Mentoring Young Women in the #MeToo Era

By Thomas J. Lee

For twenty-odd years now I have been mentoring graduate students at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Probably a little more than half my mentees have been women. They have been consistently impressive: brainy, sophisticated, curious, ambitious, focused. In retrospect, a number of them have been quite attractive, too.

I never gave it much thought until I heard that Vice President Mike Pence refuses to meet one-on-one with any women—any, at all. Not for coffee, not for lunch, not for dinner. Not even one-on-one in his office. That stunned me. His reasoning, apparently, is that he wants to avoid the temptation of adultery.

Adultery? Even in the abstract, a temptation so real and so near he declines even to meet with a woman?

Mentoring Women.jpg

I’m shaking my head. If the temptation is that real and that near, a few things must be going on. None of them is good.

He must be so distrustful of himself that he thinks he would lose his self-control—itself a profound weakness—and be so self-delusional that he thinks women half his age would be attracted to him, and be so disparaging of women that he believes they will lose their own self-control in his lordly presence.

This is what passes for a leader in our society? Any way you look at it, it’s a portrait of a weak, arrogant, condescending man.

All that was bad enough, but recently I came across a survey showing—or suggesting, anyway—that the world has a lot more Mike Pences than I ever realized.

According to, a women’s advocacy organization founded by bestselling Lean In author and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, sixty percent of male managers are reluctant to meet singly with women. They told pollsters they are uncomfortable mentoring women or socializing with women in a one-on-one setting. Sixty percent!

Really? There are so many things wrong with this scenario, it’s hard to know where to begin. Apparently the problem is quite a bit deeper than just refusing to meet with young women. The real problem is imagining and fearing a bugbear and using it as a convenient excuse to avoid doing what should be done.

Now I am well aware of the controversy over the extra-judicial nature of some of the #MeToo complaints. Like many of you, I have serious qualms about that aspect. But magnifying it to the point that it becomes the issue is also wrongheaded and shortsighted. For most of us men, an allegation of impropriety is far, far less likely and ultimately less limiting than entrenched, rampant employment discrimination against women. In any case, the bugbear shouldn’t get in the way of mentoring high-potential young women. Let’s count the reasons.

First, all of us have a moral and social responsibility to treat everyone with dignity and respect. That is doubly or triply true for leaders. Anyone for whom it is too difficult doesn’t deserve to hold a position of leadership in the first place. Seeing women first and only as sexual objects is tantamount to treating them with a plain absence of dignity and respect.

Second, by refusing to meet singly with women, these men are perpetuating the gender bias in favor of men. That is both stupid and hurtful. It is stupid because it denies an organization or a cause the benefit of so many good minds, and it is hurtful because it consigns women to permanent second-class status.

Third, successful leaders are ipso facto role models for young people—period. As role models, they have a quasi-fiduciary obligation to share their experiences and expertise. Refusing to do so is a dereliction of duty. Worse, it is implicitly teaching that dereliction is acceptable and proper.

Finally, they must believe that all those women are in a state of rapturous desire for an old man. What gives them such a looney idea? To be brutally honest, they’re likely to be uninteresting, unattractive, and unexciting to young women. They should just consider the possibility that, to the extent young women are preoccupied with matters of sexuality at all, they are focusing on potential partners their own age. That certainly seems to be nature’s way.

You can dismiss my little jeremiad as the ranting of a naïve simpleton. I will confess to the naïvetè, but I have been mentoring young people long enough to know a few things.

Frankly, the best thing these feckless, fearful men can do is to have those lunches and just listen to women talk. They’ll hear some stories that will put them back on an even keel. And if a man is too weak or too timid to do that, he should just get out of the way. Let some of these promising young women show them what real leadership is all about.

One last point, which I hope Ms. Sandberg will take back to Facebook and the rest of Silicon Valley: Your culture is one of the very worst. With a few notable exceptions, and apart from yourself, women are few and far between in the management of high-tech companies. All the problems associated with macho cultures, which millennials rightly protest, are there in spades along I-280. You need not point fingers at other companies. Just curl that little index finger around, and follow it home.

A Solar Metaphor for the Power of Leadership

By Thomas J. Lee

Have you noticed what I've noticed?

More and more so-called experts are stigmatizing the words managementmanaging, and manager, in favor of the words leadership, leading, and leader.

They look at people who run organizations and see two entirely different species, one of them ancient and the other modern, as if managing is a matter of bossing people around and leading is closer to gently nudging them. They declare or imply that managing is unfashionable—just so twentieth century, as the vernacular goes. “Don’t settle for being a manager,” they're essentially saying. “Be a leader instead!”

In reality, both managing and leading are essential to any enterprise that wants to succeed today and to grow tomorrow.

Indeed managing is at the very core of leading. The best leaders are excellent managers. They manage others to ensure results, and they manage themselves for the integrity they need to lead others.

Let's pause to clarify our definitions of both management and leadership.

As regular readers know, we define management is the work of ensuring compliance with the predetermined expectations of stakeholders. That is necessary for survival, for if you don't meet the expectations of stakeholders you won't be in business very long.

Some of these expectations are negotiated, as in a contract. Others are imposed externally. The stakeholders range from customers to investors to employees to vendors to agencies of government and even to the general public. They all have their own expectations.

Leadership is different but complementary. It is the work of envisioning, articulating, supporting, and inspiring change. It is necessary for growth, for if you cannot see tomorrow you won't be ready for it when it comes.

Now instead of complying with pre-determined expectations, leadership creates new expectations. The people who embrace these new expectations may be the same as the stakeholders we just listed, but they are acting differently, because they are thinking about tomorrow, and they are feeling hopeful and optimistic about it.

Solar Core.jpg

I like to use the sun as a metaphor. It illustrates the duality of managing and leading that any successful leader embodies.

You'll recall from fourth grade science class that the sun has a core much hotter than its corona, the visible cover. You can think of the internal core as the work of management and of the external corona as the work of leadership.

In the sun, the core is constantly generating energy through the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium. In a leader, the core is constantly generating energy through the fusion, as it were, of one's purpose and values into a noble opportunity. If that's a stretch scientifically, it's also a real-world picture of managing at the center of leading.

A successful leader knows that he must make certain that he thinks, speaks, and behaves in a way that conveys his message with clarity, coherence, and credibility. Everything from his sense of self to his physical presence, from his analysis of challenges to his determination of policy, reflects that fusion in his core. It creates the energy that enables him to lead.

It is my hope that you are or will become a leader who is an excellent manager, too.

© Copyright 2019 Arceil Leadership And Thomas J. Lee All Rights Reserved.

How Do You Choose the Right Thing to Do?

By Thomas J. Lee

What is the right thing to do?

How do you know?

More broadly, how should people tell right from wrong?

Moral philosophers—scholars, lawmakers, novelists and essayists, the judiciary, monks and rabbis—have wrestled with these vital questions for thousands of years. It’s arguable how far they’ve got. For most of us—well, we just think we know. But do we really? And if so, how?

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Maybe there is no single correct answer. After all, if it were easy, we would have much more rectitude and many fewer differences of opinion. We would have fewer lawsuits, fewer wars, fewer scandals, fewer fistfights, and many fewer Facebook arguments. We might even get along.

Now, as it happens, I have been thinking about those numbing questions because I am preparing for a discussion next week on moral philosophy for a Great Books reading group. We are reading Utilitarianism, the famous philosophical tract by John Stuart Mill, a British political economist and philosopher who lived from 1806 to 1873. The last time I read it, I was in high school. That was a long time ago, and I needed a refresher course.

It turns out there are three main schools of thought in moral philosophy: virtues, principles, and consequences. It’s a big help to understand all three, so as to have a little braintrust for ethical choices.

The first school of thought, centering on virtue or character, dates back to Aristotle’s great work, Nicomachean Ethics, named for Aristotle’s son, who edited it. This famous tract implores us to be the best persons we can be, by adopting the highest ideals of personal responsibility. It puts a premium on such moral cornerstones as thrift, courtesy, fairness, respect, honesty, civility, lawfulness, and so forth—the kinds of things your mom and dad urged on you when you were a kid.

It sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. All those grand virtues can vary from culture to culture and from era to era. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi mastermind behind the Holocaust, infamously claimed at trial that he was virtuous, because German culture had long prized fealty to authority, and he was “just following orders.” He was convicted and executed for war crimes, of course, but not before the American journalist Hannah Arendt memorialized his defense as “the banality of evil.” Can anything be virtuous if seen in its own light? It’s a scary thought, but even Stalin, Hitler, and Mao had their apologists.

The second school of thought, centering on principles, pounds its stake deeper in the ground, so it is less yielding to the vicissitudes of time and place. It is simpler, too, if unbending. It dates back to Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher who lived from 1724 to 1804.

Kant believed that people should live according to certain timeless principles or truths, which are always valid and always governing. He called them “categorical imperatives.” Thus, he asserted, it is always wrong to lie, always wrong to cheat, always wrong to kill—regardless of circumstances or consequences.

That may work in a simple world. It may have worked centuries ago. It certainly cannot work today, when people are in fundamental disagreement on the moral imperatives themselves. Even the Bible and the Koran have their internal inconsistencies and urge horrifying punishments for what most of us in the twenty-first century regard as fine, upstanding behavior.

Kant had a straightforward rule for deciding whether a particular course of action was right or wrong: universality. In other words, you just imagine everyone doing the thing you are contemplating. Would the world be better off or worse off? It strikes me as simplistic, as too cute by half.

The third school of thought, centering on consequences, emphasizes the outward manifestations of our ethical choices. The best-known example dates back to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Known as utilitarianism, it urges the course of action that creates the most happiness (known as hedonism, the term preferred by Bentham) or benefit (known as utility, the term preferred by Mill) for the greatest number of people. Alone among the three schools of thought, it is so flexible that it opens the moral door to war, enslavement, manipulation, lying and cheating, and economic exploitation.

The doctrine has other severe limitations. Bentham and Mill suggested you could measure hedonism or utility by summing all the “units” of pleasure and subtracting all the units of pain. For a whole society, find a mean and multiply by the population. Think of this as the utilitarian calculus.

The problem becomes evident in a classic illustration. It involves a healthy man and four mortally ill persons waiting for organ transplants. The four can survive by killing the healthy man and harvesting his heart, lungs, kidneys and liver for their own use. One person would die in the process. Four persons would live because of it. That alone would satisfy Bentham and Mill’s utilitarian calculus. But who among us would actually do it?

You cannot do justice to these concepts in just a couple of paragraphs, but it is useful and helpful to be aware of them and to think about them as you wrestle with ethical conundrums.

To the questions that got us started, my answer is: It depends.

Ten Insights on Leadership From Hamlet


By Thomas J. Lee

A few weeks ago my daughter and I scored tickets to the opening night’s production of Hamlet at the exquisite Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Now, any time I can enjoy an evening with my grown daughter is a wonderful thing. When you add dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant and then a splendid performance of perhaps the greatest play of all time—well, let’s just say I was happy.

Since then I have been thinking about the messages that Hamlet offers to leaders and aspiring leaders. I am certainly no Shakespearean scholar, and I don’t even play one on TV, as the modern cliché goes. Indeed, in what follows I may be misrepresenting or distorting the Bard’s intended meaning. But it seems to me that some of the best lines in this 400-year-old play have practical applications for twenty-first-century leadership, if only we should look.

The new ChicagoShakes production spurred my thinking, for it is a modern retelling with a decidedly contemporary look and feel. In lieu of Elizabethan costumes, business suits and cocktail dresses are the order of the day. So it is easy to think in terms of today’s business organizations, which have their own kind of poison and daggers.

Consider one well-known verse, and ask yourself what it says to leaders. In Act I, the laughable character Polonius offers some sage advice to Hamlet:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Polonius is a pompous fool who is quick to tell everyone else what to do, but cannot take his own advice for himself. Still, his recommendation here is sound. It certainly has stood the test of time—more than four centuries, to be specific.

Clearly, one of the big problems facing many leaders is the difficulty of arriving at truth and believing it. Everyone lies to himself or herself. For most people it is a moral failing with only modest implications. But for leaders, whose truth affects the lives and fortunes of many others, lying to oneself can be a big problem. It’s one thing to look in a mirror and tell yourself you’re the fairest of them all. It’s quite another to tell yourself that you have all the answers or that your judgment is better than anyone else’s.

Ask yourself: What lies do you tell yourself? Why? What truth are you refusing to acknowledge? What half-truths or untruths do you perpetuate?

Here’s another example. In Act I, Polonius counsels his son Laertes, who is embarking for Paris:

“Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.”

In other words, listen more than you talk, and think before you speak. If someone speaks ill of you, accept it with equanimity. This, too, is good counsel for us all. Alas, most of us are like Polonius; we would rather dish out advice to others than take it for ourselves.

In the same passage, Polonius offers more time-tested counsel:

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

william shakespeare and the second quarto of hamlet.

william shakespeare and the second quarto of hamlet.

This recommendation is well-taken for everyone, too, and it is doubly true for leaders, who need to set a virtuous example. Obviously there are times when borrowing is sensible—home mortgages, student loans, start-up capital—but wanton borrowing to cover routine expenses is a perilous course, from which it can be difficult to disentangle oneself.

In another scene later in Act I, after seeing the ghost of his late father, Hamlet challenges his friend Horatio:

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth,
Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

People haul this quotation out to argue for all kinds of conspiracy theories and conceits of one sort or another. I prefer to use it to challenge the assumption that we know things we really don’t or that something we haven’t considered cannot possibly matter anyway. One of the best questions any leader can ask is simply: What haven’t we thought of? And another, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan: What do we “know” that just ain’t so?

Then, in Act II, Hamlet is conversing with two buddies from college, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He remarks:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

This line is open to competing interpretation, but the Stoics of ancient Greece would have been comfortable with it. I think of it as a repudiation of ironclad, Manichaean rules, and an invocation to put ethical choices in a fuller context that acknowledges their complexity. Probably everyone who has managed a business or any other organization—or even raised a family, or taught in a classroom, or run for public office, or almost anything else—understands that black and white is a barren, frozen field in a world colored by the warmth of human emotion, ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

Shakespeare was a master of irony, as you know. Early in Act III, King Claudius offers an ironic observation about young Hamlet, whose youthful intelligence he respects, but is actually and unintentionally speaking of himself, when he remarks:

“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”

Claudius has murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father, and married Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, to ascend to the throne. Of course, it is the king whose sanity must be questioned. The advice is eerily relevant today for us in the United States.

Later in Act III, the king is praying emptily for divine forgiveness of his crime, though he knows in his heart that he feels no remorse. He stands and declares:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Completely apart from prayer, how many of us speak without conviction? How many of us talk for no reason beyond sounding smart or appearing participative? In an age of instant tweeting, it is endemic to our times. I look on this simple verse as a reminder to speak with self-discipline and to speak courageously from the heart as well as the mind.

Still later in Act III, Hamlet casts insult after insult on Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius. In one, Hamlet declares:

“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

His message is twofold, having to do with both cosmetics and character. For modern leaders, though, it is another reminder that authenticity and realism are the coin of the realm.

In Act IV, Queen Gertrude remarks:

“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

Her statement reflects the uncertainty that pervades the entire play, but for leaders it has special meaning. It is an acknowledgment of the difficulty inherent in imagining the future, much more than seeing our present situation. I cannot think of a single organization that doesn’t wrestle with this challenge.

Shakespeare even seems to recognize the dynamic of courtiers alongside royalty, not unlike twenty-first-century business consultants at the right arm of CEOs. In a playful dialogue between Hamlet and clownish Polonius, the courtier points to a cloud and likens its shape to that of a camel.

The young prince demurs. He thinks it resembles a weasel. Yes, Polonius agrees: “It is backed like a weasel.” Hamlet, toying with him, instantly pivots to the image of a whale. Polonius spins around and immediately agrees again. Some people will tell you anything you want to hear. Beware the cloying sycophants, the yes-men. Leaders need to surround themselves with confidants who will speak truth to power and with whom the leader can think out loud.

Finally, as a lagniappe, let us look at the most famous line of all in Hamlet and arguably the best-known quotation in all of literature:

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

As you know, Hamlet’s soliloquy is a rumination on suicide. I certainly don’t wish to exploit or trivialize the trauma of suicide, but I would argue that we can view this verse as something more, beyond it.

At the risk of projecting my own priorities, I suggest it can serve as a reminder to ask ourselves some existential questions, along the lines of who we are and why we are doing what we are doing. We can answer those questions superficially, or we can answer them profoundly. They go to the heart of our purpose and to the heart of our resolve in fulfilling that purpose. Certainly it behooves us from time to time to check and double-check our purpose and to make any necessary mid-course corrections.

These are simple but profound questions, and they cut to the chase of the leader’s work. By asking them, and answering them, we will likely learn something of ourselves that we have been keeping hidden, even from ourselves.

Leaders and Dysfunctional Cultures

By Thomas J. Lee

I recently participated in a panel discussion on corporate cultures. Sponsored by The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, the discussion was organized for the benefit of first-year graduate students, most of whom are looking forward to professional employment. We panelists were asked specifically to talk about coping with bureaucracy on the job, but the subject quickly metastasized to include other demons of the workplace: miscommunication, office politics, interpersonal rivalries, and just plain awful people.

Not every organization is so afflicted, of course, but enough of them are to render the subject important and relevant. Often the persons who are least aware of it and least sensitive to it are locked in their own isolation chamber at the top of the org chart. Down below, in the bowels of the organization, these demons can roam wild and inflict unnecessary stress and pain on nearly everyone. Companies pay a handsome price for it, too. While it is commonly said that people join companies but quit supervisors, it is also true that people quit sick and abusive cultures. That’s doubly true for the best people. They want to work in cultures conducive to excellence, not in cultures conditioned to expect and accept excuses and blame.

Bureaucracy was the easiest nut for us to crack, though I cannot say we offered much help to the students. Most people think of bureaucracy as red tape, paperwork, process, and hierarchy. It may seem mindless, but much of it is there for a reason. In any case, as a practical matter, there’s only so much you can do about it. Other, worthwhile things will deserve more attention.

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of a sham Silicon Valley startup, and presently under federal indictment, created a dysfunctional corporate culture. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes is in production.

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of a sham Silicon Valley startup, and presently under federal indictment, created a dysfunctional corporate culture. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes is in production.

Miscommunication is a universal problem. All communication is subject to interpretation, and therefore all communication is at risk of misinterpretation. So much of what people write and say is construed to mean something else altogether unintended. A routine tone of cool, aloof, businesslike efficiency, for example, can be seen as impersonal and uncaring. An email sent to some persons but not others can be upsetting to the others. Two particular problems are snicker-proof credibility and the breezy brevity of social media. They show up as mixed messages, muddled messages, and mute messages. But here, good training can go a long way toward mitigating the problem.

Office politics and interpersonal rivalries are common as well. My advice on these is to go out of your way to build strong relationships and repair weak relationships. Recruit as many allies as possible. Identify rivals or skeptics and go out to lunch with them. Make it easy for people to work with you. Grow trust; ideally, people will be disinclined to believe something unless and until they hear it from you. Do favors, liberally. Find excuses to laugh with people. Wherever you go and whatever you do, build bridges, not barriers.

Dealing with awful people—the proper technical term for them is “jerks and jackasses”—is more challenging. Trolls, who find fault with everyone but themselves, often burn themselves out and bounce from place to place. Saboteurs, who do deliberate damage to the organization or to a work product, while few in number, can be enormously hurtful. They need to be exposed and run out of Dodge, and perhaps even criminally prosecuted. Gainsayers, those nattering nabobs of negativity always ready to “play the devil’s advocate,” can be sweet-talked to docility. Egos the size of skyscrapers almost always have feet of clay and stand on sand.

How does it all play out?

In preparing for the panel, I reflected on my years in the workplace. Some long-forgotten dramas returned to my memory:

  • I recalled an executive—let’s call him Johnson—whose office was filled with crucifixes. They adorned all four walls, his desktop, even a leather portfolio. I was startled the first time I saw it. The company was strictly secular, and its culture was quite formal and quietly gallant and polite. On the cloistered executive floors, profanity was rare, except in Johnson’s office. He swore constantly, and he didn’t care who heard him. It seemed as if half his vocabulary consisted of scatological and coital bombs of one sort or another. Though the irony between sight and sound was laughable, my ears burned after every meeting.

  • A manager by the name of Antoinette, who held a Ph.D. in organizational behavior, was an intemperate control freak. She flew off the handle at the slightest provocation. No one was good enough, despite the evident fact that the company had a long track record of hiring really good people. The odd thing was that her conduct and demeanor were so strikingly at odds with almost any reasonable description of optimal organizational behavior.

  • Then there was Kent, who never accomplished much but managed to offend everyone else in the process. I still don’t understand how he kept his job, especially after an incident in which he gained access to a colleague’s computer one weekend. Alone in the office, he maliciously changed the title of a slide deck, by removing the L from the word Public. It was an adolescent thing to do, of course. He found it frat-boy funny.

Leaders have a special responsibility here. If they’re serious about optimizing their organization’s performance, they need to find out what is really happening and take aggressive measures to replace the dysfunctional behaviors with normative conduct. That requires assertive work, and it isn’t the kind of work that MBAs are trained for, nor is it the kind of work that corporate boards and human resources policies recognize and reward.

What specifically can leaders do?

First, get out of your office. My favorite business clients are senior managers who understand and embrace the importance of wandering around. (Note: MBWA does not stand for “managing by walking around.” It’s “management by wandering around,” and the difference is crucial.) They know the culture, and they often challenge those aspects of it that are dysfunctional or unproductive.

Second, ask a lot of open questions, and then stop talking and really listen to the answers. Brace yourself for the proverbial bucket of ice water. If you don’t like what you are hearing, listen all the more closely. Then, check it out for yourself.

Third, look for patterns. If multiple people are fingering Joe in operations or Mary in accounting as their source of negativity, the problem may indeed be Joe and Mary. But keep an open mind. It’s also quite possible that Joe and Mary just have higher standards, and the real problem is their low-bar naysayers.

Fourth, accept responsibility for the culture (or, in teams and departments, the micro-culture) and work to change it for the better. Remember this: Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch, and everything else for dinner. You cannot do anything without a conducive culture. Therefore the work of a leader is all about creating or changing a culture. That argument can be a tall order for a lot of brass-tacks factory managers to buy, but the quality of a workplace culture is a huge and often unappreciated determinant of success. Ignore it or belittle it at your peril.

Fifth, acknowledge the importance of all your stakeholders. In business, that means most especially your customers, employees, and the general public as well as your investors. Why the public? Because the public, through the proxy of government, grants you a license to do business, and it can just as easily revoke that license.

Finally, insist on dignity and respect for everyone as a default switch. If someone proves himself unworthy of respect, that’s another matter. But give everyone the benefit of a positive presumption. Talk frequently and openly about the importance of dignity and respect, and accord that dignity and respect to everyone.

Maybe some day there won’t be a need for panel discussions like the one I was on. We can hope, anyway. For now, we must begin to do the hard work of changing workplace cultures. That is what will make a real difference.

What Do We Mean By a ‘Strong Leader’?

By Thomas J. Lee

What exactly is a “strong leader”?

People are all but unanimous. Everyone wants strong leadership. They may disagree on everything else, but they want strong leaders. They say so repeatedly.

But what precisely does that mean? What do we think of when we think of strong leaders?

Like a lot of words and phrases, it can mean different things to different people.

On the one hand, it can mean decisive, determined, persevering, and ambitious. In this sense it recalls leaders like Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, and Franklin Roosevelt. Had they not lived, and had they not led, the world today would be unrecognizable to us, and we wouldn’t like it.

On the other hand, strong leadership can mean something quite different, very nearly the opposite: tyrannical, brutal, domineering, or even violently willful. In this sense it invokes an altogether different list of leaders: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Together their madness led to the deaths of perhaps one hundred million people.

Without an agreed-upon definition, you may intend to convey the first set of meanings—benign, as they are—but be understood to convey the second set of meanings, which are anything but benign. That’s the kind of trouble you invite by using short, vague descriptives such as this. They mean different things to different people.

I have been thinking about this phrase over the last couple of weeks, after two persons used the phrase “strong leader” in ways that caught me off guard. It had never occurred to me that the individuals whom they described as strong leaders were even remotely so.

The first was a remark by a controversial firebrand of a priest, the Rev. Michael Pfleger of Chicago. After the Cook County prosecuting attorney dropped all charges in an incendiary case involving television star Jusssie Smollett, many people complained. Pfleger, seeing racism where I hadn’t, rushed to the defense of the prosecuting attorney, a well-connected and otherwise competent black woman. Pfleger said the complaints were thinly veiled attempts to sully the reputation of “a strong leader.” I could only shake my head. The prosecutor had struck me as woefully weak.

The other case involves a friend who proudly parades his support for Donald Trump. While reasonable people can differ on their political judgment of Trump’s presidency, it seems to me the question of whether he is a strong leader is answered every day by his undisciplined tweet storms, his inability to pass substantive legislation, his appointment of so many morally obtuse and ethically challenged individuals, his lax schedule, his refusal to read or think critically, and his repeated and habitual evasions and lies. My friend naturally disagrees. He hails Trump’s “strong leadership.” Again, I can only shake my head.

Winston Churchill is widely regarded as a strong leader.

Winston Churchill is widely regarded as a strong leader.

The two officials have little in common. In one instance, you have an African-American, liberal, Democratic woman. In the other, you have a white, conservative, Republican man. Obviously, you can find people in each of their corners who think that one or the other is a strong leader. Then there are people like me, who think neither is.

I cannot change the way millions of people use a word, and I won’t even try. But I can suggest that whenever you use the locution “strong leader” or “strong leadership,” you immediately explain what you mean and why. Even more important, when someone else uses these phrases, inquire as to what exactly is meant.

For example, it may be a reference to the leader’s moral strength, which we can define simply as having the strength to do the right thing. Those of us who care whether leaders do right—and, to begin, who agree on what is right—will naturally want leaders whom we regard as morally strong. They have a built-in compass, which points them in the direction of good. They also have an internal gyroscope, which stops them before they do something stupid or self-destructive. So they make fewer mistakes, and they tend to do right by the people they lead.

Or it may be a reference to another kind of strength—an analytical, intellectual, or cognitive source of authority and power. By this we mean the strength to see the world as it truly is and the capacity to figure out what should be done about it. It is careful, methodical, purposeful. When it’s in gear, this strength generates reasonable self-confidence and steady progress. The opposite, which we don’t want, shows up as self-delusion or impetuosity.

Yet another kind of strength is a matter of courage and perseverance—the strength to soldier on in the face of adversity. To quote the lyrics of the popular old Mariah Carey song, Hero:

And then a hero comes along 
With the strength to carry on 
And you cast your fears aside 
And you know you can survive.

All three of these kinds of strength are to the good. Other things being equal, leaders who are endowed with these strengths will generally serve us well.

But what about the dark side? Are there other kinds of strong leadership that are unwelcome, that most people would label bad leadership, arguably even evil leadership?

The answer is plainly yes. Dictators, tyrants, con artists, and assorted “strongmen” who prop up their own “leadership” with armies and security forces, or even two-bit politicians who lie, cheat, and bamboozle their way to power, typically display a kind of strength that most of us find repellant.

The fundamental difference between strong leadership that is welcome, on the one hand, and strong leadership that is unwelcome, on the other, is whether, and to what extent, the leader’s strength builds up our own. That is the acid test. We need strong leaders whose leadership strengthens us and puts us in a stronger position—leaders who share their strength with the rest of us. We don’t need and shouldn’t want leaders who sap our own strength and rob us of our energy and will. For all intents and purposes, theirs is not strong leadership at all. It is ultimately weak.

If the strong leadership you want is a leader who is decisive, determined, persevering, and ambitious, I’m with you one hundred percent. But if what you actually want is a leader who is tyrannical, brutal, domineering, and even violently willful, count me out. The world already has too many little Putins.

The Yin and Yang of Leadership

The Yin and Yang of Leadership

By Thomas J. Lee

It is one of the most enduring symbols in human history: a timeless, evocative pair of black and white swirls, snuggling together inside a circle, and each with an “eye” of the other color.

Its meaning is open to wide interpretation.

For some, and perhaps for you, it is a symbol of equality, mutuality, and interdependence.

For others, it is a symbol of diversity and inclusion. Each swirl’s eye seems to capture the point: We may appear different, but we are all of and in one another.

For still others, it is a symbol of radical understanding and empathy. Indeed, I have seen the swirls graphically reimagined as alternating black and white footprints.

Whatever its intuitive sense for you, it has within it the capacity to unlock meaning from ambiguity, confusion, and paradox.

As you likely know, the iconic diagram signifies the dueling forces of yin and yang, which can represent any number of opposites or paradoxes. Yin—the black swirl with the white eye—signifies darkness, pessimism, lunar, passivity, and, oddly enough, the feminine. Yang—the white swirl with the dark eye—symbolizes lightness, optimism, solar, activism, and the masculine.*

The central idea of it all is the need to appreciate both sides or vectors of complexity. Only when each is understood, respected, and honored can you create a fully integrated, harmonious whole. Otherwise one side will inevitably dominate, and you will be left with a lopsided apple cart. The cart will wobble and eventually tip over, and your apples will be everywhere.

You can use the idea of yin and yang to grapple with . . .

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What I Learned From Excruciating Pain

By Thomas J. Lee

The first sign of trouble felt no worse than a mild flu bug. I awoke on a Monday morning in June with my normal, high energy. After coffee, I was gathering my gym togs for a workout when, suddenly feeling a little sluggish, I crawled back to bed for just ten more minutes.

That was all she wrote. I slept all day and all the next night. By the next morning I had slept thirty-one of the preceding thirty-six hours. But I felt refreshed and re-energized—until I took one step out of bed.

A bolt of pain the likes of which I had never come close to experiencing—a pain so fierce, so paralyzing, I had never conceived of it—shot from my left foot to the core of my being. Imagine a sword thrust from the bottom of your foot up the length of your leg. Seriously. Although I rarely use profanity, I screamed multiple, loud f-bombs and scatological imprecations. You doubtless heard them bouncing off the moon. Then I called my primary physician.

Fearing a blood clot, he ordered me straight to the nearest emergency room. Thankfully, tests ruled out a clot. Doctors made a straightforward diagnosis: cellulitis, something I had never heard of. At first I thought they said cellulite. No, cellulitis—a superficial though excruciatingly painful, intolerably painful, skin infection. 

I would soon learn that cellulitis is not contagious, and your environment plays no role in it, but it is quite common. Close to a dozen friends tell me they have had it, and it is always intensely painful. Several mature women told me they had given birth three and four times, and their cellulitis was far more painful than any of the childbirths. I believe it.

The ER docs promptly administered an antibiotic by infusion. A few hours later they sent me on my way with a prescription and encouragement. They said I would be feeling better in no time.

If only. Three days later I was back. It was even worse. By now my left leg was bright red, swollen to twice its size, and still swelling even more. It was throbbing. I could scarcely stand, let alone walk.


This time the doctors admitted me. I spent the next six days in the hospital receiving a cocktail of three powerful antibiotics by infusion and a couple of narcotic painkillers. By now my leg was turning a hoary gray as the inflamed skin died and began peeling off. One doctor told me it was akin to a second-degree burn. Then I was transferred by ambulance to skilled nursing for eight more days. There—quite literally, I am not exaggerating—I had to learn how to walk again. Stairs were especially challenging, as all my weight would be on my left leg every other step.

After two full weeks of medical incarceration, I was finally released and sent home, my leg still bandaged up but noticeably improving. The inflammation and swelling had both subsided, and the pain was much less intense as well. Complete recovery would take a couple of additional weeks.

We may never know how I got it. Cellulitis typically results from staph bacteria on your skin (of which we all have gazillions) that somehow find their way into your body and beneath your epidermis. Often you can point to a cut, scrape, sting, or bite that opens a pore for the bacteria to walk through. But not always. I couldn't remember any. One possibility was a dental appointment a week or two earlier, for the hygienist had nicked my gum. Another possibility was a slight brush with poison ivy on a recent hike—not enough to induce a reaction, but enough that I rubbed the itch and thereby stretched open a pore. Who knows?

In any case the pain was fierce, worse than any I imagined possible. In the hospital, I couldn't even dangle my leg over the side of the bed. It just hurt too much. Now I knew what some people go through.

All of which has me searching for insights. What do you learn by experiencing such intense, excruciating pain?

I can think of six things. They aren't particularly profound or powerful, but they are real and important.

First, and most obvious, your health is everything. Had I been diabetic, obese, immunocompromised, or otherwise vulnerable, my case would have been even worse and potentially lethal. Seventeen thousand people die every year from cellulitis. Four other cases were diagnosed at the same hospital while I was there, and none of us was connected in any way to one another. So I am recommitting myself to a healthy lifestyle and frequent workouts. I make no apology for going to the gym in the middle of the day. Besides, I always think better after a workout.

Second, love your dear friends and family. Really, really love them. My own called, texted, emailed, and visited. Without them, I would have felt alone, helpless, and hopeless. Never let an opportunity pass for words of support, confidence, respect, or admiration. Tell people what you like about them. Trust me, you’ll see more of whatever that is, though the real payoff is simply the expression of the sentiment and the closer relationship that results.

Third, appreciate medical science. You come across so much lunacy and stupidity on social media, especially the nonsense about vaccinations causing autism and other conditions and diseases. I was the beneficiary of advanced therapies and a half-dozen highly trained physicians specializing in skin infections, wound care, infectious diseases, rheumatology, and more. The nursing staff was never more than a few seconds away. I doff my hat to all of them.

Fourth, all of us need to dig deeper in our souls to find more empathy for other people. No one knows what pain—physical or emotional—someone else is going through. Nothing in business is so important that it excuses neglect for the person who is our teammate or customer or supplier. That’s especially true for our attitude toward people who appear different from ourselves. They really aren’t. We’re all human.

Fifth, make a habit of looking for beauty and humor. Take it wherever you find it. I myself find beauty in frequent hikes in the local forest preserves and state parks around home. There’s something restorative in the sight of spring foliage or the sound of morning birdsong. Humor is its own medicine, too. Anything from a YouTube video of frolicking animals to a silly Facebook meme can make you laugh, and I’ll take whatever I can get. By the same token, I recruit friends of a positive, energetic orientation, and I strive to avoid people of a cynical, pessimistic nature—as well as anything else that makes me frown.

Sixth, we have only so much time on this rock. It’s another cliché, I know, but it is true and it is relevant. When something completely unexpected knocks you off your feet for two whole weeks, you quickly realize that your life is time stamped. The lost minute, the wasted hour, the day that got away from you are gone forever, and your use-by date is that much closer.

Update: The next four months passed uneventfully. Then, wham! Friends had invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner, which was to be served at 3 o’clock. Knowing I would likely eat too much, I was intent on going to the gym for a strenuous workout in the morning. I should have seen it coming when, around 9 o’clock in the morning, I felt a little tired and lay down for just a few minutes before going to the gym. I woke up eight hours later, at 5:10 pm. Not only had I missed Thanksgiving dinner, I had insulted my hosts by not even calling. Sure enough, the next day the cellulitis was back.

Now, well into the following year, there is no sign of another relapse. But believe me, I am on the lookout constantly.

My Dad, a Humble Profile in Leadership

(Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, 20 June 2010)

By Thomas J. Lee

A fellow blogger posed an interesting question online, in anticipation of Father's Day. He asked: What kind of leader was your father?

I had to think a moment. My dad, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 93, was a wonderful man. But probably most people did not regard him as a leader. He wasn't an elected official. Nor was he a high-powered executive. Nor was he active in politics or community affairs.

Yet leadership is not only for the powerful and the prominent. Millions of people offer profoundly inspirational leadership in their everyday lives. So it was with my father. He lived a life of humility, decency, authenticity, and commitment. Naturally outgoing and happy, he exercised quiet self-control even in the face of considerable adversity. He didn't lose his temper. He didn't curse or cheat or lie. He didn't gamble or drink to excess. He hated war, but he went, and his unit liberated Dachau. In 75 years of driving a car he never had an accident, not even a fender bender. He never even got a traffic ticket. In short, he was a rock, always there when it counted.

Most important, he knew how to love, and he did. The late Ann Landers, who could tell us a thing or two about families, often wrote that the greatest gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother completely, deeply, and unconditionally.

My parents, Joyce and Robert Lee, circa 1942

My parents, Joyce and Robert Lee, circa 1942

My four brothers and I were the beneficiaries of just such a gift. For more than six decades, probably from the moment he first noticed her at another soldier's wedding in Chicago, my dad loved my mom, and he let it show. He loved her completely. He loved her deeply, and he loved her unconditionally.

I have a particularly warm memory, framed like an old faded photograph in my mind's eye. When I was 10 or 12, I would wander into the kitchen before dinner, only to find my dad and my mom in a bear hug of an embrace while potatoes simmered on the stove.

Such a warm sense of security washed over me. Some of my friends had parents who yelled at each other. Others had parents who brooded in silence. Not I. Not my brothers. We had a security blanket up over our shoulders and snug under our chins. We had the luxury of never, ever worrying.

My dad always loved my mom, and my mom always loved my dad, and that's the way it was. It was just that simple and it was just that wonderful and it was always just that way.

Only a few weeks before my mother died in 2004, I visited the two of them in their apartment in Florida. What I witnessed on that visit was like a scene out of an old black-and-white movie starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson or Donna Reed.

My mother sat at the kitchen table, her days so very numbered, and yet with a smile of calm, divine peace across her face, as my dad, a gifted tenor who had once aspired to the operatic stage, sang love song after love song to her. He must have sung for an hour, maybe two, and he sang from his heart. He sang: "Everybody loves my baby, but my baby don't love nobody but me." My mother died a happy woman, for she was loved.

Most of all, I remember Dad as a man who worked hard, who made the most of what he had, who lived his life with passion for his art as well as for his wife, who humbled himself and honored others, who recognized duty, and who devoted himself to the things that matter, which is to say, to the people around him.

Will you abide one last anecdote? It is from the day I learned to swim. I tell it because it says so much about the man my father was.

There was to be a kind of commencement exercise at the old YMCA pool in my hometown. All the kids would swim the length of the pool, and then, one by one, we were to be called up by name and given a certificate.

Now it's odd what we remember from our childhood. Of that day, I remember a feeling of anxiety, knowing that my mother was home with my little brothers, and my dad was at work.

Back then, Dad always had to work on Saturday mornings. So the other kids would have families in the gallery cheering them on. But not I. I was on my own. That would be okay. I could handle it. I would be fine. I would just buck it up.

So one by one, in alphabetical order, the instructor called the names of all the swimmers. I remember hearing the instructor call out Ade, and Bobby, and Mike, and Steve. And one by one, each of them walked over to get his certificate as the gallery erupted in cheers.

The closer the instructor got to my name, the more alone I felt. I braced myself for a little polite applause from the other parents. The instructor called my name. I got up, walked over, and reached out for my certificate.

Sure enough, the applause was polite. But just then a voice rang out from the gallery, loud and clear and echoing around the pool: "Way to go, Tommy!"

I looked up. It was my dad. Somehow, he had got off work, and he had made it over to the YMCA to watch me get that certificate.

Ever since, whenever I have needed some encouragement, I have harked back to those few words, and I have picked up the pace and tried a little harder. My dad's voice is never far away. He is my cheerleader, even now, after he is gone.

By my measure, this is certainly the stuff of leadership. My dad was an ordinary, everyday hero. His achievement in life wasn't winning an election or getting a big promotion or living in a fancy house. Rather, it was leading a fine, long life and filling it with honor and love.

And so now, for another Father's Day without him, it's my turn, and I just hope he can hear me: "Way to go, Dad! Way to go!”

Engagement Got You Down? Don't Despair.

Engagement Got You Down? Don't Despair.

Don’t tell me. This year, as in previous years, your organization fielded another employee engagement survey, and the numbers that came back were hardly different from last year—or from the year before.

The overall scores may be somewhere in the middle, a little above average, or below what any self-respecting organization should tolerate. Where the scores are—and where they were last year—isn’t so important as the fact they haven’t budged.

If that song is a familiar tune, it really isn’t surprising. Nor are you alone. Many other organizations are in the same boat—without a sail or a rudder or an oar. Sooner or later they have to ask themselves why they field the survey year after year, only to be told the same thing year after year.

Mediocre or stagnant engagement is far more significant, and far more worrisome, than a simple matter of low morale or satisfaction. While these terms are often conflated and confused, it’s important to distinguish between engagement and other kinds of positive mental attitude, like satisfaction and morale, in the workplace.

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Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

By Thomas J. Lee

It isn't every day you get to sit down with a genuine American hero for an extended conversation about crisis leadership. Today, thanks to a mutual friend, I had the good fortune of doing just that.

Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, agreed to meet with me to talk leadership. We got together at a Starbucks in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he and Marilyn, his wife of 65 years, live on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

Having just turned 90 years old, he struck me as fully engaged, genial, and still sharp. He laughs easily and often, at one point joking that he probably disappoints people because he isn't Tom Hanks. Clearly, he learned long ago to cherish every minute of life.

For those of you who are too young to remember and who never saw Ron Howard's exciting movie starring Tom Hanks as Lovell, here are the basic facts. An onboard explosion in an oxygen tank, fundamentally caused by miscommunication over necessary voltage two years earlier, crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft en route to the Moon in April 1970, only nine months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had become the first persons to set foot on another heavenly body.

Until the explosion and crisis, all three television networks were ignoring this flight. After all, it was "just another" manned spaceflight to the Moon. We had already visited the Moon four times and walked on it twice (Apollo 11 and 12). Lovell himself had already orbited it (Apollo 8), when he and his co-pilots became the first persons to view Earth as a globe, to escape Earth's gravitational field, to see the other side of the Moon, and to view an Earthrise.

On Apollo 13, after assessing the worrisome situation, Lovell radioed back to Mission Control five words that have become iconic: "Houston, we have a problem." For long days afterward, the survival of the three astronauts was in doubt. They were running out of oxygen and burning too much electrical power. Many knowledgeable people, even at NASA, feared for the worst.

The crew — Lovell, Fred Haise, and last-minute substitute Jack Swigert — quickly accepted the fact they would not land on the Moon. As depicted in the movie, they endured cabin temperatures down to 34 degrees Fahrenheit but, with the help of Mission Control, managed to find creative ways to save oxygen and power. 

Using the Moon's gravity as a slingshot, they flung themselves back toward Mother Earth. Still, they had to slip into a tiny window of the Earth's thin atmosphere. That meant correcting their course manually and precisely. Too little and they would burn up on re-entry. Too much and they would bounce off the atmosphere to oblivion. With only one chance, they got it exactly right, but no one knew it for sure until their three brilliant parachutes blossomed over the South Pacific.

(Even after the space capsule survived exterior temperatures of 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit on re-entry, Jim said, the capsule's interior was cold from the long flight home. He said it was still cold even after it was plucked from the ocean.)

Forty-eight years later, I vividly recall the crisis. Probably everyone my age does. Hundreds of millions of people around the world were riveted to black-and-white televisions.

Jim's memory of it all is remarkably detailed. At one point he even explained the electric circuity and capabilities of the spacecraft. I pulled a little 64GB flash drive from my pocket, and he told me it dwarfed the technical horsepower of the Apollo spaceship.

Jim said the movie was quite accurate except for a couple of dramatic moments that exaggerated interpersonal rivalries, along with some innocuous dialogue the screenwriters fabricated. But one poignant anecdote is entirely true, he said. 

In the midst of the crisis, as friends gathered to keep vigil at the Lovell residence, Marilyn asked his colleagues Armstrong and Aldrin to keep his mother distracted in front of the TV. Marilyn introduced the two world-famous astronauts to the elderly woman, who innocently asked: "Are you two boys in the space program, too?"

I asked Jim about optimism and self-confidence, which I have come to believe are essential components of successful leadership. He enthusiastically agreed. He singled out Mission flight director Gene Kranz, who famously declared to a couple of NASA suits contemplating the imminent disaster: "Gentlemen, with all due respect, I believe this will be our finest hour."

Jim looked at me. "And it was our finest hour," he said.

He told me that Marilyn recently reminded him of something that spoke to his own optimism. Back on the Apollo 8 flight — remember, it was humankind's first journey to the Moon — Frank Borman and Bill Anders, his two co-pilots, had both tape recorded love letters to their wives, to be opened only if they didn't return alive. Lovell hadn't done so, and Marilyn remembered. When she asked him why not, he replied that he was 100 percent certain he would be back — though sixteen months later the Apollo 13 crisis would cast some doubt.

Our conversation turned to the need to act decisively in a crisis. "I could have folded myself up in a fetal position and waited for a miracle. But if I had done that," he said, pointing to the heavens, "I would still be up there."

I asked him about the job of a leader to articulate high, value-based expectations and then enroll people to embrace those expectations as aspirations for themselves. Kranz did exactly that, Jim said, when he declared: "Failure is not an option."

One of only three astronauts to have flown twice to the Moon and the only one not to have landed, Jim said he was naturally disappointed that he had never set foot on the lunar surface. 

However, he believes today that Apollo 13 ironically made an outsize contribution to the space program because it captured the attention of people around the world and dramatically underscored the excitement and adventure of space exploration. My own two cents: Inspirational leadership is like that. Often, you have no idea how your own choices and behavior will ultimately inspire others. Just assume that they will.

At one point I asked him about the common tendency for self-preservation in bureaucratic cultures. The movie has a couple of scenes where that is evident. Jim said he believes a leader must create a culture where people are so focused on the mission that they don't act defensively. Rather, everyone must be concerned first and last about the big picture. 

In the movie, Kranz did that by assuring one nervous Nellie that he wouldn't be held accountable for a wrong prediction. In my own thinking on this subject, which I didn't share with Jim, extreme accountability can be at war with the truth, with self-confidence, with teamwork and collaboration, with creative thinking, and with agile opportunity. 

That led us to discuss another, related phenomenon: issue avoidance in times of imminent crisis and the concomitant reluctance to share negative information. "Happens all the time," Jim said. "But a responsible, wise leader cannot let it happen. You must insist on facts. Otherwise, your decision-making will be off." 

He also said that wise leaders keep their skeptics close at hand. They always listen to them closely and share their own thinking with them. That's essential for building commitment to a common vision, he said. 

Jim pointed to another famous explorer who believed the same thing. That explorer, too, survived long odds against survival and a return to civilization. His name was Ernest Shackleton.

(See also my review of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage under Books > Biographies, Memoirs, and Histories.)

Does Your Firm Run Like a Well-Oiled Machine?

Does Your Firm Run Like a Well-Oiled Machine?

How often have you heard someone pay tribute to a business, or to any other organization, by calling it "a well-oiled machine"? 

Fairly often, I'm guessing. As metaphors go, it's an oldie but goodie.

You hear it whenever costs come in under budget, whenever something is finished ahead of deadline, whenever a widget's quality clears a standard.

Little wonder. We all appreciate reliability and predictability. We want to depend on things. So we're happy when a promise becomes its own reality. When that happens consistently, we reach for the metaphors. Yes, it sure does look like a well-oiled machine. 

But should that apply to all companies and all organizations? Should every enterprise be run like a machine?

Color me skeptical. Maybe I am making too much of a few words, but hear me out.

Machines—even well-oiled machines—are just things. Things can do only what they are intended, built, and programmed to do. Their limits are thus the limits of their design, their technology, their maintenance, and their energy.

Mere machines cannot imagine anything else, anything different. They cannot develop anything new. They cannot notice and wonder. Apart from the most sophisticated diagnostic machines in hospitals and laboratories and the like, few can even identify and solve a problem.

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The Myth of the Charismatic Leader

By Thomas J. Lee

Let me tell you a story.

It's the story of my very first experience in grown-up leadership. I was all of 17 years old. The church that my family attended was recruiting a new senior pastor. Inexplicably, the elders — pillars of the community, all of them — asked me to serve on the search committee.

It was a heady experience for such a callow young man. I had never even held a full-time job, let alone hired anyone for a full-time job, and I certainly hadn't participated in any endeavor like this, for goodness sake. Yet here I was with an equal voice and an equal vote in the selection of the church's new leader. I would certainly learn a few things.

In some ways the experience was comical. I had all the executive documents, meeting minutes, and privileged personnel records of the candidates in my room at home. Naturally I was sworn to secrecy, and I was determined to keep that confidence. My mother, however, was pestered by the other ladies of her bridge circle to pry loose my secrets. I refused to budge. Not a peep. But one day I came home from school and noticed that my confidential files had been disturbed. My mother got a scolding! She fessed up, and I swore her to secrecy.

Well, after months of surreptitious Sunday visits to churches hundreds of miles from home, in-depth interviews, lengthy deliberations, due diligence, and multiple rounds of voting, the search committee issued a call to a pastor from southern California, and he accepted. He seemed to be a perfect fit. We wanted a young and energetic man, an eloquent speaker from the pulpit, and most of all a dynamic, charismatic leader. That's exactly what he was.

Forty-plus years later, I still remember the day he and his wife arrived at a cocktail reception the elders hosted to welcome them. (I came straight from school, and I was served Coke.) When the front door opened and the new pastor and his wife stepped in, his powerful physical presence brought forth an energy that immediately refreshed and rejuvenated. All the committee members and their spouses shared in the excitement. The church was heading in a new direction, for sure.

The next year I graduated from high school and went off to the university, and it was a couple of years after that when, on campus, I heard the scandalous news from home. Our young, dynamic reverend was irreverently involved in an extramarital affair with a beautiful widow whom he had been counseling in her grief. The pastor's wife asked him to move out of the parsonage. The church bulletin coyly printed a small item saying the pastor could henceforth be reached at a new telephone number. His ministry no longer tenable, the pastor soon resigned. Payton Place had nothing on my hometown.

Clearly, we had made an abysmal choice. Bedazzled and perhaps bamboozled by outward appearances, we were enraptured by his charisma, charm, eloquence, and energy—even at the expense of the truly important criteria of integrity, character, soulfulness, authenticity, and self-discipline.

Our pastor was scarcely the first leader to go down a dark path. Countless others—in religion and in government, in sports and in the media, on Wall Street and in Hollywood—have done likewise. From peccadillo to peccancy, so many individuals in whom we have placed our trust have profoundly disappointed us.

I have been studying and teaching leadership for a long, long time, and if there is one thing I have learned it is this: Pay less attention to such ephermal things as appearances, magnetism, and charm. Especially beware charisma, for charismatic individuals can be, and alarmingly often are, seductive of their own willpower and character. Instead, pay more attention to discipline, ideas, strategies, resourcefulness, ability, integrity, experience—and to the soulful dimensions of leadership such as vulnerability, empathy, self-awareness, authenticity, respect, and decency.

None of this is to say that interpersonal skills, communication, and relationships are unimportant. To the contrary. They are absolutely vital. But in the long run they depend more on who we are, especially in the face of pressure and temptation, than on mere appearances and charm. That's especially true of individuals whose personality is so enrapturing that they have all but coasted through the real challenge of forging and sustaining resilient, deep personal connection. Throw in wealth, looks, and smooth talk, and you have an explosive combination indeed.

Leaders are people. People are often weak. I'm not expecting perfection. But I am hoping for excellence, and charisma isn't necessarily part of it.

Can Control Freaks or Tyrants Ever Truly Lead?

By Thomas J. Lee

Was Hitler a true leader?

How about Stalin? Was he a real leader?

And what would you say about Mao? Pol Pot? Idi Amin?

Closer to home, is a CEO who rules by fear and terror a genuine leader? Where do respect, trust, and dignity — by the leader, for the led; and by the led, for their leader — come into play?

Can a dictator ever be a leader? Where do you draw the line between tyranny and leadership? Where, if anywhere, does one begin and the other end?

I teach leadership, both for bright university graduate students and for managers in business. Sooner or later, in almost every class, Hitler's name comes up. Then the other names: Stalin, Mao, ad nauseum.

Quite a few participants in every class say yes, Hitler was indeed a leader. How else can you explain his rapid emergence from obscurity to a merchant of mayhem wreaking tumult throughout Europe and beyond?

But just as many participants say no. They insist that by definition a leader generates a voluntary following, and that to conflate arbitrary fiat with genuine leadership is confusing at best and misleading at worst.

The questions only get tougher: What exactly is leadership, and what, after all, does it mean to lead? Is it always honorable? If it is mere influence devoid of a moral metric, should we think of a carnival barker as a leader? A heroin pusher? An advertising copywriter? A mugger with a gun? A political gerrymanderer? An advice columnist?

Let's stipulate the essentials of both points of view. Yes, leadership involves bringing about a big change in thinking. And yes, leadership involves a voluntary or discretionary following. True leaders have a foot in both camps. Let's also stipulate that mutual respect, trust, and dignity are essential to the leadership bond that keeps the whole thing alive.

Still, after acknowledging all that and after wrestling with all the many troublesome questions, I came to the conclusion we need a way of reconciling morality, for good or ill, with impact. After all, at the risk of sounding like a nihilist, the fact is that Hitler had his adherents. Decades later, he still does. So just how can we square that brutish fact with our thinking about leadership? 

My answer was to develop a simple hierarchy, broadly faithful to the variety of leadership we have seen throughout history. It has four archetypes that admit a wide variance.

Each of the archetypes is a broad orientation defined basically by its attitude and disposition toward independent thought, speech, and action.

The most primitive orientation we call the absolute archetype. Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is hostile, crushing. As much as possible, it wants to prevent any such thing. It declares: No, you cannot!

From monarchs to megalomaniacs, history is replete with examples of voluntary fealty to such absolute leadership. At first glance none of it makes much sense. The 20th century is especially confounding, as the world had the benefit of 150 or 200 years of successful democracy to observe and emulate. Still, millions of people came under the seductive siren song of Nazism, communism, and fascism — some by will, some by apathy, some by force. They paid with their lives and reaped only havoc in return.

Wherever such a primitive brand of leadership has taken hold, it has required generations and selfless courage to cast aside. Most of the world has done just that. We have made it to what we now might call the traditional archetype.

Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is not outright hostile, but it is heavyhanded. As much as possible, this archetype wants to control it, to channel it narrowly, to determine who can think, say, and do what. It declares: You must!

Some of us, perhaps most of us, have evolved further to what now passes for conventional management and leadership. We call it the modern archetype. Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is willful. As much as possible, it wants to influence what you think, say, and do. It declares: You should!

So common is this archetype today that you can walk into any bookstore or library, and you will find scores of books asserting that influencing people is the central task of leadership. John Maxwell, a widely published author, goes so far as to assert that leadership is influence and influence is leadership period.

Now, in the 21st century, we are on the precipice of the next orientation of leadership. We can call it the progressive or liberal archetype (terms derived more from philosophy than contemporary politics). Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is hopeful, trusting, confident. As much as possible, it seeks to inspire what people think, say, and do. It declares: You can!

So we have gone from preventing independent thought, speech, and action to controlling it, and from controlling it to influencing it, and now, hopefully, from influencing it to inspiring it.

So where do Hitler and other tyrants come in? 

To the extent they build the fealty of others to gain power, they are squarely in the first quadrant: absolute leadership. They were or are indeed leaders, especially in the early going, when they muster support among enough people to account for a critical mass. But that initial and voluntary support is not enough for their all-consuming appetite. They have a visceral need to prevent any independent thought, speech, and action, because their continuing domination of everything within reach depends on it.

Unfortunately, leaders can become tyrants, and in fact some of them do just that. Their leadership fails when, at long last, they lose or abandon respect, trust, and dignity for their followers, and thus for themselves, and when their followers also lose respect, trust, and dignity for the erstwhile leaders. Until then, yes, they can and may very well successfully lead people.

Why Are So Many Leaders Such Poor Listeners?

By Thomas J. Lee

Readers of this blog have little in common with one another. You live all around the world. You're young and old. You're rich and poor, man and woman, black and white.

But you do have a couple of things in common. One, you are interested in leadership and in the communication that enables and energizes it. Two, on the whole, you're a fairly bright bunch of people.

But that last thing, that can be a problem.

It's certainly a problem for anyone who aspires to lead people on a journey of change. Why? Simply because intelligence can get in the way of leading. Some of the worst listeners anywhere are really smart people. And because so many leaders are smart, they tend to be worse listeners.

That's right. It may come as a shock, so I will repeat it for emphasis. Leaders, because they are so often smart, have particular difficulty listening to other people.

Why are smart people in general, and smart leaders in particular, poor listeners?

Well, by definition, intelligent people absorb information fast. Researchers have found that intelligent people think at the rate of 500 to 700 words per minute. Even fast talkers speak at only 175 to 200 words per minute.

That's a lot of time—at least 36 of every 60 seconds—for smart people to be mentally doing other things while someone else leisurely finishes her own sentence.

What are you doing for those 36-plus seconds of every minute? Lots of things.

You're thinking about the agenda for tomorrow's meeting. You're sorting through candidates for the staff vacancy. You're remembering to get arugula at the fresh market. You're debating which movie to see tonight. You're wondering why this person is taking forever to make a simple point.

Most of all, you're deciding what to say in response. You're thinking, thinking, thinking. Smart people love to think. You do, don't you?

Bright people also tend to make judgments—lots of them, in rapid fire. So as another person is talking, you are making judgments about her intelligence, her knowledge, her diction, and maybe a few other things we won't go into here.

Finally, smart people are typically busy people. You probably have a lot of issues and decisions you need to address. It is tempting to think about these things whenever you have a few seconds.

Given the ubiquity of smart phones, you are also likely to be sending a text message or scrolling down your email or checking the progress of Frosty the Snowstorm on You may even think you can multitask successfully. Hey, we're all a little delusional.

The big problem with all this is that people do notice it. At this very moment some of them are silently complaining to themselves that you don't listen. They may even be complaining aloud to one another. From that, they easily conclude that you don't care about their ideas.

Now if you're as smart as you think you are, you'll identify listening skills as an opportunity for self-improvement, and you will do something about it. There are lots of resources out there: books, tapes, videos, coaching. Our Master Class is one of many; we describe four levels of good listening, and we set forth an eight-step process for what we term affirmative listening.

The important thing is to do something. Otherwise people will get the sense that you think you already know everything, and you and I already know that isn't the case. We do, don't we?

How Much Is People Engagement Really Worth?

How Much Is People Engagement Really Worth?

What is the value of people engagement?

In terms of dollars and cents, what does it return?

Those questions have long bedeviled organizations of all kinds and their leaders. We got the answer a couple of weeks ago, when Apple Inc. announced its quarterly results. Apple, as you know, is a company with deep people engagement.

The answer is staggering. It is far, far more than any of us — including yours truly — had ever imagined. Far more.

Imagine being able to raise your prices and then sell many more, a great many more, of whatever you're bringing to the marketplace. That's exactly what Apple is doing.

It boosted the price of its iPhones by 10 percent — keep in mind, they were never cheap — and then proceeded to sell more than 61 million units in three months, for an increase of 40 percent from the year-earlier period.

I hope you own some Apple stock. This torrid rate of sales is enabling Apple to boost its dividend by 11 percent and its stock buyback by $50 billion, from $90 billion to $140 billion. You read correctly. Such an incredible feat is possible because Apple is sitting on $193 billion in reserves.

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A True Story of a Skunk At My Feet

A True Story of a Skunk At My Feet

One balmy evening after dusk I was relaxing on the patio with my legs outstretched. Crickets had begun to sing, and Venus was slipping toward the western horizon. I had enjoyed another productive day. Everything was perfect. I wanted nothing to change.

Just then I noticed a small animal of some sort off to the right. It was already dark, so I couldn't quite make out what it was. Slowly approaching me, the furry thing waddled right up to my shoes and stopped.

You can imagine my horror when I realized the animal wasn't a feral cat, and it wasn't a squirrel. Nor was it a raccoon or a possum. It was a skunk, a polecat. I kid you not. For minutes that seemed like hours, it sat on its haunches just inches from my feet. I was never so perfectly still in my entire life. I didn't breathe. I didn't swallow. I didn't blink.

In an instant I went from wanting nothing to change to wanting everything to change, immediately and radically. Yet I could do nothing. If I had so much as burped, this little beast would have fouled the entire neighborhood. Everything within a quarter mile would have stunk for days. I could only wait it out, in perfect stillness and utter silence.

Eventually the skunk moved on, and I could exhale and blink again. Five minutes later I felt a sneeze coming on, and I prayerfully thanked the heavenly stars that I had not sneezed while my uninvited guest was sniffing at my feet.

This incident occurred several years ago. I recalled it again this week when the subject of change came to mind. I've noticed that, for some people and some companies, the thought of change can bring about such anxiety they react with terror and paralysis.

That isn't a problem in the presence of a skunk, figuratively or literally; the paralysis suits you just fine. But if the challenge you are facing requires that you change for the sake of innovation, or personal growth, or subject-matter mastery, or credibility, or a behavioral correction, or relational empathy, or anything else of importance or value, it most certainly is problematic. Your paralysis is part of the problem.

Regular readers will recall that a couple of my recent posts focused on helping people to identify the need for change and to muster the will to change. Indeed, change is a continuing theme of the MindingGaps blog, for change is the currency of leadership.

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Seven Things I Learned From Losing My Temper

Seven Things I Learned From Losing My Temper

I lost my temper yesterday.

I shouldn't have, and I truly regret it. But the fact is I did.

It is rare for me to go volcanic. It almost never happens. People who have known me for ten years, even fifteen or twenty years, will tell you the closest they have seen me approach it is mild irritation. Fortunately they were not at my side yesterday.

The particulars are unimportant. Suffice to say my inbox overfloweth with emails. One of yesterday's emails, spam from a complete stranger who appeared to be the weakest volt on the Internet, was just the stupidest thing I had ever read. It was idiotic.

Here was someone pretending to be wise who was emphatically insisting that reading literature was a waste of time. Apparently a STEM fanatic, he all but said literature was useless in today's world.

Now, I like to read. As I write these words I am midway through War and Peace. I have learned a great deal from books over the course of my life, and I am convinced that the liberal arts are the best path to a lifetime of wisdom, depth, insight, relational health, and critical thought. You can imagine my ire on reading the email in question.

I dashed off a suitable, polite note expressing a strong preference to be permanently removed from his distribution list. A minute later I received a surly reply. If there's one thing I don't want and don't need before my second cup of coffee it's surly.

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The Simple Secret to All Great Leadership

The Simple Secret to All Great Leadership

On any given day, the people you seek to lead may or may not hear, understand, believe, remember, or appreciate what you have to say. Nevertheless, you must speak your truth, and you must speak it often.

On any given day, the people you seek to lead will always notice, observe and remember what you do and how you do it. Never forget that people are always watching you. They are constantly comparing what you do and what you neglect or decline to do with what you say and what you said. That's accountability, and you like accountability.

Finally, on any given day, the people you seek to lead are determining for themselves whether to follow your lead. The decision is theirs and theirs alone. It is not yours. It will rest largely on whether they regard you as a person of noble purpose and integrity, as a person of principle, intellect, competence, high standards, and wisdom, and as a person who has their own best interests in mind and at heart.

So speak up, and speak up often, about what matters most, and then be your own first follower. To show the way, you must first go the way, for leading is all about following first.

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