Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bumper Stickers and Leadership

It is traveling season now. Airports, planes, cars and cab rides fill parts of every week. Meetings, consultations and executive coaching sessions are taking place hither and yon. When I am in Iowa, this means I spend a part of every day driving along I-80. Going west in the morning and driving east in the evenings, I watch corn fields, farms, cars, and trucks go by.

One thing I do on these road trips is read bumper stickers. Given it is not 2012 yet and the Iowa Caucuses have not caused every car to have 2-3 political bumper stickers on them, nowadays there are just basic ones and occasionally some creatively unique ones. Recently, three keep showing up, namely Have No Fear, Question Authority, and Think Outside The Box. When I have 2-4 hours of road time on a regular basis, I like to reflect on these three common bumper stickers from a leadership perspective.

First, Have No Fear. From a leadership perspective, this is a comical one. When you meet as many senior executives as I do in private meetings, I can assure you that 9 out of 10 do have fears and some of them are huge. However, referencing the work of Jim Collins, these leaders are not afraid to “confront the brutal facts.” Some days the facts are rough and not forgiving.

Still, the best leaders do not loose hope even in the midst of these difficulties. By naming their fears and knowing their fears, they can manage them better. As a cancer patient said to me one day, “there is more to life than taking another deep breath; death is the least of the scary options before me.” Being afraid is normal. Being controlled by fear is not. Respecting and understanding the fear factor is what differentiates the great leaders from the good ones. From my perspective, a better bumper sticker would be “Know Your Fears.”

Second, Question Authority. This bumper sticker has been around since the late 60’s and early 70’s. On one level, it is a classic. Born of angst against “the man,” the message is that all people in positions of leadership are not to be trusted. While I understand the history, this is not my favorite bumper sticker.

To many young people enter the workforce questioning authority. I hope instead that they will engage with authority, i.e. those in positions of management and leadership. Furthermore, I hope they will learn how to listen, understand and communicate effectively with those in positions of authority.

Likewise, I hope that those in these positions will learn how to engage, listen, and dialogue with those who question authority. If I could redesign this bumper sticker I would have it say “Question Your Assumptions” or “Ask Better Questions” for this is what the best leaders do on a regular basis.

Finally, Think Outside the Box. Another classic bumper sticker focused on innovation. The box for many represents the comfort zone of the mind and one’s actions. The goal when thinking outside the box is to generate more innovation. While I like the sentiment, I think the message is weak at best.

The strategic leaders who create sustainable growth in their companies do much more than think outside the box. Most of them redesign the whole box and then redesign how it is used. They do not focus on thinking outside of the box because in the end there is still a box. For example, the movement from a PC focused work place to an iPad2 or tablet focused digital lifestyle is more than thinking outside the box. Same goes for how cell phones are being transformed into smart phones. In both circumstances, it is a complete redesign of “the box” and then a complete redesign of how it is used.

I have many more miles to go this spring and many more bumper stickers to see. I hope during the coming weeks I might see a few that state the following: Know Your Fears, Question Your Assumptions, and Redesign The Box.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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