Monday, November 18, 2013

Got skills? The essential skills for effectiveness and Success

I enjoy the Facebook group "Things they didn't teach us at seminary." Apparently, there's a LOT of things seminaries don't teach, and which, seminarians don't realize they need to learn. Certainly, that's as it must be. No formal educational program can teach everything one needs to know, in whatever field or profession. Still, it begs the question about what it is that "ought" to be taught. Or, what is most necessary to be learned? Where is the balance between theory and practice? Or, this question: What are the fundamental skills needed for effectiveness and success?

Trilling and Fadel, in 21st Century Skills, Learning for life in our times (2009)  cite a study that lists eight essential skills for the 21st century leader (1). They are: 

Oral and written communication
Critical thinking and problem solving
Professionalism and work ethic
Teamwork and collaboration
Working with diverse teams and partners
Applying technology
Leadership and project management
Emotional Intelligence.

Reflecting on my own professional experience, that list seems spot on (and I'm hard pressed to add anything to the list aside from "appreciation for the aesthetic," a quality that can be embedded in several of those skills). My assessment is based not only on reflection on those skills that have made me effective to one degree or another, but also, reflecting on what tends to get leaders "stuck" and ineffective. Upon further reflection I must confess that only two items on the list were learned during my formal educational experience. Even then, I did not achieve a level of passable competence until the post-formal educational experience in "the real world." 

The nature of these skills are multidimensional, multifaceted, integrative, and are acquired and honed over time. In other words, there are maturational and experiential dimensions to these skills which result in capacity, know-how, and competence. For example, it's doubtful one can achieve a high degree of professionalism and work ethic without a corresponding high level of emotional intelligence. With a lack of critical thinking skills, one's ability to do effective project management is limited. And we can write volumes on the outcome that is the integration of leadership, emotional intelligence, teamwork, and working with others. Emotional intelligence rarely comes without some maturation, and, good writers and public speakers emerge after countless hours at the craft--with the just the right balance of successes and failures to yield expertise. One good news is that no one needs to be an expert in any one, or even several, but effective leaders have some level of competence in the cluster. 

The notion that we don't learn everything in school, whether university or seminary, is merely a confession that learning is a lifelong necessity. One of our greatest liabilities is that along the way, despite years of being "students," we never learn how to learn. So, if I were to add one more critical skill needed for effectiveness and success, it would be: being a lifelong learner who has learned how to learn. 

(1) Citing, Conference Board, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families, & Society for Human Resource Management, 2006.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean, Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Leading Amidst Reactivity

Leadership may be a romantic notion for the naive and inexperienced, but in reality, it's a tough business. Few do it well, fewer still excel at it. In large part, I think this is because, as Edwin Friedman posited, leadership is more a function of emotional process than expertise or competence. Simply put, leadership is about dealing with people, not things. And when you deal with people, you have to deal with emotional process.

Perhaps no other quality is more determinative of an effective leader than the capacity to deal with reactivity in emotional process. Reactivity is a product of anxiety. Leaders who work in chronically anxious systems will be most challenged by this fact, and, I suspect most leaders function in chronically anxious systems. As such, the capacity to lead in the midst of reactivity is one of the keys to effective leadership. Author John Galbraith stated, "All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership."

The prerequisite for dealing with reactivity in an anxious system, however, is the capacity of the leader to manage her or his own reactivity in the context of an anxious system. In essence, it is the ability to differentiate oneself as leader amidst the swirl of emotional process, especially in times of reactivity.
Reactivity vs. Sabotage

Leaders can help manage their own anxiety by discerning the difference between reactivity and sabotage. Reactivity is a merely an unthinking, automatic, anxious response to perceived or actual threat. Any time a leader proposes change in a system, you can expect it to be perceived as "threat" at some level, and, it will be accompanied by some level of reactivity. So, the first step in self-regulation for the leader is to just expect it--it's the norm.
Often all that is needed from the leader is to recognize reactivity: "Ah, there it is." What form reactivity takes, and who in the system manifests reactivity through automatic repertoires may be a product of the context and culture of a particular system. Because reactivity is an unthinking automatic response, it's not creative. Reactivity gets "patterned" in systems, to the point one can predict, to some extent, the ways (and sometimes who) a particular system is likely to "react" to threat, perceived or actual. Insofar as one is able to do so, a leader can develop his or her repertoire to respond to reactivity. Since reactivity is unimaginative, it almost does not matter WHAT the leader does, and matters more that the leader responds in non-reactive ways to the reactivity in the system (do not add fuel to the fire).

Helpful Responses to Reactivity:

  • Develop discernment of emotional process. Accept that reactivity is a normal response to threat.
  • Practice perspective-taking. Keep the end in view and accept reactivity as the first step in the process of change.
  • Cultivate self-awareness. Focus as much on your inner emotional process as on the emotional process of the system. Regulate your own anxiety and increase your capacity to make appropriate responses.
  • Develop a repertoire of responses. Your repertoire can span the options of ignoring it to providing a rationale response, but one necessary response is staying connected.

  • Sabotage, in contrast to reactivity, is another thing altogether. It goes beyond being an unthinking response to perceived threat. Sabotage is a willful act which has intent to subvert or undermine. It must be addressed because willfulness introduces toxicity in the system, detracts from the issue at hand, and derails process.

    Helpful Responses to Sabotage.

  • Cultivate persistence of vision. To help the system get to where it's going, you'll need to navigate through all that's in between here and there. Focus on the there.
  • Follow your guiding principles, live up to your standards. "Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you. Never excuse yourself," said Henry Ward Beecher.
  • Raise your tolerance level for pain. Remember that when reactivity is directed at the leader, it's not about you, it's about the leader.
  • Remember your leadership function in the system.
  • Be flexible, and if necessary, prepare to be resilient.

  • Leaders need to learn to function in the midst of reactivity. In fact, their capacity to do that well may be the most valuable gift they provide to the systems they lead. Douglas McArthur said, "A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent."

    Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of Perspectives on Congregational Leadership, and The Hidden Lives of Congregations. He contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.