Steven's Own Words

The Path of Least Resistance

The Path of Least Resistance

The path of least resistance isn’t always what you think. If you think in terms of nature, it’s pretty obvious: water moving down a mountain takes the path of least resistance, flowing around rocks, under branches, wearing a groove that’s virtually never a straight line. But when we say this about our lives, I think we’re often misusing the phrase. Recently, a client of mine — let’s call him “Sean” — was thrown into a management job. Sean has limited management experience, and literally no experience in this field. And now his responsibility in this new position is to implement change. As is often the case in such circumstances, his efforts are being met with great resistance, by one employee in particular. This employee is very aggressively against Sean’s work; he’s made it clear that Sean is not welcome and believes that he should have gotten Sean’s job. And Sean, for his part, keeps trying to create change by being a ‘nice’ guy, rather than confronting this employee. “I’m conflict-averse,” Sean told me. “I’ll avoid conflict at all costs. I don’t want that fight; I’d rather follow ‘the path of least resistance.’ ” It’s funny–we so often we think the path of least resistance is to simply acquiesce in the face of conflict. But is that really the case? By avoiding the conflict, all you’re doing is prolonging the challenge. Instead of going around it, you keep running into it, and instead of facing it, you just keep running into it, doing the same thing over and over again. Is it possible that the path of least resistance is actually facing the conflict? Is it possible that, though the conflict looks hard, certainly more difficult that avoiding...
Our Past Self Needs Our Patience

Our Past Self Needs Our Patience

Last week we talked about how sometimes, it can be easy to look at the struggles of others and assume they should not be having a difficult time. After all, their challenge would be easy for us. But it’s also easy to make the same judgmental mistake when we look at our past selves. We can easily remember a poor decision we’ve made and think “How could I have been so stupid?” We forget that we have certain knowledge now that we didn’t have before. We simply cannot judge our decisions of yesterday with our knowledge of today. Today we know something we didn’t know then–like, for example, the outcome of the decision! And what? Now we’re going to judge it with experience we didn’t have back then? That’s not fair. The goal isn’t condemnation for the error, it’s the analytical analysis of what lead to the decision: how we made it, why we made it, what were our triggers, and what can we learn from it. In the same way we can’t judge other people’s difficulties or challenges with our experiences, we can’t judge our decisions on what we didn’t know. It debilitates us and distracts us when, as a leader, we most need to keep our head in the game, to keep our wits about us and to focus on the next step. You can never win a game by re-taking a shot that you missed. You only win by maintaining the courage and composure to keep shooting on the goal. Have grace with your past self, and have grace with your team. Wouldn’t you want the...
Leadership=Grace Through the Turmoil

Leadership=Grace Through the Turmoil

My oldest daughter started high school this year, and it became instantly apparent there’s a lot of fear and excitement that goes into a transition like that. Think about it: one year they are kings and queens of the castle, and they come back from summer at the bottom of the totem pole. Not to mention the changes they are about to go through in the next four years! By the time they graduate they will have aged from a young teen to an adult with full legal authority to vote, go to war, live on their own, get a credit card…there’s a lot of turmoil in that process! It’s easy, I think, for us to lose perspective as these teens grow up. We start thinking they’re more competent than they are. We look at them and they’re beginning to look like adults, and it’s easy to forget they aren’t. We start getting frustrated at their turmoil — knowing the stresses of “real adulthood,” it’s easy to feel the smallish problems of adolescence seem like they should be easily overcome, and we can get frustrated waiting. Which is, of course, one of the biggest challenges of leadership: When things seem obvious and easy to us, we think it should be obvious and easy to someone else. High school problems might seem so small to us, but it’s huge to the high schoolers. If we judge them for that, it will be wholly impossible to connect with them in a way that serves, inspires, and truly leads at a time when they need us most. Similarly, if our team is having difficulty with something that seems easy to us and we judge that, the...

Making Change: Part II

Last week we talked about giving your team time to process a big change. But that naturally invokes the question–what do you do in that time? How can you learn and grow in that space? First of all, remember this is a space for development and learning. Spend the time exploring yourself and your team! Seek insights into how you make decisions and what tends to work best and why. There’s no need to overthink this this–just use simple inquiries. An example:  Let’s say you and your significant other are trying to decide on a restaurant for dinner. There are a plethora of options and you aren’t immediately drawn to any one of them in particular. How do you make the decision?   Now, notice the thought process. What do you consult? Money, your stomach, distance, your mouth, your mood? All of these are insights into how you make that decision, and by proxy, decisions at large. Notice them, call them out, inquire as to why you use that process. Notice when that process changes, lets you down, or is successful. Is there a pattern or a consistent element involved? Remember, effective change takes time and requires buy-in and engagement. Understanding how you and your team make decisions allows people to learn and grow through their transitions! The mistake most leaders seem to make is the rapid movement from one thing to the next with too little time for the glue to set. The process need not take forever, but it does need to take some time. The participants need to feel honored, respected and connected, as well as free from rushing or judgement. Only then can your...

Digging In The Sand To Create Change

Leading change is like digging in dry sand. As soon as you pull out your shovel, the sides fall right back in. This thought hit me this year when digging in the sand at Cannon Beach with my daughter, Leah. We giggled as we’d dig a hole and the sand would fall back in as fast as we could get the shovel back down. That’s when it hit me: I often see clients trying to affect change in a similar way. They dig out the part that’s going away, but before real change can occur old habits and resistance keep falling in the hole and stopping up their progress. So what do you do? Well, one option is to wet the sand before digging the hole, right?  By doing so, you make the sand “sticky.”  With wet sand you not only dig a secure hole, you can shape it along the way.  Now mind you, the sand doesn’t stay wet forever. As it dries the sides will begin to collapse. Leading change is similar: The sand is your people, and sometimes they need a little “wetting” so they stick with you through the transition. In the book “Transitions” by William Bridges, he calls this the Neutral Zone.   So how can you create that Neutral Zone and “wet the sand” when you’re leading a transition and change? You can begin by focusing on the hole–the empty space your change will create. Become deliberately and consciously aware of what is being taken away.  Way too few leaders actually take the time to name and acknowledge what is really ending during a...

Stop Pushing My Buttons!

If people would just stop pushing my buttons, everything would be great and I’d be an awesome guy. That’s the obvious solution, isn’t it? Other people changing for me? Unfortunately, there’s one problem with that ‘solution’: it’s impossible. There will always be button-pushers. And my buttons keep getting pushed! So here’s the real question: How effectively can you name, understand and dissect your buttons?  Me? Oh, not so well as I would like. How about you? It’s the secret to happiness, you know. This is what I’m working on. The next time someone pushes one of my buttons, instead of getting mad, I want to notice that button. I want to get excited that they found it and thank them for the insight! I then want to use this insight to disarm the button. What sets it off? What is my emotional state? What am I protecting when I react? How do I feel? What’s at risk? How would I rather be feeling right now? How do I want to be with and for this person? Could they REALLY be as ridiculous as I think they are in this moment? You, know, stuff like that. All I know is that I have GOT to get rid of some of these buttons; I’ve simply collected way too many along the...

Of People & Pendulums

Here’s something to contemplate: People as Pendulums. They’re peculiar things, pendulums. They can’t change mid-swing. When you let one fly, it goes pretty much as far in the opposite direction as it started in the first. Equal and opposite extremes, one might say. It can’t, for instance, swing forty degrees left of center but only twenty degrees to the right. Have you ever noticed a similar thing about people? It seems to me the ones who are able to experience the highest levels of joy are also the ones who experience the deepest levels of sorrow.  I think it’s because both of those require a deep ability to feel. Because they can feel so deeply, they equally feel the good and the bad. Knowing that, remember to be careful what you ask people to stop doing. By trying to temper a negative quality you don’t enjoy, you might be limiting their “pendulum’s” ability to experience the other side of that coin–you just might be cutting off the positives in their personality that you do enjoy. It’s like asking an Italian not to talk with their hands. By tying their hands you may well be tying their tongues! By asking one to be “less emotional,” you may well be asking them to be less exuberant, less positive or less brilliant. Their emotions are their power, the force that allows them to swing that high in the positive direction, too. People, and pendulums–they’re peculiar things, aren’t...

Olympic Glory It’s Not

As we entrench ourselves in the Olympics this week, it’s clear: everyone loves winning. The pride of being the best, of being able able to exclaim, “I’m a winner!”  is exhilarating. And on the world stage, against the best of the best, OMG, that has got to be a feeling that can’t be beat! It’s the ultimate prize. One could easily argue the same for leadership–and in fact, many in our culture do. But here’s the thing: leading people is NOT about winning and losing. I know, I just lost some of you A-types that feel results are everything, and what’s the point if not to win? Well, I’m not arguing against that perspective. What I AM suggesting is that it’s time to ask ourselves who we are competing against. When it comes to our leadership, who is our real opponent? The vast majority of people many leaders compete with are not their genuine opponents–they’re employees, our own teams, staff, prospects, customers, suppliers, family members, neighbors, kids, clerks, fellow drivers, and more. These people are on our team. We work and live with these people to achieve our goals! So why then do so many “leaders” see every interaction with every individual as a competition, an ‘us vs. them,’ a battle with another teammate? Every interaction is an opportunity to build a stronger team. As leaders, our job is to emulate what it means to engage, to learn, to struggle, to question, to challenge, to succeed and to fail. To a real leader, struggling, failing and making mistakes isn’t an indication of poor leadership, it’s indicative of great leadership–we...

A Crying Shame

Let me ask you what I hope is an easy question: What do you do when a baby cries?   Usually, you pick them up. Right? You don’t yell at it, ignore it, threaten it, demand it find a different way to communicate with you, or any other action that requires the baby change and adapt to you. The cry is that baby’s only means of communication and you have spent months learning to interpret it.   So here’s a bold challenge for you: The next time you’re angry at someone for their “crying,” or poor communication, take a moment to see them as a three-month-old. Let that feeling we get when we look at a baby wash all over you. Smile knowing that, for the moment, this is the best they can do  (Perhaps they’re colicky 🙂 ). Am I advocating removing an adult’s responsibility for their own behavior?  No. I’m simply asking: what might it look like if we assume people are doing their best? Because, honestly, most of the time they are. They no more intend to annoy you then a baby intends to upset you as they cry through the night. They’re just crying for help, and this (whatever behavior is being exhibited) is the best they have to work with at that moment. It will get better, I promise! Babies grow up and learn to sleep and self-sooth and talk; adults, too, learn compassion and wisdom and kindness. Just not all at...
Playing Hardball With “Soft” Skills

Playing Hardball With “Soft” Skills

Playing ‘hardball’ is tough, right? It’s supposed to be serious, difficult, dangerous and most definitely not for the weak of heart. “Hey! We play hardball here! Get used to it!!” Softball on the other hand–that’s supposed to be easier, gentler and more forgiving. We play ‘softball’ when we’re in it more for the fun than the game, not for serious competition. Right? Hmmm. Why then do they call them “soft skills” when referring to the intangible skills of human dynamics and interactions, or emotional intelligence and the ability to stay calm and compassionate when an angry client or upset employee is yelling at you?  It seems to me that when it comes to business, politics and life, the real “hardball” game is with people. That’s where the real skills are necessary. That’s a level of play that is far more difficult, volatile and dangerous than what we traditionally call the “hard” skills.   When will we learn that people skills are not the soft skills--they’re the only ones in the end that count the most! When it comes right down to it, it is only through people that profitability and dividend returns can be achieved long-term.  It’s not the skill of investment, or sales, or engineering that makes the money, it’s the application of those skills by a person that effects the bottom line. The most important skills we can learn are people...

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