Provision #736: eXample Matters

Laser Provision

Do you set a good example? If you are a leader in any organization, whether in a school, a corporation, a congregation, a club, or a marching band, then I hope so. People are watching our every move as leaders, and what they see matters. Do we work hard? Do we express caring and empathy for people? Do we make wise decisions in both ordinary and extraordinary times? If the answers to those three questions are all the same • a resounding “Yes!” • then our leadership is sound and will inspire people to greatness. If we fall short at any of those points, then we’re headed for trouble. Want to learn how to avoid that eventuality and optimize your leadership? Read on!

LifeTrek Provision

Did you miss us last week? I know quite a few of you did, because I heard from you when you didn’t receive your weekly Provision. Not to worry: we did not meet an untimely demise in the wake of Hurricane Irene. But we did get a big dose of wind and rain and there was plenty of damage done around our neighborhood. Unlike the last big hurricane, Isabel, which arrived in 2003 on a Thursday night, giving us time to recover a bit before Provisions went out, this hurricane arrived on Saturday afternoon and evening, making a real mess of things just as Provisions was supposed to go out.

For those of you who are curious as to how we made out in the storm, we actually had more damage on our property in Irene than we had in Isabel, even though Irene did less damage in our neighborhood as a whole. We lost a tree in the front yard that fell away from the house and did only minimal damage. In the backyard, however, we had a huge, old oak trees come down and smash up our dock. Fortunately, our house was spared any damage at all. But the dock is out of commission until we figure out how to cut up and drag out a tree that is now largely submerged. A tree company is going to give it a try this week, wetsuits and all, so perhaps that will make good fodder for next week’s Provision!

Last week’s Provision was all written, and you’ll read a revised version next week, but I decided to not make any heroic and perhaps unwise efforts to get things out through the storm. For many reasons, I’m glad I decided to break my record of never missing a week. The message itself needed a little more seasoning, which only the perspective of the “morning after” could provide. The logistics of working around the storm would have been quite frustrating and perhaps impossible. Most importantly, however, giving myself the freedom to skip a week (something I wrote about in June of 2007, when I was feeling rather spent with writing Provisions, and that you affirmed with so many Reader Replies) was refreshing.

So, there! I finally did it. I skipped a week. Hopefully you didn’t have too many withdrawal symptoms. ☺ It was a wise decision, which, of course, is the focus of today’s Provision: eXample Matters. What’s with the capitalized “X”? We have three letters in the alphabet left in my current series on Evocative Leadership: X, K, and U. You try and find three words that start with X for an excellent Provision on leadership! As much as I would have liked to write about xylophones, xenophobia, and your xiphisternum, those words just don’t don’t pass muster, when it comes to leadership, of words like eXample, eXperiments, and eXcellence. So that’s what you have to look forward to today and in the weeks ahead.

The notion of setting a good example should come as no surprise to any leader. Setting an example is, in fact, an essential part of leadership. Leadership is not just a skill set or something we do. First and foremost, leadership is a way of being and something we stand for. Great leaders stand for great values, and that posture • that platform • comes through in the way we carry ourselves in relationship to the work that has to be done, the people who have to do it, and the decisions that have to be made.

Let’s look at each in turn. There’s no getting around the fact that leadership is a lot of work. Any leader who thinks of leadership as a cushy job is going to get in trouble, sooner or later. Leaders who are above the work, who expect our people to work harder than we work, or who would prefer to put our feet up on the desk and to be served by others rather than to walk around and serve others, are the kind of leaders who give leadership a bad name.

Every time I read about a leader who takes that stance, whether in their leadership style or in their lifestyle, I also read about the problems surrounding that leader. The two go hand in hand. When we fail to set an example with our work ethic, we communicate volumes as to what we expect of others.

This works on both ends of the spectrum. In fact, more leaders have gotten ourselves in trouble by overworking than by under working. Leadership, it seems to me, attracts workaholics. We get up early and work late. We send emails at 4 in the morning and at midnight. We stay after hours and make it clear, both explicitly and implicitly, that others are also expected to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Many organizations come to take this on as their organizational culture. It won’t necessarily come out in a job interview, when people are often told that it’s OK to set boundaries and that everyone has a personal life, but it will fast become apparent after the job has been taken. Those occasional late nights and early mornings become more frequent. “Just this once” starts to happen again and again. Time urgency creeps to where it assumes ever larger and larger proportions. And this may all happen without any specific direction from leadership. Leadership sets the tone and everyone else follows.

That’s not to say that there is not a time and place for hard work. There certainly is! Right now, for example, I know a new school principal who is trying to get her school ready for the first day of school. Over the years, the building has been neglected, as have attention to curriculum and instruction. In addition, there have been resource shortages and other problems. What is this leader doing? Working hard! She has even recruited her husband who took a week of vacation time to help with the work of getting the school building fixed up.

As a result of her efforts and example, others are noticing both up and down the food chain. The superintendent is making new resources available while others are pitching in to help. That’s what happens when leaders work hard in common cause to get important things done. The universe conspires to manufacture success.

Problems develop, however, when overworking becomes the norm rather than the exception. It’s one thing to work exceptionally hard for a good reason and for a limited period of time, it’s another thing when the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is not actually the end at all. It is just a light at a bend in a tunnel that never ends.

Continuous overworking makes for all kinds of problems. I have seen grown men cry over the seemingly impossible and unappreciative demands of their leaders. They don’t quit because they need a job, but eventuality the situation breaks down. It always does. Either physical health problems develop or the environment becomes so toxic as to become dysfunctional and nonproductive or even counterproductive.

Great leaders don’t make that mistake. We strike the right balance when it comes to our work ethic so as, in the words of Jennifer White, to “drive people wild without making them crazy.” Our example has that much power. It can inspire or it can undermine. Great leaders inspire.

One reason great leaders are able to do this, even when there is an enormous amount of work to do, is because great leaders care as much about our people as we care about the work. We don’t view people as expendable or replaceable cogs in a wheel, as though people were a commodity or parts of a machine. We rather view people as having feelings and needs that must be respected and honored in order for them to perform at their very best.

Physical exhaustion is one such feeling, which stems from our need for rest. When we overwork for too long, we not only burnout psychologically we also wear out physically. We literally get sick and die if we don’t tend to the need. Understanding this universal human need is part of what helps great leaders to not only pace ourselves but also to pace our organizations. After a time of great push, it is time to pull back and recover. That is the rhythm of life, and great leaders know how to dance to that rhythm in good times and bad. We can never afford to ignore that dynamic.

But physical exhaustion and the need for rest are only the most obvious of the feelings and needs that have to be recognized, worked with, and respected if leadership is to be successful. When people are frustrated they may need understanding or assistance. When people are nervous they may need encouragement or perspective. When people are embarrassed they may need empathy or space. When people are upset they may need resources or even reconciliation.

Our feelings and needs are in a never-ending cycle of ebb and flow, with an infinite variety of possible combinations that people bring with them into the work place or any other organizational context (including families and other social networks). Everyone knows this to be true, because we are all made of the same cloth. Our brains are all constructed the same way, with brainstems and cerebellums, limbic systems, and cerebral cortices. We may pretend that we have no feelings, or that we don’t bring them to work, but that is just a pretense: we all have them and we all deal with them, one way or another.

The difference between ordinary leaders and extraordinary leaders is how we process our emotions and how we relate to the emotions of others. At another nearby school in a community devastated by Hurricane Irene, the principal inspired her staff with the amount of empathy she expressed for them and for the people in their community who were suffering. The school was being used as a shelter and it was not known how long that would go on or what the condition of the building would be afterwards.

The principal’s message to her faculty and staff? “Even if we don’t get into our classrooms until the first day of school we’ll be OK, because we are a family, we pull together, and we put the needs of our students first.” Now that’s a leader who cares about people. She was not expecting the impossible. She was not expecting teachers to have their classrooms together, no matter what. She was taking the situation into account and making clear her priorities as a compassionate and creative leader. Somehow, things would get done. And no one would be held accountable for anything other than doing their best under the circumstances.

Which brings me to the third way in which leaders are able to set great examples: we not only work hard and care a lot about people, we also make wise decisions. As the Kenny Rogers’ song goes, we “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” In other words, we know when to pick up the pace, when to send people home early, and when to just sit down and be with people.

So much of what we do as leaders has to with negotiating the dynamics within and between people. Great leaders are coaching leaders. We are able to listen to and to help people make sense of their stories. We can explore stories from different vantage points in order to experience them in new and life-giving ways. We are also able to facilitate learning through the things we choose to focus on and experiment with.

The attention of great leaders is neither an afterthought nor an accident. It is a choice. That’s because attention is like a spotlight on a stage. What we focus our attention on is illuminated, highlighted, and scrutinized. When we choose to focus our attention on the deficits, weaknesses, and problems of people, then that is what we see. When we choose to look at the assets, strengths, and possibilities, then that becomes our reality.

Great leaders choose to see possibilities. By working hard, caring a lot for people, and choosing wisely, great leaders set an example that can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. I encourage you to give it a try.

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your work ethic? Do you overwork, under work, or is it just right? How would you describe your emotional intelligence? Are you too soft, too hard, or just right? How would you describe your decision making? Do you focus on problems to the exclusion of possibilities, or is it just right? How could you set a more positive example in all three of these regards? Who could help you make it so?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. To learn more about LifeTrek Coaching programs, Click HereTop

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob

We missed today’s Provision. Assume that was because of Hurricane Irene. Hope you are OK! It just didn’t feel like Sunday without your Provision.

I remember your Provisions in the wake of Hurricane Isabel, in 2003. Apparently this time you weren’t so fortunate. I’m look forwarding to your reflections on this natural disaster! Hopefully it won’t be too long until you’re back with another Provision. (Ed. Note: Interested readers can still read those Provisions in the archive: Lessons from Isabel and Listening to Isabel.)

Hope is went well with Irene! I heard you were without power. How much water did you to take on? (Ed. Note: No water, just trees! See today’s Provision.) 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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