Having skilled leaders in the right places can mean the difference between explosive growth and bankruptcy, and yet most of us roll our eyes at the thought of another leadership class or retreat. Training the next generation of leaders is one of the toughest challenges companies face today. Trainers need to find ways to help participants transfer learning back to real life. If skill transfer is difficult in straightforward technical training, where people typically revert back to old habits shortly following classroom experiences, changing behavior in leaders seems almost impossible. Still, we throw more than $24 billion dollars a year at leadership training, with marginal positive results. Here are some reasons leadership training doesn’t work and some ways to fix it!
My client grasps wildly for options, finding each insufficient. I stand back holding space, ready to support and willing to encourage. Amazingly, she reached this state about half an hour into our first coaching session! After some deep breaths, she tries again. She reaches a small foothold she had not noticed in her frustration and makes an improbable move. Elation overcomes fear. She celebrates at the top of the climb. Then, lowering back to the ground, she does not want to let go of the rope. She hates the feeling of being lowered by someone else, without control. Where to begin?
53% of your employees are looking for new jobs right now. Gallup finds 71% of millennials are disengaged in your workplace, and it won’t be long until most workers are from this generation! Perhaps you even fall into one of these categories? Certainly, you have found yourself in the disengaged camp off and on over the years. This seems dismal, and I have good news and bad news. The bad news first. This is not going to change! In today’s gig economy, supporting a new generation who values purpose over security, employees will not put up with lackluster workplaces.
Tis the season…of shopping lists, Elf on the Shelf, and hours in the kitchen cooking up goodies. But what does this holiday frenzy have to do with leadership? This special time of year provides leaders a chance to shine, or be the Grinch, and trust me being labeled the Grinch not only hurts personally, it impacts the bottom line!
Thank you to local realtor Thomas Nelson for hosting me on his podcast postcards from success. We did this video cast during a short family hike down the beach at Torrey Pines State Park. Time outside makes us better people and better people make better leaders! Check it out at the link below!
We cover why the outdoors makes better leaders, finding joy in what you do, and being authentic no matter what!
Yes, our new daughter is cute and beautiful, and I am asking you to go beyond those compliments because she is so much more. As I begin this journey of fatherhood, I would like to offer some ways you can help us raise a confident woman. With this said, I realize I have much growth ahead of me as a father and human being. I offer this to begin a conversation to spark that growth.
We instinctively compliment children. That’s OK, but compliments are double edged swords. Humans become addicted to these compliments which eventually influence our character. I fear that hearing a constant refrain of “beautiful” will cause our daughter to fixate on her appearance. I worry that “ladylike” will make her assume she needs to fill the traditional roles of a woman to be accepted. I think that “princess” will confine her imagination to gowns and discourage her from building Lego cities and helping me change our car oil. On the other hand, compliments such as courageous can become reality when she needs to dig deep in tough situations. I am thinking long and hard about how to share my appreciation for our daughter in an empowering way. I am going to need a lot of help along the way!
First, what to avoid.
Let’s start with cute. As a test, imagine people describing you that way. “Oh look at Jim, he is soooo cute.” Demeaning right? Just let that one go.
Next up is pretty, beautiful, and other variations. This is going to be hard, because she is stinking gorgeous. However, that’s only a tiny part of what makes her an amazing human. If we fixate on that tiny part, so will she. If you simply must say something, and I don’t blame you because I am always watching her beauty in wonder, put a little more thought into it. Notice her smile or the buoyant way she runs around playing and tell her you appreciate those things. Bottom line, use superficial praise sparingly and provide a compliment with substance concurrently.
Then there’s good girl. Sounds like I am talking to my dog Nali, right? Well, probably because I am. I want my daughter to be a virtuous girl, if that’s what you mean — a woman of strong character, trustworthy, fierce, courageous — but you probably mean “oh isn’t it nice that she is quiet and listens to her parents.” I hope she will listen to us out of respect. At the same time, I want her to question authority, think critically about everything around her, and, when she has good cause to rage against the world, not be a good girl.
Finally, let’s get away from princess. Our dog’s nickname is Princess Prancey Paws, because she hates getting dirty and prances around mud puddles. Princess largely boils good girl, pretty, cute, pink and pinker into a lacy platitude. Our daughter isn’t a princess. The only time you can call her this is if she is pretending she is a princess. Help me out, though, and instead of telling her you like her tiara, ask her how she manages to rule her people with such wisdom, grace and justice.
So how can you compliment our daughter? Here are some ground rules for her and, really, everyone else in your life.
Put some effort into it. Take a minute to really notice what you appreciate and then articulate that. Maybe even include how what you appreciate affects you. For example, at work instead of “nice job,” try “nice work on that report, it was very well researched and helped me articulate our situation to the C-Suite.” Your co-worker will probably give you detailed reports from then on. She will take pride in that aspect of her work!
In the same way that leaders can reinforce growth in their people through specific positive feedback, help us raise our young woman. Instead of reflexively saying she is cute or beautiful, try to notice the sparkle of curiosity in her eyes or the tenacity in the way she takes on a challenge. Compliment those things!
Focus on what matters. For Aristotle it was virtue-based ethics. He imagined virtue as a constant state of striving for good character. In other words, your virtue and character are an active condition. It isn’t a yes or no, rather character means moving toward or away. (1)
If you notice and compliment something about my daughter’s virtue, you probably can’t go wrong. Here is a hint: Her physical beauty has nothing to do with her character. If she is graceful and poised because she spends long hours practicing martial arts, that might hint at parts of her character to compliment such as discipline, focus, or courage. Think about what is behind her beauty and help us reinforce those virtuous qualities.
Her intelligence isn’t part of her character either, so please avoid calling her smart. IQ is fixed. Calling her smart will make her afraid of looking dumb when she inevitably reaches her IQ limit. (2) Our daughter’s character won’t be defined by how smart she is, but rather by how she thinks. I hope she is wicked smart, and even more, I hope that she has the persistence to think through complex problems without giving up, the creativity to find new solutions when all is lost, the courage to speak up when she sees a different way. Compliment these things, because unlike IQ, they are unlimited!
Here is a quick list from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to get you started on virtues to notice and compliment: Courage, Temperance, Generosity, Greatness of Soul (confidence in a true estimate of your worth), Gentleness, Truthfulness, Justice, Wisdom, Practical Judgement, Thoughtfulness, A True Friend. (1)
Use encouragement instead of praise.
Carrol Dweck beautifully outlines the perils of a fixed mindset and the possibilities of a growth mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (2) Reading her book initially sparked my concern about how to compliment our daughter. When you always tell a child that she is smart or talented, etc., the child will begin incorporating that into her identity. After a while she will be afraid to do anything that could call that praise into question — thus eliminating opportunity for growth.
By encouraging instead of praising, you can sidestep this danger. When my daughter brings home a report card full of A’s, I hope to encourage her hard work, her ability to think deeply and focus on learning, her deeper understanding, and the creative ways she makes meaning of complex subjects. Later, when she calls home thinking about dropping a class in college because she can’t get an A, I will remind her of these character qualities that will help her stick with it. Instead of being devastated that she isn’t “smart” enough, I hope she will hang up the phone and think, “that’s right, I just need to work harder and enjoy what I am learning.”
Another danger of praise is that it breeds dependence. Studies found that college students who need approval from others have higher depression and lower performance in school than those who rely on internal fortitude. (3) As much as I want to shower our daughter with praise, instead I intend to challenge and encourage her to build her own character.
Finally, when in doubt, just ask!
Feel free to ask our daughter what she is proud of today. Ask what she has been working on or what challenges she has been overcoming. Ask why she looks particularly joyful. Ask what is most special about her. Asking shows you care, makes her think about and internalize her values and strengths, and means you are rising above trite compliments like pretty and cute!
A special thank you to @harvestlife_mt for insightful conversations about raising a strong young woman and some amazing photography to capture the sense of adventure we hope to instill in our daughter. Check out her thoughts and photos at https://harvestlifeblog.wordpress.com/about/.
Thank you to all of the mothers and women who have shared their perspective with me thus far. I can only glimpse this world that has become increasingly important to me as I imagine our daughter’s future.
1. Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics.
2. Dweck, Carrol. Mindset, The New Psychology of Success.
3. Kay, Katty & Shipman, Claire. The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know.
Super excited to share our first podcast! Ryan focuses on the power of conversation to move people forward, so we were stoked to get on his show and talk about the power of experiential leadership coaching. Check it out when you get a chance. You'll get the inside track on everything from where the name Cairn Leadership came from to the influence of growing up in the backwoods of Virginia!
Tunes: Cairn Story
SoundCloud: Cairn Story
Stitcher: Cairn Story
As a leader, you can instantly relate to the difficulty of making an important decision with limited time and information. We all feel that pressure- the fear of missing an opportunity, looking foolish, or just getting it plain wrong. Yet leaders bear this burden for better or worse. General Eisenhower observed, “Subordinates can advise, urge, help, and pray, but only one [leader] in [his or her] mind and heart can decide, do we or do we not.” Use these three ideas to make your decisions more confidently!
Like many women and couples today, we have put off children into our 30’s to pursue careers and passions. Talking to women climbing with their kids at the crag or skiing with a kid in their pack, I know that once our baby arrives, we’re going to have to work hard to get out there. Family and friends who are patient, understanding, and willing to lend a hand are essential. But, if you are like us, the mountains fuel your soul. Thank you to the women who have gone before, and good luck to all those considering this journey.
The military loves to say ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast.’ As a young officer, I always thought, “ok, but fast and smooth is still clearly better.” Not so fast. Quick decisions can be important but taking the extra moment to lead with precision and calm, leading from a strong and centered state, will make all the difference!
Don’t let excuses of being too busy or apprehension about discomfort in the outdoors dissuade you from purposefully seeking awe in the natural world. Join me here on the top of Taquitz. Otherwise, find your own favorite hike to a waterfall, favorite sunrise viewing point, beach or any other spot that calls to you. You’ll feel more energy and gratitude for all you do have.
The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” That sounds great, but instead of losing you with another pithy phrase, I would rather climb a mountain with you!
Leadership is incredibly complex, yielding thousands of books, blogs and TED talks on the subject. Studying leadership delves into neuroscience and simultaneously flirts with feel-good quackery. Hard science, social science, philosophy and yes maybe even spirituality are critical to understanding leadership and becoming a great leader.
Despite its complicated nature, I believe that leadership is simply about striving to live a life worth living. Aristotle used ‘virtue’ to describe something doing what it is supposed to do- think a bridge holding traffic without collapsing or a knife cutting well. A virtuous human leads the life a human should lead. People of virtue are worth following. Of course, humans cannot self-define what we are supposed to do, because we did not create ourselves. Nonetheless, to me a good life/leader looks like a kind heart, strong will, and mastery of decision making combined with talents and skill to bring the best out in other people. A good life should foster joy and purpose, and thus to me these two things become a leader's mandate.
We have constructed all kinds of artifices and false expectations around life and leadership. Perhaps for this reason, humans have turned to the wilderness in search of truth for millennia. Imagine Jesus wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, or Thoreau hand shaping planks for his Walden cabin. We find solitude, perspective and quiet happiness in the outdoors. This is the perfect place to start figuring out virtue- how to lead others with joy and purpose!
In the mountains, I learned to value the journey over the destination. It turned out that the summit alone was not worth a 96 hour often physically miserable expedition, but the little joyful moments along the way were! On my yoga mat I learned the power of embracing other people’s energy and kindness. “The light in me acknowledges the light in each of you, namaste.” Slicing across silky waters on a paddle board, I learned the power of poise and patience. Clinging to rock walls, I found out that exerting too much energy would wear me out and cause me to fall, whereas relaxing and focusing on my breath allowed me to divert all my power to its best use. Mountain biking opened the world of ‘flow’ to me. As I blissfully glided from banked turn to banked turn in Port Gamble forest, I realized the importance of focus and mindfulness in my leadership. When we approach these experiences with purpose and an open mind, time in the outdoors rewards us with profound personal insights. Cairn Leadership is about harnessing quality coaching along with these experiences to move people toward becoming great leaders. Examples of time outside cementing important life and leadership lessons will follow in future blogs.
These moments of intense fear, joy, peace and focus have shaped me into the leader I am today. No classroom exercise or PowerPoint, not even the most enthralling book could have pushed me through this journey. Scholarship and books of course have importance, but the human brain learns through experience and emotion. We reinforce and better understand these primal lessons that wilderness and adventure provide for us through logic and analytical thought. At Cairn Leadership Strategies, we strive to balance intuitive, experiential and analytical learning through coaching, reflection, and outdoor experiences.
This approach works for several reasons. First, it is fun. Not like trust falls on a weekend retreat, but reaching the summit of a mountain by pushing through your boundaries fun. Finding joy in a surprise waterfall or song birds waking you in your tent fun. Deep and fulfilling joy that centers a person fun. When we have fun, we will persevere, and honing leadership takes perseverance. The adventure aspect motivates us to enjoy becoming better leaders.
Taking time to become more self-aware and solve problems in the ‘wilderness’ also opens a world of creativity. By leaving our comfort zone and stepping away from daily demands of email and management, we can allow external insights to bolster our strategic approach and leadership. Often my best thoughts come while I run, hike, or ski. What better space could exist to coach leaders! By eliminating myopic focus on a problem, we can arrive at the optimumal solutions and paths forward!
Time outdoors provides solitude and perspective. For a great read on solitude, check out Solitude and Leadership by William Deresiewicz (theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/.) Bottom line, our best thoughts do not generally come first. They take time and concentration to mine out from the depths of the buzzing world around us. Perspective comes from gazing up at powerful mountains or from watching a dragonfly. A friend told me he loves the mountains for their sincerity. They are both unspeakably beautiful and deadly. When we travel into the wilderness, we become part of something obviously larger than ourselves. Survival becomes a common purpose. We thrive together, and we can take that community back to our boardroom or organization. When we watch a dragonfly hover over a pristine lake, we see something worth loving, something worth protecting and believing in. We can take that feeling back to how we treat the people who rely on us as leaders.
For these and many other reasons to follow in future blogs, I deeply believe that connecting with whatever our wilderness might be makes us better people. Better people live virtuous lives and make better leaders. Better leaders create communities of joy and purpose. I think we can all get behind more joy and more purpose in our lives. That said, let’s get outside!