Who am I now?

GLI Fall 2013 Leaf

The GLI — Group Leadership Intensive — is over thirty years old with hundreds of participants having shared the experience. It has lasted all these years because it touches both the heart and the mind.

Names, status, personal histories, and reputations are kept out of the mix and participants take a pseudonym, a name of significance to them, a reminder of something they want to practice or remember.

The result is that this program is intense, personal and built upon a core of principles and skills that can be transferred to virtually any back-home environment, family or team.

It provides the opportunity to try on new behaviors both as a member and as a leader. It’s a place to break old habits and to ask the questions, “Who am I now?” and “Is this the person I want to be?”

If you have ever wanted unbiased feedback, based only on your behavior – this is where that will happen, by people who will want to support your growth. The good news is that those who join you are seekers, too.

Register HERE for the October Session, scholarship funds are still available.

The Seduction of a College President

In the world of higher education, generating dollars in support of research, salaries, educational initiatives and, of course, bricks and mortar is essential. Jennifer Raab (President of Hunter College) is, without question, a profoundly successful generator and that provides faculty the security they need and students the opportunities that could not be possible were it not for her efforts. The average college or university president lasts less than four years. One of the primary reasons is that they do not know how to do what Ms. Raab does so well. Her record at Hunter is, indeed, remarkable.

After twelve years, the sewer is backing up, and Ms. Raab’s limited skills in her other critical leadership role, that of managing others, are beginning to show (or smell). It does not take much intelligence to identify symptoms of a broken management system.

For starters, the revolving door of faculty, staff and other administrators, while not exceeding the $ figure achieved by her fundraising, takes expensive toll on resources, and productivity in terms of morale and performance.

Each time a mid-level university administrator leaves the cost to the system can be $50,000 to $100,000 in replacement fees. Small change you say. Good universities, and Hunter is one, normally find turnover minimal, since people arrive and wish to stay in an environment that provides intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to be a part of something positive.

If raising money is the only standard against which to measure a president’s performance, Ms. Raab excels. But, there is something deeply troubling about a leader who is unable or unwilling to name even a single “criticism of how she leads.” She is either unconscious, in a self protected bubble surrounded by those afraid to tell her about her impact, or arrogant and unwilling to even recognized the need to look at her effect as leader.

I have worked for fifteen years exploring a premise that most leaders will acknowledge:

The older you are, the more power and influence you have, the less those around your will tell you the truth.

In all those years, sharing the implications of this notion among leaders in higher education, business and politics, I have only received knowing nods from those listening. What I call “Seduction of the Leader”, is alive and well in most organizations.

It is for the leaders to overcome the reality of seduction, to develop ways of protecting those who, as in this instance, live in a climate of fear, and have a lot to say but no security to do so.

So, who are those around Ms. Raab who will tell her of her excesses? What does she do to measure her own effectiveness as both leader and manager? How does she model the use of feedback to allow course corrections in her own leadership or that of those around her?

It is not about her being a woman leader that is to be questioned. It is true of male and female leaders who create a climate where truth and candor go underground and fear trumps trust.

Her statement, “I have a vision and I have always been very, very determined …I am very tenacious” is, I’m sure, one of her greatest assets. It may also be one of her biggest weaknesses. Will her ideas be challenged by others as smart (or smarter) but, perhaps, less certain, less tenacious than she? Can she hear them? Will she seek them out or only those compliant to her strengths?

When Matthew Goldstein, the former Chancellor, was pressed about the case being built against Ms. Raab he said, “but her metrics are very good.” I ask, however, are their metrics about her behavior, about her style, about her impact on staff, managers and others? Did the Chancellor take part in the seduction of  her as a leader by being unwilling to look beyond the metrics he provided?

Without much training or experience in higher education when she entered the Hunter system, there may still be things she can learn that could help her presidency. As an educator, regardless of her degrees, you would want someone open to possibilities and who would be encouraging of others to share their ideas for the betterment of The University. That a minority of her constituents find Hunter to reflect a climate of fear, is something that needs to be addressed. It would logically start with Ms. Raab.


Hitting the Air Waves


Radio Interview

I was recently interviewed about “Seduction of the Leader” and, for your listening pleasure, I’ve provided a link below:

Blind Spots and Family of Origin

The older I get the smarter Sigmund Freud becomes. It’s all about our families – our parents, siblings and powerful figures in our family constellation. When I had kids of my own, I found I was running amuck in Freud’s notions of power and authority. Since then, I’ve taken (and continue to take) some hard looks at myself. In my work, I began searching out, in earnest, the blind spots in many of my clients.

I know an incredibly talented CEO of a small private company. She is organized, conscientious, politically astute and measurably successful. But, if happiness is part of the criteria for success, either hers or others, she was failing. And, because of her inability to be happy, those around her were caught in her web of discontent.

As a child, she was criticized mercilessly. Nothing was good enough and, as a result, she was never good enough. Intellectually she was capable of seeing her many strengths, but emotionally she was vulnerable and had turned her self critical nature on herself and others.

She had zero tolerance for mistakes – by herself or others. The result was individuals were constantly afraid of failing in her eyes because she had no acceptance of anything less than perfect. She was reluctant to delegate to anyone and was forever burdened with doing too much, not letting go and creating a constant state of stress – always overly busy and on the verge of having something fail.

Those who did have responsibilities would come to her two, three, even four times to check out their progress so that, in the end, they would pass her test of acceptance. These individuals rarely took a risk, less frequently initiated anything and continually remained dependent on her. Since she was so critical, rarely did she gives kudos for work well done, since it could always be better – and this she would gladly show you. Professionally, she was praised as for her outcomes. Yet, many vilified her behind her back for being callous, insensitive and, humorless.

Highly intelligent and conscientious, she decided to bring her 35 key leaders together to assess the state of the organization and, together, look toward the future.  In a design aimed at protecting confidentiality and encouraging candor, she had everyone respond to several questions.  One question was: “What are the issues that, for whatever reasons, are not being addressed, and need to be addressed, if we are going to be the best we can be?” (It should be noted that despite her discomfort with criticism, she agreed to include this and another question that would result in some judgment of the organization and, even, her.)

The design worked to a “T” and nearly every individual felt safe enough to discuss the challenging questions in an open and candid manner among small clusters of other leaders. The resulting data were organized objectively. Then, because Mary wanted to signal to the group that such collaboration was healthy and desired, the highlights  — critical concerns from across the data — were shared in front of the entire group.

Since such feedback and process were not the norm, people were rightfully nervous. They knew that Mary might take things personally and feared she might react defensively or with anger, or both. While this did not occur, she did become somber – appearing overtly sad and withdrawing from much of the ensuing conversation.

Witnessing this, some of her colleagues came up to her informally and asked if she was “all right.” She confided that she felt unappreciated and “betrayed” by the day. Those typically  perceived as “in Mary’s camp”, immediately began to point fingers, blame others and suggest that this was not the kind of collaboration they had in mind. A good day would be to say only good things about the Mary and the organization.

Given the things that had the potential to have been said, the critical statements were “mild”. Yet, Mary was initially emotionally triggered and later even more so as individuals offered sympathy as a means of placating her and to diffuse any potential anger.

The next day, Mary was still bitter and hurt. This is understandable, since for the six years of her reign she had protected herself from any possibility of receiving feedback that would question her perfection or that of the organization.

Mary had inadvertently created a barrier preventing her behavioral “blindspot” from being revealed by those from whom she needed the truth. Her own unfinished business from the past was crippling her, in spite of all her good work, and her leadership potential.

Mary’s denial and sympathy seeking behavior only exacerbated the problem. Had she acted positively toward the feedback, helped support change where appropriate, her critics would, most likely, have given her kudos and, probably, supported (or at least been neutral) to any changes. They would have also waited to see her responses in the future. Forgiveness is usually created over time, while “hope” can be generated in the short term.

A week later, after further conversation, she discerned the pattern that she had been living, recognized that her strong response – feeling betrayed and unappreciated – to people who were trying to gift her with the truth was how she handled almost any criticism, any disconfirming responses to her efforts. Worse yet, she realized she was becoming a source of toxicity that trumped her many strengths as numerous individuals increasingly disliked her lack of openness and acceptance of her own shortcomings when they were evaluated and expected to own their failures.

So What?  The clues to much of our own blindspots or ineffective behaviors are there to be seen. If asked, people will tell us if they are protected and if they believe their truth may lead to positive results. The courage was for Mary to seek the truth known to many and rarely seen by her.

Her strong feelings of self-criticism and doubt were clues to how she had to change to be happy and more productive. The good news is that the self-awareness of her impact and its implications for her leadership was the first major step to change. She had all the tools to be among the best. Only she stood in her way.

Coaching helped her develop a plan to demonstrate new openness to her staff. Counseling helped her discern the original of the emotional triggers that energized the criticism of self and others. A year later, she reported that the single insight about how her family of origin had created a protective wall around her all those years later has been seminal in her new openness and success as a leader.

There are, parts of Freud I don’t buy, that make no sense to me. But, in general, the impact of our family of origin on ourselves as leaders, parents, friends and relationships, is spot on. So often what gets us into trouble in our relationships can be seen vividly at the times when we are either angry and attacking, or feeling impotent and withdrawing. These times are usually accompanied by “big” feelings. The problem is that in the moment of conflict it’s difficult to focus on our part of the equation in the midst of becoming defensive or blaming of others.

The Hazards of Touching Base

On meeting him, Jay commented casually “Our team gets together once a week to discuss issues, ideas and just to touch base. It keeps lines of communication open, builds trust and camaraderie.”

What if the opposite were true?

“Well,” he would say optimistically at his weekly meeting of fifteen key leaders, “Let’s go around and do a quick check in.”

It’s a common request made a thousand times a day by leaders with their reports gathered around mahogany conference tables.

He fails to recognize the performance and the stars of a play reenacted every week.  They perform for him, to please, to impress, to protect, to hide – habitual patterns defining each person. They give what they believe he needs, or wants, to see. The casual nature of the go round belies the dynamic that continually influences the team in so many hidden ways.

Optimistic Jay believes what each says, takes them at face value. But, he doesn’t really see them. He fails to see the rolling eyes at the onset of the go round as Jane blurts, “It’s been an incredible week, I hardly know where to begin. I’m breathless, was here until l0:00 p.m. last night, (a predictable, significant pause) but let me start with the Jacob’s deal …” She goes on and on as people look down.

She attempts to match Jay’s energy, his effervescent enthusiasm, laying down a trail of “I’s” that seem to propel her forward – framing herself as heroic even in the smallest task, an invisible urgency impels her forward. And, of course, there is never a problem to share, something that would be less than perfect.

Several around the table visibly recoil at her breathless, successful performance they hear every week. Others simply have no reaction – tune her out. Predictably, nobody ever tells her of her impact, so there is no way to realize that the reactions to her performance are cumulative. She has no awareness of the hole she is digging for herself within the group. It is a dishonesty that each member tolerates and supports.

Jack, sitting to Jane’s left and visibly annoyed, follows her – his measured mumbles intentionally imply disinterest yet contain a certain starkness that contrasts sharply with her sparkling narcissism. He casually says, “Not much to report other than that the Pirelli deal went through which should keep us solvent for the next six months.” He loves to undersell himself, to appear almost humble, realizing his success will impress and be dramatic. Yet, he is as predictable as Jane, and irritating in his false modesty.

And, so, around the table they go, each member with their own agenda, each with a style and role within the group that influences others and often reduces their effectiveness. Of course, cordiality reigns and the norm remains never to talk about what it is that builds both distrust and dislike, since there is little reason to stop what appears not to be so apparent. Like a stifling invisibility cloak suffocating spontaneity, intimacy and openness, this little 30 – 40 minute ritual has far reaching consequences. But, since the boss likes it and they like him, they tolerate its grating superficiality and the time it wastes.

Optimism is an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.” Jay’s optimism is inhibiting his effectiveness as a leader. It drives his need to see what he wants to see to confirm his personal bias. (Cognitive scientists and psychologists call this confirmation bias. According to Science Daily it is a tendency to search or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. See how Warren Buffet addresses his own confirmation bias – http://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerdooley/2013/05/07/buffett-confirmation-bias/

The norms (unspoken rules that govern this and so many teams of smart, conscientious people) result in an insidious seduction both of their leader and among each other. How do these norms reflect the behaviors of your own team?

  1.  Never say what you feel – keep things superficial and humorous – then there will be no possibility that underlying tensions among the members will ever surface, or require attention.
  2. Never provide personal / behavioral feedback that might help your peers become increasingly effective as either members or leaders.
  3. Never evaluate any meeting to determine “what is working” and “what is not working” either in relation to the content of the meeting or its process (how the meeting is actually run).
  4. Never be critical of your leader in the group. Whenever possible, agree overtly with his or her ideas.
  5. Always wait until after the meeting to share real feelings or risky opinions with those you trust.
  6. Be free to make commitments to action at the end of the meeting, knowing that without real consequences in your conflict averse system, there is little chance that such promises will be kept.
  7. Be free to talk about others on the team after the session, without the need to share it with them.
  8. Don’t ever raise conflict in relation to how the team operates or why something failed.
  9. Rather than take responsibility for changing something that is not working in the team environment, always complain and blame later – outside of the meeting.
  10. Always take comfort in the status quo and avoid defining what it is to be the very best.

Something as innocuous as Jay’s attempt to touch base can hold symptoms of many or all of the dysfunctional norms identified here. These are good people being unconscious and undisciplined, unaware of the norms that, over time, that keep things nice and, ultimately, conflict averse.

While the team aids and abets such dysfunction, it is the leader, who is responsible for changing the dynamic, increasing the discipline and providing the skills necessary to be truly effective. Jay’s optimism has undoubtedly been an asset over his career. Here it is misplaced as he builds certain lethargy and into his own prized team.

My Intention

I want to challenge, educate and inspire

     Light a fire in the ear of those I touch

          Provide hope, ideas and affirmations

               Create new perspectives

I want to shine a small light

     That will turn average into memorable

          And will have people turn to each other

               And say, “WOW l hadn’t thought of that. I could do it.”

My talks are wide ranging, sometimes audacious and engaging

     Exploring why teams fail and

          What it takes for success in a team-based world

     Why so many intimate relationships fall apart

          In spite of years of love and affection

     How to diminish predictable SHIT PILES of most relationships

          With new strategies, humor and grace

     What to do when leaders are seduced by lies and half-truths

          By those around them, when they desire honesty

     How to use the creativity of paradox

          To manage difficult people who drive us crazy

     How people unintentionally make each other defensive

          And how to turn that into something positive

     How listening deeply is the key to intimacy and affection

          That anyone can master but few do

     Why most meetings are both costly and insufferable

          And how to change that reality and save money too

     Why teams and individuals lack the courage to risk

          And how to provide it to both

     Why half of all hires fail in the eyes of those doing the hiring

          With answers for diminishing such false-positives

     How to break bad habits that get in our way

          So we can be happier and more productive


These are beginning thoughts. I will refine them. But, each can be delicious and provide fodder for the curious and well intentioned.

 Rod Napier