Listening to messages you don’t necessarily want to hear

These notes are a compilation of notes taken by Jim Kerlin, my own notes, and my impressions.  They are only a breif highlight of the rich conversation that took place at the Servant-Leader roundtable held on Thursday, January 28th.


Topic for the day:  Listening to messages you don’t necessarily want to hear.

The catalyst for this roundtable topic was a recent experience of racist leaning comments heard in a conversation.    In listening to the comments (posted on an electronic neighborhood bulletin board) Dan felt compelled to respond while recognizing the need to be sensitive to the very real fears of his neighbors.

Our conversation explored the following:

  • What we see is based upon our experiences.
  • It is hard not to be influenced by our past.
  • It is far easier to recognize my own truth than someone else’s truth.
  • Being in a role of authority can be a barrier to listening.
  • As a mentor it is necessary to listen deeply and guide lightly.
  • As a parent it can be hard to observe the decision processes of teenagers without stifling the growth than can only come through experience.
  • It can be a challenge to ensure that those we Sheppard are not mislead by the frustration we may experience with them as an indicator of a lack of commitment to stand by their side.

Things we learned from each other:

  • Listening with EMPATHY is the key to active listening.
  • When we are in a role of authority, telling it like it is can seem dictatorial.
  • We can use tools (chalkboard, whiteboard, post-its, etc) to post the ideas that are on the table without passing judgment.
  • There is a need to humbly recognize what buttons/triggers may result in negative responses min ourselves and others.
  • Be “present” in the conversation.  There is an inverse relationship between the amount of time we spend “covering your ass-ets (CYA)” and the about of direct communication that takes place.
  • Exclamations such as “ouch” or “yikes” can be used to convey the fact that the speaker is communicating in potentially offensive/aggressive terms.  The goal is to defuse the situation.
  • Recognizing what other people are saying may or may not lead to other things that they are including in their thought process.
  • Leaders want the truth.  We need to make it safe for people to tell us the truth.  It’s like lying to your doctor:  it is not beneficial if your lawyer, doctor, leader or peer only has a partial picture of what is going on.
  • Finishing each-other’s sentences is pervasive in business.  The most effective leaders are those that do not try to get ahead of the conversation or try to speed it up.
  • Be careful trying to be funny in text, email or social media.  Messages can be taken quite literally.
  • We need to think about sub-text when we are speaking. 

Ladder of Inference:

Organizational psychologist Chris Argyris developed the ladder of inference as a way of illustrating the process of moving from observation to action.  In conversation, we can only observe the action of someone speaking to us.  We need to intentionally pursue an understanding of what lead to that action.

The Ladder of Inference climbs the following steps:

  • We observe things
  • Select what to pay attention to
  • Make meanings and assumptions
  • Draw conclusions
  • Adopt beliefs
  • Take actions

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Copyright 2016, Dan Lococo.  All rights reserved.

Supporting a creative work environment

Notes from the August 6, 2015 Servant-Leader roundtable held in Waukesha, WI.

Topic:  Supporting a creative work environment


  • Opportunities for creativity need to be cultivated.  While creativity itself is spontaneous, we can create opportunities for creativity.
  • There is a time and place for developing creative ideas.  The challenge for leaders is to set boundaries for the implementation of creative opportunities.
  • The leader is responsible for distinguishing between principles versus policy:  principle as guidelines; policy as rules.
  • Principles are useful as they define the values that govern.
  • While we would like to think we could function by principles only,     we need policies to serve as common operating agreements.  The key is to tie those policies directly to the governing principles. 

On policy:

  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • As policy is developed, we need to check to see if the people affected by the policy are included in the development process.
  • When people violate policy it is a time to listen to understand why the policy was violated and it is time to validate the policy against the reason for the violation.

Lessons for leaders:

  • The less policies the better.
  • Do the policies release the energy in the people or does it constrict creativity?
  • How do we create the space to validate policy and principle?
  • The transparency in policy development comes with developing a trusting relationship.
  • As a leader it is sometimes a job to be the interference between corporate policy and the reality of the front line.


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Leading through stressful situations

The notes below are from the July 23, 2015 Servant-Leader roundtable.  They are a result of a rich conversation among good people.  These conversations take place almost every Thursday morning in the Milwaukee area.  You can be a part of the roundtable tomorrow.  go to:


Roundtable notes:


We are always communicating.  We don’t have a choice in the matter.  As a result, we may not realize what information we are giving our staff when we are under stress.  When we are under stress:  we may get impatient and take over a situation; we may take command and bark orders to others; we may express confidence in our team to resolved the problem; etc.  Each of these actions sends a clear message to those we lead.

  • We need the patience to build capacity in others.
  • In managing our own stress, we have to assess the situation and recognize what is a fire and what is an opportunity to build capacity as an organization.
  • We focus on the mechanics more often than the soft skills we need to cultivate an environment where information flows throughout the team, allowing the leader to anticipate potential problems before they occur.
  • As leaders, we define the urgency.  We don’t need to necessarily determine the situation is urgent.  We have the responsibility of reframing the situation.
  • The processing of the experience is the key learning.
  • The capacity building comes in the form of allowing others to make mistakes and then to reflect.
  • There are many ways to process high stress situations:  making the space to decompress is one way; wanting someone to listen is another way.
  • We have to explain the why of the debrief, what is the growth we are trying to generate in the group, the individuals, or ourselves.
  • Debriefing off site is a good way to change to a more neutral setting.
  • In a situation where danger has been a factor, it is a must to know what went wrong.  The key is to get to root causes not to create blame.
  • In extreme circumstances, it is necessary to create a highly structured process to get to the bottom of the situation.

Staying our best selves in unpredictable situations

This is the summary of the Servant-Leader roundtable that took place at the Mad Rooster Cafe on Thursday, June 25, 2015.

This month the roundtable focused on engaging with those around us while recognizing that each of us brings our own motivations and perspective to any situation. 

The question for the day:  How do we stay at our best selves as the events of the day unfold in unpredictable ways?

Roundtable summary notes:

  • We started our roundtable with the question:  “What do people see when you are at your best?”  This question served to frame our conversation for the day and we returned to it on several occasions.
  • As leaders we are charged with balancing a focus on the long term goals we are (collectively) working to achieve and at the same time being open to the reality people are living and where they are in their own lives.
  • We are called to meet people where they are and not take pre conceived notions from other sources.
  • We have a need to be aware of our preferred mode of operation and hot button issues and how those preferences influence our responses to others.
  • If we don’t start with where people are we are just telling our own story.  We need to recognize the audience and adjust accordingly.  Otherwise, our monologue drifts further away from the reality in the room.
  • Listening can be a good way to refocus.  Hearing other peoples stories allows us to gain perspective on where we are and and where we need to go as a group/organization.
  • We need to have our own self talk to act as a trigger for knowing when to get back on track.  At the same time we need to recognize that we are taught to self promote and that can get in the way of listening to others.
  • When we make a mistake it is an opportunity to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  Apologize and admit the mistake right away.

Leading from the middle

The following are the notes of the May 28th Servant-Leader roundtable at the Mad Rooster Café.  The topic for the day was introduced by participants and served as an affirmation that the wisdom is in the room.


Question:  How do we promote servant leadership from the middle?
Situation:  If a company has been command and control orientation, focused only on results (‘we need to hit our numbers’) oriented.  A new manager comes into the middle of the organization.  How does he/she try to influence the organization to embrace servant leadership from the middle?


On our commitment to Servant Leadership:

  • The larger the organization the easier it is to have an impact within your own circle of influence.
  • Don’t label it…do it.  We don’t need to use the word servant leader.  The best influence is our example.
  • Lead by example.  Show how it can work.  However, it is very hard to be a servant leader and influence the organization when the functional leader is not a servant leader.  We all struggle with having enough patience to let servant leadership work.  It is a marathon…not a sprint.  Yet deadlines are real.  Sometimes we simply don’t have time to wait for servant leadership to work.  Patience.
  • The results follow the leadership…not the other way around.

On building community:

  • Where do we want to be as a team?  Try to be more informative than commanding.
  • We need to help people understand that Servant Leadership is not a zero sum game where we (necessarily) receive immediate gratification from our actions.
  • People on the team can be inspired and reminded that all of us can be a little better and a little more effective that we are.
  • When we start to see the results you know it is starting to work.  It breads on itself.  If you start to see managers ‘catching’ people doing something good.
  • This month, the roundtable followed a “hot topic” format as a way to make Servant Leadership tangible.  Depending on the environment, this may be a good way for teams to explore Servant Leadership.

On leading and self awareness:

  • Actions get attention.
  • You don’t always know how what you say influences people.
  • Many organizations start by focusing on results and try to work back to servant leadership.  It is the other way around.  You need to start with yourself and be aware that the results are the byproduct of good leadership.
  • John shared an example of a dangerous situation in his workplace that required a response from the leadership team.  John did not ‘respond’, or react emotionally when everyone was following the misinformation about the situation…even though he was there and knew that the situation was in fact different.  John waited until later to explain the situation to the CEO.  While he could have spoken up during the meeting he used his own best judgment at the time.
  • Always respect the boss’s judgment on how to deal with the truth.

FYI – Referenced during our roundtable:

Building practice field experiences

The following notes are a summary of the rich conversation that took place at the Mad Rooster Café (Milwaukee, WI) on April 23, 2015.  Notes do not come near to matching the subtle nuance of face-to-face conversation.

The idea of a practice field is not new to most people but it also has a fairly narrow point of reference for most of us.  Athletes, musicians, and actors regularly practice their skills in a variety of settings.  Even though the pre-season doesn’t count toward the championship, those practice field experiences can be just as competitive as the regular season.

The focus this month was on the practice field experiences we create for others.  The conversation on practice field experiences included the value and scope of such experiences.  Tim Behling illuminated the value of practice situations by characterizing the fast paced environments we sometimes find ourselves in as like trying to change your tire while you’re driving.

In regard to our own practices:

  • Among the reasons for challenging ourselves are moving beyond our own comfort zones and mastering skills.
  • The setting for our learning is not near as important as the level of engagement.  Journaling, reflecting with others and just hanging out with others can all be useful practices – “I learn as much about sailing in the bar at SSYC as I do on the boat.”

In regard to creating practice field experiences for others:

  • When people gather around a shared interest they learn together.
  • We can be very intentional and deliberate in creating and nurturing practice fields.
  • Make sure the learning process is relevant to the group or individual’s personal needs.
  • Allowing the team to decide the focus of practice field environments can be an effective strategy in cultivating engagement and effective teamwork.
  • Challenge people to get out of their comfort zone.

Ideas and examples of practice fields:

  • Affinity Groups – People like to come together around a shared interest. People then develop relationships in those affinity groups and they learn together.
  • Meet ups are fascinating.  Yvonne started a meet up focused around Toastmasters International. It is becoming quite popular. (
  • Tim created a hot topic list using a discussion board in his workplace.  He uses it as a place for his team to learn from each other and work through situations.
  • There are CEO Roundtable groups leaders can join.
  • Our Servant-Leader roundtables are a practice field.  This is an environment that allows us to practice, make mistakes, and get ideas.

Leading up as a Servant-Leader


Our topic for the day:  “Leading up as a Servant-Leader.”  We all answer to others in one way or another; bosses, Board members, customers, etc.  As we seek to cultivate a Servant-Leader environment, we sometimes need to cultivate S-L qualities in those who have authority over us as well as those we lead.

The following notes are a summary of the roundtable conversation held at the Mad Rooster Café in Milwaukee, WI on Thursday, March 26.  The conversation included a variety of people from different backgrounds and organizational affiliations.

Much of our conversation focused on the importance of having our own house in order as a tool for having positive influence over others.  Whether we are looking at those we serve through our leadership or those Tags:

we serve who have authority over us, we provide the best example and have the most leverage when we are grounded in principles that reflect our values and the mission of the people/organizations we are committed to. 

Thoughts on awareness:

  • We can look through the lens of perpetual “too busy” or consciously adopt the perspective “I have a full and enriching life.”
    Keep a sense of balance between important and urgent.  Often the fire fighting is daily and we never get to the inspired strategic plan.
  • Often the things we think are urgent are repetitive.  Developing personal practices for dealing with the important (strategic) activities as well as the routine activities that (when neglected) become urgent is a method for maintaining a balance.
  • Keeping track of who we are in relation to our organizational environment is a challenge worth taking on.  Relationships and relationship building skills are a critical part of our organizational life.
  • If you lose track of whom you are and the role you play, you can fail.  There is a need to keep track of your skills at critical conversations and influencing up.  Don’t assume you are good at it.  It is important to recognize the combination of skill and relationship with your boss that allows you to be able to have those critical conversations

Thoughts on being intentional:

  • The urgent calls to us for many reasons in many ways (including from those in authority roles above us).  We need to prioritize and focus on being intentional.
  • Being in a shared service/support position in a company can make is particularly hard to prioritize.  Inherent in support roles is responding to the urgent.  Is pretty hard to filter the noise.
  • You need to internalize the process of focusing on the important things.  It is easy to do the “dam dailies”.  We need to plan to do the 3 hours of focus on the strategic matters that are important but not urgent.
  • It is necessary to be both courageous and vulnerable with your boss and the people you lead.  Focus on mission, vision and strategy.  As new priorities come out, keep going back to the mission and the goal.
  • Does this line up with the overarching mission and goal.

Building community:

  • Don’t overlook the power of kindness.  Bosses have the same need for a friendly welcome and warm smile as anyone else.
  • We can reframe a conversation with our boss or reports by saying, “I need your help”. “I need to understand.
  • Sometimes just having a dialog with a person who is stressed out can help them sort the important from the urgent.
  • As a servant leader it is even more challenging to maintain focus.  You, by definition, need to help people when they come to you for help.  But, you also need to set aside time to focus on strategic matters.
  • Coach a pause to regroup.  Did you ever see a fire hose with no one holding it?

Books mentioned during our conversation:

  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.  Stephen R. Covey, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron Mcmillan, Al Switzler.  2002.  ISBN-13:9780071401944
  • Influencing Up by Allan R Cohen.