We Cannot Be the Giving Tree

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I never knew why, but part of me always hated the story The Giving Tree. It’s not that I don’t understand love. I have three wonderful boys and I would do anything for them. And it’s not just that it’s a sad story because both the boy and the tree are even somewhat happy in the end.

Maybe it’s that the Giving Tree gave everything to the boy and then that’s all it had. What if the boy lived another 20 years and wanted to keep coming back to the Tree, but because the Tree had given too much, it couldn’t give anymore?

That’s the problem with sacrificing yourself. You lay yourself down at whatever alter you chose with the belief that your sacrifice will define you, but I say that’s hogwash. It’s not the loss of you that defines you. It’s you. It’s your love, your passion, your ideas, your effort, and your relationships.

If you sacrifice your whole being just to satisfy the whim of a short-sighted boy (even if you love them more than your life) then you cannot give him anything more, even if he needs you more in the future.

As a leader sometimes we need to be like a tree. Strong. Standing tall. Ready to support our followers , whether they’re our children, our employees, our friends, or our students. But unlike the Giving Tree, we need to take care of ourselves. We can’t give everything away without demanding new fertilizer and water for ourselves. To not do so is short-sighted. Then we can only give so much. If we take care of ourselves and continue growing, we can support more people. We can let them reach even greater heights.

We’ve all known people who just want to keep giving. They can’t say no, even as it eats them away. I’ve been in the headspace as well—feeling like my worth was defined only by what I could provide for my family. Then a very wise man pointed out that I would never want my children to feel that way. They are precious and worth far more than just a sacrifice for someone else. Then he pointed out that the best way to teach them that was to Lead By Example.

Talk about a mind shift that knocked me off my feet.

So, what can we do? How can we keep going, keep giving and giving while still holding onto our spark?

We are social animals and many things about our evolution supports our need for other people. Meditation and a day at the spa may help relax us and give us focus, but I think a critical part of the recharging process is a great set of friends. Like batteries that get used up every time we give something of ourselves to another person, we need people that will help recharge us.

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Feeling loved, feeling valued, feeling understood.  It involves someone giving something of them to us…their time, their ears, their patience, their effort or their silence. And that’s OK. We all need a group of people that we can call on to give us a bit of themselves, every once in a while. With friends, it’s give and take and it allows us to keep giving ourselves, over and over again.

The truly selfless act may be to be a little bit selfish, after all.

 

by Veronica Ciolfi

*Beautiful picture at the top by Jonathan Sammy.

Where’s the Damn List

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I’m busy. You’re busy. Everyone’s busy these days.  And maybe some of you are hoping that I’ll just get on with things and get to the list already. I mean, there has to be a list of what a leader needs to do, right? Bullet points are fine, but numbered lists are better. Well, the good news is there are lots of lists out there.

Forbes has their Leader’s Checklist , the Canadian Forces had their simple list before they updated their manuals and Howard Behar has his list from working at Starbucks.

The problem is not that there aren’t lists, the problem is that there isn’t just one. And it’s not a matter of taking all the lists out there and squishing them together, either. The problem is what works one time might not work the next and what works for one person, might not work for another.

A few weeks ago, I brought up the possibility of using non-linear science as a metaphor for leadership.  This idea made so much sense when I heard Brenda Zimmerman talking about complexity theory in our Leadership class. She said there are three types of problems:

1. Simple problems. These can be solved using a set of instructions like using a recipe to make a cake. If you follow the recipe, you should get a pretty good cake every time. The outcome is known.

2. Complicated problems. These are difficult problems like sending a rocket to the moon. Here, you need protocols, formulas and expertise. If you are successful, it increases the chances of doing it again. The outcome is knowable.

3. Complex problems. These are like raising a child. As any parent knows, having a set of protocols that are strictly adhered is almost impossible (if not laughable), and just because a certain technique worked on one child doesn’t mean it will work on the next. These types of problems are relationship-based and the outcome is unknowable.

When we think of science, we usually think of simple or complicated problems. However, leadership problems are complex. The starting conditions cannot be used to predict the final outcome. Think of gathering your team together for their first meeting. You can run the exact same meeting for every team you work with but the end results will be different every time.

Complexity has its origins in chaos theory which is not about randomness but rather patterns that develop. It’s non-linear, which means that small changes to the system can produce unpredictable results (think the Butterfly Effect) and it has emergent properties that come from the interactions between the people. Let’s go back to the example of the first team meeting. As a leader, you can give the exact same opening speech, assign the same tasks and the pattern of behaviour for each team will be different. This seems logical because each person has their own unique personality, but we can also say that each team is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). Complex Adaptive Systems  are made up of independent agents (people) that interact because of common goals, outlooks or other needs. They are also adaptive—new relationships form, old ones may dissolve—and that is what makes them so challenging.

This is why there are so many lists. Each list is successful sometimes. This also helps explain why some managers are successful even though they possess what you might consider to be terrible leadership skills. Like the micromanaging leader that controls every aspect of your work life and is driving you crazy. Their style of interacting with people is successful sometimes. Some people like the constant guidance. The same holds true for the boss that’s on Facebook all day. Some people like being left to their own devices. The problem is that these successes can reaffirm a particular leadership style if it never occurs to the leader that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

So how do we ensure that we’re more useful as leaders than just occasionally?

Just as your team is constantly adapting and evolving, you need to as well. As leaders, I think we also have to be willing to concede that we don’t have full control of the situation; that eventually, we have to let our kids get on the school bus by themselves and see what emerges. It doesn’t mean we aren’t involved. We still have to lead. But instead of looking at the little details, we have to look at the wider situation. The patterns and interactions usually tell a story much earlier than a failed project or missed deadline.

This means that leadership is messy and unpredictable. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we get it right. Which means that about the only thing I can think of to put on a Leadership To Do List is this:

1. You have to try.

I think that’s a great place to start.