Why Smart People Are Such Poor Listeners

By Thomas J. Lee

At this very moment, you are reading this, and therefore you are bright.

I'm not being sarcastic, and I'm not being fulsome. It's true. If you're reading a blog like this, chances are that you're suffering from a condition known as above-average intelligence.

Okay, now that's a little over the top, I admit.

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Still, there's some truth to it. Smart people have a lot of advantages, but they also have a couple of large disadvantages. One big disadvantage is the inability to listen as well as people of average or even below-average intelligence can listen.

That's right. It may come as a shock, so I will repeat it for emphasis: The smarter you are, the more difficulty you probably have listening to other people.

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but if you're leaping to the conclusion that you are the exception, then you're very likely a worse listener than your peers.

Why are smart people 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 you to be mentally doing other things while people leisurely finish their own sentences.

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.

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 through these things whenever you have a few seconds.

Given the ubiquity of smart phones, you may also be itching to send someone a text message or to scroll through your email or to check weather.com. 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?

The Problem With Leadership Training

By Thomas J. Lee

One of the biggest problems in leadership—and it rears its ugly head often in business, politics, academia, the military, and elsewhere—is that persons in senior positions do not know what they do not know about leadership. They don’t even know how much they don’t know, and they don’t realize that many of their assumptions are just flat-out wrong.

In other words, they are blind to their own ignorance. Worse, because they don’t know what they don’t know, they are incurious. They are reluctant and disinclined to so much as wonder.

Making matters still worse, many of them assume that even asking a question about the nature and challenge of effective leadership—or, horrors! enrolling in an online course or a bricks-and-mortar class on leadership for their own growth and development—would reveal some sort of weakness. The last thing they want is to show weakness, so they ignore their own weaknesses altogether.

I see this phenomenon time and time again, in large organizations and small, in prestigious universities, in Fortune 100 corporations, and so very often in politics.

I see corporate vice presidents arrange for expensive, sophisticated training on leadership for everyone in their division or department but bow out of it themselves. After all, they’re too busy, or they already know everything.

I see senior executives pretend to have mastered the art of leadership only to fall back on tired bromides, unproductive reliance on command and control, and finger-pointing blame without so much as a hint of self-accountability.

In the lexicon of the “talk traps” we have recently been discussing in this blog—scroll down for the four essays preceding this one—I see a great deal of Simple Talk, Song and Dance Talk, and Self Talk on the subject. Its collective effect is to excuse the talker from taking ownership of the situation, and that, in turn, has unfortunate implications on people disengagement and cultural stasis.

What accounts for it?

One explanation is pride. People who successfully climb a corporate (or academic, or military, etc.) ladder have justifiable reason to be proud. Certainly they must know something about leadership to have gotten this far, they reason. To be sure, they do know something. But it typically has more to do with technical competencies or internal politics rather than with the real leadership of people, especially of people entrenched in old habits or sitting on the margins of the organization.

Another explanation is confusion over leadership. More often than not, people and publications use the word “leadership” to refer to the highest level of official authority in an organization. They speak unthinkingly of “the leadership of General Motors” or “the leadership of the Republican Party” or “the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church,” to cite three arbitrary examples.

Those usages are not wrong, but they confuse the issue by focusing on roles and glossing over the hard work of real leadership, which commonly doesn’t require a lofty position or impressive title, but always requires real work. The sad reality is that many senior executives couldn’t lead a group of eight-year-old soccer players to the ice-cream stand after a game. So instead of taking ownership for the cultural or operational change they want, they just cast blame and aspersions. It’s easier than laying themselves on the line.

Still another explanation is simply an aversion to learning. Not everyone is inherently eager to learn and grow. For many, their education ended the moment they returned their cap and gown. Many, many people haven’t read a serious work of literature, philosophy, or history in years, even decades. (If you want a list of great books to read, click on the Resources tab above and then go to Books on Leadership. We have listed dozens of books and included brief reviews.) I personally favor well-written biographies and memoirs. The best of them read like fiction but nourish like non-fiction.

With few exceptions, cultural change begins at the top. It has to, because of the power of senior executives to thwart it or promote it. Human nature being what it is, those executives are much more inclined to support something of their own than something developed by anyone else. The old Not Invented Here Syndrome is unfortunately still alive and well.

The question remains: How do we change this sorry situation? The answer, as always, is one person at a time, one choice at a time. Beginning here, beginning now, and beginning with you and me.

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Ten Strategies to Make Straight Talk Work for You

By Thomas J. Lee

Over the past couple of weeks we have been exploring ten “talk traps” and their alternative. Talk traps are conventions of internal communication (for leadership in companies or other organizations) that often prove problematic.

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The ten talk traps are Small TalkSunny TalkScare TalkSweet Talk (or Smooth Talk), Smart TalkSimple TalkSong and Dance TalkSlick TalkSnarky Talk (or Surly Talk), and Self Talk. We identified an eleventh, too: Snarl Talk. Just scroll down to read all about these common talk traps.

As we explained, some of these talk traps work just fine in the right place and the right time, but they can backfire in the wrong place or the wrong time. Others are always ill-advised.

We also took a long look at some difficulties that beset Straight Talk, the preferable alternative to those ten talk traps. It turns out that Straight Talk can often pose its own challenges, few of which are obvious to the leader.

Here are ten strategies to make sure that Straight Talk, not one or more of the common talk traps, undergirds your leadership communication in the workplace:

  1. Lay a good foundation. You cannot begin talking about your business environment early enough. If you’re not in the habit, start now. You needn’t talk about future plans that are not yet finalized. Just talk about the past and the present. If you don’t begin now, people won’t be prepared when you do. The straight talk you eventually offer will very likely come as a shock to the system.

  2. Establish a broad context. Address the weaknesses of your processes and products as well as the strengths. Talk about changes in technology, customer expectations, and speed to market. Deal openly with your culture, its advantages and its disadvantages. Discuss the business from multiple perspectives. It’s important to view reality from the point of view of customers, investors, hourly employees, even competitors.

  3. Consider forming a small communication council consisting of articulate individuals at various levels of the organization or team, both non-management and management, who can provide diverse perspectives on what’s going on.

  4. Recognize the fact that senior management has the luxury of time and typically a sophisticated educational background to help it absorb the need for change, while rank-and-file employees typically do not. By the time a new policy or strategy comes down, its imperative is clear to senior managers but can still be a mystery to ground-level employees.

  5. Be sensitive to the words and phrases you use to describe the business landscape and to establish the direction and the case for change. Jargon and acronyms that are part of your own day-to-day vernacular can be meaningless to others, especially to employees who must execute your strategy. Language that has no meaning cannot possibly have any credibility or impact.

  6. Test your stated values against the real drivers of your decision making. It’s easy to invoke a list of pretty values and nominally pay homage to them. It’s quite another thing to recognize the powerful impetuses that truly direct and shape policy. What really matters? That’s what your values are, like it or not. (One good test: Ask yourself whether you're willing to fire a senior manager you personally like but who violates a value.)

  7. Set a high bar on standards and accountability, but acknowledge that none of us is perfect or perfectible. Make clear what rises to a capital offense and what doesn’t, and underscore the hard importance of aspirations. Don’t be impetuous or fickle. Do insist on common rules. If you expect an hourly employee to pay a parking ticket on company time out of his own pocket, the same rule has to apply to a senior vice president.

  8. Appreciate the problems inherent in cascading. By cascading, we mean disseminating strategic information through an organization one level at a time. Cascading spawns rumors and creates a tangled web of misinformation and misunderstanding. It is a big problem in a lot of companies, yet it is routinely accepted as necessary and even desirable. It’s neither.

  9. Take emotions into account. Emotions are a big part of everyone’s personality. Ignore them at your peril. Probably no emotion is more ubiquitous at work than fear: the fear of speaking up, the fear of questioning authority, the fear of offering an idea. If you’re not dealing with it, you’re being victimized by it.

  10. Get into the nitty-gritty of specifics. It is one thing to lay out a grand strategy. It is quite another thing, and much more difficult, to translate that big strategy into detailed implications for rank-and-file employees. You must do this; the failure to do it is all but an abdication of management in support of leadership.

There’s more, but that’s enough to give you pause as you move forward. Don’t let it paralyze you, and certainly don’t allow it to keep you from speaking the truth. Honesty is still the best policy. Just be careful out there.

Eight Scenarios When Straight Talk Backfires

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By Thomas J. Lee

Over the last few days we have explored ten “talk traps,” or conventions of communication in business that often prove problematic for managers. Many of them work just fine in the right place and the right time, but they backfire in the wrong place or the wrong time. Others are always ill-advised.

The talk traps are Small TalkSunny TalkScare TalkSweet Talk (or Smooth Talk), Smart TalkSimple TalkSong and Dance TalkSlick TalkSnarky Talk (or Surly Talk), and Self Talk. We identified an eleventh, too: Snarl Talk. Just scroll down to read all about these common talk traps.

Then a couple of days ago we took a long look at some difficulties that beset Straight Talk, the preferable alternative to those ten talk traps. It turns out that Straight Talk can be difficult indeed.

Not only can Straight Talk be difficult, but occasionally it backfires altogether. If you have ever watched Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, you know what we mean. Straight talk can turn into a mess. 

Here are eight scenarios we have seen, even when leaders have the best of intentions:

  • Perhaps a leader has been taciturn in the past and then realizes she must communicate a new business strategy. She may assume that employees have a depth of knowledge about the company’s competitive situation that they actually do not. She speaks about the strategy as if it is a foregone conclusion, and she fails to explain its rationale. Employees can only wonder what she is talking about and why the particular strategy has found favor.

  • Or the leader sets out to communicate about the organization’s direction and priorities using words and phrases that are foreign to employees. The leader is speaking naturally and forthrightly, but employees perceive attempts to manipulate and spin the information.

  • Sometimes a new leader comes on board from another department or even another company in another industry. He wants to “hit the ground running,” as they say, so he lays out a vision before taking the time to fully appreciate the situation he has inherited. That leaves employees mystified over his selection in the first place.

  • The leader wants to set a high standard, so he invokes values that put a premium on integrity and team spirit. In the weeks and months that follow, decisions on policy and day-to-day management are seen as conflicting with, or only nominally conforming to, those values. Employees decide the leader is weak.

  • Not uncommonly, a leadership team relies on cascading to “get the word out” about a new policy, program, or priority. By cascading, we mean disseminating strategic information through an organization one level at a time. Cascading spawns rumors and creates a tangled web of misinformation and misunderstanding. It never works, and worse, it teases leadership into thinking that it has communicated when it actually has only miscommunicated.

  • Senior management devotes weeks or even months to crafting a new strategy, and the strategy is a glorious thing. But it exists only at the level of the enterprise or the division. It has not been translated or interpreted to its practical implications, so employees and their supervisors don’t know what to do with it. Mystified, they naturally ignore it. It’s dead on arrival, but management doesn’t realize it for months to come. So leaders continue talking about something that is a mere historical footnote in the minds of employees.

  • In harsh economic times, employees have reason to worry about their own economic security. Many are naturally fearful. The organization needs everyone’s full involvement, but only those people who like to hear themselves talk are willing to speak up. The need for open dialogue has yielded to a cacophony of the loud.

  • Having just read the latest best-seller from Harvard Business Press, the leader is pursuing a new management fad that employees think is just plain silly. Having seen so many fads come and go, they’re naturally resilient. They let the leader talk, of course—no one in her right mind will interrupt or fall asleep—but they’re thinking about their own projects and deadlines. The leader is serious but irrelevant.

If you have been around a while, you have seen scenarios like these more than once. None of them is the product of the ten talk traps. All of them involve leaders who think they are talking straight, and yet their very straight talk is actually part of the problem.

In our next post, we will look at some strategies and tactics a leader can use to keep straight talk straight. 

 

Six Reasons Straight Talk Is Harder Than It Appears

By Thomas J. Lee

A few days ago in this space we explored ten “talk traps,” or conventions of communication that leaders often fall into.

Some of them can work in the right place and the right time, but don't work in the wrong place or the wrong time. Others are ill-advised all the time. Each of them poses its own challenge, and all of them can be tricky.

The talk traps are Small Talk, Sunny Talk, Scare Talk, Sweet Talk (or Smooth Talk), Smart Talk, Simple Talk, Song and Dance Talk, Slick Talk, Snarky Talk (or Surly Talk), and Self Talk. As a bonus we pointed to an eleventh, too: Snarl Talk. (Just click BLOG on the menu and then scroll down to see the post.)

By far the best overall approach to communication in business is Straight Talk: just speaking the truth—gently and respectfully, of course—and letting the chips fall where they fall. But even it is difficult, and occasionally it, too, can backfire.

I can think of six reasons why Straight Talk is often difficult.

First, it isn’t always clear what the "truth" is. Everyone knows that truth includes objective fact, which is relatively easy to grasp. Less commonly understood is that it can also include subjective belief, such as the perception of intent, or one’s judgment of someone, or the importance of a value, or “the voice of experience,” to name a few. People commonly use the words “true” and “truth” to describe both objective fact and subjective belief. You hear it every day, and not only from certain politicians.

Second, it isn’t always easy to agree on even the factual. The facts you see often depend on what you’re looking for, on what you are prepared to see, and on what you have seen before. Someone else may see an entirely different reality and be convinced it is accurate and complete. Where you stand often depends on where you sit and on who you perceive yourself to be. Like it or not, your identity—who you are as a matter of your education, culture, age, gender, religion and more—is a powerful determinant of the reality you see.

Third, the facts can be very unpleasant, to the point that you may not want to face them. Probably all of us have something or someone in our life that we are avoiding. Unfortunately, ignoring or neglecting these simmering problems just lets them fester. Eventually, they are bound to explode. The facts can also be slippery. Factual reality can change with time. What was objectively true yesterday may or may not be today.

Fourth, not all facts have an equal claim on your judgment. The facts that you think mitigate your own decisions and behavior are usually, and systematically, ignored by others, and vice versa. It is an unfortunate aspect of human nature that people can excuse themselves for a mortal sin but rush to condemn others for every venal sin imaginable.

Fifth, the facts can force you to confront your own vulnerabilities: perhaps a professional competency that you should have mastered, or a relational skill that has proved elusive, or a loose command over your own time and resources that threatens to undercut your effectiveness. In those situations, it is tempting to look the other way, isn't it?

Sixth, the facts can challenge and bring into question the values you claim, and even undermine your integrity as a leader. No leader exercises such total and abject control over an organization that it fully lives up to the leader’s aspirations. But when the organization falls short, everyone looks to the leader for an explanation or accountability. For the leader, those moments are not enjoyable.

Not only can Straight Talk pose difficulty, but it can backfire. In our next post, we’ll explore some of the ways it backfires.

Ten Talk Traps That Good Leaders Should Beware

By Thomas J. Lee

Business leaders are supposed to value communication.

But not all communication is created equal. In tone or substance, the wrong kind of communication often backfires. We all know that, because we have all been there.

Here are ten kinds of "talk traps," along with a bonus. Some have their place and their moment when they serve you well, but at the wrong place or the wrong moment, they gravely compound problems. Others are always ill-advised.

In every case, they are tricky. They can easily send the wrong message or confusing and contradictory messages, and their patronizing or presumptuous attitude can alienate employees or other constituents.

Lots of leaders unwittingly fall into these traps. So here is a little guide.

Small Talk is useful for exchanging pleasantries and greetings, of course. As a social lubricant, it is usually harmless, and occasionally it can be informative. Be sure you don’t neglect it. But if small talk is the totality of your communication as you wander about the workplace, you’re missing a great opportunity. Small talk is no substitute for relevant, substantive information about the company’s direction and decisions.

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Sunny Talk, also known as Sunshine Talk or Pumping Sunshine, is the tendency to paint a rosy, simpleminded picture on an unrosy situation. As a leader, you’re supposed to be optimistic and resolute. Just don’t be a Pollyanna. Employees who hear an endless stream of Sunny Talk eventually stop listening. Who can blame them? Everyone knows the real story is rarely if ever so wonderful. The problem with Sunny Talk is its patronizing assumption that employees need to be manipulated in order to be influenced. How sad.

Scare Talk is just the opposite. It constantly paints a picture of woe. It, too, can cause all kinds of problems. Just as the future is never entirely pretty, it’s never completely dismal. Employees know that. By the same token, a leader should have the courage to share unhappy news, as, for example, the reason a big customer is jumping to a competitor. It can be just what’s needed to help sharpen the edge of customer service, product design, or service quality.

Sweet Talk, also known as Smooth Talk, seduces people into taking shortcuts they probably shouldn't, or to accept a deal or situation that is not in their best interest or the company's best interest. Managers under pressure to meet deadlines, budgets, or quotas are often to blame. At its worst, Sweet Talk can result in shipping goods of poor quality, overlooking safety precautions, violating labor agreements, or disappointing customers—any of which can do severe damage to the company's reputation and cost customers or even human life.

Smart Talk is the tendency, all too common in both business and politics, to let words substitute for action. You will often see it when someone is trying to sound smarter than he actually is, or when he is pretending to have information or answers that he doesn't have. It backfires when the real information becomes available, which, in the twenty-first century, is invariably sooner than the smart talker anticipates. You will also see Smart Talk in action—or, more aptly, inaction—when organizations are averse to the change they must undertake. They find it easier to talk about change than to actually change. They are in a state of paralysis by analysis.

Simple Talk underestimates, ignores, or glosses over the nuances, uncertainty, difficulty, or general complexity of a situation or challenge. It offers iron-clad directives in spite of frequent circumstances that cry out for exceptions. As a result, it leaves people feeling like cogs rather than individuals, as units rather than persons, as a machine rather than a team. People are inclined just to shrug their shoulders rather than exercise discretion and judgment, and then to blame their management. Often customers will sense the air of resignation. Not good.

Song and Dance Talk is full of excuses. Any veteran manager or frontline supervisor has heard his share of Song and Dance Talk from underperforming employees. When managers themselves indulge in the same thing, employees quickly realize they are working for a can't-do management team and a never-will company, and they begin looking for the exit.

Slick Talk is an effort to distract someone from a legitimate concern or to mislead someone about something of legitimate concern to them. It takes its name from high-gloss, high-polish production values that call attention to themselves such as an expensive video, a lavish meeting, a slide presentation with brilliant graphics, or such extensive collateral documentation that a reader doesn't know where to begin. Spin often accompanies it.

Snarky Talk or Surly Talk frequently rears its ugly head in pressure-cooker situations when patience is wearing thin. This is just the uncivil, demeaning treatment of people. It may consist of only a single word, such as "Brilliant" or "Genius," uttered in a scornful, mocking tone. Or it may consist of extensive unnecessary background information that is implicitly condescending. It may even be a sneering, if-looks-could-kill facial expression. Managers who frequently resort to Snarky Talk are often intellectually intelligent but emotionally unintelligent, perhaps narcissistic and sometimes even belligerent.

Self Talk is perhaps the most difficult of them all, for no one else ever hears it—but everyone can see its consequences in your choices, behavior, and regard for others. Think of it as covert communication: what you are saying, and how you are saying it, to yourself. What happens to your outward dignity when you are alone in your thoughts? What are you explaining away in a mean-spirited way? How much vitriol do you heap upon yourself? Do you curse yourself? Or are you critical of others for things you excuse or overlook altogether in yourself? Are you ever privately racist or sexist in your thinking? How do you account for personal slights to your ego?

Here's the bonus, though I hesitate to use the same nomenclature. If I did, I suppose it would be Snarl Talk. Like the snarl of tangled cords behind your television or stereo, it refers to the tendency to pack too much information and too many themes into a presentation, publication, or report. Anyone on the receiving end senses a data dump and usually shuts down for want of a tighter focus.

Yet another kind of talk is the leader’s most valuable tool: Straight Talk. But all too often, leaders think they’re talking straight when they aren’t necessarily. We’ll take a look at it in a forthcoming post.

The False Choice Between ‘Bosses’ and ‘Leaders’

By Thomas J. Lee

One of many like it, another Facebook meme purports to draw a distinction between being a “boss” and being a “leader.” It has kernels of truth in it. I just wish it accurately depicted the work of real leadership.

It looks like this:

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Generally speaking, the phrases on the right, under Leader, are good advice for any manager. But here’s the thing: The contrast between bossing and leading is a false one. Let me explain.

Leading people is not just a matter of being kinder and gentler. It is doing the hard work that leadership requires—the work of leading. Sometimes, like it or not, that preludes kind and gentle.

You see, bossing people around is not the opposite of leading them. Indeed, there are times when a good leader must be bossy, when she must demand something. In those moments, which commonly occur on tight deadline, or in a chaotic situation, or in a full-blown crisis, the leader would be negligent not to demand.

You can still be courteous, and you should be. Say please and thank you. Ask instead of order. But do whatever is necessary (and safe, ethical, and legal) to survive and grow.

If the meme were labeled Boss versus Coach, I would find it more agreeable, although “boss” can be understood, and indeed usually is understood, as a synonym for any supervisor or manager, rather than for someone who is just plain bossy. People commonly refer to their “boss” in neutral or even favorable terms.

Back to my central point: What exactly is the real work that leadership requires? Glad you asked.

Leadership is best understood by comparing and contrasting it with management—and neither of them as levels on an org chart or a hierarchy. Rather, each should be viewed as a particular kind of responsibility and opportunity. Leadership and management are both necessary, and both are important. It is wrong to think you should stop managing and begin leading. Rather, anyone with responsibility for the direction or nature of an organization’s productivity, or for the culture or micro-culture that governs so many choices and so much labor, must do the work of both, managing and leading.

The work of management and the work of leadership both revolve around the expectations of key stakeholders: namely your customers, employees, owners/investors (or members and donors in a nonprofit organization), and the general public through the proxy of government, which grants a license to the organization to do the work it wishes to do. Those four 800-pound gorillas are vital, because each of them has the power to do real damage if their expectations are not met. They can even shut your organization down.

In a nutshell, managing involves making sure that all stakeholder expectations are met. Leadership involves creating and communicating new expectations, to cope with changing times or, more often, to set a different direction or to pick up the pace.

There’s much more to it, but that’s the real nub of the difference.

It’s probably asking too much of the meme artists and Facebook users to capture a sophisticated and nuanced distinction like this, so I am not holding my breath. I just wish more managers, up and down the hierarchy, would make a greater effort to understand leadership.

Our Global Epidemic of Bad Leadership

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By Thomas J. Lee

Bad leaders come and go even in the best of places and the best of times. No society is immune. Lately, however, bad public leadership has been rearing its ugly head seemingly everywhere. We have more bad leaders on the world stage today than perhaps ever before. Indeed, we’re living through a global epidemic of bad leadership in politics and public policy.

Leaders can be bad for either or both of two basic reasons: They want to do bad things, or they cannot accomplish good things in concert with the people they would lead. Wanting to do bad things is a matter of intent. The inability to do good things is a matter of deed. Either way, good things don’t happen, and people are worse off for the experience.

Bad leaders are thus either indecent or incompetent, or both. For the sake of color, let’s call the indecent leaders “crooks” (not that they’re necessarily criminal) and the incompetent leaders “clowns” (not that they’re necessarily funny). In countries near and far, we have rarely had so many crooks and clowns at one time in positions of public leadership.

You can judge for yourself. Just take out a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the center and a horizontal line across the middle of the page. Label the vertical line Decent at the top and Indecent at the bottom, for its extremes. Similarly, label the horizontal line Incompetent at the left and Competent at the right. Bracket both lines with opposing arrows, so that each line is a continuum.

Together, the lines create a two-dimensional array for you to capture where, in your judgment, prominent leaders around the world are in terms of their decency and their competence. Leaders whose leadership is both decent and competent fall somewhere in the northeast (upper right) quadrant. Those whose leadership is indecent but competent fall in the southeast quadrant, and so forth around the whole diagram.

Now take the following list of twenty well-known leaders and mark their initials (in bold) anywhere on the paper to indicate where, in your judgment, each would fall with respect to both the decency and competence of their leadership (you can skip any leader you know too little about):

  1. Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil JB

  2. Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada JT

  3. Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China XJ

  4. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt AFS

  5. Emmanuel Macron, president of France EM

  6. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany AM

  7. Narendra Modi, prime minister of India NM(I)

  8. Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran HR

  9. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel BN

  10. Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan SA

  11. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico AMLO

  12. Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea KJ

  13. Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines RD

  14. Vladimir Putin, president of Russia VP

  15. Mohammad bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia MBS

  16. Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria BA

  17. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey RTE

  18. Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom TM

  19. Donald Trump, president of the United States DT

  20. Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela NM(V)

As much as possible, net out your own personal political orientation, and try to assess these leaders impartially and rationally. For example, regardless of your view on Brexit, you may believe that Prime Minister Theresa May is (or was, by the time you read this) decent but incompetent, and accordingly you would write TM for her somewhere in the northwest quadrant.

My guess is that the initials on your scatterplot will cluster in or near the southwest quadrant, indicating that you regard many if not most of the leaders as both largely indecent and largely incompetent. Few will be in the northeast quadrant.

Why is that? I believe we can point to nine basic reasons. Together, they can shed light on our global epidemic of bad leadership.

First, democratic elections are vulnerable to oddity and celebrity. This phenomenon plays into the hands of wannabe leaders without the moral fiber or the gravitas to govern well. All else being equal, if you have seven candidates on a primary ballot, and six of them share a common denominator but the seventh is atypical, the six will split the vanilla vote and the seventh candidate may just prevail. Similarly, if you have one obscure candidate and one famous name on a ballot, the famous candidate has the decisive edge. It’s a fair bet that Sonny Bono, Al Franken, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, Jesse Ventura, and most recently Volodymyr Zelensky, a TV comedian elected president of Ukraine, would not have ascended to high office had they not been famous from the start.

Second, although cynicism is certainly not new, we live in a time when it is fashionable in the extreme—so much that even the intelligent, informed, thoughtful candidate is derided as just another greedy politician. A broad brush of cynicism effectively minimizes the real and important differences between and among prospective leaders; it creates a false equivalence in their decency and competence. While we certainly have ample evidence to justify a surly mood, we need to remind ourselves that rampant cynicism is corrosive to democracy. We would all do well to remember an old TV ditty for Brylcreem: “A little dab’ll do ya.”

Third, yawning differences in income and education have brought us to an age of populism, in which the fears and anxiety of the masses hold sway, and in which the public is especially vulnerable to demagoguery. By its very nature, populism sows the seeds of unrestrained, impulsive emotion on the part of leader and led. It is an open invitation for both the crooks and the clowns to do what they do best: play on popular passions, especially fear and anxiety. Demagogues of the left or the right know that people often believe what they want to believe rather than what they can see to be manifestly true. The demagogue feels free and emboldened to lie, even brazenly. Moreover, history shows that the bigger the lie, the more likely it is to be believed.

Fourth, after decades of shortening attention spans, an appeal to identity is supplanting an appeal to self-interest, pride, or thoughtful deliberation on substantive issues. Voters (and people in general) see themselves in terms of their nationality, religion, ethnicity, race, residence, education, or sexuality. A politics of identity is a kind of shorthand or code that appeals to large swaths of them, and it’s a lot easier than the long grind of day-to-day, door-to-door politicking. It works because people need cohesion with one another and, like birds of a feather, they flock together. To the extent the group further identifies with a leader, it can surrender its independent judgment. In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm argues that people so value a sense of belonging to community that they are quite willing to sacrifice even their own freedoms. Identity politics takes us down that dangerous path.

Fifth, the double whammy of social media and technology (I’m thinking here mainly of Photoshop and its kin) are easily exploited by control freaks, narcissists, and paranoid schizophrenics to manipulate public opinion and subvert opposition and democratic processes that hold leaders accountable. Their zeal and drive can overpower the reasoned appeals by educated, discerning people.

Sixth, those educated, discerning people often take smug satisfaction in winning the debate (over the climate crisis, or abortion, or immigration, or whatever) while their opponents, who are both less intellectual and more combative, are zealously striving to win control, to exert brute power, and thus to prevail on policy at almost any price. That plays out in all kinds of shenanigans, from refusing to vote on a legitimate Supreme Court nominee to relying on gerrymandering for political control.

Seventh, those same elites are often so cloistered in their comfort that they lack empathy for others—or even much communication with people outside their own social cocoon. That morphs into condescension toward people who lack their education and good fortune in life, and that offends and repels people on the outside looking in. They in turn rebel by voting for demagogues. Thus the educated elites can wind up with the exact opposite of what they were hoping for, and they don’t understand why.

Eighth, as we have seen in food fights over the climate crisis, the minimum wage, vaccinations and GMO groceries, there’s a widespread prejudice for ideology over empirical evidence. Experts can be armed with all the results of double-blind studies and regression analyses, but if they are unable to communicate, their work will be in vain. Fact-based policy loses out, and an ideologue’s ignorance and bias prevail. I happen to be affiliated with The University of Chicago’s acclaimed Harris School of Public Policy, known worldwide for its emphasis on research-driven policy prescriptions. If only more policymakers would pay attention to facts and reason!

Ninth, legislatures in partisan alignment with an executive are all too willing to forgo checks and balances that hold executives accountable. Because of that, they attract leaders who are insecure and disdainful of accountability. Not only does accountability—to a boss or a board of directors or an electorate—hold people within certain boundaries, it imposes a floor on a leader’s behavior. Without accountability, there are no fences and there is no floor. That’s dangerous, perhaps even existentially so. But even as we speak, the crooks and clowns have their shovels out, and they’re digging ever deeper.

Is there hope? Yes. There always is. But I fear we are in a trough, and it may be a while before we find our way out of it.

How to Fire Up People—and Make It Last

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By Thomas J. Lee

Have you ever thought about the imagery of fire in leadership?

Fire comes up often in the thinking and casual conversation of leaders, especially in business. When I speak of fire, it's the noun for combustion I have in mind—not the verb for dismissal.

For example, after a long day, you may tell a friend that you were “putting out fires all day.”

Or you may anticipate resistance to a proposal by saying you expect “a firestorm of opposition” or "some fiery criticism."

In better circumstances, you may come back from a terrific workshop or conference “all fired up” to put some new ideas into practice.

If you are trying to persuade people to embrace a new product or priority, you may speak of “lighting a prairie fire” of support for it.

I have found two other fire-related images particularly helpful. That is because they draw such a vivid contrast between a popular but ineffectual approach to motivation and a less popular but spectacularly successful approach.

The imagery for the popular, so-so approach is to “light a fire under” a person. We have all used that phrasing. Essentially, it refers to motivating someone from the outside in.

Follow that logic, and you soon rely on extrinsic inducements for people: rewarding Jones with a bonus and penalizing Smith by sidelining her for a promotion. Both, of course, are common. But here’s the thing: While they may affect the work that people are doing in the short term, they rarely lead to extraordinary and sustained levels of engagement over the long term. So you miss out on the creativity and innovation they can bring to their work.

Moreover, your own reputation is riding in the balance; your capability and disposition, as perceived by others, will not be what you want it to be. People will likely see you as unfeeling, uncaring, bossy, and just plain awful. That isn’t exactly an algorithm for building a top-tier team.

On the other hand, the imagery for the spectacularly successful approach is to “light a fire inside” a person. It refers to motivating someone from the inside out. Follow this logic, and you find yourself reaching for intrinsic inducements: the joy of camaraderie, the excitement of working with talented peers, the satisfaction of reaching an ambitious goal, the beauty of work well done. This is much better.

Now, be forewarned: The better approach does not come without some risk. The risk is in assuming or convincing yourself that the intrinsic reward is real if it actually isn't, if people don't truly feel the satisfaction but instead feel neglect because they didn't receive any reward—intrinsic or extrinsic. That's an easy error for leaders to commit. Indeed it’s so easy it happens almost by default. On the other hand, if the intrinsic satisfaction is genuine, and if it is credible, it can be a very, very powerful motivator.

You actually know all this from your own experience, and so do I. Moreover, if you have gone through one of our Master Class or Servant Leader classes, you'll recall that we begin by asking everyone to describe the coolest project or team they ever worked on. Nine times out of ten, they describe something that gave them enormous pride and satisfaction. It's rare for anyone to speak in terms of a monetary bonus or a raise or a promotion as part of the cool factor.

So it’s under, or it’s inside. Just two words, two prepositions, themselves unrelated to fire, but when coupled with the imagery of fire, they are enough to separate an uncommonly good approach from a commonly bad one.

Don’t try to light a fire under people. Instead, light a fire inside them. You'll be glad you did, and so will they.

Where Did Your People Get That Crazy Idea?

By Thomas J. Lee

Probably every manager has shaken her head at some point and plaintively asked: Where on earth did the employees get that idea?

It may be a misplaced priority. It may be a misunderstood instruction. It may be misgivings about management's commitment to a goal.

Whatever the mis- of the moment is, chances are a manager has seen it before and wondered aloud where anyone could get that idea. After all, she reminds herself, she has stated the contrary over and over.

Here’s where they got that idea: In your mirror.

You and your organization do not speak with a single voice. You do not even speak with two voices. Rather, you speak with three. Only one of them consists of the words that flow from your mouth, your pen, or your keyboard. This, your formal voice, is the least of the three. The other two voices are far more powerful and far more memorable, because they are the fount of stories, which people use to discern and interpret reality. You would be wise to give some serious reflection to these other two voices.

I have spent the last couple of decades preaching the power of the semi-formal and informal voices in large, complex organizations. Together, your two non-formal voices account for eighty or ninety percent of all employee perceptions and expectations on matters of business direction and priority. Your mouth, your pen, and your keyboard don't stand a chance against them, unless all three voices—formal, semi-formal, informal—are in synch with one another. Only then and only there, where the rubber meets the road, can people get the truth you intended all along.

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You are already familiar with your formal voice. In business, it consists of messages explicitly and deliberately sent by means of official media, be it a newsletter, a townhall meeting, an intranet site, a bulletin board, a banner across a factory wall, or even by a podcast or a tweet. Most organizations devote a great deal of money and creative talent to their formal voice. It's important, for sure, because it establishes a foundation. But it is easily and frequently overwhelmed and drowned out by the other two voices.

The semi-formal voice is the organization's institutional management tools that implicitly, and often inadvertently, establish direction and priorities and that signal the organization's readiness and eagerness (or not) for change. Some common examples of the semi-formal voice are employee perceptions and expectations as driven by, for example:

  • Major policy decisions

  • The decision-making process

  • Management programs

  • Cost accounting and spending authorizations

  • Compensation structure and levels

  • Personnel choices and policies

  • Meetings and agendas

  • Requirements and mandates

  • Budgets and expenditures (and conversely, the refusal to spend money)

  • Bureaucracy and speed

The informal voice is the connection, the network of relationships, between those in positions of leadership and those in positions of followership. It consists of employee perceptions and expectations as driven by, for example:

  • Day-to-day decisions

  • Visible behaviors

  • Apparent motivation

  • Authenticity and validation

  • Questions and responsiveness

  • Resources and support

  • Accessibility and presence (physical, intellectual, social, emotional)

  • Time, priorities, urgency

  • Courage, resilience, and risk

  • Inclusion and collaboration

  • Expectations and compromises

  • Sharing of information

  • Listening and dialogue

Like anything else in business, these three voices demand your attention. You already own their messages. You may as well manage them, or they will manage you. In order to manage them, you must first see them, for all three function as communication.

Only when all three voices are sending much the same message, only when all three are together nurturing a mutually respectful dialogue, only when they are honoring the nobility of an organization's purpose and values, and only when they are encouraging the alignment of behavior with strategy, can the organization reach its full potential.

Otherwise, it’s a roll of the dice. The semi-formal and informal communication will prevail over the formal communication, and employees will perceive a lack of integrity and thus a lack of leadership.

The key point to remember is that an organization’s formal voice can never operate in a vacuum. It must either compete with or complement the semi-formal and informal voices. Your credibility hangs in the balance.

If left unmanaged, the three voices will generate their own messages. Each message may contradict the last, and employees may be left in a state of confusion that sets the stage for cynicism and complacency or even contempt.

Only if managed well can the three voices resonate through an organization to bring people together and to clarify and reinforce important strategic priorities.

So, the next time you wonder where your employees got "that idea," ask yourself and your management team in all candor what the semi-formal and informal voices around your organization have been saying. Chances are you will have your answer. In all likelihood, employees got that idea from managers.

Then, resolve to manage the semi-formal and informal voices just as you have been managing the formal voice. If you have communication plans for the formal voice, you should have communication plans for the semi-formal and informal voices. If you have expected competencies and training in the formal voice, so you should in the semi-formal and informal voices, as well.

Remember, eighty or ninety percent of employee perceptions and expectations come from the semi-formal and informal voices. Manage them, or they will manage you. It's your choice.

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. 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?

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

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 LeanIn.org, 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.

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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.

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

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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.

william shakespeare and the second quarto of hamlet.

william shakespeare and the second quarto of hamlet.

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.”

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:

Maurice Jones, seen here with “dear Yorick,” is Hamlet, prince of Denmark.

Maurice Jones, seen here with “dear Yorick,” is Hamlet, prince of Denmark.

“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.

IMG_0269.jpg

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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