Are You Lost as a Leader? Did you see the road signs? Pt 2

Great Leaders Recognize The Road Signs of Development
14383930-dirty-under-construction-signWhen leaders face boundaries in their development they may not realize at first that they face a boundary at all.  The realization unfolds as actions and decisions that once were effective no longer work.  Success in working through boundaries requires that the leader to recognize the presence of a boundary and make a commitment to shift from the old to the new. Without this mental shift the odds of ending up in a major pitfall are significant.

Leaders develop through boundary events that occur in course of life. Boundary events are either powerfully formative or devastatingly destructive.  It is not the experience itself that determines the outcome in leaders lives.  Individual choices determine the outcomes of these boundary experiences.  Outcomes are not inherent in the experience itself.

Boundary Events are Predictable

Boundary events are experiences (1) such as trials or tests that corner the person and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them and (2) a point at which a leader faces the necessity of moving to depth in: skills, perspective or self-awareness to continue in and grow in effectiveness.

As illustrated below leaders face significant boundaries at various periods of time in their career and personal life. Boundary experiences are like warning signs indicating a change ahead. Leaders ignore these signs at their own peril. The degree to which a person fails to embrace boundary experiences they increase their internal dissonance, slow their growth and plateau in their development (as illustrated in Figure 1 in the four negative deltas indicating stalled growth).

Figure 1 illustrates development over a lifetime and the significant boundaries associated with early career (1); mid-career adjustments (2) e.g., when career expectations are typically reevaluated; late-career (3); and post-retirement (4) when people typically ponder how their legacy will impact future generations and how they come to terms with their own mortality.

Notice in Figure 1 that the development of new skill is only part of the aspect of development in a leader.  It is easy in our western society with its emphasis on qualitative definitions of reality to forget that development as a person and especially development as a leader is not mono-faceted but multi-faceted.

Figure 1 illustrates the “drag” that occurs on development (z-axis). When leaders fail to acknowledge or address internal issues related to identity and spirituality dissonance grows louder. When internal dissonance is high, such as in the middle of a boundary experience, then one’s confidence and sense of purpose diminish (a negative force) and contribution/confidence sags.

Notice that in some boundary experiences it takes time to adjust to new situations or positions or relationships before a sense of contribution grows again (see delta 3 in Figure 1). In situations where learning and adjustment take longer than is comfortable it is even more important to recognize and accept the boundary event as a catalyzing event and look for ways to define its meaning. Embracing the event or circumstance is the prerequisite to deep change.

Figure 1: Boundary Factors in Development

Boundary Experiences

Three Common Boundaries

There are three common road signs to which leaders must pay attention. These boundary experiences are critical shaping events.

New Experience – defined as being thrust into new terrain such as an overseas assignment, unexpected turn of events in business or family life, new social or organizational role.  Overcoming disorientation the disorientation common in new experiences to weave it into one’s own experiential tapestry is the challenge. Be aware of the frame through which you view new experiences.  Your first impressions will most likely be wrong. Ask questions.  Learn to rely on others, gain common ground by telling stories and encouraging others to share their views. Remember that such events conspire to make you a leader more than any inherent talent or unique ability you have.

Setback – loss or failure that is profoundly disruptive and bewildering. In a setback, internal dissonance amplifies when what was permanent is transient what was believed is questioned. The challenge in setbacks is to see one’s situation in a fundamentally new and more comprehensive way.  Seeing this bigger picture is as liberating as seeing only the experience itself is debilitating.  A comprehensive perspective introduces new opportunities and options previously hidden by the individual’s comfort myopia (the shortsightedness that assigns success or sense of well-being a permanent status in life) .  In today’s difficult economic environment setbacks are common.  What is not as common is watching people use setbacks to define a new sense of meaning and purpose and skill.

Deferral – an unanticipated hiatus during which routines are set aside, sometimes forcibly, and replaced with a regimented structure or no structure at all.   Deferrals challenge leaders to clarify or create their personal mission and purpose; to cement their foundational beliefs and values.  These beliefs and values are critical to shaping organizational culture, creating powerful delegation and unleashing innovation.

The Significance of Seeing and Embracing Boundaries

The significance of identifying boundaries is twofold.  First, the experience of a boundary event or episode is normal and is not a sign of fate aligned against the person.  I occasionally meet people so narcissistic they believe that everything and everyone is against them – effective leaders do not have time for such self-absorption.

Second, boundaries tend to cluster around specific periods of development. New territory boundaries cluster in early career, reversals tend to cluster in mid-carrier and suspension seem to cluster around later career.  Even though this clustering pattern is clear it is not absolute – all three boundary experiences can present at any time.  But recognizing the clustering pattern does help leaders (1) recognize boundaries and mitigate panic/anxiety and (2) expect their arrival to capitalize on the learning experience faster.

The question then is how do you handle your transitions and boundary times? Do new experiences, setbacks or deferred hopes collapse your personal sense of purpose and emotional resilience?  Or do you use these boundary times to engage learning and development to see new things about yourself and your situation?  It takes courage to face change regardless of whether the change is “good” or “bad”.

Growth occurs in the exercise of new skills and perspectives.  What makes a person successful in one role is not what is required in a new role – whether the role is a new job, a new relationship or a new life stage.  The simple fact is that leaders fail not because of what they can or cannot do (ability) but because of what they do or do not let go of.  Six specific actions help:

  1. Establish a clear break point: discipline yourself to make a mental transition in terms of the old – take up the new.  For example in a new job make a mental transition from old to new – take time to celebrate your move.
  2. Relearn how to learn: exposure to new demands typically results in feelings of incompetence and vulnerability. While these emotions are normal to learning they become problematic when they unconsciously cause you to gravitate toward areas you feel competent (usually a step backwards from where you should be functioning).  Learning strategies that go wrong result in behaviors that are; defensive, screen out criticism and blame-shift.  If you see these characteristics in your relationships read the road signs! Be committed to a learning process.
  3. Hit the ground running: the transition to something new begins the moment you understand you are in a period of transition. Work to define the significance of your transition and where you are going then you will gain some traction in the new role or new way of thinking. Then plan what you want to carry out by specific milestones. The simple act of planning helps people keep a clear head.
  4. Assess your vulnerabilities: transitions associated with a promotion occur because those that hire you thought you had the skills to succeed. You probably do. Avoid the temptation to work at the level below what you were hired to be. Do this by assessing your preferences and comparing these to the demands of your new role. Ask your mentor(s) to help you avoid the temptation to go back to more familiar behavior.
  5. Watch out for your strengths: strengths have attendant pitfalls. Watch out for these as much as you watch out for your weaknesses. Your strengths could lead you down the fatal path of micromanagement or other behaviors that demoralize your relationships. (Use assessments. Birkman Method assessment is an excellent tool to understand your perceptual strengths and show blind spots or the impact of stress on the way others experience your behavior.)
  6. Find a coach: as illustrated in my story, leader’s do not have a magic insight into reality that functions independent of others. Janice’s insistence we ask for directions helped transition our situation from being lost to getting back on track.  Listen to great leaders long enough and you will hear them talk about the impact their coaches or mentors have had on them in the course of their career.  Why is coaching so formative? Coaching is an intentional and facilitated conversation. It encourages rigor in the way leaders organize thinking, visioning, planning and expectations. Coaching challenges the limits of competence and learning horizons.


Great leaders are masters at asking for direction, watching the signs along the way and making decisions about where they want to end up. They recognize when internal dissonance indicates they face a boundary in their development. They recognize that facing boundaries is predictable and they prepare for to face boundary times by keeping close mentoring and coaching relationships.

What clearly differentiates the great from the mediocre is a commitment to leverage every boundary experience (either positive or negative) as a learning opportunity.  Do you recognize the boundaries you face? Are you learning or are you resisting? Your answer determines your destination.

Are You Lost as a Leader? Did you see the road signs? Pt 1

Great Leaders Know when to Ask for Directions
AA026695She let out a long sigh. “We are lost. Why don’t we stop and ask for directions?” she said.

“No, no,” I responded, “this looks familiar I know the college is just around here somewhere.  I got it.”

The conversation occurred in 1975 when my wife and I were on our way to Eugene to start our second year of undergraduate work.  We had courted the first year out of high school and then married while we both kicked out our first two semesters of our freshman year before transferring to Eugene. I exhibited the seeds of leadership failure we typically call hubris – it is the kind of fierce independence that usually smacks of an equally fierce insecurity.  It kills leaders, and it would have killed me except I had married this delightfully independent woman who was not about to be dragged all over Eugene by a man clearly acting like an evolutionary throw back.

“Turn in here,” she shouted as we drove within range of a gasoline station.  I complied more out of stunned shock than an admission that I was lost. She jumped out of the car before it stopped and ran inside the station to ask directions.  Her recognition of our situation (we were lost) and her ability to connect with a perfect stranger and ask for help expedited our arrival at the campus.  The event sticks with me to this day as an illustration of a critical leadership question – am I aware of the transitions I face and do I have the relationships I need to ask for help in facing them?

… transitions are critical times when small differences in your actions can have disproportionate impacts on results. Leaders, regardless of their level, are most vulnerable in their first few months in a new position because they lack detailed knowledge of challenges they will face and what it will take to succeed in meeting them: they also have not developed a network of relationships too sustain them.[1]

Knowing how to ask for directions and recognizing the nature of critical transitions are critical for leadership development.  To continue the metaphor for a moment (perhaps to the breaking point) many people drive aimlessly about in life complaining about the lack of road signs or inadequate maps when clarity in their life depends in part on asking for directions.

The ability to rise to the challenge of either voluntary or involuntary transitions instead of collapsing under pressure is a decision. When leaders collapse they disengage. When they disengage they show deteriorating output, aggravation, absenteeism, negativity, toxic aggressiveness, depression and loss of direction.

Great Leaders Watch the Signs of the Road

The fact of the matter is that like road signs indicating a choice of direction, people face transitions that point to the necessity of new choices and decisions that either set a pathway for continued development or derail development.

Transitions are experiences (1) such as trials or tests that corner the person and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them and (2) a point at which a leader faces the necessity of moving to depth in: skills, perspective or self-awareness to continue in and grow in effectiveness.  Facing these barriers means that leaders have the opportunity to:[1]

  • Bring to closure recent experiences – closure identifies significant lessons and allows the person to move forward.
  • Deepen spiritual growth (relationship to God). This is not religious weirdness.  Spiritual growth results in a clearer picture of purpose, moral fabric and awareness of others’ current and potential contribution.  One of my friends identifies himself as a Christian the other does not. But both describe a deeply spiritual experience in the challenges they faced.
  • Expand perspective to see new things – without the challenge of barriers or challenges people often tend to plateau in their growth.  Remember the proverbial definition of insanity attributed to Peter Drucker i.e., doing the same activity over and over expecting different results.
  • Make decisions that launch a new phase of development – this development extends to everyone within reach of the leader’s influence.  The entire organization benefits when leaders successfully navigate the barriers to their personal growth.


Great leaders are masters at asking for direction, watching the signs along the way and making decisions about where they want to end up. The New Year is often a time of transition.  Not only do we make resolutions about who we want to be or what we want to do – the month of January is also the time of year when a significant number of people land new jobs. Do you recognize the road signs of your own development? Are you taking responsibility for your own career/life development and growth?  Do you ask for directions? What does 2013 hold in store for you?

[1] Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), xi.

A Vacation Reflection – be the Leader You Always Wanted to Follow

Being Real Requires Vulnerability and Commitment
Conversation 2“Look there’s another one…” Janice indicated the presence of another older man accompanied by younger woman just entering the restaurant.  They did not seem to be a father/daughter on an outing. It did not seem to be a business meeting. It looked like a date and an awkward one at that. There was no clear familial connection although one of the couples may have been father/daughter still struggling through the tensions inherent in learning how to relate as adults.

Perhaps it was the place of our vacation (on the beach in Southern California) or simply a heightened awareness of couples mismatched in age resulting from our earlier conversation. Perhaps our perspective was biased. We had been talking about the struggles yet another friend traversed whose marriage and family slowly and painfully fell apart in the latter years of mid-life during at the onset of empty nest. The couples we watched in the restaurant that day did not show the body language of intimacy.

These couples acted disconnected.[1]  They did not look delightfully or longingly into each other’s eyes.  They seemed tolerantly aware of each other and not comfortable with each other. Their behavior stood in contrast to comfort that comes to close friends who have been shaped and formed by different perspectives, animated disagreements and the work of understanding that is at home with one another’s silence.   There was no hostility per se, just a lack of presence. We wondered what they were looking for in each other. Was it security? Vibrancy? Sex? Companionship? Prestige?

Janice and I married for 38 years and married younger than we recommend to others have traversed the sometimes shaky and often intense (read emotionally fraught) transitions common to life.  We routinely experience both sides of change. On the one hand we face change as people finding our way to defining who we are and want to be. On the other hand we face change as a couple facing the redefinition of our relationship again and again to keep it vibrant and relevant to our changing perspectives, needs, wants and goals in life. We have learned something about life in the combination our own experience and the twenty-five years we spent in pastoral ministry.  The deeply personal insight into the consequences of life choices made by the people who volunteered their stories and worked through their choices with us as confidants in a quest to make sense of life’s realities are permanently seared into our life compass.

“I am ticked when I see some of these couples,” Janice related.

“Why?” I asked.

“Look at how much pain that young woman is enduring – and for what?” The young woman did not offer a command performance in her pedestal high heel shoes as she literally grimaced across the restaurant and jeans that seemed more tattooed to her body than pulled over her skin.

“Are they making the kind of commitment it takes to develop a close friendship or are they simply in the pursuit of convenience?  And if it is convenience, what does it end in? Where will either of them be in 20 years?” Janice looked back at me with that deeply penetrating look I have learned is the request for vulnerability.

“Perhaps they are searching for something more than acquisition, conquest, power, or pleasure.” I responded. Searching and unable to find…few things are more frustrating.  It doesn’t take a psychologist, theologian or sociologist to see meeting the quest for intimacy with the pursuit of pleasure or conquest pushes people toward cynicism and hurt.  Perhaps the couples we saw where trying to find friendships.

The most difficult choice I make in life is to be vulnerable. I often don’t want to be vulnerable.  I want to be powerful and independent.  The problem is that when I fail to exercise vulnerability I achieve deep loneliness. I think of specific transition points in our relationship together when I have been honest about my frustrations, desires, fears, doubts with Janice about our relationship.  There have been times for both of us that someone else acted more interested, more compassionate, more understanding more available emotionally or physically than we have been to each other.  Those conversations were both excruciating and healing.

We left the restaurant and walked through the village on the beach.  I reflected on our lunch time conversation. The point is not that we are still married. Marriage in itself is no particular achievement at least not given some of the couples I have met who stay married and miserable for failure to do the work involved taking any other action. The point is that anything worth pursuing in the next year requires the same two actions that has brought us to this point in our relationship and joy together i.e., commitment and vulnerability.

In 2013 exercise maturity as a person and vulnerability in relationship. Will you remain differentiated (be a unique individual) and stay in relationships?[2] This is the nature of the commitment.  It is a commitment that:

  • Exercises a capacity to take responsibility for one’s own emotional well-being.
  • Promotes healthy differentiation in others and throughout the system in which one lives and works.
  • Recognizes the folly of relational sabotage being a differentiated person triggers from the least differentiated members of a group.
  • Knows that those with whom one is most closely related cannot rise above the maturity level you demonstrate regardless of your skills or knowledge base.
  • Remains aware that people cannot hear you unless they are moving toward you which means that as long as you are pursuing or rescuing them your message will never catch up.

As Janice and I reflect on our careers, our hopes for 2013 and our sense of purpose as servant leaders in our fields we know that as friends in marriage and as professionals related to teams our success continues to be dependent upon the exercise of commitment and vulnerability that takes specific actions.

  • We exercise the capacity to go it alone – there are times that we see things that others don’t yet see, but they are worth pursuing.  This is as true in the potential of our marriage as it is in the business endeavors we lead.  Going it alone is not the destruction of our intimacy it is sometimes the price of intimacy while we hope the other also makes that same commitment and we converge on a new path together.
  • We exercise the ability to recognize and extricate ourselves from emotional binds.  We are not always in sync with each other’s emotions.  Sometimes those around us are not in sync with their own emotions. The ability to extricate ourselves from the emotional binds we sometimes lay out for one another is critical to maintaining a healthy interaction.
  • We avoid the folly of trying to will each other or others to change.  We cannot, by force of will, shape each other to be anyone different.  There is a shaping that occurs as we pursue life together, but this shaping requires vulnerability and willingness to see from another perspective other than our own.
  • We exercise the modifying potential of a non-anxious presence.  Fortunately we rarely panic at the same time.  There are scary things in life.  We find that the voice that attempts to shame us into non-action still rears its belittling head.  It is then we help each other by providing a non-anxious presence for one another instead of a continuous escalation of anxiety and anger.
  • We understand the ratifying power of endurance in crisis.  We are present for each other.  We endure each other’s worse behavior (that is different from being victimized by it – neither of us will be victims of the other). We endure through crisis with those we work with as well.
  • We remind ourselves of the factors that cause each of us stress and coach one another away from the brink of anxious despair.
  • We exercise the self-regulation necessary for dealing with reactive sabotage. The fact is that the least emotionally mature around us do not want to accept responsibility for their emotional well-being or their job performance. Someone will always attempt to undermine our success and our achievement.  This is part of the reason we work to define success as grounded in who we are not just what we do.

So who do you want to be in 2013?  The fact of the matter is that you will succeed in your goals and hopes and dreams only to the degree you succeed in being yourself in commitment and vulnerability.

[1] Admittedly this may be little more than a biased observation – we did not conduct good social research to come to this conclusion there were no interviews or focus groups, no regressive analysis of common themes.

[2] Edwin Friedman Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing [Kindle Version downloaded from], 2007), 3912 of 5400.