Raising the level of your leadership




15 Minutes


In his terrific book, True North, Bill George says: “People today demand personal relationships with their leaders before they will give themselves fully to their jobs.”

If you are the leader, you have a positional relationship with everyone who works for you—you are the boss. However, if you would rather be a leader than a boss—and you should want to—you are going to have to develop personal relationships with you the people you lead.

The starting point for personal relationships in organizations is respect. The building blocks of respect are time…

“How does a person show respect for anything? He gives it time.”

Coach Mike Krzyzewski Leading With The Heart

and listening:

“…listening is probably our greatest opportunity to give attention to others on a daily basis and convey how much we value them.”

James C Hunter The Servant

By the way, M. Scott Peck nailed it when he said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” Included in “anything else” are checking email, text messages, and taking phone calls—all of these can wait fifteen minutes. (For me at home, this means putting down the WSJ and turning off CNBC.)

Why fifteen minutes? Because that is about what it takes—on a regular basis—to build a personal relationship with your employees. Fifteen minutes with each one, once a week, listening as they share about their life—kids, hobbies, church, fishing, golf, etc. On their birthdays, make it lunch. And then occasionally, to really show you respect them, ask, “What do you think we should do about _________________?”

Now, some of you are thinking I don’t have time to do this. If you have ten people working for you, it will take 2½ hours per week—about 5% of a 40-50 hour workweek which is typical for leaders. Do you really want to send a message that the people who work for you aren’t worth 5% of your time? What’s at stake here? Only whether your people will “give themselves fully to their jobs,” or not.

Would employees who “give themselves fully to their jobs” make a difference in your organization’s performance, morale, future, etc.? It’s up to you. Get started today…“Hey, Joan, let’s get a cup of coffee.”


© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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Walking With A Limp


“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James M. Barrie (author, Peter Pan).

And for me, a particularly long lesson because I am a slow learner and have too many points of pride.

One of those points is my health: “I’m 76 and never been in a hospital.” (You may have heard me say that.) Usually (especially when with my Christian friends), I follow up with some comment about “God’s grace,” but it is at least 50% pride and exalting myself.

Jesus had a lot to say about this: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled” (Matthew 23:12). It’s a good idea to take note of the “will be” part of Jesus’ words—not “might be,” but “will be.”

Well, “will be” has caught up with me. If you saw me recently, you have noticed me walking with a limp. My 76-year-old-never-been-in-a-hospital left knee is headed for the hospital next month. And even worse, it’s not because of something else for me to be proud about like a sports injury or wrestling with my grandsons, it’s arthritis. I thought only “old people” got arthritis and have obviously been deceived about whether 76 is old or not. When I described this as “the worst day of my life,” I got zilch sympathy from my family.

Like Jacob and Paul, my wrestling match has been with God. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with God all night and told God he wouldn’t let go unless “You bless me.” God did bless him, but part of the blessing was walking with a limp for the rest of his life so he would “not think more highly of himself than he ought to…” (Romans 12:3). Paul also had a wrestling match with God over “surpassing great revelations” he had received. To keep Paul from exalting himself, he was “given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me” (Romans 12:7). Three times he asked God for relief; God said no. I don’t know if Paul’s thorn was arthritis or not, but he had to live with it for the rest of his life.

The surgeon says I’ll be fine after the surgery; I’m going to be grateful, not proud. My “never been a hospital” days are going to be over, and if I slip back, the right knee is waiting its turn, and… I have other points of pride (ask Dottie, she knows what they are) for which God’s “will be humbled” is part of my future unless that is, I learn from this one.

What about you? You are exceptional if you don’t have a few “exalt self” things that God’s “will be humbled” applies to. If you don’t know what they are, ask someone who knows you well, they’ll know. Or if you sincerely ask God, He’ll reveal them. Since this is supposed to be a leadership blog, let me close with this from Mahatma Gandhi:

It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.

Mahatma Gandhi

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Myths About Change


Failed change is more common than successful change in people and in organizations. Change is hard to initiate and even harder to finish. Why? Change Myths are part of the reason.

Myth #1: People and organizations change when they need to. Really? Why are so many people overweight? I need to lose about ten pounds. I’ve needed to for a long time. But I haven’t made the changes necessary to lose it. Some people need to stop piling up debt—but they don’t. Organizations have a lot of changes they need to make. But for whatever reason, they don’t get around to it, or when they try, it fizzles out. It takes a lot more than need to drive successful change.

Myth #2: People and organizations change when they want to. Not only do I need to lose those ten pounds, but I want to. Enough said?

Myth #3: Fear is an effective means of promoting change. “If you don’t _, you’ll be fired.” What a waste of time. Any change that arises from fear will be short-lived and marginal. It is a sign that bosses and bullies are in charge, not authentic leaders.

Myth #4: A PowerPoint presentation which fully explains the reason will successfully drive change. “If they understand, they’ll be eager to change.” Baloney. Somebody else will be giving reasons for not changing. And what about all the right brain artists out there? They hate PowerPoint presentations.

Myth #5: Casting vision over and over will bring change. This is just hubris on the part of the leader—believing that people will do whatever he/she asks them to do. People and organizations do not change because of somebody else’s vision.

So what will initiate and sustain change? Two things: people and organizations attempt change when they have to, or when they are inspired to. The leader’s job is to inspire it before the “have to” kicks in. Think about it.

It is easier to get married than to stay married. And it is easier to start change than it is to complete it. The leader’s biggest challenge is between the starting point and the finish line, which points to Myth #6: Leaders are not responsible for the execution of change. Once change is initiated, if the leader moves on to something else, it won’t be long before the team does too.

Start to finish—inspire, initiate, and implement—that’s the leader’s job. And that’s not a myth!

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

I’m All Ears!


I’m All Ears!

Great leaders are always great listeners!

“…listening is probably our greatest opportunity to give attention to others on a daily basis and convey how much we value them.” -James C. Hunter

There are four reasons why listening is so important.

First, listening shows respect. When eye-to-eye with no distractions, it is one of the best gifts you can give to a team member, or your spouse. (Put your cell phone down and turn away from your computer screen.)

Second, listening reveals humility. Especially in the work environment, it lets your team know you don’t think you have all the answers.

Third, listening promotes involvement. Giving everyone a voice gets more ideas on the table—some may be the breakthrough ideas you need.

Finally, listening is smart. After all, you might learn something you really need to know.

Of course, I’m talking about genuine listening, not just letting people talk to make a show of it.

Need to raise the level of your leadership? (For all of us the answer is “yes.”) Become a great listener.

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

The First Responsibility 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. According to Max DePree (retired CEO of Herman Miller): “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”

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 from 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 because the truth is often not easy to swallow. Leadership Icon Jim Collins says: “Leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted (from 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 existing paradigms

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 really 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.

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Anger As a Leadership Tool


At a Willow Creek Leadership Summit I attended some years back, one of the sub-themes was: “I will stop using anger as a leadership tool.”

Though I have seldom used anger as a tool in the workplace, I have used it at home. My wife once told me she was tired of walking on eggshells, meaning “I’m tired of your anger.” I’m sure my two daughters have also been on the receiving end. I can’t think of a time when anything good came out of one of my outbursts.

Anger supposedly demonstrates who is in control. What it really reveals is who is out of control.

Anger supposedly will promote change in behavior. What it really promotes is pervasive fear that paralyzes the organization.

Anger supposedly shows strength of position. What it really shows is weakness of character.

Anger supposedly reinforces “I’m right.” What it really reinforces is “I’m proud.”

It is interesting that in scripture, God puts angry words in the same list of sins as immorality, idolatry, sorcery, drunkenness…

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing…

(Galatians 5:19-21 NASB95)

Anger rarely if ever accomplishes anything good. It may accomplish what you intend, but only if your purpose is self-centered and intended to inflict humiliation and pain. Anger always has the effect of damaging relationships—at home, in the church, at your workplace. By the way, don’t kid yourself that “I’m sorry” will erase the effects of repeated outbursts. So, take to heart the Summit sub-theme. Resolve today that you will stop using anger as a leadership tool. You’ll be a much better leader.

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Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Day Crickets


The Blue Ridge mountains are at the beginning of their annual fall glory. God has his pallet and brushes out and is splashing red, yellow, and gold all over the mountainsides. A few years back, I spent a week watching this annual transformation (hoping that He would transform me as well).

But one morning, sitting on the deck reading with one eye and looking at the trees with the other, I was rudely interrupted and irritated by a day cricket. When it should have been hidden under a leaf somewhere sleeping and waiting for nightfall, it was chirping away repeatedly: chhiiirrrrppppp… chhiiirrrrppppp…chhiiirrrrppppp. One stupid cricket that should have been asleep like all the other crickets was ruining my solitude because it seemed to be chirping just at me. If I could have found it, I would have stomped on it and put me out of my misery.

Most leaders have to deal with day crickets. Too often, we deal with them by stomping on them. We would be better off if we listened to them. It is true that day crickets are often chirping about things that aren’t relevant or sound more like science fiction than reality. But day crickets are often the source of breakthrough ideas that change the future. If Hewlett-Packard had listened to day crickets (the two Steve’s), HP would be Apple instead of Apple being Apple. There are about ten thousand examples of day crickets being stomped on in one organization, but changing the future in another because someone would listen to them.

There is another type of day cricket that is stomped on even more. It is the day cricket that tells us the truth about ourselves. How irritating when a day cricket dares suggest that we are arrogant, or controlling, or lazy, or full of anger and rage, or are acting like a bully, or __________ (you fill in the blank). In True North, Bill George says leaders lose touch with reality when “they reject the honest critic who holds a mirror to their face and speaks the truth. Instead, they surround themselves with supporters telling them what they want to hear.”

Next time you are irritated by a day cricket, take a deep breath, steel yourself, pray for patience, then listen. You’ll be a better leader for it.

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Humpty Dumpty


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Organizations are like Humpty Dumpty: sooner or later they are at risk of a great fall. GM took a great fall when Toyota and Honda came along. It took a lot of change and time, but GM eventually made it back together again. Blockbuster was pushed off the wall by Netflix; they never put things together again. Ask your kids about Blockbuster, you’ll get that blank-stare “what are you talking about” look. Sometimes companies jump off the wall (Lehman Brothers—risk and Enron—dishonesty) and sometimes they slowly slide down the wall to the bottom (newspapers and telephones). All the king’s horses and men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again, and if you wait until it’s too late, you may not be able to put your pieces together again.

The Coronavirus has knocked a lot of organizations off the wall: airlines, live entertainment venues, restaurants/bars, tourism, malls, churches, and many more. Racial unrest is shaking the wall of our society (with hopefully a good outcome). If you are expecting a return to the “2019 normal”, forget it; that normal has already fallen off the wall.

Conventional wisdom has been “if it’s not broke, don’t mess with it.” But the reality is: if it wasn’t broke before, it probably is now (or will be). Wise leaders—while working to survive in this pandemic year of 2020—are also looking ahead to 2021 and after. Technology will be different. Customers, clients, and congregations will be different. Demographics will be different. Competition will be different. The economy will be different. The question is: Will your organization be different or will you take a great fall? If you are going to be different, now would be a good time to get started.

[By the way, great falls can also happen in your personal health, finances and relationships. Get started in those areas as well!]

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Cadillac Or Chevrolet?


If I ask you—“Should a Cadillac dealer try to sell Chevrolets?”—your answer would be emphatically “NO.”

But they tried it once. Wanting to compete in the small car market, Cadillac introduced in 1981 a Chevrolet disguised as a Cadillac called a Cimarron. But even with a Cadillac emblem and a leather interior, it was still essentially a Chevrolet with a Cadillac price. It was a disaster for Cadillac from both an image and profit standpoint and was discontinued with the 1988 model. (By the way, wanting a Cadillac, but unable to afford a real one, I bought a Cimarron in 1987. It was embarrassing when I realized it was really just a Chevrolet in fancy clothes.)

I made the same mistake in business back in the ’90s. We were a Cadillac company—building large (up to 100’ length) expensive ($0.5M and up) aircraft assemblies for Lockheed, Airbus, Gulfstream, etc. Having some open capacity on some equipment, we decided to get in the Chevrolet business by going after some low-value machining business to utilize some of our open capacity and make a little “incremental’ profit. It was a disaster and a hard lesson.

We learned that if you have a Cadillac customer base, and a Cadillac cost structure, don’t try to compete with Chevrolet dealers.

There are many downsides:

  • Distraction from the real Cadillac business
  • Brand dilution and confusion
  • Angry and dissatisfied customers
  • False economies of marginal pricing
  • Used capacity that limits future opportunities for real business

So, when tempted, remember:

  1. If all that matters is price—it’s a commodity. It is hard to differentiate your business in a commodity market.
  2. Customers will not pay Cadillac prices for a Chevrolet. And you can’t fool them with a Cimarron.
  3. This almost never works as a “growth” strategy.
  4. If you worked hard to create a brand, protect it!
  5. The shallow end of the pool is always more crowded for a reason. (Think about it.)

By the way, the Cimarron was a pretty good Chevrolet; not a very good Cadillac.

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Boss is A Four-Letter Word


“Dick, they hate you.”

“Who hates me?”

“The people who work for you hate you.”

That was a tough day. Someone decided to tell me the truth about how I was doing in my first position as a boss. It was the day I learned that boss is a four-letter word. It was the day that I learned that controlling is not leading. It was the day I learned that leadership is a job, not a position. It was the day I began to transition from “me” to “we.” It was one of the hardest days of my life, but one of the most important.

Have you had a day like that? Do you know if you are a boss or a leader?

  • If “authority” is a word you use a lot—you’re a boss.
  • If you believe people work for you, not the organization—you’re a boss.
  • If you control and approve every action and decision—you’re a boss.
  • If you believe you have all the answers—you’re a boss.
  • If you love policies and rules rather than principles and values—you’re a boss.
  • If those same policies and rules don’t apply to you—you’re a boss.
  • If the best and brightest don’t stay long—you’re a boss.
  • If everything comes to a standstill when you’re gone—you’re a boss.
  • If you use budgets as a hammer—you’re a boss.

Don’t trust yourself to answer these questions objectively. Ask someone. If you are as fortunate as I was, they will tell you the truth about yourself. It may hurt, but you need to know because, “Boss is a four-letter word.”

[“Dick, they hate you” are the first words in 16 Stones. You can order it here on this website or online at Amazon.com.]

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company


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