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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 16, 2012

A Visit to the 2012 Florida State Fair in Reverse

A new perspective is gained when viewing events in a different order!

The Florida State Fair was Definitely worth the visit and I would urge you to check it out, if you are interested.  As of the date of this posting, you still have one weekend left to take it in for yourself!

The evening was unusually cold for Florida on the night of our visit.

The lights and colors always remind me of fairs past.

Interestingly, not all who came did so for recreation or escape, some came to work!

The rides were plentiful and varied.

There were also animals of all types!

The exhibits and vendors were as you would expect and appeared to be doing a healthy business this year!

A talkative Robot amused the crowd.

There were singers and dancers that did not disappoint the viewers, who themselves were variously eating, talking and watching the show.

We sighted Elvis shortly after we entered the gate, though he was a bit taller than we expected him to be!

The crowds were already gathering when we arrived and I immediately noticed the typical vendors and sights of fellow fair goers quickly blending into the experience.

Some of my best memories growing up were of attending fairs on the west coast, so I was looking forward to visiting the Florida State Fair this year and it did not disappoint!

April 16, 2011

Finding a job these days…

Countless articles, books, and blogs have been written about finding a job.  Most were typed with the best of intentions and all have their own perspective on how best to do it.  I know because I have read more than my share of them over the years and found much useful information in some, though others were definitely lacking.

The reason for the disparity is as varied as human nature.  Some are written clearly with the hope to make the writer famous, sell books, or build a consultancy.  A lot of them are based on the writer’s own experience gained in one particular industry, with only certain types of jobs, or in one region.  All of this is fine within a particular niche, but it may not work at all for different jobs, places, or circumstances.

These days many employers have down-sized significantly, competition is generally global, and uncertainty is rampant.  Traditional ways to find work probably will not help you to get a job.  This is made even more challenging by modern technology where the resulting hyper-connectivity to information and people is completely unprecedented in human history.  This fact alone has changed many things, including finding work.

I have been a job seeker several times in my life and most recently last year.  Having worked in Human Resources for the majority of my career, in jobs ranging from Personnel Specialist in the Army to Vice President of Human Resources for a global service sector corporation, I have a lot of experience in hiring people.  My master’s degree is in Human Resources and my PhD is in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, so you would think I would have all the answers when it comes to finding work.  Well, 15 very long months of seeking full-time employment taught me otherwise!

Why?  Two major reasons really.  The first is the economy.  Even now, when experts say it is improving, many employers are still understandably hesitant to add staff to their payroll.  In fact, a glance of the news shows that many state and local governments in the United States, for example, are still receiving less revenue and most if not all are working to cut their budgets.  This will translate into more employee lay-offs. In the private sector things are not much better as employers are still slow to hire new workers.  When employers do decide to hire they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of applicants and that decreases the odds of getting hired for any job seeker.

Employers’ responses to being inundated with applicants causes the other major reason finding a job is so challenging these days.  In order to manage the process, all the applicants must be screened (filtered) to a number that the employer can reasonably assess and hire from. They do this many ways but the majority of processes amount to selecting only the most qualified candidates to seriously consider for a given job based on some criteria.  “Qualified candidates” in this instance often means only those with highly specific experience and training are given any consideration at all.  From the applicant perspective, it feels like you must have the perfect background to be hired for any job, when in reality for many positions you really do not.  The prospect of getting hired these days appears about as likely as buying the winning lottery ticket from the local convenience store.

Having said this, what advice would I give a job seeker now?  My best answer, admittedly based heavily on my own recent experience, is as follows:

  1. Do not give up, even though it may take a while.  Jobs exist and you will get one.
  2. Take care of yourself, eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  3. Find time to relax.  If you appear to be stressed out, it will show!
  4. Decide what types of jobs you are “currently qualified” and “willing” to do.
  5. Research the employers that hire those types of jobs and learn everything you can about the industry, the work, and especially how they hire people (most public libraries have free Internet).
  6. Apply to jobs using methods that they favor based on your research, follow-up, and apply to others.
  7. However you decide to apply, make sure you present yourself honestly and in a fully professional manner (both on paper and in person).
  8. Network with professionals in the field and let them know you are looking.
  9. Be creative and dedicated in your search efforts.  Wishing or getting angry, or depressed, will not help get you a job.
  10. Believe in yourself!

Make no mistake not having a job is an extremely humbling experience for anyone!  You are not alone and you will find a job if you keep at it.  Good luck, though unlike buying lottery tickets, that probably has little to do with it these days!

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