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Tag Archives: perspective in leadership

A leadership lesson from how owls hunt

leadership lessonNature abounds with lessons, and I am always fascinated to discover that many of those lessons offer insights into leadership.  I was recently reading about owls, and I was excited to discover yet another leadership lesson.

Did you know that owls don’t hunt by sight or smell, they hunt primarily by sound?  And nature has given them a very sophisticated and elegant way of ensuring that they can catch prey to survive and thrive.

The ears of many species of owls are asymmetrical, with one ear slightly higher but directed downwards and the other somewhat lower but facing upward. As a result, sounds that originate from below eye level are heard louder in the left ear, while those that come from above are heard more clearly in the right.  The differences in volume and frequency allow to owl to find its prey, even in complete darkness.  The owl’s success lies in its ability to pay attention to what is happening both below and above it.

And therein lies the leadership lesson

Which is not unlike what it takes to be successful as a leader.  Leaders have to pay attention to what is happening both below and above them. Continue reading

Boiling the ocean will not result in good decisions

good decisionsAs a leader, it is your responsibility to make good decisions.  In your department or organization, you are likely called on repeatedly to evaluate and implement a variety of projects.  And many of these initiatives will probably require investigation and research in order to determine alternatives and make recommendations.  But exactly how much research should one do to be able to make good decisions?  That is a conundrum that many leaders face.

There are certainly situations where leaders have been known to make decisions too quickly, without considering all available information.  But in my experience, it is the opposite that is much more likely; in their quest for more data or analysis, the job or project is made unnecessarily difficult, and decision-making is delayed.

Don’t try to boil the ocean!

The apt metaphor in this situation is that of boiling a pot of water versus boiling the ocean.  Continue reading

A leadership lesson from monarch butterflies

monarch butterfliesEvery fall, millions of monarch butterflies leave their summer homes in Canada and the northern United States and travel over 3,000 miles south to their winter home in the mountains of central Mexico.

Even though the journey is long and arduous, instinctively, the butterflies know that they need to find a safe place to spend the winter.  This makes sense.  But what is very unusual is how the butterflies make their spring return trip to their breeding and feeding territories in Canada.

You see, the individual butterflies that leave the north are not the ones that will return.  While favourable air currents permit the monarchs to make their way south to Mexico relatively quickly, the return trip to northern climes takes much longer.  In fact, because the life cycle of a butterfly is just 5-7 weeks, individual monarchs stop for breeding and feeding cycles, and eventually they die before completing the journey.

However, their offspring continue the journey. Eventually, it takes the monarchs four to five generations to actually make the entire trip back up to Canada.

We still don’t know why …

Science is still deciphering how an individual monarch knows to return to the summer breeding and feeding grounds from several generations ago.  Is it Continue reading

When it comes to managing the rumour mill, partial information is better than no information

rumour millThe ancient philosopher Aristotle said Horror vacui, or “Nature abhors a vacuum.” His point was that if a vacuum exists in the physical world, it is only momentary, as it immediately fills with the material surrounding it, without any regard as to what the substance is.  It doesn’t matter if the neighbouring material is similar, or of the needed quality, or even if it is suitable for the purpose, it immediately moves to fill the vacuum.  The same principle is at work in organizations, specifically to do with communication and more specifically, the organization’s rumour mill.  In fact, I wrote about using the company grapevine to your advantage in one of my regular columns in The Globe and Mail, back in March 2015!

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, people in organizations also abhor vacuums … in information. When there is a lack of knowledge – about people, about processes, about upcoming plans and changes – information, accurate or not, immediately moves in to fill the vacuum.  And ironically, the larger the vacuum, the more incorrect and outlandish is what moves in to fill it.

Managing the rumour mill

Which leads me to the point of this article.  The best way to combat rumours, misinformation, and the general distortions and fabrications that seem to take hold in just about every organization is to continually and deliberately offer correct, quality information to fill the void.  Even if it is incomplete!  Continue reading

The leader as a facilitator – are you a lifeboat or a lighthouse?

As a manager, your job is to get things done.  But as a leader, your mission now becomes to get things done through other people.  And many times, what that really means is that you have to be a facilitator – someone who removes obstacles, levels the path, greases the wheels – who ensures that your people have the tools they need to achieve their results.  But even your involvement as a facilitator can vary.  Imagine a continuum where one end is a lifeboat, and the other is a lighthouse.

facilitatorIf you’re at the lifeboat end of the continuum, you might visualize yourself as someone who lets your employees sail on their own, navigating their own way from port to port, but you’re close by to step in if there is a crisis.  When things go wrong, you’re right there to rapidly swoop in to save the situation, and you’re gratefully lauded by those who were otherwise drowning.

facilitatorBut if you see yourself at the lighthouse end of the continuum, the image is different.  Now, you’re a beacon, a guiding light that shines brightly, illuminating the path for your people to get from harbour to harbour.  Your role is not so much to search and rescue, but rather to stand firm in the storm, offering hope and resilience to those trying to get to shore.  Sometimes it’s through advice, and sometimes it’s just by being a positive role model.

So which type of facilitator is better?

Continue reading

What bungee cords are preventing you from moving forward?

moving forwardLast April, here on the blog I asked the question: What’s stopping you from moving forward?  And to answer it, I used the metaphor of paddling a kayak.  Today, I have another metaphor to address the same question.

Imagine a bungee cord

Imagine a bungee cord.  One end is attached to a fixed object and the other is hooked to the back of your belt.  As long as you stay close to the stationary end, the cord remains loose and there is no tension.  But as you walk away, the slack in the cord will begin to tighten and you’ll feel a pull on your back.  Continue to step away and you’ll find that eventually it will be a struggle to keep going. In fact, not only will the bungee cord hold you back from moving forward, but you will also be at serious risk of either losing your pants or getting smacked by a broken bungee.

All of us have bungee cords attached to us, links to the past that hold us back from moving forward.  And the more we try to get ahead, the more the stress and tension grows forcing us to stay where we are.  And often the fear of losing our pants or getting smacked by the broken bungee keeps us from continuing to try. Continue reading

A decision-making insight from eating peanuts!

peanutsIf you’re a leader, then you’re responsible for decision-making.  Which is why it we have a whole section on Problem Solving tools on the blog.  Today’s insight comes from peanuts in the shell – a concession staple at just about any baseball game!

So think about the last time you purchased a bag of these tasty treats.  As you shelled the peanuts, did you put the empty shells back in the same bag?  Chances are you didn’t, likely for a couple of reasons.  One, because it instinctively doesn’t make sense to put the waste in with the good peanuts, and two (and perhaps more importantly), every time you put the unwanted shells back in the bag, you reduce your chances of getting a good peanut the next time you reach in.

How does this apply to decision-making in the workplace?

There is a workplace equivalent to this scenario, having to do with decision-making.  As a leader, you are charged with making a variety of decisions, often requiring you to select the best choice from a number of possible options.  Using this metaphor, it makes sense to discard choices as you evaluate them as unsuitable.  Why put them back in the bag where they’ll just continue to muddle and reduce the efficacy of your decision-making?  But that’s exactly what we often do.  Continue reading

Leadership lessons from ants!

As regular readers of the blog know, I am continually inspired by the lessons in leadership that come to us from the animal kingdom.  In the past, I’ve written about bald eagles, sea otters, goldfish, and penguins, among many others.  Today’s leadership lessons come to us from ants!

Ants don’t admit defeat

Have you ever watched an ant carry what appears to be a gargantuan load?  Science indicates that ants can actually carry ten to fifteen times their body weight.  And they do – repeatedly – in order to provide for themselves and their nestmates.  Which got me thinking … if ants aren’t daunted by the sheer magnitude of what they sometimes have to carry, is there a lesson there for us as leaders?

In the workplace, we are often faced with what seem to be insurmountable obstacles in our leadership roles – looming deadlines, challenging employees, missed opportunities, apparently unattainable targets – which could, if we let them, cause us to give up and admit defeat.  Continue reading

The sorites paradox – a leadership dilemma

The sorites paradox: if individual grains of sand are removed one at a time from a hypothetical heap of sand, what is the point at which the heap can no longer be considered a heap?  At first glance, you may think that this is merely a philosophical question, but the metaphor has great applicability if you carry it into the workplace.  Consider this: if minor seemingly harmless problems or changes go unnoticed and do not individually attract attention, is there a possibility that eventually the sum total of these issues over time will result in a major setback?  And what if the significant outcome is one that, if it would have happened all at once, would have been regarded as negative, undesirable or objectionable?

In the workplace, the sorites paradox is often referred to by a variety of synonyms – creeping normality, the broken window theory, the boiling frog syndrome, and even death by a thousand cuts.  But no matter what you call the phenomenon, all versions lead to a Continue reading

Periods of vulnerability can present both threats and opportunities

vulnerabilityRecently I had a conversation with a scientist friend who told me how biologists use information about animal life cycles to accomplish diametrically opposite objectives – in some cases to purge populations, and in others to conserve them.  The secret: determining in which stage of its life cycle is the animal most vulnerable.  And it’s at these points of vulnerability that either the worst or the best is the easiest to accomplish.  It is when the animals are at greatest risk that it takes the least effort to destroy them, or conversely, to protect them.  He gave me two examples to illustrate his point.

The Bertha armyworm

The Bertha armyworm is a significant insect pest of canola in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the interior of British Columbia.  Like many insects, it goes through a four stage life cycle – egg, larva, pupa and finally, the adult moth stage.  However, their vulnerability is greatest at the larval stage.  As eggs, they are not susceptible to pesticides; as pupae, they are buried in the ground and therefore well protected; as adults, they are widely dispersed and therefore difficult to control.  Because scientists know that the insect’s defences are the weakest when at the larval stage, substantial and successful control efforts are targeted at this point in the life cycle.  Continue reading