The Thoughtful Leader

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


Accepting Responsibility for One’s Mistakes as a Leader

Frank Rich’s Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, “No One Is to Blame for Anything,” describes the inability of top leaders to take responsibility for their own part when things go wrong in the economy, in the Catholic church, in political scandals, in business, and in a myriad of other arenas of public life. Where does Systems-Based Leadership stand on the issues of personal responsibility that Rich writes about? In Chapter 5, “Differentiation: The Key to Leadership in Anxious Times,” Leslie and I describe a high-level leader’s ability to maintain a “solid self” even during times of enormous pressure. The solid self is “made of up firmly held convictions and beliefs arrived at through life experience” and is non-negotiable. A leader with a clearly established solid self can act, react, and make decisions based on deeply held principles, rather than responding to the fears of the moment. Learning to function this way is of course not easy and can take a lifetime: “Systems-based leadership is not a skill or a technique as much as it is a process of continuous emotional maturing (p. 124).” A central part of that emotional maturity is learning to be accountable for your own behavior when things go wrong, stepping up, admitting your mistakes, and collaborating with those around you to find positive solutions to problems, so that similar mistakes can be avoided in the future. The immaturity and anxiety of some of our leaders when their errors have been unveiled keep us stuck in cycles of blame and evasion – in a “gotcha” mentality – that impede our ability to solve large societal problems.
As a business leader how hard is it for you to acknowledge your own part when things go wrong, to learn from your mistakes, and move ahead?

Time Management in the Workplace

Pilot projects are a great way to introduce new time management strategies because they don’t entail drastic change and don’t usually raise too much anxiety, but they do give people a chance to try out a different approach to their use or misuse of time at the workplace. Business leaders who used a systems-based leadership approach know that they have to start with themselves whenever introducing something new to the organization. They have to try it out themselves, notice where their resistance lies (“why am I having such a hard time getting around to doing this?”), what problems arise, and what solutions are reasonable, before recommending it to others. This is particularly true when introducing new ideas about time management.
Effective time management often gets identified as a chronic problem in today’s workplace, as people feel overworked, overstressed, have too much to do in too little time, deadlines loom, and technology speeds up expectations of what can be expected of everyone. Yet if challenged to manage time differently, most people say there are no solutions and no other ways to be productive except by learning to live with chronic stress, exhaustion, and the on-going anxiety of never being able to get everything done.
As always, “Leading a Business in Anxious Times” takes you back to your family of origin – how was time managed at home when you were growing up? How did your parents get everything done when they were raising kids, running a household, and going to work five or six days a week? How did they manage the pressure of getting you (and your siblings) out the door and onto the school bus before rushing off to work? When did the shopping and cooking and cleaning get done? How did they take breaks and calm themselves down from time to time? Were things peaceful at home or were things frantic? Was there a range of choices about how to juggle life in those days? How did you fit in? Were you a keeper-upper or someone who went his or her own way? Or something in-between? What patterns have you taken from your childhood experience into your adult workplace?
I’ve encouraged hard-pressed executives to take a look at how time was managed in the families they grew up in. If family patterns worked well for them, and they have been able to take a calm thoughtful approach to time in their adult lives, then that is great, and we won’t rock the boat! If things were hectic in the old days and they want to manage time differently from the way their parents did, then they need to do some thinking about where meaningful change can happen both for themselves and for others in the organization.
Mini pilot projects are a useful way to try managing time differently in their work lives. This means developing a plan that they can try out for perhaps a week or two and then assess. I encourage them to become researchers in examining the way they run their lives. This means putting on a figurative “white coat” and observing how each day gets filled with activity, interactions, meetings, report writing, informal encounters, e-mail, and even quiet contemplation. I then ask them how the sequence of these activities works for them. Is the balance right for them? Are the priorities right for them? Would they like to try making some changes? What could/should those changes be? How and when and where can they plan to implement change most effectively?
When executives have undertaken a number of these pilot projects and arrived at an approach to time management that works for them, they are ready to introduce these ideas to the people they work with. I encourage them not to push drastic change on others, but to suggest pilot projects that others can shape in ways that will work for them. This process will help create a much calmer workplace environment where people can focus on their work, actually think about long term projects, and manage new stressors most effectively when they inevitably arise.
– Katharine Gratwick Baker

Listening Skills at the Office

I was asked to do a training session on listening skills for a group of corporate executives a couple of weeks ago. How could I connect this training to systems-based leadership and the approach to self-management that we’ve described in “Leading a Business in Anxious Times?” Everyone knows what effective listening entails, whether on the job, in the family, or among friends. It’s important to pay attention to the person who is speaking, to maintain eye contact with him or her, to nod and smile from time to time, to give feedback that shows you’ve been listening (“what I’m hearing is…,” “sounds like you are saying…,” “is this what you mean?”), not to interrupt, and then to respond honestly and respectfully when the person is finished speaking.
But why is this so difficult for so many people? Why do we remember a mere 25 – 50% of what we hear? Why are most of us so unaware of the difficulty we have in really listening to the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of others? Where is all our reactivity coming from?
Those of you who have read “Leading a Business in Anxious Times,” particularly Chapter 8 (“From the Family to the Workplace”), can guess where I went with this training session. My first questions had to do with “listening in the family when you were growing up.” I asked how family members paid attention to each other, how they showed they were listening to each other, how they gave each other feedback, whether there was a difference in the way the adults and the kids listened to each other, and whether anxiety played a part in the way family members listened to each other.
Some of the executives in the training session couldn’t remember how their family members had listened (or not listened) to each other while they were growing up, but many of them described free-for-alls, with people talking all at once and the loudest voice carrying the day. Others described very quiet families in which everyone went about their own business without sharing any thoughts or feelings with each other. The most challenging part of the training session was the discussion of how the executives had automatically carried ancient, long-forgotten family patterns into their adult lives, particularly into the workplace, and how they affected workplace relationships, including leadership.
As you know from reading “Leading a Business in Anxious Times,” the first step in implementing behavioral change is to become aware of what you have been doing. When you become self-aware, you then have choices about whether you want to continue a particular automatic behavior or whether you want to try something different. The training session concluded with some role plays in which the executives tried out new ways of listening to each other. You could create some role plays for yourself, after you’ve thought about how people listened to each other in the family you grew up in, after you’ve become more aware of the listening (or non-listening) patterns you’ve carried into your adult life, and if you’ve decided you wanted to change some of those patterns.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD

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

Who leads the Canada geese?

On a cold grey day last week I heard the unmistakable honking of Canada geese overhead and looked up in time to see a ragged V flapping rapidly through the clouds in a northerly direction. There were perhaps 30 geese – 15 on each side – pushing the wind aside with strong wide-arced sweeps of their wings. Of course I looked instantly for the lead goose at the apex of the V, the top goose, the one with all the best leadership traits who knew where they were going, and would pull all the others along to springtime in Canada. But as I gazed high into the sky, the lead goose gave way and another, apparently equally strong, moved into the lead, and then another and another. The V kept going dead-eye north, but the leadership kept changing. Apparently they all knew where they were going, and each goose was both self-defined and a collaborative member of the larger V. Anxious times for Canada geese as the season changes and they need to look for forage and nesting places in the north. But they looked pretty calm and clear to me about where they were headed, and their honking had a celebratory sound.
Katharine Gratwick Baker

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