Tag Archives: leadership

How’s your leadership? The self audit

My inspiration for this article is a Twitter conversation with Dr. Deepak Malhotra‏ (@HeadHR_Deepak) after last week’s Power-of-Connection chat session. (#PoCChat takes place on Mondays at 15:00 GMT, and I’d love to have you join us.)

Dr. Malhotra encouraged us to perform self-audits to help us become more effective as leaders. He provided the following outline; I’ve filled in each step with my own thoughts.

Man looking at himself in a mirror

Image credit: What Shih Said (WordPress: whatshihsaid.com/)

What leaders do I admire?

Write down the names of four or five leaders you admire. They can be famous or obscure, historical, contemporary, or even fictional. They can be people in charge of large organizations or people who simply lead by example. They can be Abraham Lincoln or your first boss. Warren Buffet or Captain Kirk.

It’s best if at least a couple of your choices are people you know and who have influenced you directly. In any case, all of your choices should be people whose leadership styles you know well.

What attributes do I admire in those leaders?

Now that you know which leaders you admire, it’s time to figure out what it is about them that you admire. It’s like asking What makes these leaders effective? But it’s more personal. Leaders can be effective in ways you appreciate but don’t admire or even approve of.

You’re looking specifically for attributes you hold in high regard, and your list will be yours alone. Maybe you admire charisma, or compassion, or strength of character. You should be able to explain, in a sentence or two, why you admire each of the attributes you pick.

Which of those attributes do I want to emulate?

Narrow it down even further: out of the attributes you admire, which ones do you think you’re capable of pulling off?

I worked with an executive who had military-style self discipline: always dressed impeccably, shoes shined, every hair in place. It gave him an air of authority, and I admired him for it. But it was completely not my style.

Other attributes, no matter how admirable, come with a cost. For example, if you resolve to be honest at all times, no matter what, sooner or later you’ll make somebody mad. You might encounter resistance. Ask yourself if it’s worth the cost.

By now you should have a fairly short list of attributes, maybe three or four, that you admire and are willing to develop. If you’re list of attributes is longer, you’ll find it hard to stay focused as you seek to grow as a leader.

How am I doing?

Now that you have a list, measure your performance in each area. Don’t compare yourself to the leaders you admire — that’s an awfully high bar. Instead, decide what level you’re capable of reaching, and measure yourself against that standard.

If honesty is one of the attributes you chose to develop, think back over the last few weeks. Was there a time when honesty was called for, and you demurred? What happened? What thoughts and emotions led you to react the way you did?

If I’m falling short in any area, why? What can I do to improve?

You’ll probably find that you’re already strong in some of the areas you’ve decided to emulate. Many of us admire in others the same characteristics we see in ourselves.

There’ll be other areas, however, where you’re falling short. When you needed to be honest but you weren’t, how could you have handled the situation better? When a similar situation arises again, what might you try doing differently — or what can you say to yourself — to bring about a better result?

Going forward

I’m looking forward to diving more deeply into this. I think it’s going to be fun: recalling leaders who’ve changed my life for the better, and finding attributes in them that I can aspire to.

Dr. Malhotra, if you’re reading this, I hope I’ve faithfully captured the essence of what you meant when you described the self audit.

Everyone: Do you perform self audits of your leadership? If so, what techniques have you found helpful?

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Living and learning: 2016

Merriam-Webster picked surreal as its 2016 word of the year, and…yeah. At times this year I’ve felt like Alice in Wonderland, and I’ll bet you have too.

One thing remains as true as ever, though: if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

Here are some things I learned this year:

The future is technical communication

screen-shot-2016-02-25-at-6-07-54-pmTechnology is moving forward at breakneck speed. People want technology. People have different learning styles.

Who can deliver the information people need to make use of, and enjoy, the technology that’s all around them? Technical communicators, that’s who.

That’s the gist of Sarah Maddox’s keynote speech at tcworld India 2016.

I think Sarah is saying that we need continuously to hone the technical part of our job title, while not neglecting the communicator part. And I think she’s absolutely right.

We care a lot about our professional society

STC logoSome of my most popular posts this year dealt with the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its role in a changing world. How can STC remain relevant when the traditional roles of professional societies are changing? How can it serve a community that’s growing ever more diverse, in terms of the kinds of work we do?

As 2017 begins, STC is looking for a new CEO. Whoever gets the job, and whatever things they choose to prioritize, I hope they’ll appreciate the passion and dedication of STC’s members.

DITA isn’t cheap (but it’s still worth the cost)

DITA logoEven as more organizations embrace DITA for developing their content, we hear that DITA is complex and hard to learn. Overcoming DITA’s acceptance hurdles was one of my most commented-on blog posts this year, as was my plea for greater sensitivity to the writers’ learning curve.

Yes, DITA is powerful. But it didn’t get that way by being simple. I’ve come to appreciate that writers need time to absorb the underlying principles, which happen to align closely with the principles of good technical writing, and they need time to learn the how-to aspects as well. It’s time well spent, I think.

A leader is a storyteller

monsterWe saw it in this year’s political news: for better or worse, people are drawn to the leaders who tell the best stories.

As technical communicators, we’re by nature good storytellers.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does.

Don’t take things too seriously

The year truly has been surreal. Many of our deeply held beliefs — about leaders, about governments, about the course of history — have been challenged if not overturned.

Yet my most-read post in 2016, by far, was a collection of jokes. That taught me not to take things too seriously, and especially not to take myself too seriously.

It reminded me that we’re all human beings. We all need to connect with each other and, sometimes, share a laugh.

I hope I’ve connected with you, at least a few times, in 2016. I hope we’ll continue to connect in 2017. And even share a laugh or two.

Related: Living and learning: 2015

Too much managing, just enough leadership

As you might’ve heard, they played a baseball game Wednesday night. The Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians, 8-7, to win their first World Series championship in over 100 years.

The game reminded us that leading is different from managing.

Business consultant Liane Davey says that when times are good and managing is easy (like when your team is ahead 8-0), leading — imparting a shared vision and guiding the team toward it — is still vital.

Then, when times are tough, when it’s the last game of the World Series and the score is tied in the ninth inning, it’s leading, not managing, that comes to the fore.

Managing and then some

maddon

A manager (Joe Maddon)

Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, the Cubs’ and Indians’ managers, are good leaders. Their players say so. Their success — they’ve both been to the World Series more than once — says so.

Both men are also known for their unorthodox managing styles. The tactical decisions they make during games can be bewildering. Sometimes they get carried away.

During the World Series Maddon and Francona seemed to be competing to see who could be the most hands-on manager. It was especially evident in the way they handled their pitchers.

On Wednesday night, the gamesmanship caught up with them: both teams reached the ninth inning with the score tied and their best relief pitchers either unavailable (because they’d pitched earlier in the game) or ineffective (because of overwork).

It was a classic case of overmanaging. Had Maddon and Francona stuck to more traditional methods, each one would’ve had a better hand to play in the late stages of the game.

Then, nature decided to play its hand. With the score still tied and the game about to enter extra innings, a brief but intense rain shower forced an interruption in play.

Leading at just the right moment

For most of the Cubs, emotionally down after blowing a 4-run lead, the rain delay probably compounded their gloom. They didn’t know it would turn out to be the best thing that could happen to them.

heyward

A leader (Jason Heyward)

As his Cubs teammates trudged into the locker room, outfielder Jason Heyward called to them. They knew Heyward, a 7-year major-league veteran, as someone who was quiet but grounded, a steadying influence in the clubhouse.

Now Heyward called the tired, discouraged players together for an impromptu meeting. We’re the best team in baseball, he told them. Let’s relax, play hard, and win this game. Then some of the others spoke up: We’re brothers. We’ve got each other’s backs. We’re not going to give up.

A half-hour later, the game was over and the Cubs were champions. Several of Heyward’s teammates credited the ten-minute meeting with settling their nerves, turning around the game, and saving the team’s season.

It was a little bit of leadership, delivered at just the right moment by someone with no formal job title — no “coach” or “manager” next to his name. Heyward had something better than a job title: he had the respect of his co-workers, his teammates. He also had the instinct and the courage to lead when it mattered most.

It’s not my intention to disparage either of the managers in that game. Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, especially deserves credit for creating a culture where his team is united, where they’ve got each other’s backs, and where a player feels empowered to speak up.

Where, when the guy with “manager” next to his name gets carried away managing, a leader can step forward and buoy the team.

Image sources: Associated Press (Maddon), Chicago Cubs (Heyward)

Insecure leaders — generous leaders?

Studies show.

Two words that ought to send your critical-thinking apparatus into overdrive.

Trapeze artist flying through the airIn this case, according to a report from Forbes writer Adi Gaskell, studies show that insecure leaders — those who say they experience impostor syndrome — are less selfish and more generous than other leaders. (Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you’re unqualified for the work you’re doing.)

Aware of their own shortcomings, the studies suggest, these leaders will forgive similar shortcomings in the people they lead. They even tend to delegate more work to employees who feel unworthy than to those who are confident and self-assured.

Gaskell writes, “The research found that when leaders suffer from impostor syndrome, they are more likely to be generous to others as they try and alleviate any perceived unfairness in their ascent to power.”

My own experience

That’s totally opposite to what I’ve experienced in my own career.

Of the leaders I’ve worked for (and with), it’s the insecure ones who act defensively and who are least likely to be generous. To a greater or lesser degree, they’re busy protecting their authority — which they often feel they gained unjustly — and trying to hide their deficiencies.

Leaders who are confident and self-assured, I’ve found, are much more generous: less apt to insist that everything be done their way, more willing to help when needed, more likely to deflect praise.

Confidence opens the door to true humility (not self-doubt) and servant leadership.

I’d much rather have a leader who’s confident than one who’s insecure. And so would you, I’ll bet.

Yet studies show the opposite to be true. So what’s going on? Here are some suggestions. Continue reading

Trump’s Icarus moment? 

Originally posted 13 August 2016. Updated 9 October 2016

We learned in school about Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, fascinated by the idea of flying, fashioned two pairs of wings for himself and his son, Icarus, out of feathers and wax.

Gowy-icaro-pradoThey began to fly, and it was wonderful at first. But then Icarus, ignoring his father’s warnings, flew too close to the sun. The wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea.

Are we seeing Donald Trump’s Icarus moment?

Fascinated (perhaps obsessed) by fame and adulation, Trump put his name on everything he touched and became a TV celebrity. Then he thought of the ultimate ego trip: running for president.

It was wonderful at first. Probably even better than expected. Trump’s words resonated with a large and vocal segment of the population. He found his rallies filled with people who roared their approval at everything he said.

Trump flew higher. The news media flocked to him. In the candidates’ debates, the spotlight shone on him. He won a succession of primary elections.

He flew higher still. In an upset that nobody predicted, he won the Republican party’s nomination for president. He said whatever outrageous things came into his mind, just so he could hear the crowds roar with approval.

Now his wax is melting. Continue reading

What’s your leadership story?

monster.png

Monsters are part of Harry Potter’s world. Some leaders would like us to think they’re part of our world too. (Image credit below)

In the run-up to last June’s Brexit referendum, J.K. Rowling wrote a brilliant piece about storytelling:

“I’m not an expert on much, but I do know how to create a monster,” she began, going on to say that all political campaigns tell stories and that one side in the referendum — the Leave side — had worked especially hard to create monsters, or villains.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, writing a day after the vote was taken, explained the outcome by saying the populist Leave side had told its story better than the political center — the Remain side — had:

“The political center has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent.”

He didn’t say that Leave had a better story. He said they told it better.

In politics the spoils often go to the best storyteller.

I’ve found that in leadership in general, the best storytellers make the most effective leaders.

Beginning, middle, and end

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For many leaders, including politicians, the beginning and the middle are simply a recap of the listeners’ current circumstances.

The end, in politics, is often about the bad things that will ensue if you vote for the other side. (Enter the monsters.) In true leadership, the end is about the good things that will happen if you follow me, or if we work together.

An emotional connection

A story makes an emotional connection with the listeners. Too often in today’s politics that connection is rooted in fear. In leadership the best connections are rooted in shared hopes and in a sense of cohesion, of belonging. We’re in this together, and together we’ll succeed.

Linking technical writing and leadership

Several of us, notably Mark Baker, have pointed out that storytelling is essential to technical writing as well. We guide our readers from a beginning point through a set of steps (the middle) to the desired outcome (end).

We try to connect emotionally with our readers: gaining their confidence, reassuring them as they move through the steps, and congratulating them when they finish.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does, as long as we remember that we’re storytellers and that our calling is to help people meet their goals.

What do you think? If you’re a technical writer who became a leader, did you find that your skill at the one helped you succeed in the other?

What’s your leadership story?

Update, 30 June 2016: My colleague Ray Gallon has broken down the “Leave” story in detailed and illuminating fashion. Highly recommended: The Morning After: Brexit of Champions.

Image credit: Bob McCabe, Jody Revenson, Moira Squier – Harry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey 

When a good worker struggles

This one’s personal. It’s the story of one of the biggest leadership challenges I’ve ever faced: a good employee whose performance declined but who didn’t (or couldn’t) admit that she had a problem.

Broken pencilsJenny (not her real name) was one of the best pure writers who ever worked for me. She came to me highly recommended, with a history of success both at work and outside of work. When she joined our project, her subject-matter experts quickly came to love her: she was congenial, she asked good questions, and she respected their time. She showed enthusiasm and a positive, can-do attitude.

Soon after we began working together, Jenny told me that she was going through a difficult divorce and adjusting to life as a single mom. She needed a flexible schedule, to accommodate the kids’ activities. We agreed that she could do much of her work at home and in the evenings. I avoided scheduling meetings and important calls in mid-afternoon when she picked up the kids at school. The arrangement suited everyone, at least for a while.

Then she started missing deadlines. She’d assure me that a chapter would be finished by Friday. Then on Friday she’d ask if it could wait until Monday, promising to work over the weekend.

I asked her if things were OK, if she could use some help. The answer was always the same: I’ve got this. I can handle it.

But she wasn’t handling it. Continue reading

Leader, be worthy of my trust

Engraving in the lobby at CIA Headquarters

Engraving in the lobby at CIA Headquarters (source: CIA Headquarters virtual tour)

Earlier this week, in the Project Management section that I teach as part of Duke University’s Technical Communication certificate program, I told my students that trust is the currency of project management. In fact, trust is the currency of all leadership.

You can coerce people using brute force alone. But to truly lead, you have to earn your followers’ trust.

How does a leader earn trust? By showing that he or she is trustworthy. By never pursuing hidden agendas. By being truthful.

Yesterday John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, held a press conference in the lobby of CIA headquarters. Engraved in the wall next to him, according to the New York Times, was a verse from the Gospel of John: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

I wonder if Brennan thought about that verse of scripture as he stood there, defending his predecessors at the CIA who’d covered up the horrifying truth that its agents — agents of my country, the United States of America — had tortured and abused human beings as part of the “war on terror.” Continue reading

Career Tips from the Old Ballpark

This weekend marks the anniversary of the best baseball game I ever saw in person, at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. It taught me some lessons about handling tough situations on the job.

Baseball card of Lenn SakataAfter rallying to tie the score in the ninth inning, the Orioles had no one left to play catcher. So in the top of the tenth, they put utility infielder Lenn Sakata into the game at catcher — a position he’d never before played in the major leagues.

That’s Lesson 1: Be flexible. You never know what need might arise. When it does arise, strap on the catcher’s gear and perform with as much grace as you can muster. Who knows? It might turn out OK. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll know that gave it your best shot.

Toronto Blue Jays’ batter Barry Bonnell reached first base and, no doubt thinking it would be easy to steal second with the inexperienced Sakata behind the plate, took a big lead. Pitcher Tippy Martinez picked him off.

The next batter, Dave Collins, walked. He took a big lead off first base, and Martinez picked him off too.

Then Willie Upshaw singled. As he took his lead off first base the fans began chanting “pick him off.”

Which brings us to Lesson 2: Don’t be overconfident. Having seen two of his teammates get picked off and hearing the crowd chanting, why did Upshaw wander so far off first base? He must’ve been thinking It can’t happen to me.

Baseball card of Tippy MartinezIt did happen to him.

A successful pickoff in baseball is fairly rare. Picking off three in one inning, as Martinez did, is extraordinary. And of course it’s a record that’ll never be broken.

In the bottom of the tenth, Sakata came to bat with two outs and two men on base. You can guess what happened. Sakata, who weighed 160 pounds soaking wet and who’d hit just one home run all season, hit a three-run homer to win the game.

I was already a baseball fan for life. That night, watching from the upper deck in Memorial Stadium, I became an Orioles fan for life.

And so Lesson 3: You never know who might be watching. The Orioles gained a fan that night. Your handling of a tough situation might gain you the respect and even the admiration of a client or colleague — which will pay off later on.

Use the comments area to tell me you might’ve learned from this story. Or just tell me about a good ballgame you’ve seen.

Originally published, with slightly different content, on the SDI blog, 24 August 2010

When Your People Go their Own Way

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

– Attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin

"Make way for Ducklings" statue showing ducks in a rowYou’re a good leader. You can explain how to get things done. You can persuade when necessary. Above all, you excel at leading by example.

So everyone on the team is in lock-step, working in perfect harmony and at maximum efficiency, doing things exactly as you envision them being done. Right?

Wrong. It doesn’t always go that way. If you’re like me, it hardly ever goes that way.

People have the darnedest habit of doing things their way instead of your way. It’s not because they can’t take direction or because they won’t take direction. It’s because they’re people.

So what does it mean when your people go their own way? Continue reading