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Leadership Thought #465 – Everyone Is A Critic

When you lead others, everyone is a critic to some degree.  It’s next to impossible to be fully aligned with another person 100% of the time.  As a leader, knowing this, you can’t fall into the trap of listening to every dissenting voice. The path to mediocrity is littered with individuals who gave up their leadership power unnecessarily and allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others.  This doesn’t mean you avoid soliciting feedback, quite the contrary, but you need to be able to filter this feedback and trust your own judgment.  The world looks much different when you are actually accountable for your decisions.  It’s easy to be an expert when you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

You can’t browse the internet, pick-up a newspaper, watch TV or listen to radio without being bombarded by the opinions of so called experts.  In an office environment, you can multiply this by the number of one-off conversations that take place during the course of any given day.   In my line of work, I’ve encountered many middle managers, stuck in their careers, who often believe they are the brightest person in the room.   While they may in fact be highly intelligent (not always the case), they often lack the true courage of their convictions.  It is much easier to be an expert on the sidelines or in the stands than run the risk of actually competing on the field.  It takes minimal energy to snipe behind someone’s back as opposed to thoughtfully advocating for your position and effectively dealing with alternative points of view.

This morning I listened or read many different opinions on how President Obama should deal with Russia’s incursion into the Crimea.  Of course, many of these people aren’t foreign policy experts or have any real inside understanding of the current geopolitical power dynamics involved.  Have you every noticed that most talking heads haven’t actually ever run anything or achieved any significant level of significant professional accomplishment in the field they are commenting on?  They often stalled within the system they are now commenting on.  Even worse are the journalists/media personalities who wax and wane on every topic as they are actually qualified to do so.  They never miss an opportunity to stir up discontent and/or tell us everything wrong with what the leader or institution in question is doing.  Rarely, if ever, do they provide a thoughtful or realistic alternative.  If you are not accountable you can say anything.  We, the public, love this because it validates our own predisposition to form strong opinions without the facts or a selective understanding of only the facts that support our own often ideological position.  Thinking before acting is hard work and many of us prefer shortcuts instead.

Don’t get me wrong; some level of criticism is healthy.  No one is above reproach especially in a free and democratic society.  Weak leaders crush dissent.  They feel threatened when someone disagrees with them.  Just look at Putin. To confuse his weakness with strength is a mistake.  Leaders should welcome different opinions and perspectives. Feedback is essential for innovation and growth.  However, leaders also need to be able to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; the informed thoughts from the misinformed ones; those positions that have the best interest of the organization/institution at heart versus those are personally motivated.  Making the right decision isn’t always easy.  Standing your ground in the face of opposition will test your professional mettle.  Everyone is a critic.  But also remember, that only a much smaller number of us ever risk the criticism in the first place.

Leadership Thought #462 – The Need To Step Back and Reflect

In our society that rewards constant action, it is often hard to step back and reflect about where you have been, what you have learned, and where you should be going.  However, leadership requires thinking and reflection as much as it is supposed to stimulate action.  Many people I know are busy at doing the wrong things.  They are working hard but not smart.  Every day is just one more attempt to push the boulder up the hill and hope that at some point positive sustained momentum will push them over the top.   Unfortunately as the slope of their climb increases the weight of their responsibilities also increases and the path they are treading becomes less predictable and stable.  You can’t push forward into unchartered territory and not expect to learn some tough lessons along the way.  If you are not careful, you may slip or fall and the boulder will roll right back over you.

We’ve all heard the saying many times that “what got you here, won’t get you where you are going.”  I agree to an extent, but also believe that self-reflection is healthy and some patterns are worth reproducing while others are not.  There are situations where each of us thrive and struggle and the interesting thing in life is that this varies by individual.  Your first responsibility as a leader is to set yourself up for success.  Don’t try to morph into what the current popular leadership text books tell you to be, instead be the best YOU that you can be.  To accomplish this you need to fully understand your own strengths and limitations; you need to be honest about where you add value and where you create unnecessary difficulty.  Sometimes we get in over our heads and the last thing we want to do is flail about embracing change for the sake of change when this happens.  Slow down and be more deliberative in your decisions and actions as the risks go up. 

The leadership journey requires you to constantly reflect on the role you and others should be playing.  As you achieve some level of success, your business may challenge your capabilities to lead it.   This is okay as long as you do something positive about it.  You will need to challenge your own preconceptions about what’s possible and why.  Chances are you will outgrow some of your people, which is sometimes sad but should be expected.  You will need to recruit new talent with new skills to manage the additional complexity.  You will need to delegate more and tolerate less.  You will need to say “no” to things you are accustomed to saying “yes” to.  You will need to remove the organizational dependence upon you and create a business model that fosters functional interdependence and process driven self-correction.  All of this requires both personal and professional growth.  You will need to THINK and act differently.  There are no shortcuts to success, but there’s no reason to make it harder than it needs to be either…

Selected Quotes On Life and Success By Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of my favorite writers.  It is hard to box him into any one style because he does it all so flawlessly.  While he is sometimes not an easy read, the effort is always worth it.  There are nuggets of wisdom embedded throughout Emerson’s work and the more you read him, the more thoughtful insight you come away with.  He has a way of making sense out of life that is both unique and useful.  Personally, I recommend everyone keep a copy of his complete essays and reference the individual topics based on their current life situation.  The utility of the book will only grow with time and experience.

The following quotes are just a very small snippet of his wisdom:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…to leave the world a better place…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

“The ancestor of every action is a thought.”

Thought is action in rehearsal.”

“Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.”

“There are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the imagination.”

“Self-trust is the first secret of success.”

“No one can cheat you out of ultimate success but yourself.”

“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”

“Life is a succession of lessons, which must be lived to be understood.”

“Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.”

“No change of circumstances can repair a defect of character.”

“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

“Often a certain abdication of prudence and foresight is an element of success.”

“Some pursue happiness – others create it.”

“Life is a progress, and not a station.”

“Nothing can bring you happiness but yourself.”

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”

“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”

Leadership Thought #320 – People Only Make You Feel Small If You Let Them

We can’t control what other people say or do, but we can control how we respond to it.  It’s important to always remember that no one can make you feel anything; you choose to feel that way.  It’s amazing how a few unkind words or obvious negative body language can affect us.  I’ve seen fairly successful and confident people wilt under the glare of another person’s disapproval.  None of us are perfect and we all make mistakes, so only take constructive feedback to the degree that it helps you improve/grow as a person.  If the feedback being given isn’t constructive, then learn to simply block it out or ignore it.

I also believe it’s important to check the other person’s motivations.  There are some people out there who have an agenda that is less than pure and they try to bring others down because of their own jealousy or insecurities.  As a society we often do this to people who we initially crown as celebrities, once they’ve shown their own flaws and/or human frailties.  I’ve also heard it said that paradoxically we end up disliking those we hurt.   It is a constant reminder of how we failed another fellow human being.   Rather than seeking forgiveness, we choose to see only those things about them that justify our own bad/poor behavior in the first place.

It’s impossible to go through life and have every person you interact with like you.  There are just some connections that aren’t meant to be.  Sometimes we will even fall out with people we once held close, which is sad but not the end of the world.  Don’t fret or worry too much about this reality.  All you can do is be the best “you” that you can be.  When you miss-step or do something wrong, own it, apologize and move on.  When you need to seek forgiveness ask for it but also provide it in return.  Always model the behavior you would like to see in others even when it is difficult.

We control our thoughts.  Someone can only ever make you feel small if you let them.  Don’t get mired in the negative energy put out by other people.  It will only ever hold you back personally and/or professionally.  Pursue your life’s journey with passion, honesty, integrity, dignity, empathy, valor and love and then let the chips fall where they may.  When you stumble, pick yourself up and keep moving forward anyway.  If someone else wants to be an obstacle in your path toward happiness and enlightenment, then step around them or avoid them altogether. If someone is not being kind or helpful, then they are either being hurtful or providing no value whatsoever.  Why bother with them?

Leadership Thought #304 – Be Wary Of Making Assumptions And Jumping to Quick Conclusions

We all know the danger of rushing to quick judgments or making false assumptions about things, but we continue to do it anyway.  I’ve heard many speakers talk about the reptilian portion of our brain that is focused solely on survival and keeping us out of harms way.  In essence, we are hardwired for self-protection.  However, in a world where our day to day survival is rarely in question, we need to be careful about allowing the most primal part of our thought process to have too much control.  A knee jerk or gut reaction to stimuli is often not a wise strategy and can actually end up being problematic.

Thinking can be hard work. It requires effort and a willingness to fight situational impulses.  At a time when our brain just wants to deal with the instantaneous reality of the here and now, we are asking it to slow down and consider multiple alternatives and use a contextual filter.    As a leader you have to continually challenge your own assumptions and be open to new ideas.   You also need to solicit sometimes contrary feedback and view things from many different angles.  Too many people practice the “ready, shoot, aim” approach to decision making. Being proactive doesn’t mean being irresponsible.   You may be trying to hit a moving target and your focus will have to adjust accordingly.

We all reach a point in our careers and lives where we become more confident in our own experience and judgment.  Some of us get to this point far too soon and end up learning some pretty hard lessons along the way.    There is nothing wrong with self-confidence; however I believe that truly confident leaders are willing to admit what they don’t know.   They also actively seek the advice and counsel of others to supplement their own perspective.  Success requires thoughtful action.  Greatness doesn’t happen in a vacuum.   If you are right, then your conclusions and decisions will stand the test of scrutiny and differing opinions.   Confidence in your own opinion is not a bad thing unless it taps into unnecessary fears, is a result of lazy or misinformed thinking or shrouds a lack of relevant experience.  Be wary of jumping to quick conclusions and making rash assumptions…

Leadership Thought #297 – Avoid The Popular Opinion Bandwagon

Everyone is too quick to jump on the popular opinion bandwagon these days.  Instead of taking the time to understand the facts and make an educated decision about something, it is much easier for most people to just go along with the crowd and follow whatever the media or their particular brand of talking heads tells them to think.   Just because something or someone resonates with you doesn’t mean this is an accurate reflection of reality.  

There are no shortcuts to good judgment and thoughtful consideration.  True leaders can’t just go with the flow or opt for what simply validates their existing preconceptions.  As the saying goes, “whenever everyone is turning right consider turning left.”   It’s important to do your own thinking and draw your own conclusions.  Sometimes the crowd is right, but often it is misinformed and/or just plain wrong.   Intellectual arrogance and laziness are just two sides of the same coin.

Conventional wisdom will only ever get you so far.  The future is created by those who opt to think outside of the box and carve out their own path.  Instead of choosing to see only what you want to see or hear only what you want to hear, I encourage you to be open to alternative points of view and not rush to judgment.  Critical thinking is a key ingredient to a successful life.  Strive to differentiate the truth from fiction even if it makes you uncomfortable at times or requires extra effort.  Stay off any opinion bandwagon until you are certain the proposed ideas are supported by your own objective fact based analysis not merely a subjective need to feel personally validated and/or safe.  And, be careful who and what you follow – it may take you off a cliff.

Leadership Thought #271 – The Importance of Strategic Thinking and Planning

As we end one year and contemplate the beginning of a new one, I am thinking about the whole concept of planning and how few organizations actually do it well (or at all).  There are so many cliché’s and quotes once could conjure up, such as “if you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t matter how you get there,” etc.  What strikes me the most is how many organizations view planning as an event to get through rather than the impetus for an ongoing strategic dialogue that is critical to long term success.  When it comes to planning, you are never done, just sharpening your focus and increasing your performance capability as you go along.

Of course there needs to be an ultimate destination.  Goals and objectives are necessary if you want to align everyone in the business (or your life) around a common definition of success.  It’s also critical that you have developed a roadmap on how to get there.  It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but rather easy to interpret and apply to any given individual circumstance.  Moreover, given the multiple distractions and temptations we all deal with every day, it’s important to know what to say “no” to and stay focused on what has the highest probability of moving you closer to your objective.

What’s most important to me is the reaffirmation of the core purpose of the organization, its shared values, what makes it unique and different and why?  It’s also equally important to get a sense of your external environment and industry dynamics (especially these days). What’s changing and why?  Who is offering alternative solutions and what type of success are they having?  How do we need to continue to position ourselves to best compete?  Where are we vulnerable, etc.?

Nothing ever stays the same in business and life.  Change is one of the few things we all have in common.  The only way to successfully navigate change is to embrace it as your reality and respond to it accordingly.   The only way to do this is to actually think about it, anticipate it, consider multiple courses of action based on different scenarios, pick the strategies/responses that make the most sense based on your understanding of the future, put yardsticks in place that trigger certain actions, and then, take action.

Most organizations and people simply let life happen to them.  They are in a reactive mode.  Planning by its very nature is a proactive activity.  You don’t have to be omniscient and get everything right; instead you are doing your best to take control of your destiny regardless of what happens.  The objective is to achieve ongoing positive momentum in the direction of your goals, dreams, aspirations, etc.

None of this takes place in a vacuum.  It can’t get completed in just a few days.  It’s a way of being.  Of course there will need to be periods of intense reflection and discussion and you will need to get your thoughts down in writing.  However, what’s most important to me is what takes place afterwards.  Are you actually implementing the steps required to be successful.  When things change (and they will) or some of your assumptions prove wrong (count on it), what do you do then?  How many people in your organization and/or life actually buy-in to the direction you want to take?  Do they see their own views of success compatible with yours?  Will they know what to do in the face of uncertainty or difficulty?  All of the above requires on-going dialogue and a commitment to strategic thinking.

Knowledge without action is just the passage of time.  What steps are you taking to be proactive about your future?  Planning is not a luxury but a requirement if you want to be successful.  Otherwise you are subjecting yourself to the whims of chance and trust me the odds aren’t in your favor.

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