Starting from Rock Bottom
(IMAGINATION+COMMUNICATION=”LEADING UP” IN A SANE SYSTEM)
Hello again! I hope you’ve been practicing your Love Zone and Spider Sense skills, for three reasons: first, because it’s wonderful to learn that you can do real magic; second, because “leading up” requires such magic, and third, because if you’re in any relatively sane systems, using your magic will create rapid, exciting changes in your life. When this happens, please write to me about it (firstname.lastname@example.org) so that I can ooh, aah, and write you up in future “Team Profiles.”
Assuming that you’re getting in touch with your magic, let’s talk about exactly how you can begin leading from the rock-bottom of a sane system. Remember, we defined a sane system this way: “Situation X, and its leaders aren’t perfect, but on the whole they’re just, fair, responsive, and well-intentioned.”
Caveat Dux (Leader Beware)
Ironically, a healthy, sane system, with kind and intelligent people above you in the power structure, is the place where you’re at the greatest risk of failing to develop your essential Team leadership skills. Your most probable “failure mode” is falling into the role of the faithful, childlike follower, waiting for your superior to give you assignments, fulfilling those assignments, and getting rewarded with money, privileges, approval, or whatever.
Ducks following their dux.
If the powerful people in Situation X are just and kind, you may go on and on playing Follow the Leader, expecting others to come up with all the right instructions for your life. And nobody has those instructions except you. No parent, mentor, or guru, no matter how inspired or motivational, knows what your superpowers are, or how you’re supposed to save the world. Because you have a natural urge to fulfill your destiny, this means that your leader will eventually disappoint you.
I can’t count the number of clients who’ve told me, “I expect you to give me a clear map of my future and make it easy for me to follow the map.” I’ve also had dozens of people say, “I want to do what you do, so clearly, I’m meant to work with you.”
There are all kinds of problems with this logic. Aside from the fact that I have no idea what your destiny holds, I have high anxiety, generalized bewilderment, and the attention span of a gnat. if you really want to “do what I do,” that doesn’t mean tucking in behind me or anyone else; it means making up your life as you go along, relying completely on your intuition and internal compasses, always terrified of the unknown but constantly sailing into it, having no other captain to chart the course or steer the ship.
So remember this: Your destiny is not to be with the “powerful” people you admire. Your destiny is to be like them.
Leading Up, Step One: Think Like the President While You’re Still the Janitor
Back to your “Situation X.” If your spider-senses tell you can trust the individuals above you in the power structure, it takes only a change in your mindset to put you in the leadership role where you belong.
The trick is to see your whole organization (job, family, etc.) as if you were its topmost leader. Imagine you wake up tomorrow, and find you’ve been magically transformed into the CEO of the company that employs you, or the president of the college where you’re a student, or the matriarch/patriarch of your whole extended family. Look at this organization—including your present role—from this Big-Person-In-Charge perspective. You’ll realize some chilling but liberating facts:
- Being a Big-Person-In-Charge isn’t less scary than being low on the totem pole—it’s scarier. In fact, IT’S TERRIFYING. Leaders are just ordinary people with no one to whom they can pass the buck, and no rule book to help them take the next step. As Shakespeare put it, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” The sooner you understand that, the more you’ll be able to serve—i.e., lead.
- Though facing the stark panic of figuring out what to do next, leaders have the freedom to imagine new ways of doing things. This is fabulous news to a Team member, because Teammates are highly creative. As soon as you imagine yourself in the leader’s role, you’ll realize that leading any group of people is as creative as choreographing a dance or writing a novel. It absolutely requires “thinking outside the box.”
- Leadership is also a problem-solving process, like doing a crossword puzzle or getting a rocket to launch. Most non-leaders sit around waiting for leaders to solve the puzzles. If you love science as well as art (and most Teammates fit this description), you’ll find that it’s much more fun to seek solutions than to wait for them. Hard work? You bet your ass. But much more fun than following.
Step Two: Recall the Two-Part Question of all Team Members
The way to deal with the fear, the creative demands, and the problem-solving imperatives of a leader is to return to the question I suggested in my first post:
“Who are my people, and how can I serve them?”
Ask this question of yourself as you play the role of Big-Person-In-Charge for Situation X. How could your company provide better products or services to more people, for less money, while bringing in enough profits to pay your employees well? As president of your university, how could you improve the research and teaching at the school, and how could you best serve the students? As matriarch or patriarch, how would you keep the family harmonious and mutually supportive?
Holding yourself in the Love Zone while empathizing with the very top leaders of Situation X engages your brain and energy in a way that’s totally different from the passive, inevitable resentment of a chronic follower. You’ll start to have ideas. Some of them will be unworkable. Some of them will be interesting. Some of them will be genius.
Right now, imagine that you’re the leader of Situation X, and write down three great ideas for leading the whole social structure into better performance. They don’t necessarily have to be great ideas, but you have to come up with something. As a leader, you have no other option. If this thought leaves you with permafrost of the brain, try a little-known but incredibly effective idea-generator: get silly.
Step Three: If You Get Stuck, Lead for Laughs
If you need proof that you, yes you, are a genius leader, try some of the exercises in comic Katie Goodman’s new book Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a More Creative, Spontaneous, and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy. (Better yet,come to the Improvisational Comedy workshop Katie and I are holding in January. See “events” on this site for details.) I’ve used the exercises in Katie’s books with friends, clients, my wonderful Master Coaches, and my kids. I’ve found that they help people become instant leaders.
The wondrous thing about improv is that it throws you into a situation that’s exactly like the role of a leader in the real world: You have no option but to forget your nerves, get creative, and solve whatever problem is at hand—and by God, within seconds, your brain starts generating wonderful ideas, ideas that astonish everyone, especially you.
Doing this for laughs is phenomenally powerful training, because it helps you think of things that are totally “out of the box,” and—even more important—puts you in the Love Zone. (In fact, remembering group laughter is one of the quickest ways to return to the Zone whenever you need extra magic. Want to go to the Zone right now? Watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXXm696UbKY
So: What is the silliest thing your group or organization could do to serve your people?
Excellent. Now think of five more silly solutions. Write everything down.
Step Four: Try Random Association
Once you’re limbered up with silly stuff, try this to generate even more leadership ideas: Pick nouns at random from the dictionary, or spot objects around you in your environment, and think of a way your group or organization could serve people better using whatever crops up.
Let’s try this right now. Imagine that you’re the Big-Person-In-Charge of Situation X. Think of a problem you need to solve to serve your people better (for example, making cheaper and more decorative bongs, bringing better students to your university, throwing a family party where no one gets physically or emotionally injured). Now, still in the role of top leader, solve the problem you’ve targeted, using the following objects:
- Beagles (of course).
- Cell phones.
- Popcorn balls.
- DVD technology.
- Pictures of children.
Think of a solution using each and every one of these items, even if it sounds stupid. What you’re doing is revving up your right brain hemisphere so it can deliver new ideas to your critical, calculating, verbal left hemisphere. Both are needed in leadership, and since your left-brain has been educated up the yinyang by our current society, the right-brain exercises above will begin to balance the equation.
Beagles: The Universal Solution
Once you start generating leadership ideas, the final step is easy—in a sane system. We’ll cover dysfunctional and evil situations in upcoming posts. But in a power structure where all your higher-ups are basically stable, open, and honest, you just have to start making a little noise.
Step Five: Talk It Up
In sane-and-sensible Situation X, everyone—especially the top leaders—is eager to hear any good ideas about how to serve more effectively. So, as your newly energized brain starts cooking up ideas your top boss can use, your leadership task—even if you’re the janitor—is to communicate those ideas. To everyone.
It took a ridiculously long time for me to realize I could “lead up” at O, the Oprah Magazine, where I’m a columnist. Each month, I waited like a nice, passive follower for my editor and her team to come up with topics for my monthly article. Then one day I thought of the craziest thing—maybe I should send my editor a few topic ideas of my own.
My editor immediately responded with an email labeled “Wowza!” She wasn’t only open to my ideas, she was thrilled. I’d never thought how much I could help her (not to mention her boss, her boss’s boss, and our ultimate boss, the readers) by leading my work as a columnist instead of expecting to be led. This would be immediately apparent to my dog, who has the intellectual prowess of kelp. But me, with my Harvard degrees? It took years.
Here’s another example: My friend Billy, a producer at a 24-hour news network, started out by “picking up garbage in the control room” as an intern. But he also had great story ideas, as well as thoughts about how to book good media commentators. He was cheerfully open about these ideas, got hired almost immediately, and rose like a rocket in the organization.
Another dear friend, Betsy, stepped in as a leader when her mother was diagnosed with an extremely grim case of cancer. Betsy learned more than most doctors know about her mother’s illness and its treatment. As her mom later told, me, Betsy wasn’t one bit shy about sharing her ideas, research, questions, and suggestions about the optimal course of treatment. By “leading up,” Betsy helped win 17 more healthy years with her wonderful mother. (Studies show that patients who take a leadership role relative to their doctors have far better survival odds than those who stay in a passive follower role.)
This is an opportunity to “lead up.”
What If Things Don’t Work Out So Well?
It may be that you’ll try the methods above—imagining yourself in the top leadership role of Situation X, getting creative, and voicing your ideas to others—and get an icky surprise. Instead of realizing that you’re helping everyone in the organization by leading from below, those “above” you may feel threatened, or steal your ideas, or tell you that there’s no precedent for what you’re suggesting, so the company’s going to go right on manufacturing wooden cart wheels until this “car fad” dissipates. This means Situation X isn’t as sane as you thought. It’s either dysfunctional or (much more rarely) evil.
Oops. Wrong system.
Oh, well, now you know.
The great thing about leading from below is that there’s always more where that came from. As a Team member, you don’t have the option of lapsing into a follower role and losing your destiny. The universe (yes, I know, I know, but it’s true) will not allow it. You’ll just have to change tactics. To what? You can find out in my upcoming blog posts.
If your “System X” is sane, however—be it a family, a company, a school, a political party, or a baboon troupe—think like the leader of the whole shebang, and do it out loud. Before you know it, people will not only listen to you, but want to give you formal titles and accolades. Soon, you’ll have to read about “leading down,” and by a fabulous coincidence, I’ll probably be writing about that very thing.