Taking the hard road

Filed under: Contributed Column,Print | Tags:,

When did taking the easy way out become the way to do business? Or to boost the economy, build communities, improve our schools, raise our kids and solve our problems? When did we decide that being a leader was a cushy job?

Deep down, don’t you remember the thrill of taking the hard road? The fear, the uncertainty, the aches and pains? The surprises, a different view, the ability to do what seemed impossible? The pride of personal achievement and the camaraderie of shared experience?

For many leaders, it’s become all too easy to win at all costs, master the numbers, or hammer home their point of view. Others take the route of avoiding the big, long-term challenges in favor of their own short-term gain.

Leaders take on the big complex challenges — managers take on the easy, quick wins. Kicking the can down the road is an all-too-easy, well-established strategy in both business and public life. Even compromising — which gives a nod to multiple views — has become just an easy out.

The problem is that none of these easy roads take us where we need to go. They circle around the tough stuff and drain us of energy. Meanwhile, the complex challenges loom above. Like building clouds that threaten dark days ahead, these tactics of avoidance make certain that storms of calamity are pushed off for uncertain tomorrows, rather than leading through them today.

So, how do we tackle conflict and complexity? How do we move beyond “Us versus Them” and create genuine win-win options? How do face up to options that are good for customers, constituents, consumers and our employees simultaneously? How do we look at the challenges and integrate all the right answers into innovative, best-for-all solutions? How do we — together — take the difficult journeys and become even stronger and more capable?

At the Center for Creative Leadership, we’ve seen business, government and community leaders answer these questions through collaboration, creativity and commitment.

Collaboration moves beyond compromise in which everyone loses something in hopes of gaining a little. Collaborative work uses dialogue, not debate, to deeply understand the problems we face. Then it generates multiple options, integrating the best ones into sustainable solutions. Collaboration fosters a creative process that combines and integrates perspectives into something new.

Collaboration is a shift to problem-solving. It is a shift away from blame and political one-upmanship and, instead, demands that collective leadership take 100 percent responsibility for all outcomes. This is the no-blame zone. In this zone there can be no “Us versus Them” because the we are them.

The complexity of our leadership challenges requires creativity. We need new mindsets and new processes to explore multiple right answers and to integrate them into the best solution available now. Creativity is an attitude of learning in the moment, paying attention and telling the truth about root causes. Only with creativity will we find sustainable solutions to the complex problems our institutions, businesses and communities are experiencing.

But to collaborate and create effectively, we need to build the trust and stamina that comes from deep commitment. The hard work of leadership involves setting direction, creating alignment and fostering shared commitment. It is especially challenging — and essential — when facing a situation that is big or complex, messy, unclear or emotion-laden.

You strengthen and show your commitment when you:

Resolve to stop arguing and start talking. Forget about “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Listen to understand and learn.

Resolve to stop blaming. Leave behind fault finding. Instead, focus on outcome building.

Resolve to stop fighting for resources. Taking what you can, when you can, because you can is no way to lead (and no way to live).

Resolve to take responsibility for shared success. Let go of the illusion that you are not connected. Leadership isn’t about your own success; it’s about the success of your clients and customers, your suppliers and employees, your local neighbors and your global connections.

Resolve to grow bigger minds. Take time out for learning, reflection and possibility. Consider the problem or opportunity through a larger or different lens.

Finally, resolve to take the right, hard road. It may be painful at times, but I promise: the view is worth it.

John McGuire is a senior faculty member and Transformation Practice Leader at the Center for Creative Leadership’s Colorado Springs campus and co-author of “Transforming Your Leadership Culture.”