Leadership Lessons From Unlikely Authors: Part 2

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Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa wrote, “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”

I’ve certainly found this to be true as I’ve been packing for our move. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about procrastinating from packing by rediscovering lessons from past reads. And, that particular procrastination has become my go-to activity of late. So, I thought I’d finally post the follow up to that blog and share a few more of the leadership lessons I’ve found in unexpected places.

  1. The best leaders celebrate the unique way each individual contributes to their team. I read Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had it Made, many years ago. As a lifelong baseball fan, the stories of those who made the game great always something I enjoy. And, of course, Robinson’s impact on baseball and the country can’t be understated. Early in the book Robinson recalls his conversation with Branch Rickey about joining the Dodgers. He shares a pivotal thought that was a driving force in his decision to take on the challenge of breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. As Robinson wrestled with the motives Rickey had for offering him a spot on the Dodgers and whether the pain and hardship would be worth the opportunity, Robinson remarks, “The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity.” It was Robinson’s belief in his own dignity, his unwavering knowledge that he was worthy of honor and respect – even at a time where so many were saying just the opposite – that, at least in part, drove him to join the Dodgers. As I read the passage, I was struck by the idea that it wasn’t just a desire to play the game he loved, or to challenge the league’s racial divisions that made Robinson take on this particular challenge. It was also the fact that not doing so would mean sacrificing some of his own sense of dignity, agreeing with the voices that said he wasn’t worthy of the honor of playing professional baseball. I believe that just as baseball offered Robinson the chance to affirm his personal dignity, all people work, at least in part, for the same reason. Our jobs offer us the opportunity to affirm our own belief that we can make a difference for others, that our skills and capabilities are of value, and that who we are can contribute to the benefit of others. Being the best leader you can be means respecting what every member of your team brings to the organization. It requires you to see and celebrate the worth of their contributions. And, it also requires that you provide the feedback they need to maximize the use of their unique talents.
  2. The best organizations focus on building a community, not building systems. As a consultant, I’ve learned a lot from the work of Peter Block. His book, Flawless Consulting, was already somewhat of a classic when I started my consulting career, and many of the ideas I found there influenced the way I approach my work. But, the most important lesson I’ve learned from Block’s work actually comes from his 2008 book on revitalizing American communities, Community: The Structure of Belonging. Writing about the importance of rediscovering collaborative association, Block says, “Systems are an organized group of funded and well-resourced professionals who operate in the domain of cases, clients, and services. Systems are capable of services, but not care.” While Block was focused more on the larger notion of community, I think what he says is also true of how to best organize our places of work. There is clearly value in optimizing your organization at the system level, but if you want to truly care for your team, your shareholders, customers and the broader ecosystem in which you operate, you have to build community. Further, Block notes, building community requires groups that don’t just work in parallel, but relentlessly pursue the type of collaboration where each individual and group contributes their unique capabilities towards achieving a common goal. As a leader, if you want to build a team and organization that is resilient and sustainable, you have to build a community.
  3. Building a team that focuses on others is critical for sustained success. There’s been so much talk in the last several years about the impact of technology on jobs and the workforce. As I was trying to make sense of all that’s been written, I stumbled on Jeff Colvin’s book, Humans are Underrated. If you want a realistic assessment of how humans and machines are likely to collaborate in the workplace of the future, I’d highly recommend this quick read. But, my biggest takeaway wasn’t really about technology. Instead, it was about how to cultivate a team to provide sustained competitive advantage. According to Colvin, “For producing innovations that organizations actually value, intrinsic motivation isn’t enough..people who are intrinsically motivated as well as other-focused produce the most creative and useful ideas.” Colvin points out that building a team that consistently produces ideas that drive organizations, requires finding people who focus beyond themselves. This notion is central to the concept and process of design thinking. In design thinking building deep empathy for customers (or others) is the first step in innovation. The foundational activity of building empathy is all about putting the needs and desires of others in the driver’s seat. And only through deep connection with those needs and desires can you develop a product or service that will be really useful to the end user. Useful innovation is the hallmark of teams and companies that thrive in rapidly changing conditions.

Now that my bookshelf is packed, it’s time for me to go find some new sources of leadership inspiration. I hope after reading this, you’ll also be inspired to look for leadership lessons in whatever you chose to read.

And if you want to expand your reading list, GovLoop is curating a list of helpful resources for telework, here. Or check out the Washington Post’s top reads for 2020 so far.

This article originally appeared on GovLoop.com

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Tim Bowden
Tim Bowden, Partner at gothamCulture, is passionate about providing data-driven, individual and organizational performance improvement solutions that put people first.
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