Raising the level of your leadership




Garbage Can Wine


Dottie (my wife) and I enjoyed a trip to California a few years back, highlighted by spending several days with Don and Susan Couch. (Don was my college roommate.) One of his hobbies is home winemaking—easy to understand since he lives near a million or so wineries. 

Instead of buying an expensive home wine-making kit, he decided to muster his own kit, only buying what he really needed. Impressed and interested, I asked how he got started and he replied, “I bought a garbage can.” Yes, a garbage can, followed by what looked like a Crystal Springs 5-gallon water bottle, then a small oak container, wine bottles, and so on. He spent about $300 and yielded several dozen bottles of wine, one of which I sampled. His wine didn’t win any awards, but it was drinkable (though we moved to a bottle of fine California wine for dinner).

Now, like me, you may be thinking, “A garbage can? Can you make decent wine using a garbage can?” The answer is yes. Why? Because the first stage of wine making is called primary fermentation and it doesn’t much matter what kind of container you use as long as it is clean. The type of con-tainer used for primary fermentation wouldn’t make the list of the 20 most important things about wine making. Grapes, water, temperature, yeast, etc., are all much more important than the con-tainer you first dump them in to get fermentation started. So why spend hundreds on a container when $10-15 will do just as well?

There is a great lesson in this for businesses, churches, or organizations of any kind. Spend your money on what will really make a difference in the outcome. The next time you are tempted to spend time, money or energy on something, ask yourself: “Am I doing this because it will look good and feed my ego, or will it really make a difference in results?” If you aren’t sure, then try the garbage can first. You can always spend the big bucks later if you need to.

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Beware Of The Un-slain Dragon


Not much has changed since Beowulf had to slay the dragons that were wreaking havoc in Denmark. First, he struck down the dragon Grendal. Later he took out Grendal’s mother—half-human and half-dragon (trust me, she did not look like Angelina Jolie of the 2007 movie). However, one dragon remained to threaten Beowulf’s reign as king, and in end, it brought him down, proving that…

It never does to leave a live dragon out of the equation. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Today, 1600 years later, leaders are still being brought down by un-slain dragons. Almost every organization has one or more. The dragon is the unspoken truth—the issue that most everyone knows about and fears. The dragon can stop change initiatives and sink morale. No one can do anything about the dragon except the leader. If the dragon has been around a long time, most people are resigned to the fact that the leader probably won’t ever do anything. So, the best and brightest leave for greener pastures, and everyone else hunkers down, trying to be invisible to both the leader and the dragon.

Dragons are often people: turf shepherds, abusive managers, or relatives and close friends of the leader. The most dangerous situation is when the leader is the dragon. Dragons can also be incompetence in key positions, obsolete technology, products that are endangered species, or software that doesn’t work (probably sold to the organization by the leader’s brother).

If your organization has a dragon—and it probably does—it will eventually bring you down if you don’t slay it. Most dragons can’t be reformed; they have to be removed. It is your job as the leader to get the dragon—the unspoken truth—on the table:

Leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted. Jim Collins

What kind of climate does your organization have? Are the truth and brutal facts confronted—honestly—even when they are about you? Are you the dragon? If you aren’t sure, get help. If you don’t, you may end up like Beowulf.

© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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Chasing The Stagecoach


Old B&W westerns with stagecoach chases are near the top of my list for mindless downtime. Invariably, the robbers wait on a hill, let the stagecoach pass, and then give chase. The chase can go on for miles with both the chasing horses and the coach at top speed. I have never understood why the robbers don’t surprise the coach from the front rather than chase it from behind. (I suppose stagecoach robbers are not too smart and chase scenes are more exciting for movie audiences.)

Here are a few truths about stagecoach chases that apply to a lot of things in life:

 No horse on planet earth can run as long and as hard as the ones in stagecoach chases. Not even Sir Winston (who ran the 1½-mile 2019 Belmont Stakes in 2 min., 28 sec.) could chase down a stagecoach from 300-400 yards behind. Do you think a run-of-the-mill cowpony could?

 You can’t shoot a stagecoach driver with a six gun from 100 yards while riding a horse at full gallop.

 The cash box always has the miners’ payroll. Miners aren’t paid much so don’t expect to get rich chasing down and robbing stagecoaches.

 There is rarely a beautiful girl in the stagecoach waiting for you to rescue her.

 If your horse doesn’t die and you get in a lucky shot, you don’t get to spend the loot in Acapulco; your reward is getting to hide out in a rundown cabin at the end of a dead end canyon with John Wayne waiting to pick you off when you make a trip to the privy.

So how does this apply to you? If you are worn out chasing something and your horse is about dead, if all your best shots have missed, if your dream (the beautiful girl or miners’ payroll) seems further away than ever, the remedy is QUIT CHASING SOMEONE ELSE’S STAGECOACH AND GET YOUR OWN. Quit chasing and get out front. Quit dreaming and go to work. Quit wishing you were Steve Jobs or whoever, and be yourself. There are a lot of successful stagecoach lines and there is always room for one more, but put your own name and brand on it rather than trying to borrow (steal) someone else’s. It’s a lot easier, and a lot more satisfying.

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

© Copyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company: www.hard-lessons.com

70% Benchwarmers


According to the Gallup organization, only about 30% of employees in a typical American workplace are actively engaged in their job. The rest—70%—are benchwarmers taking up space, doing only what they are told to do and waiting for payday and Friday (my words, not Gallup’s).

Interestingly, the percentages don’t change much because of age, education, gender or even income. People making more than $90,000 per year are no more engaged than people making less than $36,000 per year. Imagine that. Gallup has proved once again that pay is not a long-term motivator for most people.

Is there something leaders can do to raise the engagement level? Yes. Employees will engage with their jobs when leaders engage with their employees. It’s that simple.

So if you are the leader, it’s up to you. Try this: sit down with one of your unengaged employees, ask how you can help him, listen (really listen), ask questions, act like you owe her as much as she owes you. Do it with somebody else tomorrow…and the day after…and the day after…. Is it worth the effort? Yes! Imagine your competitive advantage and improved productivity if you can increase your engagement level to 40% or even 50%. Why don’t you get started today?

[I became aware of the Gallup report at Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog, a daily read for me.]

© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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Bob Dylan Was Right



The key to positive action is knowing the difference between a problem and a fact of life. A problem is something that can be solved. A fact of life is something that must be accepted.” 
Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx

One fact of life is Bob Dylan was right: The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Cars have replaced horse-drawn buggies (except with the Amish community). A growth strategy focused on buggy whips is certain to fail. What’s next? Driverless cars and trucks.

Smart Phones have replaced iPods which replaced CDs which replaced cassette tapes which replaced 8-track tapes which replaced vinyl records which replaced… (before my time). And surprisingly, vinyl records are making a comeback.

Almost 60% of U.S. households are wireless only. We took the plunge last year. How long will it be before landlines are obsolete? Do you know where a working pay phone is?

B&W tv’s were replaced by color which are now in 8K-HDR (whatever that means). If your screen is less than 60 inches, it’s a dinosaur.

About 1/3 of millennials claim no religious affiliation or belief whatever (4x as many as for my generation).

My wife and I handled Christmas shopping without a single trip to the mall. Rats! I missed out on Auntie Annie’s pretzels.

High-speed internet has made Remote Work the fastest growing segment of workers in the U.S. You can live anywhere and work somewhere else!

A fact of life is that significant change is inevitable. If not technology driven, it will be culture driven. Anne Mulcahy, who led the turn-around at Xerox, summed it up this way:

“Do not defend yourself against the inevitable.”

Organizations with leaders who resist, ignore or fear change are becoming obsolete and disappearing. Take action now so your organization doesn’t sink in the rising waters of change.

Come gather ’round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan (verse 1 of The Times They Are A-Changin’)

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©2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Elephant Tails (Tales)


I am in Florida this week with my three grandsons. They are 10 years older than when I launched Hard lessons and posted my first blog. One of my early blogs was about a Labor Day visit to the Nashville Zoo with them. At that time, Big Buddy was 7, Cool Buddy was 5, and Little Buddy was 2.

We started in the Jungle Gym and finished hours later with the alligators (who had enough sense to either sleep or lay in the water on a hot afternoon). Mid-day, just before lunch, we toured the African Savannah–home to three large African elephants named Hakari, Kiba, and Sukari. They were doing elephant things like sloshing in the mud, throwing dirt on their backs, and bumping into each other as they jockeyed for position. It was fun to watch and all three buddies enjoyed it thoroughly.

Hakari, Kiba, and Sukari are close in size, all dirty brown (but gray underneath according to Cool Buddy), have tusks of various sizes, big ears, big feet…you get the picture. So, how do you tell them apart? According to the information sign, you tell them apart by their tails. One has a short tail, one a medium tail with a kink in it, and one (Hakari, I think), a long tail with long hair at the end dragging the ground. And, sure enough, it was easy to spot Hakari who not only had long hair at the end of her (yes, her) tail, but also had a hairy belly (gross according to the buddies).

Later in the day as I was thinking about Hard Lessons, it was hard for me not to be reminded of a lot of so-called leaders I have seen. They spend their time sloshing in the mud, throwing dirt in the air, and bumping into each other as they jockey for position, and in the process, their followers get muddy, dirty and squeezed. Unfortunately, they are harder to recognize because they keep their butts covered and we can’t see their tails. Or can we…?

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Copyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Are You Carrying A Brick In Your Briefcase?


Are You Carrying A Brick In Your Briefcase?

brick-briefcase

At the beginning of every day, he arrived with briefcase in hand. At the end of every day, he left with the same briefcase in hand. He had the right look—a busy manager with so much to do he had to carry his work home.

However, during the day, the briefcase sat in his office, undisturbed and unopened. After a while, his employees noticed and began to wonder: “Is he really doing any work at home, or is this all for show?” They decided to find out.

How that brick found its way into his briefcase was never revealed. For days, even weeks, it was carried home every evening and returned every morning. Then came the day we all remember these many years later—he complained about how heavy the briefcase was and decided to clean it out. Under the watchful eyes of his employees, the briefcase was opened, the brick exposed. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember that he was angry, embarrassed, and humiliated. It wasn’t just the brick that was exposed—he was exposed.

It’s pretty hard to fool people over a long period of time; especially people we live or work with on a daily basis. And when we try, we wear ourselves out carrying a brick around. People follow leaders they believe are authentic; leaders that really are what they appear to be. And when we aren’t authentic, in any dimension of life, sooner or later, we will be exposed.

If you are carrying a brick for show, take it out of your briefcase (or backpack). It’s a lot easier to be the real you—warts and all.

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

Copyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

Bob Dylan Is Still Right


“The key to positive action is knowing the difference
between a problem and a fact of life.
A problem is something that can be solved.
A fact of life is something that must be accepted.”
Fred Smith (CEO of FedEx)

One fact of life is Bob Dylan was right: The Times They Are A-Changin’.

  • Cars have replaced horse-drawn buggies (except with the Amish community). A growth strategy focused on buggy whips is certain to fail. “Self-driving cars” are coming
  • Cell Phones have replaced iPods which replaced CDs which replaced cassette tapes which replaced 8-track tapes which replaced vinyl records which replaced… (before my time). Something is going to replace cell phones. Count on it.
  • We dumped our landline this year. More than 50% of U.S. households are wireless only. AT&T is doing great, but not because of landlines.
  • Broadcast tv is less than 5% of the viewing audience. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, etc. are taking over the airways…and advertising markets.
  • One out of three millennials claim to be “nones” having no religious affiliation whatever. Up from 20% just 8 years ago. How is your church doing reaching this “nones” group?

A fact of life is that significant change is inevitable. If not technology driven, it will be culture driven. Anne Mulcahy, who led the turn-around at Xerox, summed it up this way:

“Do not defend yourself against the inevitable.” 
America’s Best Leaders (US News 2006)

Organizations with leaders who resist, ignore or fear change will become irrelevant at some point in the future. When? I can’t say for sure. But why wait until it happens? Take action now so your organization doesn’t sink in the rising waters of change.

Come gather ’round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan (verse 1 of The Times They Are A-Changin’)

©2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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CHIPS BECOME…


I spent yesterday afternoon waiting for the Safelite truck to replace the cracked windshield on Dottie’s car. I had spent the last 3-4 years ignoring the chip which became the crack. Replacing the windshield cost $365. Fixing the chip would have cost less than $100. Proof that Benjamin Franklin was right: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

There are hundreds of examples. What happens when you delay changing the oil too long, or don’t change the filters on your HVAC, or let five pounds at Christmas grow to ten by New Year’s, or…well…you get the idea.

As leaders, we usually learn the hard way that problems don’t go away on their own. They may go underground and out of sight for a while, but eventually they reemerge—often at the worst possible time (we were in Florida when the chip became a crack). And it always costs more and takes longer to fix a crack than a chip. In fact, you can’t repair a crack, you have to replace the entire windshield.

Often ignored chips are frayed-and-getting-worse relationships, declining sales or attendance, or key people leaving for greener pastures. Let these go unattended for a while—hoping things will get better—and you’re sure to have a replacement—not repair—on your hands. There’s a chance you may be the one replaced.

What chip are you ignoring, hoping it won’t get worse? In your personal life? Family? Organization? Today would be a good day to begin to repair it. If you delay…

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ãCopyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

The First Responsibilty Of A Leader


I am often asked, “What is the number one leadership failure you have seen in organizations of all kinds?” The answer is easy. It is defining reality, which according to Max De Pree (retired CEO of Herman Miller) is the “first responsibility of a leader.”

Before vision and before strategy, organizations need to know the reality of where they are today. When Louis Gerstner took the helm of a faltering IBM in 1993, he shunned any talk of vision, strategy, etc., until he had taken time to fully and accurately understand the current situation.

“…the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” Louis Gerstner (Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?}

Defining reality is not easy and few organizations can do it without help. Why? Because it is so hard to get the unfiltered truth on the table—the truth is often not easy to swallow. Jim Collins says,

“Leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is hear and the brutal facts confronted.”Jim Collins (Good to Great)

Brutal facts. No wonder it’s not easy.

Defining reality has the best chance of being honest and accurate if facilitated by someone who has:

No personal agenda
No stake in the outcome
No reputation to defend
No preferences
No preset positions about your organization or markets
No entrenched paradigms

There aren’t many—if any—insiders who can’t say “not me” to this list.

If you are considering resetting your vision or strategy, or if you want to make sure you are on the right track now, make sure you first understand your starting point—where you are today. After all, if you don’t know where you are starting from, you don’t have much chance of getting where you want to go. Get help if you need it.

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

Copyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company


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