Life in the ditches – finding balance in the five equities of life

file000960205935They were a decent and colorful pair. He a retired farmer. She his wife of many decades. We became friends when they moved to the small Arizona city in which we were living. One day we met on the street and in the course of the conversation he told me he had to take his wife to an appointment in a nearby town about 30 miles away.

“Can’t she drive herself?” I asked.

“Oh no,” he answered. “She doesn’t know how to drive.”

At the risk of intruding when I probably should be minding my own business, I ventured that perhaps she should learn how to drive since it might be helpful if he were not around.

“Oh, I tried,” he said. “I tried more than once. When we lived back on the far we had lots of country roads to practice on but it just never worked.”

Then, he offered an observation about his wife’s attempts to learn to drive that I think has a much broader application.

“The only time she got in the middle of the road was to change ditches.”

This is true on so many levels.

We use the terms with honest intention and they flow off our tongue like mantras. We want to be “centered.” We’re committed to keeping our lives in “balance.”

But truthfully most of us live from extreme to extreme. We find the middle of the road but only when we’re changing ditches.

Finding Balance in the Five Equities of Life

At times of frustration and pressure we look at life and the way we are living it with some longing to simplify and focus. But we’re drawn in many directions and we have many interests and obligations. It takes genuine courage and deliberate effort to attend to the five equities of life – physical, intellectual, financial, psychological, and spiritual.

We are not singular beings. Those five equities are purchased, bought with time and attention, the investment of living because they equal a balanced life.

Now, I am a realist. I doubt that anyone is in perfect balance. We are always out of balance to some degree, but as we mature those imbalances tend to work themselves out if we pay attention to them. If you’re too busy to attend to all five equities, well then, you’re too busy. And don’t engage in self-deceit by telling yourself that your current imbalance is only temporary. Ditches tend to be places where we get stuck and you might need help digging yourself out.

Find your middle of the road and stay there. Overcompensation leads only to another ditch. Since equity is gained by investment, which one needs more investment from you right now?

There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences. Jack Welch

We are what we are


integrityI am putting together my next publishing venture, gathering material from past entries and creating a new self-training program for emerging leaders. It is called “Building Leaders From The Inside Out – A Course In Developing Leaders With Character.”

In so doing, I’ve encountered some interesting feedback. One reviewer said that “The leader of a $30 million company can take this and make his company a $40 million one.” But another was less optimistic. They said that I was describing a saint, not a leader.

We obviously disagree. A leader is not determined merely by what you do. It is what and who you are.

There is no dichotomy between the leader at work and the leader at home. We will all pretty much agree that leaders can and do less than ethical, moral, even legal things. I certainly will not dispute that.

But I do dispute that such behavior is to be accepted, condoned, or rationalized that ends can justify means. No, it does matter how you do what you do and it is important to live with your life what you say with your mouth you ought to be.


Because we are what we are.

Part of the problem is that consequences are usually eventual not immediate. One can get away with lots of things before the walls fall in on you. Look at the leaders of Enron, or of other companies whose leaders were pulling shenanigans that no one saw.

But even if there were no consequences ever made evident, I aver that being a person of ethics and morality is not reserved for saints nor should it be cast off as the fortune of but a few.

Nor do I agree that leadership depends upon opportunity. One person has suggested that President Abraham Lincoln is well-known now because of his leadership in the American Civil War. However, to suggest that he was a great leader because of an event he did not cause (he might have because of his election but we won’t debate that here) is to misunderstand and misrepresent two critical things.

One is that leadership does not function until there is opportunity and that if you are deprived of opportunity you cannot become a great leader is false. Leadership opportunities are found daily and most often in obscurity. It does not require a Civil War to become a leader or a great one. Indeed, there are those within whom excellence in leadership does not reside that simply collapse under opportunity. No, leaders are leaders everywhere and every day. A leader, by virtue (note the word “virtue” because I’m coming back to it) of who they are and the gifts that are within them from birth, leads. The nuances of what they say, when they say it, and what they do indicate to others that a leader is present. Indeed, Lincoln had to be elected and that is of itself an indicator of appealing qualities.

The second is that greatness must be visible and celebrated to exist. This premise is fallacious as well. Celebrity and renown are often mistaken for leadership but they are not one and the same. Leaders may become well-known or they may labor in obscurity. But greatness is an essence. It is the substance behind the image (if there is any). Celebrity is an illusion.

Leaders are not made nor are they manifest by taking courses or reading books that expose them to information and ideas. Leaders are made because who they are, the virtues they possess, and the things they do, even if the effects are subtle, resonate within others. Others sense, feel, hear, see, and respond to what a leader says, does, and is.

Integrity is one of those words that are well-served when its etymology is explored. The root of integrity is “integer” which is “a whole number,” a number that can be written without a fractional component. There is not a separation of private from public, personal from professional. We are what we are. Nothing less and absolutely nothing more.

So, my premise here today is that who you are matters as much as what you do even if it is not always in the public eye. How you get there matters as much as the destination. The ends cannot and must not be allowed to justify the means.

And because superlative, excellent leaders are not the sole domain of saints. There are far, far, far more superlative leaders than we might think.  You are probably among them…even if no one outside a few ever knows your name.


Qualities of a Superlative Leader – Personal Competencies #1 – Ethics and Integrity

Integrity DefinitionOn September 29, 1982, twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, died after taking a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol. Over the space of the next few days, six more would die the same way. Most predicted that Tylenol would never recover from the sabotage.

But Johnson & Johnson handled the crisis ethically, with integrity. First they recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules from store shelves. Then they offered to replace those bottles free of charge with a safer tablet. Then, the designed a tamper-proof packaging system. A year later Tylenol had climbed to 30% of the analgesic market up from the bottom of 7% just after the tragedy.

Whoever was running Johnson & Johnson at the time did the right thing. They demonstrated superlative leadership. We sometimes forget that in all business at every level, someone somewhere makes decisions and takes action. It is not machines that do so. It is people, persons who sit in offices, stand before others, write papers, and issue directives. Corporations, businesses, boards of directors, organizations, departments, teams, and work crews are all made up of people whose decisions and actions will affect who knows how many others.

Back in 1962 economist Milton Friedman dissed the notion that corporations had a responsibility to society. “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.” Perhaps more than anyone else, he voiced the attitude that would typify and release decades of at time ruthless pursuit of profits at the expense of just about everything else. As good as he might have been in managing economics he couldn’t be more wrong about social responsibility.

Humans are genetically engineered to co-exist in communities where there are obligations to our selves and to each other, both explicit and implicit.

I am a capitalist and a free market capitalist as long as the basis of a leader’s greatness is not his or her ability to turn a profit, as vital as that is. But money at just about any cost and the ability to make money at just about any cost will not secure one’s place in the pantheon of superlative leaders.

There are a 7 personal competencies found in great leaders.  I will address only the first one here – Demonstrate ethics and integrity

Actually, to do anything more than introduce the subject in a short post is impossible. (Shameless self-promotion – The book “16 Qualities of a Superlative Leader” will appear shortly after the conclusion of this series. The difference between this series and the book is significant. Here I must, by virtue of the dynamics of the web, limit each article to relatively short lengths. The book contains much, much more material, more diagrams, longer explorations of each, and many more real life examples.)

One of the great unknowns of history is Sir John Dalberg-Acton. Sir John was a contemporary and close associate of William Gladstone, the British Prime Minister. Sir John is best known for saying that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Despite the obvious cynicism, Sir John has proven to cannily accurate. Power does corrupt, even a little bit of it. Lots of power is even more dangerous. But I’m not sure that great men are even almost always bad men.

The examples of bad people in positions of power and authority are legion. But then, this only goes to validate what I’ve been saying about apparent greatness, leaders who are great on the outside while the inside may remain suspect, and essential greatness, leaders who are great from the inside out.

Integrity is one of those interesting words that most of us think we understand what it means but haven’t really thought that much about it. The root word forming integrity is integer – a whole number, a number that can be written without a fractional component.

So, we can conclude that a person of integrity is a whole person.

We are what we are.

The decisions we make and the actions we take emerge from a core that is either upright or in one stage or another of compromise. I did address a facet of this in a post I wrote in April of 2014 called “How to be a Stand Up Person in a Stoop to Anything World.”

Here are 6 indicators of ethics and integrity in a superlative leader.

  1. What you see is what you get. Superlative leaders have a core of morality and ethics and live lives that give evidence of it. One mark of this is the longevity of the inner circle, that team of associates who know a leader best. If there is regular turnover, it might indicate a problem here, that what they found was not what they thought they would find.
  2. What they say is what they do. Superlative leaders are people of their word. If they tell you something you can be certain it is true. If they promise something you can be certain they will deliver. If they ask you something you can be sure there are no sinister, Machiavellian motives.
  3. Who they are today is who they were yesterday and who they will be tomorrow. Great leaders are consistent. They do not blow hot and cold, waver in their commitments and intentions, or waffle in their decisions.
  4. What they have done is what they lay claim to. Superlative leaders never make excuses or shift the blame. They are not flawless nor are they error free. But if something does go wrong, they accept the responsibility for it, and here’s the important part, they do what has to be done to fix it.
  5. They live for the intangibles. Money comes their way because they are accomplished and capable professionals, but money has secondary meaning. So does position and fame. They are people of purpose and that purpose is never self-centered or self-promoting. Doing their jobs well is as important to them as getting the money for doing the job well.
  6. There are no secrets. Superlative leaders are accountable with time, effort, and results. They are not hiding anything from anyone in anyway. They are not misleading anyone by any means. There are no dirty tricks, no dissembling statements, no secret arrangements.

The leaders of Johnson and Johnson acted with integrity and ethics even though the personal cost was very high. Superlative leaders do nothing less.

Next post, trait number 2 – living with drive and purpose.

Superlative Leaders

cover designThey are well-known and they are hardly known. They work in the spotlight and they labor in obscurity. They achieve high levels of financial success and they barely scrape enough to get by. They garner large followings and connect with two or three.

Who? Leaders.

Superlative leaders!

Leaders are everywhere in every place and at every level. You and I have encountered them forever. We followed them before we could even comprehend what a leader was. There was just something about them that compelled us to consider what they say, respond to what they ask, and follow where they led. But some are simply better at it than others.

In an antique store about four miles from where I used to live, Elvis Presley greets you as soon as you step inside. No, he hasn’t quit his job at the car wash in Grand Rapids and works there now. This Elvis is not the real thing, not even one of the many impersonators making their living imitating the legend. This Elvis is cardboard, a six-foot-tall printed image. But it looks just like him adorned in black leather with a silk scarf around his neck, and sporting the unmistakable Elvis smirk, he stirs the heart of every Elvis fan he greets. Looking from the front of the store you might think it was the real thing, especially if you wanted to believe its him. At least that’s what I’m told. The owner says he sells a couple of cardboard Elvis’s a month at $30 bucks apiece. Die-hard Elvis fans are quite eager to lay down the cash for the mere image of greatness.

Steven Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” identifies two types of greatness – primary and secondary. Primary greatness, he writes, is essential greatness; the greatness that emerges from a person’s character, from the inside out. He or she is the essence of greatness in every dimension and in every place. But secondary greatness is the fame and renown that results from the person’s personality and gifts, from the outside out.

He or she is not really great in the essential sense. There may be serious flaws inside, thus they only appear to be great. A cardboard Elvis so to speak. And from the front of the store (or sitting in the audience) it’s hard to tell the difference.

Leaders study leadership. We look at techniques, read biographies, and marvel at the accomplishments of others. But perhaps we should take one step back.

Instead of studying leadership alone maybe we should look at the person who manifests leadership. Rather than focus on leadership itself, let’s examine the leader himself or herself. (Note: trying to maintain the use of gender indefinite terms, I use “he” and “she” or “him” and “her” interchangeably. Effective, superlative leaders are, of course, found in either gender.)

There are any number of us who are quite eager to buy into an image of greatness, even if it’s no more substantial than the cardboard Elvis. And that gets me “all shook up.” We want to believe that our celebrities are as great as their image and so the mere image of greatness too often substitutes for essential, actual greatness.

Leaders incarnate leadership. Leadership emerges from a leader, emanates from a set of characteristics that are found naturally in some, acquired through the experience of life in all who exhibit it.

Leadership is the result of qualities made manifest, not the other way around.

The on-stage performance too often misrepresents what really is a paucity of greatness backstage. Unfortunately the system is skewed in favor of the performer. Followers (and fans) are too assuming and leaders are too quick to play on those assumptions. We’re too accommodating of their inadequacies, in fact, too often we don’t even want to know who or what they really are. We resist discovering whether their greatness is primary or secondary.

Borrowing Strength Builds Weakness

 If character is, as one author has put it, a collection of values, then we obviously have not gathered the critically important values. Ourcharacter character is the sum of all we are and do, not just what we appear to be. Judging according to appearances is a fatal indulgence. When we rely on image we borrow strength and build weakness in these ways:  

First, by allowing our leaders – we might even say we’ve encouraged them – to borrow strength from position and image, we build weakness within them. In order to maintain and further their position of influence and authority they must exploit the position and image more and more. It becomes increasingly imperative to prohibit anyone from really knowing them closely lest the public discover what’s what and who’s who. They turn up the heat on the public performance to bolster support for the image.

Secondly, because we borrow strength from their weakness by investing in their image, hype, and celebrityism, we build weakness within ourselves. We lose touch with who we really are and rely on outward imaginary strengths; volume, noise, and the systems and practices of our position.

Third, because our hearts, motives, and opinions are heavily invested in image, not character, we lose contact with truth. We believe something to be true which may or may not be true. If it is discovered that what we believed to be true is not really true, if it is discovered that the confidence and expectations which we held prove us to be fools, we shoot the messenger who revealed the truth to us. When we fall into this trap the result is delusion, a form of insanity.

Fourthly, we build weakness into our relationship with our followers because we’ve staked a claim in acres of air. A superficial groupieism results where we play to the image and illusion of what people think we are and want us to be not what we really are. Those we lead are following someone who does not really exist. Our leadership dynamic, that set of actions, words, and attitudes that have provoked and inspired others to come along on our journey, is not real. Thus we continually must play the role and perpetuate secondary greatness. Essential greatness ceases to exist if it ever existed at all. This happens so often in so many contexts it has become common while primary greatness, that greatness of leadership that is birthed in qualities of character has become all too rare.

Fifthly, when we focus too much on a leader’s talents and gifts and too little on his character we allow, perhaps even promote cardboard heroes who look just like the real thing. Unsung heroes labor ignored in their unglamorous places of service. We then build weakness within our ranks because the truly great are ignored while hype is rewarded. Many are the great who labor in obscure places, whose public speaking skills are mediocre at best, whose boardroom and platform style are anything but flamboyant, but whose intimacy with who they are and what they feel called to do is real and deep.

We build weakness within our ranks because we reward the celebrity but punish the hero. Superlative leaders are enduring ones. They function over a long period of time. They maintain their effectiveness through good and bad times. The glitter and glam wears off, the substance is revealed. If little substance is there, then what we thought was leadership turns out to be crashing disappointment.

Superlative leaders are capable and do draw attention, but there’s more to them that a captivating style of speaking or flair before a crowd. Much, much more.

I am however, confident of this. You possess far more of them than you might think. Please do not be intimidated by the comparisons that are inevitable. I write these things not to diminish your self-opinion but to build it. You have accomplished more than you think, learned more than you might remember, and have extended your influence in places and upon people upon whom you have no knowledge.

For the next 2 ½  months or so I will be revealing, and discussing one by one, the 18 personal qualities of a superlative leader. See you on Thursday.  

Be a stand up person in a stoop to anything world

heavy_asteriskI received something in the mail a few days ago that troubles me. Not email, it was in my mailbox, something that gets little more than junk mail these days. This was a promotional piece for a non-profit organization I am connected to indirectly.

Inside the mailing were copies of pieces handed out as part of the annual fundraising event this organization sponsors. The event is a largish one which significantly bolsters the organization’s coffers. The items were well designed and professionally printed on glossy paper.

The mailing included two pieces. The most colorful is a brochure which describes the organization’s work. The second is the program brochure with an insert on which are listed the evening’s sponsors, those companies and individuals who have paid for an entire table.

The problem for me is on the right hand page of the program, the page which is most readily seen and consequently read. It lists the organization’s “accomplishments” for the month of January, 2014, accomplishments which I know to be a gross exaggeration if not outright wishful thinking.

There’s more spin on the list than on a Randy Johnson slider. At the top of the page it indicates that what follows will be a list of what they themselves have done. Way down at the bottom of the page, after one reads of the mighty wonders of the organization’s work in just one month, there is the caveat “All this is done through (the organization) and our PARTNERS.

Therein lies the kicker. How much did this organization do and how much did the partners do? What does “partner” really mean? Does it mean a person, company, or organization with which this organization has an organic connection or does it mean someone they know and with whom they are friends? I’ve actually seen organizations do this. They join networks and then claim that the work done by others in the network is done by their partners when the partnership is not a partnership at all. It is an association. The word partnership at the very least implies a somewhat formal agreement. I am confident that the partnerships implied in the paper in question are not formal in any way.

In the need to appear significant and successful it is really, really easy to push the numbers and inflate the size of one’s accomplishments. But numbers never tell the whole story. Never. Often, they obscure the facts and have been spun to impress.

If you have to spin it you shouldn’t be in it. Vision is critical and a vibrant one even more so. Celebration of successes along the way is necessary and obviously motivational. But the problem is spin. I wrote about spin here so you can read what I had to say about it then. Here’s how to stand out. Don’t spin. When President Kennedy was once asked in a press conference what he and his administration were doing to promote women’s rights he responded, “Not nearly enough.” No spin, just an admission of the facts.

Never, ever play on the assumptions of your associates, followers, constituents, or customers. Beware the implications of what you say, publish, and/or promote. The implication is that this organization did everything with a little help from friends. Most of those who read this will assume that the organization was the major player in those mighty works when they were not. The effect is to make the organization seem more successful and more effective than it really is.

If you’re gonna put on a big hat someone’s gonna find out if you have any cattle. Someone’s going find out that you really have not done those things and they will discover that your “partnerships” really aren’t. Hype will succeed in the short term but pays really bitter dividends for two reasons.

First, it does something to you as the leader. It begins to promote illusion and encourage delusions of importance that are not matched by reality. This, in a primitive sense, is insanity. Worse, it compromises your integrity because it clouds scrupulous honesty in the expedience of promotion and gain. It appears that the ends (more money, bigger market share, increased margins or whatever) validate the less than forthright means you’ve used to get them. While the truth is not actually broken it is badly bent and misshapen. The millennia old method of building business based on a great product or service produced at a fair price by a company whose integrity is without question really does work. When I received the aforementioned package in the mail and read the page I’ve focused on here what was my first response? It was not acceptance without doubt. My first response was to question the validity of the numbers and the scope of the work. This is NOT what you want to provoke in donors, customers, associates, employees, board members, friends and neighbors.

Second, it misleads good and trusting people whose retribution will be swift and certain once the truth is out there. You cannot build trust by using untrustworthy methods. The organization referred to herein is not an insignificant one. They are successful in their own right and do not have to resort to such tactics. But I also know that grant money has dried up for them and the prospects for more being released anytime soon look poor. I also know that they have had some issues meeting payroll so the need for money is critical. But margin and capital are always an issue and there are right ways to get it, there are wrongs ways to get it, and there is the gray area in-between that gives way to somewhat questionable tactics.

You can be a stand up person in a stoop to anything world. If you must rationalize to explain anything, you have just engaged in the telling of rational sounding lies. There should be asterisks by most of the numbers listed on that program that refer to a qualifier. Yes, by association the organization did somehow someway “partner” with those other organizations to do all those things…but not really. The asterisk is there even if it wasn’t printed. Do you really want that for your company? For yourself? I didn’t think so.

In a guest post called “Don’t spin a better story. Be a better company.” for the Harvard Business Review in October, 2013, Leslie Dach wrote that “My role was to find the places where being better would make the biggest difference and to create a culture that would enable us to get those things done.”

What is Leslie Dach saying? Be what you claim to be. Let me say again what I’ve said before.

Effective leaders are those persons who live with their lives what they say with their mouth you are or ought to be.