Go Ahead, Drop Some Balls

A friend of mine recently received a significant promotion. While he is excited about his promotion, he is searching for his replacement and, for now, is doing both jobs. When I asked him how it was going, he responded, “I’m just trying to get it all done without dropping any balls.”

This conversation reminded me of one I had with one of my clients. She was lamenting the challenges one of her executives has with burnout. In this case, the CEO said, “I wish he would learn to drop some balls; his effort to get everything done is causing his burnout!”

The’ to-do list’ can seem endless for those who want to dot every I and cross every T (I admit I am one of them). I heard this wise CEO say, ” Go ahead, drop some balls. Just choose the ones you are going to drop.”

What if, instead of starting each day with a list of what we will do, we begin by removing the things we aren’t going to do? Here are some examples to get you started:

  • What if you reviewed your email once or twice per day and let everyone know that this is your plan?
  •  What if you coded your email so critical emails moved to a priority list, and you responded to these first and removed yourself from cc lists?
  •  What if, for everything that comes your way, you paused and asked yourself, does this email, call, text, or inquiry require a response? And if it does, is this something only I can do? Or can I delegate it?
  •  What if you paused before saying “yes”?

Cost or Benefit?

Recently, I was in conversation with a few fellow coaches, and one of the members asked, “Describe a time that you took a stand and it cost you?”

Out of the six of us in the conversation, all but one shared a story that cost them their job. Wow!

And before that, I read a blog from another friend who asked the opposite question: “Have you ever done your very best to blend and morph to meet the mentalities in a room instead of showing up as 1000% yourself? 

So, which choice is a cost and which is a benefit? 

I have learned over the years that when “we” are responsible, rather than “I” am responsible, we all get a better outcome. 

And the fantastic days are when team members are engaged and authentic in creating the best day. And the ‘not so good days’ are when something is going awry, and no one says anything. 

Yet, there is no guarantee that the result of being fully engaged and authentic will result in a fantastic day or result in taking a stand that costs you. 

So instead, many of us (perhaps most?) choose silence. Does this come from a place of respect for the leader? After all, it is “their meeting”; it’s up to them to “fix it.” And when there is a series of “it’s up to him or her or them to fix it,” we can quickly go from a ‘not so good meeting,’ to a ‘not so good day’ or week and ultimately a ‘not so good outcome’ for the business.

All of us can be both leaders and followers in our daily lives. And sometimes, we need to step up and take a leadership role in the moment, even when we are not the official leader. The next time you are in one of these moments, here are a few questions to consider as you perform a cost/benefit analysis of the situation:

  1. If something is amiss in a meeting or a moment, and I stay silent, what is the potential cost to me, the group, or the business?
  2. If something is amiss and I speak up, what is the potential cost to me, the group, or the business? 
  3. In a fair and bold cost/benefit analysis, what is the best and bravest choice for me to make?

Labor Day’s Legacy

The first nationally recognized Labor Day celebration was in 1894. The AFL claimed this day with a street parade sending a message of “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

According to the BLS, union membership in the U.S. peaked in 1954 at almost 35%. By 1983, the share of U.S. workers who belonged to a union had fallen to 20.1%, and by 2022, membership had dropped to 10.1% of U.S. workers, declining from 10.3% in 2021. And 33% of union members are public employees.

Yet, nearly every day, we read about another vote for unionization by workers in well-known service companies.

Is the press giving us an unbalanced view, or is there a trend yet to emerge in the data?

Economists and human resource professionals tell us it’s the latter. Economists say prices are increasing faster than wages, and people are organizing because they can’t keep up. People often feel that being part of something gives them agency. Human resource professionals say that a lack of effective two-way communication leads to a lack of trust, leading to organizing.

Regardless of whether unionization is a trend, Labor Day is still with us. We celebrate it as the mark of the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. As with all transitions, it’s a time for reflection. In this case, it is an opportunity to reflect on how we show up.

  • As a leader, what can I do tomorrow to learn what drives each person on my team and create an environment where each person can pursue their passion while contributing to the team’s success?
  • As a follower, what can I do tomorrow to add additional value to the success of our company while being true to what matters to me?

Perception ≠ Reality

We often hear the phrase perception is reality. We learn early on that we cannot perceive reality directly; perception is all we have. “If a tree falls in the woods…..”

As leaders, we transfer this rule into behaviors, i.e., how we perceive a product becomes what it is. How we perceive a person or a company’s reputation is who they become to us. And organizational experts tell us how we are perceived at work becomes reality for our peers, subordinates, and bosses.

Yet, perception is often far from reality. 

An example from the physical world, without knowing the time, darkness can be perceived as night or a storm.

A personal human interaction example. A while back, I attended a gathering of coaches designed for learning and connectivity. On the first day, we did an exercise that was to be a “fun” icebreaker. Hmm, well, at least it was fun for the extroverts; for the introverts, it was uncomfortable rather than a light exercise. 

When I checked in with one of my fellow introverts, I was reminded of how misaligned perceptions can be. I asked my friend why it seemed that he didn’t recognize me when we passed each other several times during the exercise, and he responded, “Wow, I didn’t even see you; I was just trying to get through it.” On that day, my perception was that he wasn’t interested in engaging with me. His reality was that he was so uncomfortable with the exercise that he disengaged completely.

Another way to say this: perception is about us, reality is about the other person.

The learning for me…

Ask a question and seek to understand the reality beyond our perceptions, and life will hold some lovely surprises.

Leadership Quote: The Unintended Consequences of Doing Nothing

Sometimes, the best thing to do is to go with the flow and let things play out. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to choose a desired outcome and lead others toward that outcome.

How do you decide?

I had a conversation this past week with a friend who was a banker earlier in his career. I asked him what he thought about the announcement earlier that day of the JP Morgan settlement regarding Jeffrey Epstein.

My initial thought was if a borrower is paying their loan on a timely basis, is the bank obligated to probe what the borrower is doing with the money?  

My friend pointed out that if the bank is a relationship bank, the bankers meet with the client regularly and ask questions about the business. Turns out, internal emails revealed that executives did know about Epstein’s activities. 

So why didn’t these executives, at least one of whom was a woman, speak up? 

The conversation became uncomfortable when I asked this question, and we moved on to another topic.

While our conversation moved on, I’ve continued to wonder about my question:

  • Is it because they felt the personal risk to themselves and their career was too great to speak up or take action?
  • Is it because they somehow were able to compartmentalize and separate the business relationship from the question of “What if these were my daughters?” 
  • Is it because they didn’t believe what they heard? 
  • Is it because they feared Epstein could damage the bank’s reputation because he was so well connected?
  • Is it because they feared legal repercussions as individuals or as an institution? 

 I wonder, too, if the executives involved paused and asked themselves these questions. 

Perhaps not. Perhaps they were just going with the flow. 

What Is the Leadership Message in All Quiet on the Western Front?

Last night my husband and I watched All Quiet on the Western Front. It was my idea to watch it because it has already won several awards and was nominated for several Oscars, including best picture. Right from the start, I wanted to turn it off and yet felt compelled to continue. 

This movie was graphic and harrowing; I think it felt real because of this. For two and a half hours, it was as if we were on the front lines, experiencing the horror while somehow safely tucked away from harm.

The book was required reading for most high school students of my generation. Upon reflection, I wonder why? Was it an attempt to prepare young men called to fight in Vietnam? Was it a silent protest on the part of educators? I don’t know, and I couldn’t find an explanation in my research. 

It’s a story of humanity and the loss of humanity while at the same time a story of leadership. Not the traditional message that military leaders are the best leadership examples and should therefore be role models. Instead, it portrays all types of leaders, fallible humans, capable leaders, and those that are completely incompetent. Most importantly, the writers showed us the human cost of hubris. 

I always remembered the book, especially the scene when the protagonist is in the trench with a French soldier. The movie brought home the message of humanity even more.

Sadly, as the horrors of war continue today in Ukraine and elsewhere, the following quote from Einstein reminds us how far we have not come.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and his feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Perhaps the message the author and the screenwriters are sending is:

It is time for those of us who have the responsibility and the honor to lead to also take on the responsibility to practice humanity.

Who Gets to Decide?

Just about every leadership book and every leadership speaker talks about the importance of allowing people to fail. The concept is delegation does not occur unless and until I enable people to make their own decisions, take their own risks, and succeed or fail on their own.

Easy to say, hard to do, on so many levels. Some of the common questions are:

  • How much risk should I allow them to take?
  • What if I am certain they are making the wrong decision, a decision that will cost me money, put the company at risk, put the person at risk? How can I look away and allow the failure to occur?
  • How many failures are okay?

Lately, I have come to realize this question, who gets to decide, also applies to our personal lives. The following stories brought this realization home to me.

A friend’s teenage son is more focused on sports than on his homework, a familiar story. Mom says, “we have to make him do his homework.” Thus ensues a fight between mom and son. Dad says, “let him suffer the consequences if he chooses not to do his homework.” 

Who gets to decide? Who is “right”?

The 89-year-old father of a friend has cancer. His actions indicate he is confused about what he wants. He says he is willing to get treatment but misses his treatment appointments. He lives alone and refuses a live-in caregiver or even a visiting caregiver. Before the cancer diagnosis, he was cognitively in fine shape. Son says, “we have to make him go for his treatments.” Daughter says, “if he wants to be alone, doesn’t attend his appointments, doesn’t return the doctor’s phone calls, it’s his decision to make, not ours.”

Who gets to decide? Who is “right”?

Back to the three questions from the leadership story:

  • How much risk should I allow them to take?
  • What if I am certain they are making the wrong decision, a decision that will cost me money? How can I simply look away and allow the failure to occur?
  • How many failures are okay?

Which choice is the more courageous one? Who gets to decide?

What Is Empathy, Really?

The dictionary defines empathy quite simply:

It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

For most of us, this simple sentence describes one of life’s most significant challenges. We come at everything from our point of view, and our style, combined with our backgrounds and experiences, drives how we see things.

A few years ago, I attended a retreat for leadership coaches. The retreat began with a speaker from a local theatre group. His talk was about empathy. He gave us a peek into the life of an actor and drew a parallel between acting and leadership. From his perspective, a successful actor can empathize with their character and really get inside and understand their story.

Actors follow these three guides to becoming their character:

  • What if I were in their situation? What wants and fears drive who they are?
  • “What if” allows us to empathize even when we cannot sympathize.
  • And then, to truly empathize, we must listen with charity.

With genuine empathy, our speaker said, while we may not sympathize with a murderer, we can empathize and then become the character. We begin to understand the character by asking ourselves, what wants, fears and experiences drove them to take another person’s life?

Then, he challenged us, isn’t this the same with leadership? Or, for that matter, with all our interactions with others? If we can step outside ourselves, if only for a moment, can we see the world as the person sitting across from us sees it?

When Our Assumptions Lead Us Astray

How often are we in situations where what we want and what others want are not aligned? We make assumptions daily, mostly about other people. These assumptions enable us to take shortcuts, and at the same time, they cause disagreement that perhaps wasn’t there to begin with.

  • We assume a person attended or didn’t attend an event because…
  • We assume a person responded to us a certain way because…
  • We assume a person took action or didn’t take action because…

What if, instead of assuming, we paused and asked:

  • What is the reason you made this choice or took this action?
  • When your customer complains about “service,” do you probe to understand what is really going on?
  • As the TSA reminds us when we see something, do we say something?
  • When an employee behaves a certain way, do we ask what is really going on?

Listen, Please

As leaders, we are problem solvers. Problem-solving is a crucial strength required in a leader. And yet, sometimes, the best solution is to simply listen.

When I first began working as an executive coach, I believed that my role was always to motivate my client toward action. While I still believe action is required to achieve results, I have also learned that, and often have to remind myself, that sometimes, it’s best to just listen.

Sometimes all a person wants is the opportunity to think out loud. And for us, as the listener, to do just that. To simply listen, not offer advice, perhaps ask a question or two and then allow them to sit with their own questions, their own reflections, and come to their own answers. 

Sometimes being heard is enough. Perhaps at a later date, it’s time for action.