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Leadership Thought #468 – The Biggest Mistake Leaders Make

The biggest mistake leaders make is to think it is all about them.   They believe that success or failure is a direct result of their own personal behavior rather than a team effort.  Show me a successful leader and I will show you a person surrounded by good people who each do their own jobs exceedingly well.  While it is common practice in this country to celebrate the individual, no one builds a high performing organization by themselves.  This doesn’t mean that the leader isn’t an essential ingredient; however, he/she needs other ingredients to complete the recipe.

We all have strengths and weaknesses.  There are situations in which we will naturally thrive and others where we will inevitably struggle.  A leader’s job is to maximize the organizational benefits of their talents while minimizing the impact of their weaknesses.  The best way to mitigate individual limitations is to seek out other people who supplement our own deficiencies. Visionary leaders often need colleagues who excel at focus and implementation.  Detail-oriented people often require team members who push them to be more decisive and think outside of the box.  Someone who has great people skills may lose sight of harsh business realities.  If you’ve worked for any considerable amount of time, you will notice that your favorite leaders often knew where they were lacking and made sure they dealt with this reality rather than ignored or overcompensated for it.

In addition, there are limits to what any one person can physically accomplish.  You can only personally sell so much or manage a finite number of clients.   No one person has the market cornered on good ideas.  As smart as you may be, you won’t have the requisite knowledge to effectively address every issue that pops up.  Moreover, there are only so many hours in a day. Anyone who pushes too hard for too long will burnout and start making bad decisions.   The first growth roadblock for most businesses is when they’ve exhausted the professional capability of the leader.  Sadly, many companies don’t get too far beyond this point due to ego issues and/or short-sightedness.

A leader’s job is not to be a superman or superwoman, who can personally overcome any obstacle strewn in their path.  Their job is to build organizational resilience through teamwork, shared commitment and sacrifice, building and leveraging the talent base available to the company, establishing critical operational redundancies, and maintaining the ongoing pursuit of common objectives (despite obstacles).  If you take a prolonged vacation, the business shouldn’t fall apart. Employees shouldn’t panic at the first sign of a crisis and look to your strong leadership to solve all the tough problems.  The biggest mistake is to place yourself at the center of the organizational universe and view others as simply inhabiting your orbit.  Instead see yourself as part of a constellation of stars serving a more important purpose.



Leadership Thought #451 – Beware Of The Pedestal

Beware of putting yourself or anyone up on a pedestal.  There are right ways and wrong ways to feed someone else’s or your own ego.  Just because an individual has experienced significant success in one aspect of life, doesn’t mean they are equally competent in all other things human.  It doesn’t do that person or you any good to blanket the praise.  It is one thing to appreciate and respect individual accomplishment.  It is another to think that similar success could be achieved in whatever else that person attempted.  In fact, it can be dangerous as we heed advice or jump to conclusions about different situations based on who we choose as our role models.  For example, Bruce Springsteen is a very talented songwriter and musician, but there is most likely a difference between his songwriting and his own reality.  He is not a deity, he is a man. Thinking he has life all figured out isn’t fair to him or you.  No one of that stature can ever live up to the hype.

I see the same thing in business circles.  Leaders who have achieved some level of success are held up as paragons of business acumen and virtue.  It takes a pretty evolved person not to fall victim to this trap and believe their own press.  Sadly, if you read the business media, you will notice that many of them are quick to embrace their own esteemed status and offer opinions on many things they know nothing or little about.  The truth is that what works for one person may not work for someone else.  In addition, taking intellectual shortcuts or jumping to fast conclusions based on what you believe to be true is a slippery slope.  The scientific method is still a fairly good guideline on testing your own hypotheses.  One size rarely fits all.  An opinion is merely a point of view unless it is substantiated with facts.  Moreover, circumstances are almost always unique and situational.

Ideologues have always concerned because they believe too much in what they say, rarely listen to other perspectives and demonize or denigrate their opposition.  They spend most of their time proselytizing or defending what they think rather than challenging and growing their understanding of what they believe they already know (or need to know).  They are almost obsessed with creating converts to their viewpoint. They talk at people instead of engaging them in two-way conversations. Their opinion is always what matters most.  Those who don’t drink the kool-aid are deemed ignorant, misinformed, have character flaws, or simply obstacles to progress. We have plenty of this on both the right and left in Washington, DC at the moment.  If nothing changes there is a crisis of leadership coming that will be terribly hard to overcome.  Nature has a way of dealing with broken ecosystems.

All the above being said, I certainly believe there is a lot we can learn from others who have reached the pinnacle of their respective profession(s).   Just make sure you are careful about what you can truly learn from them.  Diversity of input is much more important than embracing like-minded views and/or validating what you believe you already know.  We can often learn from others what not to do as much as what we should emulate. No one has it all figured out and anyone who thinks they do is foolhardy, especially if their life has been somewhat one-dimensional.  The future will always be much different from the past or present.  The more I age, the more I appreciate what I don’t know.  It is the gray areas of life which end being the most difficult to navigate. Sometimes there are no easy answers…

If you are one those people who is already on pedestal I encourage you to be careful about what you espouse and how seriously you take your own opinions.  Confidence can quickly become arrogance.  Just study the history books and you will find countless examples of leaders who end up faltering under their weight of their own pride and ego.  Life has a way of humbling us all. I often tell my clients that when you think you have it all figured out it is time for you to sell your business or let someone else take over.  Leadership is much more about asking the right questions and searching for the right answers then it is applying what you think you already know.  Moreover, avoid becoming expert on what others should be doing and focus more on becoming the best you that you can be.  We are all a work in progress.  There is no leadership/life philosophy or set of techniques that is applicable in all situations.

Pedestals are for flowers and art work not people…

Leadership Thought #440 – Avoid Being Put On A Pedestal

Avoid being put on a pedestal by yourself or by others.  I’ve seen good people get too full of themselves when they begin to view themselves as extra special and different from everyone else. It happens in all industries and in all sectors.  Nonprofit leaders certainly aren’t excluded.  It is never good for any of us to be surrounded by people who are too deferential.  Success without humility typically leads to ego issues.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t value or respect accomplishment, but we shouldn’t put a disproportionate emphasis on the attributes of the person.  Superlative outcomes are usually the result of good timing, hard work and specialized focus not generic ability.  In addition, doing good work that taps into your unique talents and makes a positive difference in the lives of others should be enough of a reward.  Don’t get too caught up with celebrating YOU.

It’s also important to remember that no one is ever successful alone.  There are many people who helped you climb the ladder and scale the heights.  Share the credit widely and generously.  You also probably learned some tough lessons along the way and didn’t always make the best choices – something we often forget.  No one ever bats 1000%.   It is the sum total of your experiences, not just the good parts which make you who you are.  Life has a way of humbling all of us.   No one ever fully creates their own luck regardless of what they would like to think.  Wise people understand that we are supposed to learn and grow through tribulation as much as triumph.  The history of humankind is littered with leaders who forget this simple fact.

Arrogance is just your ego run amok.  Arrogant people stop listening to what others have to say.  They tend to make quick judgments about other individuals and their capabilities.   Their patience tends to run thin. Manners start to slowly wither in subtle or sometimes even unsubtle ways.  Basic human kindness also somehow becomes known as generosity (and not in a good way).  If it doesn’t directly affect them, they lose interest quickly.   They stop soliciting constructive feedback.  Unless, of course, the feedback comes from someone they believe to be their equal or superior (note: over time fewer people fit this category).   Their primary goal becomes validating their own point of view instead of searching for the best answer.  They start over-valuing what they know over what they still need to learn.  They begin to live in a bubble of their own making rather than expanding their worldview.

I’ve been around long enough now to know that even the most capable leaders I know aren’t good at everything. When they start overreaching or taking unnecessary risks it is a sign that something is amiss.  Surround yourself with talented good people rather just trying to be great yourself.  Widen rather than narrow your feedback loop.  Success is equal parts science and art.  And, replicating success isn’t as easy as it sounds.  I’m constantly amazed by how people who used to exhibit some degree of intellectual rigor start forming strong opinions with very little knowledge of the facts.  “Ready, fire, aim” becomes the norm. When you think you know it all and start to act like you are bulletproof, then it is time to get out of the leadership game.  Yesterday’s heroes can easily become tomorrow’s goats.  Leave the pedestals to others and instead focus on being the best YOU possible regardless of the acclaim.  We are all a work in progress and require ongoing learning, personal humility and love and support from others to excel in life.  It is not a solo journey…

Leadership Thought #435 – In Life And Business, There Are Winners and Losers

I know it’s not a popular opinion to have in social and intellectual circles theses days, but life does have winners and losers (and a bunch of people who rarely ever compete for anything).  All of us may be equal in the eyes of God (a sentiment I wholly I agree with), however in every other life situation, effort and outcomes do matter.  I am very worried that a generation of kids and now younger employees has been raised with the belief that everything they do is special and that winning is less important than their own search for self-fulfillment.  Moreover, as I age myself, I see alot of my peers who are embracing the idea that their fate was never in their own hands and the deck was always stacked against them by their parents, the government, big business, their school system, etc.  In a fantasy world these points of view may resonate, but in reality it only gives people an excuse for mediocrity and rationalizing their own shortcomings.  It also creates alot of fodder for psychoanalysts and drug companies.

Sure, there may be those of us who are victims of circumstance and have to overcome way more obstacles than others, but the history of humankind is full of examples of individuals who overcame great odds and accomplished remarkable things.  We should also never forget that in America, our daily challenges pale in comparison to the common plight of people in the developing world.  Just look at how quickly immigrants to this country quickly embrace the American dream and climb the social ladder.  We all have stories in our family of ancestors who came here with next to nothing but somehow figured out a way to fit in and thrive.  Our excuses for our own lack of progress are minimal at best.  You help no one (including yourself) by allowing them to play the victim.

Winning does matter.  Our country is built on the idea of individual freedom, personal initiative, competitive markets and free enterprise.   In the Unites States we are constantly keeping score and rewarding those that achieve in all walks of life.  You can chose to live a reactive and safe life rather than a proactive and riskier existence, but then you are dependent upon others who create the overall conditions of success from which you earn your living.  This doesn’t mean that all successful people do it the right way or have admirable values.  There will always be individuals who cheat the system or take advantage of the less fortunate.  However, I would contend that this number is smaller than everyone thinks and our legal system (contrary to popular opinion) does a good job of ferreting them out.  It certainly is not perfect, but our civic system and the “rule of law” does exist and often works. Regardless, we all learn from an early age that life isn’t fair and all we can control is our actions in response to anything that happens.  There are very few true victims in life…

We should also embrace the concept that there are benefits from learning how to overcome adversity and losing.  The kid who strikes out too often takes more batting practice and learns how to adjust his/her technique.  They may also decide to take up another sport or activity that better suits their abilities.  The student who fails an exam, studies harder the next time and ask others for help if they struggle with understanding something.  The adult who backs themselves into a financial corner (through their own decision making) learns how to make better money decisions.  The entrepreneur, who fails with one business venture, learns what they did wrong and applies it to future enterprises.   You have to be willing to fail to succeed.   There is no disgrace in losing if you truly give it your best and learn something useful in the process.  As a line from a favorite song of mine goes, “you can never win or lose if you don’t run the race” and we all have races we need to run.

Life rewards courage and penalizes cowardice.  Sometimes we have to be tested to truly understand our own personal resolve and abilities.  Some people get lucky and stumble into success but most of us have to carve out our own success path through experience, hard work, determination, perseverance, acquired intelligence, and honest self-reflection.  We should care alot less about what others do or don’t do and instead focus on how we ourselves can grow through experience and get better.  When confronted with less than stellar results we should always be asking the following three questions:

1)      How did I contribute to this situation?

2)    What am I supposed to learn from this?

3)     What positive next steps can I take in the course of my journey with this new knowledge?

Keeping score is never just about winning and losing. It is about being honest about results and using this information to get better.

Birthday Greetings – Thoughts on Life

I typically ask my friends and clients to share some wisdom about life when it is their birthday.  I am always impressed by what they come up with.  The following is my own humble attempt to offer ten thoughts on the same topic:

A life is defined by the quality of your relationships.

The highest quality relationship we can have is unconditional love – endeavor to give it and aspire to achieve it.

What you decide to do for a living is choice and don’t be afraid to make changes if it isn’t bringing out the best parts of you.

You can often get a true sense of someone’s character by how they treat those who are more vulnerable than themselves especially pets, children and the elderly.

Everyone needs things that ground them in life and reminds them they are part of something bigger than themselves.

People are multidimensional and shouldn’t be viewed in singular terms.  We all have reasons for doing what we do.

Be wary of becoming too judgmental. More often than not you don’t have all the information necessary to make an accurate determination and life has a way of eventually altering your perspective.

The issues we have with other people often say more about us than them.

Start each day by looking in the mirror and asking yourself, “am I becoming the person I want to become?” If not, explore why and make the necessary changes.

End each day by counting your blessings and expressing gratitude to those who helped make your journey easier that day.

I feel fortunate to have made it this far in life.  Not everyone gets to live this long.  As we age it becomes more obvious that time is finite.  I wish you well on your own journey and that the time you have left is well spent.

Leadership Thought #414 – What Next?

I am in the process of reading Gordon Livingston‘s great new book, The Thing You Think You Cannot Do, and as usual he delivers many useful tidbits of helpful information and a wise perspective.  In one chapter, he talks about the importance of asking the question, “What next?”  While his clinical therapy patients may often be dealing with much more significant challenges than my clients, as human beings we all have things that hold us back and inhibit our positive momentum.  It’s easy to get mired in the past or caught up with the urgency of managing now. Many of us are far too quick to embrace the role of victim and tell our sad stories to anyone who will listen.  We end up creating negative energy which hinders our ability to move on and create a positive future. I’m not saying we don’t have to make peace with what has happened, but the best way to get out of hole is not to keep digging deeper but to climb out.

Of course, it is important to be “present” in whatever you are doing and experiencing.  However, it’s equally important to know where your actions are taking you. We all need to be working towards something otherwise we are merely existing.  Bad habits and unhealthy thinking won’t just magically disappear one day.  Life is too precious to merely submit to the external forces and claim that as our destiny.  I really appreciate the way Buddhists look at life as a journey and that the journey is merely a series of next steps on your path to enlightenment. What we can only ever control is our own actions. In addition, it has never been just about how we respond to things when they occur, but more about what we do with this life experience on an on-going basis.  We are either moving forward or backward there is no in between.

Whether you are dealing with a major life crisis or simple business annoyance, life goes on until it doesn’t.  Sadly, the world doesn’t stop to acknowledge our individual misfortune or pain.  We all deal with adversity – it is just a question of when and how often.  I am regularly fascinated by the resilience of the individual human spirit. You just have to read the papers, watch the news or simply pay attention to what’s going on around you to witness people experiencing and overcoming extraordinary hardships. My life often seems to pale in comparison until I step back and fully realize what I have also faced in my 46 years on this planet. We are all the hero of our own life.  Thankfully, I am still offered many opportunities to count my blessings with each passing day.  Sure there are some people that have it better but many more that have it worse. As with all things, it comes down to context and perspective.

I encourage you to proactively get unstuck in any areas of your life where you are currently struggling, by simply focusing on what you can do next.  It can be small or big steps. The pacing is always up to you.  Just remember that a journey of 10,000 miles does begin with that very first step.  You’ll be amazed by what consistent movement forward can accomplish in your life.  Push through the energy holding you back and embrace a positive future even if feels like it is far off in the distance.  You will get there or at least be better off for trying.

Leadership Thought #406 – Be Open To Possibility

A strange thing happens to us as we age.  We become more risk adverse and less open to the learning and growth possibilities abundant in life. We get set in our ways and habits.  Our worldview becomes fixed. We are less willing to challenge our own perspective and very judgmental of others who disagree with whet we think.  We tend to look backwards not forwards on social issues.  The past gets sentimentalized while the future is rife with doubt and uncertainty.  We are skeptical that the younger generation has what it takes to solve the problems that ironically enough our own generation created.  We become closed rather than open to possibility.

It may sound cliché but our life IS what we make of it.  If we limit our options our results will be equally limiting.  Change is a fact of life.  Nothing ever stays the same especially the people who make up our universe of social interaction.  Are you the same person you were 5 years ago?  David Whyte, my favorite living poet, has a saying that “we learn the most about ourselves when we are between things.”   Life has a way of forcing these transitions whether we like it or not.   You resist the lessons to your own peril.

A common body language signal of being closed or defensive to what you are hearing is crossing your arms across your chest and leaning backwards.  I see this all the time in meetings and one on one interactions.  A person in resistance mode either disagrees with what they are hearing and/ or that you have touched a nerve that makes them uncomfortable.  However, personal development is rarely pain free and intellectual maturity means challenging your own conceits.  I regularly tell my clients they need to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.  When you experience a visceral reaction to something it is the universe giving you a hint to pay attention.  And, by the way crossing your arms tightly across your chest and leaning back for extended period of time is an uncomfortable position and makes other people feel less safe with you anyway.

I much prefer the body language equivalent of opening your arms wide before a hug.  At that moment you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another human being and open to the same response from them.  You realize that contact with another person is important and their existence in this world has made your own experience a better one that is worth celebrating.   In a larger sense, I’d encourage you to start each day with your arms and eyes wide open to possibility the world has to offer you.  Sure it might be a bit scary and uncomfortable at first to step outside your preconceived idea of a comfort zone but that is exactly the point.  The world will hug back in many ways, shapes and forms.

Most people slowly box themselves in over time and limit their possibilities until they even begin to embrace and justify the constraints.  I cannot promise you that life will always work out the way you want it to if you become more vulnerable and less close minded, but I will guarantee that your options for success and happiness will increase and that you will attract more people to your professional and social circle who lift you up rather than hold you back.  Stay vital and fight the natural tendency to become more closed with time and the world WILL respond in kind.

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