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Preserving the Skeleton

Yesterday, the media volleyed around stunning stories of tennis legend Venus Williams’ diagnosis of Sjögren’s Syndrome and her subsequent withdrawal from the U.S. Open. The story saturated mainstream news networks, receiving full court attention from health and lifestyle journalists in addition to devoted sports reporters. All this press served to racquet up both sympathy for Williams and intrigue into her “shocking diagnosis”, Sjögren’s Syndrome (Moisse & Childs, ABC News, 9/1/2011). In full disclosure, I also have Sjögren’s Syndrome, and fall in an exceedingly rare demographic as a young male afflicted by a predominantly older female autoimmune disorder. While I certainly appreciate the attention Sjögren’s will receive with the arrival of this high-profile case, I wish less to commiserate than I do to investigate how a leader navigates illness.

Venus Williams, who was recently ranked the 10th most powerful black woman in the U.S. and the 86th most powerful celebrity in the world (Forbes, The Celebrity 100), is certainly a leadership titan. She launched her own fashion line and interior design firm and is a co-owner of the Miami Dolphins. The list of accomplishments on and off the court is exhausting and diminishing for anyone who thinks they’ve found success.

Unfortunately so is Sjögren’s Syndrome. While the hallmark symptoms of the syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth, the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation explains that, “patients may experience extreme fatigue and joint pain and have a higher risk of developing lymphoma” ( It’s certainly serves up a challenge for a part-time table tennis attendant let alone for a professional tennis star at the peak of her career.

We often speak of the importance of mobilizing an agenda, sustaining momentum, and tirelessly operating in a campaign paradigm. So how does a highly competent, politically savvy leader manage when the body starts attacking itself? I wish I had an easy answer for this nauseating challenge but (much to my parents chagrin) I’m no doctor and hardly a leadership expert.

What I do know and what we often emphasize is that organizations, like your bodies, are uncertain organisms. Just as you never know when Hurricane Irene will flood your foyer, you can’t anticipate illness. While we may wish our doctors worked next to our desks, we lack this luxury.

The key is maintaining your coalition and vigilantly preparing for disorder. God forbid the day arrives when your body turns on itself, but, if it does, you at least want to avoid having an autoimmune coalition that mimics your disease. Cultivate an earnest, empowered coalition that will brace your organizational body if your personal frame gives out. If Sjogren’s dries your glands, find a team that will lubricate your agenda and carry you to the finish line.

Venus Williams’ courageous response to her diagnosis was that, “[Sjögren’s] will help me to feel grateful for everything that I have. And at the same time it makes me want to get up and fight harder every single day” (Moisse & Childs). So have another cup of coffee, eat your deep fried Oreo, and confidently plunge into your campaign. But remember to remain mindful of your personal and professional health.

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It goes by many names. Nodder, wobbler, bobbler, bobbing doll, or, more commonly, bobblehead doll. The one name, though, that is rarely applied to these amusing spring-connected collectible toys is “leader”. While popular culture and The Office, specifically, advance the bobblehead industry by creating toys bearing the likeness of organizational leaders, many leaders would resist this association. The representation of a proactive leader with a flimsy and inflated head that nods ad nauseam with mechanical approval is not what most managers want sitting on their desk. Yet, as much as much as the politically competent leader may cringe at this symbol of reflexive apathy, it unfortunately hits too close to home for many pinheaded executives.

Often on this blog, we touch upon this notion of leadership styles and the distinction between facilitative and directive management. As we argue, facilitative leaders adopt an empowering laissez-faire approach that allows coalition partners to autonomously advance a shared agenda. These leaders are not (usually) negligent but instead favor a more hands off approach. Arianna Huffington is likely a facilitative leader as she creates an empire but then empowers writers and contributors to mobilize the organization and advance a common agenda.

Directive leaders are then the foil for their facilitative colleagues. They favor a very hands-on approach and carefully prescribe and choreograph assignments for coalition partners. Just as facilitative leaders are not necessarily lazy, directive leaders are not automatically paranoid or dominating. They simply favor a stricter management scheme and design campaigns that accommodate or necessitate such an approach. Sarah Palin’s current SarahPAC is more directively managed as Palin carefully choreographs her staff actions and maintains strict regulation of her public and private campaign elements.

Both facilitative and directive approaches are valid and effective depending on the organization, agenda, and coalition players.

So back to the bobblehead and the emergence of a third, detrimental leadership approach. The bobblehead leadership approach is a poisonous fusion of facilitative and directive styles. The bobbler leader may dictate specific elements of the agenda or may empower colleagues to define these elements themselves but, in both contexts, this leader quickly succumbs to a yes-(wo)man approach.

The wobbler evades difficult choices by simply offering his weak but dependable approval for all campaign elements. The nodder remains silent in meetings, but she always defaults into consent when an opinion is solicited. Ultimately, the bobbing approach is one of apathy and fear that produces a vacuous, feeble campaign.

So sit at your desk and chuckle as your bobblehead offers its unconditional, detached support for all your ideas. But eventually you need to spring into action and get your head in the game.

Pic Credit: brianjmatis

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Sofa Snorkeling

Picture Credit: wnstn

Two weeks ago I met a stranger on the internet and last weekend I slept over at his place. My parents are aware of the situation and seem comfortable. I’ve done it several times before in countries ranging from Canada to Andorra and it’s always been a rewarding experience.

Ok before sullying the good names of Sam Bacharach and Cornell University let me explain how this was in fact a benign and platonic experience that informs leadership theory. Of course, if I do get in trouble I’ll just blame it on my ghostwriter. is a social networking site designed to connect travelers around the universe (although surfers in outer space are encouraged to pack Velcro in order to stay fixed to their futons). The site is funded through karma and donations and fueled by the surprising willingness of people to host and introduce nomads to their cities. The self-policing service maintains safety and integrity through a rigorous system of user-provided references. If someone even suggests your couch was uncomfortable or your personality was unappealing, you’ll likely receive few requests. If someone calls you a smelly mooch, you’ll have a difficult task securing a host. It’s an impressively successful network.

While I’m still waiting for my first hosting attempt, my CouchSurfing hosts have included a Brazilian IT professional, a Disney Channel actor, and an NPR producer. Each has introduced me to a new city and a network of their friends. Even with limited time to form a couch groove in these host’s living rooms, I now find myself in coalition with diverse and talented partners around the globe. We’re each independently engaged in mobilizing a collective agenda, albeit a slightly romantic one.

Just like any organization, we actively support and host each other when necessary and passively support with positive references when that suffices. We expand our networks by identifying engaging and enthusiastic coalition partners. We sustain momentum by organizing community CouchSurfing meet-ups that preserve community and participation. We shove our egos into the dark crevices of our couches and reject hubris and narcissism. It’s an organization that embraces uncertainty and functions with perpetual fluidity.

I’m not suggesting that you infuse a little pragmatic fun into your organization and start surfing on your colleagues’ couches. That probably crosses the line. Just remember, if a generation of couch potatoes can mobilize a proactive global coalition, imagine what you can do in your organization.

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Crusty Public Relations

I cringed when Rupert Murdoch was pied in the face in Britain’s Parliament at the peak of his News of the World scandal. As frosting projectiled toward the media tycoon’s face, jaws dropped in both offended horror and journalistic hunger for a rich news story. The gears of a media landscape Murdoch helped construct began turning against him as reporters baked the event into a delicious tabloid commentary on the mogul’s precipitous fall from grace.

I cringed because I saw a leader’s struggles compounded by the judgmental gaze of media. Leaders often incorporate media training into their management arsenal. Politically savvy executives understand that the internet generation affixes a steady lens on people in positions of power. You may try to establish a contained audience of coalition partners and interested parties, but you must realize your statements and actions reach an alarmingly diverse audience.

Everyone receives the same HR orientation that warns you to seize your internet identity and protect your external image. However, leaders invariably find this lesson conflicting with the impulse to promote accomplishments and campaign your agenda to the past. A leader is a public personality so how does one hide from flying pastries when fortunes go south?

There is no clever maxim that frees the proactive leader from the 24 hour news cycle. Human resources logic suggests that a leader adopts a cautious paranoia that shields them from an antagonistic external world. This caution may work for Willy Wonka but leaders from Richard Nixon to Julian Assange have discovered the perils of mobilizing a paranoid agenda.

The truly proactive leader co-opts the media into its coalition as an active participant in mobilizing an agenda. Like all coalition partners, the media is not always your ally. Journalists and public observers can range from active supporters to weak supporters to committed antagonists. While factions of the public may applaud your agenda, others may actively disparage your efforts. Don’t view the media as a monolithic organism but rather as a diffuse network of critical observers.

You will inevitably confront your pie-in-the-sky moment and there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to duck out of the frosty public spotlight. Just pack some napkins and a sense of humor and you’ll receive your just deserts.

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Pragmatic Fun

Some people say I have an unhealthy (but vigorous) obsession with antonyms. While my friends (and enemies, no doubt) whittle away their mornings (and evenings) scanning their Macs and PCs for videos of gullible cats and paranoid puppies, I skim and scrutinize online antonym lists. Many would consider my behavior the opposite of sane, but occasionally I stumble upon some colorful or inspiring pairing. Last night, I stumbled upon a unique coupling: pragmatic fun.

I’m perfectly aware that the average excitement explorer would likely spurn a pragmatist like a steakhouse rejects vegan patrons. Pragmatism and fun certainly share an oil-water complex and, as a unit, would be a strong candidate for oxymoron induction. Yet I reject both of these labels and believe that proactive, politically competent leaders forge an unlikely bond between these discordant words.

Conventional wisdom says that the pragmatist is gripped by a rationalism that spoils any reasonable attempt at fun. Amusement parks are rarely arenas of efficiency and streamlined direct deposit systems are not particularly exciting. The same logic would then follow that an aspiring leader should check their sense of humor at the door and submit to a career of pragmatic monotony; unfortunately there are ample case studies to illustrate this assumption. Few would accuse Mark Zuckerberg of being fun and Rod Blagojevich, in spite of Celebrity Apprentice, was not exactly rational. Yet conventional wisdom foolishly forgets that organizations are full of people and personalities.

A proactive leader understands that organizations don’t function like the alienated machines cast in Modern Times or The Matrix. To sustain a motivated and mobilized coalition you must engage your peers. Consider a skydiving president like George H.W. Bush or an eccentric mogul like Virgin CEO Richard Branson. Even pragmatic leaders like Bob Dole or Arianna Huffington find ways to create entertaining organization without resorting to transparent pageantry.

In your organization, you need to find a sincere way to reconcile competing pragmatic and fun impulses. Don’t resort to a canned Michael Scott style pep session but find ways to infuse pleasure into your workplace. Put down the human resource guide to humanity and actually talk to your peers. Every organization houses unique coalitions with unique interest. One organization’s pizza parties could be another’s Origami Club. The key is to be adaptable and engaged. It’s the first step toward marrying pragmatism and fun in your organization and divorcing yourself from the corporate drone stereotype.

I hope I’m right and pragmatic fun supports your leadership agenda. I’d certainly hate to be left.