Monday, February 20, 2012

Dead on the Highway - Leadership Lessons from Road Kill

So why did the chicken cross the road? Unfortunately, we will never know. It did not survive the journey.

Driving through rural Arkansas, it is not uncommon to see various animals that attempted the infamous journey of the chicken but were unsuccessful. The road is a pretty hostile place. It is, in fact, the home turf of a formidable, four-wheeled enemy of the animal kingdom. When a forest creature chooses to venture onto the road, it encounters an opponent of considerable power and defenses. Surviving the risks and dangers of the road require more than luck. Survival requires that we find ways to apply unique strengths successfully in the hostile environment.

Consider the squirrel, for example. Ever try to catch one? Their strengths are speed and agility. They are fast and can change direction in an instant! They also don’t know how to avoid tires. If you have ever had a squirrel dart into the street in front of you, they almost always make a panicked, suicidal turn at the last moment right under a tire. They panic, and in that moment, they lose direction and vision. In a dangerous and hostile environment, speed and agility mean nothing without good sense and the ability to make wise decisions. If the squirrel stays focused on the goal, his gifts will serve him well and he will survive the road, but one panicky decision is sure to put him under the tire. The squirrel needs to exercise its strengths while making good choices about mid-course corrections.

Consider the turtle. God gave the turtle an amazing defensive capability…a strong shell and the ability to retrench. It is almost impossible to force or entice a turtle out of his shell. They come out when they want to! Unfortunately, a temporary retrenchment into a shelter is not a good defense when you encounter an overwhelming force while making a long, slow journey in the wrong direction. The turtle is no match for the dangers of the road and needs to understand the practical limits of its defense.

Consider the possum. The possum has a defense strategy named after it. Ever hear of someone “playing possum?” The predators of the possum like fresh meat, so if they think the possum is already dead, they are not interested. The defense strategy of the possum is to present itself as a victim, assuming that will deter the enemy. Unfortunately, the enemies on the road don’t care. In fact, they barely notice the possum at all. A good defensive strategy is only effective if you know your opponent’s strengths and vulnerabilities, which is not the case for the possum on the road. The possum needs to understand what motivates its opponent and act appropriately.

Consider the skunk. You don’t actually have to see the demised skunk to know that he has become a victim of the road. Very few creatures have a more effective armament than the skunk…a built-in can of mace! Skunks can cause even the most formidable opponents to back down and leave in fear upon deployment of their natural weapon. Unfortunately, on the road, the only practical value of the skunk’s weapon is to announce to others that the poor skunk lost the battle. Powerful weapons are worthless when the opponent is not vulnerable. The skunk needs to know when to fight and when to run.

Finally, consider the deer. This creature has size, beauty, and grace, and like the squirrel, the deer possesses speed and agility. Sadly, though, the deer has a fatal flaw. It becomes paralyzed in the face of danger. It freezes in the headlights of the approaching vehicle. Its survival depends on the willingness and ability of the driver to avoid it, and if that does not or cannot happen, the deer loses its challenge. When we journey into dangerous territory, we have to keep our wits when things go wrong. If the deer can act…not freeze…its skills will deliver it from danger.

If we choose to be relevant, then we have made the decision to get out on the road and face its dangers.  Success requires several things.

  • Use the gifts that God gave you
  • Stay focused on your goals
  • Make mid-course corrections with care and wisdom
  • Know your opponents and your enemies
  • Understand the limits of your strategies and defenses
  • Align your actions with your environment
  • Don’t become paralyzed by threats and surprises

One final observation…. Personally, I’ve never seen a dead eagle on the road. Eagles soar above the confusion and mess of the road. They don't play there. They redefine the game and arrive at their destination by taking a path that is not part of the flat, two-dimensional world below them. 

I think I would like to be an eagle.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Vision, Innovation, and Faith - Keys to Organizational Transformation

Photos by Joe Walenciak

Life is full of learning opportunities, if we simply see them. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take a group to Santa Cruz, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, where we have had a number of successful initiatives. This place holds countless memories for me...mostly good, some painful. From stoves to sewers, we worked to help this community address some if its critical problems, and I pray that our impact was positive.

On this particular occasion, we had a simple task for the children of the community. We provided a stack of brown paper bags, construction paper, markers, and other materials, and we told the children to make hand puppets. Given that this is a relatively simple task, and given that making hand puppets must be a universally-understood act, the responsibility of getting this mass of youngsters to produce their very own hand puppets was entrusted to me.  

The children of Santa Cruz, Baja Verapaz, are very special. This is a poor, isolated community. They don't see many outsiders, and I'm about as much of an outsider to these kids as anyone! Little boys learn to farm. Little girls help at home and generally turn in to young mothers at a very early age. One generation just produces another, and nothing much ever changed in Santa Cruz. I cannot imagine how odd we must have looked and acted, but those kids laugh, jabbered, and just generally loved us...even when we asked them to do crazy things like make hand puppets.

OK...hand puppets. I put out all of those materials, and I announced to the group that they could start. No problem...except that they had no clue what a hand puppet was. At that moment, I knew I was in trouble! To be honest, I'm not a really artistic person myself. Even though I knew I could supervise such an activity, I was suddenly thrust into the role of "example" and "mentor," and I wasn't sure if I could actually produce a hand puppet! I picked up a paper bag and a marker, and I drew a face on the bag. All of the children did exactly the same thing. I cut out two strips of paper and made arms with slits at the end for fingers. The children copied exactly. Hair...hat...we kept going. Much to my joy and satisfaction, I was indeed able to produce a basic hand puppet, which was cloned exactly by every child at the activity. Part of me decided that we had failed, since the kids just copied what they were seeing. There was no individual creativity and no freedom of expression. But strangely enough, the children were all happy and laughing. I realized that we were a point. Together, we had gone from zero knowledge of hand puppets (myself included) to the successful creation of hand puppets by every child at the event! You can't move beyond a point if you never actually reach that point to start with. So...we had taken our first step.

So we got the organization to perform. But how do you get them to the next level? 

We repeated this session for more groups of kids, and invariably, they kept reproducing the same Walenciakesque hand puppet. You have to understand, the world never changes for these kids. They are not accustomed to creative thought. Life keeps moving forward in the same linear path, just like it always has. In any organization, if the culture only accepts or knows one way to do something, then that is what you can always expect. So child after child produced puppet after puppet. Every child was happy and ended up with a hand puppet, so we were successful. Right? We would have been if that had been the goal of the activity. But the activity had a different stimulate creative thinking. We were learning together, but we had not actually been terribly creative yet. Well, I had! (Trust me, this was incredibly creative for the likes of me!) But the kids were just doing what they were seeing. True, they were having fun, but we wanted to see these kids empowered and equipped to think independently...that the future can be different than the past...that it is important to imagine what we cannot see. If you keep doing what you've always done, then you keep getting what you've always gotten.

And then something happened.

Occasionally, an innovator arises from the group. Doing something different requires more than just materials and a plan, especially when people are not accustomed to thinking that something different is desired or possible. It is particularly difficult to expect something different when our world does not allow us to know that another reality could exist. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow...they are are all the same, and I just need to keep my head down and do my work. Even in the most "locked down" cultures, God gives grace to someone to see a different world. In our situation, a lovely young lady walked up with a new and improved hand puppet. The face was different...with a three-dimensional nose. The hair was braided. The arms actually had hands at the end. There was clothing, which caused me to realize that I had left my own hand puppet embarrassingly naked! Oh, and legs and feet, too. And as if to drive in the point that she was God's beautiful daughter, created in His incredible image, she even put a little note on it to reminding me that God loves me a lot! Incredibly, she produced this evolved hand puppet with no help from anyone of us. But sadly, she was fearful that she had done something wrong. She was afraid to show us her creation, as though she had done something wrong by deviating from the cultural norm. She actually asked us if what she did was ok, and the other kids watched to see if she was in trouble for violating a cultural norm.

This is an important moment in many organizational cultures. Do you liberate the people to be innovative and visionary, or do you keep them in the box that they were in? We chose to liberate her, and in that moment, we liberated a whole community of watching children. We acknowledged her beautiful work and gave her big hugs. Her creativity was recognized. Her rebellion was condoned. I would like to say that all of the children suddenly became equally innovative, but the fact is that most of them simply started creating clones of the new, improved model...which was certainly a step up from my own. It was a new world, though. Individuality was now valued, and evidences of unique personality began to seep out around the edges. What was different was that this group had learned that (1) there was a larger world and (2) it was ok to go there. We probably never did see "perfect" outcomes to any of our initiatives in Santa Cruz, but it was always good to see movement in the right direction.

Many people may start to support and develop the new order of things. Although they are still not innovating, they are becoming aware that there is more than one way to do the job. This may give people permission to become creative. True change in any organization requires that people see something that isn't there (vision), find ways to get there (innovation), and believe that it can happen (faith). Take away any one of those, and you're back to the same old hand puppets.