Leadership with heart, mind, and soul

What Leaders See

Added on by Sam Davidson.

"Da-Da!" she nearly screams at me as we're strolling home. "Do you see me?"

"Yes," I try to convince her for what feels like the hundredth time. "I see you walking on that wall."

And then, lest she forget, I add, "I always see you."

And so it goes on the weeks I have my daughter and we walk home from her school. The route normally takes me 10 minutes, but we stretch it to half an hour when we're together, mainly because every stone wall is a jungle gym, every pine cone must be counted, and every cloud already looks like something else. 

All this she takes in and openly discusses with me. (Urban walks can excite the imagination like no other in both adults and children, which is why I'll never move to the suburbs.) And I fight hard my reflex to complain. After all, in a few years' time, she won't want much to do with me, I imagine. That's because then, she'll want to be seen by someone else.

But what my daughter doesn't fully realize now is that I see her. Since she arrived on the planet, I've seen much of what she's done, from spitting up to dance recitals, from first encounters with Mickey Mouse to art that covers my fridge. This seeing is second-nature to parents; we focus on our children because we love them and want to protect them. Evolution and biology have thankfully teamed up to make it natural and desirable to see what our kids are up to.

But what about leaders? What do we see?

Leaders see people

At a recent CEO roundtable, one participant threw out a question to get us started: "What are you focusing on these days?"

These monthly gatherings of peers are designed as safe spaces where a handful of entrepreneurs and leaders get together for an hour or so and discuss the ups and downs of our businesses. We share ideas, ask questions, lament, celebrate, and offer challenges. I always leave refreshed and with ideas and ways to move forward in my work. 

People began to answer:

"Growing my gross operating margin."
"The new menu roll out."
"Pricing strategy."
"Edits to the employee handbook."
"A cool new marketing idea."

It was my turn. I was about to give my stock answer when folks ask me how Batch is going. I was about to say, "This year is all about inside baseball. So, I'm elbow-deep in financials and performance, working hard to increase the top line 40% while making sure we post an operating profit of 20%." 

But that's a lie. 

Well, not entirely. But it's not really where my focus is, I'm discovering. Yes; I want those results to happen, but I'm learning that one cannot focus on numbers. While this may sound counter-intuitive, I'm learning it's true: when you focus on numbers, you can't focus on your people. And the number one driver of numerical results in a company are its people. People drive numbers. Always. It's never the other way around.

So I called a mental audible and changed my answer.

"I'm focused on my people," I said.

What gets noticed gets improved

Ever since any of us showed up on this planet, we've only ever wanted to be seen. The luckiest of us have been noticed by parents our whole lives. As we got older, friends noticed. Teachers, mentors, or coaches did, too. Then maybe a lover or two. A partner. 

And if we know what it's like to be seen by someone, for someone to take in our flaws and our strengths, both our assets and our liabilities, we understand how life-giving and identity-forming that can be. When we are seen by someone, we know we're not crazy. We're not just some orb floating through planet Earth. We actually live and move and have being. We are because someone else recognizes that we are

Why wouldn't leaders focus first and foremost on people, then? When we see our teammates and employees, we give them the best and biggest motivation to keep being who they are, working hard at what they do, and finding fulfillment in the tasks they perform. And if and when they do their jobs well, top and bottom lines will improve. 

But you can't just look at people. You've got to see them.

This is why when I watch a baseball game, I don't look at a that last play, a groundout to shortstop. I see the third baseman crouch low pre-pitch, hugging the line because this right-handed batter tends to pull the ball. I see the second baseman break for first base when the ball is hit far to his right so he can back up the incoming throw from the shortstop. I see the baserunner from the other team take a hard turn when rounding third just in case said error happens so he can score the go-ahead run. 

I see all this because I love baseball, having grown up playing it. I don't look at the game like thousands of others in the stands. I see the on-field ballet occurring because I know what it's like to do any of those things, to play any of those positions. 

It's why some of you, after watching a touchdown run, notice how the left guard opened up the hole for the running back to dart through and break lose. We look at the end zone dance; you saw the war in the trenches. 

It's why I look at a plate of tasty tacos, but you see the delicate work of the chef to shave those radishes just thinly enough to add a kick of flavor without detracting from the signature mole sauce. 

It's why I look at a fun play on stage, but you see the blocking done by the director so the lead gets to her spot downstage just as the song crescendos and we can all feel the emotion as if it's our own while she belts out her lament in the second act.

It's why leaders can't just look at who showed up at work today. We've got to see the humanity in front of us, the ones who will be serving our customers and our clients. These people are mothers and sons, friends and volunteers, dreamers and the heartbroken. And to think that we as leaders can see them as anything less - or that our focus should fall anywhere else - is an oversight that will ruin our company.

Leaders must be willing to be seen

But leaders aren't the only ones doing the seeing. Eye contact works both ways, you know. 

For the longest time, I was drawn to leadership roles and opportunities due to both natural abilities and natural fears. Yes; I've got a higher tolerance for risk than most, a dedicated (and maybe genetic) work ethic, and a willingness and fearlessness to stand up and speak out. But I've also long thought that being out front meant that no one would notice me there.

The irony.

This is a logical failure of the highest order. Those out front get noticed the most - that's a byproduct of being out front! But I believed that if out front, people would only notice the endearing qualities that made me a leader while I'd be working hard to hide all my shortcomings so no one would see them.

But, of course, this isn't how seeing and noticing works, at least in any authentically human sense. If we want to be fully seen, in that life-giving way I've mentioned above, then we have to be willing to be totally exposed so that our people can take in all that we are. 

And this is scary. But it's also the foundation of real relationship, real community, real teamwork, and real success. It's like walking a tightrope - frightening as hell but there's no exhilaration in standing on the platform just thinking about it. 

I remarked to my friend last weekend during a consulting session, "I'm trying to come up with a metaphor...hang on." And after some more quiet deliberation, I added, "I've got half a metaphor. .... Which means I've still got no metaphor at all."

Being seen is the same. If we only want someone to notice part of us, then they miss us entirely. We have to show all of who we are, or else no one will notice anything. This puts us in a figurative blind spot: we're out here, moving and living and doing, but no one can see, especially those we most deeply want to take note of what we're up to. 

But! There's a way out. And it can start with those closest to us - friends, lovers, parents, confidants. If we're willing to indulge them and allow ourselves to be seen by them, we'll experience the relief and affirmation that comes with someone who sees all of us and doesn't run. Who takes in exactly who we are, warts and all, and stays. 

It's natural to think that our actual self won't line up with their perceived version of us. But quickly this will be dispelled when you learn their perception of you was never perfection. It was authenticity. So the energy you (and I) spent trying to present perfection time and again can now be directed toward somewhere else.

Like seeing people. And letting them see you. 

Leading is seeing.

Enough (Just Enough)

Added on by Sam Davidson.

Beware the deceit that comes with telling ourselves that soon, we'll be __________ enough.

It's easy to fall into this trap. Into thinking that once we're smart enough, we'll get the job. Or when we're sexy enough, we'll get the girl. When we're skinny enough, we'll be happy, when we're brave enough, we'll set the record straight, or when we're ready enough, we'll decide to start a family. 

Adding an adjective to our primary human task of being enough for ourselves is heaping extra work on an already full task list. The daily routine of breathing and moving and working and loving is full enough; why run ourselves ragged with expectations too great for us to live up to?

For a very long time, I lived into the self-created myth that I had to be good enough to...well...you name it: speak to large crowds, be the right kind of dad, earn someone's love or respect, grow a company, belong, manage others, be deserving of accolades or praise. 

This pursuit came to a screeching halt recently when a friend asked me what I meant by "good enough." She wanted a definition. After all, if that was my standard, where exactly was the bar set, she inquired? 

Opening my mouth to answer, only silence remained. I couldn't define it. I couldn't articulate exactly what it was I was chasing. Surely if I'd spent so much time trying to grasp a particular benchmark, I could at least define it. Otherwise, how would I know when I'd arrived? 

This is what I hear about extremely wealthy people (I'll let you know if it's true when I become one). I hear that even if they have millions upon millions in the bank (or billions, even), they want more. There is a continual chase for as many dollars as possible because the moment they have more than they have now, they still desire more. The finish line of rich enough just keeps moving.

"How silly!" I smirk to myself as I run my life's race, blind to the fact that my own standard of "good enough" is also staying two steps ahead at all times.

Hotel Notes

When I travel and sleep in a hotel, a new ritual I've developed is one I track on Instagram with the tag #hotelnotes. I write a short note of encouragement or challenge and leave it in the nightstand. I photograph this note and remark where it can be found. A few other travelers have caught on and contributed as well.

My hope is that knowing how isolating and lonely travel can be, perhaps at the right time someone will find a note and remember that they aren't alone. That they're on the right track. That they have what it takes to keep going.

Here's the first note I ever wrote:

Enough. No adjectives necessary. Adjectives are meant to enhance and embellish. But here is the exception to that rule. 

Enough is enough. When you add to it, you actually end up with less. Here's what I mean:

  • Good enough devolves into a lifestyle of performance, hiding your true self from any one you meet.
  • Thin enough devolves into the pressure to eat less and less until you develop a disorder.
  • Rich enough devolves into a career where income is the goal, rather than meaning or community.
  • Ready enough devolves into a lifetime of waiting on the sidelines, rather than jumping into the fast paced game that is living.
  • Smart enough devolves into hiding in books or measuring knowledge via someone else's testing, rather than by your ability to be out in the world, sharing conversations with those you meet. 
  • Old enough devolves into determining your qualifications based upon an arbitrary number, and not upon your fitness to lead.
  • Young enough devolves into letting someone else have a shot, even if your youthful vim is perfect for the job.

And on it goes until we're paralyzed, watching everyone else work and play and love and move. We think they're __________ enough, but really all they are is enough in their own minds. They're enough to themselves and this enough-ness equates to confidence that bosses and partners and media and friends pick up on, are drawn to, and which forms a point of connection.

The Three Marriages

I just finished reading The Three Marriages by David Whyte. Actually, I devoured it. Whyte's position is that in a full life, each of us has three marriages: to someone else, to our life's work, to ourself. Regardless of formality, understanding who we are in these marriages can determine the health of each. But, most importantly, we can be committed completely to each (and should be) without them detracting from the other. And the more fully we understand each, the more successful we'll be in all three.

By completely understanding ourselves (the good and the bad and then living in tension with these two), we are equipped and able to understand that enough is enough, and that good, smart, ready, or sexy enough is actually a distraction from who it is we are and who it is we must be. 

The chief pursuit is to be ourselves. Not a __________ enough version of ourselves, but our full selves.

Whyte writes, "Like a good relationship, a good work followed by a goodly amount of time always opens up our own character: our virtues and our many, many flaws; a good work like a good relationship always eventually asks us to be bigger than our own wants and desires, to see ourselves in a much larger context than the self that thought it had gained everything it wanted to keep itself safe."

Trying to be __________ enough makes our world smaller. Just trying to be enough makes it bigger than we thought possible.

My friend, the one who trapped me in my "good enough" myth, sent me a copy of The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. It's a reminder I'll keep close by to shock me out of my slow march downward toward __________ enough. 

She writes:

It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.

It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life's betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.

And then she concludes:

It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

As leaders, lovers, parents, entrepreneurs, children, and citizens, we have to move beyond using adjectives as excuses. Instead, let's use our very truest selves as reasons to get moving, to get going, to get changing, and to get living.

The Slow Leadership Movement

Added on by Sam Davidson.

I have a cast iron skillet I use for nearly everything these days. I mostly use it to make eggs in the morning, but I'm not afraid to use it to roast some cauliflower or bake cornbread, too. 

I remember getting this piece of cookware from my mom several years ago and it sat in a cabinet unused for a very long time. Cast iron isn't super convenient, after all. You're not supposed to put it in the dishwasher. It's heavy and even unwieldy. It's best not to use soap on it (gross, right?). You get the picture.

But the beauty of the cast iron is that the more you use it, the better it gets. You can spend years seasoning it to your liking so that anything you make in it comes out delicious. But above all, you can't speed up this process. It takes time. The cast iron is a long play. Settle in, chef - this could take a while.

I'm learning more and more to appreciate the slowness of leadership. People take time to develop - to mentor, coach, direct, guide, and transform. Deep leadership requires the creation of moments, not the manipulation of time.

This article details that a bit more. Essentially, we track time in two ways: chronologically and qualitatively. Both are necessary and valuable, but confusing the two could be detrimental to our individual and communal well being.

A lot depends upon our keeping and tracking of time. Meetings start at a certain time, packages need to show up on a certain day, events and days come to a close before the clock strikes a certain hour. But if all we do is measure the worth of something by its duration (quantity), we're missing out on a fundamental opportunity to grow and lead.

Instead, we need to take into about the development of something, regardless of its duration. A team meeting can be scheduled for an hour, but if camaraderie hasn't been built or decisions haven't been made, then it must go on, clocks and calendars be damned. 

Last year at Batch was a whirlwind. Our internal mantra (which I drove) was, "Say yes. Move fast." We were racing headlong toward a big revenue goal (which we exceeded by 10%). But this year, having seen the costs of speed (driven by chronos), we've shifted. We've taken what we've learned and this year's key phrase our entire team repeats is "Focus." We're still chasing top line growth, but also striving to achieve bottom line success. 

That bottom line (profitability) is being measured as a percentage of revenue and every team member contributes to it. While still providing a high level of quality and service, we're reducing costs, finding efficiencies, and all chipping in. In the midst of that, kairos is happening. We're building community internally on and off the clock. We're taking our time to do it right. And we'll be keeping that up all year. 

I'm ready to go slower myself. The last decade as an entrepreneur has been spent going rapidly. I recently wrote this to a friend:

"So I want to go slow. I want to walk on old trails. I want to cook for an hour and eat for two with people I enjoy. I want to read a book - on paper - outside. I want to look at stuff way older than me (trees, art, monuments, mountains, humans) and see what they simultaneously reveal about the past and the future. I want to talk for a long time with company I enjoy. I want to listen to music that's just now being made but will be in a museum some day. I want to shake hands and give hugs and clink glasses and slap backs in laughter and sweat and cry."

Focus only comes through a slowing down, I believe. And when you slow down, you begin to see so much more. Airplanes zoom by at hundreds of miles an hour and even if the view is breathtaking from on high, details disappear. But spend time with the earth underfoot and you'll see the moss that's taking it's sweet time to cover that tree in a brilliant green. 

Companies can be fast, but leadership - for the sake of our people and our very hearts - has to be slow.

All Leadership is Local

Added on by Sam Davidson.

I went to a baseball game last week. I came home broke. 

I love baseball. I can watch any Major League game any time of year, no matter who is playing. I have a goal to (eventually) get to all the stadiums and to enjoy a tasty beer and meal at each one. 

Luckily for me, Nashville is home to a minor league team and a (nearly) brand new ballpark. My dad has season tickets and he tosses me some every now and then. I went to my first game of the season last week (a noonday start - day games on grass are the purest form of this sport) and was appalled by the prices for said tasty beer and meal. 

A local craft beer is now $9 a pour. And the city's signature dish, hot chicken, will run you $10. Welcome to the (small) big leagues, folks.

In an effort to combat this atrocity, I thought I'd write to the ownership to let them know of their crime against humanity. As I did, I uncovered an awful truth: the ownership isn't local. One lives in New York and the other in London. A $19 lunch at a game is a steal for them. 

Oh, I'm sure they're involved in team operations from afar. Of course, if that's the case, the only way they're informing their decisions is via a spreadsheet. I imagine their annual meetings go something like this: 

"Hey Masahiro, how were concession sales last year?"
"Stellar, Frank. We killed it in the chicken and beer game."
"Nice. What happens if we tweak those prices?"
"Excellent question. We'll make a killing. We'll drop a lot more cash to the bottom line. What are you thinking?"
"Bump up beers a few bucks and the chicken by a dollar."
"But what if the consumer doesn't like that and doesn't enjoy the game as much? Do we have a duty to provide an enjoyable experience even if we're not maximizing our returns? Do you think we have a role to support this community in some entertaining way?"
"What? I can't hear you, these stacks of money are in the way."

Maybe that wasn't the exact conversation, but I truly believe that when leaders are absent from the context and people of their operation, they are not leading at all. For this reason, all leadership is local because all leadership takes place in a certain place with certain people

Place

Context, space, time - all of this combines to inform our sense of place as a leader. Where we are (physically), when we're available, what is actually happening on the floors of our stores and factories - when leaders don't have a tangible or intimate knowledge of this, their capacity to lead authentically diminishes. 

I try to be at our near our retail store at Batch nearly every day I'm in town. I'm also very mindful that I need to get out of the way of our team who is doing great things there. But, I have no right to make a suggestion that can improve the bottom line or increase efficiency if I have no clue how to process an in-store transaction, what it's like to count inventory each month, or speak with vendors when they drop off their fabulous products. 

Leadership doesn't occur remotely. Sure, telecommuting is a thing and our connected world allows more people to do great things from anywhere they want. But, leadership still has a very localized element to it, meaning that people need to connect, breathing in deeply the day-in and day-out of the businesses they run so they know intimately what it's like to work, succeed, and fail in the company's particular context.

Arms-length leadership is not leadership at all. (click here to tweet this)

People

Your company is not comprised of jobs. It's made up of people. Don't forget this. To do so causes great harm to everyone in your organization. 

Simon Sinek discusses this in his book, Leaders Eat Last. Sinek calls this abstraction - the art of reducing people (humans) to spreadsheet data. He says this is why layoffs are easy and frequent. Leaders don't think about the real people they're putting out of work. They're only looking at a dollar figure and how big they can make it by reducing jobs and labor. 

In the last year, I've had to let three people go at Batch. I had never had to do that in my life before. In each situation, the business level could not support the expense of a salary. Every time I had to have that tough conversation, I lost sleep. I was stressed out. The conversations occupied my mind for weeks. I rehearsed and rehearsed. I knew that I wasn't just saving money. I was forcing someone to go look for work. We were asking someone to leave our Batch family. I was sad.

This, of course, happens in work. We can't afford people in certain areas. I'm proud that my leadership team and I - as a small and strapped startup - tried very hard to keep these people. But eventually, to do so would be detrimental to the other areas of our company, costing even more people their jobs. 

So, hard decisions need to be made time and again by leaders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and boards. But when they happen, the best leaders always remember a shared humanity above a singular bottom line. (click here to tweet this)

I have no idea if concession prices will decrease for my Sounds. But I do know I'll buy fewer beers this year. I'll suggest to fewer friends that we meet up to watch the boys play throw and catch. And of course I'll be hoping that leaders everywhere can remember that whether you run a small coffee shop or a thriving multinational corporation, all leadership is local. (It always has been.)

Leaders Who Need

Added on by Sam Davidson.

Leaders can find themselves in a tough place when we don't admit that we need. Our companies, sanity, livelihood, health, relationships, and employees can suffer as a result. We need more leaders in need, who freely admit that need, and then live deeply in meaningful community with their teams and others to have those needs met.

I've found myself more in need this past year - and definitely these past few weeks - than at any other time in my life. Slowly, I'm learning that needing things, resources, people, help, ideas, comfort, and confidence is okay. It's normal, it's human, and it's a perfectly acceptable expectation. I'm by no means the expert on vocalizing need, but I'm finding more and more that when I share with a colleague or friend what my physical, emotional, or mental needs are in any given moment, my work and my life stand to benefit.

Of course, as the leader of a fast-growing company, this is not routine for me. Typically, I'm the one who asks almost daily to various team members, "What do you need?" I see my role as CEO to give them the tools they need to do their jobs well, to thrive in our work environment, and to create a life and a future for us and themselves that they are excited about.

Many times, I'm able to meet these needs, especially when those needs are reasonable to attain. Need more business cards, a newly designed promotional piece, sales data, marketing ideas? Done. I'm on it. 

My fear has always been that if I'm to supply and meet needs, then I can't have any myself. Out of my abundance comes the supply for others. What a silly rationale, I'm learning.

A favorite poem of mine is The Creation by James Weldon Johnson. I'm hooked from the opening:

"And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world."

I like a god who's lonely. That's a god who needs, a god who is vulnerable. I can relate to that, to a giver who finds himself in need.

When a leader is willing to sit with his or her need, to admit their inability to do it all, and then to confess that very human condition to someone, I've found that magical things can happen. Your needs can be met. Your emotional state can be improved. Others can rally and come to your aid. People will be willing to help you. You'll find success more quickly. You'll become a better leader. 

I've been doing these two things of late when I find myself in need. It's a new discipline for me and I don't always get it right, like learning a tricky yoga pose or reading something by ee cummings. Keep at it - you'll get it soon.

Ask - early and often

I'm learning to ask for help more. Help with a work problem. Help processing a feeling. Help to make an introduction. Help to expand a market. Help to clean up a mess. Help to dream again. Asking for help puts yourself out there (the person you're asking could reject your request), but more often than not, those you ask will be more than happy to assist. You'll get done what needs doing much more quickly (and accurately and efficiently) and in a better way than had you defaulted to grinding it out solo, full of pride, scared to admit your needs.

Try something new

To remind myself that not being good at something is okay, I'll try on a new habit or hobby time and again. These days I'm trying my hand at poetry writing (even though I'm promoting vulnerability here, rest assured I won't be sharing these creations with you). I'm not good, but I'm learning. The more I write, the more confident I become. The more poetry I read, the more inspired I feel. Needs are being met, confidence is being gained, and I continue to understand that the need state is not the final state. Needs are temporary because they can be met, over and over again. You may need something now, but you won't need it forever. 

Leaders who need are leaders that others will be drawn to. Leaders who need are human, capable of connection and trust, admiration and inspiration. These are the leaders we all need - not perfectly qualified robots who can't teach us anything about being normal in a very real and scary world. 

When we're willing to become leaders who need, other people will need us, too.