Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Leadership Flows Like Water (COVID Chronicles)

It's been a hectic week of non-stop work and stressful deadlines.

The sudden surge of workload has left me feeling like juggling knives standing in quicksand. One night, I somehow managed to triple-booked myself with 3 simultaneous Zoom calls. Fortunately, I was able to delegate some tasks away to my trusty circle of colleagues. The weekend was the peak of the week - two and a half days (plus Friday) in the thick of a mooting competition.

By Monday, I was up early by 7 in the morning once again. There's a backlog of delayed work to rush through the week ahead. The snowball of stress hasn't quite receded just yet. The month of August looks set to be quite a roller-coaster ride.

No, I'm not complaining. I'm just enjoying the moment, in fact.

And that's because I've managed to find a balance of what I call as 'flow leadership'.

We can do this all day!

* * *

How do I manage so many different work teams with different tasks at the same time?

The word is delegation. But that's easier said than done. Most leaders either fall under the category of 'administrator' or 'micro-manager'. As explained previously (citing from Frank Herbert), a typical administrator "hesitates, diddles around, asks for committees, for research and reports" and "more concerned with reports than with decisions" because he "wants the hard record which he can display as an excuse for his errors". In short, an administrator tries as much as possible to create a distance between himself and actual meaningful work, so to avoid being responsibility and accountability.

In contrast, a micro-manager genuinely wants to get work done. But he's so worried about things going wrong that he becomes mistrustful of anyone except himself. As a result, he keeps subordinates and allies under a close eye. He checks every single line of documents, looks out for typos, agonizes for hours over simple emails. He's more worried about avoiding mistakes than producing results.

A good leader lacks none of the flaws that plague both types of managers. A good leader isn't afraid of taking on and delegating responsibility. A good leader is both decisive and inclusive.

* * *

On the last occasion, I described my experience with a senior leader called 'Willy' (not his real name). I'm trying to be more like Willy. And doing so has allowed me to be more bold in managing my responsibilities more effectively over the past week so.

Here's some quick pro-tips that I learnt from Willy:

First, delegation requires discrimination. You can't expect, say, a freshie to know how to draft an important budget, or know the inside out an elaborate bureaucracy. An administrator clings on to the theoretically sound but practically naive belief that rules apply to everyone equally, no matter their ability. He's quick to throw first-timers into deep end of the ocean, and later to blame them for failing at a task beyond their capability. His official reason is to "let them learn by experience and the hard way". The real reason, of course, is his laziness to engage and develop lowly minions.

In contrast, a leader like Willy treats every person as unique in their own way. He's demanding but protective. He finds different ways to train and motivate different people. He is patient and reasonable with deadlines. He sees the fall of those under his wing as part of his own failure. By allowing his followers to thrive in their own element and own pace, they often rise to meet and even exceed the fair expectations placed upon them.

Second, delegation requires distancing. No need to monitor a subordinate's every move. No need to harass them for constant status updates. No need to organise long purposeless meetings. However, a micro-manager does all that because he fears the loss of control. He has problems treating underlings as autonomous beings.

In contrast, a leader like Willy knows when to parachute in, and when to duck out. He gives people adequate breathing space. He closes one eye to minor indiscretions - some people need their 'fixes' to get into the 'zone' (e.g. long lunches, flexi-working hours, not checking Whatsapp notifications at every minute). Above all, he doesn't impose his habits on others. So long as they get the job done as required, he cares little when and how they get there.

Third, delegation requires discretion. An administrator rigidly sticks to well-intentioned but ill-defined rules. For instance, roles being distributed based on seniority. A micro-manager creates bottleneck in workflow by jealously maintaining sole control over the approval process. For instance, an entire team of lawyers and secretaries are forced to stay back in office late at night because he has to critically review a 5-page written submission due tomorrow drafted by a junior since last week.

In contrast, a leader like Willy is flexible and emphatetic. Promotion to senior associate usually takes 5 years? Well, not if you're superstar talent working your socks off day and night - a fast-track path is open for you. Having a new baby? No worries, he won't hold you back in office longer than necessary, and allow some flexibility in your working hours. Ultimately, Willy cares more about performance, rather than process. He cultivates the spark of individuality in each of us.

Onward and forward!

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán

* * *

Yet another long and hectic week lies ahead. New surprises keep springing up. Plans and priorities keep shifting.

Thankfully, I'm supported by a super team of like-minded people. They are abuzz with energy. They are unburdened by ego. It's a working relationship build on trust and confidence. I don't merely administer their work, but get down and dirty into the gritty ground work whenever they're stuck and my expertise is called for. I don't micro-manage every aspect of the work, but give them plenty of room to explore and work things out on their own.

There are times where we feel like drowning in work, of course. But everyone stays calm, and keeps paddling as hard as our physical and mental muscles can muster. And eventually, we'll stay float, safely sailing to shallow waters.

For leadership is not some ivory tower atop a hill. Rather, leadership flows like a river through a treacherous jungle towards the wide open ocean. A leader who doesn't get his feet wet is no leader worth saving when he's swept by the rapid waters. A leader unafraid to dive first into the water is a leader worth following till the ends of the world.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Best Leaders Bring Out The Best In Others (COVID Chronicles)

I met two senior leaders over the last week. And had two very contrasting experiences.

Both are strong leaders in their own right, and deserve to be on top where they are. Yet, I spotted some stark differences in their leadership styles, and general personalities. Differences which explain why they enjoy somewhat differing trajectories.

It's not my place to say that one is better than the other. After all, leadership is made of many components, and differs according circumstances (type of organization, industry, and workspace culture). But in terms of inspiring people to be better versions of themselves, there's one clear winner.

* * *

I met Sam (not his real name) first. It was a pre-booked meeting a week ago. I arrived before the meeting time at 2.30 pm, and made to wait in a room. Sam walked in shortly, looking rather distracted. One of the first things I said: "Just to let you know, this may take a while." He almost immediately cut in, "A while? I have to leave by 3pm." I hastily answered: "Oh, I only need 30 minutes."

The meeting didn't really go on as well as I had hoped. I won't bore you with the technical details. Suffice to say, Sam was rather non-committal to my queries, not very enthusiastic about what I had to say, and generally giving me the vibes that he rather be somewhere else and was merely here out of formality.

To be fair, I may have raised one or two questionable propositions. Sam may have had a long day and wasn't in the best of moods. We had plenty of meetings before, and he had been chirpier in past occasions. Still, overall, the meetings felt like all the previous meetings - a subordinate in need of a superior's approval.

Well, isn't that how all managers behave? From my lowly position, isn't being granted audience a privilege itself that I should be grateful? As a superior, why should he be obliged to make me feel comfortable?

Is your boss a leader or manager?

* * *

Contrast with my later meeting that week with Willy (also not his real name).

I don't even work for Willy. I haven't met Willy for years, actually. Just so happen something came up that brought us together.

I was invited into his new office - or should I say, a 'temp' office. And yet, he wasn't embarrassed at all with the less-than-ideal working space, and took great pains to make me feel comfortable. I met the rest of his team, and some other external colleagues from outside. He treated each of them with great respect, showering compliments, giving words of encouragement to sail through this uncertain difficult times stricken by COVID-19.

What impressed me most about Willy was his optimism and humility. In spite of facing hardship in uncharted waters, Willy remained enthusiastic about the present and future. His general vibes exuded hope and confidence. And above all, he made everyone feel like we're all in the same boat, rising and sinking together. I never felt for one moment that I was walking on egg-shells and fearing some godly wrath. I didn't have to think twice when asking for a small favour, nor bite my tongue when tempted to speak my mind. Willy always listened, and tried to think of win-win solutions.

* * *

Ultimately, the difference between Sam and Willy is this - one makes you shrink in his presence, the other makes you stand tall.

With Sam, I feel like pizza delivery boy praying for a good tip. With Willy, I feel like a guest being invited for a nice house dinner party.

My relationship with Sam and Willy is not the same, of course. But I don't think I'm unfairly judging them because I've observed closely how they treated others as well. The stories from last week are just recent examples. I've known both of them for quite awhile.

Again, it's not my place to say who is the better leader. Leaders should primarily be judged based on how well their results achieves their objectives. And I don't know enough of their objectives and results to make that judgment from where I'm at. What I'm focusing on is merely an aspect (but arguably an important one) of leadership - which type of leader inspire people the most?

Everyone has their own traits and habits. I see shades of both Sam and Willy in myself as well. But since I've made a pledge to be more positive during this difficult year (and hopefully, for good), there's one clear winner of a leader that I aspire myself to be.

Lead by empathy, lead by inspiration. Be a leader that motivates others to be better versions of themselves. Be like Willy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Stay Positive With Positive People (COVID Chronicles)

So last week didn't get off on a good start. Quite terrible, actually. Something happened that just destroyed my mood. I couldn't really sleep because I couldn't really stop thinking about it. I could already imagine my fury spilling out in my next blog article...

But I couldn't do that. This COVID-19 Chronicles has a yin-yang balance. It's a promise I made. One negative, one positive, in alternate fashion. I already wrote some nasty things in the previous blog. My bad karma has been exhausted. The next article has to be something positive.

As the week continued, I tried to look for positives. I reached out to people. I mended my 'errors' that people weren't happy with. Slowly, I righted the boat, and everything was smooth sailing back again. My bad spot earlier in the week hasn't healed completely (and never will, I guess). But so what? What's important is the things that really mattered in life really perked up.

Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone...

Photo by Nicholas Swatz

* * *

And the good news kept coming in. My university suddenly decided to open up the extra gates that has been left closed during the pandemic to control the flow of traffic by turning away non-staff and unauthorised visitors away. By cutting down on entry points, this had built up long queues of cars during peak hours. The staff had a harder time than usual to get in and out the university.

And then one exceptionally stormy evening struck, causing a crazy bottleneck jam. The next day, the university announced that the other gates will be opened, but with sensible restrictions - only in the early morning and evenings, and only allowing one-way traffic (in-flow for morning, out-flow for evening).

Well done, traffic controllers! See how decisive people can be in times of emergencies. In my last article, I wrote about the difference between a good and bad administrator is five heartbeats. So this incident has somewhat renewed my faith that there are good administrators at the wheel, after all.

Of course, I'm sure someone higher upstairs must've been caught in the jam, missed some important appointment, and made some angry noises. Anyway, motive aside, a good result is still a result worth celebrating. Stay positive!

* * *

So what exactly happened that ruined my mood earlier in the week?

Nah, I'm not going to talk about it. At all. Totally. That's how insignificant this small 'blip' in my life. That's how irrelevant the person responsible for causing me grief is to me. Seek revenge? Or forgiveness? Neither. There are some people in the world that are just best left alone. Cut them out of your thoughts. They do not even exist.

Why waste energy being bitter or sad about something that is beyond your control anyway? Some people operate the way as they always have. It's the only way they know. Nothing you say or do can change their minds. You just have to accept them for who they are. The most you could afford them is your pity.

For it's people who can't see positives in themselves that typically spread negativity to others. In other words, negative people can only feel good about themselves when they put other people down. SAD!

Positive people stay positive, no matter how bad the situation is. I'm fortunate to have positive people in my company. I'm far from being the pillar of positivity myself, so their positive energies really helped me regain some semblance of self-control and self-dignity. Thank you, positive people!

I can't name people who do not exist

* * *

So does this mean that I can revert back to grumpy mode in the next article?

Not necessarily so. You know what? I change my promise. My target is now to write more positively, even about stuff I feel about negatively about. Sounds rather optimistic, I know. BUT I CAN DO THIS!

I've probably said this a million times before, in some other version or variant before, but I'll say it again since most of us including myself needs reminding: that life is far too short dwelling on negative feelings and memories. Being forced into a field of negativity is an unavoidable part about life. The best - and only - reaction is to bounce back harder than ever to reach to the positive side of the world.

If you take a fall, get back quickly on your feet. And keep on moving. There's more to life ahead of you than behind you.