Byron's Babbles

A Taste Of Leadership

One of my favorite times of the year is in February when my son and I attend the National Farm Machinery Show. This year we are getting to spend yesterday and today at the show learning about all the latest in agriculture technologies, genetics, and innovative genius. The show is held in Louisville, Kentucky and I’ve been coming for as long as I can remember when I started coming with my dad. Now, my son and I come every year as one of our sacred dad and lad memory-making excursions. This year, while on our exploration, my son wanted to go to Angel’s Envy distillery in downtown Louisville. So, I arranged for him to fill, cork and label his own bottle of Angel’s Envy single barrel Kentucky straight bourbon finished in a Port wine barrel. Needless to say, it was a great experience and we learned a lot. Angel’s Envy would be on my highly recommended and must visit list.

My son, Heath, & I at Angel’s Envy

During my son’s bottling experience we learned the proper way to taste bourbon, or what is called the “Kentucky Chew” to those, well, in Kentucky. A few things in the tasting process jumped out at me as great metaphors to the journey of leadership. One big thing our guide told us that proper tasting includes a visual inspection, followed by taking in the aroma, and finally the tasting. This would allow us to take in all the nuances of the complex flavors the distiller created, and would allow us to appreciate the time and patience that went into the delicate art of the bourbon’s maturation. This jumped out at me because I think about how nuanced leadership is all the time and the nuances of those I serve that need to be appreciated. Nuance is not easy to notice. Just like with bourbon, we have to be paying attention to the complexities. I spoke of this in Nuanced Complexity. In leadership, the real depth of learning comes from individuals exploring their own views first and then placing them within the context of their organization. The depth of learning comes from the heuristic nature of nuance.

Continuing with the tasting metaphor, we were told to take three tastes of the bourbon and to roll it around, or “chew”, in our mouths to make sure it hit all the flavor sensors of our tongue and mouth. The first taste was to reset our palette. The second taste would allow us to begin to pick up the several layers of flavor. The third taste really allows you to enjoy the complexity and subtle nuances. Are you catching the leadership metaphor here? Just like every bourbon has a ton of different notes, so do the people we serve. We need to take the time to build the relationships so we understand the complexity and nuance we all possess. We, like bourbon, have all aged for different amounts of time. Also, like bourbon has been aged in different types of barrels, we have all grown up in different environments with different experiences. If we take the time to understand those in our communities in a way that allows us to pick up all the subtle nuances, we will be able to, like with bourbon, unleash some incredible experiences and appreciate the unique way each of us has been distilled.


Nuanced Complexity

The word Nuance means very subtle or little difference between the two things. So, when someone asks you to give or make a nuanced report of something, it means to make a detailed, verified, acknowledged, and characteristic report. Opening day for Major League Baseball (MLB) ⚾️ is this week, so my eyes and attention have been turned to America’s Pastime. That means my attention has also turned to my beloved Cincinnati Reds and Reds Beat. Mark Sheldon made a comment in his Reds Beat Newsletter that jumped out at me. I have always loved his work and wish I could go to a Reds game with him sometime. The first paragraph welcomed us back to the newsletter and then in the second paragraph he wrote:

“One great change from the past two years is reporters are allowed back inside the clubhouse. Hopefully this translates to better reporting from me and more enjoyable reading for you. Talking to players, the manager and coaches means more candid answers to questions and more depth to information. It should also bring something that is difficult to achieve on Zoom and impossible to get on social media — nuance.”

Mark Sheldon

Did you catch that? More candid answers and more depth – those allow for nuance. Sheldon is so right, nuance is difficult, not impossible, in a virtual platform and I continue to hone that skill daily. Nuance is not easy to notice, but as Sheldon points out very important to telling the whole story. In learning, real depth comes from individuals exploring their own views first and then placing them within the context of their organization. The depth of learning comes from the heuristic nature of nuance.

One of the leadership strategies I teach about is the need to move away from the old industrial model which uses binary questions that are yes/no or one right, one wrong answer. Sheldon’s point of nuance in an in person locker room interview is well taken. We imagine when he asks a question and the player pauses. Right then we know the answer is not a simple question with a binary answer. The in person interaction allows for both in the conversation to have that psychologically safety where to explore their own views first and then place them within the context of their team or organization. This is not to say it can’t be done on Zoom and we should continue to work at being able to provide the ethos for nuance, but it is much more effective in person.

My point here is how important a more nuanced approach can be. Getting rid of the binary approach allows us to put everything into context. And…context matters. Always! Ask any of us a question and there will be nuanced complexity. The nuances are not always easily seen, which is Sheldon’s point, but if we want to know the whole story we must seek to uncover the complexity of emotions, relationships, history, patterns, values, politics, and power dynamics.

Another Option Is Waiting To Be Uncovered

Posted in Educational Leadership, Global Leadership, Leadership, Leadership Development, Nuance, Nuance Leader by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on August 22, 2021

You gotta love the show, Monk. For those that have never watched it or don’t remember it, the show is about Adrian Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub, who develops obsessive-compulsive disorder, including being a germaphobe, after his wife was murdered. The condition cost him his job as a prominent homicide detective in the San Francisco Police Department. Because he is so good at what he does, Monk continues to help solve crimes as a consultant with the help of an assistant and his former boss, Leland Stottlemeyer, played by Ted Levine.

In the episode I happened to watch tonight, Willie Nelson was accused of and arrested for murdering his tour manager. Monk kept saying Willie didn’t do it, but the early evidence suggested otherwise. After some damning video evidence came out, Stottlemeyer said it was either “A” or “B” in terms of what actually happened. Monk said, “I believe it’s “C”. Stollemyer replide, “What the hell is “C”?” and Monk replied, “I don’t know yet.” I loved this because so many times when confronted with a decision, most of us default to choosing between “A” and “B” because, at first blush, the world appears binary (eg. Yes or No). Many times the standard “A” or “B” answer just doesn’t fit. Monk had shifted the thinking and conversation from binary affirmation to a learning conversation. We need to embrace and even search out option “C”. It may be the best of “A” and “B” or something completely new and different.

I would like to use the metaphor of a color spectrum here. We can see how immensely varietal the colors are, offering far more nuance than initially meets the eye. In my experience, this means that another option is waiting to be uncovered. Taking time to find the nuances can allow us resist the binary way of looking at choices. Let’s consider nuance and begin to view our choices more like the options available on a color spectrum. Like Monk, we might not know what option “C” is, but we know there is one.

Trust Is A Verb

I just finished rereading the great book Nuance: Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail by Michael Fullan. I blogged about what prompted me to do this reread in “Nuance: Subtle Differences.” We are, and have been, experiencing times when complexity challenges our ability to adapt. This is particularly true in educational systems where we must meet individual student needs. Fullan offered help for thinking about systems change around three habits of nuance: joint determination, adaptability, and culture-based accountability.

Fullan argued that “trust is a verb before it becomes a state.” Someone can’t earn your trust without you first trusting them on something. In other words you can’t talk your way into trust. Trust becomes part of the community culture in real time. It is an action. When a leader is an active participant and becomes part of the group, accountability becomes a shared norm instead of something imposed from above. This resonates with me so much because I so desire the establishment and maintaining of a culture and community of innovation and commitment. This requires deep levels of trust.

Nuance: Subtle Differences

Nuance is a word I use a lot as a leader, as a noun, verb, and adjective. For me it is more than a word, however. As a student of Michael Fullan, I am a big believer that nuance is the answer to dealing with complex changes and the complex issues we have in the world today. In fact, being prompted to think deeply about what nuance means to me as a leader while reading Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes also prompted me to start re-reading Michael Fullan’s great book Nuance: Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail. Holmes argued that straightforward answers are not always the best ones. The challenge is that in times of uncertainty and anxiety, people look for, and want straightforward answers. An inability to weigh new or different options is usually a hindrance. We many times desire simple explanations over ambiguity even when the simple explanations are completely false. Holmes also pointed to how President George W. Bush was reported to have said “I don’t do nuance” after the attacks on 9/11. Bush’s popularity increased following this. The problem was, there might have been some nuances overlooked during that period that could have lead to even better and more lasting solutions, but we were all fearful of other attacks and looking for immediate action. Studying history using hindsight can be dangerous, but there might have been cause to consider the nuances of the time. Harry Truman spoke often about the nuances of leadership and I blogged about this in “Remember, Freedom Is Yours Until You Give It Up.” In fact, I really hadn’t noticed how much I contemplate nuance, but I noticed is preparing this post that I have discussed nuance in nine different blog posts.

“The test of a first rate intelligence, is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Under pressure people want a quick solution. This also drives these same people to favor just being told (authoritarian) what to do. I’ve experienced this before in policy discussions where things get a little messy with multiple good ideas, multiple ideas where the best of bad ideas has to be chosen, or opposing ideas that are both viable options. Individuals will suddenly say things like, “Just tell us what you want us to do.” When thinking of nuance I am reminded that two diamonds can be of identical size and color, but there are always slight differences not recognizable to the untrained eye. These differences can greatly add to or subtract from the value of the diamond. We need to think about the many complexities we deal with in our leadership worlds as diamonds and make sure we are studying all of the subtleties (nuances). The worst leaders tend to speak, direct, manage, and go “hands on” way too much. These leaders miss the nuances and go to what they know (or think they know) and insert themselves and begin “telling.” Remember, this fast and expedient route to the finish line can miss weighing all options and might miss great subtle and nuanced solutions.

Fullan taught us that “Nuance leaders have a curiosity about what is possible, openness to other people, sensitivity to context, and a loyalty to a better future. They see below the surface, enabling them to detect patterns and their consequences for the system. They connect people to their own and each other’s humanity. They don’t lead, they teach.” If you’ve ever experienced a leader that does this, you are thinking fondly of them right now. Unfortunately, there are so many leaders that have not figured this out. I was fortunate to have a leader early in my career who was a flawless nuance leader. He was extremely humble and I would compare him to being the orchestra director allowing us to express our own talents while bringing each instrument together for beautiful music. Our school was on an upward trajectory and serving our students at the highest level of excellence. Here’s what makes the difference: nuance leaders consider the lived experience of others as a result of the current reality and how that might change with each decision. Don’t forget to look for the subtle differences?