Tag Archives: self reflection

It takes courage!

I had the chance to really get to know myself better this morning in a Privilege Walk activity.

“Take a stepPrivilege walk forward if either of your parents graduated from college”

“Take a step forward if there were more than 50 books in your house when you were growing up”

“Take a step back if either of your parents were laid off or unemployed not by their choice”

“Take a step back if you have been divorced or impacted by divorce”

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System Office Inclusion Council kicked off their Intercultural Passport Program event with a Privilege Walk. Privilege walks are designed to help people recognize and understand how privilege influences who they are. I know for me, and for others based on their comments, many of the questions were about things we “took for granted” or assumed were common for everyone. However, by being open and responding to each question by moving forward or back, I learned a lot about myself! Having the courage to look at where I was in the room and where others were helped open my eyes.

As leaders I want to suggest there is an additional question that needs to be added to a Privilege Walk.

“Take a step forward if you are in a leadership position”

An important part of the leadership competency, “Understand Yourself and Others” is to have the courage to acknowledge that being a leader is a privilege. A leadership role, by itself, influences how you perceive the world and affects how people treat you. It is a part of who you are! It is not good or bad but it is important to recognize.

If you want to learn more about self-awareness and privilege walks you can click here to watch a video. And this link contains the actual questions.

Got privilegeYes, we all have privilege and it takes courage to dig deep in search of self-understanding.

Todd Thorsgaard

Who are you?

broken mirror“That’s not me!”

I recently spent a week in the hospital recovering from surgery and those were my words when I looked in the mirror and saw how others were seeing me. A sick person in a hospital gown and connected to an IV! Yet after a few days that is how I started to feel and act.

Steven Covey calls this the social mirror.  In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he says,  “If the only vision we have of ourselves comes from the social mirror, our view of ourselves is like the reflection in the crazy mirror room at the carnival.”  As leaders we can lose track of who we really are when we rely on our social mirror. Instead of truly understanding ourselves we limit ourselves to an incomplete or inaccurate understanding.

To truly understand ourselves requires purposeful inner reflection along with listening to what others say. It starts by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I truly believe about leadership?
  2. Where won’t I compromise as a leader?
  3. What is most important to me as a leader?
  4. How do I want others to describe me as a leader?
  5. What do I value most in myself?
  6. What concerns or fears do I need to acknowledge as a leader?
  7. How can I make the biggest difference as a leader?
  8. Where do I need to flex or adjust as a leader to help others succeed?

Taking the time to answer these types of questions is the first step to understanding who you are as a leader and becoming the leader you want to be!

I asked myself a few similar questions in the hospital and my answers reminded me that I am a healthy, active and competitive person – and I made sure that I got out of bed and moving around, even connected to my IV, each day!

Todd Thorsgaard


Are you losing air?

Best of 2015, first published on January, 2015
The holiday season can be exhilarating and fulfilling as we take time to connect with family and friends. On the other hand we can also end up feeling drained and overextended. This post reminds me of the importance of assessing where I am and where I want to be as we wrap up 2015. –Todd Thorsgaard

It is one of the most depressing feelings while biking. I can be riding along; happy, outdoors, feeling strong and having fun. Everything is in synch and flowing until I feel myself slowing down and I can tell I am riding on a flat tire. I may hear a loud pop and a fast “whoosh” as all the air escapes at once or a soft, almost evil, hiss as my tire gradually goes flat. Or I may hear nothing at all and just have a soft tire. Either way it means I need to stop what I am doing, assess the situation, and take the appropriate action to refill my tire so I can get back to riding.

Bike flat largeSometimes I have just gone too long without pumping up my tires and I  need to use my CO2 cartridge and add air, other times I have hit an unexpected bump in the road or run over a small sharp object and need to patch a hole before adding air. Occasionally my inner-tube has been neglected and ruptured in multiple places and I need to completely replace it with a new one before I can add air.

We go flat in our lives when we lose our work and life balance. How you refill yourself depends on the type of leak you are experiencing. Paul Blatz, founder and president of Good Leadership Enterprises, encourages leaders to utilize his 7Fs Wheel to understand where they may be leaking energy or if they have a major rupture to repair! The seven Fs that help us stay positive and moving forward as leaders are:

  • Future
  • Fun
  • Friends
  • Fitness
  • Finances
  • Family
  • Faith (spiritual)

Over time we can get distracted by the regular demands at work and lose track of our daily choices that keep us fulfilled in all seven areas. Then we may just need to take some small actions that “refill” all seven. Other times we hit a major bump and need to focus on one area that is losing air fast. When I travel for work I tend to ignore my extended family relationships and I need to remind myself to take the time to call my mom and check-in with her.

The Seven Fs Wheel (Seven Fs Tool) is an easy tool to carry with you and use to keep yourself “pumped up” and rolling along as a leader. TT and Ellie bike

Todd Thorsgaard

The never ending debate?

Best of 2015, first published on March 4, 2015
As the title suggests this dilemma cannot be vanquished but only revisited and managed – not solved!
–Todd Thorsgaard

disagreeEver since we could argue it seems as if people have been debating the merits of working for the common good or working for individual success and survival. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, wrote in 1651 that we needed government to enforce behaviors that support the common good. The economist Adam Smith argued in 1776 that we must establish a free economic market to ensure that the common good wins. Otherwise the power of individual success will win.

The Selfish GeneI first got involved in this debate as a behavioral biology student in 1976 when Richard Dawkins published one of my favorite books, The Selfish Gene. At the time it was described as “the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It’s breathtaking.” Dawkins continued the scientific debate that is occurring today: is it better to act for the common good or is it better to act for the good of the individual?

While this debate has fueled many wonderful conversations and arguments on college campuses, during long car trips, or at the local bar it highlights a dilemma that all leaders face. Do I focus on the success of my team and our services or do I focus on the success of the larger organization, even if it hurts my team or my success?

What if there isn’t a “right” answer and instead it is actually a polarity that you can leverage? In her 2014 post, Leveraging polarities,  Anita introduced the concept of polarity thinking as a tool for leaders to use when facing these types of ongoing dilemmas. A recent article from the Polarity Partnership Group highlights the need to recognize the benefits of supporting the common good AND supporting your team while also acknowledging and acting on the downside of the common good AND the downside of team-focused success.

Over the next month we will be sharing tips and tools you can use to reap the benefits of focusing on the common good in your organization. Yet, in today’s complex environment we must also follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice and “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t a debate between the common good and the good of your team, it is a polarity of the common good and the good of your team.

Todd Thorsgaard

What can I do?

cortana-what-can-i-do-now-100261361-primary.idgeTragedy in Paris and Beirut. What can I do? Refugees with no where to go. What can I do? Homeless in America. What can I do? Climate change. What can I do?

Events worldwide seem overwhelming. Events closer to home also seem overwhelming. Jobs eliminated, programs closed, leadership decisions, health concerns and family disruption all tear at us and our hearts. What can one person do?

That question came up several times during a leadership program I was facilitating recently, what can I do as a leader when I work in a culture that doesn’t support change? What can I do if my manager disagrees with me? What can I do if the budget gets cut?

What can I do?

Steven Covey first answered that question with Habit 1 of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People –  Be Proactive and choose to respond to the realities of the world by focusing our energy and attention on what we can influence. He created an image of our circle of concerns and our circle of influence.

circle of influenceOur circle of concern contains all the realities of the world that we care about. The important parts of our lives and the world that we pay attention to and react to. Our circle of influence includes all the elements of our lives that we can actually affect through our actions. What Covey reminds us is that if we take action on the elements within our circle of influence, instead of only worrying about our concerns, we will actually be able to make a difference and our circle of influence will grow larger.

Within our circle of influence are:

  • the people we work with
  • the work we do
  • how we vote
  • where we donate our time and money
  • the actions we take at work
  • how we communicate and who we communicate with
  • the decisions we make
  • where we spend our time

A co-worker and I were sharing our concern over the Syrian refugee crisis and she mentioned that she had contacted a neighborhood group that was working on sponsoring a refugee family. A small action but one that will make a difference!

In higher education we are quite concerned over how prepared new students are for post-secondary courses and on the decreasing economic support for public higher education. Recently Chancellor Steven Rosenstone challenged us to focus on our circle of influence and consider volunteering to be a tutor in a public K-12 school or to donate one hour of our salary to a scholarship fund at a foundation. Those are examples of taking action within our circle of influence!

As a leader, what is in your circle of concern and how can you take action within your circle of influence to make a difference?

Todd Thorsgaard


Reflect and recharge

Life is goodWelcome to August in Minnesota. This is my view each morning when I am at my cabin in the summer. My coffee cup reminds me to pause and soak in the beauty that surrounds me before I dive into the projects and challenges that a 60 year old building and a 50 year old boat may pose that day.

Our blog, Higher EDge, is also taking a pause during the month of August. Before the academic year starts in a few weeks and students flood onto your campuses we hope that you can reflect and look for opportunities to apply something you have discovered while reading our blog. We have shared ideas and resources on vexing challenges all leaders face, including:

  • Balancing work and home life
  • Building effective teams
  • Focusing on the common good
  • Leading authentically
  • Leading and educating a highly diverse population
  • Driving high performance
  • Leading while managing tightening resources and increasing demands

Reflection provides the time for you to ask questions, challenge your assumptions, and determine what actions you want to take to apply what you have been learning. It is a necessary, but often overlooked, step in active learning.

We also know that all leaders in higher education need a moment to recharge before the day to day demands of the new academic year begin.

Higher EDge will also be back in September, energized and ready to tackle the challenges leaders face.

reflection llPause, reflect and yes – Life is Good!

See you in a month.

Todd Thorsgaard

Leadership is not for the faint of heart

I am very excited to share a guest post today. I heard Dr. Christina Royal, Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at Inver Hills Community College, talk about a life changing practice she has adopted. Her heartfelt story impressed me and I am confident you will also find it valuable. Thank you Christina!

zen-stone-tower_Gkt0x1PdThere is Zen proverb that states: “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”

Leadership in today’s world is not for the faint of heart. The problems of today are more complex, we have fewer resources in which to address the challenges, and our public accountability to our students, our communities, the State, the Federal Government, and our accreditors is at an all-time high. We are all busy, but the problem is that busyness doesn’t necessarily lead to productivity; it can actually have the opposite effect.

Mindfulness and meditation are two tools that may help reduce the busyness and create an awareness that leads to increased performance.

According to a study highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, spending time on thinking and purposeful reflection, rather than solely working, led to greater productivity. Taking just 15 minutes at the end of your day to engage in mindful thought and reflection could lead to a more productive tomorrow.

Meditation may help with sustaining focus and attention to tasks. There was a study conducted in 2012 that studied how meditation training impacted the behaviors of individuals who were multi-tasking at work and found that “those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative feedback after task performance” (Wobbrock, Kaszniak, & Ostergren, 2012).

While meditation may not solve all of your problems, there is research showing how meditation positively affects the brain. If you find that the stress of your job is overwhelming, you may want to consider experimenting with mindfulness or meditation to ease anxiety and improve focus.

Christina Royal

References and Additional Resources:

Di Stefano, G., Gino, F., Pisano, G, & Staats, B. (2014, April). Learning by thinking: How reflection improves performance. Retrieved from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7498.html.

Gina, F., & Staats, B. (2015, April). The remedy for unproductive busyness. Harvard Business Review [online]. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/04/the-remedy-for-unproductive-busyness.

Headspace. (2015). How can mindfulness meditation improve your focus? Retrieved from https://www.headspace.com/science/mindfulness-meditation-focus

Levy, D., Wobbrock, J., Kaszniak, A. & Ostergren, M. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment. Proceedings of Graphics Interface. 45-52.

MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Zanesco, A. P., Jacobs, T. L., Saron, C. D. (2010). Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. Psychological Science. 21, 6. 829-839.

Walton, A. (2015, February). 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/.

The thrill of authentic leadership

jay skate on thin ice“The wonderful and terrifying thing is you always feel a certain amount of risk is involved,” says Lowrie. “When you’re the first to get on it and there are no skate marks, you don’t really know how safe it is. But you know you’re the first.”  (Sag Harbor Express)

Authentic leadership is based on being trustworthy and on trusting others. And trusting others requires risk. You may get hurt or taken advantage of. Yet, as I have learned from my friend, pictured above, taking a risk to skate on the new ice can be worth it. But you need to be smart! That means doing some research and then making a judgement to go for it. The payoff is amazing!

Stephen M.R. Covey describes the same process in his book, Smart Trust. He highlights that leaders must use judgement when extending trust, particularly in the low-trust environment present in many organizations. Understanding our own willingness to trust others, combined with an analysis of the situation, can facilitate the decision to extend trust and be a truly authentic leader.

Covey presents a process and a matrix to help leaders extend trust smartly.

The firstSmart-Trust-Matrix step is to honestly assess our own personal tendency to trust others. Is it high or low?

Next leaders need to analyze the current situation using three variables.

  1. What is the current situation or opportunity? Clearly describe what you are trusting the other person to do.
  2. What is the level of risk? Identify the degree of risk in this situation. This include the possible outcomes, and their likelihood and importance.
  3. What is the credibility of the person? Use your past experience or seek other opinions to determine how much faith you have in the other person.

Opening ourselves up to the transparency and trust required to be authentic can be as scary as skating on thin ice. However, when we combine a willingness to trust others with an analytical process we can make smart decisions and open ourselves up to the thrill of authenticity in our leadership.

Todd Thorsgaard


Too much authenticity?

ball_and_chain_stuck_commitment_responsibility_duty_obligation_stress_struggle_bound_determination_willpower_resolve_fotolia_23966013-100410019-primary.idgeHave you heard yourself, or other leaders, saying “I was just being me,” or “this is my style” at work? Sounds like authenticity, right? However, it can also be a warning sign of TMA, Too Much Authenticity.

Professor Herminia Ibarra, author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader  (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), describes the Authenticity Paradox in the January-February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review.* She highlights two situations that all leaders face and how holding too firm to a self-image can derail success.

Moving into a new role.

Leaders face very different challenges as they move up the leadership pipeline. The scope of issues increase, the risks and rewards are greater and performance expectations change. What worked in the past may not work as well in the new situation. Leaders can stymie the growth and flexibility needed to succeed in their new roles if they don’t try out new responses and behaviors, even if they feel different than “who I am.”

Hearing and processing negative feedback.

Successful leaders often struggle to correctly interpret negative feedback. Not only is it hard to hear it can easily be misinterpreted as a style comment. Focusing on how well a style worked in the past can cause us to dismiss valid feedback or resist trying out new behaviors. New behaviors that may be different than “my view of myself” but important to success and growth.

What to do?

Authentic leadership and being true to yourself requires us to both know who we are and to be willing to revise who we are over time. Too much authenticity can be a code for an unwillingness to try out new behaviors. Ibarra suggests that we adopt a “playful frame of mind.” Actively try new ways of doing something, ask questions differently, work on new projects and explore what you learn about yourself. Stay true to your core values but purposely challenge your view of yourself with unfamiliar action and embrace what you learn.

Todd Thorsgaard

*Jan-Feb 2015 HBR article


Don’t lose control

“It is wisdom to know others. It is enlightenment to know one’s self.” 


Anita highlighted Kevin Cashman’s first touchstone of authentic leadership – Know Ourselves Authentically  – in her post last week.* We must understand what is important to ourselves and how that influences our behavior in order to become a truly authentic leader.

When I am at my best it is pretty easy to look inward, examine my values and priorities, and make choices that support them. It gets much harder to do that when my buttons are being pushed in a conflict or when I disagree with someone. Conflict often causes us to lose control and react  in a way that doesn’t support our values. I’m not even sure I want to know myself then! Yet, these are the times that we can truly demonstrate our ability to stay authentic and make choices aligned with our values.

The five “styles” of resolving conflict identified by Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes Instrument, TKI, can help leaders better understand their immediate reactions when in conflict and use that awareness to stay in control of their reactions. We use this instrument in our leadership development programs at MnSCU. No style is better; we need to be able to use all of them. Having the ability to flex between styles can help us express ourselves authentically.

The five styles represent the unique value each of us place on our own point of view in a conflict and the value we place on preserving the relationship with the other person. While taking the actual assessment is best, asking yourself which style describes your default reaction in conflict can help you better understand yourself.

TKImodelTKI Modes of Conflict**

  1. Competing – Attempt to win the conflict. High value on own point of view, low value on preserving the relationship.
  2. Collaborating – Attempt to work together during conflict. High value on own point of view, high value on preserving the relationship.
  3. Compromising – Attempt to negotiate the conflict. Mid value on own point of view, mid value on preserving the relationship.
  4. Avoiding – Attempt to deflect or sidestep the conflict. Low value on own point of view, low value on preserving the relationship.
  5. Accommodating – Attempt to yield or concur during conflict. Low value on own point of view, high value on preserving the relationship.

Pausing and reflecting on how we lead during conflict can be challenging but the insight will be a powerful part of your authentic leadership journey,

Todd Thorsgaard

* How do you show up in the world?

** Kilmann Diagnostics