although still friendly, they tended to ignore her comments in meetings.  She had been hired for her leadership skills, but no one seemed to want her to lead them in new directions.  What wasn’t working for her?

As we explored this problem in a coaching session, she recognized that her leadership in the previous company had evolved over time.  She hadn’t started out a leader, but had gradually formed relationships in which she had proved her competence, reliability, flexibility and vision over many years.  In the new company she thought she could hit the ground running and be the leader she had evolved into in the prior company.  Through coaching she learned that leadership is a relationship process and that it would take time and the development of trust and mutual respect before she could become a true relationship leader in the new company.

Does this seem obvious to you?  Not necessarily.  If you think that leadership consists of a collection of individual characteristics and traits, then you may think this woman should have been able to become an instant leader in her new company.  If you know that leadership is a relationship process, you surely understand what her “next steps” need to be in the new company.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, February 24, 2010

Leaders Don’t Manage People, They Engage Them

Distinguishing leadership and management in organizations is critical for clear thinking about the roles, responsibilities and performance of people in positions of authority as well as those of the individuals who report to them. In our book Leading a Business in Anxious Times, Katharine Baker and I define leadership as “a relationship process among members of an organization that inspire them to take full advantage of opportunities, recognize and minimize threats to success, and avoid catastrophic failures” (page 19.) Framed as a relationship process, leadership is by definition reciprocal, and the outcomes are products of the relationships among people—the owners, executives, directors, managers, supervisors, employees, consultants, customers, vendors, etc. Thus the quality of the relationships in the workplace speaks to the quality of leadership.

Individuals who are responsible for accomplishing the work of the organization—the day to day operations, process improvements, implementing changes, etc. are often called managers. They usually decide policies, establish procedures, control allocation of resources, schedules, and evaluate performance against quality standards, and they are often responsible for hiring and firing of personnel. When outcomes are disappointing, you might hear them say, I really don’t like to “manage people”. In that context, I don’t see them as poor managers; rather I see them as poor leaders. I have a bias against the concept of any individual “managing other people” because it fosters one-directional thinking, without regard for the reciprocity of human behavior in social systems. All parties play a part in the product of their relationship. Thinking of business management as managing people keeps managers’ thinking other-focused rather than keeping it focused on their own behavior. The obvious point here is that individuals can change or manage their own behavior to create an environment where others have the opportunity to perform well, but they cannot change the behavior of others. That’s a by-product of high functioning leadership.

Leadership and management, as it is commonly understood in today’s organizations, are not mutually exclusive. Successful managers also provide leadership. They inspire people to perform and the most successful ones inspire exceptional performance—performance that results in successful outcomes for all stakeholders. However, leadership need not only come from managers or from others in positions of authority. Every employee in an organization can and often does provide leadership at different times around various challenges. Successful organizations develop a culture of leadership—with widespread recognition that the organization is a natural system of mutually interdependent individuals who are responsible for managing themselves in mature ways. Such organizations have leaders throughout that foster open discussion and collaboration, mutual respect, and decision making that is in the best interest of the whole organization.

Leslie Ann Fox, CEO, Care Communications, Inc. January 29, 2010

Leading in a Time of Constant Change

Happy New Year to our readers, colleagues, friends, and families.  What Leslie and I wish for the world (and for your company, your community, your family and ours) is that systems-based leadership ideas will take off in 2010.  As we write in the introduction to Leading a Business in Anxious Times, the leadership principles we’ve introduced in the book “will enable you and your organization to successfully face the challenges that you encounter in an unknown but constantly changing future.  They will give you the resilience, stability, flexibility, and vision to prepare yourself effectively for whatever lies ahead.  Imagine if your company embraced responding to change as its strategic differentiator.  What could it not accomplish?” (p. 22)

At this point all we know about 2010 (we don’t even know if it will end up as “twenty ten” or “two thousand ten”), is that it will surely involve enormous change and demands for adaptation from all of us.  We will certainly be called upon to analyze, understand, and utilize new technologies, new products, and new ideas for defining and solving challenges at home, at work, and in the wider world.  As you know from reading our book (and probably from your own life), most people experience change and the demand to adapt as stressful.  When we are feeling anxious or stressed out, we can’t think as clearly, we make mistakes, we look for shortcuts, and our productivity and performance go down.

Faced with the inevitability of change in 2010, what can we do about it?  We’ve said that functioning higher on the scale of differentiation (p.110) is the key to managing change and to providing effective leadership at all levels in a business.  And raising your functioning has to start with self-awareness:  “Understanding how you functioned in your family when you were growing up, what triggers your anxiety today, and how you react when you are anxious can inform your thinking in ways that enable you to better manage your anxiety in the present.  Functioning at a higher level of differentiation as a member of an organization is always beneficial; you are less vulnerable to absorbing anxiety from others in the emotional system.  Being a non-anxious presence in the system brings big benefits to the organization…  As a way of leading, differentiation of self is about the value that a thoughtful, self-reflecting, emotionally independent individual brings to the workplace (p. 124).”

Please read on through Chapter 5 to learn more about how to do this.  And write to us about how it works for you as you face the changes that 2010 will surely thrust upon you.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD, Northampton, MA, December 31, 2009.

Please join our blog on “Leading a Business in Anxious Times.”

Our book describes the impact of anxiety on the workplace and how the capacity to think clearly in the presence of anxious colleagues, staff, and customers in the hallmark of an emotionally mature leader. Learning to recognize the signs of anxiety at both the individual and organizational level is the starting point for leading in anxious times. Our ideas about emotional systems and emotionally mature functioning in the workplace have helped us, our clients, and employees achieve a greater level of satisfaction at work and have had a profound impact on the culture of organizations that consistently pay attention to this dimension of leading.

We hope to have discussions on this blog with you, our readers. Please tell us how our ideas resonate with you and how you use the book in your workplace to promote more mature leadership. We are also interested in your thoughts about a definition of leadership that is based less on individual traits, personality, and temperament, and more on the mutual interdependence of the workplace relationship system.

We look forward to hearing from you —
Leslie and Katharine