Raising the level of your leadership

Take It On Early—Before It Escalates

Google “conflict resolution” and more than 50,000,000 possibilities come up. There are mountains of books, blogs, seminars, and so on, about sources of conflict and how to resolve them. The thinking is that every leader needs a level of competency in conflict resolution because if more than one person is involved—conflict is inevitable. True? The answer is “yes, but….”

“Yes” is true when the conflict arises because of personalities, competition, or values. Leaders have to step in early and sometimes hard to resolve conflict before it escalates and causes damage to the organization.

The “but….” is true when conflict arises because of a disagreement about facts, perceptions, solutions, and so on. The leader’s job at that point is to resolve disagreement before it escalates to discord, which can lead to division, which can result in damage to the organization.

It is a lot easier to do disagreement control than damage control.

Here are a few questions that will help:

  • What are we actually disagreeing about?
  • What is the actual problem?
  • What are the true facts about the problem?
  • What are our different perceptions about the facts?
  • What do we need to do to come to agreement about the facts?
  • What are some solution options based on agreement about the facts?
  • What is the best solution?
  • What communication would have helped to resolve/prevent this?

Understanding the “what and why” of a disagreement will often keep it from escalating to discord in which careless, personal words often make resolution much harder.

I’m no Albert Einstein, but he once put it this way:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Disagreement is easier to resolve then discord.

Discord is easier to resolve than division.

Division is easier to resolve than damage.

Okay leader, the sooner you take it on, the easier it will be!

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Gibbs Isn’t Real

Most of us don’t get Leroy Jethro Gibbs as our leader—we get a mortal. In a recent episode of NCIS, Gibbs added the role of Horse Whisperer to his resume. (The horse had lost its will to live when its mounted-police rider was gunned down. Yes, Gibbs saved the horse.) Not only is he a Horse Whisperer, he was Marine sniper (like Chuck Norris, he can kill two stones with one bird), builds boats by hand without power tools, knows sign language and Russian, and drinks strong-strong-strong coffee and bourbon out of a mason jar (which may or may not be clean). Maybe that is why he never gets sick.

However, His greatest skill is knowing how to lead a diverse team of people to “get stuff done”—hard stuff like saving the world:

  • He is decisive
  • Always there when you need him
  • Leads from the front when it’s dangerous
  • Is charismatic without being narcissistic
  • Doesn’t play office politics
  • Is both intuitive and factual
  • Extends and expects loyalty
  • Is intelligent without being condescending
  • Works harder than anyone on the team
  • Never throws his team under the bus
  • Gives care and comfort by presence, not words
  • Expects his team to “do your job” and won’t do it for you
  • Leads people as both team members—and as individuals—because they are both

Of course, he has a few faults (as do we all), but somehow they get lost in the list above. If you want to be coddled and crowed over, Gibbs is not for you. But if you want to be part of a high performance team, Gibbs would be a good choice for leader.

And, if you want to be a high performance leader, take a look at the list. Maybe there is something there for you to work on. You’ll probably—like me—still be a mortal leader, but don’t despair, remember, Gibbs isn’t real.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.


My baseball/fast-pitch softball career was slow developing. The Peter, Paul and Mary song describes my early years perfectly:

Saturday summers, when I was a kid
We’d run to the schoolyard and here’s what we did
We’d pick out the captains and we’d choose up the teams
It was always a measure of my self esteem
Cuz the fastest, the strongest, played shortstop and first
The last ones they picked were the worst
I never needed to ask, it was sealed,
I just took up my place in right field.

Right field, it’s easy, you know.
You can be awkward and you can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow

Off in the distance, the game’s dragging on,
There’s strikes on the batter, some runners are on.
I don’t know the inning, I’ve forgotten the score.
The whole team is yelling and I don’t know what for.
Then suddenly everyone’s looking at me
My mind has been wandering; what could it be?
They point at the sky and I look up above
And a baseball falls into my glove!

Here in right field, it’s important you know.
You gotta know how to catch, you gotta know how to throw,
That’s why I’m here in right field,  just watching the dandelions grow!

Baseball is a nine-position game and right field is one of those positions. No team would ever play a game with eight players, leaving right field empty.

Your organization has right fielders and their job is a lot more important than “just watching the dandelions grow.” The right fielder sweeps the floors at night, stocks the shelves, delivers the mail, changes the diapers (church nursery), mows the grass, brings in the buggies from the parking lot, etc., etc., etc. Try to operate without them and the dandelions will take over.

If you are the leader, LOVE YOUR RIGHT FIELDERS—you need them—their work is honorable and important. If you thank them, encourage them, and develop them, they’ll keep the weeds from taking over and may—like me—eventually move to center field and hit in the #3 position.

Another reason to love your right fielders? They are in good company out there. That’s where Michael Jordan played during his baseball adventure.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company


I remember when I thought 73 was really old. Now that I’m there—as of last week—it’s just old.

At 23: I was starting my career as an engineer and getting married to my first and still-wife, Dottie.

At 33: I was building a career in marketing (I wasn’t that good of an engineer) and parenting two young daughters.

At 43: I had transitioned to finance and my daughters were teenagers.

At 53: I was serving as the president/CEO of our company, was overcommitted, and came home to an “our life is berserk” comment from Dottie. I had to learn how to say “no.”

At 63: I was serving my church fulltime and was now the “Papa” of three grandsons.

At 73: I am a “semi-retired” speaker, author, and coach, and getting ready to gratefully celebrate 50 years with Dottie.

There are a lot of gaps in the above summary—mostly a lot of HARD LESSONS. I have learned that:

  • Everything to the left of the “and” is not as important as the things to the right.
  • God’s favor is more important than experience, education, effort, etc. I have lived and worked with it and without it. “With it” is much easier.
  • My family—loving them and making them feel loved—is more important than any position, title, or honor that the world offers.
  • Relationships—not accomplishments—are what really matter.
  • Receiving and extending forgiveness—to/from others and self—is the only way to be relationally, spiritually, and emotionally healthy,
  • My biggest lesson: The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9) There isn’t much about my life that is a result of great planning on my part.

I realize now that what I leave is more important than what I have. I am not talking about a legacy of accomplishments, but a life of purpose. So however much longer God gives me, it is “well done” from Him and my family that is of utmost importance to me:

I have as my ambition…to be pleasing to Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:9

(I’ll get back to leadership in my next post.)

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

The Dreaded Performance Review


“Are you dreading your review?”

“Yes. At my old company all I ever heard was: “You are a 3 on a 5 point scale; you are meeting expectations and will get a 1.5% raise. I walked out not knowing why I was a 3, nor what I could do to get a higher score. Very frustrating.”

“Well…you may get a pleasant surprise today.”

“I hope so.”


“How did it go?”

“It was great. I wasn’t rated—I was reviewed, mostly by asking me questions. In effect, I reviewed myself by answering the questions. And it was easy because we talk about performance all the time. There were no surprises and no “gotcha’s” and I know what is expected of me in the future.”

“What about your raise?”

“He said that raises will be decided after everyone is reviewed and will be based on contribution to success, not on some scale decided by a consultant.”

Employees hate to be rated, but they don’t mind being evaluated as long as truth about performance—not satisfying a predetermined scale—is the intent.

Two keys to successful reviews:
#1 Review performance all year long; there should be no surprises.
#2 Review by asking questions that prompt the employee to evaluate their own performance.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Vision Is The Easy Part

Every Good Idea 2In 16 Stones, I concluded a review of the 1960’s moon-landing program with the following statement: “It wasn’t a Saturn rocket that launched Apollo 11, it was a vision.” President John Kennedy had cast the vision for “landing a man on the moon” on May 25, 1961. It was fulfilled eight years and fifty-six days later (July 20, 1969) when the Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed on the moon, announced by Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic statement, “The Eagle has landed.” Though President Kennedy deserves immense credit for casting the vision, the real story is what happened during the eight years and fifty-six days.

The cost of Neil Armstrong’s “…one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” was $24B and three lives—the entire crew of Apollo 1 was killed in a cabin fire during a 1967 pre-launch test. More than 400,000 people from 20,000 companies and universities were involved in the project. There were thousands of tests, changes and retests in the systems and flight vehicles. There were the six Mercury and twelve Gemini/Titan launches, plus six unmanned Apollo launches and four manned non-lunar Apollo launches, all before Apollo 11. It is truly said that every good idea is a lot of hard work for someone.

There are a lot more visions unfulfilled than fulfilled. Why? Poor execution. In their best selling 2002 book, Execution, Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan made it painfully clear:

“…unless you translate big thoughts into concrete steps for action, they’re pointless.”

They go on to say:

“Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a…leader.
That’s wrong. To the contrary, it’s the leader’s most important job.”

The leader’s most important job? Yes, and Warren Bennis agrees:

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

I love these quotes because as a non-visionary, I admit I’m more than a bit biased toward action. Without action, the “next big thing” soon becomes the “last abandoned thing.” So don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because you may be great at casting vision, you are a great leader. Great leaders may or may not be good at casting vision. However, they will always be great at getting things done. Leaders are remembered for great accomplishment, not great dreams.

If your organization is floundering and you’ve cast vision until your vocal cords are worn out, it’s time to for you to focus on execution—“…the leader’s most important job.”

By the way, Execution should be on your required reading list if you are leader, think you are a leader, or want to be a leader.

If this post was interesting and useful to you, please forward it to a friend. Thanks.

[You can order 16 Stones at hard-lessons.com.]

© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Wind In Your Sails

SeaHawkThe 1940 film, The Sea Hawk, starred Errol Flynn as an English pirate (Capt. Thorpe—the good guy) who was a “thorn in the side” (understatement) of the we’ll-conquer-the-world Spanish (the bad guys).

Early in the movie, a calm, no-wind day has a Spanish galleon laboring slowly along using captured English sailors pulling at the oars. Capt. Thorpe arrives with his ship the Sea Hawk, but miraculously, the Sea Hawk has wind. He could steer, maneuver, attack, and come-along-side while the Spanish ship is helpless with no wind. By the way, his cannoneers were deadly accurate; the Spanish cannoneers couldn’t hit the broad side of a ship. Guess who won the encounter?

Does it feel like your organization is laboring at the oars instead of sailing in the wind? You can catch the wind if you…
• Have a captain who knows how to navigate the ship. That’s you if you are the leader.
• Have great “first mate.” As organizations grow, the leader needs help.
• Have a well maintained, sea worthy vessel. Your products, vision, strategy, etc., all need to fit the sea state you are sailing in (stormy or calm).
• Have a well-trained, motivated crew who know their stuff and are ready to engage the challenge.
• Have a clear and compelling purpose (save England and the queen, and free the slaves) that inspires everyone.
• Have a bias for action (play offense).
• Have courage and perseverance; don’t run or waiver at the first sign of trouble.

You can learn a lot about life and leadership by watching 1940 movies including how to lead with the wind in your sails. (By the way, guess who got the beautiful girl: Capt. Thorpe or the Spanish captain?)

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Don’t Make Heros Out Of Arsonists

HeroDoes your organization make heroes out of arsonists? Probably. Most do. In my experience, it usually happens something like this:

Tuesday afternoon—telephone in the Operations VP office—ring….ring…ring!

Operations VP:     “I’m busy. What do you want?”

Assembly Manager:     “If we don’t get Part # 427bgf109942A by next Monday morning, we are going to have to shut down the assembly line.”

Operations VP:     “What the #@**><*!@^%!! do you mean! We can’t shut down an assembly line. That will cost us thousands.”

Assembly Manager:     “We will run out of workarounds on Friday. So I have to have it by first thing Monday morning.”

Operations VP:     “What happened?”

Assembly Manager:    “Fabrication was expediting the part for us, but it got scrapped out in machining and they don’t have any more material to make another one.”

Operations VP call to the Fabrication Manager:     “What the #@**><*!@^%!! is going on down there? You guys are about to shut down assembly because they don’t have Part # 427bgf109942A because you guys scrapped it.”

Fabrication Manager:     “We got the material late and had to rush it. My best machinist, Williams, was at the dentist, so I put Jones on it. He set it up wrong and the finished part was out of tolerance. If we had got the material on time, Williams could have made the part and we would have had it to assembly yesterday.”

Operations VP:     “When will you get more material?”

Fabrication Manager:     “Not until Friday. We’ll work overtime all weekend to have the part by Monday morning. I’ll be in here personally to make sure it happens. And Williams has agreed to come in to make the part.”

Operations VP call to the Purchasing Manager:     “Why was the #@**><*!@^%!! material for Part # 427bgf109942A late and why can’t you get more here before Friday?”

Purchasing Manager:     “We got the purchase request from Production Control late. We have a special order at the vendors, but the material—it’s a casting—won’t be ready until late Thursday.”

Operations VP:     “Late #@**><*!@^%!! Thursday! There is no way you’ll have it here by Friday, even with an express truck run.”

Purchasing Manager:     “Yeah, I know a truck isn’t fast enough, so we have chartered a plane to fly it in. It should land at the airport by 6:00am Friday.”

Operations VP:     “A #@**><*!@^%!! charter! How much did that cost?”

Purchasing Manager:     “$12,000”

Operations VP:     “It’s coming out of your budget.”

Purchasing Manager:     “It’s Production Control’s fault. They should pay for it.”

Operations VP call to the Production Control Manager:     “Why can’t you guys get the #@**><*!@^%!! purchase requests down to Purchasing on time? We may have to shut down an assembly line on Monday because we don’t have Part # 427bgf109942A. And we don’t have it because we had to use Jones instead of Williams to do the machining because the casting was late, and the casting was late because the stupid purchase request was late getting to purchasing.”

Production Control Manager:    “Sorry, boss. But the Program Manager didn’t release the production schedule on time so we were behind the eight ball from the get-go.”

Operations VP call to the Program Manager:   “For crying out loud. Are you guys too busy going out for drinks with customers to release the production schedules on time?”

Program Manager:     “Not our fault, boss. The computer was down 4 days for reprogramming. We have really been scrambling trying to catch up.”

Operations VP call to the IT Manager:     “What the #@**><*!@^%!! is going on down there? We have a crisis in the shop because you guys shut the computer down for four stupid days!

IT Manager:     “You must have forgotten. That new software you ordered us to install turned out to be a disaster. It took us four days to get it debugged. Even now I’m not sure it’s working right.”

Operations VP:     “#@**><*!@^%!! #@**><*!@^%!! #@**><*!@^%!! #@**><*!@^%!!”

Fast forward to the next Monday morning operations meeting:

Assembly Manager:     “We got Part # 427bgf109942A at 4:30am this morning. We’ll have it installed by noon and be back on schedule by tomorrow morning.”

Fabrication Manager:     “My guys did a great job this weekend. I was here all Saturday night with Williams to make sure we set up the machining correctly and carried the part to heat treat myself.”

Purchasing Manager:     “The vendor really came through for us. The buyer was there Thursday to carry the part to the chartered plane and flew back with it. It was a Citation V. Did you guys know they serve free drinks on those things?”

Operations VP:     “I am really proud of you guys. You saved the day for us. I’ll make sure the corner office hears about this. He’ll want to personally thank you, maybe even take you to lunch.”

End of story.

This is a classic case of making heroes out of fire fighters for putting out a fire they started themselves—heroes out of arsonists.

Don’t fall into this trap. There are people in your organization who prevent fires, or put out fires other people start. They seldom get attention in meetings because they aren’t often in crisis mode. Take a few minutes today to seek them out and thank them. Maybe even take them to lunch. They are the real heroes.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Where Does The Buck Stop?

Truman_pass-the-buckHarry Truman was famous for his The Buck Stops Here sign on his desk. Sadly, there aren’t many Harry-Truman-like leaders in today’s world.

The CEO of Volkswagen wasn’t—he claimed he didn’t know about the emission test cheating.

The CEO of Pilot isn’t—he claims he isn’t responsible for cheating customers out of their earned rebates. (I guess he takes no responsibility for the culture that permitted it.)

The CEO of Wells Fargo wasn’t—when false accounts were set up without customer knowledge or approval, he loudly testified: “That isn’t the Wells Fargo way of doing business!” (Really? Thousands of employees thought it was.)

A well-known basketball coach claimed he had no idea prostitutes were being used in his recruiting program.

Easy to get discouraged isn’t it?

But all is not lost. Among the hundreds (thousands?) of “I’m not responsible” cries out there, comes one “…ultimately that’s my responsibility” admission from Jason Fried the CEO of Basecamp (project/communication software).

How did he put his words into action? “This year I’ve decided to take Harry Truman’s famous The BUCK STOPS Here sign literally. So in 2017, all refunds requested by Basecamp customers will come out of my paycheck….” In other words, “I’m responsible so I’ll take the hit.” (Most of the others retired with #100M+ packages and are living happily ever after.)

Capitalism is under attack. Why? Because too many leaders claim “I’m not responsible….”

Have you noticed that politicians spend most of their time blaming the other party—or the media—telling the voters “I’m not responsible….”

Then…shaming them all…comes a Harry-Truman-like leader named Jason who says “…ultimately that’s my responsibility. The buck stops with me. I’m not going to pass it down.”

If you are a leader at any level, get a The BUCK STOPS Here sign, put it on your desk, then lead that way—quit passing the buck.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

Make A Difference

MLK Jr Wash DCThe post offices are closed today—I’m glad. The government offices are closed today—I’m glad. The schools are closed today—I’m glad. I’m glad because it means I get to spend the day with my three grandson buddies, and I’m glad because the day honors Martin Luther King, Jr.

The turbulent 60’s were high school and college years for me. I remember the marches. I remember the cross burnings and lynchings. I remember sit-ins, Rosa Parks and water cannons. I remember Selma, Birmingham and Medgar Evers. I remember working with black laborers who were paid only $1.25 per hour to dig sewer ditches. And, I remember Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great leaders of the 20th century. If I were an African-American, I would probably say he was the greatest leader of the 20th century.

When we celebrate July 4th, blacks join in, but they remember they were still slaves in 1776. When we celebrate Washington’s birthday, blacks join in, but they remember that he owned slaves. To African Americans, it is Lincoln and MLK, Jr., who led the fight, first for freedom, and then for equality. These two stand alone in black history; there are no rivals to their legacy. They both led with:

  • Purpose
  • Courage
  • Vision
  • Resolve
  • Selflessness

The lives of millions were impacted for good by their leadership. Both died young, brought down by an assassin’s bullet. They believed that…

“The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most of us will not have the opportunity to impact millions by our leadership. However, all of us can impact a few, some hundreds, and some thousands. Whatever the size of your sphere of influence, if you want to make a difference, you will have to lead with purpose, courage, vision, resolve and selflessness. Do that and you will leave footprints that endure long after you are gone. Isn’t that what is really important?

If this post was interesting and useful to you, please forward it to a friend. Thanks.

© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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  • On Leading Well…

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    Jim Rohn

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