Monday, October 8, 2012

Reduce, and Gain Power

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I was recently inspired by Tim Leberecht's thoughts on preparing for and giving a TED talk. To paraphrase, he talks about the liberation that comes with focus, of reducing things down to their barest essential. It provides more than just clarity. It opens up new horizons that may not have been visible before. It allows others to build upon your sturdy platform, and creates the opportunity for radical change.

It's a dynamic I've recently experienced myself. Like most leaders, I'm regularly faced with a number of vexing problems. Stakeholders with competing priorities. Trends that don't telegraph what they mean for the organization. Issues that won't crystallize around a common strategy. It's my job to wrestle with these problems, and it can sometimes feel that I'm blindly groping my way through an unfamiliar environment.

In one area I recently decided to take a stand. The issues were complex. The vested interests were powerful. I knew I had some ability to shape, but no real ability to control the conversation. And I perceived that we were being pulled in a direction we did not necessarily wish to go.

So rather than accepting my role as one voice among many, I decided to recast the conversation in a way that put me and my organization in the center of the dialogue. We would still need the outside stakeholders to participate, that wasn't going to change, and there would remain the chance that we would not achieve the broader potential of the previous conversation. But in reducing the complexity down to what I viewed as the most salient realities, a new sense of clarity arose in my handling of the issue, and with it, a heightened ability to act with confidence and purpose.

It has been tremendously beneficial to my organization and to my role as its leader. Where once there was a confusing mess of competing priorities, there is now a central objective that I am rallying people around. That's valuable. But more important than the greater engagement I'm getting from my members, is the greater (and unexpected) willingness I'm seeing among the external stakeholders to follow our lead, to adapt themselves to the vision we are beginning to lay out.

The story is not done being written yet, but it is this dynamic that has surprised me the most, and in it I see an example of what Leberecht is talking about in his post. He views the red circle on the TED stage of emblematic of this perspective:

The iconic red circle that marks the TED speaker’s spot on stage serves as a symbol of reduction and expansion at the same time. It is you and others' idea of you, and how you both confirm and overcome, perform and transform it. If you stay within that circle – literally and metaphorically – you are not only safe, you are powerful.

In other words, by creating our own circle and staying tightly within it, we are not only increasing our own clarity about what we wish to achieve, we are attracting stakeholders that may ordinarily be antagonistic to our intentions, and creating more viable opportunities for productive dialogue and exploration with them.

It's taught me a crucial lesson. The quest for clarity is universal. If you are the leader (or organization) that provides it, your power to influence others and shape your external environment can be dramatically increased.

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