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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?

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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.

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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?

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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!

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Photo via Flickr user jbelluch

Photo via Flickr user jbelluch

The U.S. men’s soccer team victory against Spain last month brought back a flood of memories of my soccer-filled youth.  I had a really great coach who not only pushed us to get better but taught us a lot about the game itself.  In the course of thinking about what I’d learned from countless hours of ball drills and scrimmages, I realized that he also taught me how to be a successful leader.  My coach shouted a lot of pointers from the sidelines but three tips stand out the most.

Keep your eye on the ball.  There was always at least one player on the opposing team who had a lot of ball skills.  Her feet moved insanely fast and she’d be the one who moved the ball down the field, distributing it to others.  My coach constantly reminded us to watch the ball, rather than the person’s feet.  It’s the ball you’re after, not the feet.  In corporations, we get distracted by all the fancy moves – the “flavor of the month” if you will.  It’s important for leaders to understand their values, the company’s values, and their employee’s values and not get distracted by the new management technique on the best seller’s list.  Keep your eye on your values, and remember the principles.  A new technology or winning method will only work if it is aligned with your values and done for the right reasons.  Or else that fake to the left will leave you staring at the grass while the ball moves on by.

Take advantage of the double-team.  Sometimes it makes sense for two teammates to go after the ball together.  It’s the same principle as a breakaway with two forwards versus one defender: you have the advantage.  Leaders can’t be afraid to ask for help.  Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean that you need to go it alone.  Leaders need mentors, too!  Sometimes it makes sense for you to team up with another leader in order to become a stronger unit for your employees.  Find someone with a strength to match your weakness, or with a weakness that can be bolstered by your strengths.  You can learn a lot from your contemporaries and you can get a lot of help from other organizations such as HR.  That’s why we hear the analogy of a team used a lot in corporations – the leadership team needs to act together when necessary and be comfortable with the double-team.   

Pass the ball to a space.  On breakaways, we were taught to pass the ball to the corner of the field, so that the forward could run to it.  If the ball was passed to her feet, she wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of momentum as she made her way toward the goal.  Leaders need to remember this when they’re giving assignments to their team.  Instead of handing off another assignment that is at their current skill level, consider giving them an assignment that will cause them to stretch – to move to a new spot that they weren’t in before and take advantage of the momentum from your “pass”.  This is how you help them grow and become better versions of themselves.  This is also how you keep them actively learning and actively engaged.  There’s a fine line here, though – if you pass the ball too far ahead they’re not going to be able to get there in time and will fail.  

Soccer taught me a lot about successful leadership – and I’m sure that we’ve all had life experiences that have shown us how to become better at what we do.  Do you have a sports experience that you think about as inspiration or use for guidance when you’re trying to figure something out?  What other lessons can we learn from the sports we played as kids?

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