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The Poetry of Practice

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Rebecca Albrich, Datacenter Operations Manager with Information Services at the University of Oregon. She may be reached at [email protected].]

My favorite poet, an Oregonian named William Stafford, wrote a poem every day. Poetry by its nature is a precise construct, yet he brings an easy-going casual voice to his genre. He arose before dawn, when he could have quiet dedicated time committed to his writing practice.

As my cohort’s MOR sessions wrap up I’ve been reflecting on what we have learned. Thinking about Stafford’s dedication to his practice reminds me of our discussions of what it takes to form a habit and change neurological pathways. Good leaders may make leading look easy and polished but, not unlike like poets, perfecting that voice of leadership requires lots of practice. It is built on a foundation of effort and dedication.

Now, I’m not bucking for us all to get up earlier to become better leaders. I do think we need to find the time for self-care and reflection on our leadership journey. We need to make time for things that keep us balanced so that the glass isn’t half empty when we are called to lead. Most importantly for our leadership journey, we need the space to practice and from new habits.  We should set aside time for it the way we do for an exercise routine. That may take the form of a long bike ride like someone in my cohort reflected. For me it is often the walks I take with my dog. I reflect on my day and ask myself what I need to learn? What I should delegate? What priorities do I need to set time aside for so that they cannot be swept away by the week’s operational issues? Am I considering the issue at hand from all three lenses: political, cultural, and strategic?

For a long time, I was cautious about speaking up. It was coupled with a touch of imposter syndrome. Did I really have something to contribute to our strategic plan for IT? I see now that effective leadership and a strategic outlook takes lots of practice. I know that I don’t have the technical depth in all the areas we need to have strategy around but, a good leader doesn’t need to generate all the answers. That was an epiphany. Building a diversity of relationships, both those within my trust network with deep technical expertise in the problem at hand, and with new folks who may have a fresh perspective, come from another organization, or have broader political influence are all going to help me as a leader. This is more fundamental to advancing my leadership skills than broadening the diversity of my own the technical depth in a scattering of subjects outside my area of expertise. This was the transition in my mindset from being a manager, a doer, to embracing the practice of being a strategic leader.

Through the course of our MOR classes I have felt my confidence building. Besides my self-assurance in my area of expertise, I’m more aware of the assets I can bring to the table. I’m an emotionally intelligent person, who both communicates well and is good at actively listening. I’m not afraid to ask questions to help me better understand an issue. I have a new toolbox of skills like coaching that help me connect with my peers. These tools enable us to learn more about each other’s experiences, build trust, and hopefully make some breakthroughs in solving our not dissimilar challenges. I understand now what it means to believe the answer is in the room if we can be effective enough leaders to encourage, grow and empower others to help us to find it.

We know that culturing relationships as a leader is imperative. How do we make the time to practice this and other leadership tools MOR has taught us in our strange new world of limited in person interactions? That’s the conundrum.

I think the answer for me comes back to practice because, I recognize it is so very important. It is like prioritizing time to exercise, get enough sleep, or eat healthy. We need to treat ourselves with enough kindness to acknowledge that we are all going to have setbacks and get distracted. Look no further than the pandemic. What’s more important is that we don’t lose track of the practice of leadership, so that the overarching outcome of our journey continues to grow.

Now more than ever, it is important we treat also each other with kindness and presume positive intent. It is too easy to let the ladder of inference take us to false assumptions. As the leaders we are today, we most likely have already built trust with those we lead. After all, we have gotten through the last 19 months of this pandemic together. That trust is a currency that helps when we need to have discussions about thorny issues that make us uncomfortable. Let’s have enough trust in each other to say something when we see something wrong. Let’s lean into those uncomfortable conversations we need to have. Let’s not sit comfortable in our inertia. Assume that we are each trying to find the right path. Speaking up takes trust and practice. As leaders it is fundamental to our job.

Every day is a fresh start to resume our leadership practice. We need to not let the tsunami of operational work overcome our good intentions. When we do find ourselves floating in that vast sea, climb up to the crow’s nest to get perspective and start again.

What specific aspect of your leadership practice do you want to focus on this week? Be specific. Make it small enough to accomplish. Do it again next week. Practice.

Here’s a link to one of William Stafford’s poems for your enjoyment.