The Age of Self-Navigation

It’s 2019 and the American lifestyle defies classification as we mix and match all the disparate choices offered to us daily. On TV, we’re presented with reality shows that have no boundaries in terms of topic and are focused only on shock value. Social Media offers a platform from which anyone can spew anything with no consequence and there are no boundaries in terms of topic or target. People and families are destroyed every day in the name of whatever theology or reality one wants to embrace, especially regarding politics and religion. These days, people seem to migrate between different ways of living with a focus on only one thing: I want what I want regardless of how it affects or influences anyone else. Nothing is sacred anymore and no one is safe from either being ostracized, marginalized or otherwise neutralized, especially if they’re deemed a threat or obstacle to what one wants despite the cost. In such an environment, the way we monitor social change (demographics, attitudes, behaviors) is no longer enough to chart social progress because no one can define what progress really looks like. The only real measure that seems to matter is ‘Did I get what I wanted?’ This is why I continue to focus on core values in my approach to leadership, not only professionally but personally. While attitudes and opinions change quickly, core values are enduring and often last a lifetime. There are some values that change over time based upon environmental influences, but there are a core few that last a lifetime. They represent the guiding principles in our lives, such as achievement, helping others or individualism. Our value system strongly influences our views of how we should live and the decisions we should make. They affect the jobs we do, the people we spend our time with, and how we spend our money. Our value system is the sum of all the choices we make. In September 1996, 2/3rd’s of Americans said that having close relationships was always on their minds. More than half said the same about security and stability. The responses were the same regardless of age, sex, race, income or region. Overall, they were less concerned about ‘me’ oriented values. Only 1/3rd were thinking about having the power and influence to get what they wanted in life or about developing themselves as individuals. Today, with the majority of the workforce and the marketplace being populated by those we now identify as Millennial’s, they represent a values group that are called ‘self-navigators’ based upon their rejection of tradition and conformity and their belief that there is no safety net. However, it’s important to understand that they are forming their value set around the same four influences all of us before them were: events, the economy, technological advances and parenting. The one common characteristic they share with all of us right now is that none of us trust corporations, government leaders or anyone else simply because they’re in a position of authority. As a result, this group is forming its own reliance network with others, who prove themselves worthy allies. These self-navigators have concluded that the traditional formula for happiness simply does not happen for very many people. Think about it; in today’s environment of corporate downsizing, lack of affordable education, and ineffective governance, where a diploma doesn’t guarantee a job, getting a job is no guarantee of keeping one and retirement may never come, it’s kind of hard to argue with them, isn’t it? Truth be told, better to try and understand them, thereby becoming a worthy ally!

The Best Time is Now!

At some point, you’re going to have start asking yourself some questions.

Am I really doing what I want to do? Do I have boundaries in place that help me decide what I’ll do versus what I won’t do? Am I maximizing my capacity? Am I improving for the sake of self or for someone else? Am I really serving a higher purpose or am I just serving someone else’s purpose?

Once you start asking these kinds of questions and give a great deal of thought to the answers, you might just start identifying that destination you keep wondering about. You might even find a little freedom and joy.

However, the caution is that over time, you might also find yourself incrementally trading that freedom and joy for some money, status or approval from others.

You might find yourself signing up for nothing but building your resume or your money. Now, that might be all well and good except that in the process, you might miss that destination you’ve been wondering about for so long.

Truth Be Told, the best time to ask all the right questions is now.

When You Can’t Speak It, Write It!

There’s no more urgent or important reason to write.

It keeps you from forcing people to read your mind, understand your body language and generally guess what you’re really thinking or wanting to say.

If you can learn to share what you really want to communicate, written in a way that almost anyone can understand, you’ll not only improve your ability to communicate, you’ll learn to think more clearly as well.

Truth Be Told, the person who most benefits from your writing will be you.

‘Fast & Loose’ is usually ‘One & Done.’

It’s hard to know at what point so many Leaders became scoundrels more interested in the short-term, rather than the long-term win. Maybe it’s been happening for awhile and I’ve just not paid enough attention.

What I do know is that ‘fast and loose’ (or flying by the seat of your pants) is rampant today in just about every environment, especially in Politics and in the Executive Suite. Someone has an insight of some kind, gets lucky, convinces enough others around them of their brilliance, and begins amassing power. It doesn’t matter that they’re surrounded by more logic than they care to acknowledge. Why? Because they’ve become masters at the glib remark, the sarcastic smirk, or the cutting retort made to someone they know isn’t equipped to respond. They turn everything into a status-fueled game of chance; one in which they’re more willing to gamble than anyone else.

This kind of leadership is usually done out of fear, and, ironically, the ‘fast and loose’ approach only makes things worse by creating even more fear. That fear takes the form of a fight for survival, where everyone is just looking out for themselves.

So, what’s the alternative?

I think there are many. How about actually knowing what you’re talking about, having done the homework, being able to consider conflicting ideas as you consider options, knowing and respecting those who’ve earned a place at the table, having healthy and optimistic interactions with those who’re more experienced, wiser and more connected than you might be?

Most important is being able to admit that you were wrong, because you didn’t know what you know now, and then being able to acquiesce and chart a new path to an environment where as many as possible can win.

Truth Be Told, I don’t know too many people who wouldn’t rather work with a Leader who knows what they’re talking about, who respects those they work with and most of all, who seeks useful outcomes, not just the comfort of a short-term win.

Do you?

Acting Like It Isn’t Enough!

The people that look to you for leadership will put up with imperfect, but the one thing they’d like in return is for you to really care about them.

Leaders who make big promises that their organizations struggle to keep don’t realize that those promises also bind their people. Sooner or later, those broken promises always land in the lap of those on the front line. In that moment, what the employee really wants most is to know someone cares.

That someone is the Leader because that person must set the tone. Acting like it isn’t enough.

Leaders (if they’re really great ones) do the emotional labor of caring all the time. They present the best version of themselves they’re capable of. When they show up every day, their people would like to believe that they’re as engaged and enthusiastic about being there as they were the day before. On those days when they’re not, what really matters is that their people can’t tell the difference.

As a leader, if you care, that’s great. If you don’t, understand this. The hardest part of your job will always be caring.

Acting like it won’t cut it.

Never has, never will.

With People, It’s About the Culture.

With the increasing speed of innovation and technology, we’ve become addicted to data like never before. We lean so heavily on the principle ‘if you can’t measure it, you shouldn’t be doing it’, that we’ve defaulted to data to make decisions about everything, even people.

I recently came across an article about scientists, who every year for decades, visit the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador to measure the beaks of a particular species of finch. Every year, they arrive at the same outcome. The beaks change in exactly the same way as the year before. They use this in-depth data to support that evolutionary biology works, which is kind of ironic to me since most of us learned about evolutionary biology in high school. I don’t need to be convinced that it works.

However, for hundreds of years, science has been proven wrong about gender, race and ethnicity. Science says, ‘on average, across populations, left to its own devices, one group is either not as skilled, is neurotic, is hard to work with, not as smart, not as strong, slower, etc.’ than another.

Aside from all the assumptions that are being made, the bigger problem is that human beings aren’t averages; they’re individuals. An even bigger issue is that human beings are never left to their own devices. Why? Because we are all creatures of culture.

Science for years said that women weren’t capable of being doctors. A British woman by the name of Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female doctor in the US in 1821. Science for years said that a 4-minute mile was impossible. An Englishman by the name of Roger Bannister proved otherwise in 1954. Science for years said that women could never finish marathons. An American woman by the name of Roberta Gibb proved otherwise in 1966.

Science has been used for years to craft affirmative action policies to either limit or accelerate the number of minorities in colleges and universities. Science has been used in some shape, form or fashion against every race of people for hundreds of years.

I’ve studied culture for much of my career, academically, professionally and personally. The math that we can do on populations of birds or other species doesn’t apply to people, because people build, change and experience culture differently than any other species.

It’s culture that pushes us to dig deeper and do things that we might not otherwise do. It’s culture that pushes us to become better versions of ourselves; even better than what anyone ever expected of us.

Look, I’m much of a data freak myself. We need science and we need to collect and use data to make decisions and influence outcomes. But everything is wrong with using it poorly (and often intentionally) to craft an agenda or to fit a narrative, which is way too much of how it’s being used today. That kind of science removes the most important component from the equation, which is culture.

It’s very tempting to use science to measure or judge people. It just makes more sense to me to see people and value them for contributions that will make the culture better tomorrow than it is today.

Truth Be Told, science will keep looking for the missing link. Let’s don’t forget about the missing culture.

The Upside of Downside.

Dr. Laurence Peter understood the upside and the downside of bureaucracy better than most. Fifty years ago, he wrote, ‘In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence…’

He put forth that in time, every position tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties. The Peter Principle (as it came to be known) says that if you do a respectable job, you get promoted until you reach a job where you’re incompetent. When that happens, you’ll stay in that job until sooner or later, the organization is filled with more incompetent people than not.

Regarding organizational structure and function, I’ve long said that organizations with too much bureaucracy provide a safe place for under-performers to hide out, while at the same time providing an upside that says if you do a respectable job, you’ll get chosen and promoted. In short, keep your head down, do what you’re told and you’ll generally win.

We don’t live in that world anymore because we can’t afford it. The financial collapse of 2008 changed that forever, which begs the question, ‘What is the upside in the new organization?’

The upside is that you alone get to decide if you want to be promoted, have more influence, more leverage and more responsibility. If so, you’ll have to confront the scary part of that upside, which is dealing with the fear that you’ll be exposed for your incompetence. Fearful of exposure, most will default to the Peter Principle and hide out in the bureaucracy. Instead of choosing themselves, they’ll wait to be chosen.

Personally, I did that for way too much of my former career. I’ve since learned that if I bet on myself instead of letting someone else make me feel incompetent, that someone always ends up carrying my briefcase.

Truth Be Told, choose the upside.

I Know It When I See It. Really?

For the most part, all of us are wired to believe and understand things based upon our own viewpoint or experience.

That’s why it’s hard at times to relate to someone else’s reality. That’s also why it’s easier to depend upon the viewpoint that ‘I know it when I see it.’ The problem with that is we’re good at accepting what’s right in front of us, but not so much with things that are too far in the future.

Nothing in our environments is solely the result of personal experience. That’s why we rely on scientists, technologists, journalists and even futurists to give help us with some insight into how events on the larger world scale will influence our particular situations.

The risk of ‘I know it when I see it’, where you pick and choose which outcomes or events to believe or otherwise (especially without doing your homework), is that you’re putting yourself and those that depend upon you for leadership at risk, as well.

I used to sit around a lot and talk with others about anecdotal evidence regarding religion, politics, health care, patriotism, even the weather. It used to be fun but morphed into something that became too frustrating and stressful. Why? Because I started noticing that it was mostly irrelevant to what might or might not happen in the long run. I don’t waste time doing that anymore.

There’s a reason that the majority of us hate statistics. The experts would posit that it might be because 85% of the US population can only read on average at an 8th grade level.

Might it also be because 85% of the population has no direct experience with the larger picture? Might that be why it’s easier to respond with facts based only upon personal experience?

We’re all guilty of it, including myself. It’s a natural reaction because we all want to be relevant, don’t we?

In my view, the real challenge (especially to be relevant as a leader) is to do our own homework, couple that with our own personal experiences, and then determine the best path forward that benefits the most people.

Truth Be Told, the peril of ‘I know it when I see it’ is that the next time you see it, it may have morphed into something you won’t recognize with the potential to do much more harm than good.

No Statue of Limitations on ‘I Don’t Care.’

Despite all the social media surrounding us today, the math still says that word of mouth is the most efficient way to gain trust. It may take some time, but the math still supports it.

However, the math also says that it only takes a moment to destroy that trust. Only a few sentences, a broken promise, a lack of empathy, a knee-jerk text or email, and the bridge between you and not one, but many others, is broken, sometimes forever.

Many leaders believe that overcoming significant operational barriers will magically fix most problems with their people. They don’t realize that the breakdown didn’t occur operationally. It occurred because they not only decided not to care, they didn’t act like they cared.

The reason doesn’t matter; whether it was being tired after a long day, afraid to show vulnerability, or just hiding out in the bureaucracy. Whatever the reason, they just decided not to care. By not caring, or not expressing empathy, a leader denies their own humanity. By not caring, they isolate themselves. By not caring, they work so hard not to engage (leaning on the tried and true ‘this too shall pass’ philosophy), they remove any hope for receiving the benefit of the doubt, and recovery (especially by word of mouth) is impossible.

While people do like to have their problems fixed, what they most want is to be cared about. What they want most is for their leaders to extend beyond themselves, especially in crisis or when things just fall apart. ‘

Leaders beware! There’s no statute of limitations on ‘I don’t care’, whether spoken or not.

Truth Be Told, it’s the only crime of leadership for which there’s no need for a trial because no one will care enough to show up.

Productive Leadership

When you have to provide leadership that requires emotional labor, it’s natural to want to walk away a bit and distract yourself. This, however, for leaders that are non-confrontational, is the main activity, which is to avoid the real work that has to be done. One useful practice is to have forced choices that break up the work but that are also productive. We either need to be developing a new way to adapt or a new way to equip our selves to continue forward movement. The key is that it be something both important and productive. There are three core values that I use to guide my decision-making, especially when I recognize that I’m avoiding rather than confronting. What I care about with everything I do is that it’s (1) simple, in order for everyone to understand, (2) relevant, which means it has to matter, and (3) compelling, which means it has to make a difference. If what I’m focused on doesn’t meet those three criteria, then I’m saying ‘no.’ It really does help turn every distraction into a contribution, which is so much more fun and productive.