Why Leaders Need Wilderness and Adventure More Than Ever

15442146_10154652500136421_7445886420114317474_nI recently came across a fantastic article by Brynn Schmidt extolling the importance of wilderness adventures for kids.  And as a father who has encouraged my own kids as they’ve grown to explore the world through extended canoe and backpacking trips, to the point that my oldest is about to spend her third summer leading wilderness trips through northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I couldn’t agree more.  But my agreement with Ms. Schmidt’s arguments go far further.  In fact, as an I/O psychology professional, I would make the same (and more) arguments for the value of wilderness tripping as an effective leadership development approach.

Taking Schmidt’s points for kids, let’s expand this and look at the reasons for expanding leadership capacity and competence through wilderness adventures….

  • Leaders often develop better without a schedule – Too often, development is one of those activities or approaches that is squeezed into the busy schedules of modern leaders. As a result, it becomes a “nice to have” more often than not, constantly at risk of getting squeezed out by the tactical needs of the daily grind.  Instead, leaders should be allowed to block intensive development into “schedule free” periods of time, be that a day, a few day seminar, or a week-long experience that takes them outside their normal work environments.  Wilderness immersion leadership development does just that, with cell phones and tablets left behind and only themselves and their peers on which to focus.
  • Leaders develop better with a connection to the natural environment – Psychologists have long recognized the value to our well-being of connecting with nature. The ephemeral experiences available uniquely within the physical environment promote the breadth and depth of thought necessary to see leadership challenges in a new light and from a new perspective.

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  • Leaders need time to kick back and relax (and reflect) – Quiet reflection is a hallmark of any high-quality leadership development strategy, yet one of the “nice to haves” that are often overlooked or minimized in development programs that run 9-5, letting out for the evening, during which time leaders race to their laptops to catch up on email and drive-by tasking. Alternatively, during wilderness leadership development, the day ends with more reflection, around the campfire, under the stars, with fellow leaders to bounce ideas off or to work through leadership challenges.
  • Leaders need to learn to exist without technology – You may be sensing a trend here, the escape from modern devices and leadership approaches so heavily intertwined with our technological world. Now, there are certainly benefits to all our technology, but little of it engenders stronger core leadership.  And sometimes, stepping away from our constant contact with bosses, followers, and even spouses alights development sparks untapped previously.  No better way to have that happen then 10 miles out on the John Muir trail, with nary a cell tower or wifi to be found!

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  • Leaders enhance their emotional intelligence through conversation – The ability for leaders to gain self-awareness around their own emotions, as well as to better understand the emotional connections with others is a well-recognized goal of developing individuals with the nuanced ability to effectively motivate and influence others. Particularly on wilderness trips with small groups, there is an intimacy borne by shared experience, connection with nature, collective overcoming of challenges, and just living side my side (or even within a tent) that boosts one’s own sense of belonging and understanding of each other.  It’s not that this is not possible to experience in traditional development programs, but the unique elements of being “on the trail” with others has an impact that often surpasses that found in other environments.

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Over the next several weeks, I will dive more deeply into each of these ideas with follow-up articles.

In the meantime, what have your experiences been with wilderness tripping, and how have those experiences made you a stronger leader?

Developing Others: The Gauge of True Leadership

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Many of you likely know that in addition to teaching, running a graduate program, and consulting, I am passionate about coaching.  Executive coaching.  Transition coaching.  Career Coaching. (Even athletic coaching…but that’s another story.)

While the settings and goals between these types of coaching may differ, a focus in each is always on leadership…how to identify the path one has already taken as a leader (more challenging for most than you might imagine) and how to further one’s development as a good leader.  It can be general leadership development, but most often is targeted to a particular career goal or specific leadership challenge in a current assignment.

When asked, most people can talk at length about what they’ve done to become stronger leaders.  They talk about their management approach.  They describe the leadership development courses they’ve attended, and the books they’ve read.  Most times these days, they describe themselves as “true servant leaders,” dedicated to taking care of their followers (a description that is often less bounded by actual evidence than the belief that they should be servant leaders).

But when asked for a few stories about how they have actively developed the leadership qualities of those they lead, a staccato hesitancy pervades the conversation.  Most will then launch into a description of those activities they provide their followers, a list that pretty much mirrors that which they used to describe their own leadership development.  A leadership training course here.  Books read there.  Theories and models published in the latest Harvard Business Review.  Oh, yes, and lots of language around empowerment!

73551-women-leadership-quotes-great-leaderThe point here is not that most people are poor leaders.  They are not!  In fact, the vast majority of leadership I coach, I would characterize as strong leaders.  They have high emotional intelligence (measured).  They understand and value their people (measured).  They are effective managers and strategists (measured).  They simply find it harder to articulate the specific things they do to develop their followers.

While not a coaching client, my daughter is burgeoning leader.  She may not yet fully understand the extent to which she effectively influences those around her, and her vision of leadership may be primarily as a manager, a delegator, and a decision maker.  She’s lead numerous 5-day backpacking trips each of the past several summers up and around the Porcupine Mountains State Park along the Lake Superior shoreline in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  As a 19-year-old, she was solely responsible for the safety of younger campers trekking through some of the most rugged mountains between the Appalachians and the Rockies.  She determined the route, oversaw the pack-out of vital food and gear, was challenged with ensuring the hydration of the group when water sources grew scarce.  She even had to problem-solve when their planned extraction fell through on one trip.  Along the way, she’s certainly grown stronger and more confident in her own leadership abilities.

But in a recent conversation, she too found it a bit challenging to speak to the growth of leaders among the campers on her trips.  Because this is a challenge to anyone who views leadership as authority.  And she’s a strong leader, growing stronger everyday.

You see, leadership isn’t simply about having the responsibility for making decisions.  That’s part of leadership.  It’s not about delegating and managing workflow.  That’s a part of it.  It’s not even about influencing others toward a directed purpose or vision.  And that’s an important part of leadership.

jack_welch_quoteNo, the real value in leadership is in developing the potential in others to be good people and good leaders (and yes, good followers, too).  The most important role a leader can have is to create a sense of confidence and awe in followers, not of the leader, but in themselves.  When we do that, we have sown the seeds of leadership in those under our wing.  We have begun to ripen the capacity for confidence and self-efficacy that allows for the development of humble, thoughtful, and transformational leaders.

And most importantly, when we as leaders focus on developing and nurturing the core leadership qualities of those looking to us as leaders, we begin to teach through modeling that leadership isn’t about ourselves and our capabilities.  Leadership is about the others and THEIR capabilities.

Tom Peters summed this idea up with perfection here.  It’s so simple, yet in action it is often one of the biggest challenges for emerging leaders.  Enacting this principle of leadership takes faith…Faith in one’s own ability to both lead and follow.  It takes trust…Trust that you can reduce you’re own need to influence if so doing enhances others’ experiences.  And it takes confidence…Confidence that it’s the right thing to do.

So, when you look back on your experiences and evaluate yourself as a leader, ask one simple question.

“What am I doing to grow more leaders?”

For in doing so, you’ll become a far stronger leader yourself, but more important…You’ll become a far stronger leader for others.  And that’s the whole point.

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Political Discourse in the Workplace: Embrace the Authenticity

Leaders should avoid influencing voting behavior of employees

We live in strange, and some would say scary, times.  Political rhetoric, commonplace in Presidential campaign years, has been far more polarizing that usual.  And the vitriol between major party candidates has egged on and perhaps revealed diametric beliefs and prejudices in our society.  As a former political science major in college, with follow-up graduate study in public administration, public policy, and eventually organizational psychology, I don’t shy away from the debate, in person or on social media.  And many can attest to my penchant for acting as provocateur in many of these forums.  I enjoy pushing the boundaries and questioning beliefs…I’ll admit it.

But people do take offense, and sometimes that’s okay, I’d argue.  And I’ve written in the past that when one sees articles, memes, or just plain bizarre (in our opinions) pictures posted on social media, we always have a choice to respond, either with comments or by simply removing that person from our feed or contacts.  It’s a fairly easy solution.

pulitzerfacepalm-e1334711507124And, as I’ve said, the passion that accompanies (in increasing fashion) various “debates” on social media sites is ramping up in direct relation to the temporal proximity of election day.  Even that’s quickly spread from its haunts on Facebook and Twitter to infect more professional sites like LinkedIn.  Again, there’s an easy fix, if we find ourselves offended by political diatribes.

Earlier today, I read an interesting (if somewhat simplistic) article about how the current political battlefield is creating discomfort within the locker rooms of the National Football League.  In and of itself, this should surprise no one, particularly in light of the protests certain high-profile players have enacted in recent months.  Tension and ill will are creeping into environments that have long been paragons of communal bonds, causing some to question the motives, thoughts, and ingrained beliefs of their coworkers.

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And I’ve asked people in a variety of industries and work environments if they’re seeing the same things playing out in their organizations.  The responses have been predictable, if not troubling:

  • “I’m sure they are, but we don’t talk about things like that here.”
  • “Yeah, it’s tough to know you’re working with people who could believe that way, so we don’t address it.”
  • “Better to keep one’s personal beliefs to oneself, I always say.”
  • “Politics and religion are out-of-bounds at our company.”

Is anyone surprised by these statements?  This is the way we’ve been trained, similar to those family gatherings or early morning lumberjack breakfasts, where silence was the only way to avoid confrontation and potential brawls!

But is it healthy?  Is it ultimately productive, or strategically oriented to the long-term sustainability of one’s workforce?  I would argue it is neither of these…Ignoring the deep-seated beliefs of one’s workers, coworkers, bosses, or even customers does not breed healthy environments.  It does not promote effective teamwork or effective productivity.  And it does not make one a function, viable organization (in either a family or work setting) for long!

TrustRelationships are all about trust.  And where we ignore the diversity of thought that exists between ourselves and others around us, we don’t nurture an atmosphere of trust, but rather of fear and uncertainty.  When we aren’t enabled to respectfully disagree with those with whom we are sharing a life (personally or professionally), or even worse, we don’t even acknowledge that we disagree on fundamental beliefs and values, we aren’t developing stronger relationships, we’re merely hollowing out relationships built on smoke and mirrors.

When we talk about organizational effectiveness and employee engagement, a natural link is made to the “right fit.” And we know that when individuals feel more closely aligned with the values of the organization and their coworkers, their engagement numbers soar.  And yet, when we stifle honest, respectful exchanges around closely held belief systems, we’re setting our organizations and our employees up for a fall.  At some point, someone will figure out that how we’re acting or the beliefs they believe we espouse are not, in fact, the true “us.”  At that point, more than likely, the damage is irreparable.  When people realize their presumed understanding of others’ beliefs was based on falsities, it’s tough to get past the sense of betrayal.

So, wouldn’t we all be better off openly and honestly discussing with our work teams our beliefs on politics, religion, and anything else that speaks to someone’s individual values?  If we preach “goodness of fit,” shouldn’t we look at how our own personal values truly do match with those of our organization or our team?

images (15)The key is in practicing (and teaching) respect for alternative perspectives.  You may hold strong beliefs in a particular political candidate with whom I strongly disagree.  You might have religious preferences that I don’t share.  Heck, you might believe in raising your kids with completely different ideas around discipline, tv watching, or myriad other issues that conflict with my own choices.  But none of those may mean we can’t work together….or conversely, perhaps they all mean we shouldn’t work together!  But that’s an individual choice that can only be made if we actually share our perspectives, beliefs, and values with those with whom we work.

That’s the point here.  Just as we probably wouldn’t date someone for long without wanting to know their beliefs on religion, politics, or simply treating others, why do we accept those areas as “off limits” in many professional settings?  Why do we object so fervently to posts on LinkedIn (or any social media) that reveal the true nature of those with whom we’re connected?

So, next time you find yourself objecting to content others post, view it as an opportunity to contemplate whether the values such content espouses (and that your contact clearly supports) reflect the type of values you want in personal or professional relationships.  If the value of the relationship outweighs the moral conundrum, then stick with it and accept what they’ve posted.  If the ethical or moral elements are too onerous, then terminate the relationship.

Remember, it’s not the quantity of contacts or “friends” you have that matters.  What counts is the quality of the relationships and the people with whom you surround yourself.  It really doesn’t have to be harder than that!

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“What’s Your Greatest Weakness?”: A Guide to Authentic Answers

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“What are your greatest strengths?”

Now, here’s a question familiar to anyone who’s ever interviewed for a job.  And the follow-up question?  Yep, you’ve got it….say it out loud.

“And what are you greatest weaknesses?”

Ugh….(A collective groan from both the job hunter and the job holder)

Why do we hate these questions so much?  Very simply, it’s because we instinctively feel we need to embellish the former and hide from the latter.  Aside from complete narcissists, we’ve been taught not to toot our own horns too loudly, and we’ve been taught since early childhood that weaknesses are character flaws.  But should we?  And are they?  These are two fundamental questions that we all should be asking ourselves daily, whether we’re searching for jobs or not.

does-boasting-boost-a-speechLet’s tackle the first of the two…is it okay to boast about one’s strengths? (Trevor, if you use the word “boast,” then few are going to say it’s alright).  Okay….how about if I word it like this?  Is it good to share one’s strengths with others?

Worded that way, I doubt many would see this as a negative.  We all have strengths, be they because we’ve worked our butts off to get really good at a skill or body of knowledge or just because we are naturally gifted or even that we just feel we’re better at those things that we prefer doing.  There’s no shame in that.  In fact, in any organizational setting, we want to know where we shine and where those around us similarly have strengths.  Because, trust me, none of us have exactly the same strengths, preferences, or predilections, and heaven knows, I need someone who’s good at detail oriented work to balance out my preference for visioning and theorizing!

As leaders, we want to have a balanced team where one member’s strengths offset weakness (or lack of preference) of others.  In my ideal team, I want a good mix of those who can brainstorm and design and those who prefer to carry out the vision.  I’m seeking those who like to get down and dirty in the weeds with those whose spirit bends the currents of the high clouds.  Each are equally valuable, and if I can’t find people who will openly tell me where they thrive, well, I’ll move on to those who can.  So, yes, one’s ability to self-assess and accurately discuss one’s strengths is critical.

improve-your-weakness-3But what about the weaknesses?  Most can likely see that the same arguments could be made for this, but this one’s a bit trickier for most of us.  So, what do we tend to answer when asked this question?  Something like, “Well, I tend to care too much,” or “I’m a workaholic,” or “I have trouble saying ‘No’ at times.”

So, what’s wrong with that?  Here’s what’s wrong with these answers…they are spun attempts to appeal to the ideals we think others want.  “I care too much” translates to “I’m extremely dedicated and in-tune to others’ feelings.”  “I’m a workaholic” translates to “I will put in whatever time necessary to get the job done.”  And “I have trouble saying ‘No’” translates to “Just tell me what needs doing and it shall be so.”

Are these truly weaknesses?  In very rare cases, yes.  In most cases, no.  They are strengths we are trying to portray in a way that makes them SOUND like weaknesses.  And ultimately, that’s an authenticity issue, if you ask me.

You see, if you truly wanted to tell someone your weaknesses, instead of “I care too much,” you’d say, “I have trouble taking care of myself physically and emotionally.”  Instead of “I’m a workaholic,” you’d say that you recognize the need to get better about balancing your work and personal lives.  And instead of saying, “I have trouble saying ‘no’,” you’d say, “I really struggle with prioritization and accurately estimating time resources.”

Better yet, you’d follow up with an action plan for how you are currently working on overcoming that weakness.  Now THAT would be impressive!

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As we all know (and I stated earlier), we all have weaknesses.  That doesn’t make us bad people, poor choices as employees, or inferior to anyone else.  When we acknowledge (truly) those things that provide ongoing challenges to us, we’re building our brand as authentic human beings and demonstrating humility.  And that’s a tremendously powerful strength in any relationship!

It’s not easy to always show that humility or demonstrate that vulnerability, but doing so is a key step in our own self-development.  And it’s a step that speaks volumes to any quality hiring manager you may encounter. (Trust me, if the interview looks down on you for being authentic, it’s truly not a place where you want to be hired anyway!)

brand-authenticitySo, what are some of your authentic weaknesses?  Some of mine include: 1) I tend to be a self-starter, but a weak self-finisher, something that has prompted me to build accountability systems with others, whereby they will hold me to task in follow-through on projects.  2) Despite my military background, I’m can be easily distracted and disorganized.  To combat this, I actively work on utilizing lists and taking time each day to organize my work space and the day ahead (both of which I really don’t enjoy doing), and 3) I’m not a good negotiator, and my on-going challenge is to continue seeking better ways to engage myself in this uncomfortable process (not yet getting better, but still trying).

So, take the time to really think about your weaknesses and whether you’re being authentic in how you typically talk about them.  I’d challenge you to use the authentic approach with a self-designed action plan structure to addressing these whenever they come up in conversation (whether in interviews or not).  But realize that you’ll never have equal strengths in all areas and with all things.  That’s unrealistic and, quite honestly, inhuman.  And who wants to be that!?!?

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Telecommuting’s Secret…It Can Work!

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“Wait, so don’t you live in California now?” It’s a question I’m asked weekly since our move last month.

“Yes, in beautiful Sonoma County!” I respond with a gleem in my eye and a skip in my step.

I know what’s coming next.  The follow-up question is predictable.

“But aren’t you leading a program in Wisconsin?”

It’s a strange question, I find, but perhaps that’s because I’ve spent so much time in the business world myself, or perhaps it’s because I have taught global business courses.  The question’s peculiar, though, because highlights two key issues.

First, the question evidences a lack of awareness of how the business world has evolved and truly works.  Let’s set global businesses aside, instead focusing on the shrinking number of companies that operate solely within the United States.  Even most medium-sized and large organizations have operating facilities, supply chains, and customers outside of the geographic region in which their headquarters sits.  How do people assume executives interact with regional or state sales teams?  How do they maintain accountability over a dispersed team?

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Second, the confusion prefaces an often subconscious paradigm that plagues many organizations, a paradigm grounded in MacGregor’s Theory X.  This belief is that workers are essentially lazy and in need of constant supervision and oversight, lest they just sit around and goof off, milking their roles for a paycheck while seeking to do as little work as possible.  Put another way, it’s the “butts in seats” prejudice that requires seeing someone actively “at work” to believe they are doing anything. (We’ve all had managers like that!)

In short, what I’m highlighting here is perhaps naiveté about how much the working world has changed and evolved since the advent of the internet.  Workforces in most of the top organizations are spread out throughout the country and the world.  Projects are managed and production occurs through “the cloud.” And communication channels we frequently utilize in our personal lives (email, social media, Skype, FaceTime, etc.) have real-world business applications that are driving globalization worldwide.

And yet, even knowing this, the adoption of these technological benefits are often ignored by the very organizations that could most easily benefit from them.  There is still a need to shift from a “butts in seat” to a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) accountability system in many organizations.  But change comes slow in some circles.  Skeptics abound, and we need to understand that and coach these individuals around the fears they have around this notion.  Thankfully, when as business and organizational psychology faculty and consultants we embrace a ROWE approach to our team-work and leadership, we begin to help propagate an acceptance that will only benefit our students and business clients.  Through modeling, we show them what many of the leading organizations already know…remote working can work as well (and in many cases more efficiently) than traditional work models.

Shift-Your-Thinking22But what does ROWE entail?  Two words….Trust and Accountability.  Trust that ones outside of your field of vision will do what they should be doing.  And holding them accountable for producing high quality work (be those reports, research, teaching, or leading a team).  If the qualities of one’s work suffers, trust is lost, and then it’s okay to replace that individual with someone who you can trust and hold accountable.  I know, I know….It sounds a lot like the very same process you’d use with a person right there in the office, right? (Amazing things…trust and accountability!

The academic world of higher education is exceptionally suited for telecommuting, working remotely, or whatever new buzzword is being used this week to describe the more than 37% of the American workforce that, according to Gallup’s 2015 research.  After all, as a professor, I daily interact with, coach, and mentor students via email, phone, and video conference (Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts are my personal go-to tools).  Even when I was on campus, it was rare to see most faculty in their offices at the same times that I was there.  So, whether from California, China, Germany, or Madison, WI, over the past half-decade, an increasing amount of my work has been done virtually, i.e., not face-to-face with colleagues, students, and business partners.

In short, remote work has become the norm in the most successful organization.  But it’s not yet ubiquitous in perception or practice.  With time those perceptions will shift.  But so long as I continue to field these questions, it’s clear how many may not yet realize how normal and accepted (and potential efficient) telecommuting has become.

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Do You Assume Positive Intent on Teams?

cm429thumb - Teamwork_SkydivingTeam dynamics.  There’s no such thing as a “normal” team.  Each one is different, influenced by the many personalities and situations that collude to create either effective or ineffective performance.

And trust me, all teams have dysfunction.  Some merely overcome the deficiencies, compensate for the weak links, or, let’s face it, simply get lucky.  When success is achieved, it’s a beautiful thing and we celebrate the team.  When success eludes us, we blame the individuals, the circumstances, or the leadership.

You know, I have a theory.  The vast majority of dysfunction in teams is completely avoidable.  More times than not, it comes down to one simple issue…thinking that other team members don’t care about us.  Yep, we’re suspicious about their motives.  We don’t trust their actions.  And we read too much into their words (more often than not in written form, since email communication too often takes the place of face-to-face interactions these days).

keep-calm-and-assume-positive-intent-2This dynamic is easily overcome if we each simply commit to assuming positive intent in all interactions with others.  Quite honestly, this isn’t just applicable to teams.  Assuming positive intent is just a basic part of communication competence.  And yet, failure to actively promote this assumption on the part of the receiver has undermined marriages, cost championships, and turned organizations to festering masses.

Easier said than done, you say?  Yep, you’d better believe it.  And yet, not impossible.  Just like any habit, one needs to work on developing this imperative skill.  The question isn’t, “Can it be done?”  The real question is, “Will you do it?”

Stop Engaging Your Workforce, and Simply Lead!

MP900387733Over the past few years, I’ve written more about engagement and efforts by organizational leaders to create engaged cultures than nearly anything else.  There’s a reason for my laser focus on this issue…it’s critical for organizational success, I don’t care what the industry is.  But it’s just so darned misunderstood!

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “Engagement: It’s Leadership, Not a Program.”  I was pleasantly surprised by the responses I received upon posting, something that reinforces the notion that the topic is of near ubiquitous value in the workplace.  Based on a few of the emails I received about that piece, I want to spend a few minutes expanding the key idea that programmatic fixes to a culture do NOT an engaged workforce make.

To be frank, I’d rather we do away with the term “engagement” altogether.  The concept is awesome!  The implementation of engagement initiative is…well, NOT.

So, if not “engagement,” then what?

I’d suggest that instead of driving engagement, leaders should focus instead (and solely in its place) on something more basic, aligning your culture with your employees….and vice versa.

confusedBut isn’t it the same thing?

Why, yes….yes, it is.

Okay, Trevor, you’re confusing us now…..

{I laugh, a deep, maniacal laugh}

You see, when we word it differently, the focus in our minds shifts from looking for programmatic answers to drive “engagement” to leadership issues (finding, attracting, and developing individuals).  And guess what?  That’s precisely where our minds should be!  And the result of focusing our leadership attention on those areas, instead of jeans days, more potluck social events, or corporate dunk tanks?  Oops, a more engaged workforce, more emotional AND rational commitment by our employees, and quite simply a better place to work.

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When leaders ensure alignment between their own cultural preferences with those of the individuals they hire, develop and retain, engagement stops being about ridiculous HR programs and more about simply the atmosphere and environment best suited for the particular organization.  It’s that simple.  And, I’m serious about that….engagement doesn’t HAVE TO be difficult.  In fact, it shouldn’t be.  If you’re trying REALLY hard to engage your workforce, you’re simply looking at it wrong.