Stuck in 1st gear – is the impediment to progress you?

stuck in 1stIt happens easily enough and usually innocently enough. You start a business or organization then endure what is often a long and expensive learning curve. Along the way you learn…you learn a lot. You discover the competencies and incompetencies of those working with you. You learn how to manage cash flow challenges. You learn the ins and outs, the ups and downs of business in the real world.

In a few years the business or organization begins to prosper. By then your role should change from working in your business to having more time to work on your business.

But too often it doesn’t. The business (I use this term in a very broad sense. Even nonprofits are enterprises with a mission to accomplish and must function in just about every sense as a business. The only differences are that the excess revenues received are not distributable to anyone except in the form of salaries paid for work performed) begins to prosper and could expand to another level but something seems to be holding it back.

Could it be you?

How, you object? Because holding on to authority means letting go of responsibility. Notice I did not say shirking responsibility. I said letting go of responsibility. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn in my early developmental years in leadership is to discover what things, what jobs, what tasks, what responsibilities faced me that only I could do…and giving everything else away.


May I direct your eyes to the banner of this website for just a few seconds? You may have to scroll the page up, especially if you’re reading on a smartphone or tablet. What does it say just under “The Practical Leader?”

It says “Extend Your Reach – Multiply Your Effectiveness – Divide Your Work.”

But too many of us are stuck with limited reach, divided effectiveness and multiplied work…and we’ve done it to ourselves. Like a car stuck in first gear, your journey consumes way too much fuel, makes way too much noise, and takes way to long to get there.


Because one of the key responsibilities resting upon you is the need to empower and release others. To make more leaders. But you won’t be able to do that if you see them as inept and incapable or if you regard them as a threat.

Your role is not to monitor others but to mentor them. This assumes the following:

  1. That you are secure enough in your position as leader that you can share the work and the credit. Insecure leaders seem to be attention hogs.
  2. That you are attentive to who you hire. You have identified your limitations and hire others for their strength to compensate for your weakness.
  3. That you are willing to pass on what you’ve learned to others.
  4. That you will not allow paranoia to stifle the growth of your company or organization.

You can stop right where you are. In fact if you do you are not alone. Thousands of businesses are stymied simply because their owners/leaders cannot or will not shift gears.

Now, by this point I usually get some pushback from leaders who complain that they have no one they can trust, that if they didn’t monitor everything that goes on the whole company would fall into chaos, that every person they’ve ever tried to employ has disappointed them.

They are, of course, quite incorrect. They are either control freaks or they are unable to grow. Will others fail? Yes, but then so do you. Will others disappoint? Yes, but then so will you. Perfection and 100% economy and efficiency is a myth. You don’t meet that standard and no one else will either. It is no reason and cannot be legitimized to excuse oneself from mentoring.

Never forget what your role really is. It is not to make sure everyone does things right. It is to make sure that you… and everyone else… stays focused on the vision and does the right things.

You there, yes you, the leader of your company or organization. Do only those things that only you can do. Mentor others so you can give everything else away.

3 leadership lessons I learned on board the USS Midway

USS-Midway-0-San-DiegoIn mid-January of this year my son and I spent the better part of a day touring the USS Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier berthed in San Diego harbor. I’ve been on naval vessels before but none as large as the Midway.

As awe inspiring as the Midway’s war making capabilities were, both Nathaniel and I were particularly interested to learn about the systems for housing the crew and maintaining morale. Accommodations for seamen was Spartan and crowded necessitated by the large number, about 5000, and the crowded confines of the ship.

There were three things that struck me.

First, there were two officers directly in charge of human relations. Those officers’ sole duty was to listen to the crew, answer questions when they could, and be an understanding and reassuring face when they could not. They had to be sensitive enough know when silence was a better response. They spent their days and nights roaming the ship talking to people. There were other officers whose duty it was to make sure the jobs were taken care of. It was their duty to make sure the people were taken care of.

Second, there were chaplains in charge of the spiritual condition of the crew. Their job was not merely a traditional obligation for religious ritual. The long tradition of handling stress in confined duty has proven that people are more than flesh and sinew. There is a spiritual dimension to everyone, even if some are less sensitive to it than others. The chaplain’s role is not conversion but conservation, to preserve the well-being of people whose hard work and difficult circumstances are more than physically draining.

Space is at a premium on board so cabin space is not handed out willy-nilly. The size, location, and amenities of one’s cabin was an indicator of importance and value. Both sets of officers, the morale officers and the chaplains, were granted larger accommodations indicating their significance.

The third thing was procedural. The Captain of the ship had free reign of the ship from bow to stern, above and below. But there was one place he never ventured into without asking permission…and he asked permission of someone below his rank. It was the dining room for the CPO’s, the Chief Petty Officers. Judged by everyone in the know to actually run the Navy, CPO’s had their own dining room into which the Captain never entered without permission. He always waited outside, asked to speak to the ranking chief, and sought permission before entering.

Why do I find this significant? Because more than anything else, this demonstrates a powerful principle – that you never violate the autonomy and sovereignty of people in their appointed role.

When I worked at Lowe’s, the manager of the flooring department showed up in my department, millwork, and began rifling through our file cabinet. With no explanation whatsoever he began removing files. Since I was not in charge, I had no authority to inquire as to what he was doing or to prohibit him from doing it. But it surely did annoy my department manager when she found out.

Why? What he was doing was preparing for a store audit by regional auditors, something that had to be done every year. I checked around and in every department where he went in and rifled the cabinets he was met with the same antagonistic response by the managers of those other departments.

What should have been done? After all, the store manager did have to make sure the store was ready for the audit. Sending a guy in to remove outdated files of dead sales was an efficient way to handle the job.

But it was highly ineffective. And it damaged his standing with the many other managers inside the building. What he should have done was get on the phone and call each one (there are only 5), inform them of the up-coming audit, explain that he was sending a person around to handle the job, and ask for both their assistance and cooperation.

When he did not do that, he proved that he had little respect for the autonomy and sovereignty of those other managers, a stupid mistake. The Captain of the Midway made no such error. He knew the significance of making sure other leaders knew that he knew their role was significant and took the actions necessary to reinforce it.

  • Appreciate the influence morale plays on overall performance. People are not machines.
  • Acknowledge the spiritual dimension of those who work for you, even when they are not religious. It’s part of the set of values that influence how people make decisions.
  • Never violate the autonomy and sovereignty of those you’ve placed in positions of responsibility.

You get 5000 sailors to do their jobs and do them well by paying the price. It is an off-budget expense but it pays unbelievably huge dividends.

NOTE: This article first appeared several weeks ago in The Practical Leader newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, it’s sent out free of charge at least twice a month. And, you will receive articles normally never included on this blog. Special content, personally delivered, no charge, what could be better? Simply use the subscription form at the top right of this page and in a few clicks your free subscription will be set up.

6 Bases of Power – Coercive

fistThere was a time when this type of power was common. It is the first resort of bullies, manipulators, and thugs. It is the last resort of everyone else.

The Business Dictionary defines it as “Authority or power that is dependent on fear, suppression of free will, and/or use of punishment or threat, for its existence.”

This is the 4th in a seven part series on the Bases of Power. The underlying meaning of power in our context – leadership and management – is INFLUENCE. We, as those who shoulder the responsibility of directing departments, groups, institutions, and organizations, must be able to influence others. Our objective is to move forward, achieve goals, reach targets, make an impact, and fulfill vision.

To do that we must enlist the cooperation of others. Coercive forces others to cooperate. It does not enlist their cooperation.

Effective leaders have a multi-faceted approach to leadership. They can call up different approaches, manifest different styles, and use various devices to motivate, manage, and lead.

Coercive force is sometimes, even rarely called for. It presumes an adversarial relationship exists and once coercive force is employed an adversarial relationship will certainly result even if it was not there before.

It might be the oldest form of power in the context of structured relationships. Coercive power is the raw exercise of authority over others. Conquering armies use it as do monarchs.

It can usually be justified in times of crisis and chaos. If all hell is breaking loose, there might not be the time to assemble a focus group and come up with a plan. Coercive power can be mean spirited and abusive. Sometimes, as in crisis, it might be the most efficient and effective means to the end.

But it most often manifests itself in insecure leaders and managers where it easily becomes abusive. Emotionally and psychologically insecure leaders fear losing control and this is where coercive power takes on an insidious approach. You may have worked for or with a master manipulator who will do whatever it takes to get you to do what they want you to do. This is where it gets tricky because coercive power is not always blunt force. It is, especially in this day and age, more often seen as subtle, indirect manipulation.

Those who resort to coercive force do not regard people as people. They regard people as objects, devices to be controlled and maneuvered.

Because followers follow from fear or manipulation, commitment is superficial. The focus is always on the one doing the controlling. But, control is mostly reactive and temporary.

I once worked as a consultant for a master controller and manipulator. His mantra was POTC which he explained meant:





If we define “control” in the “manage and oversee” sense, all is well. If we take it like he did, it meant absolutely squelch any and all sense of individuality and cooperative participation. Control for him really meant coerce. You either did what he said in precisely the manner he said it or you were out. He was physically and emotionally exhausted because the functions of the entire organization depended on him and his need to control everything.

I would like to propose a slight alteration to his mantra. POTC is fine, but let’s define it as





Why “COORDINATE”? Because coercive power should be used very, very sparingly and only as a last resort. Leaders and managers will be far more fruitful and far less stressed when we learn to coordinate the talent that works alongside. Positions of authority are important. The bases of our authority and the devices we employ are critical.


Keepers trait #9 – Sensitivity

T101209-N-2943B-001his may seem like an unusual or even inappropriate trait and I want to be clear from this first sentence that I am NOT suggesting sensitivity in the emotional or psychological sense.  A sensitive associate is not to be confused with a touchy one. I do not mean someone who is easily set off, offended, or who must be handled with extreme care.

A sensitive employee is one who can discern and respond to subtlety. They “get it” quickly and clearly.

My father taught me, and I passed it on to my own children, that the way to make yourself invaluable to an employer is to quickly discover what is important to them and never disappoint them.  Find out their hot buttons and do everything you can to avoid pushing them. Instead, if they have areas and issues they prefer over others, meet them.

Sensitive employees do just that.

Sensitive employees and associates are:

  • Highly tuned in to the workplace. They can sense the mood of the moment and know how to respond to it.
  • Highly tuned in to the feelings of others and exercise great care never to offend, abuse, or ignore anyone on the team. This goes for managers and leaders too.
  • Comfortable working alone.
  • Respectful of the boundaries of others. They never intrude without an invitation or a compelling reason.
  • Particularly useful in service industries like restaurants, concierge services, and here’s a surprise, sales. Now you might think a sensitive person would be handicapped in sales because of the presence of rejection. But my sales model is not one of pressure, but of collaboration. In my last sales job I explained to all my clients that I was not intent on selling them anything but I was intent on helping them make the best selection for their particular needs.  (I was in the top 5% of sales for the region by the way.) We have all endured insensitive sales people who persisted on pursuing a script even though it did not match the setting. Telemarketers seem to be script-bound. Sensitive servers and salepersons can anticipate the needs of others before being told.
  • Capable of coming up with great ideas because they usually process information deeper. Sensitive people are usually inclined to creativity, have an inclination towards the arts.
  • Usually highly intelligent and possess great, active, vibrant imaginations. They are particularly good at finding a way where there is no way.
  • Know what your values are and match them.

There are downsides of course. Overly sensitive people can be moody, can be more inclined to self-medicate, and can be a bit hesitant to volunteer for fear of rejection. But, taken in balance, and used within the context I have set, this trait is an asset to the team.

Keeper trait #9 is appropriate skills and temperament. See you in a few days. I have been notified by my hosting service that they are moving my websites to faster servers so there might be slight and incremental outages in the service but it will be finished soon. Thanks for your patience.

Keeper Trait #3 – Emotional and Psychological Security

confidenceYou’ve encountered them, those insecure types who have a point to prove, weight to throw around, and a chip on a shoulder they are just hoping someone will knock off. Ok, it does sound like a cliché festival but it is true. (Clichés became clichés because their observations are both obvious and common.)

Remembering that the singular objective for all associates and employees is to solve problems. Their problem-solving skills must always exceed their problem-creating leanings. This series is laying out those 16 traits that are found in keepers, those not-so rare individuals who make life better. There are plenty of them around, perhaps most of them are thus. It seems odd to me that so many employers, leaders, and managers keep the less than best ones on the rolls. Skill for the job is critical but by no means the only criteria. Yes, I know there are labor laws that must be honored and having run my own businesses with employees, I know what they are. But the initial probationary period can and should reveal much so don’t squander that time.

In the early days of my millwork business I was interviewing potential shop workers. One man came in with impressive credentials. After he left the interview, my business partner revealed that he knew the man having worked with him earlier. It seems that the man’s ability is beyond question. However, my business partner explained that within one hour in the shop he would have everyone in there angry at him and each other. The guy’s personality was so abrasive he just could not fit in anywhere.

So, why am I telling you this? To encourage you that problem employees can possibly be redeemed. But failing the best efforts of yourself and whatever assistance you can muster, do not hesitate to put the needs of the business or organization ahead of an associate’s obvious need for growth and maturing at best, for therapy at worst.

I’ve written about it before here at TPL because it has been a recurring theme of mine for decades. The theme is that those people who join my team are there to:

Extend my reach

Multiply my effectiveness

Divide my work

Anything less cannot be ignored. It is a philosophy and a commitment that has always rewarded when followed and penalized when not.

This is part three of my series on Keepers, those people whose abilities and personalities are what you want to be permanently part of your team. The first two were:

Trait #1 – Resource-fullness

Trait #2 – Aggressive accountability

This post is about emotional and psychological insecurity. As is often the case, we can see qualities of light when it contrasts with dark so let’s look at the symptoms of an insecure employee or associate first.

  • Lack of confidence revealed by a reluctance to venture into new territory. This could be from a fear of failure (see the point that just follows) or it could be from fear of success (indicating deeper psychological issues) or it could come from unfortunate past experiences where venture was slapped down.
  • Evading responsibility when something they did goes wrong.
  • Fear of failure evidenced when an associate takes a failure to heart instead of to mind. You and I know that everyone fails from time to time, but that does not make them a failure. We know that failure keeps our feet on the ground but it does not and should not bury us under it. We know that failure shows us what will not work. Insecure people take it to heart and regard themselves as losers. The mere possibility of this provokes all sorts of defensive and evasive mechanisms, well beyond the scope of this post.
  • Over-dependency demonstrated by the employee’s constant checking in with you to be sure everything is ok. Accountability is one thing, an insecure need for continual positive feedback is another. It indicates either a lack of confidence in their ability or lack of clarity in your expectations.

Not so surprisingly, insecure employees often do not act insecure. They can seem confident, even boastful. They can be loud to the point of domination. They can be outspoken and opinionated. They can be Cliff Claven types ready with an answer for questions no one asks… or cares about.

Dr. William Menninger, co-founder of the Menninger Clinic and the Menninger Foundation lists out these characteristics of an emotionally secure person:

1. Ability to deal constructively with reality.

2. Capacity to adapt to change.

3. Few symptoms of tension and anxiety.

4. Ability to find more satisfaction in giving than receiving.

5. Capacity to consistently relate to others with mutual satisfaction and helpfulness.

6. Ability to direct hostile energy into constructive outlets.

7. Capacity to love.

All of them are important signs of emotional maturity. They have been the subject of volumes of material so we are free to narrow our focus to the context of working relationships and job performance, particularly working with you as their leader or manager or both.

First, when an associate or employee can confront a problem and respond with more objectivity than subjectivity, s/he has the ability to deal constructively with reality.

Second, change is constant. Secure associates can manifest whatever skills and attitudes may be mandated by present circumstance and modify them again as the next set of changes emerge. Insecure people retreat into routine and process for security. Secure people find security in their capacity to meet the challenge and adapt as necessary.

Third, aside from the odd and unusual genetic predisposition to ulcers, secure people don’t develop them. They handle problems and change calmly and objectively. Insecure people can’t. One non-profit I worked with had an extremely capable secretary whose high degree of competence made her a great part of the team. She was, however, fragile in the sense that any variation in the process, however slight, became a big, big deal. Fortunately, she worked in an office completely by herself which insulated others from her. Anxiety and nervousness has a way of going viral.

Fourth, secure people are contributors. They are team players and consensus builders. They are not users. They do not manipulate others to gain advantage for themselves. They seek advancement for the whole not the part.

Fifth, they bring others along, share information, show the way, and give assistance without expecting a return.

Sixth, they fight fairly. I do not want to even imply that secure people never disagree. They do, and probably should from time to time. But when they do, they do so constructively. They offer a counter perspective, substantiate it with sound logic, and offer a solution.

Finally, they are people who genuinely care about someone other than themselves. They are just nice people to be around. They are not abrasive and would be missed if they were gone.

Emotionally secure people are not rare but they are in demand. When you find them and can recruit them, keep them.

The next trait is personal and organizational loyalty. Check back in a couple of days.