Leadership Lessons from the Skinny Branch

A guest post by Terrie Lupberger
Looking back, the signs were all there but I failed to acknowledge them. As CEO of an international learning company for nine years, I had been slowly snipping off the corners of myself, unknowingly, bit by bit, in order to fit into a role that no longer served me or I it. Instead of paying attention to my declining health and mood, I plunged deeper into busyness and drove myself (and, unfortunately, everyone around me) even harder. When the President and I finally had the conversation and agreed it was time for me to step down I was overcome, surprisingly, with relief.
In retrospect I see that I was a leader who had lost touch with what I most cared about. I was no longer in touch with the meaning my work had always provided me. The direction we were headed was no longer aligned with the newly emerging vision I had for my life. I had lost my vitality and joy. As a dear friend of mine said to me during those difficult days, “Terrie, you were out on the skinny branch – you know the one that easily breaks with a strong wind. You were so busy and overwhelmed and out of touch with your own values, cares and vision that you failed to pay attention to the breaking branch.”
It was a difficult transition. I had to face my own critical self-assessments, ‘blind spots’ and leadership weaknesses. I had to learn to separate my work and career from my sense of self-worth and value. I had to get clear about the future I wanted to design vs. what others wanted and expected from me.
My experience is a common one among leaders and business professionals. We are deluged on a daily basis with details, problems, possibilities, conversations, meetings, action steps, spreadsheets, stakeholder demands, customer requests. (If you are a woman you can likely add to this equation your other priority as a mother or care-giver.) It’s easy to ignore the external and internal messages warning us that we are in overwhelm, out of touch, or heading off-course. It’s easy to lose sight of what we most care about and when we do, we end up drained, depleted or worse. Days, months, even years go by as we slowly and unknowingly creep out onto that skinny branch where it’s just a matter of time before a good strong wind causes the branch to break and takes the form of illness, depression, complacency, burn-out or worse.
One of my favorite sayings is ‘without awareness you don’t have choice, you have habits’. I wanted to take a look at the habits I had formed as a leader that weren’t serving me or the organization. I learned three important lessons about the power of paying attention that might be relevant to those of you who suspect that you, too, are out on that skinny branch.

Lesson #1 -Leaders pay attention to meaning

Leaders ensure that the actions of their teams and the individual contributors are in alignment with the objectives and goals of the organization and that those actions are as efficient and effective as possible to achieve success (however that is defined). That’s a very functional and common interpretation of leadership. However, some contemporary thinkers and writers on the topic of leadership would say we’ve become painfully obsessed with ‘effectiveness’ in our culture to the detriment of satisfaction, enjoyment and meaning in the workplace.
Consider that another interpretation of leadership is that leaders also create meaning for those effective actions. Great leaders help connect what the individuals in the organization are doing to what they care about. They help align those individual cares with the bigger picture of why the organization exists and what the organization is taking care of through its work.
Why does this matter? Because meaning provides purpose and people with purpose will take intentional action – actions taken by design and thoughtfulness – not actions that are simply the result of reacting to circumstances. They will bring more enthusiasm and creativity to their work. Contrary to our cultural conditioning, meaning isn’t relegated to only our personal lives. Meaning is an essential element at work as well. We invest too much time and energy at work to have meaning absent from such a huge part of our lives.
Consider that meaning is based on what we care about. In fact, you can’t generate meaning without knowing what it is you care about. A leader connected and aligned to what they care about is a powerful organizational force. They create compelling visions and possibilities for the individuals in the organization to align their own cares with. They paint a picture of the future that others want to be part of. They build a bridge between what the individual cares about and how that ties in with the mission/vision/work of the organization. You can actually sense it when you walk into an organization where the members are operating from their care.
Contrast that image with an organization where the members and leaders are not connected to what they care about. The tasks themselves become empty, tedious if not downright laborious. It’s not uncommon for the members to feel like they are sacrificing for a paycheck or job security. It’s hard to be creative and innovate from that place.
I was going through the motions doing what I knew to do, what was familiar and known but without the enthusiasm or creativity that usually accompanied it. I also didn’t want to admit that my vision for the future would take me in a different direction. This role had become my identity. Who would I be if not this? When I finally created some space and time to consider what mattered most to me, I realized that it had changed over the years and without the awareness of that I kept trying to fit myself into a role that no longer fit.

Lesson #2 – Leaders pay attention to where their attention is going

In addition to learning that I wasn’t paying attention to how care was showing up for me or the other members in my organization, I also realized that part of my burnout resulted from me putting attention on the wrong things as well.
After nine years of birthing and growing a start-up, I was still doing some of the same tasks I did when we were just starting out – when all of us did whatever it took to keep the business going. In the habit of performing and doing the work, I was now neglecting some of the more critical tasks related to building thriving teams, developing individual talent
and great performers and scaling the business.
This, too, is a pretty common phenomenon among leaders. Most rise through the ranks because of their competence at getting the job done. They have technical expertise and often work harder than anyone else.
This was my path as well. I started my career as a senior financial analyst but three years later was assigned to lead a branch of 50+ employees – with zero management training. I ran as fast as I could, metaphorically speaking, to fill in all the gaps of knowledge, skills and abilities that the job required that I didn’t have. I was a stellar ‘performer’ thrust into management. As my career progressed, I was promoted into various leadership positions but still kept performing and doing the work. I didn’t know that leaders are not performers. Rather, leaders are the customers for good performers and are responsible for growing good performers. I’m not talking about the traditional definition of customer here where you have someone external to a company who buys something. In this context I mean a customer is anyone to whom you make a promise.
Leaders elicit promises from their teams and individual contributors that, when all combined, ensure that the desired outcomes and success measures of the organization are accomplished. To be a good customer for these promises leaders have to make clear requests, let the performers know when they aren’t performing to standards or deadlines, coach and support the performers to address or resolve issues jeopardizing the fulfillment of their promises, declare when they are satisfied and when they aren’t satisfied, make assessments of the performers along the way, help connect the promises to why it matters to the performer and the organization and help manage the moods so the most conducive context is established for success.
Interesting enough, moving out of the “performer” role into the leadership role is one of the most essential yet difficult transitions there is in organizational life. It’s also one of the most common contributors to burn-out.

Lesson #3 – Leaders pay attention to mood

I discovered that inattention to care and meaning plus trying to be a stellar performer and leader quickly led to moods of overwhelm and resentment. Besides not being personally satisfying, these moods had a direct impact on the actions and results of the entire organization.
Actually, all the moods and emotions we fall into or bring to our work influence the outcomes we are working towards. Moods and emotions predispose us to take certain actions and to not take other actions. They influence what we say and what we don’t say.
For example, a team that operates out of a mood of resignation will take different actions and have different conversations and produce different outcomes than a team that operates out of enthusiasm or optimism. Consider that the difference between commitment and compliance in a team is mood; high performing teams will work in moods such as tenacity, optimism and ambition whereas low performing teams will often find themselves in the mood of resentment, resignation, frustration or impotence.
Leadership actually requires a competence in provoking and managing the moods in the organization. The moods leaders generate can either engage and inspire the individuals and teams to better performance or discourage and deter them from great performance.
As a leader, you can either pay attention to and manage the moods (including your own) in the organization or, as happens too frequently, you can ignore them and pay the price of lower job-satisfaction, lower productivity, waste, inefficiencies, lack of innovation and creativity, to name a few. You either manage the moods or they will end up running you and the organization.
Without awareness you will end up enduring situations, events, and people that aren’t a fit for the future you want to generate.
As M. Borax and E. Lonsdale state in their book Cosmic Weather Report: Notes from the Edge of the Universe “We stand at an evolutionary crossroads. Fear and resistance are inevitable. Human nature stubbornly clings to the old even when the old is obsolete. But each of us has tremendous power packed within. Each has a core force that can be ignited to blaze a trail to a whole new era.”
As a society, as communities, as organizations, as teams, as leaders we are out on that skinny branch and it’s time to pay attention.

Terrie Lupberger is a Senior Executive coach, consultant and author. She works at the intersections of leadership, philosophy, and coaching to help leaders have more impact in their organizations and the world.
In her earlier career she was the former CEO of Newfield Network, Inc., a board member of the International Coach Federation, partner in an IT consulting firm, and a senior manager in two federal agencies. She has been coaching executives, managers and leaders since 1995 and is currently part of the TED Coaching Initiative. She is a contributing author to The Handbook of Knowledge Based Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2011) and A Coach’s Guide to Emotional Intelligence (Wiley, 2009). She has written an article on the topic of care that is featured on the Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terrie-upshurlupberger/nothing-without-labor_b_750882.html
Terrie has studied with some of the world’s greatest teachers and thinkers out of her belief that the more expanded our thinking is, the more able we are to design and generate successful outcomes. This combination of experience and education has given her a unique set of tools, methods and perspectives in helping others get quickly to the heart of an issue and design new solutions to old problems. As one of her recent client’s said: Terrie’s experience, knowledge, sensitivity and straight-up authentic style of communicating all created a winning combination for us. If you want someone who can get real results in the development of others’ effectiveness, I highly recommend her.
Contact Terrie at terrie@terrielupberger.com.

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