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.

The Point is Production

Right now, I have three main goals:

  1. I want to meet leaders, in person.
    • Once again, this refers back to the “Know” Principle, Christopher Barrat identified when talking about how to network. My original end-goal was to find work. Now, I feel like the networking itself will lead to provision in time, but without any expectations, I’d just like to get to know people-and in turn, maybe be known by them.
  2. I want to discover their stories.
    • It’s as I’ve said previously, I am looking to learn from accomplished people. I’m also listening for their needs, and seeing if perhaps I might be able to connect them with someone else, or help them myself in some way.
  3. I want to stay in touch.
    • Even if only once every other month or so. This will become more challenging as I develop more contacts, which means there needs to be some way to prioritize my time.

In other words, if my overarching goal is to network, making contacts is how I can be productive. This week, however, I started getting that nagging feeling again-that feeling of restlessness. Right now, I’m invited onto two leadership teams, I’ve met and befriended leaders of great accomplishment, and I’m volunteering my time toward greater causes. I believed I was being active.

“What does your day look like,” asked AJ.

“Well, I watch a TED talk, then I play a computer game, I listen to an Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast, then I watch a YouTube video for a movie review, I blog, then I go volunteer at the Ministry on Sunday night.”

“What I’m hearing is that you’re not that busy.”

The words sunk into my soul like an anchor.

“Production over Maintenance, Cris,” he said.

You see, in the opinion of my oldest and most esteemed mentor, if I am doing things like blogging, reading leadership tomes, watching videos on leadership-all of these are good things, but none of them involve networking. The blog, yes, minimally-it’s a tool toward networking in addition to a record of my journey and an attempt to help others. But his point: if making new contacts isn’t in there somewhere, I’m not really being productive. And if I’m not being productive, restlessness will set in. Maintenance is very important, but if you aren’t maintaining for the sake of your best form of production, it’s pointless.

Of course, he didn’t even mention the entertainment that I’d thrown in there. Although a little of that is a good thing, I should have seen the excess as a sign.

AJ has been there before. What is happening to me, has happened to him. The bottom line? Real networking is a challenge. It’s always tempting to ask ourselves: “What if I’m rejected?”, “What if they won’t talk to me?”, “What if they are ‘too big’ to talk to me?”, “What if I’m bothering them simply by introducing myself?”, “What if I alienate a leader by breathing wrong?” If we are not carefully paying attention, we might begin to listen to those voices, stop to count our successes, and fail to move forward without ever noticing it.

As AJ puts it: “If there is no potential for embarrassment, it’s probably not production.”

That’s not an excuse not to come into any situation with a leader as prepared as possible, but there are some things you can only learn by doing them over and over again. When growing a network, numbers are a key to success. So is the success, versatile abilities, and other leaders your contact has connections with.

I want to conclude with some thoughts about just how I’ve started collecting stories. For some leaders, the best way to find out who they are and how they got there is to hang around. Some others like the idea of a blog and are interested in being formally interviewed for it-I’m beginning to casually reference Tenets once in awhile, just to see if anyone might be willing to give it a go. Still others, I’ve found, are most comfortable talking about their journey in their office hours, and you’ll want to make a formal appointment. I’m thrilled to have discovered multiple avenues, but I’m still figuring out how to discern which leaders might go for which option.

If you have any positively-oriented thoughts about this or other blog posts, or even if you just want to say “hi”, I’d love to hear from you-feel free to leave me a comment anytime.

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

Influence & Unconditional Positive Regard

There is a concept in Psychology circles called: “Unconditional Positive Regard” (or U.P.R.), which gives us a leadership framework for showing our support to others, even those who it might be difficult for us to do so. It goes like this:

  • Accept the person.
  • Praise the effort.
  • Reward results.

Now, I grew up in a crime and punishment household like most of you. I don’t know what would have happened if my parent’s didn’t believe in “spare the rod, spoil the child”. God knows, we don’t want to spoil anybody, that would probably make an already bad situation worse. But if a person is not doing irreparable damage to my institution, I think that institution-wide U.P.R. should be the step I start with long before “retraining” people even becomes necessary. For instance: my parents did reward me for good grades. As a result, I made it through higher education with a firm drive to keep my grades at a respectable level, long after I had aged beyond the reward system. Positive management style, positive employees/volunteers/children, positive results.

The science is fascinating: when you reward people who meet your standards on a regular and unbiased basis, it creates a cognitive dissonance that strongly brings people-with-problems in line with your naturally high achievers or those who already strive to meet your standards. Even if achievement and reward doesn’t drive them to shift their behavior, peer pressure might just do the trick: when your neighbor gets a raise, then your other neighbor gets a raise, human psychology suggests you will emulate what they do in order to join them. I am who I work with.

Furthermore, when the pressure of constant corporate punishment no longer looms over your office, church, bakery, salesfloor or candle shop, it fosters an environment of trust. Trust, if you remember in Christopher Barrat’s TED talk comes right before “Buy”; BUY a product, BUY positive performance, BUY success for yourself as a leader because those under you feel safe, driven and the need to succeed themselves.

Unconditional Positive Regard is unique, and in today’s society, is difficult to find because it is human nature to either directly confront, or passively distance ourselves from people-with-problems. As a result, U.P.R. may actually be a huge source of influence that is largely untapped.

Unconditional Positive Regard was a concept developed by Psychologist Carl Rodgers. For details on the concept, check out the wiki here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconditional_positive_regard

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

The Leadership Tenets of Seth Godin

In 2014, Guy Raz interviewed an author and entrepreneur named Seth Goden for NPR’s “The Ted Radio Hour”. The episode that aired was entitled “Disruptive Leadership” and Guy was asking Seth his impressions on what it means to be a leader. In the following section I give you a summary of his ideas for what leadership is, followed by excerpts from the interview:

  1. To Be A Leader Means Fulfilling a Need, and Doing so in a Superior, Popular and Unique Manner.
    • “…it starts with this: you’re not allowed to say I’m going to make an average product for average people, and then go find a tribe that’s going to adopt it. This is the mistake that people who grew up-as you and I did, with Mass Media-make all the time. Our instinct is to make average stuff for average people to have it appeal to lots of folks when in fact, tribes never want that. What the tribe wants is the obscure, the remarkable, the edgy, the thing that’s worth talking about.”
  2. To Be A Leader Means Disrupting the Status Quo.
    • “…the art of disruption, then is being able to figure out what is the likely path to get you from here to that better place with the least amount of appropriate fall out.”
  3. To Be A Leader Means Building a Culture (Tribe Creation).
    • “…they build a culture, a secret language, a seven-second handshake; a way of knowing that you’re in or out.”
  4. To Be A Leader Means Having a Curiosity About People.
    • “They have a curiosity: a curiosity about the people in the tribe, a curiosity about outsiders. They’re asking questions. They connect people to one another. Do you know what people want more than anything? They want to be missed. They want to be missed the day they don’t show up. They want to be missed when they’re gone. And tribe leaders can do that.
  5. To Be A Leader Means Committing.
    • “And finally, they commit: they commit to the cause, they commit to the tribe. They commit to the people there.”

You can find Seth Godin at sethgodin.com, the “Disruptive Leadership” episode of “Ted Talk” at http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/261084166/disruptive-leadership, and finally, you will be hearing more about the man here because I enjoyed Seth’s interview and I believe he may have more to say about this topic.