dranthonysblog

November 20, 2013

Leadership in a 1,000 Words

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Leadership is ever-present.  We experience it almost from the time we come into this world until the end.  When we are very young our parents, or guardians, guide, teach, and care for us.  They influence us to achieve common or at least desired goals.  Teachers and coaches do the same, though in a somewhat more detached and less informal way.  The same can be said of supervisors, religious leaders, and various professionals we solicit to assist us.  Friends and colleagues also display leadership as do civil servants, like police officers, firefighters, and military personnel.  Leadership is part of our lives and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to thrive, or at least survive long, without it.

Leadership can have positive, negative and insignificant influence on our lives, depending upon your perspective.   Similarly, some lessons learned from leaders stay with you for a lifetime, such as the way some address elders as sir or ma’am, while others fade quickly like wearing your clothes a certain way to be perceived as “cool”.

It has been talked and written about since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and very likely much earlier than that.   Some who study leadership will tell you that it is learned from observing and experiencing it.  Others believe that leadership is innate and that we are born with it.  Another group advocates that leadership is some combination of the two.  Formal theories have been devised that range from leadership being explained by a series of rewards and punishments, to personality traits both in-born as well as learned, to situational factors, which give weight to context as well as to individuals.  There are also theories that seek to explain it by relationships, with power being a key ingredient, as well as many hybrid approaches.

Most will agree that great leadership has the ability to inspire, motivate, and transform outcomes from group endeavors of all types.  Many civilizations, nations, corporations, groups, and individuals have benefited from leadership.  Similarly, much damage, destruction, and pain has also been wrought by people exercising leadership for conquest or oppression.  These days, if you desire, you can take classes in leadership and even earn an undergraduate or advanced degree in it.  Innumerable books have been written about leadership, especially in the last few years, and yet we still do not really know much more than we did when we first started wondering about it.

One of my early jobs was as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.  The supervisor was a man named Rick and he led a team of young people like me by being actively involved and often personally teaching us how to complete required tasks.  He did this usually with a smile and was always willing to lend a hand, whenever needed.  The employees, my peers, respected him and the work was also always well done and completed on time.

Many years later, I worked for a boss who knew little about the operation and cared nothing for the staff.  As far as we could tell he spent much of his time simply goofing off in his office.  The decisions that he made were done with little regard for facts and the results were not given any real scrutiny.  The end was predictable and he was soon out of work.

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A leader that I later worked for was very obviously tired and did not want the job.  However, because of the circumstances, he had little choice but to stay.  The staff respected his experience and he obviously worked very hard.  However, he was easily manipulated and many of the employees took advantage of this, which caused great problems for the organization.

Yet another individual I worked with was very successful at her job and made many improvements.  She listened to employees, analyzed issues thoroughly, and quite obviously cared about the organization and those who were employed by it.  She worked hard to enhance organizational performance and challenged everyone to do the same.  She was focused more on the work and less on what was in it for her and the organization prospered under her leadership.

These types of experiences, and many more, combined with my education and training have provided me with a unique vantage point from which to contemplate leadership.   These days, I really do not think any of the theories satisfactorily explain or account for all facets of leadership.  This is because human behavior is complex (any mom, little leaguer, or bartender knows this) and is very likely influenced by both inherited as well as learned factors.  The expression of inherited factors itself is complex and is probably affected by multiple environmental influences, in ways that we do not yet completely understand.

Additionally, the context of any situation contains a multitude of factors that can and likely do alter outcomes.  In this regard, followers themselves also influence leadership through formal and informal means, though this is seldom taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of leadership.  Similarly, individual definitions of leadership are diverse and not fixed.  So what defines good leadership to one person may be perceived as inadequate, ineffective, or just plain bad to another and both could be evaluated differently by the same person on a different day!  Follower and leader moods and attitudes are also not fixed and these too will affect perceptions and subsequent behavior (i.e., the world looks better when we are happy than when things are not going our way).

Where does this leave us?  At this point, with three thoughts:

  1. Leadership is important
  2. We do not yet really understand leadership
  3. That understanding leadership should be a priority for everyone

It is important to keep these in mind, because there are some who claim to fully understand it and will pass on their knowledge to anyone who will listen, or pay, for the privilege.  Until we fully understand it, which may take a while, keep this in mind and decide for yourself just what constitutes effective leadership!

February 14, 2013

The Helpfulness of Strangers

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I have recently been taking care of my wife after she had major surgery.  Her recovery has been slow, though steady, and the experience has caused me to reflect on helpfulness from strangers.  It is far too easy to forget the good that we can do when bombarded daily with images and stories about the bad, which annoyingly receives extensive coverage, regardless of where you look.

Helpfulness from strangers takes many forms and really happens often when you stop and think about it.  When I was a teenager, my father was driving my mother and I back home from a trip to San Francisco.  We were about half way across the Golden Gate bridge when a tire blew out in our car.  My father was able to keep control of the vehicle, but there was no place to pull over. Worse, as we slowed traffic started to go around us at unsafe speeds.  Just then, a highway patrol motorcycle officer noticed our plight and cut across several lanes of traffic to get to us.  He put his lights on and motioned for my father to continue to drive forward as best that he could, which was very slow because we were quickly down to driving on a rim in the blown out tire.  It was rush hour and even though the officer was behind us, cars were still flying past, and more than once they came incredibly close to hitting the officer.  It seemed like forever until we finally crossed the bridge and made it to the first exit.  We parked on the nearest wide shoulder and the officer radioed in for a tow truck.

Clearly, the officer was doing his job, but he did it with little regard for his own safety and he executed it quickly and instinctively.  My father was Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections at that time and was so grateful that he wrote a letter to Head of the California Highway Patrol commending the officer on the actions he took to assist us that day.

Years later, another less dramatic example of helping happened when I was a soldier returning home from overseas on emergency leave.  My flight had been delayed by a layover in London, so when the plane landed at JFK airport in New York it was very late.  I was not able to get a connecting flight to the West Coast until the morning.  I also had no means to get a hotel at that time and so I was forced to wait at the airport.  It was cold and damp, and I was tired and sitting in a chair with my bags when security asked me to leave.  I had no place to go when an elderly lady next to me apparently figured that out and motioned for me to follow her.  From all appearances she lived on the streets, so I was understandably a little hesitant to follow, but out of desperation I did.  She led me to another distant terminal that had flights departing all night and did not close.  I smiled, thanked her, and found a chair to make myself comfortable in until morning.  Unlike the CHP officer, she did not have to help, but she did and it made a difference.

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Another time happened years later when my wife and our then very young children were driving home from a Thanksgiving trip we had just taken.  We were in the Sierra Nevada mountains and it had just gotten dark and it started to snow.  The snow quickly turned to near blizzard conditions and so I stopped to put chains on the tires.  I installed them quickly and we were back on our way.  A short while later, and many miles away from any town or service station, one of the chains slipped off with a loud clang.  I stopped and realized that a part was now missing rendering the chains useless.  We also discovered that there was no cell coverage in the area and the snow showed no signs of letting up.

As my wife and I discussed our options, an old van pulled up behind us with a Hispanic family inside.  A man around my age stepped out, who spoke better English than I did Spanish, and told me that he could help.  He immediately took his shoe laces off and used them to tie the chains back into place.  He then said that he would follow me and, before he walked away, I pulled out some money and offered it to him with my sincere thanks.  He smiled and politely refused my offer and went back to his vehicle.

The storm worsened, but the unconventional repair actually held long enough to get us to the safety of a warm lodge.  A short time later we pulled into the parking lot and waved at the van as they drove passed us and traveled on down the highway in spite of the storm.

I thought about these, and similar helpful acts, when I took my wife to her first post operative medical appointment.  She required the use of a wheel chair due to the amount of walking involved.  While wheeling her around, strangers held doors open for us and politely offered assistance.  We also received help, and multiple offers of same, from numerous colleagues and coworkers.  I found myself humbled and extremely appreciative of all the help being offered.  I also wondered if this is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she said; “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”?

Few would dispute that nearly everyone benefits from helpful acts, in whatever shape or frequency they take, throughout our lives.  We would do well to remember that because, among other reasons, none of us know when we might suddenly find ourselves in need of help from a stranger!

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