Challenge lazy thinking

The leader whose thinking is constrained within well-worn ruts, who is completely governed by his established passions and prejudices, who is incapable of thinking either gray or free, and who can’t even appropriate the creative imagination and fresh ideas of those around him, is as anachronistic and ineffective as the dinosaur. He may by dint of circumstances remain in power, but his followers would almost certainly be better off without him. (Dr. Stephen Sample, Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership)

In my last blog post that spelled out what I call leading as an art director, I promoted the idea of gaining buy-in and then letting an idea go. Letting go doesn’t mean the leader can’t continue to feed the idea. He or she needs to do this by challenging lazy thinking and by destroying natural constraints to thinking. Here are four ways to do that:

1. The threshing floor. I love the concept of the threshing floor, where ideas can be tossed in the air to see what solid nuggets of wheat fall to the ground while the chaff blows away. I am a proponent of “thinking out loud.” Until an idea is stated and turned over a few times, you don’t know its value. I believe everyone has something to contribute, so when a meeting ends and someone never spoke up, I wonder what held back. I’m convinced introverts could solve most of the world’s problems, but they’re happy to take their solutions to the grave!

2. Design thinking. I can’t articulate the concept of design thinking as taught at Stanford’s d.school, but I learned the concepts the hard way, through five years of undergrad training and nine years of practice. One basic tenet is that the ideal is not ready-aim-fire as much as ready-fire-aim-fire again. In other words, don’t analyze something to death before you ever move. Trial and error is the best way to develop an idea.

Another tenet drummed into me at Georgia State is that your first ideas are likely worthless. However, if you don’t get them out on paper and then intentionally throw them away, they will limit your thinking. Push yourself to come up with at least one more viable idea. Many leaders talk about the trap that results when everyone in a meeting is in agreement, and they intentionally push someone to argue the other side or challenge group think.

3. Thinking free. Former USC Chancellor Stephen Sample articulates this practice in a fabulous leadership book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. It’s a process where a group of people intentionally remove all constraints to their thinking for a period of time so they can break out of their ruts. It goes way beyond brainstorming, allowing anything to be considered and sometimes exposing a simple, obvious solution no one has ever seen before. Sample explains the idea in the second half of this essay:
Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

4. Fresh eyes. When someone is new to a team, a company or initiative, their most important asset for the first three months is their ability to see with fresh eyes. I try to meet with them in the first week to empower them, encouraging them to ask silly questions, challenge our thinking and point out anything that doesn’t make sense. Without encouragement, they will keep these observations to themselves because of natural desires to assimilate.

Dr. Sample offers an excellent rationale:

It’s well known among engineers that the most important inventions in a particular field are often made by people who are new to that field – people who are too naïve and ignorant to know all the reasons why something can’t be done, and who are therefore able to think more freely about seemingly intractable problems. The same is true of the leadership of institutions: It’s often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside that can turn an ailing organization around.

5. Courageous questions. It takes a secure leader to encourage radical thinking and invite questions. We must always have the courage to ask the right questions, even if we don’t want to go where the questions might lead us. If the questions lead us back to where we are, then we have greater confidence in the direction we’re already moving. Or they might expose the absurdity of our current path and open the door to new possibilities.

The point of these exercises is that inertia creates laziness, and leadership is never about going along with momentum. If, as Gary Hamel put it at Global Leadership Summit 2009, “It’s so easy to mistake the edge of your rut for the horizon. We have to learn to be contrarians.” There are some proven exercises that can help you forcibly break out of your own thinking or lead a team to release the constraints that bind their imaginations for what could be.

Put your money where your mouth is

Since the board of Wycliffe Canada selected me as the next president of Wycliffe Canada, the most common comment I’ve heard is “Wow!” followed by “Congratulations!” And then “Thank you for stepping up.” It’s that sentiment that hits most closely to my heart as I contemplate this jump in responsibilities.

For several years I’ve waxed, pontificated, prodded and urged through this blog and in leadership development events. In the latter, I’ve often closed by challenging those God has gifted to “Step up.” Now it’s time to put my leadership philosophies into practice, and I recognize that I will no doubt have to eat some of my words in this blog.

On Thursday, as I headed to a Wycliffe Canada conference where I would be publicly introduced, a member of the board read me the following personal note from Oswald Chambers:

If Jesus ever commanded us to do something that He was unable to equip us to accomplish, He would be a liar. And if we make our own inability a stumbling block or an excuse not to be obedient, it means that we are telling God that there is something which He has not yet taken into account.

I believe God has asked me to take this position at this moment in time. I’m not willing to say that He is not enough, that He can’t equip me for it. Chambers goes on:

Every element of our own self-reliance must be put to death by the power of God. The moment we recognize our complete weakness and our dependence upon Him will be the very moment that the Spirit of God will exhibit His power.

Wow. It’s going to be quite a ride.

The future is coming!

“Hurry, everybody! Hide! The future is coming!”

I think my three-year-old daughter summed up the way a lot of people feel about the future. Time to put our heads in the sand. Maybe it’ll go away.

I’m really enjoying the premise of the new show, FlashForward — the idea that everyone on the planet gets a two-minute glimpse of their future six months ahead. For some, this glimpse gives them hope. For others, it’s agonizing. As the season moves ahead, I’m looking forward to seeing how the show tackles ideas like free will, our ability to control our destiny and our inherent brokenness. I’m quite sure I’ll be disappointed, but I might also be pleasantly delighted at the truth the show exposes.

Yesterday morning I led Wycliffe USA’s leaders in a discussion on succession planning. One point I made is that you can’t anticipate the leadership needs of an organization or department by looking at today’s leader. The tendency if you do that is either to seek a clone to succeed an incumbent or rather to seek a reaction to the incumbent — someone who has strengths where the incumbent is weak. Unfortunately, the present is a bad starting place for succession planning. You have to force yourself into an assessment of the organization and an assessment of future trends that then defines the leadership needs of an organization or department. Where are the challenges and opportunities going to be? Who can take advantage and lead us in that reality?

The future is coming. Are you the kind of person who sticks your head in the sand, or one who wishes you could see around corners? Are you excited or depressed about what you see?

Why reluctance part 3: criticism is easier than leading

Another factor in leaders’ reluctance is that it’s easier to deconstruct than it is to construct. Postmodernity is at its heart a critical theory. As Sarah Arthur and others have said, it’s not really an –ism because it isn’t really a philosophy itself (at least, not yet). So young people today are great at pointing out what’s wrong, but they often don’t know what should take the place of what they’ve critiqued. That, of course, leads to great frustration by established leaders who are taking all the risks. It’s simply easier and more comfortable to sit in the back row and shoot at the leaders. So the challenge is to find ways to get young people to enter the dialog. It’s not that they don’t have ideas or suggestions; usually it’s quite the opposite, and they don’t think anyone in authority is willing to listen.

A thirty-something friend of mine, who had developed an unfortunate reputation as a back-row complainer, has recently felt called by God to step up to the front and lead. It’s a different role, and it comes with risks. In taking on a new position of responsibility, this friend is adjusting to a different role, with new influence but different options available to her to voice frustrations and ideas. As she told me the other day, “If nothing else, I have no problem being a front-row criticizer who’s in on the planning as well.”

Leadership has its privileges and responsibilities. You simply can’t do the same things as the back row critics. But it’s contagious. As a mentor told me early on in my career, “Once you’re in the game, it’s hard to leave it.” If you want to change the world, there’s no better alternative to earning a voice of influence that gives you the means to do something about an issue rather than just complain about it. I’m not talking about a desire for power, but a tipping point where the desire to be heard overcomes your fears of responsibility.

My suggestions? As an established leader, find a way to give voice to the rising, reluctant and potential leaders. You need to hear their critiques and ideas. And they need you to hear them. And challenge them to step up. I watched a situation where one of my direct reports had a great idea to completely revamp the way we do our short term trips. I admire my boss’s response when he heard the idea: he asked the young leader if he believed in the idea enough to make it happen. It was a challenge to step up and show his stuff.