This is the story of how a group of federal leaders moved from “Woe is me!” to “What will be is up to me!”
“We underestimate the power we have,” a federal Senior Executive Service–level leader said to a room full of peers from one of our nation’s largest government agencies. His remark garnered a range of reactions, from raised eyebrows to sideways glances, from shocked expressions to looks of intrigued interest.
Sensing that he had the attention of his “Leading an Inspired Culture” classmates, the executive expanded on his statement: “We spend so much time and effort looking up—trying to figure out what the leaders of the bureaucracy above us want, in response to the emergency of the moment, or the latest Congressional mandate—that we fail to devote adequate attention to those we lead; to the employees who are looking to us for direction, and watching what we do and say to determine what they should do and say.”
The discussion that ensued launched a breakthrough for these highly effective leaders, who had come together to sharpen their skills in confronting the challenges of a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, in which:
- Their agencies are governed by Congress—a 535-member board of directors with their own hard-wired conflicting interests, motivations, and philosophies.
- The administrators to whom their organizations are beholden are political appointees, who may have tremendous leadership capabilities but are often without prior governmental experience or expertise in the core work of the agency’s mission.
- Budgetary constraints are often not known until more than halfway into the fiscal year in which they are operating, and are often further complicated by unfunded mandates from Congress.
“So what are we to do?” asked one of the more junior feds. “There’s so much we don’t control. And even those above us seem powerless to affect real change.”
There were knowing nods all around. Others piled on with tales of woe: the direct boss who models bad behavior; the insurmountable budget shortfall; the hiring freeze pushing even the most committed subordinate toward frustration from overwork. While these were federal leaders, I often hear the same litany of challenges from leaders in the private and nonprofit sectors. And as the familiar momentum of negativity began to mount, moving toward the somber helplessness of victimhood, I called a time out.
“For the next five minutes, I want you to practice silent reflection,” I instructed the group. “Consider what is within your realm of control. What can you do? What can you influence? Take a few minutes to jot down your thoughts.”
Some sat silent, their pages remaining blank for long moments. Others fidgeted and struggled. Some took up pens and journal, began scratching thoughts onto paper. As the five-minute mark neared, every head was down, engrossed in focus, pens flying across paper.
“OK,” I said. “Time’s up. What did you come up with?”
As I went to flip chart to record their responses, they began speaking all at once, eager to share their ideas: Acknowledge even small successes in staff meetings, speak to every employee each day, delegate more, question superiors to understand their rationales, visit field offices more regularly, articulate a vision, listen more, solicit feedback, provide clarity about direction.
Their ideas filled the page, and then another, and another. The quiet members of the group spoke up; the vocal ones talked over each other, laughing and apologizing; one idea prompted another. The energy in the room was palpable—and it was positive. Finally, when they had exhausted their lists, we stepped back and looked at their assembled wisdom. I asked what they saw.
“We have tremendous amounts of things we control,” said one.
“What we choose to do, and how we choose to act, is up to us, and it matters mightily to those we lead,” added another.
“We have the opportunity to model the leadership behavior we would like to see from those above us.”
“We can affect change,” one leader affirmed. “What will be is up to me.”
“We underestimate the power we have.”
I couldn’t have said it any better.
To help them apply their newfound positivity, I provided each participant a one-page From → To Worksheet. In the left-hand “From” column, I asked them to list all their current, observable behaviors in three areas where leaders have opportunities to model the values they espouse. These are adapted from James Kouzes and Barry S. Posner’s The Leadership Challenge, an excellent resource for leaders at every level.
- Where and how do you spend your time? Are you mostly in your office, in closed-door meetings, writing and sending emails, or visibly talking with employees and peers, actively listening, soliciting their ideas and impressions?
- How do you deal with critical incidents? In other words, when the proverbial stuff is hitting the fan, what behaviors would your employees see you exhibit? Do you become directive and short-fused, or do you pull the team together to collaborate on the best, most efficient solutions? Do you seek a source for blame, or engage the team in discerning lessons learned?
- What words do you use and what stories do you tell?m Is your language dominated by “I” and “me,” or “us” and “we”? Do you actively seek out examples of employees and the team doing good work, overcoming tough challenges, and making steady progress, and do you create opportunities for sharing these stories?
Once participants have identified their own behaviors, I ask them to complete the right-hand “To” column, where they consider and list behaviors they could strive to exhibit more in the future to reflect the values most important to them and to their team’s effectiveness. For busy leaders, taking the time to reflect on what their current actions may be saying to those they lead gives them insight to deliberately plan a different course of action that can send more empowering signals.
This simple exercise has proven to be effective in helping leaders at any level to pause and reflect on the deliberate actions they can take to become the kind of leader they want to be—the one who is powerfully self-aware and cognizant of the influence of their actions on others, and ultimately, on organizational success.