Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Leading by Monitoring Your Environment

tuna2 I heard the whining engine and screeching tires a split second before the white Miata flew around the curve. I jumped off my bike and watched as the petrified driver wrestled with the wheel and screamed past me. But the next mountain curve came too fast, and the sports car disappeared over the edge. I jumped back on my bike and rolled downhill 10 yards, to the spot where the tires last clawed the road. Praying for a miracle, I peered over the edge... and saw one. (Half-way up the mountain in this picture - Malibu, CA)

Instead of plunging 300 feet down the ravine (as seen in the picture), the car had landed upright, against several thick bushes 30 feet down. The driver was crawling up the embankment towards me.

As he reached the road, he straightened up and assured me he was fine (there were no visible bruises and he had been wearing his seatbelt). He asked to use my cell phone to call for a tow truck, and then encouraged me, several times, to continue my bike ride up the steep mountain road. I did. That's when I decided to count the curves on the mountain and started to think about those curves as a metaphor for how leaders need feedback to monitor their environment closely.

Webster’s Dictionary defines feedback as “the return to the point of origin of evaluative or corrective information.” Feedback is everywhere. A market-based economy works because consumers give continuous feedback to producers. The human body incorporates thousands of feedback mechanisms to keep us alive. Failure to pay attention to feedback is what almost killed the driver on that mountain. Is it hurting your leadership?

I counted 37 curves from the spot where he went over the edge to the top of that mountain. This means he had 37 opportunities to become aware of, learn from, and adjust to the feedback from his environment as he raced down. He obtained feedback about the road conditions, his car, his ability to negotiate hairpin curves... You get the point. He was, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, getting the experience but missing the meaning. How often does that happen to you?

Are you having experiences, but missing the meaning? Here's a clue... I know I'm NOT learning my lesson when the universe keeps sending me (i.e., I keep creating) the same experience over and over again. It's always Groundhog Day for those who don't learn from their experience. Monitoring your environment by being open to internal and external feedback, and choosing to learn from it, is what makes an experience meaningful.

As a leader, you receive feedback from customers, team members, management... every day. Here are three powerful tools to help you use feedback to monitor your surroundings.

1. Be open to most things, attached to few

If the person on the mountain had been open to what the hairpin turns were teaching him, he might not have plunged off the road. Do you ever find yourself going so fast, trying to push too hard or rush a conversation, that you miss critical feedback? Don’t become so attached to your way, as I sometimes do, that you miss the "corrective information" someone or something is telling you.

2. Write for insight

In her book ‘The Artist’s Way,’ Julia Cameron describes a powerful technique called Morning Pages. She says that if you really want to discover the meaning of something, write three pages by hand, non-stop, and fast, in the morning. Anything that comes to mind, write it down, without editing. Don’t think, don’t hesitate, and don’t stop. The key is to keep your hand moving no matter what spills out onto the pages. Morning Pages are NOT prose, poetry, or journaling. You shouldn't show them to or share them with anyone. You will be amazed at what this "internal feedback" teaches you. Remember, we don’t learn from experience; we learn from our reflection on that experience.

3. Ask positive questions

Do you ever get down on yourself or blame circumstances when you make a mistake or life throws you a curve (like a hairpin one on a mountain)? We all mess up. Yet few of us realize that there is no failure, only feedback. ‘Failure’ is just feedback waiting for meaning. It’s only failure if you don’t learn anything. Whenever you're hit by unexpected or unwelcome events, what if you focused on positive feedback by asking questions like:

    • - What could I learn from this?
    • - Will this be critical five years from today?
    • - How can I view this differently?

We all receive tons of feedback as we speed through our day. Perhaps if we paid closer attention to this "corrective information" we might make more meaning out of what happens to us. Maybe feedback is about learning for the future. Perhaps feedback is really feed-forward?

See you on the mountain,



Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great points. I agree that too often we do not pay attention to our own everyday observations. We somehow use and value the feedback from others more than our own.

Dave Jensen, Leadership Expert said...

Yes, you're right on

Our minister recently said that God is always broadcasting, the question is are we listening.

Thanks for writing,