Around Corners & Beyond Barriers: The Vision of Leaders

In 2001 Erik Weihenmayer reached the peak of Mount Everest — an impressive feat in-and-of itself. But one thing should be noted: Erik is blind. I first learned of his story several years ago, and was reminded of it thanks to a recent story on NBC’s Today Show.

But Everest is only part of the story.

In 2005 Erik became the first blind climber, and 1 of only 150 total climbers to have completed the Seven Summits. He has scaled the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite, ascended Losar, a 2700-foot vertical ice face in the Himalayas, and kayaked the treacherous whitewaters of the 277-miles of the Grand Canyon.

Did I mention that Erik is blind?

In 2005, he co-founded No Barriers, a nonprofit organization with a most appropriate brand tagline, “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.”

Individuals who inspire us — those we might be persuaded to follow — possess a unique perspective.

When eulogizing his fallen brother Robert, Ted Kennedy referred to Robert’s own explanation for the way he saw the world — “Some men see things as they are and say Why. I dream things that never were, and say Why Not.” 

This is vision of the highest order. It is the ability to see through barriers — even the barrier of the unknown. It’s the way we see the world when unobscured by fear, synicism or out-right self- interest.

Without respect to title or station…in offices and homes, at work or play…the women and men who inspire us to listen and follow have this view of things.

Even if you’re not at the peak of a mountain, you can tell you’re in this rare air because a lot less time is spent focusing on all that is wrong. Things are seen through the imagination — the mind’s eye.  Reasoning around why not is an organic response…even in the face of unimaginable challenge.

This is the perspective of leadership — and it is where creative thinking and innovation find footing. In this environment, we have a shot at discovering real solutions.

It’s not that leaders ignore problems or challenges. It is that leadership embraces a perspective that transcends what is staring it in the face.

Not all the time. Not in every situation. And certainly not to an elite few. At times a leader’s way of seeing things comes in an awkward instant to the most unexpected among us. (Every parent knows what this is about.)

It is this transcendent brand of vision that sees around roadblocks…and charts the course for great human adventures — in moments on Everest, no doubt; but more to the point, wherever a path is chosen and a first step taken — at home, in your office, anywhere.

It may be human nature to spend most of our time on the realities we face. If my boss would change this…if my partner would fix that…if the others on the Board just knew what I know…if we didn’t have to contend with all of these old dinosaur ideas, we could accomplish so much more. 

We analyze all that is wrong…pontificating on why we’re in the fix we’re in. And before we know it, the meeting is over…the month has closed…another down-quarter has passed. The kids are grown…and gone.  Why did so much conspire against our dreams? When did we relinquish leadership, and decide to follow the fearful and vision-less?

The poet T.E. Lawrence describes two types of dreamers. He said…”All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous…for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

Leadership — the kind that inspires a team to address the impossible — spends less time wandering around the dusty recesses of the same old conversations.

Leaders envision possibilities.

And wherever we might have dreams — of relationships that endure, of fairness and inclusion, of transformative creativity and innovation, of scaling the most formidable challenges we might face — there echoes a resounding call for this kind of vision.

On Professionalism

We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face. We may write about it, design programs and build entire initiatives around it. If we have enough juice we might be able to insist on a moniker or title that insinuates we have arrived.

But when it comes to what it really means to be a professional, titles, labels, and even robust branding efforts have little to do with the reality.

When it comes to determining what it means to be a professional, what we do speaks much more eloquently than what our business card (or Linked In profile) says.

Professionalism is a characteristic. It is the sum of traits that form the foundation for behavior in defining moments — whatever the venue might be.

The only thing most of us are able to control with respect to this discussion is our own personal pursuit of the traits we deem central to the professionalism to which we aspire.

The temptation is to act as though defining moments on a big stage…in the glare of bright lights..in the context of high visibility.

In our gut we know that true professionalism is defined daily — in scores of moments that are often more private than public…where there is little fanfare.

Simply calling someone (or something) professional, does not make it so.

In the interest of a productive pursuit, and with acknowledgment of personal blind spots, here is a six-pack of some of the traits present in the consummate professionals I have had the opportunity to know.

  1. Professionals accept responsibility. They don’t whine or shrink in the toughest moments. Nor, it should be noted, do the best of the best demand the spotlight for sustenance.
  2. The professional possesses crystal-clear self-awareness, and is constantly honing the ability to understand personal limitations. This is manifest in honesty, intentional listening, and a big-picture perspective.
  3. Professionals don’t engage in turf wars, and do not tear down others. Rather, they build bridges, and are apt to deflect credit.
  4. The professional doesn’t avoid difficult moments, conversations or problem personalities…approaching challenges with honesty.
  5. Professionals follow up, and follow through. Always. No matter what. As cliche as it may sound, this is fact.
  6. The professional is always professional — without respect to position or title.

This is not offered as an exhaustive list. It does, however, represent the foundational traits to which I personally aspire. Have thoughts and/or additions that might be instructive for all of us? Please contribute.

Who Really Is The Smartest One In The Room

At some point, given the right topic, almost everyone will have a moment worth sharing.

The challenge, at least as it relates to productive dialogue, is that many of us believe the frequency and scope of our insight is so grand as to warrant the lion’s share of attention in any given room.

But when was the last time we engaged in an interaction where the objective of everyone in the room was to listen, intent on learning? On finding the building blocks for better conversations?

If you’ve been in a room like this it probably left a mark. There is dynamism there. When gaining insight is the goal, ideas flow freely. Maybe even new ideas. Solutions emerge more quickly.

But rooms where listening dominates are scarce. After all, territory must be staked. Turf marked.

An Idea

Pick the most stressful or contentious interaction you’ll face in coming days. What might change if the objective were to listen? No immediate agendas. No winning or losing.

To be sure, there are plenty of reasons not to go down this road. Where’s the practicality? Someone has to lead. I’m expected to come to the table with a point-of-view, experience and expertise.

If you want to introduce a rare dynamic into difficult conversations, try being a point of listening rather than worrying about sharing your point of view. Unless you’re in unusual company, no one really hears — or gets — your point of view anyway. Not because it isn’t brilliant; but because while you’re talking most everyone else is only half-listening, while formulating a response.

(Double down on the above paragraph if the objective of the one doing most of the talking is to convince, convert, defend or distract.)

And if the fear is that failing to own a room displays weakness or affords unfair advantage to another’s point of view, consider the possibility that minimal progress will be realized in a room where the primary concern is winning the moment.

Real listening is an intentional and difficult act. It stems from a commitment to learn, and the relentless search for a bridge that connects all parties…even over enormous chasms.

When I believe my insight is ultimate, and that the room is best served when I broadcast my point of view, I should not be surprised when the only ones paying attention are those who share my perspective…and nothing changes.

There is rarely a shortage of talk. But when the talk accomplishes little, there may be a shortage of intentional listening.

In relationships with family, co-workers, friend or foe, perhaps the key to the change and progress we seek lies in having the courage and discipline to listen…to find the elements necessary to build a bridge to on-going conversation