Small Steps

A guide to consciously identifing your own “small steps” that allow you to grow as a leader

Where are you right now in this “COVID-Coping/Racial Inequities/Divisive Politics/Environmental Calamities” world?  Does the context in which you are exercising your leadership role sometimes seem overwhelming?  Have you and your team found new and creative ways to adapt and get things done?  

From conversations I’ve had with organizational leaders over the last two months, the answer to both questions is “yes!”  Almost everyone I have talked with has experienced those times of feeling overwhelmed, overworked, self-doubt, and despondency, and almost everyone I have talked with has stories of rising to the occasion, taking pride in what they and their teams have been able to accomplish, and finding ways to take care of themselves. 

These challenging times call us to grow as leaders and that can happen in the context of our daily work.  I encourage you to consciously identify your own “Small Steps” for doing so, maybe starting in the areas of the articles cited below.  Achieving real diversity and inclusion will take all of us – and what small steps can I own for me right now? Even if my “surge capacity” is at a good level, what small steps can I take to keep it there?  Our performance management system may not be serving us well; I may not be able to change the whole system but what actions can I take in my own area?  What small steps might I take to help my team connect the dots? What small actions will help me and others in this time of transition?

Scan these titles quickly, read my short summaries if the titles grab you, and/or delve more fully in places as your time allows.  One last small step I encourage you to take: send me a brief description of small steps you have taken that have grown your or others’ leadership skills. 


“How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them,”

Youtube video by Verna Myers, 2014

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”  This quote by Verna Myers led me to discover this 2014 Youtube video.  In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May of this year, even the most blind among us has to recognize the pervasiveness of personal and systemic biases.   Undoubtedly, your organization is grappling with how to achieve real diversity and inclusion.  This is a huge issue – and what small steps can I take, must I take, to make conscious at least some of my subconscious biases?

Verna Myers suggests that biases are the stories we make up about people before we even know who they are.  She identifies several steps, actions and questions that can help us surface (and eventually disconfirm) the racial biases we hold (consciously or subconsciously).

This was a powerful and compelling video for me – I hope you will watch it.

Useful Resources

“True Diversity Comes from Within” 

Dylan Walsh, Insights by Stanford Business, July 20, 2020

Comment: The short version of this article is that interpersonal diversity (between people) in an organization can increase creativity and innovation but often at the expense of productivity – presumably because the innovative process takes longer when there is misalignment in members’ cultural expectations of the organization. A second type of diversity – intrapersonal, which is an “internalized form of diversity that signals an individual’s ability to acknowledge multiple and sometimes polarized beliefs” – is associated in the research with higher profitability in firms.  

The authors’ analysis is that “… the problem of diversity won’t solve itself, and it definitely won’t be solved merely by creating diversity along whatever dimension people care about.”  Further, the authors believe that “…the diversity of ideas embodied in a demographically varied workforce can catalyze growth if they are exchanged between people.”

My takeaway from this article: having both a demographically diverse organization AND individuals with the internalized ability to acknowledge multiple and sometimes polarized beliefs is a recipe for creativity and performance.  My colleagues at Uncharted Leadership and Cultivating Leadership call this internal ability “complexity of mind,” and it’s the subject of our “Transformative Leadership” and “Navigating Disruptions” programs.

This article is a review of a much-longer and research-based article by Corritore, in Administrative Science Quarterly; if you prefer looking at the data analyses underlying this study, go here

“Your ‘Surge Capacity’ is Depleted – It’s Why You Feel Awful”

Tara Haelle, Elemental, August 17, 2020

Comment: The author describes “surge capacity” as a collection of mental and physical adaptive systems that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.  Most natural disasters, though, are not acutely experienced indefinitely like we experience the pandemic.  Her article is about her experience of performing at high levels in the early days of the pandemic before crashing and not appreciating how hard the crash and recovery would be.  You’ve undoubtedly read similar articles over the last 7 months, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of tips for taking care of yourself in such circumstances.
Key tips (mostly in her words):

  • Accept that life is different right now; that doesn’t mean to give up but rather to not waste energy resisting reality.
  • Expect less from yourself. We have spent most of our lives expecting more of ourselves; for now, give ourselves permission to do the opposite.  Ask “Where do I get my energy? What kind of down time do I need? What rhythms of life do I need now?”
  • Experiment with “both-and” thinking; I’m a highly competent person and right now I’m flowing with the tide from day to day.
  • Look for activities, new and old, that continue to fulfill you.  Adopt some new, creative ones that are likely to bring you joy.
  • Focus on maintaining and strengthening relationships – reach out to help someone else, even if you are feeling depleted yourself.  
  • Begin slowly building your resilience bank account, focusing on sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, self-compassion, gratitude, connection, and saying no.

“Kill your performance ratings”

David Rock, et all; initially published in “Organizations and People, Autumn 2014, reprinted in Strategy+Business, September 17, 2020

Comment: Although a few years old, this is an intriguing article by one of the authors cited in the July newsletter (“SCARF”).  From a neuroscience research point of view, the authors suggest that the typical performance appraisal systems found in most organizations – involving the numerical rating and ranking of employees – are “…based on a fundamental misunderstanding of human responses, as revealed in recurring patterns of mental activity.”  You may disagree with their research, you may feel their suggestions for alternative ways of assessing performance are not workable in your organization, and/or you may feel you don’t have the authority to make those changes even if you thought they had merit.  Regardless, do their arguments challenge your thinking?  Are there small steps I might take within the current system?

Key points (mostly in the authors’ words):

  • Basically, labeling people with any form or numerical rating or ranking automatically generates an overwhelming “fight or flight” responses that impairs good judgment.
  • Rating systems foster a fixed mindset (see book review of Mindset in March newsletter).
  • Alternatives to your current performance appraisal process you might consider: (1) prime employees for growth-mindset structured conversations, and (2) pair with a single measure of “in or out” as a fit for the organization’s culture.

“Connecting the dots in an uncertain world” 

Suvarchala Narayanan, September 16, 2020, in Strategy+Business

Comment: I have heard from a number of organizational leaders of the debilitating effect prolonged uncertainty has had on many of their staff members. What caught my eye about this article is the idea that some people have the ability to view the unexpected as an opportunity rather than a threat. This article is an interview of Christian Busch, author of The Serendipity Mindset, who makes the case that “…serendipity is the result of a sensibility that allows people to spot and act on unexpected, fortuitous connections when others would dismiss them…. and it’s possible for people to cultivate this mindset and use unpredictability to their advantage.”

Key ideas (mostly in the author’s words):

  • What makes individuals and organizations fit for the future is developing the capacity to cope with the unexpected. This requires leaders to combine a sense of meaningful direction, or purpose, with an appreciation of the unexpected, reframing challenges and relating them to core capabilities.
  • At the heart of serendipity — and eventually, innovation — is bisociation, which is the ability to connect unrelated facts or events. To encourage this, leaders can ask team members in routine meetings if they came across something surprising last week related to work. And if the answer is yes, they can ask if it changes their assumptions and if it would be valuable to follow up on it? This alertness can lead to identifying new, surprising solutions.
  • People tend to have a “control story” — the narrative that they make up retroactively about a serendipitous event, in order to show that they were always in control. Increasing psychological safety to enable “learning stories” to be shared can help develop connect-the-dots skills.

Book Review

​“Transitions: Making the Most of Change.” 

William Bridges, 1991, and the 40th Anniversary Edition, “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” published in 2019

Comments:  Have you or members of your team experienced this feeling during COVID-19? 
“It’s as if we launched out from a riverside dock to cross to a landing on the opposite shore – only to discover in mid-stream that the landing was no longer there. (And when we looked back at the other shore, we saw that the dock we had left from had broken loose and was heading downstream.)”

That quote from Bridges’ book describes the ‘lost’ feeling we often have in times of transition. I don’t know how many different editions there are of Bridges’ work.  The two editions I have are the 1991 and the 2019 versions, both basically about the same stages with the earlier version being more “checklists of actions managers might consider” and the more recent version being an insightful road map of the transition process.  People do go – and have always gone – through transitions in their lives at different times and in very personal ways.  COVID-19 is causing us to go through both a personal and a collective transition where “endings” have not yet been fully experienced. At the same time, it feels to me that we are also collectively in the disorienting space of the “neutral zone.”

Key ideas from “Transitions”: Bridges draws a distinction between “change” and “transition,” with the former being situational and the latter being the “inner reorientation and self-redefinition you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes in your life.  The transition process, he asserts, unfolds in three phases or stages.


As we have all witnessed during this pandemic, it isn’t the changes themselves that people resist but rather the losses and endings they experience. In this first stage of the transition process, Bridges offers guidance for how we might deal with those losses and endings. A few of those are as follows:

  • Identify who is losing what. What is actually going to change? What are the secondary changes that your change will probably cause? Who is going to have to let go of something?
  • Acknowledge the losses openly and sympathetically. Although we may feel uncomfortable discussing these losses, a great deal of research suggests that people recover from losses more quickly if losses can be openly discussed.
  • Mark the endings. Have I made a plan for giving people a piece of the past to take with them?

The neutral zone.

The middle phase of the transition process Bridges calls “the neutral zone” because it “… is a nowhere between two somewheres.”  Anxiety rises and motivations fall. People feel disoriented and self-doubting. Old weaknesses, long patched over or compensated for, reemerge in full flower. It’s natural in this stage for people to become polarized between those who want to rush forward and those who want to go back to the old ways.  Some of Bridges’ suggestions for this phase:

  •  “Normalize” the neutral zone. Help people understand this is a time when a necessary reorientation and redefinition is taking place.
  • Create temporary systems for the neutral zone. Set short-term goals for people to aim toward; they need a sense of achievement and movement even if you have to stretch the point a bit.
  • Set realistic output objectives.  Success at a lower level, which builds people up, is worth far more in the long run than failure at a higher level that tears them down.

Launching a new beginning.

Beginnings involve new understandings, new values, new attitudes, and – most of all – new identities.  Beginnings reactivate some of the old anxieties that were originally triggered by the ending.  Bridges offers a number of actions and questions to ask oneself as you enter this stage and some helpful suggestions for how to take care of yourself in transition. To not add to an already lengthy book review, I’ll leave those valuable nuggets to your own reading of the book!

Executive Presence Tip of the Month

[In addition to subject matter expertise, organizational acumen, and higher-level thinking skills, effective executive leadership requires the sometimes-hard-to-define practices and skills that are embodied in ‘executive presence.’   Executive presence is an elusive concept, but we know it when we see it….and one can grow her executive presence.]

“Authentic humility”

The ‘authentic’ part of this tip could be a tip by itself – it’s hard to imagine someone lacking authenticity even being considered to be an effective leader.  A research study conducted by the University of Washington Business School found that humble people are the most effective leaders; they are more likely to be high performers in individual/team settings; and employees who reported to those identified as humble reported feeling more engaged and less likely to quit.  Suggested practice:  watch for it in others (and especially those who have high levels of confidence AND humility); for yourself, become reflective about your strengths and areas of potential development.

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