A Personal Journey of Discovery
I was standing in the parking lot after a late night strategy session with one of my mentors. We had just worked through a possible new organizational structure to accomplish our vision. At the top of one of the columns of responsibilities, the team decided to put my name. Questioning my fit for the role, my mentor responded, “You can do the job. You just need to be sure that you want it”. Five years later, I understand why he was warning me. Since that moment, my life has been on the job learning with each passing year, increasing my level of comfort and confidence in my role. While I have gained technical knowledge, I have not had the time, energy, or drive to develop myself. It is because of this, when situations arise, I default to some specific behaviours.
Organizationally, we experienced several challenges causing a reactive response often resulting in me stepping in to fill the gap. This requires absorbing additional responsibilities for an extended period until we reach a healthy point or find an alternative solution. As a fixer and developer, I also have suggested projects and taken on tasks that are not of strategic importance. I allowed my interests and the passion of others to influence decisions around the use of my time. Thirdly, I have not truly prioritized my work. As I manage the majority of the staff in our organization, I allowed my time to be dictated by their needs and development priorities. Therefore, I became a very short-term oriented leader who has not protected the time needed to focus on personal or organizational strategic development.
Due to this harried pace, there are ample opportunities for moments of stress and frustration to rear its ugly head. Emotions are a powerful gift, but they are not always right. Consequently, there is a danger when you allow them to influence your choices. It is this balance of emotions and critical thinking providing stronger outcomes in my decision making. In times of extreme frustration or overwhelmedness, I have a choice to be informed by what I am feeling or what I know. Thinking without emotional intelligence, can be cold and distancing. Likewise, it is necessary to discern when your emotions cloud your understanding.
Self-awareness provides another tool for helping me to manage my emotional responses. By having a greater understanding of who I am, my core capabilities, values, and how my experiences influence my thoughts and emotions, I can strengthen my strategic decision making. With this filter, I become more focused on others as I endeavor to remove personal biases and preferred methods. It is then possible to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome through collaboration and learning. This flexibility in adapting to situations is essential in developing necessary strategic skills for a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambitious (VUCA) world (Ungerer, Ungerer, & Herholdt, 2016, p. 3).
While I identify and develop some areas of much-needed growth, I recognize there is a tension between being a transformational servant leader (TSL) and prioritizing my own needs. On the one hand, the investment and development of others requires a substantial amount of time and energy. It depends on a level of accessibility that is hard to turn off, and not all boundaries are well received or interpreted correctly. However, these changes are necessary as I need time to focus on my development to become a more effective, strategic leader.
My biggest responsibility, the management of staff, is also the most significant source of my stress. My stress behaviour surfaces when I feel situations are overly emotional or I have spent a considerable amount of time working with people. In these moments my communication becomes more direct, I disengage and become impatient. Unfortunately, my private and personal life is often intertwined as I work at a church that serves the community where I live. As a result, I made some choices to provide balance in my life which reduces the chances of my stress behaviour making an appearance.
The first is finding a core group of friends who are not a part of the church in which I work. As strong women of faith, my friends challenge me spiritually and provide the social relationships I need without requiring any church-related things from me. Secondly, as previously mentioned, I have started to protect my time. Each week, I block off two days for meetings, two days for my work, times for school, and between 2-4 extended family or friend times a month. This structure provides a balance between team and individual time as well as work and personal time. One does not overpower the other. The third, and probably the most important and challenging step is understanding the role my natural behaviour has on influencing the emotions of those with whom I engage. By identifying their needs, I can consciously modify my natural behaviour to reduce things becoming overly emotional. This discernment provides the context in which I can focus on practicing transformational leadership, as well as the necessary support to develop trust and a stronger cooperative environment (Lepsinger, 2010, p. 64).
The development of transformational leadership skills in the moments of stress is an area I would like to pursue. It is one thing to work to control emotions and identify the facts of a situation. It is quite another, to use each connection as an opportunity to raise the motivation of direct reports to help them achieve more than expected (Northouse, 2016, pp. 161-162). While I would claim to have a high level of discernment in these moments, I often stop at identifying short-term goals, challenges, and opportunities, and fail to link them to the bigger vision. Hughes, Beatty, and Dinwoodie (2014) would call this ability to keep long-term goals in mind, Duration which is a key characteristic of strategic leadership (pp. 14-15).
Additional strengths and weaknesses are rooted in my thinking. I believe critical thinking is a personal strength. As a natural developer, I am constantly evaluating and looking for opportunities to improve within my context. However, I struggle with my tenancy to quickly move from the big picture to delving into the practical details of implementation. As well, I have many learned constraints making paradoxical thinking a challenge (Hughes et al., 2014, p. 44; Ungerer et al., 2016, p. 17).
Mission, Vision, and Values
My faith in Jesus is foundational to all aspects of my life. It informs and shapes my decisions and my worldview. This faith directs and aspires me to live a life that is holy and pleasing to God so one day when I am standing before Him, I might hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” Matthew 25:21 (New International Version). It is this mission and vision I hold onto tightly. Out of this foundation, some values have surfaced over the years.
Truth is a defining value for me. I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and is the source of truth. Scripture provides me with the ethical and moral guidelines that influence my understanding of virtuous leadership (Ungerer et al., 2016, p. 41). As well, the pursuit of truth drives my critical thinking so I can make evidence-based decisions. I strive to establish authentic relationships built on trust. Communicating the truth in grace and love is a skill I am working to develop as my natural style tends to be very direct and blunt.
A second value is relationships. As a person created for community, I value my family and friends, and I am intentional in investing in these relationships. As a leader, I must balance my drive to get tasks done with the benefit of collaborating in teams. I have a high level of relational capital in my organization which is built on trust and supporting the leaders around me. However, I must increase my relational persuasion (Lepsinger, 2010, p. 180) to lead change (Hughes et al., 2014, p. 47), and create a collaborative culture which values honest and real conversations (p. 43). In the middle management environment, differentiated tactics are discovered but only if we are willing to change and adapt and not be enslaved to the familiar and comfortable.
At the risk of sounding like a typical Type A person I also value a hard work ethic, order, and excellence. I have come to understand these values need to manifest themselves at the appropriate time and in the proper measure. A friend best described me when she coined the phrase “Lazy Type A.” While I like to work hard, I recognize the importance of rest. While projects require order and administration, it is sometimes in the unstructured time, the best work happens. Further, I strive for excellence but recognize perfection is not the equivalent nor is it always obtainable, and sometimes, things are just worth 10%. To move forward in my development, it will require hard work, order, and excellence but in balance with my personal life.
Personal Strategic Drivers
There are two strategic drivers when prioritized, will allow me to increase my potential. The first is Strategic Personal Development. I must adopt a learner’s heart with the understanding of what I can be the best at and the areas worthy of developing (Hughes et al., 2014, p. 28). Secondly, it is the ongoing Evaluation of my development. The use of a 360° evaluation focuses on developmental objectives and provides useful feedback from a variety of perspectives.
To implement these strategic drivers, there are four initial steps I need to take. The first is to schedule time within my weekly calendar to be set aside strictly for personal and organizational strategic development. This protected block of time must be consistent and substantial. Secondly, I must become less reactive to the whirlwind responsibilities and focus only on what is Wildly Important (McChesney, Covey, and Huling, 2012, p. 12). My time cannot be controlled by what is unimportant and urgent or what others consider to be important if it is not. Within this protected time, I must shift from being a specialist to a generalist and from a warrior to a diplomat (Ungerer et al., 2016, p. 31). Only the important and urgent should supersede this time, and even then, it can become a point of negotiation with my superiors.
A final step is the development of a learning plan where key objectives are clearly defined. Out of the nine core leadership competencies used in the MA LEAD program, I am striving to excel in Team Leadership and People Development (Leadership Integration Project Manual 2017-18, 2017, pp. 8-9). I am further wrestling with adding either Innovation or Relationship and Collaboration as a third area of focus. Innovation is very intriguing to me. However, I have never considered myself an “out of the box” thinker, and so I am wondering if this is one of my limitations. Further exploration is needed to determine if skills can be developed to grow in this area. From this plan, checkpoints are established to focus on accountability and evaluation.
Everything I do to benefit my professional life will positively influence my personal. There is minimal separation because my job is strongly aligned with and compliments my mission and vision. As a result, the skills and knowledge I gain professionally are relevant to my family and social relationships.
Developing culture is a long-term undertaking which requires careful selection of the values you desire to become part of your DNA. From a preliminary consideration, I believe there are three underlying values I would choose to focus on weaving into the DNA within my context. The first is the value of learning. As Hughes et al., (2014) points out, strategy involves constant change and that change requires a desire to learn, adapt, and progressively build on decisions and ideas (p. 21). It is necessary to have a frame of mind that understands the future goal and is continually molding and developing strategies based upon feedback and evaluation (Ungerer et al., 2016, p. 19). This also translates to a personal level as I want to continually grow in my faith and have a teachable spirit. There are always things I can learn in any interaction I have with my family or friends.
Secondly, I believe it is necessary to learn within a collaborative context. When you bring teams out of their silos and into collaborative situations, you have a higher chance of innovation with the sharing of ideas and perspectives. Strategic development is best informed when you have a cross section of the organization involved as the middle and lower levels often have a better understanding of the customer, trends, and needs (Hughes et al., 2014, p. 19). Additionally, if done well and consistently, a collaborative culture feeds the growth of relationships and trust and provides natural opportunities to increase strategic alignment. In a personal and professional context, collaboration is essential as it ensures everyone has a voice and not one specific voice overpowers everyone.
A final cultural value is fun. It was a privilege to work in a couple of organizations putting a high value on having fun together. This looked very different for each context, but the premise was the same. By creating opportunities to enjoy one another’s company outside of the work environment, you develop a deeper level of relationship that moves past the day to day pleasantries and tasks. When you enjoy where you work and the people you work with, you begin to care more about your contribution to the community. A greater awareness increases the consideration of the impact of decisions and how best to move forward. The organization becomes more of a family with deeper relationships. I experienced how having fun together strengthened teams and opens up the doors of communication, trust, and understanding.
Shifting My Thinking
According to Ungerer et al., (2016) and their imperatives for old economy thinking, I can identify three areas instilled in me and require adjusting to becoming a more effective strategic leader (p. 15). The first two are combined, the aristocracy of power and hierarchic power. I believe this comes from the military influences in my parents’ and grandparents’ lives where you recognize the power each level of authority has to make unilateral decisions about your life. As a result, I made decisions within my authority but inadvertently and unknowinglycentralized the power around my position. Instead, I must change my thinking and practice to, relinquish control and empowering and equipping leaders to make decisions. This shift to diffusing power parallels my desire to transition from being a specialist to a generalist (p. 31). I started to articulate my direct reports their defined areas of authority, so they have the freedom and responsibility to make decisions. Additionally, I am making myself a little less available to them, so they can make decisions with the information they have. Finally, I am careful not to answer their questions directly but looking at each conversation as an opportunity to give them more knowledge, understanding, and confidence to make decisions.
A final old economy thinking driver I tend to default to is turf protection and control. I believe my inclination for control is rooted in a lack of trust. While sometimes my distrust is substantiated; it is misplaced. In keeping control, I prevent opportunities for the development of others. Further reflection suggests my motives are focused on making the best decisions possible for the sake of the organization and the individuals it impacts. However, similar to the previous shift, I must decentralize control as this will result in longer-term sustainability of the organization. As we determine and solidify our organizational structure, like my direct reports, I must understand the area of responsibility I have and give the appropriate time and energy to drive big-picture strategies forward and leave the details to those who are responsible for them. One straightforward step to begin addressing this is to discuss it with my supervisor and my direct reports. I acknowledged this area of concern and welcome accountability when I am stepping into unnecessary areas. Additionally, I am focusing on adjusting my thinking to be more collaborative. I am not perfect, nor am I the expert in everything. It is only through using the strengths of others to offset my weakness, that extraordinary results can occur (Ungerer et al., 2016, p. 11).
I am convinced as I reflect on my future development, the journey of learning must be transformative. New skills, knowledge, and experiences are nothing if there is an inability or unwillingness to change as a person. Hughes et al., (2014) states strategy is a learning process (p. 23), which requires leaders to be in a continual state of discovery (p. 28), involves evaluation and assessment (p. 37), the ability to manage change (p. 47), and influence that engages hearts and minds (p. 40). Knowing these are some of the competencies I need to master, I realize my general sense of complacency will be my most significant barrier to moving forward. Additionally, my natural linear and often rigid way of thinking an ongoing constraint unless I work at shifting the framework.
Armed with my critical thinking and the ability to interpret data and assess situations, I recognize I am well on the road to becoming a more effective strategic leader. With these skills, I will begin to identify the specific areas of weaknesses I have in the leadership competencies of People Development, Team Leadership, Innovation, and Collaboration. Using this evaluation, I can build a personal development plan to complement the current organizational strategic work happening simultaneously. Additionally, I am continually discerning the application of the theories and concepts learned in my MA LEAD studies to my professional context. This is a learning process requiring ongoing discovery, evaluation, and change. It is a creative dance with set steps but an undefined dance partner. It is the art of leadership.
Hughes, R. L., Beatty, Collarelli-Beatty, K., & Dinwoodie, D. L. (2014). Becoming a strategic leader: Your role in your organization’s enduring success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lepsinger, R. (2010). Closing the execution gap: How great leaders and their companies get results. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
McChesney, C., Covey, S., & Huling, J. (2012). The 4 disciplines of execution: Achieving your wildly important goals. New York, NY: FranklinCovey Co.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Strong. H. (2017). Leadership Integration Project Manual 2017-18. Unpublished manuscript, Master of Arts in Leadership, Trinity Western University, Langley, Canada.
Ungerer, M., Ungerer, G., & Herholdt, J. (2016). Navigating strategic possibilities: Strategy formulation and execution practices to flourish. Randburg: KR Publishing