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Tag Archives: perspective in leadership

Look backwards to move forward – a leadership message from the Sankofa

sankofaDo you know what the Sankofa is?  I heard it referred to briefly at a recent conference I attended, and it stirred me to research it further.  Turns out the sankofa is a metaphorical bird, generally depicted with its feet facing forward and its head turned backwards, lifting an egg from its back.  It is of great symbolism to the Akan people of Ghana, as it expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past in order to make positive progress forward.  Look backwards to move forward – what a great message for leaders everywhere!

As leaders, we need to draw upon and learn from our failures in order to avoid making similar mistakes and missteps in the future.  And just as important is a willingness to learn from others, and to use their experiences as stepping stones to move forward and onward.

Are you being like the sankofa?

It has been my observation that most people are disposed to learn from their own mistakes; after all, it’s not often that we tend to apply exactly the same method that we know has failed us previously.  But regrettably, a lot more infrequent is a willingness to take what others have done and build upon it.  The reasons vary.  Sometimes it’s because we like the sense of victory and satisfaction that comes from taking a project or initiative from start to finish solo.  Other times it’s because we don’t respect or like those who might have relevant experience.  Either way, we choose to go it alone and start at the beginning.  Which is a pity!

Ironically, we would achieve greater success by building upon what is already there – past experiences, others knowledge, an awareness of ours and others strengths – to create a solid foundation upon which to build even more.  The Sankofa obviously knows this.  Even the ancient Aztecs understood the value of this approach.  Isn’t it time that we all did?

So, what have been your experiences?  Are you being like the Sankofa?  Are you observing or working with people who don’t get this important concept?  Please share your perspectives by commenting below.

Crisis leadership – who’s doing it well, and how

In times of crisis, leadership is tested. And how you behave in difficult circumstances is what will ultimately define you as a leader. The COVID-19 pandemic is a living case study of how to lead (or not) in the face of calamity. Examples of good (and bad) crisis leadership abound.

In my newest column for The Globe and Mail, published just this morning, I not only offer several examples of the good and the bad, but I also outline four specific actions and behaviours that constitute exceptional leadership in times of crisis.

What does it take to lead in times of crisis?

If you are a subscriber to The Globe and Mail, you can also access the column behind their paywall through this direct link: https://tgam.ca/34cwyxo

So I’d love to hear your opinions and experiences.  Do you have great (or lousy) examples of crisis leadership to share?  Please also tell us what action or behaviour is happening (or not) that makes your situation notable. Add your comment below. 

I write a regular monthly column for The Globe and Mail Report on Business, under the banner of Leadership Matters.  Here are links to some of the more recent ones:

 

Leadership lessons from a penguin

In the past, I’ve been inspired to blog about Leadership lessons from a mountain and Leadership lessons from a sea turtle, and many of you were motivated enough to add to these lists. Stirred by a visit to the Calgary Zoo, here is a list of what leadership lessons a penguin can offer.

PenguinsThe penguin is a bird that does not fly. With feathers and a beak, it looks like a bird. And in most behavioural aspects, it acts like a bird. Except of course in this one very significant characteristic … that it cannot fly. But what the penguin lacks in flight power it makes up in aquatic grace. In the study of bird evolution, paleontologists have determined that many eons ago, the ancient predecessor to today’s modern penguin could fly. But over millions of years, penguins’ wings evolved into fins as they adapted to marine life in the Antarctic Ocean. And if you’ve ever watched penguins swim, you know that they perform with as much elegance underwater as their avian relatives do in the sky.

Two leadership lessons from penguins

The successful existence of the penguin offers at least two apt metaphors for leaders. Continue reading

Doing your job or doing your work?

jobAre you doing your job or are you doing your work?  Job and work.  Is there a difference? Absolutely.

A restaurant owner’s job is to produce great food.  But the best restaurants are the ones that also focus on giving their patrons an enjoyable dining experience.  That’s the owner’s work.

The front-desk receptionist’s primary responsibility may be to answer the phone pleasantly.  That’s his job.  But he also needs to think critically to solve problems, and adapt to shifting priorities.  That’s his work.

What about a doctor?  Sure, her job is to diagnose and cure diseases.  But the best doctors are the ones who ask questions, listen to the answers, and take the time to invest emotionally in their patients.  That’s her work.

Job versus work

The job is the hard skills, the expertise or the technical knowledge to get things done.  It’s what most of us study and train for.  But work incorporates the soft skills.  Continue reading

What happens when people can’t see the “big picture”

I am repeatedly surprised at how often people miss the big picture. Like the time when Costco’s online ordering system forced me to go to their competitor. And the several times when the management team at a large organization made bone-headed moves in order to save a few dollars but in the process destroyed employee morale (see below for links to those blog posts). Or this story, where once again, I am reminded of how prevalent this “can’t see the big picture” disease is!

big pictureMy in-laws moved into a senior-friendly apartment and so they were selling their home. To help them get their house ready for sale, I contracted with a company to replace all the flooring. On the last day of the job, the installer called me.

“As I went to put the toilet back on in the bathroom,” he said, “the tank broke.”

“It broke?” I asked.

“Well I didn’t do anything to it, it just broke,” he replied defensively. “It’s old, and I’m not a plumber. All I did was take it off to put down the floor tile, and then try to put it back on again. And it just broke.” Continue reading

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