Byron's Babbles

Leadership Echolocation: How Big Are Your Ears?

echolocating-bat-with-bug-smallThis week’s leadership lesson (#17) from John Parker Stewart in 52 Leadership Lessons: Timeless Stories For The Modern Leader, used the analogy of how big bats ears are to help inform us as leaders. Bats have the best hearing of all land mammals. They often have huge ears compared to the rest of the body. Instead of relying on their sense of sight for night-time vision, bats make rapid high-pitched squeaks called “ultrasounds”.  These sounds are too high for most people to hear.  If these sounds hit something, they bounce back — sort of like when you hear your echo in a mountain or a bathroom when you shout.  The bat hears the echo and can tell where the object is.  This is called “echolocation”.  Therefore, bats actively listen instead of passively listening. In other words they listen for the feedback. Not every species of bat is able to echolocate, but most can.

I don’t know about you, but I wish I could use “echolocation” to really listen to those I serve. This story really resonated with me as we are studying deep listening in the Developing Myself course I am taking at Harvard University right now. We are doing exercises and case studies to develop true listening skills. Think about it… Would it not be great if we always concentrated on receiving the feedback instead of spending the time when others are talking with us to be devising our response. We need to spend time developing our listening skill to be that of a bat. In other words, we need to develop “leadership echolocation.”

“The bat’s two assets are listening and receiving feedback. How do you assess yourself in those two areas?” ~ John Parker Stewart

A useful tool I was taught to use at Harvard is that of the Ladder of Inference developed by Chris Argyris. The Ladder of Inference (shown here in a drawing I did for a professional development workshop on norming for teacher evaluation – I think you will be able to see how this would be valuable for those observing teachers) has six rungs:


  1. Observable Data
  2. Selected Data
  3. Assumptions
  4. Conclusions
  5. Beliefs
  6. Actions

The idea is to stay low on the ladder. As you move up the ladder away from observable data you begin to make your own meaning of what you are hearing. The problem is, this meaning may not be the same as the person you are listening to. Then some recursive loops begin to come into play. As we begin to form beliefs, we only listen and select data that supports our beliefs. See the problem? The other recursive loop that if we move to the top of the ladder and begin to take action, we only look for observable data that supports the meaning we have made out of the dialogue or situation. Again, the idea is to stay low on the ladder and keep moving back down the ladder.

So, how do we do we hone and perfect our “leadership echolocati0n?” As we find ourselves moving up the Ladder of Inference there are three things that will intentionally enables us to move back down the ladder:

  1. Question your assumptions
  2. Question your conclusions
  3. Seek contrary data to support or refute the meaning we are making

Most of us struggle with deep listening. Next time you want to have true dialogue with someone, consider where you are on the Ladder of Inference. Doing so will increase the feedback you receive from those you serve and have dialogue with.



Allowing Leadership

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-12-44-07-pmLeadership lesson #16 from John Parker Stewart in 52 Leadership Lessons: Timeless Stories For The Modern Leader, told the story of Robert Townsend, CEO of Avis Car Rentals in the 1960s and 1970s. From reading this story and then getting his book Up The Organization (2007), I would say Townsend was ahead of his time in an error of command and control leadership. He broke decisions down as being either expensive (critical) or non-expensive (non-critical). His idea was that critical decisions take time to decide and should be handled by upper-leadership and the non-critical, less expensive decisions should be handled closest to the source affected by the decisions. This is very much intent-based leadership except that with intent-based leadership all information for decision making flows up from those affected.

“The whole organization may be out of business while you oscillate between baby-blue and buffalo-brown coffee cups.” ~ Robert Townsend

I love the example given that Townsend was reported to have said, “The whole organization may be out of business while you oscillate between baby-blue and buffalo-brown coffee cups.” In other words, decisions need to be made where they can most efficiently and effectively made. In other words, leaders need to intentionally and strategically think through who is in the best position to make decisions – both critical and non-critical. Doing this will give those in our organizations stronger sense of value, ownership in what is going on, and the sense of contributing to the organization as a whole.img_2265

Don’t get caught in the delegation trap. You’re busy doing everything yourself. You know you need help, but to find and train someone would take more time than you have. So you keep working harder until you break. In order to delegate effectively make sure your people know how you go about making decisions. This is also why have core values is important. If individuals are making decisions using the organization’s they are more likely to be in alignment. I also believe even making sure that the common values of the organization and myself are known by everyone is important. For example, I believe that making sure my blog posts are readily available to those in my organization is important. I encourage them to read my posts and send links often to particular posts because I want those I lead to know what I am thinking and what is important to me. I believe this helps them to make decisions that are in alignment with the vision and mission of the organization.

Next time you are making decisions think about whether you are the right one to be making that decision. Are you the one most impacted by that decision? If not, you probably shouldn’t be making it.

I Get To Read!

I realize that, ideally, a fondness for books starts at home, but reading can become a habit through opportunities to read self-chosen books at school. Consumed by the urgency to raise students’ reading scores, some policy makers and school officials have forgotten that children learn to read by reading. I support “balanced literacy” instruction, which includes independent reading. All students should be given access to books they want to read throughout their schooling, and I dream of the day all pre-readers would have an adult who would read aloud to them everyday. Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words.

Interestingly, it is the adult/child relationship to reading that prompted this post. This past week my son needed to pick a book to read for his sophomore English class. Yep, you heard me right, he got to choose. First of all, I was excited by that! In my view students should get to choose what they read. If you want to hear my story of how I got turned on to being the rabid reader I am today click here to read “Reading Big Red.” Short of the long story – I hated reading until I got to pick my first book (not till middle school mind you). Now I read 70-80 books a year. So, I’m sure you can see why I was excited for Heath to get to pick a book he wanted to read – just typing here I just can’t see why people don’t get this concept – picking your own book makes it about the reader (student centered). Research has shown that letting children choose their own books could in fact make them better readers. When you think back to your own classroom experience, being assigned one book to read as a class was often a dreadful experience. Teachers would assign students to read a some classic and, instead of being enamored with this classic tale, students were often less than thrilled. That was me and has also been my son Heath’s experience, too.

Back to the story – Heath came home all excited (think about this; he’s coming home from school excited!) about the book he had picked: Tough As They Come by Travis Mills. Heath proceeded to tell me all about the book and Travis Mills. Travis is a retired United States Army Staff Sergeant and what he calls a recalibrated warrior. He is now a motivational speaker, actor, author and an advocate for veterans and amputees. In his book, Tough as They Come, Travis shares his journey of serving our country. Despite losing portions of both arms and legs from an IED while on active duty in Afghanistan, Travis continues to overcome life’s challenges, breaking physical barriers and defying odds. Travis lives by his motto: “Never give up. Never quit.” 

Think about what just happened here:

  1. My son chose a book
  2. My son wanted to read a book (Not to sound like Donald Trump, but this is HUGE!)
  3. My son had researched about a book and the author
  4. My son was going to get a role model and mentor, Travis Mills, through the power of reading

I thought this was the coolest day ever. I read to Heath when he was younger every night and then rubbed his back till he went to sleep (He would not want me to tell that, but these were some of the greatest moments as a dad), but now he was explaining a book he wanted to read to me. And… as if it could not get any better… Heath proceeded to say, “Let’s both download this book and read it together Dad. I think you’ll really like it.” I ask you you, “How does it get any better than that?” My sophomore in high school son wants to read a book with his dad! Well it does get better – Heath has agreed to write a guest blog post about the book for me! Watch for it soon.

Here’s the deal: giving students a choice has been linked with scholastic achievement. Some researchers believe that when students (especially boys) are free to choose what they want to read, they will read for pleasure. Reading for pleasure has been linked with scholastic achievement in school. Furthermore, students will read for pleasure and enjoy reading. When children can freely choose what they want to read, they will be reading for pleasure, not because there is an assignment due. A choice allows children to be enthusiastic about what they are reading, and in turn they will be engaged.

I realize there are books and other literary pieces we need to have our children reading, but I believe we need to give students control of their own reading. Allow them to make their own choices and they will explore more genres. Expose your students to books they love and you will see that they will not only read for pleasure, but enjoy what they are reading. I have always said we need to change the mindset from, “I have to read.” to “I get to read!” We can do this and student choice is one piece of it.

Think about this as a conversation starter and relationship builder with your children and students: “So, what are you reading right now?”

H2O Leadership

the-secrets-of-the-water-molecule-decoded-2Water is key to the existence of life as we know it. That may sound dramatic, but it’s true—and dramatic things that are true are what make life interesting! The human body is 60 to 70% water. So, since we humans are already bodies of water that means when you put a team of people or organization together you have a large body of water – kind of like a lake, river, or ocean. Cool to think of it that way isn’t it?

Water has unusual chemical properties that make it very good at supporting life. Here are those properties:

  • Solvent properties of water: water dissolves many polar and charged molecules.
  • Cohesion and adhesion of water: Water can stick to itself (cohesion) and other molecules (adhesion).
  • Specific heat, heat of vaporization, and density of water: Water has a high heat capacity and heat of vaporization, and ice—solid water—is less dense than liquid water.

Water owes these unique properties to the polarity of its molecules and, specifically, to their ability to form hydrogen bonds with each other and with other molecules. Thanks to their polarity, water molecules happily attract each other. The plus end of one—a hydrogen atom—associates with the minus end of another—an oxygen atom.

“Is your team a group of separate atoms, or one giant, interconnected molecule.” ~ John Parker Stewart

img_2265In Leadership lesson #15 from John Parker Stewart in 52 Leadership Lessons: Timeless Stories For The Modern Leader, Stewart uses the metaphor of the water molecule to describe how the bonds of our team members provides the strength of our organization. Just like water molecules, our team members need strength and flexibility to form strong interwoven molecular bonds. Basically, because of water ability to stick to itself a lake or ocean becomes one big molecule. Isn’t that what we wa²²nt our organization’s people to do? In other words bond to become one single structure.

We, as leaders, must also act like water. The most successful authentic leaders are like water, instead of being powerful they are essential. Since nothing can survive without water, it’s imperative that we learn from water. How can you strengthen the bonds of connection among your organization’s team?



Leading Toward Vs. Leading Against

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-4-05-17-pmI believe one of our most important roles as leaders is to help our teams to bounce back from change and challenge. It is really about always leading toward vs. against. In order to do this best we must practice deep listening, true dialogue, and intentionally moving ourselves toward a self transforming mind. At this time I find myself being self-authoring and emerging toward self-transforming. I do however believe that at times we hover between the three. In reality, I believe we all do depending on the circumstances and context (eg. work life, personal life, political life). For example, in some areas I would consider myself very conservative and still driven by beliefs instilled from my upbringing, thus still giving me a Socializing Mind. Conversely, in other areas, such as education, I am very transformational and reform-minded moving me toward the Self-Transforming Mind.

As a constructivist I believe that the world isn’t out there to be discovered, but that we create our world by our discovery of it. We make meaning of their surroundings, and that meaning is the surrounding; two people who see the same picture differently may actually, in their seeing of it, be creating two different pictures. In fact, I have even made the comment at times about others that, “When we look out the window, we see two different worlds.” Using Kegan’s (1994) definition that Constructive-developmentalists believe that the systems by which people make meaning grow and change over time, I really believe this might better describe me.

Kegan (2004) posited there are five Orders of mind, ranging from a two year old to a (mostly theoretical) person well into the second half of life. Each Order is a qualitative shift in the meaning-making and complexity from the Order before it. These orders are:

  1. First Order (mostly young children)
  2. Second Order—the “Sovereign” Mind (older children—seven to ten—and adolescents, but also some adults)
  3. Third Order—the “Socialized” or “Traditional” Mind (older adolescents and the majority of adults)
  4. Fourth Order—the “Self-Authored” or “Modern” Mind (some adults)
  5. Fifth Order—the “Self-Transforming” or “Postmodern” Mind (very few adults)

Here are brief descriptions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Orders: Individuals who operate with a Socialized Mind (3) are identified or fused with the beliefs of the larger group, which means they cannot reflect on them or question them, and are therefore shaped by their surroundings and the beliefs of others which guide their thinking and behavior.Those with the Self-Authoring Mind (4) are able to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal ‘seat of judgment’ or personal authority, which evaluates and makes choices about external expectations. Leaders who operate with the Self-Transforming perspective can see across their own and others’ belief systems or ideologies to identify larger patterns. Their thinking becomes more dialectical, reflecting an increasing awareness of and orientation to paradox, contradiction, and oppositeness.Two values which before seemed to be in conflict are now seen as co-creating a larger, underlying value, and aspects of human existence that had formerly been seen as fundamentally “other” are now located within oneself.

If we were to go back and analyze the Byron Ernest of earlier in my career, I believe we would find me to have a Socializing Mind. There traits such as seeing the authority figure as the person who should shape one’s beliefs and as the person needing to be pleased. We would also see a 3rd Order person who needed to be right and would not be able to understand why others would not be able to see it my way. I believe, however, I have been able to develop toward a Self-Transforming Mind by creating a culture of excellence with an intent-based leadership style where we are moving from our staff being told what to do and moving toward staff informing leadership as to what they have been doing.

The book I recently read by Adam Kahane (2004) titled Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities was very eye-opening and valuable to me. The thing I am most blown away by is the reality Kahane (2004) pointed out, that “Talk by itself, even brilliant speeches by famous people, does not create new realities. Most of the time it reproduces old ones” (Kahane, 2004, p. 69). Kahane (2004) taught us that our toughest of problems can only be solved if we talk candidly and openly. As we know, this takes a lot of courage. It should also be noted that there must also be deep listening. This really hit home for me as a leader in the education arena. We have complex problems in our educational systems and we must all, as leaders, immerse ourselves in and be open to this full complexity.

In the book, Kahane (2004) also spoke of three areas of complexity: Dynamic, Generative, and Social. For me, the idea of dynamic complexity really hit home. Kahane (2004) said that, “Dynamic complexity requires us to talk not just with experts close to us, but also with people on the periphery” (p. 75). This means we must “widen the circle” and “deepen the bench,” which is very uncomfortable for us (Kahane, 2004). In reality, dynamic complexity heightens the subtlety between cause and effect. This heightened subtlety not only provides the key to explaining why some over-hyped tools don’t deliver, but is consistent with how growing knowledge in a field inherently advances and generates complexity. I believe this really describes our reality in education. This is why it is so important to involve all stakeholders in our solving of complex opportunities. Then we must employ open and deep listening, as this is the basis for all creativity. We must be open to truly listening to new ideas.

Kahane (2004) taught us: “[S]ocial complexity requires us to talk not just with people who see things the same way we do, but especially with those who see things differently, even those we don’t like. We must stretch way beyond our comfort zone” (p. 75). Wow, how true this is. Think about this for a minute; how many times when trying to solve complex issues do we really listen to those who think differently, see the world differently, or just flat-out don’t like us? As I reflect I realize that I need to continue to evolve and become completely open to the ideas of other persons. This gave me new insights into myself that I need to widen the circle of dialogue to all and deeply listen to their ideas and beliefs. Here are some things I have learned from Kahane (2004) to help us as leaders:

  • To solve a complex problem, we have to immerse ourselves in and open up to its full complexity.
  • Our core tasks need to be to “widen the circle” and “deepen the bench.”
  • Tough problems can only be solved if people talk openly, and in many situations this takes real courage.
  • Listen openly.

I was moved by Kahane’s (2004) definition of listening: [T]he process of taking in something new and being unsettled and changed by it” (p. 69). This definition forced me to ask myself: Am I a leader who listens?

Speaking of generative complexity, Kahane (2004) said, “Generative complexity requires that we talk not only about options that worked in the past, but also about ones that are emerging now” (p. 75). To me this is all about not getting caught up in thinking about how things have always been done, but about how no one has ever thought about doing them.

We need to remember that there are many interdependent parts of a complex system. Additionally, a complex systems world view highlights that interactions between parts of the system and the behavior of the system as a whole are critical. As leaders, we must learn to do a better job of seeking out, fostering, and sustaining generative relationships that yield new learning relevant for innovation.

When discussing leadership we tend to focus on leaders’ individual characteristics rather than on the dynamics of interactions between leaders, group members, and the context in complex organizational systems over time; and we certainly do not do enough toward our own professional growth as leaders, or those on our teams, to create conditions that allow their organizations to evolve (Surie & Hazy, 2006). We must also find ways to improve our own and organizations’ ability to learn continuously and implement learning in action as projects proceed.


Kahane, A. (2004). Solving tough problems: An open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Surie, G. & Hazy, J.K. (2006). “Generative leadership: Nurturing innovation in complex systems.” E:CO Issue Vol. 8 No. 4 2006 pp. 13-26.