Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fear as a Motivator

Two days ago I took my dogs down to the beach on Cape Cod Bay for a long walk.  Once we hit the sand, we have about half a mile of smooth walking before we hit an outcropping of large rocks that help to hold back the erosive tides.  The dogs ran free, and Paco sprinted at full speed for hundreds of yards after seagulls.  Once we got to the rock outcropping, I noticed a large black lump in the sand- a harbor seal.

In the past I've discovered dead beached seals in the same spot, and I was thinking I found another one when I saw its tail flippers pathetically rise up and flop back down to the sand.  It was still alive!  The tide was going out, and it had probably taken advantage of the beautiful day to sun itself, not realizing that hours had passed and its trek back to the water was getting more and more difficult.  By the time I found it it was dozens of feet from the shore, with hundreds of large rocks blocking its path.  It had given up on trying to get back to the safety of the water.

Without thinking, I quickly tied up the dogs as best I could to a large driftwood tree (they hadn't noticed it yet, thankfully) and headed over to the seal.  I kept my distance but could clearly see it was still kicking.  Seeing me, it hissed and barked in fear.  It looked just like an aquatic cousin of Zeke's-same size, sad brown eyes, and bovine expression.  Somehow I had to rescue it without endangering myself (do these things have rabies?  I don't know).

Clearly I couldn't roll it- it didn't look like it would enjoy that.  I grabbed a large stick about the size and shape of a baseball bat and touched it slowly to its front flipper.  It lurched from its side to its belly, and lunged toward the stick.  Great, I thought- I can goad and taunt it towards the water.  Positioning myself between it and the water, I annoyed it into progressing a few feet forward.  It was as if he suddenly remembered how to move around on land.

By this point the dogs had broken free and were rushing madly towards the confused seal.  I caught their leashes and thought "A-ha! Instead of taunting it forward I can scare it away using the dogs."  I held them about ten feet behind the seal as they fought the leash and lunged at the animal in a fit of crazed barking.  The seal picked up his pace and threw his sausage-like body awkwardly over the rocks.  It took him a good five minutes but he made it into to the water line and then slowly swam, exhausted but relieved, into the safety of the waves.

After I was over the exhilaration of the experience, I got to thinking about the role of fear as a motivator.  Here was this poor animal who had done nothing worse than take a nap at the wrong time and had woken up in a life-threatening situation.  By the time I found him he had mostly given up, only sadly flopping a flipper or two.  His heart was clearly not in it.  But that dullness in his eyes vanished and his motivation came back when he saw his first human and two berserk dogs.  Suddenly becoming a chew toy seemed like a worse fate than slowly dying in the sun.

Fear is a great motivator.  Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, speaks of using the unpleasant parts of life as fuel to improve your situation.  Fear of losing your job can motivate you to better performance.  Fear of not being able to support your family might be the grounds for starting your own business.  Years ago my father heard a rumor his employer might be laying people off, and before they had a chance to get him, he quit and started his own business.  It ran successfully for over twenty years until he retired.  Even now in "retirement" he has to turn down work on a weekly basis from people who seek him out.  But he wouldn't have taken that first step if it wasn't for fear.

Are you scared enough?  Is life too comfortable?  Sedating?  Taking calculated risks is a great way to motivate yourself.  Everyone has their own risk-tolerance and preferences, but in general it's healthy to strike a balance between fear and comfort.  Too much fear and you are paralyzed.  Too much comfort and you are sleep-walking.

Take a risk every once in a while to keep you on your toes.  Or I can just go get the dogs and help you out...

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Coming Crisis in Leadership?

Note: This Article was also published in the International Executive Newswire

If you’ve been listening to the news lately, you may be wondering where all the leaders have gone.  Where are the Churchills, the Kennedys, the Ataturks, and the Welshs?  Now, more than ever, our countries and our companies need real global leadership.  And this might be the problem.  All this globalization might be pulling the rug out from traditional models of effective leadership.
Leaders frame reality for others.  They perceive events and then interpret them for their followers in a way that motivates action.  Currently the US government is on the verge of a shutdown.  If you ask a Republican leader why, he will frame the event in terms of the failure of Democrats to rein in spending.  But when you ask a Democratic leader, he may blame the other side for stonewalling any compromise.  Each is trying to convince as much of the population as they can to see things their way.  I think it’s the only reason Sunday morning news shows exist.

Leadership researchers Smircich and Morgan concluded that a person emerges as a leader in large part “because of their role in framing experience in a way that provides a viable basis for action, e.g., by mobilizing meaning, articulating and defining what has previously remained implicit or unsaid, by inventing images and meanings that provide a focus for new attention, and by consolidating, confronting, or changing prevailing wisdom.”

This concept can be seen as the distillation, or basis, of many of other leadership theories.  It explains the leader-follower relationship by underscoring why followers do or do not accept another as a leader (does the leader’s narrative work for them in creating meaning from what they see?).  It underscores Leader-Member-Exchange (LMX) theory, as the management of meaning by the leader influences the perceptions of organizational justice of the follower (the leader’s effective use of narrative in explaining why justice occurred will affect the follower’s perception of such, and subsequent depth of relations between the two).  Even the “great man” theory and other trait- and behaviour-based leadership models lean on this framework: does the leader have what it takes to effectively create meaning for followers that they will accept and act upon in desirable ways?  Is the leader motivated enough to do this?  Driven enough?  Smart enough?

Crafting a narrative isn’t as easy as it sounds.  A leader must develop open communication channels both upstream and downstream in order to receive and deliver messages with minimal distortion and delay.  Reports and briefings may provide some information, but the savvy CEO will also have his ear to the ground by interacting regularly with all levels of the organization.  This should be informal as well as formal.

Many people (all people?) struggle to make sense of their world.  They absorb news and information and try to assimilate it into a coherent view.  The more solid this view, the more confident they are acting in accordance with it.  But the problem is this: with the advent of communications technology and the evaporation of cultural borders the common man has much more access to all kinds of data on a daily basis.  Much of it is conflicting.  The more data there is to understand, the more difficult it is to create one clear worldview through which to grasp it.

When people’s worlds were smaller, it was easier to create a narrative that made sense of the observations and “reality” that people experienced.  Leaders had only so many concepts and observations to weave into their narrative.  It was easier to motivate people to action because one frame of reality—one story—could explain everything they saw.  And if a leader chose the right story, he could line up motivated followers to his cause.

Increasingly people are bombarded with many more variables than can fit in a concise narrative, and as such faith in some traditional leaders and their interpretation of events has waned.  Twitter and smartphones transmit the experience of any person across the world in seconds.  Virtually all public events are digitally recorded, and the video lives forever online, waiting to catch the unwitting politician or CEO in a moment of hypocrisy.  Leaders can no longer change their narrative without being called out for being inconsistency and disingenuousness (fans of the Daily Show will recognize this  Jon Stewart’s main modus operandi).

What some might call the current crisis of leadership is a reflection of this.  Most leaders, save for some religious ones (I’m thinking Eastern traditions here), can’t create a narrative which meaningfully encompasses all the stimuli most people receive.  The more people know, the harder it is to tell them what to think.  And the world is not a black-and-white place; shades of gray are now obvious to all.
I’m not sure what this may mean for the future of leadership, although one hypothesis is that we will increasingly see a split between two modes of thought- the first being a dogmatic and closed-minded adherence to the old story, where any contradicting information is summarily ignored or discounted (Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann come to mind), and the other is one that increasingly accepts a narrative so expansive and inclusive that it can’t inspire followers to take action.  This can be seen in Taoist or Buddhist narratives of accepting the interplay of opposites and holding two contradictory thoughts in one’s head at once—a koan of sorts.  The consequence of this is a feeling that “there is nowhere to go, there is nothing to do, there is no one to be.”  How do you inspire someone to act on that?

While the tidal wave of technological revolution affects us all, there are tactics for the aspiring leader.  First, choose your audience carefully.  The smaller the target the better you can manage meaning.  Second, do your research to know what they know.  If you send out a company-wide email explaining why the organization has to make budget cuts next year, make sure that month’s newsletter doesn’t cover the lavish executive retreat the C-staff just came back from.  Third, frame events to motivate employees in the right direction.  The best stories inspire people toward an event (e.g. increased revenue) rather than away from something (e.g. decreased spending).

As for the state of global leaders, I don’t envy their challenge.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Actualized Leadership and the Lugano Leadership Academy

From July 5th through 9th Boston University and the Taylor Institute will be hosting a Leadership Academy in Lugano, Switzerland.  This executive workshop, aimed at middle to upper-level managers, will be featuring among its teaching team Dr. Will Sparks.

The following background on Dr. Sparks is directly from his website, drwillsparks.com:

Will Sparks is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte.  He serves as the Director of Leadership Initiatives and founded the MS Program in Organization Development in 2008 at the McColl School. Concurrently, he is a Visiting Professor of International Management with Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland.
He is a Principal with William L. Sparks & Associates, LLC, a professional services firm focused on leadership and team development, corporate creativity and innovation, and change management.  He is also a Managing Partner with Peter C. Browning & Associates, LLC, and consulting firm providing services to corporate Boards of Directors. 

He has consulted with a variety of organizations in the public and private sectors, including the U.S. Navy, GlaxoSmithKline, Anheuser-Busch, the Bank of America, Duke Energy, Wells Fargo, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, the United Way, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Will has published numerous research papers and book chapters, and has contributed articles to The Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte Business Journal.  He has also appeared in several Charlotte-area media outlets, including the CBS affiliate WBTV Channel 3, News Carolina Channel 14, and on “Charlotte Talks” on the NPR affiliate WFAE 90.7.  He is a coauthor of the book, The Combustion Research Facility: A Model for the 21st Century Open-User Facility, an R&D management case history published by the Department of Energy. 

He is the author of the forthcoming book Actualized Leadership to be published in 2012.  He received the Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award for excellence in teaching at Queens in 2003 and 2005. In 2009, he was awarded the inaugural McColl School Leadership in Teaching Award.
He holds a B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from Winthrop University, an M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management from Appalachian State University.  He completed his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Development under the direction of Dr. Jerry B. Harvey from the School of Business and Public Management at The George Washington University where his research focused on group dynamics, organizational culture, and leadership.

Attached below is a link to a podcast on Actualized Leadership by Dr. Will Sparks.  It's well worth the listen:

Part 1
Part 2

Join Dr. Sparks, Gary Knell of Sesame Street, me, and the rest of the BU/Franklin College team at the Leadership Academy.  I hope to see you there for four days of training, seminars, and executive networking!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Lesson from the Dogs: Owners are Friends with Money

In one of the leadership classes I took at Boston University, we studied a case about the lives of several civil rights pioneers.  These individuals, all of whom had made significant contributions toward their cause, had come from impoverished childhoods and meager beginnings.  What they developed first, after a passion for learning, was a network.  Even though they had few resources themselves, they met people who had wealth in the form of contacts and money.  Since these future civil rights leaders had passion, charisma, and conviction, they were able to attract contacts and friends with money who supported them in their efforts.

After discussing the case in class, I came home and opened the door to my two rambunctious, silly, and at times annoying dogs.  It struck me that they were living a good life while of course not making a dime simply because they had contacts with money (my wife and me) who found them compelling and endearing.  They were living on charisma alone, and we took care of the rest.  Michaele and I sometimes joked about them ‘earning their keep’ by protecting the house and how if we needed extra income we could always rent Paco out to herd cattle part-time.  But the truth of it was that they provided companionship, humor, and all the other perks of a loyal canine.  Of course they didn’t need money.

It got me to thinking how many of us curb our aspirations or lower our expectations because of the perceived limitations of money.  It may be that we go to a local state school because the better private school we were admitted to was too expensive.  Maybe we forgo college altogether.  Or we think we can’t ever leave our soul-numbing cubicle job to pursue what we love because we need the paycheck.  Of course there are times when money is a real and important restriction and we need to take it into consideration in our decisions.  But in too many cases it can end up being our go-to excuse, a crutch that we lean on to justify why we do not pursue another path that might make us happier.  No risk, no reward, after all.  

Entrepreneurs are known for their go-for-broke approach to following their passions.  They don’t let lack of money stand in the way of what they want to do.  By following their passion, and finding ways to make it work financially afterwards, they tend to have good rates of success.  Not every attempt will be successful, but out of the ashes of one attempt they will strive for their next one.  The first company may be funded on a credit card, or with money raised by friends and family, but once they are on their second and third companies they may have gotten the attention of other professional investors like venture capitalists.  They may not have money themselves, but their charisma, drive, and passion become clear to others with money who support them, to the success of all.

It’s important to keep this in mind as we pursue our passions.  Money may be an important factor, but it is not the primary or even necessarily the most important factor that contributes to our success.  Natural leaders follow their passions with a passing consideration for money but do not consider lack of money as an excuse to quit or to abandon their dreams for a steady paycheck.

Lesson:  It’s ok to have little money and few resources as long as you have a good motivation and are compelling and have friends or contacts with money.  If they believe in you they will support you one way or another.  I often look at the dogs and think what a sweet deal they have- nothing to do but play and eat and sleep.  Of course you don’t want to depend solely on others, but for those first crucial steps to success use the resources you have.  They don’t make a dime but their enthusiasm, warmth, and drive provides pleasure to us, so we enjoy supporting them.

Friday, April 1, 2011

How to Get in your Boss's In-Group

Whether they know it or not, leaders tend to segregate followers into in-groups and out-groups.  Members of in-groups enjoy a closer relationship with the leader, more attractive work and assignments, and more recognition for their efforts.  They also have higher satisfaction levels with their boss and experience less role-related stress (most likely as a result of the better assignments!).  Simply put, in-group members get more attention and support from their leader.

Out-group members may tend to be viewed more as interchangeable commodities by the leader.  They have more distant relationships with their boss and usually are assigned less challenging and less rewarding work.  The relationship tends to be seen as distant and based on economic exchanges (you work, I pay you for it).  These followers are more likely to have issues with their boss, and may even file grievances. They certainly are less motivated to perform and report lower levels of job satisfaction.

Landing in the Right Group
As followers, we'd all like to be in the in-group, of course.  And as leaders it would be great if our relationships with our followers were all high-quality, like those with our in-group members.  So why would anyone want the out-group to exist?

According to Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory, people essentially self-sort into in- and out-group members early on.  Those first couple of interactions with your new boss are very important.  Depending on how you respond to the first assignments and interactions as a follower, you are quickly steering yourself into either one group or another.  You are defining your relationship going forward and essentially telling your boss which group you want to be in. 

Here's how it works.  As a leader makes requests to a member (or follower), that member responds in a certain way.  He may either embrace the request and fulfill it to the best of his ability, or take a lazy or shortcut approach.  From this initial exchange a leader starts to make an impression of the member:  This guy is on the ball and delivers, this other guy doesn't.

Usually the leader starts out slowly with small requests, and escalates their importance.  By observing how well members respond, they are then segregated (consciously or unconsciously) into in-group and out-group members by the leader.  Once those roles are formed, they are very hard to change.  Every so often a leader may give an out-group member a chance to redeem herself and get back in, but this is not common.

In-group members are not only more satisfied in their work, but they have higher performance as well.  They perceive that they are treated well for their efforts, so they are more motivated to perform.  Out-group members feel like the cards are stacked against them.  They are not motivated to work hard, because they feel that they will always be on the outside.  These guys work may just hard enough to not get fired, rationalizing that if their only motivation is a paycheck (as opposed to attention and status of the in-group), then they will scale back their efforts to match that pay.


In much leadership theory, it is important to ask "Ok, so what does this mean to me?"  The lessons here are these:

Implications for Followers
If you are a follower (employee, etc):  make sure that when you start a new job you make that extra effort in the first months.  Be aware that your boss will be looking to see whether you are trustworthy, hardworking, and capable.  This is your chance to get in the in-group, that inner circle that is close to the boss.  If you have been at a job for a while, ask yourself which group you are in.  If you are in the out-group, make efforts to approach the boss for more challenging and demanding work, and deliver when you get it.  You may be able to fight your way in to the in-group after all.  But remember that if you are not happy in your work, or you feel that you are not treated fairly, look at your own actions as well in the context of LMX and see if you had anything to do with your situation.

Implications for Leaders
If you are a leader, be aware that you have an in-group and an out-group of followers.  You may have noticed placing people in one or another, or maybe it just happened unconsciously.  There is nothing wrong with having these two groups, as long as you frequently open your doors to the out-group and give them a chance to perform to earn entry into the in-group.  One example would be every three months choose a member of the out-group and give them a challenging assignment.  If they step up to it and excel, consider bringing them into the fold.  You want everyone to be in the in-group as you will then be surrounded with capable, happy, and motivated people.  Your leadership will be more effective as you work through this team.

One good resource on this is The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins: