Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Tool for Leaders: Just STOP

We live in a fast-paced world.  Information is flying at us quickly and delivered to us in a million ways, including on devices that fit in the palm of our hands. 

Because of this, there seems to be a move in our society towards greater speed and efficiency.  More value is placed on getting a lot of things done quickly instead of getting a few things done well.  Oh well, speed is king nowadays.  As Yogi Berra once said to his wife as they were lost driving to Cooperstown: “We’re completely lost, but we’re making good time!”

I used to believe in that too, but now I’m letting my perspective change.  I used to be a very difficult person to lead – especially for my supervisors (there are at least 4 people out there nodding right now).  I liked to move fast, because I had too much confidence.  I wasn’t very willing to let my ideas be challenged, or slowed down.  If it’s a good idea, then let’s just do it! 

Well, you can only ignore the teachings of The Tortoise and the Hare for so long.  I now understand the value of slowing down.

A friend of mine who is a consultant for nonprofit organizations, Jim Thorne, once taught me a very simple tool for leaders.  He got it from the book The Inner Game of Work by Timothy Gallwey.  When I first heard it, I thought it might be too obvious and too simplistic.  As I experience more and more of organizational life, I’ve learned that its simplicity is an asset, and that its use is far too rare.

In another essay, I argued that discipline is a far more important skill for leaders than vision.  This tool follows that same line of thinking.  Instead of accepting the popular view that leaders need to be the quick-witted, fast-moving, never-let-a-second-pass-between-a-question-and-answer types, they should instead be discerning, thoughtful, and wise.  Instead of Daniel Laruso, they should be Mr. Miyagi.  Instead of a roman candle, they should be a slow-burning one. 

The tool?  Just STOP.

1. Step Back
2. Think
3. Organize Your Thoughts
4. Proceed

I told you it was pretty simple.  But yet, how often would using this tool save us from disasters?  I have observed way too many meetings (especially related to boards) in which the desire to get the meeting over with causes the acceptance of rash and ill-conceived ideas.  I have also seen leaders (including the man in the mirror) hit send on an email before really thinking it through.  You have probably been a part of a meeting that goes for an hour before someone has to ask, “what is the purpose of this meeting again?” 

The tool has more uses that just to cool the heat of the moment, or to give proper thought to an idea.  The STOP tool can be helpful in any of these ways:

For the fraternity/sorority board of directors:  Use the tool in strategic planning to prevent unimportant things from competing with core issues (in other words, to get you back out of the weeds).

For the fraternity/sorority executive director:  Use the tool before returning a call to the news reporter.

For the fraternity/sorority advisor:  Use the tool to help pull the officer team out of dangerous groupthink.

For the fraternity/sorority house manager:  Use the tool before storming down the hall to confront the member who is slacking on their responsibilities.

For the fraternity/sorority president:  Use the tool before and after the chapter meeting.

For the fraternity/sorority member:  Use the tool when a potential member asks you: “why should I join?”

One of my favorite authors, Margaret Wheatley, once wrote:

“We have to slow down.  Nothing will change for the better until we do.  We need time to think, to learn, to get to know each other.  We are losing these great human capacities in the speed-up of modern life, and it is killing us.”

I agree completely.  If life is some grand race, feel free to get to the finish line first.  I’m learning that, more often than I ever thought before, it pays to STOP.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Like a Fraternity"

Fraternity men and women often feel like they are under attack.  And, to be honest, they often are.  It’s true that newspapers are more likely to print a negative story than a positive one.  And, it’s become common for university administrators to publicly chide the fraternities and sororities on their campuses in the hope that the students will accept it as a call to action.  Even those of us who advocate strongly for Greek-letter organizations can join the chorus of critics. 

Because of this, fraternity and sorority members can feel isolated and misunderstood.  We believe that we’re the only ones who truly understand the power of our experience.  How often have you heard or used the phrase “you just don’t get it until you are a part of it?”  It makes us defensive and possibly insecure. 

We feel unloved.  Disrespected.  Misunderstood.

However, I was reminded of something in the past week:  fraternity is still a powerful word.  One that deserves to be cherished.

In the midst of our worry about how the media and general public regards us, let’s not forget that “fraternity” is a word that people often race to when they want to describe the best of human relationships.

I was watching a special on ESPN that featured many football players who had won a Super Bowl ring.  One of the players told the host that winning the ring was made all the more significant because it meant that he joined a “fraternity” of men who shared the same achievement.  He looked around a room full of athletes who had achieved the pinnacle of excellence in their profession and decided the term “fraternity” applied best.

I was also watching a CNN feature on the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black fighter squadron in WWII that is the subject of a new movie, “Red Tails.”  One of the airmen, Wilbur Mason, reflected on his time with his peers and found the word “fraternity.”  The full quote reads:

So it was like a fraternity. There was a tremendous amount of brotherhood because guys were helping each other, you know. A fellow couldn`t perform to some degree or could bear something immediately, his buddies would jump in and try to encourage him and teach him.”

Imagine the bonds forged by these pilots, who were not only battling racism, but also the fears of death and war.  That type of bond and connection deserves only the strongest possible word.  Yeah, fraternity sounds right. 

Fraternity is also a word uttered by firefighters who pledge an oath together and then walk into a building falling down.  Police officers and others who know the value of brotherhood when stepping into harm’s way also know the term very well.

Back to football: I remember an article a couple of years ago that caught my eye because of its title.  It was an essay entitled “We Are a Fraternity,” written by a former NFL player regarding the tragic death of Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry.  For this author, the term fraternity meant the unique shared experiences that brought together men who would otherwise have never connected.

A Google search for fraternity is not always a pretty picture.  The fact that the media will find and exploit the worst of us is now a given, and hardly worth complaining about.  In some minds, and in some places, the term fraternity has been trashed.  It’s the punchline for a joke, or the way to describe juvenile behavior.  Honestly, there will always some measure of negative public perception that we wish weren’t there.

But in those moments, when we feel the world is against us, let’s remember that our primary identity – fraternity – is still a word that positively symbolizes eternal bonds.  And this will continue, as long as we honor  the power of that word.  We simply cannot take it for granted.  

When others in our world choose to use that word to describe the best aspects of their lives, it’s as though they are saying to us: “you may have some problems, you may not be perfect, but when you are at your best, you are exactly what we aspire to be…”

“…a Fraternity.”