My Dad, a Humble Profile in Leadership

My Dad, a Humble Profile in Leadership

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 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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew — Lovell, Fred Haise, and last-minute substitute Jack Swigert — quickly accepted the fact that . . . 

Read More

Does Your Firm Run Like a Well-Oiled Machine?

Does Your Firm Run Like a Well-Oiled Machine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

The Myth of the Charismatic Leader

The Myth of the Charismatic Leader

Let me tell you a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

Can Control Freaks or Tyrants Ever Truly Lead?

Can Control Freaks or Tyrants Ever Truly Lead?

Was Hitler a true leader?

How about Stalin? Was he a real leader?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

Why Are So Many Leaders Such Poor Listeners?

Why Are So Many Leaders Such Poor Listeners?

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

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

But that last thing, that can be a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

How Much Is People Engagement Really Worth?

How Much Is People Engagement Really Worth?

What is the value of people engagement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

A True Story of a Skunk At My Feet

A True Story of a Skunk At My Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

Seven Things I Learned From Losing My Temper

Seven Things I Learned From Losing My Temper

I lost my temper yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

The Simple Secret to All Great Leadership

The Simple Secret to All Great Leadership

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

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

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

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

Read More

Leadership and the Proverbial Dessert Cart

Leadership and the Proverbial Dessert Cart

Think back to the last time you took the family out for a casual dinner. When it came to dessert, chances are the waiters didn't just bring you a simple printed menu.

More likely, they either described the choices in colorful language or, even more likely, brought a dessert cart to show you (and especially your kids) what you could order.

That wasn't by whim or accident. It was deliberate and carefully planned. By describing or illustrating the selections, the restaurant was expanding your possible options and, in the process, making it much more likely you would order that $9 slice of double-chocolate fudge cake.

The same goes for buying a new car. The salesperson is likely to put you behind the wheel and let you take it for a spin. In a few minutes you will have felt what it would be like to own and drive it.

The late Steve Jobs used to tell anyone who would listen, "You have to show people what's possible." 

Jobs, a masterful marketer, knew that, unless they saw what it could do, people would never buy an iPad. It wasn't something they could even think about, because it was unlike anything they had ever used.

Further, he knew you had to talk to people in terms they could understand. It was one thing to tell people an iPod had so-many megabytes. It was something else entirely to tell them they could have 1,000 songs in their pocket.

Read More

A Leadership Lesson on Vulnerability — from the Oscars

A Leadership Lesson on Vulnerability — from the Oscars

Anyone who watched the Academy Awards the other night — and 36 million people did — had to be struck by the courageous candor of Graham Moore, the 33-year-old writer who won an Oscar for The Imitation Game screenplay.

The movie starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who is remembered today as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Turing did as much as anyone to win World War II for the Allies by cracking Enigma, the Third Reich's complex, mechanized process of encoding messages.

In spite of his intellectual heroics, Turing was prosecuted for the crime of homosexuality in the early 1950s. He accepted chemical castration in lieu of imprisonment and died a year or two later of cyanide poisoning, apparently by his own hand.

Moore, the young screenwriter, has something in common with Turing, and it isn't, as many people assumed, his sexual orientation. Rather it is a history of depression over self-perceived, felt differences from mainstream society, and an accompanying inclination toward suicide.

After the envelope was opened and his name was read Sunday night, Moore acted on an impulse. He told himself he would rarely have such an opportunity. Staring into the bright lights and the little black circles of the television cameras, he decided to use his 45 seconds of airtime to "say something meaningful." That, he did.

“When I was 16 years old," he declared, "I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong.

"And now I am standing here, and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or or she doesn’t fit in anywhere.

Read More