Raising the level of your leadership

Still My Hero…Going Strong at 101

More accurately, she is a heroine. I first wrote about Elinor Otto in 2013 when she was 93 and still working a regular five-days-a-week, eight-hour shift at the Boeing plant in Long Beach—not in an office, not as a receptionist—as a riveter on the C-17 assembly line—just like she did back in 1942 during World War II.

According to the LA Times (This Rosie Is Still Working by Samantha Schaefer, 9/18/2013), she “is out of bed at 4 a.m. and drives to work early to grab a coffee and a newspaper before the 6 a.m. meeting. In the Boeing lot, she parks as far from the plant as possible so she can get some exercise. Every Thursday, she brings in cookies and goes to the beauty parlor to have her hair and nails touched up after her shift ends.” According to coworker Craig Ryba, “She’s an inspiration. She just enjoys working and enjoys life.” She continued on the C-17 line until 2015 when C-17 production ended. Today, she is 101 and still “going strong” according to Station KLAS in Las Vegas.

In Chapter 9 (A Hard Hat For Everyone) of my book, 16 Stones, I shared my own thoughts and experience with Rosie the Riveters:

It is common today for women to work in heavy industry factories. They do all the things men do on assembly lines, in machine shops, in quality labs, and stockrooms. But that hasn’t always been the case. It started during World War II when the men were off fighting, and workers were needed to produce airplanes, tanks, rifles, jeeps, and bullets. Women stepped up and were immortalized in a hit song, “Rosie the Riveter”:

All day long, whether rain or shine, she’s part of the assembly line.
She’s making history, working for victory, Rosie the Riveter.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that without thousands of Rosies, the war would have dragged on for years longer than it did. The women had no experience, but they were motivated to get the job done—and they did.

I had my own Rosie the Riveter experience in the late ’80s. While serving as VP of Finance for a midsize aerospace company, we were confronted with a crippling thirteen-week strike. At least it could have been crippling, but it wasn’t. Why? Because accountants, secretaries, engineers, buyers, vice-presidents, and even the lawyers all “went to the factory floor” to keep production going. Since they didn’t trust me with anything that moved or made noise, I was a wing wiper, meaning I took a rag, squirted Trike (trichloroethylene) on it, and cleaned excess adhesive, oil, dirt, and grime off of aluminum surfaces before they went to the paint shop. We were organized, inspired, and well-led by our president, John Kleban. For thirteen weeks, our motley crew, by working hard with enthusiasm, kept the production lines moving and our customers satisfied. That is when the value of a hard hat for everyone was indelibly imprinted into my leadership DNA.

I have always said, “I want to work as long as I can, and when I can’t, drop dead at my desk.” Today, my desk is in my home office and Dottie (my wife) will be the one who finds me. Of course, I am aware that I don’t get to prescribe my future, but as long as I can, I am going to stay on the assembly line of life, doing something useful in a way that honors God.

Elinor Otto reminds me of one my biblical heroes, Caleb, who, when 85 years old said:

I am still as strong today as I was in the day Moses sent me; as my strength was then, so my strength is now, for war and for going out and coming in. Now then, give me this hill country about which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; perhaps the Lord will be with me, and I will drive them out as the Lord has spoken.

Joshua 14 :11-12 NIV

Eighty-five and taking on the Anakim giants! Driving rivets until age 95!. That is living life to the fullest. My bucket list can wait. I have all of eternity for it.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

What Happens When You Don’t Milk the Cows?

My friend, Leon Drennan, grew up on a 160-acre Kentucky farm. Along with tobacco and hogs, they had a small dairy. The cows had to be milked every day, twice a day, 365 days per year, every year. So before school and after school, in rain-sleet-snow, on birthdays and even on Christmas, it was trudge through the mud and manure (have you ever seen a dairy farm?) to the barn to milk the cows.

I asked Leon what happens when you don’t milk the cows. Best case, they dry up and quit producing milk. Worse case, they get mastitis that if not treated can lead to death. That’s why milking is an everyday job.

Sound familiar? Life works the same way. Life is an everyday job and there are some things that have consequences if you skip a day or two—sooner or later you dry up, or worse.

Leadership is an everyday job. Leaders can’t have bad days at the office or store or church or wherever. Your team expects and needs you to bring your A-game every day.

Relationships are an everyday job. They dry up easily…or worse.

Your health is an everyday job. Just have a double cheeseburger, large fries, large shake, and fried pie, and see what the scales say the next morning. (I’m headed to the gym in about an hour because I had fried catfish and fries yesterday.)

Your relationship with God is an everyday job. Do you think “I’m too busy today for you, God” actually works with Him?

Your ________________ (you fill in the blank) is an everyday job.

In every dimension of life, if we start taking days off, we begin to dry up, or worse…. And yes, that means some days we have to trudge through the mud and manure to get to the barn or office or church or dinner table or whatever.

Now, I am not trying to make life all drudgery and all work. There is great joy and satisfaction in a job well done when the cows are milked, when a relationship is fulfilling, when your health is good, and when you feel the smile of God’s favor on your life. But these things don’t just happen—they take some time and effort. So rather than dry up or worse, milk your cows every day; you’ll be glad you did.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Vision Is the Easy Part

In my book, 16 Stones, I wrote about the importance of vision: “It wasn’t a Saturn rocket that launched Apollo 11, it was a vision.” President John Kennedy cast the vision 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 . . . 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 I admit I’m a leader 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 focus on execution—“…the leader’s most important job.”

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

© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company
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Slopping Hogs Is No Fun

There aren’t many jobs less fun than slopping hogs. But it has to be done. If someone doesn’t slop the hogs, then calamity will strike: NO BACON! What could be worse than that?

My friend, Leon Drennan (see last post: What Happens When You Don’t Milk The Cows), grew up on a 160 acre Kentucky farm. They raised hogs, cattle, and a few small crops (including tobacco). Leon’s first job on the farm was hog slopping. It was the worst job on the farm. One step up from hog slopping was feeding the calves. It was a big day when his father trusted him enough to move from the pig pen to the calf pen. He had earned that trust by doing a great job at slopping hogs. And that is the same way any of us get out of the pig pen—we earn our way out.

If you or someone you know is stuck in the pig pen, the way out is:

  • Quit complaining. Be grateful you have a job.
  • Be the best hog slopper on the farm. Be so good that they can’t help but notice.
  • Prepare for the calf pen. Learn as much as you can about the care and feeding of calves.
  • Volunteer to feed the calves when the regular calf-feeder is out sick.
  • When the opportunity comes, grab it.

Escaping the pig pen happens at the intersection of opportunity and preparation. When opportunity knocks, be prepared! Leon was ready to feed the calves when the opportunity came. Much later, he was ready to lead a major division of HCA when the opportunity came.

If you are a mediocre hog slopper, why should anyone give you a chance at something else?

Never forget: the most important job you’ll ever have is the job you have now. (Chapter 4 of 16 Stones has a lot more on this subject.)

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Stinking Up The Workplace

Our current house has a bedroom door that opens directly to our screened porch. When we first moved in, I decided one night to sleep with the door open, looking forward to some cool fresh air as I had sweet dreams. About midnight or so, a passing skunk decided to turn my sweet dreams into a smelly nightmare. After closing up the house, it was back to bed, but the foul odor lingered through the night, spoiling my cool fresh air and sweet dreams.

Per Wikipedia, four-legged skunks stink up the place by squirting a liquid from “two glands, one on each side of the anus. These glands produce a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals such as thiols, traditionally called mercaptans, which have a highly offensive smell.”

I have seen two-legged skunks do the same thing in conference rooms and offices. For example…

Gossip really stinks. That is why the Dave Ramsey organization has a rigid “no gossip” rule.

Arriving late to meetings really stinks. It is rude, sending a message that your time is more important than others’ time.

Talking too much really stinks. It is arrogant, sending a message that your opinion is more important than others’ opinions. (I am often guilty of this mercaptan.)

Laziness really stinks. If you don’t do your job, someone else will have to.

Self-focus really stinks. Your kids are cute, but they are not the cutest kids on the whole planet (my grandsons are), and not many people really want to hear a minute-by-minute account of your weekend.

______ really stinks. What did I miss?

If you are the leader, it is your job to keep “mercaptans” out of your workplace. Skunks aren’t easy to reform, so you may have to get rid of them.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

What Stings Worse Than A Yellow Jacket?

The WSJ has a lot more than business news. One of my favorite past editions included features about students building model bridges out of spaghetti, pessimism, toenail fungus, and Alabama coach Nick Saban. (I wonder how he felt sharing space alongside toenail fungus.)

That same edition had an article about “mean bugs”—the stinging kind. Bees, wasps, hornets, and fire ants, all got some space, but yellow jackets are the most aggressive, sometimes chasing their victims out of pure meanness. Having been run down by a mad yellow jacket, I heartily agree. Dottie and I have also been chased by biting flies (in Maine) and have stepped on stinging scorpions (in Texas). According to the article, about “200 people in the U.S. die from stings every year” (Mean Bugs by Sumathi Reddy, WSJ, 7/15/14).

Sadly, a lot more deaths occur every day because of stinging tongues. According to James in the Bible, the tongue is a “restless evil…full of deadly poison” (James 3:8 NASB). The deadly poison of the tongue strikes everywhere: homes, businesses, churches, schools, and _______ (you fill in the blank).

Morale is killed every day by stinging tongues. Initiative is snuffed out every day by critical tongues. Relationships are damaged every day by angry tongues. Lives are destroyed every day by gossiping tongues. I’ve been on the receiving end, and too often—especially at home—I’ve been the mean bug myself.

As a leader, one of your jobs is to set the guidelines—and the example—for the conversation that takes place in your organization. It’s up to you. You can allow an environment that discourages and tears down or promote one that encourages and builds up. You can participate in gossip, or stop it. You can snap at everyone as a bully leader, or you can cut it off and insist on respect for everyone. One of my many hard lessons in leadership was allowing a chainsaw tongue to remain on my staff for too long.

You can spend a lot of money on training, consultants, seminars, or coaching, all trying to improve your work environment. How about trying bug spray that will eradicate stinging tongues? It is cheaper and much more effective. Spray yourself first, then….

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Leadership Side Effects

I got my 2nd Covid-19 Vaccine shot yesterday, so I’m good to go unless the conspiracy theories about a nano-technology tracking chip in the vaccine are correct. I decided to chance it.

So far, no side effects: no sore arm, no fever, and no tiny chirping sounds from the chip. The same was true for me the 1st shot. (I wonder if I have two tracking chips in me?)

Generally, we think of side effects as bad, or unpleasant at a minimum. But there are exceptions. For example, what we now know as Rogaine was originally an antihypertensive vasodilator drug used to treat high blood pressure. One of its side effects was (and still is) stimulating hair regrowth. So, it was repurposed from the heart to the head and renamed Rogaine.

However, side effects aren’t usually positive. Listen to the fast-speaking part of drug ads and you’ll be scared to death by the “rare but has been known to cause diarrhea or constipation” (take your pick).

Like drugs, organizations have a lot of side effects, usually caused by the leader’s style.

If you lead as a boss, the side effect will be that best and brightest in your organization won’t stay long.

If you use anger as a leadership tool, the side effect will be pervasive fear that buries the truth.

If the leader has favorites, the side effect will be losing the support and respect of the non-favorites.

If command and control is the leadership style, the side effect will be an organization full of “yes” men and women who never question or challenge decisions—even really bad ones.

If the organization is stuck and unwilling to change, the side effect will be obsolescence and eventually, disappearance.

I could give a lot of other examples, but the point is, remember this: everything you do—at work, at home, at church, etc.—will have a side effect. It is up to you whether it will be positive or negative.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Get Some Dirt On Your Shirt

It is not unusual when a new leader arrives to sequester him in a conference room with the key senior staff and bombard him with hours of PowerPoint presentations to make sure he has a clear picture of the situation. If the situation is good, the focus is on who gets the credit (the CEO or senior pastor). If the situation is bad, the focus can be on who (China or the worship leader) or what (the economy) should be blamed. The entire view of things is from the perspective of and through the filters of the senior staff who…by the way…have the most to gain and the most to lose.

That was the plan in the mid-’90s when I arrived as the new leader of a small west coast aerospace machining company. Our owners wanted to merge it with our Nashville operation because it was losing money and customers. Machined parts for a Boeing 777 (or any other Boeing or Airbus airplane) are manufactured to tolerances within a few thousandths of an inch in high-tech, clean, organized, and efficient facilities. At least they are supposed to be. After handshakes and a cup of coffee, the executive team was ready with the PowerPoint. However, I scuttled that plan with “let’s take a walk first.” After more than thirty years in the aerospace business, I knew I could learn a lot just by walking around.

We exited the conference room, put on safety glasses, then stepped outside. It looked more like the Sanford and Son junkyard (a 1970’s hit TV comedy starring Redd Foxx; check it out on tvland.com) than an aerospace facility. The first thing I saw was a couple of acres of rusting truck doors, old machines, barrels of who knows what, obsolete tools, and piles of scrapped parts. Inside the buildings, the aisles were so cluttered with half-finished parts that it was hard to walk from one machine to the next. The paperwork for each job was scattered and oil-stained. I fully expected Redd Foxx to rush up at any minute and fake a heart attack (his tactic on the TV show when things were going bad). Because I saw it with my own eyes, I knew it was going to take a total change in management and months of hard work to fix it. I learned more in a thirty-minute walk-around than I would have in eight hours of presentations.

As a leader, you need unfiltered information and a clear perspective. You won’t always get it in a PowerPoint presentation. Get out of your office and take a walk with your eyes open and your ears unplugged. A little dirt on your shirt won’t hurt you.

© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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The Yellow Brick Road

I have seen the movie 127 times, never missing it for about ten years as my two daughters begged, “Daddy, please watch The Wizard of Oz with us. Please. Please.” Because they did not often hear “no” from me as they grew up (they still don’t), I would plop down on the floor with them and pretend to be enthralled by it one more time. Not infrequently I would hear, “Daddy, Daddy, wake up, you’re missing the best part.”

If you have children, you know the Oz plot as well as I do. The four main characters—Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion—all need something which they can get only from the wizard who resides in the Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road. Dorothy wants to go home to Kansas; the Scarecrow needs a brain; the Tin Woodman yearns for a heart; the Cowardly Lion hopes for courage.

After days of perilous travel down the yellow thoroughfare, the four arrive at the Emerald City, excited to see the wizard who they believe will give them everything they ask for. At least, they are all excited except for the Cowardly Lion who has a panic attack as they walk into the wizard’s foyer. The dialog goes like this:

Cowardly Lion: “Wait a minute, Fellows. I was just thinking. I really don’t want to see the Wizard this much. I’d better wait for you outside.”
Scarecrow: “What’s the matter?”
Tin Woodman: “Oh, he’s just scared again.”
Dorothy: “Don’t you know the Wizard’s going to give you some courage?”
Cowardly Lion: “I’d be too scared to ask him for it.”
Dorothy: “Well then, we’ll ask him for you.”
Cowardly Lion: “I’d sooner wait outside.”
Dorothy: “Why? Why?”
Cowardly Lion: “Because I’m still scared.”

Butterflies in the stomach are common. Junior high boys get them when Brittney walks by and smiles. High school seniors get them when The Letter from The College arrives. Few things cause more butterflies than meeting The Parents for the first time. (My future mother-in-law’s reaction was, “At least he doesn’t have long hair.”) “Apple-ites” get them while standing in line waiting for the latest new iWhatever. Athletes get them on game day (even if their name is LeBron or Brady or Tiger). And many leaders have a pack of TUMS in their top drawer to quiet the butterflies they experience before an important meeting with The Board, or a potential big customer, or every pastor’s nightmare—The Deacon Body.

The Cowardly Lion was trapped in a classic catch-22: he needed to see the wizard to gain courage, but he didn’t have enough courage to see the wizard. Until he overcame his fear, he couldn’t get what he wanted and needed. The Cowardly Lion was confused. He thought that if he was afraid, it meant he didn’t have courage. He had to learn that courage means acting in spite of fear, and so do we all—especially when we are in a leadership role. We can pray and plan for months, but when game day comes, so will the flutters. It’s a good time to remember that:

…God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment. (2 Timothy 1:7 HCSB)

If you are in the foyer with butterflies in your stomach, breathe a prayer and walk through the door. Not much significant ever happens in the foyer.

This post is an excerpt from my book, 16 Stones.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Loose Ends

“I have a few loose ends to tie up and then I’ll be home.” Does that sound like a familiar phone conversation at the end of a long day? Sometimes those loose ends take a few minutes; sometimes an hour or more. It can be cleaning out your inbox, returning a phone call or two, or packing up your briefcase for an early morning flight. Whatever the loose ends are, the trip home will rest easy on your mind if they are done. And if they aren’t, sleep comes hard that night, because a rope, or business, or church, or life with loose ends has a way of coming unraveled.

It is common today for leaders to believe that the details are beneath them: “I leave the details to my staff.” Great leaders don’t buy into that line of thinking and know that the difference between good and great is often attention to detail. In the business world, no one has ever understood this better than Steve Jobs. From the iMac…to the iPod and iTunes…to the iPhone…and finally to the iPad, Jobs was obsessive about personally ensuring that every detail met the standard of excellence he expected in Apple products. General Colin Powell, who served our country ably as both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as the Secretary of State, had this to say about details:

“Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”

“Never neglect details.” Wow! Never? Really? That’s what he said, and he’s right.

History is full of missed details that brought down nations, companies, individuals, and organizations of all kinds. The Greeks defeated the Trojans because someone forgot to look inside the Trojan Horse. In the late 1990s, a Mars Orbiter Satellite was designed partly in metrics and partly in English units. Guess what? The navigation system malfunctioned and it was lost in space. In 1994, a small detail—a safety valve left off—caused an explosion that killed 167 men on the Piper Alpha oil rig. As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. I am not saying that the leader has to personally take care of every detail, but the leader does have to be “doubly vigilant” to make sure that every detail is taken care of. Steve Jobs did. Colin Powell did. You have to also.

This is an excerpt from 16 Stones (Raising the Level of Your Leadership, One Stone at a Time).

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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