Leading from the Bottom

Leading from the bottom is never easy. When you find yourself in a place of lesser respect with your peers and you don’t want to be there, there are ways to climb out from the pit. They are difficult. They require commitment, self-honesty, tenacity and courage. That said, take it from someone who used to be a failure, who used to be a quitter: giving up should always be your last resort.

I had to start by asking a not-so-simple question: “why am I here?” It’s easy to point to others around you in your organization and say: “it’s their fault and here’s why”. There are bullies and cliques in every organization, and we will address them in a bit. Generally speaking, however, I discovered the only thing I can fix is myself. Taking self-inventory and finding out where I stand is Leadership 101. I’ve learned to ask myself when challenges arise: “am I sabotaging my influence, and if so, how?” On accepting difficult truths considering that question, and making some hard changes, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how my influence has increased, propelling me in a positive direction.

But what happens when the criticism is unfair, the reputation is no longer earned, and you are still the butt of jokes and condescension? What do you do when the problem is external to you?

I’ll tell you, I spent years doing the wrong thing: I took it personally. It’s hard not to. That led to me to becoming as critical of them as I saw them being critical of me, which was a huge mistake and an instant saboteur for all influence on top of my flaws. It just made them look “right” when they said negative things about me in the eyes of others. When I learned how to take inventory and started making the hard changes to eliminate those flaws, I still found myself under the gun more than I should have been.

I have two words to describe the right way for handling the criticism of others: love and kindness. Remove all criticism from your lips, treat people with respect no matter how they treat you, ignore the scoffs, side-eyed glances and casual as well as implied insults. Be kind, and practice love for others. It’s that simple. I speak from experience when I say you will become a beacon of light and your reputation will follow. Just think about the man or woman you know that everyone likes-if ever anyone spoke a harsh word against them, it would be piled back on their heads.

Proverbs 5:21-22

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.

That leads me to this: one can practice a “charm offensive” without having made any personal changes. Politicians do this quite frequently. When it counts, however, character is what true leaders look for. If someone has no character, they collaborate with other leaders who do the same. Eventually, they will stab that person in the back. When walking in shady circles, people get backstabbed all the time: there is always someone smarter and better equipped than they are.
I can honestly say, after having worked out some character flaws, and having put down the defensive criticism, I was able to love others again and I find myself respected today. The exclamation point to my story hasn’t happened yet, but God has been developing a testimony in me that I cannot ignore.

Failing Forward

I’ve been reading John Maxwell’s “Failing Forward” and considering some of the lessons therein.

I have a tendency toward perfectionism. When I make a social misstep, or a networking misstep, I have a hard time forgiving myself. I’m irrationally afraid I won’t get another chance. In other words, I’ve been entrenched in “Conditional Regard”, the ugly cousin of “Unconditional Positive Regard”, where I only accept myself when I meet certain criteria. The fact that they are unreasonable criteria is only icing on that cake.

Though Maxwell makes it clear through his stories that we must be aware of how wide or narrow our windows of opportunity really are, I discovered something that applies to all forms of performance anxiety:

Giving myself grace is the only way out.

As long as I am serious about change and it’s evidenced through a majority of my behavior, allowing myself grace when I make mistakes is acceptable. In fact, it’s necessary. What I had to figure out was there is a difference between a mistake and a backslide. A mistake is something I usually recognize right after it’s happened and it’s not something I want to repeat. A backslide is a series of “somethings” that I barely acknowledge and allow to continue unchecked. Guilt is only useful for the second one, but not the first. Guilt slows you down, but grace powers you forward. If I allow guilt to overtake me for a mistake after my performance record suggests positive momentum, all I’m doing is sabotaging myself from continuing in a positive direction.

Maxwell’s core concept is found in the title- “Failing Forward”. In it, he suggests that in order to succeed, you need to give yourself permission to fail. I’m new to this, but I’m beginning to understand just how important that permission-that grace is-to my personal growth, my networking, my business, and my life.

The Hero’s Journey

Another piece to the puzzle of what makes a great leader? The journey.

Think about it. Every great leader I’ve ever heard of is constantly on a journey; I mean literally, they are always traveling. Their stories often take place in cities I have only dreamt of, talking with people I used to believe I’d never have access to, flying thousands and thousands of miles around the earth on deep pockets. While out and about, they nurture and maintain contacts to the point where, because of their vision, their network, and how they treat people, they accomplish great things. These accomplishments create a burning urge to get the message out because the stories are fascinating, and potentially helpful to humankind, while having the added benefit of increasing their influence among the masses.The cycle repeats.

I started this journey seeking employment and somehow it’s turned into so much more than that. Seeking employment meant learning about how to find it effectively, which also meant learning about myself. Learning itself suddenly became valuable to me. Then, I learned that networking was the best possible way to find a way to meet my financial needs. Now I seek connections and listen for the needs of others, with an ever-strengthening belief that I will be provided for. Through continued learning, I realized that I’m a leader, although a novice one, and that is where I will find my bread and butter. I began questing locally to see what it means to be a great leader. I’ve discovered so far that leadership, more than anything else, is about honest self-exploration, a willingness to learn, to grow, to improve. All of these things are building into each other. The more contacts I make, the more books I read, the more my network grows…well, it’s becoming something bigger than me and my needs.

And I realized something today in the shower (where all great ideas come): I think I’m going to have to leave soon. I mean physically. I can see it on the horizon: I have to travel away from home. The time will come soon to start my own “hero’s journey”.

I’m not really sure why it is nascent leaders need to do this, but you see it throughout history. Jesus Christ-the founder of Christianity-pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his home country and he traveled everywhere throughout Samaria and Judea. Saint Paul himself was rumored to have reached all the way to Spain from a journey that started on the road to Damascus-that man started, lead and nurtured several of the earliest Christian churches under threat of death, imprisonment, torture, and a couple of shipwrecks. Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas!!) was said to have reached India. INDIA in 54BC from Judea! He successfully started a Christian tradition that still exists today and claims him as their founding apostle. Theodore Roosevelt was elected to governor of New York after travelling to Puerto Rico and leading the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War; we know what ends up happening to him. We remember Herman Cortes for bringing the downfall of the Aztec empire through conquest and disease-he wasn’t the best guy, but he was a leader and sailed across an ocean, burning his ships behind him to accomplish the mission of his journey. Sir Edmund Hillary is known for being one of the first to summit Everest and definitely the first to touch both poles as well as summit Everest, ever-nobody would deny his influence. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two to land on the moon and walk on it, and they carried sway for the rest of their lives (Aldrin is still alive!).

What’s my point? Great leaders travel, inspired to accomplish great things through their journey. For me, my mission or purpose has been clear for a long time, but up until now, I’ve been clueless as to how I get there. I am fantastically glad I didn’t delete this blog, as I considered doing once or twice. I was afraid that my open exploration would reveal that I am a novice leader and that it would end my story before it began. Now, I realize, great leaders share. Though I am not a great leader yet, that this is part of my journey. I hope it inspires others to find ways to accomplish what they are meant to do.

Attention Span

There is a conflict within my personality.

I have a gift where people want to open up to me. It happens even with strangers, and it’s a little like when people find out that someone is a doctor and want talk about their boils-I get all kinds of interesting stories thrown my way from people who have little to no personal interest in me.

Most of the time, I have a vested interest in the person sharing. Especially when it’s a friend, I want to do the best I can to serve them and be there for them through whatever they’re going through.

The problem is, I get easily distracted. I have a self-flattering theory that I am the psychology version of a “meatball surgeon” in a M.A.S.H. unit during the Korean War. Instead of piecing together parts of a bullet hole-riddled stomach, I was designed to help shoulder the emotional burden for people during emergency situations. Emergencies are fast-paced, require quick responses, and short-term, patchwork solutions. None of those things require having to pay attention for extended periods of time.

A real surgeon I am not.

As an extravert, I naturally do best being in front of audiences. As a leader, I should be fully capable of becoming the audience. Listening well to people is imperative for building influence and for being a good leader in general.

Points For Attention-Span Development:

  • Interact. Although I should still let the other person do most of the talking during situations where they need to unburden, there is a concept referred to as “active listening”: remember what is said, ask questions that engage deeper reflection on the part of the speaker, further clarify a murky concept, or encourage the speaker to expound upon what they are saying.
    • This works with textbooks and articles as well, only the interaction there is doing things like note-taking, and even affiliating a piece of music to the information for enhanced recall.
  • Meditate. When alone, I need to consider tuning out all distractions and focusing on one concept in my mind for periods of time that I gradually extend. Eventually, I’ll add distractions and see if I am able to focus on the singular concept despite what is going on around me. Such mental exercises are often thought to increase overall ability to focus in real life.
  • Monitor. Sometimes, when someone has been the sole speaker for ten minutes or more on topics that are not situation critical, they are being poor conversationalists. As a “bottom-line” personality, I will sometimes politely interrupt. Although having a long attention-span is a good thing, I still need to be the guardian of my time. I should not enable people to take advantage of my willing ear. There are those who are natural talkers and those who are natural listeners-it’s good for both types to meet in the middle and actually have an interactive discussion. Think of conversation like a dance-if someone is speaking for more than five minutes on a given topic, it is polite to check and see if who you are speaking with is interested. During that pause, it is polite to either contribute to the conversation yourself, or be honest and politely change the subject.

For more information on extending your attention span, check out this lifehacker article from 2010:

http://lifehacker.com/5596964/how-to-rebuild-your-attention-span-and-focus

Whether I Belong…

I’ve been hunting on “familiar” ground for leaders from whom I could garner some wisdom. “Familiar” though the territory is, I’ve again been reminded of how different I am compared to most of them. At first, that made me glad that I’m casting a wider net beyond what I’m used to. I didn’t want to continue to pursue a position in a field that I don’t belong in. Then, I began to consider the positive angle-perhaps I have some gifts they do not.

It’s also good to be speaking to people who are inherently different from me, as Rosalinde Torres talks about in her TED talk concerning what it takes to be a great leader. It makes me feel like I’ve already learned quite a bit about operating with people who are tribally somewhat different than I am.

I’ve also decided that I will pursue leaders in the fields of my interests. Ministry is one of them, especially creative outreach ministry. Broadcasting (all forms) is another. Teaching at a college level is another.

In the end, I hope to meet fascinating-to-me people from a broad swath of employment. Whether the support I’ll gain will send me back to school, or grant me a position, or both remains to be seen, but I have a lot more faith in the process now.

My first informational interview was this morning, and it went well.

No Excuses…

I met my first contact today. It was about as dramatic as one might imagine-I was put on stage (literally) and had my mettle tested by this leader whom I sought to connect with. I went in with my head down and my ego laid low. Perhaps the old Indiana Jones line applies-“The penitent man will pass. The penitent man. The penitent man will pass…”

The realization happened long before this moment that I needed to do this right. I needed to come in sharp. If the blades came out, they would find me prepared for them. I wouldn’t get a second chance.

I’m happy to say I didn’t lose any limbs today! Perhaps a toe or two, but…things went pretty smoothly. I have a meeting with this leader tomorrow morning (Tuesday).

I think I’m in the right place in this journey because I am challenged. Where I am found wanting, I do what I can to adjust. Tuesday, I’m simply going to ask this leader his professional story. It’s hard to go wrong listening. Wisdom is what I’m after. And perhaps, I can find a way to honor this person who surrendered his pulpit for a few minutes to someone who entered into his church service without any forewarning and little introduction.

Remember, reaching the TRUST stage has everything to do with listening for needs. Needs to be met. Needs that perhaps you can help with and then curry favor and friendship with people who will then want to do the same with you.

I just watched another encouraging TED Talk entitled: “Why you will fail to have a great career.” It’s perfect. One of the best TED Talks I’ve ever heard! Larry Smith systematically calls us out as the viewers for how we make excuses for not pursuing our highest purpose. Normally, I outline these, but I feel like Smith’s message is best experienced in it’s entirety without any prelude. I’ve seen it five times, and I found it an hour ago. I hope you enjoy as I did:

Know Myself

It’s always been a little difficult for me when people try to give me compliments. It’s like, I don’t want to believe it when people start to brag on me, so I frown and by the way I thank them, I realize it sounds like I’m not really grateful. I’m totally grateful. I’m just afraid.

“What does this have to do with Leadership, Business or Success,” you may ask.

Everything.

Success is a dance that has everything to do with understanding truly where my strengths and weaknesses lie (i.e. Self-Discovery!). Negotiation, whether for a sale, on a resume, in an interview, to get promoted, and more…all of these things require me to be on point with my strengths and weaknesses. If I were to have a weak ego, or conversely, a large one, I would either be underselling myself or overcompensating for a weakness. My ambitions would either get eliminated, or devoured.

A major tenet of this process- “Know myself.”

I have to realize that my weak ego is a choice. It’s hard for me to admit that I’m a charitable person with a good singing and radio voice, or that I’m a good writer, but that doesn’t make it untrue. I just work hard to be better than average in some areas. As the Bible says, the person who buries his talents in the ground has them taken away from him and given to the person who has more-literally that was speaking of money, but figuratively I think the analogy is correct. I need to start taking inventory of my talents before I lose them.

For more about having a healthy ego (they refer to it as “true humility”), see this cool chart I found: http://www.swordofthespirit.net/bulwark/truehumilitychart.htm