Bold, Courageous humility

Pastor Steve Bush started his sermon this morning talking about humility that is bold and courageous.  Those 3 words stuck with me and connected to some other thoughts that had been bouncing around in my head recently.  Chief among those was this C.S. Lewis quote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less”.  I have to admit this is counter-intuitive to folks in my generation as I grew up in the ’80’s and it was all about us!  Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that self-interest is a great driver for our economy a la Adam Smith and Gordon Gekko. There is a definitely something to be said for pursuing what you love and never working a day in your life but I also think there is a dark side to that point of view as well.

There is a slippery slope when we begin to allow ourselves the latitude to value only those things we think are “fun” or “worth our efforts”.  I think this is why so many people fail to quote Smith accurately and omit the word “rational” from self interest in that context.  Smith, as most thinkers were in that day, was sort of a polymath, and most do not realize that his first few works were focused on ethics and charity, not purely economics.  He saw that we are all connected and that, essentially, “a rising tides raises all boats”.  There is much more we can glean from Smith but, alas, that is for another day.

Initially it is hard to reconcile bold, courageous, and humility all in the same sentence because they don’t really “fit” together.

Bold – necessitating courage and daring; challenging

Courageous – the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.

Humility – not proud or arrogant; modest

Can a person be humble, yet bold and courageous?  I think it is quite possible…they KEY is what drives the person to act!  If the person is driven to action for the benefit of others, then we would see someone exhibiting a bold and courageous humility.  There is a long list of people who would fit this description.  (People like, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi,  & Dietrich Bonhoeffer just to name a few.)  People who act for the greater good sometimes without regard for their own safety.

So does this mean that us regular folks could not also act with a bold and courageous humility?  I think we can but I also think it takes breaking out of the “me” mindset that is supported and touted by western society!  I am not talking about denouncing anything or swearing off money. Simply examining our motivators when it comes to our actions and ensuring that we are acting from the core of who we are and not just thinking about “what’s in it for me” all of the time.  The great college basksetball coach John Wooden‘s leadership philosophy was cited in this article by Michael Lee Stallard which focused on the following 3 components:

  1. Caring for the people you lead.
  2. Teaching and developing their character and competence
  3. Maintaining the attitude that a life not lived for others is a life not lived.

I think you would agree that someone who focused on these 3 things would clearly exhibit bold, courageous humility.  It would be bold and courageous because society would not necessarily view this as “right” because we are all about what we want and how things look…we are very concerned about the “optics”.  We need the right house, the right car, the right salary, the right “stuff”. Unfortunately we are concerned much more with the “what” than the “how” and that is my point.  Leaders (and anyone who influences someone else is a leader) must focus more on the “how”.  The end does not justify the means.  We cannot continue to pursue goals regardless of the cost.  I would argue that if we select the “right ” goals, they always present us with the right “how”.

For many years I chased all of the wrong things for the wrong reasons…in fact I am not sure I even had a reason.  I was used to “winning”, and that was the only objective.  I convinced myself that thinking about what job I wanted and being self-fulfilled would somehow trickle down and be better for my family as well…what a joke!  Several years ago I had an epiphany and that was there were only two jobs on this earth that God had put me here to do and those were to be a husband to my wife and a father to my children.  As Lewis said, “don’t think less of yourself, think of yourself less”.  The funny thing is that this brought me freedom because I was now focused outwardly and things became much clearer to me.  I no longer agonized about what other’s thought because I was thinking about what was best for those I cared about and when that was the goal, the decisions flowed effortlessly.

The best closing I can offer is this link to a TED talk by Coach Wooden on his thoughts on the difference between winning and success.  He was 90 years old at the time it was recorded and his clarity is amazing.  It is a testimony to a life spent focused on refining his vision and pursuing it relentlessly…we should all be so lucky!

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Thoughts on embracing “the wilderness”

I recently read “5 Counter-intuitive Habits of Truly Authentic Leaders”, by Maseena Ziegler and #4 on her list, “”They use their time in the wilderness well”, really hit home with me.  It is safe to say that all “wilderness” metaphors are derived from the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt and spending 40 years wandering in the wilderness before being allowed into the Promised Land.  What follows are my synaptic connections with “being the wilderness”.

  • For me, being in the wilderness is all about change and no one covers this better than William Bridges in his seminal work, “Getting them Through the Wilderness (A Leader’s Guide to Change”.  Using the story of Moses, he provides an actual workbook for the people side of change as well as examples and ideas of addressing these challenges.  The connection with Ziegler’s article is Bridges’ “neutral zone”.  This is what he refers to as the space between the letting go of the old and beginning the new and it is not a place people normally want to occupy for very long.  It is uncomfortable and ambiguous and these are things we do not like.  We seek homeostasis which is when a system is constant and predictable.  As a rule, people do not like when things are in a state of flux.  There is no better example of this than going on a road trip with kids (and some adults) and being constantly asked,”Are we there yet?”  The downside to this desire is that creativity, growth, and change happen in the wilderness so if we avoid the wilderness, we avoid these opportunities (which is why it made the list of “counter-intuitive habits”).  This is also seen in another model called the “j-curve”.  Here we see that when we want to change something (policies, processes, or learn new skills) we will normally see a decrease in output in the short term while these changes are incorporated in the system and then we will see increased output and greater levels of success.  The problem is that most people expect instant gratification and we are not wired to accept any type of dip in performance. When it comes to this, we just have to remember that we cannot go from mountaintop to mountaintop without going down into the valley.
  • We can also find insights and thought provoking works on the wilderness from American poet William Stafford in his work “Traveling Through The Dark”.  In this poem Stafford relates the anguished story of hitting a doe with his car and determining the deer was pregnant but still makes the decision to push the carcass (unborn fawn and all) into the river below as was common practice on this dangerous road.  The final two lines of the poem are, “I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,   then pushed her over the edge into the river.”  In the wilderness, we are often faced with heartbreaking decisions that not only impact of us but others as well.  The reality is that when these situations happen, a person has to make the decision and live with the results. This is where Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism are brought into play and we see that it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice the few so that the many survive.  This philosophy was also championed in modern pop culture by Mr. Spock in The Wrath of Kahn.
  • Robert Frost also provides insights into the need for the wilderness in his poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  This very simple yet powerful poem shows the innate “need for time to reflect” engaged in battle with “the need to work”.  The final stanza beautifully summarizes the human condition, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep,  And miles to go before I sleep.” I believe we all have the pull within us when we are in our own version of “the woods” seeking solace from our respective “promises”.

Regardless of context, we all need “the wilderness” in our lives in both a metaphoric and real way.  In order to grow, we need quiet time to disconnect and reflect on our lives.  If we are constantly doing, we are not thinking and we need to think (don’t take my word for it, check out Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory).  In order to do this we need to disengage from the “do more” mentality and stop measuring success by how many things we check off the list.  As Einstein was credited with saying, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”.
We have to fight the need for psychological comfort and seek the wilderness on our terms or we may be thrust into it by someone else.  We can never rest and think we have reached our home and the wilderness cannot be held at bay because it will find its way into our lives.

There is perhaps no better way to conclude this trip down the rabbit hole than with quotes from both Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Campbell

“Being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol’ dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!”  (Nietzsche)

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” (Campbell)

Here’s to hoping you are never the same again!

 

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Letting your actions speak

“Don’t talk. What you are thunders so loudly above what you say that I cannot hear you.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

We often worry about communicating with our teams about goals, strategies, and even tactics.  We spend an inordinate amount of time wordsmithing memos and emails about the next big project to ensure that we have the appropriate buzzwords and are also politically correct.  Don’t get me wrong, I think clear and concise communication is the single most important element of success BUT it does not and cannot take the place of ACTION (which I define as activity directed towards a goal).

Honestly, it is much easier to show others what you value instead of telling them.  In fact, if you really want to know what someone values, you only need look at their calendar and checkbook (think about that one for a minute).  I am the president/coo of a small business and I purposely used lower case letters in the title because the title (while necessary) is not reflective of what I do.  My role is really “hurdle remover” for the 20 or so folks on the team who actually take care of our patients.  In fact, my goal is to ensure no one really knows what I do because all of my work is directed toward ensuring their work goes smoothly.  So today, an opportunity came up to show what I value in our business.  Since you have not been privy to our exceptionally well written internal communications these past 2 years (some self-deprecating humor never hurts),  I will tell you that my main focus is ensuring that we provide an exceptional patient experience.

With this in mind, I had been copied on an email yesterday that outlined an issue one of our patients was experiencing.  They needed a hearing aid repaired due to a series of unfortunate events.  Through some mis-communication, an issue had arisen…they were leaving town for 10 days next week (on Tuesday) and the hearing aid was not going to be back till Monday and the person in that office that could assist was not in Monday.  I was discussing with our front office staff and it was clear to me that we needed to ensure that our patient concern was addressed.  Theoretically, everything should be fine as the repaired aid would be re-set to the patient’s setting and all would be well.  Even if that was the case, the patient would feel much better is there were someone there to assure this was the case since they were going to be leaving town and needed the aids so they could enjoy their trip.  All it took was an email and a phone call and now we have one of our other team members (from another office) coming over to meet with this patient between appointments at their office on Monday.

This was not a complicated issue and I am glad that I was there to facilitate the process as I just started the ball rolling and everybody else took it from there.  My hope is that those involved will understand the “why” of this situation and not worry about the “how”.  I realize Nietzsche was not speaking about businesses but he was on point when he said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”   Clear goals really to simplify things because it allows us to make very quick decisions about situations and that is a tremendous advantage given how quickly things change.

As leaders, we should strive to:

  • Provide clear organizational goals (hint…revenue is not a goal is a result of achieving a goal…)
  • Show the team in practical terms how these goals are accomplished (at both the strategic and tactical levels)
  • Refer back to the goals often and change them if necessary
  • Tie rewards to the accomplishment of these goals

I know it doesn’t sound complicated but as I am fond of saying, “it is simple, just not easy”

 

 

 

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What the NBA Draft teaches us about strategy

This past Thursday was the NBA draft and for week or so leading up to it, you could not turn on a sports program without hearing the multitude of theories as to who was going to be selected first and why.  While the actual results of the draft are largely uninteresting, the process itself provided a fantastic lesson in the most fundamental rules of strategy…you cannot plan in a vacuum!

Helmut von Moltke, a 19th century German field-marshal, was credited with saying “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”  This was front and center during all draft discussions because underlying each teams’ strategy was their assumption on what all of the other teams would do as well.  At issue was essentially a poker game where each team was making bets on what they thought their opponents might do next.  This is why there is always so much activity during the draft itself because everyone has to react to the actions of others.

This is something we can sometimes lose sight of in business as we can become myopic and become so internally focused that we forget we are not alone.  Any strategy is essentially a bet on a particular future BUT that also includes a number of assumptions regarding our industry and our competition.  If any of these of assumptions are incorrect, then our bet might not pay off. This is why it is so critical that we hone our ability to scan the environment because ripples that go unnoticed can develop in waves and one of those might turn into a rogue wave and it only takes one of these to seriously ruin your day.

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It really should not be this difficult

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”  – Albert Einstein

“Recognizing power in another does not diminish your own.” – Joss Whedon

“As a general rule…people ask for advice only in order not to follow it; or if they do follow it, in order to have someone to blame for giving it.” – Alexander Dumas

“Of all the forces in the universe, the hardest to overcome is the force of habit.” – Terry Pratchett

“If a person can build a fence around himself, he is bound to do it.”  – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I wanted to begin with this collage of quotes to place context to my observation that we tend to make things much more difficult than they really need to be.  I am fascinated by this because there are so many things we cannot control, you would think that the last we want to do is create our own set of problems that could further exacerbate an already challenging project.

Over the last 10 days, I have seen the following:

  • Lack of communication that has lead to frustration and will require additional investments of both time and money as a result
  • Spur of the moment decision making without discussion with others involved which could negatively impact the chances for long term success of the project
  • Making decisions based on assumptions/personal opinions and, to make matters worse, avoiding/ignoring actual available data
  • Overall lack of concern for others involved in the process
  • Abandonment of duties once it was clear the project was not going to meet expectations
  • Failure to establish any metrics of success before beginning
  • Taking shortcuts to save money resulting in total expenditures greater than those budgeted originally
  • Avoidance of post project discussion /blaming others for lack of commitment

While all of these are significant issues, the most dramatic impact has been on the human beings involved in the process.  The challenge now is to try to shift their focus from failure to success and get back to the business of helping others as that is the primary mission of the organization.  It will not be easy as they do not feel valued right now given recent events and it will take time and effort to heal these wounds.

It is quite amazing to me that there are still leaders (and I use that term loosely) in organizations who do not realize that the only sustainable competitive advantage of any business is people.  Obviously that knife cuts both ways because people (all of us) are  emotional, opinionated, stubborn, quirky, and a myriad of other things…but we also do amazing things are willing to go above and beyond what is required or expected when we feel appreciated, respected, and valued.

All we have to do is realize that with every interaction we have with others there are only 2 options...build up or tear down.  Which would you choose?

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Filed under Looking in the mirror, Real Life, The Human Condition

pursuing contentment

What are we all looking for?  Do we really know what “we” want?  I would challenge that often we are so busy pursuing things that we fail to stop and question the pursuit itself.  We are taught from a young age to achieve, strive, and win…so often at the cost of our health and happiness.  I am not condemning the idea of striving for something better…just think we should be clear on our individual and collective definition of “better”.  I think William Henry Channing said it better than I ever could…“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”

When will you be content?

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Has your canary stopped singing?

When is “business as usual” not “business as usual”?  No one wants to be an alarmist but when must you?  I suppose the bigger challenge is how to do it constructively so people will listen?  It was probably easier in the coal mines when the canary died…that meant there was a build up of carbon monoxide and it was time to get out!  I am betting no one said, “We had canaries die before and nothing happened.”  When the singing stopped, people got out.

The core issue here is goes all the way back to Isaac Newton and his 1st law.  I believe his law applies to both objects and people because we all tend to avoid change unless acted on by an outside force.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the we tend to base our decisions on what “has been” and usually only look at data points that support our current worldview.  Hence the challenge with change…why change if we are doing all the right things?

We can also bring Mr. Darwin into the conversation because of his often mis-quoted line about survival of the fittest.  Sometimes folks want to say the strongest survive and others want to focus on the most adaptable.  Truth is Darwin never said this but we can still find insights from the thought.  We try to simplify things down to sound bites but the assumption regarding adaptability is what we should focus on…the need to adapt is driven by an ever changing environment and that brings us back to the canary.

It would be great if we had our own unique business canary that could warn us when our environment was changing and was no longer safe.  Perhaps then we would acknowledge that our business strategies were flawed or possibly out of date?  Would we be more prone to act if the canary swooned when it saw the most recent cash flow statement?

“A canary, a canary, my kingdom for a canary!” (This bastardization of Shakespeare’s Richard III works on multiple levels…)

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