Lentils, Language, and Leadership
This is the time of year college-aged offspring grace their parents with their presence, now that the spring semester has ended and they are low on cash. I recall a conversation between my boys when they were of this age, as they discussed the relative merits of living home for the summer. The obvious factors were access to a car, a free place to sleep and eat, and handy laundry facilities just in case they were inspired to use them. “Plus,” they joked, “there’s Mom’s lentil soup.”
 
I make lentil soup for reasons understandable to most people my age. First, the price is right: legumes are cheaper than meat as a protein source. Also, lentils cook in 20 minutes, lower LDL cholesterol, and the added spinach and tomatoes keep blood pressure in check. Not to mention the fiber content.
 
You can imagine that this didn’t translate to my young men. “LDL?” they scoffed. “You mean LOL. And what’s a legume? Sounds like a place you swim in the moonlight.” We lived in the same house and shared the same genetic information, but we didn’t speak the same language.
 
How might we cross such divides in our conversations when our words carry different meanings?
 
We can begin by checking on what important words mean. Roger Schwarz, in The Skilled Facilitator, considers this an important ground rule for effective groups. For example, I might ask my colleague from a partner organization, “When you use the word ‘partnership,’ I take it to mean that we design our work together and have equal say in decisions that affect both of us. Is that what you were thinking or did you mean something different?”
 
Next, we can simply adopt the language of others, appreciating their words and meaning rather than trying to change them. When working with clients around strategic planning, once I learn their meaning of “goal” or “strategy” or “tactic,” I can assume their language instead of imposing my definitions on them.
 
Finally, leaders have a special role in shared language. In his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, David Whyte says, “The core act of leadership must be the act of making conversations real. The conversations of captaincy and leadership are the conversations that forge real relationships between the inside of a human being and their outer world, or between an organization and the world it serves.” A leader’s job, in other words, is to employ conversations that explore meaning and connections between the leader’s vision and how others see the world. This requires inquiry and listening, not just talking, and it is essential to energizing commitment to good work.
 
These kinds of conversations will strengthen the bonds with my boys too, though it’s unlikely they’ll appreciate my lentil soup strategy for many years.
RUTH / DIALOGUE / May 27, 2011, 11:27pm / Comments (825)
Boxed in by Degrees
I saw a car with the license plate “BSRNBSN”—perhaps the initials of the driver’s children. More likely, the letters stand for BS/RN/BSN or Bachelors of Science, Registered Nurse, and Bachelors of Science Nursing, respectively.
 
Evidently, the driver was proud of his/her academic accomplishments and seemed to identify greatly with them.
 
When we facilitate group dialogue, we ask people to “leave their titles at the door.” Minimizing roles, power, and positions enables groups to share more freely, embrace broader perspectives, and explore greater possibilities.
 
Why do we allow ourselves to get boxed in by our titles and degrees? Worse yet, why do we box others out because we consider their formal accomplishments inferior to our own? Or conversely, why are we intimidated by fancy titles or a long string of letters after a name?
 
Today, ask yourself “What solution/perspective/beauty am I missing because I have discounted the views of others?” You may be surprised by what you find.
DEV / DIALOGUE / May 21, 2011, 12:47am / Comments (164)
An Easy 80 IQ Points
Back in high school, I aspired to be a sensitive and reclusive artist-type, but I just didn’t have the talent or temperament. Yet, I’m a visual learner and thinker—I see relationships spatially, love charts, and can play for hours with Adobe Ideas on my iPad.  
 
Recently, I discovered that I could engage clients in a fresh, visual way by graphically drawing meeting agendas and themes—even with virtually no innate artistic ability. It’s amazing how a few rough sketches can bring our imaginations to life.
 
I owe this inspiration to a couple books from which I shamelessly copy images. Visual Meetings, by David Sibbet, and Beyond Words, by Milly Sonneman, are full of hand-drawn graphics and a “come on, just try it” approach, starting with little building blocks like basic shapes and star people and then gradually walking the fledgling-artist-reader through shading and movement and metaphor. The tools are simple—lots of colored markers and big sheets of butcher paper or even just a white board in a conference room.
 
Is visualization worth 80 IQ points, as stated in Visual Meetings? OK, maybe not 80, but surely, for the 60% of people who prefer to learn visually, images and colors help us see differently, think creatively, and remember more.
 
Try a sketch for your next meeting. Then snap a picture of your results and share it so we can learn from each other. Let’s see if we can raise our collective IQ by moving from stuffy linear black-and-white declarative thinking to seeing how our ideas connect with a simple, accessible palette of colors, pictures, and designs.
 
RUTH /TOOLS / May 13, 2011, 4:54pm / Comments (1855)
Lessons from a Clownfish
Late in the 2003 Pixar blockbuster Finding Nemo, the protagonist Nemo—an adolescent clownfish on an epic adventure—becomes trapped in a commercial fisherman’s net. With him are hundreds of other not-terribly-bright fish.  
 
As the net is pulled to the surface, the panicked fish swim in every direction possible, each terrified and trying to save himself. Their energies are at odds with each other; their motion cancelling that of their neighbor’s. 
 
In a moment of epiphany, Nemo instructs the fish to swim together—aligning their efforts—towards the ocean floor. The endeavor is successful: the boom breaks, the net spills open, and the fish are saved.  
 
How do we align effort in our organizations? How do we identify goals and design effective strategies? How do we foster employee engagement around our goals and strategies and execute efficiently and sustainably?
 
What are the nets that bind you?
DEV / ALIGNMENT / May 5, 2011, 2:50pm / Comments (649)
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