5 Leadership Practices To Try Today


Congratulations to Ewa who won the draw for last week’s survey. The book is on its way! I’m still crunching numbers and trying to figure out what all the data means, so stay tuned for those results. In the mean time, here are 5 easy things to do today to flex your leadership muscles.

1. Give Praise. Yes, of course giving critique is part of a leader’s job, but so is giving praise. The problem is that it’s harder to give praise than people think. “Good job” just doesn’t cut it. Praise, like good critique, has to be specific and tied to a person’s actions. Whether you chose to give your praise publicly or privately will depend on the situation, but it should always be given honestly.

2. Empower. It’s easy just to answer the question you’re asked, but instead, think if it’s appropriate to show them how to find the answer for themselves. Can you teach them how to print the report or run the query? Good leadership isn’t about keeping these tasks to yourself so you can be powerful, it’s about giving away as many as you can, so you actually have time to lead your team.

3. Learn Something New. There’s lots of research out there that shows learning keeps your brain young. It also introduces you to new ideas and allows you to challenge your paradigms. I believe one of the fundamental jobs of a leader is to allow for (and encourage) innovation. To do that, a leader needs to be open and able to understand different ways things can be connected.

4. Forgive Yourself.  Growth and innovation doesn’t happen in spurts, it happens through tiny little experiments we try every day. Many of those experiments will fail. We have to be okay with that or we will never try anything new. So let go of whatever latest mistake you’re berating yourself for and go try something new. Again and again and again.

5. Reconnect. We cannot be the giving tree. Even leaders need support and encouragement. Reconnect with someone you’ve been thinking about. Go out for coffee. Give them a call. Let them know you’ve been thinking about them. Not only will it make you feel better, but it warms their day as well.

All Roads Lead to Innovation


When I started this blog, the first thing I did was look at my definition of leadership: Leadership is the courage to bring people together and the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things.

But it didn’t dawn on my until now, how that connects with everything I’ve been pursuing in my life. My work with early-stage biotechs, my experiences in the cadet program, the choice of subjects I picked during my MBA…it all leads to a study of innovation–how to encourage it and how to develop its ideas and bring them to reality. The biotech angle and the school courses are obvious how they fit in, but it’s only now that I’ve been able to tie my feelings on leadership to innovation. I just realized how fundamentally they are linked.

The most vital job of a leader is to make sure there’s an environment where innovation can occur.

The funny thing is this clicked into place during the adult karate training camp I just attended, because even karate leads to innovation. We were watching the leadership video from Simon Sinek on why good leaders make you feel safe. He says that leaders are responsible for creating a circle of safety for the tribe, which is necessary for innovation to occur. Otherwise, we spend all of our energy protecting ourselves from each other.

However, safety is only half the equation. Most innovation results in failure and people have to feel safe failing, but the other problem stopping innovation is that some organizations are too safe and are swimming in a sea of complacency. A leader also has to help the tribe identify the danger they are fighting. And there’s always danger, regardless of the industry, regardless of where it is in its life cycle, regardless of what the competition is currently doing. Because things change all the time.

So maybe when we talk about a lack of innovation, what we’re really talking about is a leadership problem. And we’re talking about a lack of innovation all the time, only the solution hasn’t been to change the leadership, the solution has become to buy up innovative companies instead. (See tech giants, Valeant Pharmaceuticals.)

Instead of defining the danger, instead of providing an environment where the tribe can create new and wonderful things, the leaders just make the circle bigger, relying on the fact that someone else has already created it. The problem never really gets fixed, just postponed a little bit longer. But if we look smaller, not bigger, focusing on the smallest units within our organizations and empowering them and protecting them, allowing them to try and fail and try again, we can start to create (and destroy and create again) thousands of new, and wonderful things.

And sometimes at this lowest level, we’re just an accidental leader. We didn’t wake up this morning intent on world domination, we’re just supervisors, parents, teachers, team leads, neighbors, and office mates. But, I think that’s the most important position of all.


Veronica Ciolfi

Follow the Leader


So last week, I was in the car, heading to my parents’ house to drop off the baby. Another car cut me off and I may have sworn a tiny bit. I forgot I had an audience in the back seat.

Son#3: Shit!
Me: Oh no!
Son#3: Oh no! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
Me: *moment of panic* Sweetie…that’s not a nice word. You shouldn’t say it.
Son#3: Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
Me:  Wait! Nose! Where’s your nose?
Son#3: Nose, nose, nose, nose….
Me: *whew*

The joys of toddlerhood. Turns out they’re actually paying attention. Sadly, I didn’t learn my lesson. A few days later, I was trying to get out of a parking lot but because of construction and a poorly parked truck, I was blocked in. I may have cursed just a tiny bit more.

Son #3: Uck!
Me: Nooooo!
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: I don’t suppose you’re saying truck?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: *banging head on steering wheel*
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: What about duck?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: Where’s your nose?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: I think Mommy has to go sit in time-out.

This story illustrates how critical it is to lead by example. Whether you have a toddler or adults that look up to you, one of the quickest and easiest ways I’ve seen to lose all credibility as a leader (and parent) is to spout the nonsense, “Do as I say, not as I do”.

A remember a few years ago, when Son #1 was in grade one, he asked for a list of bad words he wasn’t allowed to say because he didn’t want to say one by accident and get in trouble for it. So that got us talking because, as seen above,  the occasional bad word has slipped past my filters and Son #1 wanted to know why he couldn’t swear. I tried the honest approach and told him it would make me look like a bad parent.

He laughed.

Then we came to a compromise. He can’t use a bad word unless he can tell me exactly what it means, why it’s inappropriate to use the word and what effect he’s trying to create by using it in that context. I will happily do the same, if he’s interested. It turns out that he’s not that interested and would rather play video games.

I have a hunch that the same approach isn’t going to work with Son #3.  I wonder if he’ll appreciate a discourse on the finer points of microeconomics while I drive, instead?

Where’s the Damn List



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.

Authority comes from above–Leadership is granted from below


Seven-thirty every morning, I sit on the couch and watch Thomas the Tank Engine. I’m not a big fan, but as far as son #3 is concerned–well, TRAINS! The lesson a few mornings ago was that James didn’t like to be told what to do by a lowly freight car. James, after all, is an ENGINE. And, of course, James ended up in trouble because he didn’t listen. He then had to go back to the freight car for help in solving the problem.

As my mind wandered from the happy singing on TV, I got to thinking– that happens way too often. I’ve seen it countless times. A newly promoted manager with something to prove, that feels like they can’t afford to listen to their followers because that would threaten their authority. After all, why did they get promoted if they don’t have all the answers? Or, they feel the need to flex their authority-muscles to show everyone they’re in charge.

The problem is authority and leadership are two vastly different things.

An organization can give you authority to decide things. Followers have to give you permission to lead them. Sure, you can “force” people to do what you say. You can assign someone to sweep the floors or file the backlog of papers. But unless they buy in or have some other reason to try and please you, they will do the bare minimum necessary to keep their job. And if they’re only trying to please you to make a good impression? Eventually someone else will come along that they want to impress more. They will have no loyalty toward you or your team.

We usually gain authority in an organization for a variety of reasons: maybe we hold the right degree or accreditation, or maybe we were just really good at our previous job. Unfortunately, the traits that got us the promotion are rarely the traits that will make us great leaders. And while we can most certainly have leadership without authority, authority without leadership leads to very bad things.

Which brings me to my favorite quote on leadership from One Bullet Away, written by Nathaniel Fick:

” Strong combat leadership is never by committee. Platoon commanders must command, and command in battle isn’t based on consensus. It’s based on consent. Any leader wields only as much authority and influence as is conferred by the consent of those he leads. The Marines allowed me to be their commander, and they could revoke their permission at any time.”

The Marine Corps gave Lt Fick the authority to command. But, he realized that unless he earned the respect, trust and loyalty of the men in his platoon, he would never actually be leading. If anyone is interested in the story, I highly recommend watching Generation Kill.  You can read the article it was originally based on  archived here.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the military (it’s just harder to find news articles about good or bad middle managers).

So how do we develop the traits that make us successful leaders? I think we need to switch our focus. I don’t think it was a coincidence that James was the engine that had trouble listening to the freight car. After all, he’s the one “that’s vain, but lots of fun“.

Getting promoted likely involved honing our own skills. Now we need to switch our focus so that we’re not just concerned with how well we’re doing, but rather how well the people in our team are doing. We have to value them as people and employees. We have to listen to them.

If James had been a little less focused on himself and actually believed that the freight car had a valuable opinion, then the show would have been disappointingly short for my toddler, but maybe a little less mind numbing for me.

Then again, I guess it’s not just about me.