Raising the level of your leadership

Hazardous Cargo

Trucks carrying hazardous cargo are so commonplace on U.S. highways that many towns have road signs that prohibit the trucks from driving through the heart of the town—no hazardous cargo is permitted. Unfortunately, organizations of all types are full of different types of hazardous cargo.

In some organizations, the most hazardous cargo is the truth. It is routed around the corner office because the boss doesn’t want to hear it. And woe to the poor soul who dares to ignore the No HC Permitted sign on the door.

Rumors are a common form of highly toxic hazardous cargo. They move freely on the main communication highway of the office because the leaders operate with a “they don’t need to know” policy. If your followers don’t know what is going on, they’ll make something up.

Gossip is another form of hazardous cargo. It spills out in the hallways, contaminating everyone. The most destructive gossip originates in the corner office because it carries the approval stamp of the boss—but it’s still gossip. Here is a working definition of gossip:

Talking about someone, to someone else, when neither of you is part of the issue nor part of the solution.

Just because it may be true, doesn’t mean it should be shared. Is it kind? Is it necessary? Do you need to know?

By the way, if you think gossip isn’t so bad because “everyone is doing it,” in the Bible, it is included in a list of sins alongside “evil, wickedness, greed, murder, and arrogance” (Romans 1:29).

Want to raise the level of your leadership? Get rid of the hazardous cargo in your organization. Find someone who will tell you the truth about yourself and the organization—even when it hurts. Communicate the truth so rumors can’t gain traction. And stamp out gossip—starting with any gossip that originates with you.

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard lessons Company.

Getting Rid of Pigeon Poop

So how do you get pigeon poop out of your attic? A Wall Street Journal article reported on the futile efforts of the Select Board in a well-known town in Massachusetts (unnamed to protect the guilty). Pigeon poop had piled up in the town hall attic and become a health hazard. The Select Board budgeted $125,000 to clean up the mess, but the lowest contractor bid was more than twice that. A group of citizens volunteered to clean up the mess for nothing, but that idea was nixed by the lawyers, fearing the city would be sued. Finally, someone had a brilliant idea: “If we can’t clean it up, why don’t we at least make sure it doesn’t get worse by keeping the pigeons out? We could patch their entry hole in the attic window frame.” Duh.

This true story is a great example of an organization focused on the symptoms, not the problem. There are lots of other examples:

  • Governments (guess who) that believe reducing the deficit is the same as reducing the debt and keep spending.
  • Companies that drive sales by the deep discounting of outdated products instead of introducing innovative new products at a competitive price.
  • Maintenance managers that are applauded for fixing the HVAC system on a hot summer day, but never change the filters or clean the coils.
  • Pastors who blame reduced giving on the economy instead of asking why so many people have left the church

We make the same mistake as individuals: heart patients go back to cheeseburgers soon after their quadruple bypass relieves the chest pain and golfers try to fix their swing by buying a new set of clubs (quitting would be smarter).

Why do we fall into this trap so often? Fixing symptoms is often easier and quicker than fixing the problem (but only in the short run). Once the symptoms are relieved, we move on to the next set of symptoms. Often, we focus on the symptoms because we are in denial about the real problem—very common when the leader is the problem. Unidentified problems continue their hidden destructive work until they finally erupt into the open with sometimes fatal consequences.

Tired of relief? Want to actually fix the real problem? Do this:

  • Patch the hole in the attic so the pigeons can’t get in, but don’t stop there.
  • Clean up the mess the pigeons left behind.
  • Ask someone if you are the pigeon.

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, the Hard Lessons Company

Ask Your Barber?

George Burns, the popular cigar-smoking comedian of the WWII and Baby Boomer generations (yeah, I know, I’m dating myself), had this to say about advice:

Too bad that all the people who really know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair.

He’s right. Sit in any barbershop on a busy Saturday morning and you’ll learn how to fix the government, which coach ought to be fired and which quarterback ought to be starting. You will also learn which is better, Chevrolets or Fords, and where to go for the best fried chicken (The Chicken House, New Albany, IN). Preachers can learn how to improve their sermons (shorter is better) and you’ll hear spirited debate about the virtues of John Deere (for real farmers) versus those “foreign” brands (for hobby farmers). Generally speaking, the barbershop mantra is: “If I want your advice, I’ll give it to you.”

Eugene Peterson, paraphrasing Proverbs 15:22, says, “Refuse good advice and watch your plans fail; take good counsel and watch them succeed.” The problem? It’s easy to get advice; not so easy to get good advice.

There are times, lots of times, when we all need advice. We are facing a hurdle or an opportunity, and we aren’t quite sure what to do. We may have an idea and need confirmation, or we may have no idea at all. In either case, someone asks us, “Have you talked to ____________?”

An overall principle for seeking counsel is the old adage, consider the source. Here are some questions about the source that I ask:

  1. As a Christian, my starting source for advice is always: “What does the Bible have to say about this?”
  2. Is the source speaking from first-hand experience, not just theoretical or academic knowledge? I want to talk to people who have been on the front lines of leadership.
  3. Do they have a personal agenda? Be careful if they have something significant to gain or lose.
  4. Have they experienced some failure? The road to humility always has a failure marker or two. The best counsel will come from someone who is genuinely trying to help, not impress.
  5. Do I know them personally? If I don’t, I seek input about them from people I do know and trust.
  6. Are their values consistent with mine? Do they live and lead their organization in a way I am comfortable with?

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Getting a second…and third…opinion is always a good idea.
  • “Don’t do this” advice is often a lot more valuable than “do this” advice.
  • Don’t act on any advice that gives you a queasy feeling in your stomach.
  • In the end, you are responsible for the outcome. Gather as much input as you can; make the best decision you can; then man-up and accept responsibility for the results.
  • If you too are a Christian, is the “peace of Christ ruling in your heart” about this?

(This post taken from chapter 3 of 16 Stones. If interesting and useful, please forward it to a friend.)

© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Underground Nests

I hate Bermuda grass. Why? It spreads uncontrolled into our mulch and hides the underground nests of fire ants and yellow jackets. How many stings did I get? Twenty-six! Did they hurt? Yes! Did I get revenge? Yes! (Using Bonide MAX.) I poured out my wrath, hoping the Bonide hurt them as much the stings hurt me. Yeah…I know…that is not a very forgiving spirit. (I looked in scripture and couldn’t find anywhere that said I should forgive stinging creatures of any kind.)

Organizations have underground nests that can sting as well—nests that have a different mission…or personal agendas…or are only concerned about their self-interests. As the leader, you cannot let these nests grow and thrive. In fact, you need to pour Bonide MAX on them ASAP or you will get stung and the organization hurt.

First, make sure the underground nest doesn’t exist because of your ineffective leadership. Sometimes nests develop because the workers have no confidence in the leader to actually lead them. So they choose a queen to follow and go underground as a survival mechanism. As in all things, always start with self-examination. Not sure if you’re the problem? Ask someone who will tell you the truth.

Second, you have to get rid of the queen. All fire ant and yellow jacket nests have a queen at the center of everything. Your organizational underground nest will have one too. Whatever you have to do, get rid of the queen! Until you do, the nest will grow in size and continue to buzz around stinging everyone that is not part of the nest.

Third, you need the workers, so try to eradicate the nest without eradicating all the workers. Give them a reason to choose to follow you instead of the queen. Being a leader instead of boss is a good way to start.

Enough fire ant stings can be fatal to small animals. Underground nests in your organization can be fatal too. So ignore them at your and the organization’s peril.

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

© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

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.

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

© 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

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