Raising the level of your leadership

Are You Feeding The Hippos?

Ernesto Sirolli—dubbed The Entrepreneurship Coach by strategy+business—tells this story about one of his early failures:

[We] decided to teach Zambians how to grow food in the beautiful fertile valley where they had always lived as pastoralists, shepherding animals but planting nothing. The team imported seeds from Italy—tomatoes and zucchini—but the locals didn’t seem interested. The team tried to pay them money, but there was little in the valley available to buy. Finally, the NGO started importing whiskey and beer in order to coax the men into the fields. “We kept thinking, what is wrong with these people?”

It soon became apparent. The tomatoes appeared on the vines, huge bursting fruits that put the most bountiful Italian crops to shame. The team members were joyful, but the next morning they awoke to find every single one of the plants gone. Hippos had swarmed up from the river and begun gorging. The Italians ran to tell the Zambians what had happened. “Of course,” said the people. “That’s why we don’t plant in the valley.”

 “Why didn’t you tell us?” asked the Italians.

 “Because you never asked,” came the response.1

I have made the same mistake many times. One of my notable failures was when I decided I could run a shipyard without knowing anything about building ships. FAIL.

The primary advice Sirolli gives business leaders is “Shut up and listen.”

That reminds me of one of my favorite, but too often ignored proverbs: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent….” (Proverbs 17:28 NIV)

Effective communication has a pattern:

  • Listen first;
  • Then ask questions;
  • Talk little.

I need to learn to take my own advice.

Dick, repeat after me:

  • Listen first;
  • Then ask questions;
  • Talk little.

Dick, repeat after me:

  • Listen first;
  • Then ask….

Dick, repeat after me:

  • Listen….

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

© Copyright 2022 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

1 strategy+business, The Entrepreneurship Coach by Sally Helgesen, 1 August 2014

Want To Save $130,000?

A WSJ article by Lauren Lipton (1/30/14) was titled: Posh Hair Cutters Push the $1000 Envelope. My mind immediately went to how much I save by having my hair cut for only $18. Hmmm…that is a saving of $982 per cut. Assuming one visit per month, that is $11,784 per year. If I invested the $11,784 in dividend stocks paying about 2.75% for ten years, I’d have more than $130,000 in the bank. I sure am glad I don’t live in Manhattan.

Of course, not every hair cut or styling on Madison Avenue gets $1000. Some are discounted to $500. The savings over ten years? A hefty $67,000. If you get a New York haircut at the discounter “Wal-cuts” (not a real company) for a mere $100, your ten-year invested savings will be $12,000. If you get a “street-corner” haircut for $50 (cash only), you will have about $5000 in the bank after ten years. 

Now I know some of you are thinking, Dick, you need to spend more on haircuts; it will help your image. Maybe so. But the point of this post is that small savings that seem insignificant on a monthly basis can add up to big savings when viewed over a ten year horizon. I recently cut our monthly utility bills by over $100 per month by making a few simple phones calls. If I save it instead of spending it, I’ll have an extra $12,000+ in the bank in ten years.

There are few things that hurt businesses, families, churches, etc., more than short-term thinking. Instead of asking, What is the impact over five or ten years?, we ignore changes, savings, investments, and relationships that have a long-term payback in favor of short-terms ones. Why is Warren Buffet the best investor on the planet? He’s not a stock trader or company flipper. He buys stocks and companies and holds them—almost forever.

If you expect to be alive ten years from now (I do), there are things you can do now that will have a big payback then. What will 15 minutes per week spent getting to know each of your employees be worth in ten years? How about losing one pound per month instead of a crash diet? If you buy a $2.50 (instead of $5.00) cup of coffee on your way to work, you’ll have an extra $6000 in the bank in ten years. Would a 30-45 minute walk, 5 times a week, stave off diabetes or heart disease for you? Would one hour of training every month for you and your employees make a difference over time?

Today would be a good day to get started. 2032 will be here before you know it.

By the way, I do tip the barber, so the actual cost of my hair cut is $23. So, my ten-year savings compared to Julien’s on Madison Ave is a bit less than $130,000. Rats.

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

© Copyright 2022 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

What Kind Of Leader Would You Follow “Against All Odds”?

One of the most inspiring stories of Greek history is the battle of Thermopylae (480BC) during which 300 Spartans held off an army of 100,000+ Persians for seven days before they were betrayed and all killed. Their leader was King Leonidas—he fought on the front line and perished with them. They were fighting for their country and their sacrifice saved Greece.

A story most every American is familiar with is the battle of the Alamo in which 200± “Texians” held off 2000 or so Mexican soldiers for almost two weeks before being overwhelmed and all killed. They bought time for Sam Houston to raise an army that—about six weeks later—defeated the Mexican army at San Jacinto and won independence for Texas. Jim Bowie and William Travis were the commanders at the Alamo though Hollywood likes to elevate Davy Crockett played by Fess Parker, John Wayne, Billy Bob Thornton, etc., depending on which vintage you watch.

A lesser-known story of a small group following a leader into battle against overwhelming odds is found in the 14th chapter of Genesis. Four kings (all with long, hard-to-pronounce names) made war against Sodom and Gomorrah and “carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions” (Genesis 14:12 NIV). Abram (better known as Abraham) “called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit (Genesis 14:14 NIV). You can read the full account for yourself, but the outcome was that the 318 men led by Abram defeated the four armies led by kings and rescued Lot and all his possessions.

Three stories of men who followed their leaders into battle against overwhelming odds: in two everyone was killed, in the third they were victorious. In all three, they had to choose to follow the leader.

The leadership question is: what about Leonidas, Bowie, Travis, Crockett, and Abram inspired their men to follow them to almost certain death? Now, I could give you my version of the answer(s), but why don’t you answer the question yourself: what kind of leader would you follow into battle against overwhelming odds?” Then aspire to be that kind of leader.

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

© Copyright 2022 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

What Are You Shooting For In 2022?

One of my favorite challenges in scripture comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:26 (NASB): “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.” In other words, “I live with purpose.” So, in your personal life, family life, business, church, whatever, run with aim; shoot for something! One thing is certain—if you don’t shoot for something, you hit will hit nothing.

If you haven’t already set your targets for 2022, here are a few suggestions that may help you—it’s not too late!

#1 Have no more than three or four personal goals for the year. Choose things that are doable and will really make a difference.

#2 Choose one goal that is primary—an “if-I-only-get one-thing-done” goal, this is it. Make sure you reach this goal!

#3 Don’t let past failures keep you from trying again.

Living in the past is an enemy of the future.

Erwin McManus

Forget “what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead”  

Philippians 3:13 (NASB)

#4 Plan in detail for the next 60 days. It is important to get off to a good start. In late March, plan for April through June, and so on. The greatest motivation for continuing will be progress.

Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.

Coach Tom Landry

It won’t just happen. You need a plan.

#5 Make sure you have an accountability mechanism. Post your plan on the refrigerator or give it to a friend who won’t say “don’t worry about it” if you begin to slip.

Leadership author John Maxwell challenges us with: “You don’t have to be great to start; but you have to start to be great.” 2022 is as good a time as any to start. Why wait?

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

© Copyright 2022 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Finish Strong…So You Can Start Strong

2022 will be here before you can blink twice—31 days from now. The truth is, what you do these last days of 2021 will have a huge impact on how you start 2022. So start 2022 with a clean slate, not bogged down with 2021 carryovers.

#1 Do Ten Things You Have Been Putting Off For Weeks

There’s a “call back” note on your desk…a garage to clean…a report to write…a visit to the doctor…you know what it is. Don’t let it continue to nag you in 2022.

#2 Spend Time With The Water Boys In Your Organization

The water boy goes about his job in anonymity. She cleans the office at night or he opens up the church early on Sunday mornings. Take 15 minutes to sit down and talk. Learn about his hobby and her kids. Listen for that hidden message from the heart. Say “thank you.” It will be a great finish to the water boy’s year…and yours.

#3 Forgive Someone

There’s a co-worker, family member, neighbor, or ___?___ you need to forgive—for your sake not theirs.

From the mega-bestseller, Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand:

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer. In seeking the Bird’s death to free himself, Louie had chained himself, once again, to his tyrant. During the war, the Bird had been unwilling to let go of Louie; after the war, Louie was unable to let go of the Bird.”

When we don’t forgive, we become a victim twice. First, when we are hurt, and second, when we chain ourselves to the pain. Bitterness and a desire for revenge are heavier weights than the original hurt; carrying them will wear you out emotionally. It’s not easy, but 2022 will be a much better year if you let go.

#4 Clean Out Your Inbox

My inbox has more than 50 items this morning; my goal is zero on 12/31. Zero may seem an impossibility to you, so how about 10? Or 20? Don’t come in on January 2nd with a long list of 2022 carryover emails—get rid of them!

#5 Plan Your First Day Of 2022

How you start 2022 will have a big impact on how you finish 2022. So hit the ground running on Day One. Before you turn out the lights on your last 2021 workday, make a list of five things to do first on the morning of January 2 (or whatever your first workday is). Limit your “holiday small talk” to an hour or so, then pull out your list and get to it. Go home Day One with five ✓ marks instead of “I’m already behind.”

No matter how busy you are, you have time to do these five things. Start 2022 by finishing well in 2021. You’ll be glad you did.

Oh…and don’t forget to celebrate the birth of Christ. How? Worship more and give more. Try it!

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

© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Road Signs

There isn’t much more frustrating than road signs that don’t help you find your way. If you have a GPS system, you can find your way no matter what the road signs say. But if you don’t, you sometimes have to guess and hope you end up at the right place.

In organizations, the best road signs are the people. Pay attention to the signals you are getting from them. Ignoring them can lead to dead ends, or worse, bridge-out disasters.


LOST: It is because the organization (including the leadership) doesn’t know where it is, and probably didn’t know where it was going before it got lost. [Denial of reality is often the problem.]

UNSURE: It is because the organization is always changing direction—west today, east tomorrow, and then west again. [This is often a result of a latest-fad strategy. And since the latest fad is always changing…well, you get the idea.]

CONFUSED: It is because the road signs are in conflict, one pointing north and one pointing south. [One leader is saying one thing; another leader is saying something different.]

UNCLEAR: It is because communication is unclear: “Do you have any idea what he/she said?” [The responsibility for clarity is with the communicator, not the listener. What you think you said and what people heard may not be the same thing.]

PERPLEXED: It is because the values, policies, etc., don’t apply to everyone. [Preferential treatment for some will kill your credibility as a leader.]

BEWILDERED: It is because they have no idea “why” the organization is headed in a particular direction. [Purpose, values, vision, etc., are not understood.]

DISORIENTED: It is because they are LOST, UNSURE, CONFUSED, UNCLEAR, PERPLEXED, AND BEWILDERED. The organization seems to be spinning out of control and they feel helpless. [This is an organization that is nearing the end. Read How The Mighty Fall by Jim Collins.]

Wonder where your organization is headed? Look at the road signs.

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

© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

“It Can Wait”

“How did your meeting with the boss go?”

“Really great. I had a lot to cover in only 20 minutes, but that was enough.”

“Where did you meet with her?”

“In her office. She had a plane to catch so there wasn’t time for her to come here.”

“What happened?”

“Well, two minutes in, her assistant interrupted with ‘You have an important phone call from a customer.’ Her response was, ‘This is important too. I’ll call them back on the way to the airport.’ Then her email pinged. She turned it off. Then her broker called. She didn’t take that call either.”

“So you got to give the pitch without being interrupted?”


“How did that make you feel?”

“Important. Appreciated.”

“Did you get the answer you wanted?”

“No. But I got the attention I wanted, so I’m okay with the answer.”

How are you doing? Cell phone ignored when someone is talking to you? Newspaper down or TV silenced when your spouse or child is trying to get your attention? (I need to do a lot better.)

  • M. Scott Peck: “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
  • James C Hunter in The Servant: “…listening is probably our greatest opportunity to give attention to others on a daily basis and convey how much we value them.”

People—at work or at home—don’t always expect to get their way. They do expect to get a hearing.

Great leaders are—first of all—great listeners.

If this post was interesting and challenging, please forward it to a friend.

© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard lessons Company

He Redefined “Finger Pointing”

According to Merriam-Webster, finger-pointing is “the act of blaming someone for a problem instead of trying to fix or solve it.” A great example of this is: “Tensions remained high in New York City Monday as lawmakers and other political figures battle over who deserves the blame for the weekend killings of two policemen, shot to death indiscriminately as they sat in their patrol car” (The Hill, 12/22/2014).

Legendary basketball coach, Dean Smith, created a positive definition of “finger-pointing.” Smith wanted to make sure that the “passer” got as much credit as the “scorer,” so he started the practice of the scorer pointing at the player who made the pass. It was—and is—a combination of “thank you” and “props” that everyone can see: the players, coaches, crowd, and press.

For Smith, it was all about the team, not individuals. On flights, it was the seniors who sat in first class, not the stars; the coaches sat in the back behind all the players. When a player came off the court, Smith had all the players stand in respect whether he had played well or poorly. Smith believed that appreciation was a better motivator than berating.

Coach Smith’s death (2/7/15) prompted an outpouring of love and respect. His greatest player ever, Michael Jordan, has this to say about him:

Players with different backgrounds, different outlooks, different potential: He seemed to be able to reach all of them the same way. If you talk to a guy who never got off the bench, he says the same thing I say. That’s what a father figure is really like—he never put one kid above the other. The love that came from him: the caring, the advice, the education, and the persistence and determination he had in pushing all his players, not just me.

-Michael Jordan

One of the challenges of leadership is blending stars and mortals into a winning team. Smith had the key: he never put one kid above the other and he appreciated the passer as much as he appreciated the scorer. So what are you going to do differently today? How about finger-pointing one of your mortals?

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

© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

The Kitchen Is Always Hot

The kitchen is always hot for leaders. Leadership is not for the thin-skinned who wither every time the critics show up. If you are “in the arena” (as Pres. T. Roosevelt called it), criticism is certain.

According to Greek philosopher Aristotle there is only one way to avoid it: “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by…doing nothing.” So since you are certain to be criticized, the real issue is #1 should you respond and #2 how to respond.

Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle, said it this way: “Speak when you are angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” So go slowly and be calm.

Before taking it personally, have you taken the time to correctly identify the target of the criticism?

Considering the source of the criticism, is it worth considering at all? Is it from external or internal sources?

What is the motive of the critics? Is it possible they are well-intentioned?

Rather than reject it out of hand, have you honestly examined whether it could be true or not?

If you decide you need to respond, why? Will a response accomplish anything positive, or just inflame the critics?

If you decide to respond, follow these guidelines:

  • The target of your response should be the criticism, not the critic.
  • The purpose of your response should be to elevate truth, not self.
  • The tone of your response should be to build up, not tear down.

Whatever you do, don’t let criticism turn you into a critic.

This post is abbreviated from chapter 10 of 16 Stones. Click here for order information.

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

© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

I Love My Job!

One thing is sure. You won’t love your job if you hate your boss. First and foremost, people leave companies (or churches or universities or whatever) because of who they work for, and they stay because of who they work for. It is the day-to-day interactions of boss/employee that make the most difference—one way or the other.

The October 28 (2013) edition of Forbes featured the 50 Best Small Companies. Four executives were asked, “How do you charge up your employees?” I don’t much like the idea of having to “charge up” employees because it implies they show up “charged down.” Fortunately, the four answers had to do with everyday leading that makes employees show up already charged up:

  1. Share the rewards with everyone. Make sure all employees feel like they will benefit, not just a few at the top.
  2. Say “thank you” and show appreciation in small ways (e.g., an afternoon off after a late night of “saving the bacon”).
  3. Actively seek and encourage new ideas and creative solutions to both old and new problems.
  4. Celebrate success and do it every chance you get. Look for small things to celebrate. Progress is a great motivator.

Today would be a good day for you to help your employees love their jobs. Had a really good month? Give everyone a carwash coupon. Ready to finally solve that nagging-every-month problem? Ask for their ideas instead of insisting on your own. And so on…. You’ll be surprised at how much difference it makes.

If this post was interesting and useful, please forward it to a friend.
© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells at The Hard Lessons Company

1 2 3 34
  • On Leading Well…

    "The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present."

    Kouzes & Posner


    The Hard Lessons Company
    © 2014-2020
    All rights reserved.

    337 Whitewater Way
    Franklin, TN 37064