via Flickr user KeithBurtis

via Flickr user KeithBurtis

Last week I read a Time magazine article about a young lady who tried to get a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store.  She didn’t get the job – and found out later that it was because she wears a hijab.  She wears this for religious reasons, so she has filed a lawsuit for discrimination based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This isn’t such a black and white issue, however.  In 1972 the Civil Rights Act was amended to include the definition of religion.  Part of that definition says that companies have to demonstrate that accommodating the religious belief would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  When you consider that Abercrombie & Fitch’s MO is to sell clothes with sexy, scantily clad youths,  a covered-up employee isn’t exactly aligned with their branding. 

Okay, enough of my amateur attempt to break down the law based on the one article I read…because dissecting the law is not my point.  The reason this article caught my eye is because it made me wonder what happened to Abercrombie & Fitch’s leadership.  According to the Time article I mentioned above, Abercrombie & Fitch has some other pending lawsuits related to discrimination.  So if they really felt like certain employees (potential or current) had an image that would cause them to lose a significant amount of business…it seems like these lawsuits might have negated those costs by now.

In business, we see a whole lot of decisions based on meeting existing rules or laws.  We spend a lot of time and money arguing in courtrooms over the connotation of certain words.  And we try really hard to interpret rules in such a way that we benefit the most from them.  Is that what leadership is really about, though?  I certainly don’t think so.  Leadership is about going beyond the laws and being better than the limit set for you.  Think of it this way – that’s the limitWe’re not supposed to exceed it.  The limit is the worst you’re allowed to be while still being okay.  If you’re meeting the limit then you’re just skimming by. 

Leaders should be setting a higher standard than that.  We should be doing things because they’re right, and because we want to move our companies and society in a positive direction.  How else can we grow, or encourage others to grow?

So what do you think – should we follow the law or do one better?

Via Flickr user The Library of Congress

Via Flickr user The Library of Congress

Today Jay Rifenbary spoke to some of our senior leaders about his “No Excuse!” philosophy.  One of the questions he asked them struck me.  First, he asked if our leaders had company values.  He wasn’t surprised to hear the answer was yes.  What he asked next, though, surprised our leaders.

“Have you ever sat at the dinner table and asked your children what they thought the family values were?”

Think about that for a minute.  We spend so much time thinking about how we can be better leaders at work; how often do we really work on what kind of leaders we are at home?  If you’re only focusing on being a good leader in business, what kind of person are you being with your family and friends?  Do you have any energy left for them once you get home?  You can’t expect to be a good leader in one part of your life if you’re ignoring your actions in the rest of it.  If you just work on your values part of the time, you’re not really challenging yourself to actually live what you believe, and what you preach to your employees. 

Leadership is not just about getting business results.  Leadership is a lifestyle.  It’s a journey that requires 24-7 attention. 

When was the last time you practiced being a leader with your significant other or your child?  What leadership tenets do you think are the most important to bring to the dinner table?

What’s your story?

Image via Flickr user foodistablog

Image via Flickr user foodistablog

Okay, let me set the scene for you: you’re sitting around a campfire, s’mores in hand (using super gigante malvaviscos, of course), and…what do you do? Someone tells a story. You’re all relating that story to your own life experiences and pretty soon someone else tells a related story that just popped into his head. And someone else. Before you know it, the fire is down to smoldering coals, the temperature has dropped, and you have no idea where the time went.

That’s the power of storytelling. Would you have hung around to swap stories if someone was using a PowerPoint and reviewing statistical *yawn* statements? Probably not. You hang around when someone gives you colorful context, a plot, good characters, some action and a climax, followed by an ending.

As leaders, sometimes it’s overwhelming to sort through what feels like a fire hose of information; it’s difficult to know what to pass on to your employees and what they don’t care enough about. There are a lot of tools for communicating, but this is one of the most ancient and fundamental tools of communicating with others – whether around the campfire or around the boardroom table. I think it’s also one of the most forgotten tools. We get caught up in all the high-tech tools (cool and appropriate in their own right) and forget about the low-tech ones that still work.

Storytelling hasn’t died, even though book sales are down. We may be buying fewer books but we’re reading more online papers and blogs and toying with the idea of reading with an electronic device like Kindle. It doesn’t matter how technology changes, we’re still hungry for the story.

Leaders who don’t tell stories are missing a huge opportunity for engagement. The best way to help others understand a message is to help them relate to it and co-create it in their minds. Help your employees become characters in your story or use your stories as jumping-off points for their own.

Why don’t we see more storytelling in business? I think it’s because we’re afraid it’s child’s play. Like we’re Tom Hanks in “Big” and our cover is about to be blown. Storytelling is not just for children. It’s for all of us. It’s how we’ve passed knowledge to each other for centuries. It’s how we’ll continue to pass knowledge on, even with new technology popping up.

By the way, this doesn’t just apply to how you give information to your employees.  This applies to you, too.  We hear about the “elevator pitch” being our tiny chance to make a lasting impression.  If your elevator pitch is a story, you’ve got a much better chance it will actually stand out from the rest and be remembered. 

Just try it out.  Tell a story and see how much faster it spreads.  We can’t help but pass on a story from one person to the next!

So the next time you need to pass on information that people need to remember, think about your delivery. Rather than just stating the bare bones news, stop and do a quick storyboard in your head. Pretend you’re a movie director and set the scene, develop your characters and see where the twists and turns of the plot take you.

Go to the Beach.


Via Flickr user !Lauriin
Via Flickr user !Lauriin

Go to the beach. 

That’s not something you think of when you’re studying leadership, is it?  Yet there are leadership lessons all around us.  I spent some time with good girl friends at the beach this weekend, and as I relaxed with a borrowed beach book, I started to think about some lessons the beach could teach me with respect to my leadership journey.

Build sandcastles – Have you ever tried to build a sandcastle just using your bare hands?  It looks more like a big pile of wet sand than a castle.  But when you use a mold like a bucket or some other shape, it’s a different story.  Bucket after bucket, before you know it you’ve got something that looks like a castle.  The bucket is helpful because it shows you what shape to use, but don’t be afraid to innovate or use the form in unusual ways to create a truly creative, unique castle. 

Leadership is much like building a sandcastle: it’s helpful to have some sort of frame to guide you initially, but you can’t be afraid to improve the form with a little bit of your own personality.  All leadership is not identical.  In the end, you have to be the leader you are comfortable with being.  Be you.  Inject personality and you’ll have quite the leadership structure.

Use the lifeguards – Lifeguards are on the beach every day, practicing and honing their skills so that they can be successful when their skills are required.  If you need help, they come running to your aid.  As a leader, you don’t have to go it alone, and you certainly don’t have to save yourself. Find a mentor to be your lifeguard, to test the water conditions for you, and to throw a life saver at you when you need it most.  Look toward those who have a little extra training and experience to provide guidance on your own leadership journey.

Just pick up one seashell at a time – Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the call of leadership.  How can I, one little person, influence others to become better leaders?  How can I get my organization to change its culture and foster an environment that values servant-leadership principles?  The answer is in a story (not sure of its origin). 

A child is walking along the beach, picking up shells.  Someone asks the child what she’s doing.  When the child explains that she’s picking up all the shells on the beach, the person laughs and tells the child that she’ll never be able to pick up all the shells.  It’s much too big a job for anyone.  The child just continues to pick up one shell at a time, confident that she will succeed.  Eventually, others notice the child’s determination and begin helping her pick up sea shells.  Before long, hundreds of people are picking up thousands of shells.

So no, you can’t change the culture of your company all by yourself.  But you can change the culture within your sphere of influence.  Focus on one shell at a time.  Be the leader you wish others to be.  Influence the culture the way you’d like to see it changed.  It’s important for leaders to set an example.  Your actions will motivate others to emulate you; they’ll want to follow your lead and help you pick up seashells.  Don’t be intimidated by the huge unattainable goal of changing the world.  Just change your corner of it – before long, your corner will be bigger than you could have imagined.  There is a lot of power in the example you set for others.

What other lessons can be learned from the beach?  How do you deal with the sometimes overwhelming task of being a leader?  Do you approach it one step at a time, ask others for help, or even seek guidance from established models?

Hubris or humility?  Which “h” word influences your leadership style?

At work this week we had a discussion with senior managers about diversity and inclusion, based on Peggy McIntosh’s article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack Take a minute to click that hyperlink and check out her article…I’ll wait.

McIntosh discusses a corollary of racism: white privilege.  She realized that just by being white, she had certain privileges, many of which aren’t obvious without a certain amount of awareness and introspection.   In fact, she argued, whites are taught not to recognize our privileges.  Do you agree with her assertion?  If you’re white, have you ever noticed that the color of your skin gave you an advantage?  This is different from realizing that minorities sometimes face disadvantages because of their skin color.

What our discussion at work unearthed was the realization that a lot of the privileges on McIntosh’s list (if not all) were things that we consciously knew were unfair, unethical, or immoral.  But here’s the key: do you recognize when you’re benefiting from an advantage, whether it’s because of your skin color, your gender, or your religion?  If you do recognize it, are you doing anything about it?

One leader had a particularly astute observation.  He suggested that McIntosh’s list exist because of hubris.  In the field of organizational development, this is similar to the concept of self-embededness.  Both terms basically reflect an inward, self-centeredness.  So, he argued, humility was the key to breaking down the wall these privileges supported.

 What do you think about that?  I think it’s a really introspective thought.  This leader really “got” McIntosh’s message and was beginning to internalize it in the short time we had a discussion.  Think about this.  Hubris causes you to think of yourself, first.  This was the characteristic that brought down heroes of Greek tragedies, because the hubris grew bigger than them.  If you are focused inward, you will only notice when the world is being “unfair” and will conveniently ignore times that everything is “falling into place” without much effort.  Humility, on the other hand, suggests an outward focus.  If you’re humble, you elevate others before yourself.  You think of other people first, and put their interests at the top. 

So what does this say about diversity and inclusion principles?  Perhaps if you’re focused on others, you will notice things like the privileges McIntosh discussed.  Perhaps if you’re focused on others you won’t allow discrimination or unfair treatment to continue.  Your efforts will go toward ensuring that other people have an easier time navigating through life.

This is a powerful message in terms of your leadership practices.  Are you so self-embedded that “your” way is the “right” or “only” way?  Or are you practicing servant-leadership (more on that in a future post) and thinking of others, first?  Think about how your employees will react to a change in policy, based on their perspective and life experiences, not your own.  Try to think of their frame of reference and put yourself in it. 

This is the only way that you will be able to create a diverse and inclusive environment in your work group.  If you understand that your experiences are just one example of how a person’s life can play out, then you’ll have an easier time stepping outside of that experience to learn about others’ lives.  When you do that, you’re showing respect and appreciation for your employees; you’re being diverse.  This mindset allows you to overlap your subconscious actions or thoughts with your conscious mind that tells you something is wrong.  Instead of intellectually knowing discrimination is wrong but silently allowing it to continue to happen, you will be building credibility by melding action with word and thought.

What are you doing to make sure you encourage diversity and inclusion in your work group?  Are you acting with humility, or hubris?


The Legendary #44 - a Leadership Example for Us AllIf you’re an SU alumni (or sports fan!), the number 44 holds great significance.  This weekend I watched The Express: a movie based on the life of Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman trophy winner – also a former SU football player.

To understand my excitement about watching this movie, you need to know a couple things.  First, I’m quick to express my support for my alma mater.  Those close to me know my penchant for the Orange.  Second, 44 isn’t just significant to me – it’s a bit of a legend  on the Hill.  Many football greats have worn that jersey at Syracuse, and we have a slight obsession with the number.  Campus phone numbers start with the number 44, a bar is named 44’s, the zip code is 13244…like I said, slight obsession.

Now that I’ve laid my bias out on the table, here’s my point:  this movie has great messages about leadership that even non-SU devotees should heed.

Leaders never stop learning.  Coach Schwartzwalder had respect for Davis’ skills on the football field, and he constantly pushed him to be a better player.  Davis learned a lot from him.  But Schwartzwalder didn’t respect Davis once they were off the field.  Instead, he continued to operate within the race-based mindset that was common for the time, and that he was comfortable with.  Playing football in the south in the late 1950s couldn’t have been easy for a Black man like Davis.  Without Schwartzwalder’s support, it must have been even more difficult.  However, as Davis grew more confident in the leadership role he was taking on, he started to assert himself – he demanded that Schwartzwalder rethink his race-based mindset and show him the same support the White football players saw.  Over time, Schwartzwalder saw that Davis was standing up for what was right and that he needed a friend in his corner.  Schwartzwalder may have been in the formal leadership position, but he wasn’t perfect.  Davis helped him learn to challenge his previous thinking (and the popular thinking of that time period). 

In our companies, we come across hardships and obstacles all the time.  Do we get support from our leaders?  Think about the difference it makes when someone’s in your corner.  The best relationships are those where you both learn from each other.

Sometimes you’re a leader without ever knowing it.  Davis didn’t know he was a role model.  He just thought he was doing what he loved: playing football.  It took his family telling him to stop and look around at the support from the Black community before Davis realized it.  Here was a Black man, not only playing football on a predominately White team, but excelling!  Davis only had to look into the crowds to see the admiration and respect people had for him.  In one scene in the movie, the team bus is driving to a game and another bus full of Black fans drives by, with “Go Ernie” signs against the windows.  Davis wasn’t just playing football.  He was becoming a civil rights leader.

You don’t have to be in a formal leadership position to be a leader.  You just have to take a stand for something that you believe in.  Davis was respected because he believed in equality and refused to settle for anything less.  Leaders lead because they don’t know how to look away from something they’re passionate about.

Leadership is a tough journey, and you never know where it will take you.  Davis knew he loved to run.  He just thought he was running away from something.  Turns out he was running toward his destiny as not only a great football player, but a great activist.  Davis didn’t know that running would take him all the way to the Division I football and the NFL draft.  He dreamed of winning the Heisman Trophy one day – it didn’t matter that all the previous Heisman winners had been White men.  He was determined to be the best he could be.  Davis experienced a lot of discrimination along the way, but because of his actions he broke the color barrier with the Heisman trophy.  He wasn’t posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame solely for his football prowess – it was as much for the journey he took as for his accomplishments.

Leadership doesn’t take us down a clear, unfettered path.  We become leaders because we step up to the challenges in front of us.  Part of leadership is leading into the uncertainty, despite not knowing what’s in front of us.

What other lessons does The Express teach us about leadership?  I’m sure we could learn more lessons from looking closely at some of the other characters in the movie.  For that matter, there are plenty of movies out there that inspire us on our leadership journeys.  As you’re exploring your own path to becoming a leader, what films have inspired you?

And if you haven’t seen it already…you need to add The Express to your Netflix list!

Image via Flickr user blondie478

Image via Flickr user blondie478

Good leaders are constantly trying to improve.  They’re looking for data points and feedback, and they’re internalizing and assessing how that information can make them better leaders.  Leadership authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner assert that, “the leader’s primary contribution is in the recognition of good ideas, the support of those ideas, and the willingness to challenge the system…call them early adopters of innovation.”

 But we’ve got to be careful.

When we’ve got a lot of touch points with our employees, we’ve got the opportunity to hear what they’re saying – all of it, negative and positive.  I know that leaders have every intention of doing the right thing, which means not only listening to the feedback they’re getting but acting on it.  Yet not all feedback should change the direction you’re already headed in. 

When you get negative feedback, what do you do with it?  I see a lot of well-meaning leaders listen to feedback and change their course to address that comment.  I struggle with this myself.  But what happens when that comment is coming from the minority?  With just anecdotal evidence, you run the risk of changing the course of a process, program, or policy that was already working well for the majority.

Leaders need to be cognizant of the diversity of their work force: people approach and react to situations in ways that reflect the differences in their background and past experiences.  If only two percent of your employees dislike something, you will be catering to the lowest common denominator rather than the good of the greater whole.

My caution is not to let the one bad apple spoil the bunch.  Yes, you need to show people that you have listened to their feedback.  But leaders also need to think critically about what they’re hearing and do some additional research to learn how widespread the sentiment is.  For example, if an employee does something wrong because they didn’t know what the correct process was, that doesn’t necessarily mean the process needs to be tweaked.  Maybe the fault was a lack of communication between the employee and the leader, rather than a faulty process. 

Instead, consider using that first bit of feedback as a trigger – use it to spur some additional prodding to determine if recognizing the idea and pushing the system to change it is truly the right decision.

Have you ever thought about removing the rotten apple before it infects the good ones?