One foot on the brake and one on the gas, hey!
Well, there’s too much traffic, I can’t pass, no!
The opening lines of The Red Rocker’s (Sammy Hagar) 1984 hit, I Can’t Drive 55. Now I don’t think Sammy nor most people that crank this song up when they are hitting the highways think about these lines in any way other than an expression of a desire to drive fast. And trust me; I have done my share of exceeding “55″ with this song blaring in my car. But today, I am putting a little twist on these lyrics.
All too often in our professional careers and even in our personal lives, we struggle with expanding our role; adapting to change; leveraging ingenuity to solve a problem we are facing. To put it simply, we struggle with being leaders. And why do we struggle with these things? We get caught up in the administrative chaos that exists in our jobs; we become content with the status quo mindset of “that’s what how things have always been done”; we fear failure from trying taking on new roles or doing things differently. In short, there are times where we apply the brakes and at the same time press down on the gas pedal – yet are confused on why we are not getting where we want to go. And other times we let off the brake but the “traffic” in our jobs or our lives get in the way of us moving forward, and we are afraid to change lanes to get around the traffic. We become stuck and our ability to be flexible and quickly react to our rapidly changing world is diminished.
As you may recall several weeks ago, I made an entry titled “What’s Love Got to Do With It? In the entry, I referenced a book Heroic Leadership by Chris Lowney. Thanks to an Austin to Boston roundtrip recently, I had a chance to finally read the book. Good book; a little deeper in history than most “self-help” management tomes which made it even more interesting for me since I am a bit of a history geek. So as fate would have it, days after reading the book, a couple of events happened in my world that made me immediately go back to that book and think a little more about one of the core Jesuit principle presented in the book, “ingenuity.”
I have been involved with a new(er) Catholic high school, St Dominic Catholic High School, in Austin for close to five years – since the start of a large capital campaign to gather funds for the construction of the school facilities and now as a member of the school’s finance committee. It has been extremely exciting and rewarding to be a part of the history of the school from the beginning. The school has been fortunate to have a charismatic principal, Kevin Calkins, from day 1 – actually even before day 1 since he was hired at the start of construction. Prior to coming to Austin, Kevin worked at a Jesuit high school and attended a Jesuit college. Recently he announced that he was leaving the school to accept a position as Assistant Superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans – which happens to be headed by the former Bishop of Austin who was instrumental in bringing Kevin to St Dominic Savio 4 years ago. When I first heard the news, my initial reaction was “how dare he leave the school just as it was getting stable.”
The same week I received a call from Mike, a long-time co-worker. While he is supposedly a Texas resident, Mike has spent most of the past 10 years in other parts of the world, including long-term work stints in Australia, Philippines, Belgium, and United Kingdom. He is what I call a “potted plant”, the guy that picks up and moves at what seems a moment’s notice for the next job assignment. I never wanted to be the “potted plant” but I have always had an admiration for those that play that role. In my prior career in management consulting, there were numerous potted plants that simply picked up their “roots” and moved to the site of the next long-term engagement. That role is a valuable one for many companies as it provides an anchor in a new or far away outpost. The reason for his call was to let me know that he was moving yet again, but this time the move was out of the company. After 15+ years of going anywhere, anytime for the company, he had decided to take his skills and his career elsewhere. My first reaction was “wow, I never thought he would leave this place.”
From reading the book, I go a much better idea of what this principle of “ingenuity” is all about. Usually when I see or hear the word “ingenuity”, I conjure up visions of MacGyver (late 80s TV show for you youngsters) disarming a nuclear warhead with nothing but a paperclip, a stick of chewing gum and the laces from his shoes. But it is deeper than that, the Jesuit concept of ingenuity is developing leaders that can confidently innovate and adapt to embrace a changing world to achieve the aim of the company which is to “help souls.” In order to do this, the Jesuits attempted to avoid occupations that tied them down or limited flexibility – somewhat contrary to what most of us think of as a Jesuit mainstay which is the vast network of schools and universities they established. They vowed to ready at any hour to go to any part of the world to carry out the mission of the company. Put another way, the Jesuits followed a concept of always having one foot off the ground – every ready to take the next step, never to be caught flat-footed. Pretty heady stuff when you consider this was a concept formed 450+ year ago when travel to other parts of the world, was more than a 2 hour wait in an airport security line and a 12 hour flight from LA to Asia.
So thinking back to Kevin and Mike, they are both great examples of maintaining flexibility and being poised to take on the next challenge. Take Kevin, four years ago he left a great position in California to move to Austin and become the principal of a school that had zero students, zero staff, and zero buildings. In four short years, he has been a key leader in building the school literally from the ground up. Next month the school will have its first graduation ceremony and next year will have close to 400 students – and during the short three years of existence the students at the school have excelled in academic, sports, and fine arts competitions. If this isn’t ingenuity, I don’t know what is. Perhaps for Kevin his mission in Austin is done, he helped build a vibrant, successful school in three short years. And now he is poised to take on a new adventure in New Orleans. While I am sure he will face many challenges there, I am also confident he will “help souls” there as well.
Now let’s look at Mike. Mike has been the ultimate “corporate team player” and a strong leader. I don’t know for sure, but I am almost certain he holds the record for most offices (and countries) worked in throughout the entire company. He has been ready at any hour to pick and move to some far away location at the request of the president of the company. In doing so, he became very adept of melding the way in which we approach business with the norms of the region. In doing so, he brought insight to others, including me, about the operations of our far flung operations and how to get things done in those other parts of the world. I saw him as the glue that helped bind together our various international operations with the US-based operations. And now he is taking that same enthusiasm for tackling new markets to another company that has big plans for international expansion.
You might be thinking at this point’ “Great, Robert. But, I am not some 16th century Jesuit priest, and I am not the type to pick up and move to another part of the country or world. So I guess I am just stuck on the freeway with Sammy Hagar.” Not so fast; I think this ingenuity thing applies to all of us.
While the above are more extreme examples of flexibility and living with one foot off the ground, there are many less extreme things we can do in our careers to not get stuck in the rut of the everyday and be nimble. For example, last year, we were having issues with some local telecom carriers in Manila. The issues quickly escalated and at Noon on a Friday had reached a point where I knew I needed to go there in person. By 2p that afternoon, I had airfare booked for me and two others and early on Sunday morning, we boarded flights to start the long journey to the Philippines. That is not how I prefer to plan trips, especially ones half way around the world, but it was what was needed. A few years back, I recall asking a Unix admin to be on a flight to Boston in 3 hours. He immediately said “yes”, left the office to swing by his house to grab a change of clothes and was off to the airport. We bought his ticket while he was driving towards the airport. A great example of being ready at any hour to go where needed.
There are other examples of being that are tied related to moving or travel as well. In the world of IT, there are always server admins and network engineers on call. I have lost count of the number of times in the past 10 years I have called someone in the middle of the night to troubleshoot an issue. The good ones, the one I considered strong leaders jumped in every time without hesitation. Ingenuity is also about the people that don’t fight a change in a process, but instead embrace it. They don’t get caught in the “but that’s the way we have always done it trap”, they look for ways to improve operations, they champion change within the organization. Each person that jumps in at moment’s notice or brings up new and better ways to complete a task is a true leader. A job title does not make a leader; ingenious, nimble actions make a leader.
Ingenuity is also about not getting complete absorbed with the administrative avalanche that face many workers – this is especially true for people in managerial roles. It is easy to spend entire days doing nothing but cranking through administrative tasks – approving purchase order, reviewing change management work orders, approving time off, analyzing financial statements and responding to emails. I have found myself in this trap many times. You look up at the end of the day and you realize that you have done nothing to lead the business, nothing that in any way shape or form improves the ability for the company to achieve the established goals. You were busy all day, but not busy on the right things. You were in your car, but with the foot firmly on the brake. We must all work each day to make to find time to make a positive difference in our company, it does not have to be huge differences, but we must make a conscious effort to not drive with our foot on the brake all day.
So I wish the best of luck to both Kevin and Mike in their latest adventures. The organizations they are leaving behind are better off because of their presence and the ones they are going to will certainly benefit from having them around. And for the rest of us, we must all try to remember that to move forward we must ease off on the brake pedal and sometimes even change lanes and get out of our comfort zone to become true leaders.
With a little ingenuity, we can all drive “55″