Before you plunge ahead, perhaps you should look back

baseball-1487981_960_720Those are the words I said to one of my clients, an older and accomplished professional who was experiencing some difficulty in deciding what to do next in his career. My question to him?

Where have you enjoyed success in your career?

When he had time to reflect and respond, I explained. I use the word : “enjoyed” in two senses.  First in the sense that you…well… enjoyed it. The moments and circumstances brought a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. The second sense is that of realization, that the experience was not a failure but an overwhelming success.

Most people probably have fewer of those than the other kind, but without doubt it is the enjoyed successes that make things worthwhile. So, why did I ask my client what successes he had enjoyed and more importantly, why should you answer the same question?

First, because if you enjoy success it almost unpredictably indicates a perfect match between your skills, your personality, and the challenge. Most of us can do lots of things but we like to do only a few. Usually we like to do them because we are good at them and we are good at them because we like doing them.

Second, knowing what we like to do and coincidentally what we are good at is critical to more than finding success. It is necessary for continuing success. Therefore if we know what worked for us yesterday we can quite confidently what will work well tomorrow.

Third, decisions become simpler if not easier. It makes no sense to pursue avenues which lead us into places we are poorly-equipped to handle. True enough, we learn daily, but in this consideration we need not try to be all things to all people in all circumstances.

Finally, as leaders we can find others who can do what we cannot or what we would rather not. My client is very smart, brilliant in fact. He could doubtless learn to do more things but why should he? All successful and superlative leaders focus on what they and only they can do in their setting and find others to do everything else.

So, where have you enjoyed success? Why were those times successful? What did you learn about yourself in them? Having learned that, what does it tell you about your future?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of you have written to ask why I have not been posting for a while.  I cannot share details but on October 1st, 2015 a major medical event completely disrupted our household and my attention, time, and efforts have been consumed elsewhere. I am pleased to report that things are on the mend.

How to really live every day of your life


living lifeOne of my clients is home health care company that provides care for older people who want to remain in their homes as long as possible. One of the companies clients recently passed after a long period of substance abuse.

Even though she was regularly treated by physicians, her condition worsened. Before my client’s company began to care for her, she simply wallowed in despair and often became suicidal. Through exceptional care offered by the company, she slowly began to improve and her outlook brightened. She began to have hope once again.

But the effects of time and the consequences of decisions made long in the past could not be overcome. Her health deteriorated. At the hospital, the attending physician asked her a provocative question.  (I should tell you that the patient’s personality was abrasive and belligerent. She lacked even a snippet of social grace.)

At the insistence of my client, the health care company, the patient was transported to the emergency room. The attending physician, putting up with the patient’s foul mouth and even fouler manner, suggested an avenue of treatment. But the patient was contrary and argumentative. So the doctor asked simply, “Do you want to live?”

Even though she answered in the affirmative, within a few days she had passed. Those who had been providing health care had hoped that their patient’s new optimism and attitude would change things, but her doctor had one more insight that explained everything.

“Even though she said she wanted to live,” said the doctor, “she made that decision too late.”

I’ve been writing about finding your place, fitting in, being faithful to your calling. Hindsight is 20/20. It is all too common…and all to unfortunate… to look back on life and wish we had done something differently. Now in all fairness, given the information we had at the time, and given the experience and insights we possessed (0r did not possess) most of us made the best decisions we could at the time.

But that is not to say that we can’t make better ones now.

Being the 2nd day of February, we’re a month in to the new year. What resolutions we might have made at the turn of the calendar are probably wearing thin or gone away altogether by now.

So, it is time to take another look at the future and see what decisions we should really take. After all, if I were to ask you, you would doubtless say, “I want to live.”

What I don’t want to happen is for you to make that decision too late. So, I’ve developed a list of 16 questions for you. For many years I have given out this list to people who voice some dissatisfaction with life, young people who are just embarking on life on their own, with leaders and managers facing the challenges of a mid-life readjustment, and with those who find themselves overloaded with work. It is an analytical process where you define and describe the elements of your life and determine what and where changes can and should be made. There are no right or wrong answers, but you do need to be brutally honest. 

  1. What is your single greatest strength? Everyone is good at something, not so good at other things. Stress is magnified (becomes distress) when you are placed in a position of having to primarily rely on skills other than your greatest strength. If this is happening often, you might be in the wrong position. Eustress is good stress that results from being busy and in demand because you are using skills and talents you have and can employ them in settings that are appreciative and supportive.
  2. What three decisions are causing me the greatest stress? There are things we commit to, agree to, disagree with, contend, contest, sign a contract for, or engage in that have become a source of difficulty. What are you engaged in now that you wished you had not agreed to or has evolved into something more stress-producing than you expected?
  3. What is overwhelming me?Ok, this may be a bit melodramatic, so if you’re not exactly feeling overwhelmed, you might just be feeling too crowded, too overloaded, too much like you cannot escape but need to. What is the source?
  4. What impassable roadblock has me stuck? Typically money and/or people, identify what sits in your way from becoming what you want to be, doing what you need to do, learning what you need to know, and so on.
  5. If  I could do only three things before I die, what would they be?Zig Ziglar has said, “Live each day like it is your last because one of these days, you’ll be right.” Well, this question just might be the most critical of all 16 because it forces you to narrow the plethora of tasks, opportunities, and ideas into just three. The idea is to help you focus on what is important and necessary, not just what is urgent and demanding.
  6. What should I resign from or drop out of?This might tie in to your answers for #2, but even if it isn’t, you might be over-committed, especially in light of #5. Each of us has exactly the same amount of time every day. You cannot save minutes or hours over until tomorrow, you must use them up every day. Do you need to abandon something? Like that smart phone you carry around, sometimes you need to disconnect.
  7. What things on my to-do list can someone else do at least 80% as well as I can?Hearkening back to question #1, you have certain skills, talents, abilities, and responsibilities that you and only you can employ and fulfill. But there are things you are doing now that someone else can do as well or almost as well. You need to focus! And you need to focus on those things, tasks, commitments, and responsibilities that only you can do. Give everything else away to someone else.
  • What are the elephants in my schedule?For 14 days, keep a record of everything you do. In no less than 15 minute increments, write down what you do then analyze them. Where are the biggest bites going? If you are a dedicated scheduler you might discover that you can actually schedule a small portion of your day because others occupy your time and attention and it is largely beyond your control. I will deal with ways to manage others when they intrude on your time and turf in a future post, but for today, determine where the big beasts stand.
  1. What are three things I could do in the next ninety days that would make a 50% difference?Analysis is futile without a corresponding action plan. These questions will show you what you are doing right, where things are going well, and where they are not. Decide right now 3 things you will do differently and plot their start date no later than the next 90 days. You will doubtless make other changes down the road, but I want you to focus on the immediate future. And be specific. Don’t write “manage my time better.” That is too general and too vague to be meaningful. Write exactly how you will manage your time better, when it will begin, and how you will know it worked (or not).
  2. What is my passion (what lights my fire today)?If you engage someone in conversation long enough to get beyond the courtesies that typify the initial minutes of a conversation, and if you catch them in an unguarded moment when they can be honest, listen to what they talk about. You will hear their passion. So, what floats your boat? This is where your motivation resides.
  3. What is my dream (if everything were like it ought to be, what would it look like)?Play God for a minute and describe your ideal life. What would you be doing, where would you live, how much money would you have, where would you be heading?
  4. What do I really want to do?Sadly, many people take the first job they can get when they graduate and they settle into it. It may or may not match their skill set. More critically, your desires and ambitions change over time and your skill sets become more obvious.
  5. When do I want to do it? Plot a date for change. I have done this myself more than once in my life and have just made another job/career change at the ripe age of 61. You can do it too.
  6. What am I going to do to prepare myself? I recommend you work backwards – start with the date of change, ask yourself what has to happen before that…then before that…then before that.
  7. Who will I ask to help me?Now that you’ve worked through 14 questions, get someone else involved. Who can assist you on your journey?
  8. How will it fulfill my calling? if you are not religious, imagine for the sake of this exercise there is a higher power full of goodness, love, honor, and nobility. How will your decisions and actions please that higher power (even if it is inside yourself)?

Just living often overwhelms life. The stuff that has to be done every day glosses over what we really want to do and be. We are often better described as human doings rather than human beings.

But the fullness of our days is no excuse for not deciding early that we want to live.


Power Plays – The 4 Dilemmas We Face and What to Do About Them

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnly 4 dilemmas, you ask?

Well, truthfully, leaders and manager face many challenges daily. Some days it may seem like your hours are filled with nothing but.

However, the dilemmas I refer to in the title are the encompassing dilemma that we face in principle. They manifest themselves in the unending stream of challenges and problems that land on our doorstep but their core solutions are critical to our success and legacy as leaders and managers.

DILEMMA #1 – We are responsible for results. We have multiple constituencies we must satisfy – customers, clients, stockholders, superiors, subordinates, boards of directors, and whoever else may hold you accountable for what happens or what does not happen, including ourselves. They, and we, want results. It may be measured by multiple criteria but somewhere somehow there exists an expectation or set of expectations that we are responsible to achieve.

SOLUTION: Define and articulate them. Keep them ever visible to yourself and your associates. Celebrate progress daily, examine and understand the reasons for the progress, repeat what works, find out why it didn’t.

DILEMMA #2 – We are in tension between a desire to be faithful to the forms of management and leadership we are familiar with and may have inherited and the realities of a changing world and it’s lack of response to those forms. The pace of change increases. The demands of the marketplace and the workplace do not remain static. We may have products that few people want any longer or use methods that just don’t work as well as they used to.

SOLUTION: Be married to results, friends with forms. I’ve been watching an excellent series produced by the BBC called Endeavor. It’s about a young detective in Oxford whose methods are a bit unorthodox. The commissioner is continually vexed because the detective has broken free of tradition. The detective measures success by achievement. The commissioner measures success by faithfulness to forms and methods. Whether it achieves the right result is, to him, irrelevant. It must not be irrelevant to us.

Dilemma #3 – We measure success by criteria that have little to do with our objectives. This is directly related to dilemma #2. Mission statements are well and good, but of no value if they do not somehow translate into a measuring device, a ruler by which we live. Daily activities either propel us toward them, leave us standing still, or move us away from them.

SOLUTION: Take a hard and critical look at what is done each day. If it does not advance towards the objectives why do we measure it and then ask why we do it at all.

Dilemma #4 – Human nature often causes is to think short-term, so do profit and loss statements. Anyone who has been in business very long knows that the top line is largely meaningless. It is the bottom line that reveals the true state of the business. The major home improvement store I used to work for would set off fireworks if large sales numbers were reached then moan and groan a few weeks later when monthly or quarterly accounts were in because margins were so thin. They achieved those large sales numbers by deep discounting. It meant bragging rights for the day, but substantial failure towards profitability in the end. In the considerable time I was there they never could overcome it.

Solution: Legacy leaders will never sacrifice long-term objectives for short term-gain. Long-term thinkers handle their staffs differently, approach their customers on a different footing, and build a substantial foundation that makes an unshakeable company.

Leaders and managers are hired to lead and manage. Problem-solving and dilemma fixing is part of the job.  How well are you handling these dilemmas? What solutions have you found and how did you implement them?

Churchill and Hitler were both effective leaders. Here’s why.

churchillsteve21/hdc/people/69/0192Leadership as a topic can be completely separated from concepts of good and evil. Leadership in its execution has been used for both. There is perhaps no more certain contrast of this than in the parallel administrations of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill.

One used his considerable skills of leadership to bring most of the world to the edge of annihilation, the other to stop it. One employed the techniques that typify exemplary leadership to call out the worst in human behavior, the other to call out the best. Like courage or sincerity, leadership as an act is morally and ethically neutral. True enough, admiration for leaders and validation of their leadership does often depend on the outcome, but there can be no doubt that the components of leadership are the same however it works out. While failure can often be traced to poor leadership, effective and competent leaders fail too, witness the fall of the Third Reich.

One may be a great leader while being a despicable human being. The two are not mutually exclusive.

In the case of Churchill versus Hitler, both were sincere and brave in the advancement of their beliefs even though Hitler’s were loathsome. Both were opportunists, taking full advantage of time, history, and circumstances to propel themselves into positions of power, garner a following, and motivate them to do their bidding.

It is the leader’s use of words to draw on the emotions of their listeners that seem to make the difference between effectiveness and ineffectiveness. One moved his nation forward toward light and victory, the other towards darkness and defeat.

Leaders do so by appealing to emotions which, throughout history, has remained remarkably limited and amazingly constant regardless of the times or the culture.

Take for example, Pericles Funeral Oration spoken at the public funeral of those who died in a war in which Athens was still engaged. Compare that with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and you’ll discover the parallels in principle are remarkable even though they are separated by millennia.

Leaders have  the power of persuasion. This is usually achieved by what the leader says and how s/he says it. In my work on the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States, I soon discovered that there is no Navajo language equivalent for our English word “leader”. A “leader” in the Navajo nation is an orator, one who speaks eloquently and persuasively. Well, there you have it. A leader is one who can move a crowd.

That phrase – “move a crowd” – points out another component. Not only can a leader speak well, but s/he can motivate listeners, inspiring them to “move” from where they are in their thinking and actions to something else. Demagogues do this very well.

I will go so far as to say that when a person in a leadership position becomes silent or fails to say something, s/he is moving away from leadership. There is no such thing as leading from behind when a “leader” falls silent. The label “leading from behind” is employed when a leader has screwed up and not been out front as the job demands.

Churchill spoke, spoke very, very well. So too, did Hitler. They both possessed charisma, that compelling charm or appeal that inspires devotion in others. Once that charm has worked its spell, the leader can convince and inspire people to do more than they ever thought of themselves.

Followers willingly accede authority to a charismatic person. Willingly! Followers grant to their leaders authority over them and give their money, time, attention, talent, efforts, even their very lives. From our vantage point, we can sit in judgment of those who caved in to a monster like Hitler, but in those times what he said, particularly in the beginning as he began his ascent to power, seemed entirely reasonable and held obvious appeal to the masses in Germany. They did not know, probably few even considered, where it would lead.

James MacGregor Burns wrote “One of the most universal cravings of our time is a hunger for compelling and creative leadership.” Time and again it has led to disaster. France cried out for leadership from Napoleon in 1799, Russia looked to Lenin in 1917 and doubled down with Stalin ten years later. No less than 13 million Germans voted for Hitler in 1932!

But it works out well too. In the US we can point to the leadership (words and oratory) of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and the others who persuaded reluctant colonists to throw off England’s mantle. Then there was Abraham Lincoln, the skills of speaking found in Franklin Roosevelt, the popular appeal of Ronald Reagan who won 49 states in 1984 (Richard Nixon won 49 states too and we know how that turned out). Even Barack Obama, who won considerably less States in both his elections, is obviously a gifted orator.

Limiting our discussion to only the manifestation of the acts of leadership there is lots to say, and I intend to pursue the subject. I want to emphasize right now that my pursuit of this subject has no reflection on my personal political beliefs and should not be taken as such. I intend to explore the subject on the terms of effective leadership skills. History is better at qualifying the results and we will rely on it to do so.  (If you’re curious, and promise not to let your political beliefs persuade you to abandon this blog if they conflict with mine, you can read my columns at

So the next series begins later this week –  “POWER PLAYS – the components of leadership and how they are used to inspire and motivate.”

Here’s a brief outline of what I will cover:

  • The four elements of effective leadership
  • The definition of leadership and how it is different from authority and      management
  • Why and how vision is critical to powerful leadership
  • 4 ways to destroy your leadership role
  • Why strong, compelling leadership is imperative – there are 18 key pieces to      this puzzle
  • The role of your staff in exercising power
  • The 5 dilemmas we face and how to solve them
  • The three types of power and how each can have its place
  • Power sources – where to find, tap into, and transmit power to accomplish what      must be done

I hope you’ll log back in and follow the series through to its completion.


Keeper Trait #15 – Initiative

iniitiativeMany potential employers put it directly in their ads – “must be a self-starter.” It is, apparently, an all too unusual trait.

Perhaps more than any other trait, it separates the successful from the failure, the winner from the loser, the prosperous from the poor. A person with initiative does not wait to be told to something, does not sit back blaming anyone for his or her lack of progress, but steps up and gets going.

C. Northcote Parkinson said that The man whose life is devoted to paperwork has lost the initiative. He is dealing with things that are brought to his notice, having ceased to notice anything for himself.

Stephen Covey adds in his perspective when he says that Employers and business leaders need people who can think for themselves – who can take initiative and be the solution to problems.

In a general sense, your associates, subordinates, and employees will fit somewhere on this chart.4 levels

The Forced Laborer is always there BUT you have to go find them, take them to the job site, show them precisely what needs to be done, and either stand over them yourself or assign someone to do so in order to keep them working. They completely lack initiative.

The Hired Hand is a bit more independent. They will do the job once it has been pointed out, once the tools or devices necessary to do it are supplied, and once the task has been defined. But you usually do not have to monitor them very closely.

The Reliable Assistant has a good deal of initiative but may be a bit reluctant to volunteer. Once you issue a directive or point out a general task that needs to be done (which you can do by either specifying the task or the objective), they will take it from there. What’s more, they will aggressively account to you once they are finished.

The Trusted Associate is so in tune with the objectives of the organization, the supporting objectives of his or her department, and with the comprehensive vision articulated by you, that they will see what needs to be done even before it is pointed out. Then they will take charge and make sure it is done then report to you.

Forced Laborers and Hired Hands cost less money but more in supervisory engagement. Reliable Assistants and Trusted Associates cost more money but they free up manpower and, most critically, they free up your time.

People with the trait of initiative make the world, make your world, a better place. Now, if you’re a control freak, don’t be surprised if you drive people with initiative away. They do not like, and will not tolerate for long, too much meddling. It seems odd that control freaks bring trouble upon themselves. They drive off the independent types who could really help, who could extend their reach, multiply their effectiveness, and divide their work. They limit themselves to associates, subordinates, and employees who require copious amounts of oversight and management causing control freaks to lament that all they can find are people who have to be constantly managed.

So, what do you do? Find those with initiative and integrate them into your work circle so they can do what they do so well. Keep cycling through the others until you build a team that can run the engine of commerce without your constant oversight.


Beware the naked man who wants to give you fashion advice

 “Well, you have your degree. Now you’re going to get an education.”

One of my professors said that to me the night I graduated. She was correct.

A few weeks later I had moved with my new bride (who is now my not-so-new bride but exciting nonetheless) to Northern Arizona for our first post-college, degree-enabled job. Four years of formal education delivered by some of academia’s finest minds would lead one to think that graduates of the program would be equipped for every good work.

Our first morning there, I stepped outside, looked up into the clear Arizona sky and said right out loud,  “I have no idea what I am supposed to do.”

I figured it out eventually.

Fast-forward now several decades to a Harvard commencement program. My son was receiving his Master’s degree and we were there to witness and bask in his accomplishment. The commencement speaker, himself a Harvard grad, began to speak and what he had to say remarkably paralleled my own story. Years invested in higher education, launching into career post-graduation with no idea of what to do, eventually figuring things out and making a successful life along the way. We both got the bulk of our education after receiving degrees.

So, you are wondering, what is my point?

Employers place a good deal of emphasis on education and experience for good reason. Education alone seldom prepares one for work and life in the real world. It does expand knowledge. It does provide information both general and specific. But it does not, and cannot, prepare one with the thousands of nuances and insights that come from living life and interacting with its many opportunities and curve balls nor can it provide the street smarts that comes from working in your field.

You remember the old story about the young executive who asked of his mentor hos that mentor became a success. “Good decisions,” replied the man.

“But,” asked the young man, “how can I learn how to make good decisions?”

“Simple,” replied the mentor, “that comes with experience.”

“How do I get experience?”

“Simple,” replied the mentor. “Bad decisions.”

Most of us have been subjected to the friend or relative who can well tell us how we should raise our children but their words do not resonate for one glaring omission. They’ve never had children of their own.

A friend once told me, with a completely straight face, that he was the best husband to his wife that he had ever known. When I asked him how he knew that, he remarked that he had been to a marriage seminar and what he learned there had assured him he was.

Now, there is probably no doubt that what he learned was true, accurate, and worthwhile. But education’s power to transform is limited until it encounters the catalyst of real life. Why? Because life is full of “Aha” moments, those increments of time when what you have learned and what you have become aware of collide to produce truth and reality. Education is quite good at swelling the head by filling it with information but frankly it is of limited appeal and therefore limited use to practical leaders (notice the title of this website) until it has been tempered with the sting of battle and shaped by the exigencies of life.

Now, this essay is more than an exercise in examination and opinion. There is a point.

I was interviewing potential associates for business and asking if they had ever owned a business. Most had not. One employee who left my employ (fired him for unsafe shop practices) and started out on his own told me later he had no idea what a challenge cash flow was, that he was used to getting paid regardless but as an owner he got paid last if at all. Well, duh?

Another told me he had been in business but when I asked the nature of the business he said it was a small shop located in an out-building behind his house in which he made the occasional piece of custom molding on order for the company he worked for every day. So, while technically he was a business owner, it was not the type of business that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be equated with a stand-alone business that demands finding customers, fulfilling orders, handling payroll, making lease payments, and the dozens of other pieces of business of a real business. His was a “business” for tax purposes only and met the criteria for tax reporting that allowed certain deductions.

So here’s my point. Neither of those guys had the complete package. One had experience in the field but completely lacked both business knowledge and experience. The other had some limited knowledge but had never embarked on the unknown sea of commerce; his was a boat in a bathtub but he fancied himself a blue water sailor. (FYI, the last I knew this fellow was marketing himself as a business consultant.)

When I was in college I noticed the large number of alumni who had gravitated back to the school to teach. Then I checked into other institutions of higher learning and found the trend was the same. I asked that same professor who predicted when I would get an education why this is so. She said, “Because those who can do, but those who can’t come back here and teach you how to do what they could not.”

Without doubt you will encounter a goodly number of consultants who offer their services to help you solve a problem, build a business, or make a life. There is little doubt they will have good things to say and might be worth their fee. But before you hire one of them, ask them just exactly what they have achieved in their field. Beware the naked man who wants to give you fashion advice.

Paid to Produce

I don’t think I could ever work in a government agency. For the first 25 years of my career I was a trainer and consultant. One of my clients in those days was the Navajo Tribe in Arizona. I worked with the tourism office consulting to the assistant director and director of tourism. I quickly learned that the people who directed that division got paid to talk, or more correctly to talk and write.

There were endless meetings where great ideas were discussed, analyzed, refined, and critiqued followed by voluminous reports in which everything that was discussed, analyzed, refined, and critiqued was restated with footnotes. Then, nothing happened. Plans were drawn up but no plans were implemented. Strategies were formulated but no strategies were employed. Task lists had been meticulously drawn up but no tasks were assigned except to schedule more meetings to discuss what had transpired since the last discussion.

It was maddening! I encouraged, exhorted, admonished, and tried my best to get them off the dime and do something, ANYTHING! The assistant director was somewhat motivated, but claimed his hands were tied by the director. Eventually the assistant director became the director, however nothing changed. The entire system was built around talking and writing, not doing.

The process was more important than the product. Really, the process was the product. Making something happen was scarcely important at all. Planning, discussing, reporting, discussing, meeting, those were important and the product by which they validated themselves and the existence of their agency.

They felt successful because they held,and reported on, a continuing stream of meetings and evaluations. They even discussed the need for action and got bogged down analyzing why no action resulted from their meetings. That analysis of failure became a mark of their success even though the failure, and the system that promoted it, remained unaltered. It was, however, well scrutinized.

Leadership, practical leadership, is predicated upon and committed to action. The one government entity that differs from the one I described above is the military in time of war. Everything, I mean everything, is focused on getting something done.

Leaders are paid to produce. Those who pay you will not long settle for talk alone.If you are self-employed, your business will not survive on talk. Something useful must be produced and sold to someone who considers your product an object of value and are willing to pay for it. Practical leaders earn their worth and consequently their pay by producing.

Get something done! Today, right now! Go ahead, the time for talk has finished. Do it!