On Empathy

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“But what if I really don’t care if my co-worker’s dog died? I am so not a dog person and don’t get all this pet stuff that people get into. I get that empathy is important but if I’m not feeling it, wouldn’t it be worse if I faked it?”

Touché. I had been facilitating a workshop on emotional intelligence and was talking about one of the important qualities for leaders, empathy. It was a great question and a challenge shared by other leaders I’ve worked with.

Empathy doesn’t mean total identification with someone’s specific experience, but rather recognition of the human experience of suffering. If we can get in touch with times we’ve suffered – experienced loss, sadness, loneliness – then we can use that experience to connect to another person and express empathy authentically.

Whining is Not a Strategy!

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In our strategic leadership workshops, we often hear from people some version of “But so and so won’t let me …” or “I’ve complained many times about our company’s … ” or “Our organization is so messed up that …” to which we sometimes say (kindly of course 😉 that “Whining is not a strategy.” If you are whining or looking at what is wrong, you cannot see opportunities and will not develop your skills. If, for example, you don’t think you are being provided with enough clarity about your job, instead of continuing to complain about or ask, over and over again, for clarity, ask yourself what you could learn about dealing with ambiguity. That will definitely lead to your next opportunity to learn and grow which is indeed a better strategy than whining!

Go Where You’re Loved

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I remember listening to an author once (sorry I can’t recall who it was!) who was asked about how she dealt with critics of her work. She replied, “I go where I am loved.” Most of us already have really well developed inner critics and so we don’t need to seek them out. Going where we are loved to find an audience for our work and our style (whatever work that might be!), leaves more energy to continue developing ourselves. Continually going down a path with people who don’t appreciate who we are leaves us demotivated, uninspired and worn out. Find those who love you and nurture them!

Didn’t I Do This Yesterday?

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I’m a bit of a biography nut and was intrigued by an article on Bruce Springsteen in a recent Vanity Fair article. In it he stated that, ““You have to create the show anew, and find it anew, on a nightly basis,” Springsteen said. “And sometimes,” he concluded, laughing, “it takes me longer than I thought it would.” Later on in the article, he says, “I’ve always felt a lot in common with Sisyphus. I’m always rolling that rock, man. One way or another, I’m always rolling that rock.”

I was struck by the connections to creativity and leadership in what he said. Our creativity gets expressed when we continue to push that rock uphill. In my case, just because I may have created a blog I really liked yesterday (or many other previous days!), doesn’t mean I don’t have to go through my creative process again and find some inspiration. While my creative process might become familiar to me, I don’t know that it’s gotten any easier. Some days that rock is pretty heavy!

And this is certainly true of leadership as well. We need to show up every day and find the inspiration and best parts of ourselves. Just because we made a difference one day doesn’t mean we don’t need to do the same the next day. We have to recreate our passion and commitment for leadership every day. And that, too, can feel like pushing a big rock uphill.

There’s Always Downward Dog

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I’ve done several 30 day challenges related to blogging and drawing over the past few years and on January 1, I decided to go in a different direction with yoga.

I chose yoga for 2 reasons, to increase my flexibility and become more mindful, as my past forays into meditation weren’t all that successful! Today, day 24, I came to the following insights:

  1. Yoga slows me down for at least a few minutes every day.
  2. I’m getting out of my head (a big relief trust me!) and into my body.
  3. I do feel more calm, more centered and more optimistic after I’ve done it.
  4. I feel I’ve made progress on something every day which might not be what true yoga practitioners would say is the point of yoga. I have so many big abstract projects, however, that accomplishing this one little thing a day is comforting.

It seems to me these are all great leadership practices as well. Yoga doesn’t have to be your thing but what do you do to slow down, get out of your head, become more centered and make progress everyday?

Antidote to Cynicism

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We had just spent two days with a very diverse group of participants facilitating a Future Search process and had asked for closing comments. I was struck by two of them:

“I am excited by what we have created and feel hope for our future.”

“If you all follow through on the projects we identified, things might change.”  

The second comment struck me as somewhat cynical and it got me thinking about what distinguishes hope from cynicism. As I reflected on how these two people had participated in the two days and thought about other situations, four themes emerged:

Own your part – Hopeful people own their role in situations, both the good and the bad, and don’t look to others to “fix things.” Cynical people only own the good, are oblivious to the bad, and expect others to “fix things” for them.

Assume good intent – Hopeful people trust that others are doing the best they can, while cynical people assume others are out to make their lives miserable.

Accept reality – Hopeful people don’t sugarcoat or assume doom and gloom, they accept current circumstances and don’t wish they were different. Cynical people are always searching for some perfect condition that is different from the current one.

Give – Hopeful people give their time, energy and resources to others without condition. Cynical people wait for others to give to them.

As we approach the holiday season, are you hopeful or cynical? Which of these four areas might hold insight for you?

Go First

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When it comes to building or rebuilding trust, there comes a point when someone needs to have the courage to go first, let down their guard and defense mechanisms and be vulnerable. Revealing what is REALLY happening for us creates the opening for trust to be built.

We often get asked “why should I go first?” Because if you don’t, your world becomes smaller and smaller and the one who suffers is you.

Silence Is Not A Problem To Solve

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Learning to manage anxiety in the presence of silence is another insight from the work of Weisbord and Janoff. As they suggest, “We are mindful that each time we break the silence, we deprive someone of a chance to make a valuable observation.” Waiting even 10 seconds will seem like an eternity, but it allows people to experience whatever is happening and come up with insights about what’s next.

State The Obvious

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I am a big fan of Weisbord and Janoff, creators of Future Search, and learned much about facilitation when I took their training. Their new book Lead More, Control Less applies their years of experience to leadership, and offers great insights.

One of their concepts is how to handle one’s anxiety when leading meetings. Often we try to rush to solution or tell people what to think. Stating the obvious signals you’ve heard people and actually eases your own anxiety. It also eases anxiety for others. State the obvious and pause. In my experience someone will come up with the next step for the meeting.

Letting Go Of The Right Way

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I have had the honour of working with many talented leaders who are so people oriented that they drive themselves crazy trying to ensure people are happy. These leaders often have to make tough decisions, though, and it’s not possible for everyone to be happy all the time.

Even though intellectually I think most of these leaders know this, they still keep thinking that if they had done something different, people would be happy.

They won’t be – there is no one right way. That’s the reality of work and life – there is pain at times. Helping everyone accept this might just start to ease people’s suffering.