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Friday, June 18, 2010

Shoot for a Star Even if You Miss

Courage and boldness, two attributes of a successful systems engineer and leader that make a difference between opportunity seizure and status quo. It is not always easy to make decisions that result in a big change, or address a big gap. Sometimes these decisions are needed. I am a big advocate of evolutionary development, meaning changes that occur in phases and evolve over time. However the decision to initiate that change and stay in the game until the end needs to be done with a sense of urgency. So lets look at an example to clarify the point.

You are a community leader and you notice that the rate of growth of your community membership exceeds your forecasted studies, and people will not be able to park their cars soon on property. The decision to expand the current parking space versus acquisition of a new satellite office for future growth is a major decision, and is not easy, but it needs to be made quickly. The solution implementation itself (parking or site acquisition) itself should be evolutionary.

So what does this have to do with courage and shooting for the moon? Well, a conservative systems engineer will propose a solution which entails the least risk. In the case above that might be to expand the parking area at a conservative rate each 5 years. A bold systems engineer might propose an immediate expansion, with a partnership with the church next door, and the charter for expanding the community center horizontally in another locality with the vision of spreading throughout the State within 5 years. That is a very different vision, one that requires commitment, radical change, motivation, dedication and courage.

Courageous leaders shoot for a shining star, and if they fail they know that their chance of landing on the moon - which is still an achievement - is high. They are willing to take the risk, to plan effectively, have a backup plan and will not settle for less than the moon.

Do you know have a vision of your star and do you know where is your moon?

More on Zero is Hero

So Salah Elleithy dropped me a note ... and shared information about his intriguing blog name ... Take a guess and get a free book on job hunting !!

Something that when it is zero, it leads to prosperity, development and will prevent inflation and depreciation. What is that something? First one to get the correct answer will get a copy of my free book Pragmatic Job Hunting.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Authority and Influence Through Servant Leadership

Many leaders miss the whole point of leadership. It is simply to serve. An effective leader is one who can serve and has the influence to make things happen to allow him/her to serve. Unfortunately many leaders believe that their role is to control and police. That is a fallacy. Leadership is not about enforcement, it is about strategy, vision, developing others and sustainability. Enforcement is a tactical task and does not need a leader, it needs an executor in the form of an employee.

Servant leadership was introduced in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, however the concept is not new to humanity. God through his revelations to Ibrahim (Abraham), Moses, Jesus and Mohammad (peace be upon all of them) guided mankind to the true understanding of leadership. When God addressed Ibrahim (pbuh) he informed him that he is making him a leader to all of the human race. Ibrahim asked God to give leadership to his offspring and generations to come, but God corrected Ibrahim and clarified that leadership is not to be given to transgressors. Those who go over the boundaries of God. God wants the human race to follow Ibrahim. The question then becomes what is it that Ibrahim possessed that made him required by God to carry the burden of leadership on his shoulders? The answer is submission. In the Quran, in the chapter of the Cow, God shares with us a beautiful conversation that took place between God and Ibrahim and it ends showing us that Ibrahim confirmed his submission to God, this submission encompassed compassion, love, service to God and care for mankind through his building the Holy Kaaba, making prayers and supplications that God accept from him and his son, make them remain submitters, and that God give the best of bounties, guidance, to his offspring, and send a messenger from among themselves that guides them and purifies them.

"the answer is submission, followed by compassion"

God teaches Mohammad (pbuh) that should he been harsh and difficult people would have walked away from him. After submission (belief), compassion is positioned at the heart of being a servant leader. We have many examples of the Prophet being a compassionate servant leader; spending long hours of time with the youth of his community, joking with the elders, caring for the orphans, looking after the needy, serving the neighbors and coaching the young to take over responsibility and leadership. Mohammad (pbuh) was an empathetic listener, when talking with others he would give them his full attention, and fully turn towards the speaker, he would never get go of a handshake until the other party did first, he would always smile in the face of others and be an attentive listener, reflecting on what is being said to him, analyzing it, acknowledging and sharing the feelings of the speaker. The Prophet (pbuh) always recognized others' needs and feelings. He was well aware of their issues and acknowledged their concerns and needs.
A servant leader is one that is able to accept criticism, just like Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, when a woman from among the audience one day jumped up and recited a verse from the Quran which contradicted Omar and strongly corrected him. Omar was accepting the advice and smiled. A servant leader is one who endures, and is courageous, such a leader is courageous to take risks to serve others with what pleases God. A servant leader will make sure policies and procedures are flexible and efficient to serve the people, the servant leader will take risks to try new things and will be courageous to stand next to his/her decision. Servant leaders do not hide behind bureaucracies and policies that are handicapping and find them as shelters for excuses for not serving the followers. Mohammad was a courageous leader, taking risks when signing treaties with his enemies, accepting behavior from others at times of distress. Omar was risk taking as well, he stopped the application of Hudud (Islamic rulings on major crimes) at times of poverty and economic downturns.

A servant leader is one who transforms an experience and a follower, a leader who not only embraces change, trust, delegation and integration, but also one who acts in a powerful way to transform the behavior of his followers. Mohammad (pbuh) has many instances when he transformed Omar from the angry disbeliever who was after killing him to the submissive crying believer. He transformed the ruthless thug and disbeliever who attacked him under the tree while sleeping into a humble, compassionate believer. He transformed Arabia, he transformed the world. Ghandi is another modern example of a servant leader who exhibited transformation in our times.

"A servant leader is one who transforms an experience and a follower, a leader who not only embraces change, trust, delegation and integration, but also one who acts in a powerful way to transform the behavior of his followers."

Servant leaders humble themselves and work for serving the cause of God through serving the people with wisdom and best of advice. They build bridges of cooperation, trust and compassion. They care for others more than they care for themselves.

Servant leaders are leaders who are hard to spot in the middle of a crowd, they are easy going, cheerful, accepting and trustworthy. They have authority not through control, but rather through love and admiration. They respect others, the can not sleep the nights when they know that one of their followers is hungry, has a problem or is in need.

A servant leader is one who cares that each young person under his responsibility is protected in his deen (way of life, religion) and has the means to get closer to his/her Lord. A servant leader is one who cares that each elder person under his responsibility has their needs fulfilled and the capabilities to look forward to a bright tomorrow.

"Ibn-Al-Khattab did, .. ask yourself did I cry today because I fell short in my leadership responsibility?"

Servant leaders care about the core and not the surface. They care that the hearts are satisfied and the minds are at peace. They do not care too much about what people say about them, or how they view them, or whether people see them following policies and rules. After all policies and rules are to benefit and assist in growth, not to block success and impede progress.

To every leader out there, I remind myself and you if you want to lead, then be a servant. Put your face in the dirt and humble yourself just like Omar Ibn-Al-Khattab did, and ask yourself did I cry today because I fell short in my leadership responsibility?

"I follow the footsteps of Omar when coaching leaders .... and I follow the footsteps of Abu Bakr when I coach followers"

When I coach leaders I follow the footsteps of Omar when it comes to coaching leaders, I bang on them real hard. I do not just criticize, I send them a blow into their face. Call it a wake up call, call it a reality check. No sugar coating, no sweet talk, direct dump of feedback from the heart. Coaching a follower is very different. I follow the footsteps of Abu Bakr when it comes to dealing with followers.

In 2000 Larry Spears summarized Greenleaf's servant leadership writings into ten characteristics:

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to Growth
  • Building Community
Servant leadership is deeply rooted in the Islamic way of life. Traits of compassion, submission, patience, generosity, frugal life-style, humility, humbleness, love, caring, sincerity, integrity, courage, honesty, dedication, commitment, perseverance, steadfastness and ihsan are all components of a servant leader.

"compassion, submission, patience, generosity, frugal life-style, humility, humbleness, love, caring, sincerity, integrity, courage, honesty, dedication, commitment, perseverance, steadfastness and ihsan"

I share this little knowledge I have with every leader out there, whether a member of the board of a non-profit, a county executive, a country president, a teacher, a parent, a principal, a CEO, a head of class or a self-leader.

pbuh = peace be upon him

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Zero is Hero, A blog by Salah Elleithy

My friend Salah launched a blog a few months ago, Zero is Hero. It can be reached at

Zero is a very interesting number. Mankind has been using numbers from the days of the Babylonians. However we never knew about the number zero until much later in history, sometime around 458 AD. Zero comes from arabic term "Sifr" and indicates two very different meanings. The first meaning being empty, and the second a place holder in a larger number to indicate a multiple of ten. Zero did revolutionize the numbering system and provided more meaning to a positional concept of numbers. The positional concept of numbers was introduced around 500 AD by Al-Khawarizmi.

To read more about zero check the links below, and do not forget to drop by Salah's blog

[6] "1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World", Second Edition, Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization, p. 66, 67.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Rare But Catastrophic

Accidents are a fact of life, simply because we are humans and have been created with two key characteristics; (1) decision-making, and (2) limited abilities. Only the creator of the universe has full control over every single element in the universe, ranging from the smallest part of an atom to the largest galaxy.

Personal accidents are very common and their impacts could be trivial to severe, and are usually local. Examples are simple fender benders, a child pushing another one while reaching out for a toy doll, and a house fire.

Organizational accidents on the other hand are less common and their impacts are more significant, and usually devastating and affecting others not related to the organization or its services. The root cause of an organizational impact can be due to an individual choice, a group decision, or a larger organizational error. However, at the end it is within the context of an organization. Individual accidents could also have origins in organizations. Hence, the line of separation between individual and organizational accidents is subtle and often quite not clear. Examples of organizational accidents are aircraft crashes like Air India's recent crash 1, 2, 3, and BP's oil well leak 4, 5, 6.

Key differences between individual and organizational accidents are listed below:

Root Cause Individual or personal error, negligence; poor decision-making; poor personal quality. Accumulated errors; altered relationships between systems and human elements; altered states of the environment due to technological innovations
Impact Local, usually agent and victim could be the same; small to devastating Wide-spread, reaches to uninvolved populations; small to devastating.
Frequency High Low
Predictability Easy Medium
Complexity Low Medium  - High
Survival Rate Medium – High Low – Medium
Defenses Weak or lacking Medium to strong

A main challenge in understanding organizational accidents is defining where the boundaries of the accident end. Both time and causality are seamless and do not have natural boundaries. To best analyze an accident, to prevent it from happening again, one may limit the scope of interest to things that people in the organization can manage. Accidents are usually triggered when some weakness in a defense system appears, the weakness could be a latent condition that exists and turned into an active failure. Latent conditions are similar to pathogens in a human body, they can be present for a long time and might not be detectable, however once triggered they turn into failures leading to immediate accidents. All organizations young and mature, simple and complex include latent conditions within their boundaries. More about latent conditions and active failures in my next post.