Category Archives: Leadership

Step 1: Get over yourself

The four little words you need to embrace in order to be your best?  “I LOVE TO FAIL!”

Until you are comfortable with this concept, your greatest accomplishments will be just beyond you reach.  You simply cannot be your best if you are doing it all right all the time.

The challenge we face is getting out of our own head and developing the willingness to be wrong.  We are all products of our environments and from kindergarten through college we were rewarded for being right and punished for being wrong.  We were graded every step of the way and we learned to only hold up our hands if we knew the answer because the last thing anyone wanted to hear from the teacher was “you are wrong”.  We were taught to feel shame for this and it is something we learned very quickly to avoid.

The problem we struggle with after school is that the world doesn’t work like this but we are too fragile to do it any other way.  We seek and are comforted by the approval of those we perceive to have authority over us.  The list is very long and includes our parents, friends, spouses, significant others, bosses, co-workers, etc, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not their fault…IT IS OURS!  We give them the power and then become angry, frustrated, and even bitter when they use it.  We look for people to blame so that we never had to look at ourselves in the mirror and admit we gave up.   We are disgusted that somewhere along the line, we lost our self-worth and allowed the world to tell us our value.  This is why we avoid failing and take no chances…we are afraid that what we do defines who we are.  We are not confident enough in ourselves to commit to action unless it is a guaranteed success because we cannot withstand criticism.  Our fragile egos cannot handle someone’s opinion because we are somehow totally dependent on what others think instead of evaluating our own actions against our own standards.  Before you listen to anyone else consider these questions:

  • Why would you give more weight to someone’s opinion if all they are doing is telling you all the reasons you should not have done something?
  • What have they done to earn the right to offer your their opinion?
  • Did you ask for it?  When is the last time they tried something and failed…and tried again?
  • Is anything they are saying the slightest bit positive?
  • Is everything they are sharing coming from their own fear and shame?
  • Are they recommending you give up and accept your fate?

If they are, maybe you should stop talking to them!  Maybe your problem is that you have surrounded yourself with people who do not strive to learn and grow?  Maybe you are now just like everyone else and have become so delicate that you cannot withstand any shock to your ego?  I want to stress that this is only a problem if you want to achieve your potential.  If you are completely happy with your current level of performance in all aspects of our life, then please disregard everything I have shared and enjoy the rest of your charmed life!

If reading this has made you uncomfortable and upset, then you get it and I hope you are willing to do something about it.  If you want to, here are a few things you can try:

  1. Quit worrying about your “image” and what others think of you
  2. Spend some time figuring out who you are (or most specifically, who you were) and understand what that means to you and those close to you
  3. Figure out how to be more “you” than you have been in recent years
  4. Find your strength in you and not from others
  5. Begin acting in alignment with who you are and see how that feels.  There is no right or wrong (so long as it’s legal) so don’t be afraid to take some risks
  6. Find ways to FAIL more quickly and you will soon find that it feels quite good because at least you TRIED
  7. LEARN from your mistakes and continue to pursue your own version of excellence
  8. Find people who believe what you believe and create your own “tribe”

I leave you with these two thoughts from Teddy Roosevelt because he said it much more eloquently than I can…

“It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”  “

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”


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Filed under Futuring, Leadership, Learning, Looking in the mirror, The Human Condition

Do your damn job…don’t just talk about it!

Here’s the thing, no one wants to really take accountability for “doing” the work so we spew platitudes like:

  • “Our people are our most important resource”
  • “We value our customer/client relationships”
  • “Our vision is…(fill in the blank)”
  • “Our values are…”
  • Any sentence that contains any form of the word strategy, vision, or leader

(If you would like a comprehensive list, Scott Berkun put together a pretty good one and Eric Jackson also created a killer list of things to say that would all score pretty well if you were playing “buzzword bingo”)

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Your actions thunder so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.”.  I believe that if we spent less time thinking about how to tell people what we are doing and simply did it; our lives, and the lives of others, would be more meaningful (for us) and impactful (to them).

Here are some thoughts on how to get shit done:

  • Have a vision for each of the people who report to you and not just a vision for the company
    • Share your vision of them with them and challenge them to see it…and then get buy-in from them to work towards it. If you do this one thing, retention takes care of itself
  • Talk to people and not about them
    • If someone’s name comes up during a meeting in terms of performance demand there be a meeting date set and action plan created to address the issue with measureable goals and then move on
  • Ask customers/clients/employees what they think and don’t assume or spent time trying to figure it out
  • Step out from behind your desk and venture into the world to find out what your competition is doing and where your industry is headed
  • Ask questions you don’t already know the answers and truly listen to the responses AND then take actions based on what you have learned
    • Show your people that you are learning every day which creates the expectation they do the same
  • Focus on creating a sustainable organization and not just making as much money as you can right now (this requires balance and sacrifice in equal measures)
  • Create engaging work that pays well and stop worrying about morale or making people happy (happiness is choice each individual has to make)
  • Be clear and concise with your expectations and write it down
    • Victims love vagueness
  • Hold yourself and others accountable for commitments
    • This one action, if consistently applied, will change people’s lives because it shows them what they are capable of achieving
  • Understand what winning looks like for you, your team, and the organization and ensure there is alignment
    • I don’t know about your company but not many are in business just for practice
  • Focus on output, not time
    • Don’t reward people who work longer hours but get less done
  • Teach your team how to manage their energy and focus (once you can manage your own)
  • Create an environment where people engage in meaningful conversations about important topics because they care about each other
    • If you are uncomfortable having these types of conversations, then you don’t really care about your people…end of story
  • Ensure people can separate themselves from their work so when there are discussions about performance it is constructive and not a personal attack (again because if people care about people, then they will want to help them by telling them the truth)

One last platitude to consider…

“If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

It is not and that is why not many do. 


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Filed under Leadership, Looking in the mirror

Only 162 Days Left…

SandsOfTime2I am sure you are wondering how there are only 32 weeks of work left in 2017.  How can that be you ask incredulously since that would mean the year was 40% over but we just finished Q1?

The way I figure it our work year grinds to a halt on the Friday before Thanksgiving.  Once we hit Thanksgiving, everything is more or less on hold until sometime mid-January.  So that means that we have from Monday, April 3 until Friday, November 17 to ensure we make shit happen!

Being candid and honest about our work helps dramatically when it comes to establishing our collective sense of urgency.  I believe the challenge is determining how to work both efficiently and effectively in the time that we have.  We cannot manufacture more time, we can only use the time we have and that takes maniacal focus.

Here are a few things to consider when planning out the balance of our year:

  • Say “NO” often and emphatically –  Wildly successful organizations say NO far more than they say YES.  Once you have clarity on what you will do, it shortens the conversation about things you could do…and that saves both time + energy for everyone.
  • Relinquish “control” (you never had it to begin with) – Much energy is expended when we continue to “make things happen” that are simply not going to happen.  It is like we are standing in a hallway full of doors and continue to bang on the one door we think should open all the while a number of other doors up and down the hall are opening and closing but we just can’t see them because we are too busy trying to make “our” door open.
  • Be brutally honest about your expectations – Don’t screw with your team and have a goal + a stretch goal…stretch goals are stupid and a waste of time.  Clarity is the single biggest gift you can give to your team.  Don’t confuse everyone with multiple goals with dumb names.  Tell them what you expect, provide them with the resources and training to achieve it, and lead them to it!
  • Push people to their limits…and beyond – Provide safety but not comfort…that’s it!
  • Have ONE PRIORITY – The word priority was never meant to be plural.  In fact, it was not pluralized until sometime around the 1940’s!  Pick the most important thing and ruthlessly pursue it.  Once you achieve that, then move on to the next thing.

In the next 162 days, what will you accomplish?

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Filed under Decision Making, Leadership

5 Questions Every Leader Needs To Ask…themselves


There are obviously more than just 5 questions for business leaders but I think the following speak to the core challenges of those who are tasked with driving revenues in our hyper connected and data rich world.

  1. Where is your industry headed? Don’t get myopic and lose of sight of the world outside your four walls because, as Bob Dylan lamented, “The world…it is a-changing.” How are your staying abreast of the change and innovation in your world? When was the last time you looked at your customer’s business? What is in store for them will eventually impact you! It all flows downstream…
  2. What visibility do you have of the actual costs and their growth rates in your business? I am often shocked at how little C-level folks actually know about their costs first-hand. They see things on a P&L but often they have delegated (read this as abdicated) responsibilities for managing these to others who may lack the context and understanding to see the conditions forming that might produce that rogue wave that decimates the bottom line.
  3. How are you addressing the gaps in the skills of your executive team to ensure they can meet (exceed) the challenges in your business now and in the future? Notice that the question is not about identifying them…they are already there. What are you doing about them? Have your formally discussed them? Are they written down? Do they even know they have gaps? What is the plan to address them? What is the timeline? If you are you not moving forward, you are sliding backwards because there is no neutral when it comes to talent development.
  4. What is your organizational decision making process? How does your team identify and make critical decisions? Do you know how each member of your team identifies challenges? Do they wait for someone else (like you) to bring it up or are they proactively seeking out “disturbances in the force”? When they do sense something is wrong…what do they do about? What is your organizational process? (check out the root of “decide”) Are you comfortable with each person’s process? If not, what are doing about it?
  5. If nothing changes, how likely is it that business succeeds? I think we all know the answer to this…

Just remember, if it were easy everyone would do it (it’s not and they don’t) so be in the minority and be proud to call yourself a pragmatic malcontent (you will understand this if you have read my other posts…if not shame on your for not reading my other posts;)

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Filed under Decision Making, Leadership

Heroic Leader or humble gardener?

Serendipity…that is only way I can explain it. How else can you describe Joi Ito and General Stanley McChrystal both saying that being a leader in the 21st century is more like being a gardener?  I was finishing “Team of Teams – New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World” and starting “Whiplash – How to Survive our Faster Future” and the analogy of “leader as gardener” is prominent in both. I was not shocked to read it from Joi Ito as the Director of the MIT Media Lab but I was somewhat surprised to see that General McChrystal, a retired four-start general whose last assignment was commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, embrace the idea.

I think what led them both to this concept was their understanding that we work and live in ecosystems and the very nature of an ecosystems makes the “command & control” theory of leadership obsolete. (If you are interested, you can read what Harvard Magazine, Forbes and Accenture all have to say about business ecosystems.)

Following is what General McChrystal wrote about the challenge inherent in addressing a new paradigm and I think it will resonate with many of us.

“Although I recognized its necessity, the mental transition from heroic leader to humble gardener was not a comfortable one.  From the first day at West Point I’d been trained to develop personal expectations and behaviors that reflected professional competence, decisiveness, and self-confidence.  If adequately informed, I expected myself to have the right answers and deliver them to my force with assurance.  Failure to do that would reflect weakness and invite doubts about my relevance.  I felt intense pressure to fulfill my role of chess master for which I had spent a lifetime preparing.”

I think Joi Ito’s transition was a bit smoother due to his background but here is how he described it.

“In fact, in many ways, the word leading probably invoked the wrong image, since we often think of our leaders as having a tremendous amount of control and direct power.  Leading the Media Lab is more like being a gardener than being a CEO – watering the plants, tending to the compost, trimming hedges, and getting out of the way so that the explosion of creativity and life of all of the plants and wildlife in the garden are allowed to flourish….We have to become comfortable with the idea that we are not in control, that we can’t anticipate or even know everything that is going on, but we can still be confident and courageous. This allows us to embrace a diversity in thinking, approach, and timescales, and not force everything to be over-synchronized.”

These thoughts on leadership are not a stretch for me because I have long believed that the act of leading is like farming (gardening on a larger scale I guess) for the following reasons:

  • Control and ownership – You don’t really “own” the land as much as you work symbiotically with it to produce a result.  The only one in control is nature as many of the variables are far outside of your control and you can only develop a plan and contingencies but what actually happens is well beyond your ability to control.  It is much more about stewardship that anything.  You are entrusted with resources and the goal is to care for it while you are there and leave it better than you found it upon your departure.
  • Preparation & perseverance are key – There is definitely a cycle you follow and you have to be ready when the weather breaks and then you work till the work is done.  Your timeline really does not matter because the crops are ready when they are ready and not when you have the time to take care of them.  Prepping the soil, planting, fertilizing, and harvesting happen when all of the conditions are right and not before or after regardless of what you might have going on.  Also, once the works starts there is no stopping until the task is done…that’s why there are headlights on tractors.
  • Nature & nurture – It is obvious early on that you need to be aware and understanding of the “signs” that nature gives you if you are to be successful.  If you are aware, you can develop an understanding of the natural process and also accept that it happens on its own schedule without regard for your needs and wants.  That does not mean you can abdicate your responsibilities.  It means that you sense when opportunities arise and you continue to nurture the crops in an effort to produce the best possible outcome.  Nurturing is delicate work because you must strike the balance between ignoring and smothering.
  • Doing all the right things but still failing – There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you have the right things on the list and checking them all off…and still failing!  This is the ultimate lesson because it is when the universe lets you know that there is a master plan and you are not the master planner.  This is also when you finally realize that you cannot “make” anything happen and sometimes the harder you try to worse it gets.

I could not agree more with General McChrystal and Mr. Ito.  The interconnectedness we experience today will only continue to increase so we have to develop the skills that will enable us to succeed in an ever widening ecosystem and these are not the industrial age management and leadership skills we still see employed today.  Ecosystem leadership skills will be:

  1. productively disrupting the system
  2. internalizing feedback
  3. reorienting and recalculating
  4. leveraging energy (generated from the disruption) to move ahead
  5. rinsing and repeating

Question:  Are you ready to transform from “heroic leader” to “humble gardener”?

Answer:  It doesn’t matter because the ecosystem is not waiting on you because you are not in control.



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Filed under Emergence, Leadership, Looking in the mirror, Organizations

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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Filed under Leadership, The Human Condition

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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Filed under Leadership, Small(er) Business, Strategy