Leadership Lesson #1: Starting together means nothing

Usery Mountain #1

Not long ago my 17-year-old son and I went on a hike on Usery Mountain just north of Mesa, Arizona. We took on the Pass Mountain Trail, a seven-mile loop around the mountain which summits about two thirds of the way along the trail.

It wasn’t a particularly arduous climb but the intensity was elevated for us because we were pressed for time: he was catching a flight back home to Minneapolis in just a few hours. We had less time to do the hike than we would have liked.  As I raced across the mountain, numerous leadership lessons surfaced.

In the coming weeks I will document twenty of them.  With titles like “You will probably not crash to your death” and “Sometimes it is best not to look down” and “Appreciate occasional and unexpected lushness,” I share the leadership lessons that showed up for me on the mountain.

These leadership lessons will help you communicate and lead more effectively whether you lead from the board room or the lunch room.

 

Leadership Lesson #1:

Just because you start together doesn’t mean you will end together.

My son Andrew and I started the hike together.  This was before he told me that his spirit animal was a mountain goat. I didn’t know he had a spirit animal. I didn’t even know he was that, well, spiritual.

We weren’t three minutes from the trail head when he and his long, lean legs began to outpace me. Considerably.

For the next 30 minutes, I struggled to keep up. At 6’1” he’s got a solid seven inches on me and it’s mostly in his legs. He’s also got minus 29 years on me.  And while I like to think I’m in shape, this boy runs cross country, cross country skis, and could skip lithely over the rugged terrain in a way I could never do. Not even at his age.

Those 30 minutes were pure agony.

I huffed.

I puffed.

I willed him to slow down.

I worried about him.

I worried about me.

I tried so hard to keep up.

I tried even harder not to be mad at him.

As I saw him round a corner at least a half mile ahead of me, his neon yellow tank top a stark contrast to the greys, beiges and soft greens of the desert terrain, I realized he wasn’t waiting for me to catch up. Loping along at a comfortable pace for his long legs, he didn’t appear concerned with me at all.

In that moment it hit me: We could both enjoy this hike (which I hadn’t been up until this point!) while being on the mountain simultaneously, each at a pace that suited us individually.

After this mountainous realization (pun so very much intended), I relaxed my pace and found my groove. I started to enjoy myself and take in my surroundings. And there, in that moment, the first leadership lesson appeared: Just because you start together doesn’t mean you will finish together . . . or should even keep the same pace.

Whether it is a freshman year roommate, grad school colleague, or someone who started with your current employer on the same day as you, that’s all it means: You started together. It doesn’t mean you are going to keep pace and it certainly doesn’t mean you are going to end together.

Letting go of feeling that we had to stay together and that I was supposed to keep up (or that he was supposed to wait up) was liberating.

I let go of comparison.

I let go of self-flagellation (at least about the hike).

I let go of judgement.

And I began to enjoy the hike.

 

  • 4

    picture-frame-1

    people_in_meeting1

    The six directors sat with Jim, their VP, brainstorming ways to get out of their latest technological dilemma. Several features on their flagship product would not work with the new database upgrade they were undertaking. The ideas were flowing, but the “breakthrough” idea that would solve their problem remained elusive.

    “How about re-writing the code in R?” Sharon asked, proposing they use a relatively new statistical programming language that’s particularly useful for visualizing big data.

    “Yeah right, like Rrrrr’s going to magically fix everything. Do you even know how long it would take to rewrite the whole thing in R?” Steven muttered.

    Sharon was at a loss for how to respond. The spirit of Steven’s comment broke from the collaborative nature of their brainstorming meeting. There wasn’t anything in Steven’s berating of her idea that was easy to respond to or challenge directly. Rather, the comment felt like a dig, and it felt personal.

    “What do you mean?” Sharon put forth, working hard to manage her emotions and not become defensive.

    “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” Steven shot back snidely.

    “Let’s take some time to think through the ideas that we put on the table today,” Jim said, curtailing a situation that was likely to go from bad to worse. “We’ll regroup tomorrow, same time.”

    Sharon left the meeting feeling defeated, both personally and professionally.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    What happened in the meeting? Steven broke the frame.

    picture-frame-1

    What frame, you ask? Well, every conversation has a frame, or a set of indirect and implicit messages – or meta-messages – that tell us what is going on.

    Framing, a concept developed by anthropologist and communication theorist Gregory Bateson, provides context. It gives clues about what we mean when we say something. Much like a picture frame wraps around a picture and provides a style for the picture (classic, antique, modern, etc.), a frame provides stylistic cues and meaning in conversation.

    The frame in conversation, indirect and unspoken, sends messages about what we think is going on and our attitude about the messages in the conversation.

    The initial frame in the conversation above had a spirit of collaboration and trust. Steven’s remark broke the collaborative frame.

    If you try to name a frame, you indirectly invoke another one. For example, when Sharon asked “What do you mean?” she questioned his changing of the frame. That provoked Steven and he went on the defensive, shooting back a snide remark. In effect, he was saying ‘How dare you challenge me and my reframing?’

    When we feel reframed by others, like Sharon did by Steven, there are two choices: accept the reframe or resist it.  In order to do either one effectively, we must recognize that a reframe has occurred. That means, we need to be paying attention to not only what is being said but also how it is being said.

    In asking Steven about the reframe (“What do you mean by that?”) Sharon challenged his reframe. In order to resist his reframe, Sharon could have said something like this (in a most collaborative tone): “Steven, thank you for keeping us grounded in reality. We do have to account for the resources of our potential solutions. Could you provide us with an estimate of how long it would take to rewrite the code?”

    In every turn of the conversation we are either accepting the frame or rejecting it and reframing. Listening for the frame can provide great insight as to the dynamics and the power of those in the conversation.

    When was the frame switched on you? What were the results?

    Share your thoughts in the comments.

  • 0