Thoughts on Leadership

“He who cannot be a good follower, cannot be a good leader” ~ Aristotle.

Great leaders possess empathy and emotional intelligence. Caring enough to ask, and then listening, is the beginning for all great leaders. Charting a course that depends upon the contributions of others requires courage, fortitude and judgement. Leaders understand they are nothing without followers. Great leaders know that their success depends on the relationships they have with those followers. Trust, respect, and caring are ingredients that strengthen the bond between a leader and his, or her followers.

People want to know how much you care before caring about how much you know. Asking versus telling, guiding versus directing, teaching versus demanding, coaching versus demeaning…these are just some ways to demonstrate great leadership.

Leading others requires the leader to be vulnerable. It requires experience and judgement. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. There’s no shortcutting experience. You make the best decisions you can given the information at hand. Hindsight will always be 20/20, but we must live in the present which means the possibility of making a bad decision exists for each of us every day.

Embrace the learning. Be curious. Engage others and listen…truly listen. Open your mind to new perspectives. Create a list of leaders you admire and the attributes they possess that you strive to emulate. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable is the path to growth. Try many things. Fail fast. Don’t worry about being wrong. Nothing of greatness has ever been created on the first attempt. Diamonds take billions of years to create. The first mobile phone was a brick. The first car came in only black and had no windshield wipers. Progress takes time. The key is to keep moving, observing, doing, learning, adjusting. Trying to live life without failure is a wasted life. Life without failure is a blank canvas.

“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” ~ C. S. Lewis

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Never Settle

RichardBranson

Having a beginners attitude is a difference maker for great leaders.  They approach life with curiosity, questions, intrigue.  They believe anything is possible. They’re not afraid to try new things.  Their interest in learning and exploring is genuine, and it sends a strong signal to others who have a passion for innovation and invention, acting like a magnet.  These are the leaders that attract the best and brightest talent.

Real leaders are always preparing. They are in constant “getting ready” mode. They are always “on their way”, having not yet arrived, and as far as they’re concerned they never will.  In fact they believe if they finally do arrive it’s game over.  They never settle.  They never check the “all done” box. Real leaders are constantly looking for new challenges, new problems to solve, and new roles that push them out of their comfort zone – because that’s where the learning happens.

Nothing worth while in life happens without risk. No home run has ever been hit without taking a swing. The light bulb wouldn’t be here if Edison didn’t take a risk, both financially and scientifically.  Great leaders are comfortable with taking risk.  These risk-takers are not careless.  Far from it.  Rather they are prepared for it.  They believe in themselves, the skills they’ve developed, and their intuition.  They are comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So when someone offers you an opportunity do something different, think about it.  Push yourself to get comfortable outside of your comfort zone. Don’t shy away from a challenge.  It’s far more risky to remain static than it is to change. Don’t settle.  Be curious.

What It Means To Lean In

Trapeze

Life happens.  We have ups and downs, good times and bad, successes and failures.  It’s easy to be positive and happy when all’s going well but the reality is that nothing goes perfect forever.  Eventually even the best of us, the hardest working among us, and the most optimistic will be tested.  That’s life.  How we deal with those tests determine our success, state of mind, and fulfillment.  Notice I said fulfillment and not happiness.  Fulfillment in life comes from experiencing all life has to offer including the good and bad.  We learn and grow far more from our failures and the bad stuff than the good.  It’s during the times we are tested the hardest that our character comes to light and we grow as human beings. So how do you handle the bad times?  How do you deal with some of the tests life throws your way?  You lean in.

Years ago I was working through a rather difficult period in my career.  I was running Sales for a company that was in turnaround mode.  The company had experienced some success but was on the ropes with just about everything seeming to go wrong.  Sales and service were both failing and cash was tight.  Our employee morale was withering away to nothing.  With each stumble there were layoffs and cutbacks which led to a growing distrust across the employee population.  I had never seen anything like it before, and what had worked for me in the past wasn’t working now.  Frustration was running high and doubt was setting in.  That’s when I talked to Jeff.

I shared my thoughts and concerns with Jeff, a Board member and mentor.  I walked him through my plans, my thought process, and my confidence level relative to making the turnaround.  As a hugely successful entrepreneur, businessman, and corporate CEO, Jeff listened, sat back and said, “You’ve got all the right pieces. You’ve thought everything through.  Now you’ve got to lean in.”  This was the first time I had heard this phrase.  It certainly sounded good coming from Jeff but I needed to understand exactly what he meant by it, so I asked.

Leaning in, is about positive momentum.  If you’re on your heels self-doubt and second guessing quickly set in and you’ll surely fail.  You could have developed the best plans possible but failure will still visit you because you lacked conviction. Fear of failure causes us to lean back.  Failure makes us second guess ourselves and those around us.  It makes us focus on the wrong things.  When we lean back we’re looking for a way out, an excuse, someone to blame. We often get caught up in worrying about how others will perceive us should our plans not work out.  Fear that our personal reputation will be tarnished. And by leaning back we don’t fully commit.  We have one foot in and one out.  We’re the trapeze performer with a safety net under us.

In listening to me Jeff sensed I was leaning back.  He knew I had put a great deal of thought into the plan I developed.  He knew I identified the most probable risks and put plans in place to mitigate them.  But I was still leaning back.  He stressed the importance of leaning in.  He said, “Imagine you have no safety net under you.  What would you do?” And then he said the one thing that all great leaders don’t just say but demonstrate…he said, “Joe, I support everything you’re doing.”  Those words, backed-up by my faith and trust in him as a leader, gave me the added strength I needed to lean in.  To commit and not look back.

So when tough times arrive, or when everything seem to be going wrong, lean in.  Way in.  Imagine not having the safety net and that’s when you’ll realize that failure is not an option and you’ll make a bad situation into a good one. And most importantly find your “Jeff”.  A mentor is an absolute necessity to help you navigate the stormy waves of life.

What it Means to be Authentic

Authentic

You’re nervous, scared.  You’re breathing is shallow and you’re beginning to sweat.  Your mind is racing but you can’t seem to find an answer to your problem that makes you feel good.  In fact all you see in front of you are choices that are not so good and plain bad.  You start weighing the outcomes of each choice in terms of personal perception.  How will I be viewed if I make this decision or that decision?  How popular or unpopular will I be for making such a decision?  Will my boss support me?  How about my wife/husband, my friends, my parents, my kids?  Your emotions reach a crescendo and you feel you’re about to collapse.  What now?

Try this interesting test.  It’s a simple and fast test that requires answering just one question no matter how difficult the decision is you are facing.  It can serve as your decision starter.

What would I do if I didn’t have to worry about any one persons reaction or perception of me based upon the decision I make?  Sure this sounds unfair but if you begin every decision thinking first about what others will think of you then you’re likely to arrive at the wrong place.  Like politicians that look at polls before deciding on their personal stance on an issue, people who worry more about what others think rather than doing the right thing will ultimately experience a short life cycle as a leader.

Authentic leaders don’t worry about what others think.  Not that they set out to offend, hurt, or alienate themselves from others but they instead focus on being true to themselves first.  After all, that’s what makes an authentic leader so appealing to follow.  You always know where they stand on an issue today and tomorrow.  They don’t waiver or pander.  They simply establish their position, communicate it effectively and stick to it.  If they do change their position it is backed up by facts and tangible learnings that justify their change.  Not at all based upon opinion polls, or pressure from stakeholders or markets.

They have a sense of intelligent fearlessness.  They are smart enough to understand where the pitfalls are but effective enough to lead through, around, or over them.  They are mindful of cause and effect and focus on communicating both the why and the implications of their decisions.  They are often times seen as bold, courageous, and confidence.  They use their intelligence to assess the situation and select the best approach.  Their intelligence coupled with their confidence in conviction allow them to lead others fearlessly toward the goal.  This does not mean carelessly.  The difference here is that an authentic leader through their personal intellect and confidence are able to make tough decisions without fear, while leaders whose only strength is to pander to public opinion live in constant fear of being judged.  As such the leader who lives in fear is always looking to make the decision that allows them to place or shift blame elsewhere.  To have cover when the sky begins to fall.  Authentic leaders understand the risks and have no problems being held accountable to their decisions.

Recently Kathleen Sebelius was replaced as the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).  In the interviews that have followed since her removal from office she stated that they had got it (the website http://www.healthcare.gov) readiness wrong.  It should have never been promised to roll out in October 2013.  Yet video clip after clip shows Sebelius saying with conviction it will be ready.  It is ready.  It’s working.  It’s right.  So where was her authenticity as a leader?  Where was her courage?  Unfortunately like so many others in leadership positions she sacrificed her authenticity for popularity.  If only people would realize that popularity is fickle.  Eventually inauthentic decisions and the leaders who made them always show themselves but by that time both have been cast as failures.  If only we could stay true, stay firm, stay authentic from the start.

Why Failure is Your Friend

Failure

Years ago I read the book Failing Forward by John Maxwell and it had a profound impact on my life. I grew up in an ultra competitive home where me and my sisters were raised to believe that failure was not an option. As I entered the workforce and began my career I carried this belief with me only to learn, in short order, that failures can happen regardless of the actions taken.

From bad bosses (you know who you were), to poorly run companies (you know who you were as well) to jobs I simply didn’t like, failure began to approach my doorstep uninvited. I worked hard, pressed forward, acted with persistence and determination and still experienced my share of failures.  I’ve missed sales numbers, hired the wrong people, and had sales and marketing campaigns fall flat.  Yup, I’ve seen my share of failures.

Sometime after turning 40 I began to view things differently. For the first time I was able to look back at my failures not as failures but as critical learning events that took place at a moment in time. I’ve been battle tested, failed at times, yet have come out stronger each and every time.

We learn when we fail. In fact I’d argue the quality of education we get from failure is vastly better than the education we get from success. Success is simply the culmination of multiple failures. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The greatest inventions ever were the result of countless failures. Many of the world’s most deadly diseases were cured only after countless failures while looking for a cure. Thomas Edison once said he it took more than 10,000 tries to invent the light bulb.  What if he gave up at 9,000?  I’d hate to think I’d be writing this in the dark.

The point is that we learn from our failures…if we allow ourselves to.  Here are 3 things that failure helps to improve:

  1. Decision making.  Making decisions is a tough business.  It requires speed, thoughtfulness, intuition, and experience.  Experience comes through both failure and success.  The more you have of both the better decisions you will make.
  2. Mental health.  The sooner you embrace failures as your friend and not your enemy the quicker you’ll be able to look at failure for what it is…a teacher.  You fall off your bike and you know it’s not the end of the world so you get back on.  You get laid off from a job and find another so now you know that losing a job isn’t a life sentence.
  3. Leadership.  Personally I want to work for someone who’s failed…at least a few times.  I’m much more willing to march into battle behind a battle-tested leader than someone who is entering their first rodeo.  Leaders who have lived the highs and lows are typically more stable offering a steady hand in times of stress as they’ve seen it before and know they can navigate through it.  While it may sound odd to say, failure is one of the biggest ingredients to building confidence.  The more you know you’re capable of handling the more confident you will be in yourself.

So rethink your opinion of failure.  It really is your friend if you let it be.

Take Charge: 5 Critical Steps

Life

Life is a marathon not a sprint, as so many people have said over time.   Most of us start off without a clear picture of what we want to do, where we want to go, or where we’ll end up.   We look around at what others have accomplished and wonder how they did it?  Were they were destined for greatness/  Did they had a guardian angel watching out for them?  Or even better, was success simply in their genes?  I say nay, nay.

William Shakespeare once said, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”  While it is easy to blame unforeseen forces for our plight or plunder it takes far more courage to own the direction you have taken and the place in which you arrive.  But how can we make sure we arrive where we want?  How do we know that all our hard work will ultimately generate the pay-off we so desire?   Here are 5 critical things you need to do to take charge of your destiny:

  1. Vision.  Do you really know where you’re headed, and toward what, are you heading?  What is your goal?  Why is it your goal?  A big house, fast car, husband, wife, kids, dogs, cats, world travel, and don’t forget the top job with the big corner office.  Have you done a self-assessment to ask yourself WHY these are your goals?  Learning:  If you don’t know why a goal is important you’ll never reach it.
  2. Preparation.  Assuming you have the correct vision and you know what you’re striving for, the next question is, have you prepared in the best way possible to ensure your arrival or achievement?  Henry David Thoreau said, “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”  Planning is the most important part of any journey.  Learning:  Failing to plan is planning to fail.
  3. Stamina.  Do you have what it takes?  Are you mentally and physically prepared for YOUR journey?  People underestimate the importance of being in shape both mentally and physically.  But too often I have seen people falter on one  or both of these critical areas.  Learning:  The most effective form of exercise works both you mind and body.
  4. Discipline.  This is often the biggest area of failure in people’s journey to achieve their vision.  They set a clear course.  They laid out the best plan to get there.  They got into shape to start their journey.  And then something happened they didn’t foresee.  This is the stage of the journey that leads people to give up and fall back on the “it’s just destiny” thinking.  The difference between those that give up at this stage versus those that power through is discipline.  Learning:  You’ll know if the vision you have created is authentic and genuine when the amount of discipline you require to move forward lessens…you just want to do it.
  5. Self-Esteem.  What value do you place on yourself?  What’s your opinion of yourself?  Do you feel worthy?  Self-esteem is a necessary ingredient to taking control of your destiny.  It’s not only important to have a goal or vision but you must believe you are worthy of achievement and the “positivity” that comes with a successful accomplishment.  If you struggle with self-esteem take charge and work on improving it and it can absolutely be improved.  Learning:  low self-esteem is NOT a permanent condition unless YOU allow it to be.

Know that all of your life’s results are a direct reflection of the decisions you have made…not others.   Remember the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.  The power “to be” lives within YOUR mind and body.  Be ready, take charge…live YOUR life.