Authenticity in Leadership

“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” – Norman Schwarzkopf

Last night I found myself in front of the TV watching NFL football games I cared nothing about, when one of my friends sent me a text and suggested I watch the movie “We Were Soldiers” (it was airing on TNT).  I’d seen the movie before, but since my Texans had already lost their game and my Saints had pulled out a win in theirs, I figured it was worth watching again.  I’m glad I did.

“We Were Soldiers” is a 2002 film that dramatizes the Battle of Ia Drang on November 14, 1965 (during the Vietnam War).  In this battle, 400 American soldiers were dropped in to a battlefield to secure a position, only to find out the location was the base camp for a veteran North Vietnamese Army division of more than 4,000 men.  After several days of fierce battle, the US soldiers had defeated an enemy ten times their size – but at a significant loss.  A hollow victory for sure, but one which reflects the nature of that horrible conflict. Continue reading

Recognizing that You’re Part of Something Bigger

“Your strength will not come from your place on some org chart, but from building trust and earning respect.” – Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook

“I’m an employee of Costco that just HAPPENS to oversee the wine category” – Annette Alvarez-Peters

I would guess that many of you have heard of or are members of Costco.  My wife and I are members of Costco, and I would venture to say that we spend more money at Costco than at any other single retailer we frequent.  We purchase everything from electronics and appliances, to groceries and other staples, to clothing, and even some large purchases like furniture.  For those of you who are members, you’ll smile fondly when I describe the experience of wandering through a Costco, nibbling on their samples, and seeing what new products they have to offer this week.  But my favorite thing to buy at Costco is wine…they have a fairly good selection of wine at some of the best prices I’ve ever seen.  And I do so love my wine! Continue reading

A Sometimes Thankless Job

“Thanks Dad. The party was cool.” –Birthday cake Amanda Wright
(OK, maybe she didn’t actually say this, but I’m sure she thought it) 😉
This past weekend was my daughter’s 13th birthday party.  She and four of her best friends celebrated their ‘coming of age’ with a huge birthday bash for 100 of their closest friends.  Forget the traditional parties where you have 8 to 10 of your closest friends over for cake and a magic show with Bozo the Clown.  This is something entirely different.

So, as the trend goes (at least in the area of Houston we live in), throughout their 7th grade school year the girls and guys pack up in groups of 3-5 and host ‘13th Birthday’ parties for almost their entire grade level.   The parents hire a DJ, rent out the local community or recreation center, and decorate like there’s no tomorrow.  All for three hours of 13-year-old ‘partying’. Continue reading

2012 Summer Olympics

Goodbye 2012 Olympics

Well, it’s finally over.  The 2012 Olympics in London finished last night, with one of the most memorable closing ceremonies I’ve ever seen.  As I sat and watched that ceremony, I couldn’t help but be struck by the power and beauty of the Olympic games.  For one small moment in time a collection of athletes from around the world come together to represent the best in what their country has to offer.  They do it for the pride.  The pride that comes in working hard to achieve something.   The pride that comes in succeeding where others can’t.  And the pride that comes from overcoming obstacles, setbacks, and hardships to accomplish something great.

If you were like me, you spent several nights these past few weeks watching the games.  It didn’t matter that the airing was time delayed, that the events had already been decided.  It was just as dramatic to watch as if it was live.  I found myself watching late into the night – Swimming, Gymnastics, Volleyball, Rowing, Diving – none of these sports I have ever participated in, but all of them captivating my attention. Continue reading

Learning from our Mistakes

“There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage.”

[Chan Master Fuchan Yuan]

“A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying… that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”

[Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies}

I searched a bit to find the quotes for this Leadership Thought, as I wanted to highlight the importance of humility, honesty, and the courage to recognize when one makes a mistake.  And as is often the case, this week’s quote has a story behind it.  One that involves my daughter and the mistakes we sometimes make as parents.

Last week was finals at my daughter’s school.  My daughter, Amanda, is like any other child, and finding an excuse for procrastinating is an art form for her.  In this particular case, Amanda had managed to go through the whole weekend without studying, and now the night before it was time for a crash study session.  It was getting late in the evening, and Amanda still had quite a bit of material to cover.  Instead of going to the study to review the material, she insisted on sitting in the living room with us with a constant pester of, “Help me study…”

Being an “old school” father, I took the position that to study means you must go into solitude and review the material over and over.  This led to a bit of an argument.  “Dad, that’s not how I study,” replied Amanda.  I countered, “Well, that’s how you need to study…now go in the other room and start reviewing your material.”  Back and forth this went, with my wife jumping in periodically to defend Amanda’s position.  Eventually the debate elevated to the point where all of us were frustrated, and in my infinite wisdom I ‘sent’ Amanda to the study to ‘figure it out’.

Later that night I sat in bed struggling with the earlier discussion.  “Pam?” I whispered to my wife…”do you think I was a little rough on Amanda?”  Pam replied, “Yes, you were a bit stubborn, and you may not be looking at things through her eyes.  They teach children to study differently now, and one of the techniques they use is flash cards.  All Amanda wanted to do was to have us review the flash cards, as it helps her to have us ‘quiz’ her on them…”  You could have hit me with a baseball bat and it wouldn’t have jolted me more than those words did.  I was wrong.  Flat out wrong.  And if I was going to teach my daughter any real values and leadership principles, I knew exactly what I had to do.

The next morning my wife and I got up early to help Amanda study for the test.  All three of us sat in the kitchen and ‘quizzed’ on flash cards for a good hour before school started.  But you know what was more important than that?  It was the words I said to Amanda before we began studying:  “Amanda, I made a mistake last night…and I am sorry.  Parents make mistakes sometimes, and it’s important that when we do, we are willing to admit those mistakes and correct them.”

Isn’t it so true how leadership often follows that same logic (or at least SHOULD follow that logic)?  Take the quote from Chan Master Fuchan Yuan – “There are three essentials to leadership:  Humility, clarity, and courage”.  Humility to recognize that you do make mistakes as a leader.  Clarity to see it.  And courage to admit it.    We are going to make mistakes.  It’s what you do after which defines your leadership.

From Ideas Come Answers

“From perspective comes clarity.  From clarity comes clear thinking.  From clear thinking come ideas.  And from ideas come answers.”

[Andy Andrews]

By now you are beginning to see a theme emerge around innovation as an “institutionalized” process for organizational success.  I’ve been saving this leadership quote for a few months now because I believe it speaks to the concept of innovation, particularly the importance of perspective when driving innovation.  What I love about this quote is how it chains the importance of starting with perspective if you hope to end with answers.  So let’s speak to the concept of perspective.

What is perspective?  Webster’s dictionary had two definitions I thought relevant in this case:

  • The capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance
  • The interrelation in which a subject or its parts are mentally viewed (point of view)

So what does perspective have to do with innovation, solving problems, or gaining answers?  The answer is: everything.  Relevance.  Relationship.  Priority.  Point of View.  Before you can even begin to develop ideas that lead to answers, you have to gain perspective and clarity on the issue.

Think of how Apple has revolutionized the MP3 player, cell phone, and tablet market.  To be fair, they didn’t invent any of these devices.  The iPod, iPhone and iPad are all variants of technology that existed far before Apple created them.  But what Apple focused on almost entirely was perspective.  The perspective of their user.  How their customers would consume information.  How their customers might use their products.  So they had to put themselves in the shoes of that customer.  They had to start with perspective.  And I think we’ll all agree, Apple products are cool because of “how” you use them. Because of how they interface with you.

This is why it was so important for an organization to institutionalize innovation across the company.  Each of you has a unique perspective.  Many of you work directly with and beside your customers.  And in doing so you gain perspective – the perspective of those customers.  That is so important.  For any business to successfully deliver on the promise of its offerings it must start with that perspective.

Be Part of the Solution

“Why is it that every time a smart person needs help to solve a problem, they look everywhere except their own mind?”

[Quote from a 1957 Manpower operating manual]

This is a particularly telling quote one of my colleagues at ManpowerGroup found and highlighted to me last week.  It’s a particularly telling quote, as it really highlights the responsibility we all have as team members and leaders to contribute to the solution, not the problem.  Note the timeless nature of the quote – from an operations manual back in 1957!

This reminds me of a funny story one of my former colleagues told me that is worth repeating.  He was telling me about a boss he once had [we’ll call her Suzy to protect the innocent] who drove home the message of leadership and responsibility, particularly around offering potential solutions to problems and not relying on others to solve those problems.  The story goes like this:

“I remember when I first started working for Suzy.  The first time I had an issue arise, I called Suzy and said, ‘Suzy, I have this problem, what should I do?’ Suzy then responded, ‘well, what options have you considered?’  ‘None’, I said, ‘that’s why I called you.’  To which Suzy offered two or three solutions.

The next time I brought a problem to Suzy I got the same thing.  ‘Well, what options have you considered?’, said Suzy.  ‘None’, I said again, ‘that’s why I called you.’  To which Suzy sighed and again offered a few solutions.

The third time I brought a problem to Suzy, she again asked, ‘Well, what options have you considered?’, to which I again replied, ‘none, that’s why I called you.’  The phone immediately went dead.  So I called Suzy back and said, ‘we must have been cut off.’  ‘No’, Suzy replied.  ‘I hung up on you’.  ‘Why?’, I asked.  ‘Well, if you aren’t going to bring some options to solve the issues you raise, I don’t need you as a leader.’”.

A bit of a harsh lesson, to be fair.  But the story does highlight an important point.  Leadership isn’t about always having the right answer, but it is about taking the time to explore potential answers and not just highlight problems.

Every day you will be faced with challenges.  Your job in supporting your customers inherently requires you to face such challenges and issues on almost a daily basis.  So ask yourself this simple question – Are you acting as a leader and part of the solution, or looking to everyone else for the answer?

The Power of a Team

For this week’s leadership quote, I thought I would feature a couple of quotes that carried the same theme:

 “None of us is as smart as all of us.”   – [Ken Blanchard]

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships!”   – [Michael Jordan]

The power of a team is amazing.  Individually, we can only do so much.  But collectively, a team can multiply its impact.  Its strengths can be magnified, and its weaknesses minimized.  A team that understands itself, recognizes its potential, relies on its team members, and focuses on the collective over the individual is truly a powerful thing.

Think of some of the greatest teams in sports history, and you will see one common theme – they acted and performed TOGETHER as a team, trusting that each member will do its part.  Yes, there were superstars on those teams, but they alone could not be successful without the help of the team.  On the other hand, think of how many teams have assembled tremendous talent only to have those same players act as individuals.  In the end, they fell miserably short of their expectations.

Many of my past organizations have always featured teamwork as a cultural attribute.  Their culture was built largely with teamwork at its core.  Our delivery depended on it.  Our organization required it in its very design.  Everything about those organization, and their collective successes and failures was based on the team.  And as a result, those organizations achieved significant success.  Not the individuals in the organizations, but the collective “team” of that business.

Do you foster a culture of teamwork?  Or does your organization focus so much on the success of the individual that the team can never succeed.  Think about it, because it’s quite simple – teamwork wins championships!