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!

October 30, 2012

A Teddy Bear Tale

What you are about to read is believed by the party involved to have happened.  The person is completely credible and the story is unusual.  I have altered some of the details at the request of the person involved though, aside from that, what you are about to read is the story as I understand it.  It is up to you to decide how it happened…

Cindy lived with her two terrier mix dogs in a townhouse she rented in a trendy area of southern California.  She was 28 years old, college educated, and worked as an Office Manager for a mortgage company.  Her commute to work took nearly an hour each way, but she did not care because she enjoyed where she was living.

Her life to this point was fairly typical and according to Cindy she had no history of anything strange ever really happening to her.  Her parents were supportive and she was close to her brother and sister, though they lived in another part of the state.  She dated occasionally, though she had no one steady in her life at the time.

One day in October, she believes it was a Friday, she came home after a long commute and walked upstairs to her bedroom to get comfortable.  As she passed the spare room that she used as an office something seemed odd.  She continued on to her bedroom and as she put on her shorts and walking shoes, but she could not shake that feeling that something was not quite right.  Before she took the dogs out for a walk, she retraced her steps and stopped in her tracks when she looked into the spare room.

As she looked into the office she saw that the bed was still made and nothing was on the floor.  She also noticed that the closet door was closed just as she had left it that morning.  In the far corner, her desk chair was exactly where she parked it under the small table that served as her desk. So far so good she thought to herself.

However, when she looked on the desk, her heart pounded, her hairs stiffened, and goose bumps appeared instantly.  She froze and just stared at her desk for a long while.  What she saw, was really nothing much at first glance, but to Cindy it was surreal and not possible.  Her small brown teddy bear was standing on its head in front of the inbox, perfectly balanced.  The problems with this were several and they were exactly what had unnerved Cindy so much.  The first problem was that Cindy did not leave the bear that way and the second was that she knew it probably could not be done, at least not without glue, strings, and/or some other manner of support.  Lastly, all of this caused her to want to scream, though she held back.

Being a practical person, she spent a long while just studying the 12 inch, 8 ounce, toy with a bean filled body and stuffing filled head and appendages. She did this to confirm that there was no way that this pose was possible without support.  She looked for thread, wires, and glue and found absolutely nothing.  She then stopped and quickly checked the rest of her townhouse for signs of someone having been there.  Since she was a very neat person she would have spotted anything out-of-place in an instant, but she found everything in perfect order except for her bear.

She went back to the office, sat down, and finally grabbed the bear taking it from the unnatural position that it was in.  She then thoroughly checked it over for anything that could explain what had happened.  The bear was a little dusty, but otherwise in like new condition and, as far as she could tell, completely unaltered in every way.  She thought to herself that perhaps she was wrong and that an earthquake had made the bear fall and land on its head and that maybe just maybe it could somehow be posed in that way after all.  She spent the next half hour trying to repeat the pose but the bean bag torso and stuffing filled appendages would not allow it.  The bear simply could not be posed on its head perfectly balanced the way she found it, no matter what she did, even by leaning it against the wall for support!

Two people had access to her apartment, her landlord and her ex-boyfriend, who still had not returned his key.  The next day she explained the weird situation to both and was told flatly that neither had done it.  In fact, her ex-boyfriend was at work from the time she left that morning until well after she returned home that night, so he could not have done it.  Her landlord, who was also a neighbor, was honest and not one to break rules.  He told her that it is illegal for a landlord to enter without some compelling and urgent cause, like a fire, or without advanced notice being provided to the tenant, in non-urgent situations. He then reiterated to her that he did not do it, though he agreed the whole thing was very odd.

That day she felt uneasy, but she still loved the toy and did not want to get rid of it.  Her mother understood that her daughter loved antiques and had a fondness for bears.  So, when her mom spotted the vintage teddy bear in like new condition, at a local street fair, she bought it and gave it to her daughter for Christmas.  Cindy immediately loved the bear and put it on top of her inbox in the office.  The bear had been in the same spot for nearly a year, and only moved when Cindy picked it up to place unpaid bills underneath or pull them out to pay them.

After much thought, Cindy, who was raised Catholic, though she did not attend church, made a decision.  She grabbed some holy water that her grandmother had given her and sprinkled it on the bear.  She then said a brief prayer to herself.  After that she looked the bear in the eyes with a clarity of thought and absolute intent and said out load if he ever moved even millimeter or so much as gave her a creepy feeling again, she would immediately burn the bear to ashes and scatter what remained over a wide area.  When she was done with her statement to the bear, she left the room and went on with her life not thinking much about it again.

That was well over a decade ago, and according to Cindy, he still sits on top of her inbox, in her office. He has not ever given a repeat performance, though Cindy still occasionally wonders how, and why, it happened and she still says it is the oddest thing that she has ever experienced before or since.

November 13, 2011

What is fair?

Many of us have said, or heard, that something is “not fair” at one time or another.  In childhood, it could have taken the form of telling our mother this when she wanted us to go to bed.  When we were older, it could have been uttered when we realized that we had a flat tire while headed to an important meeting.  Or, we could have agreed with a close friend that their supervisor had not treated them fair in passing them over for promotion.  Regardless of when we heard, or spoke it, we were probably certain about what we believed to be true.  Fair is deeply personal to most of us.

What is fair?  Is it simply treating everyone the same?  Or, is it defined by faith, understood through philosophy, or learned by comparing it to past experience, or by watching it on a screen?  Economists will tell you that fair is but one of several means to justify the allocation of, always finite, resources.  HR professionals might say it involves applying policies without regard to anything but employee performance and/or perhaps longevity.  When I was little, I thought fair was what Stan Lee wrote about and his characters, superheroes of course, staunchly defended every month.  Growing up in the United States students are taught in school that the country was founded, at least in part, because the colonists felt they were not taxed in a fair way.  Fair is many things.

Is what I consider fair about something the same as what you believe?  Do your friends, family, or even frenemies, if you have any, use the same standards to measure what they believe to be fair as you do?  Is fair the same in other regions or foreign countries?  If intelligent life exists outside of the earth, what is fair to them?  If you stop and think about it, really think about it, fair is complicated!

Another interesting thing about fair, is that when we focus on it the discourse is mostly about a lack of it rather than an overabundance of it.  I mean how many times have you heard someone, anyone, opine that something was really very fair!  Granted it does happen, but those conversations, or comments, are more the exception than the rule. Why is that?  If fair is so important, as it appears to be, why do we not pay more attention to it when it is present?  Is what we believe to be fair so fundamental to us that, like air or water, it is simply taken for granted generally, but felt deeply the instant we perceive it to be lost?

Funny thing is, for a word that most of us are very familiar with, many of us would be hard pressed to define fair in a way that others would readily agree with, though we can spot it in an instant when we see it!  Also, regardless of your definition, many people would probably agree that the world is not filled with nearly as many examples of fair as most of us would like.  Friendships have been soured, fortunes lost, needless lives taken, and countries throughout history have, and continue, to go to war over disagreements concerning what is considered fair.  All of this, over a deceptively simple word that really has no universally agreed upon definition…

When we talk about what is fair, the conversations are sometimes loud, can be emotionally charged, and, as mentioned above, may result in disagreements with negative outcomes for one or more parties.  The disagreements can involve anything from how observations of details are perceived to questions about how others would feel if they were on the receiving end of a situation, or decision, that is not fair.  Regardless, conversations about what is fair are often not pleasant to have, though certainly necessary, at times, if we are to be true to ourselves and what we each understand to be right!

Given the importance of what we believe to be fair, and the obvious impact that it has on our lives, both positive and negative, I find it truly odd that these aspects of it have not received more widespread attention.  Granted conversations about it do happen, mostly in college ethics courses, and I have no doubt that it is written about in low circulation scholarly journals, but those are limited in scope and appear to do little to add to the greater conversation and understanding.  I wonder;  is that truly fair?

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