Raising the level of your leadership




The First Responsibility Of A Leader


“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
Max DePree
Leadership Is An Art

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 DePree (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 heard 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 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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No Bad Days Allowed


Leadership is hard. One of the things that makes it hard is there are No Bad Days Allowed.

The leader has to show up ready to lead no matter what. Flat tires aren’t an excuse. Lack of sleep is not an excuse. PMS or menopause are not excuses. Thirty over par on Saturday is not an excuse. The Titans losing on Sunday is not an excuse. And yeah, I really do mean every day—on top of your game—ready to lead in a positive way.

Consistency is an important attribute for effective leaders. Your followers need to know what to expect when you show up. If they don’t—if it is everything is great on Tuesday, but stay away on Thursday—fear and reluctance will become pervasive in the organization. Followers will spend too much time deciding if it is okay to approach you and the information you need today may not make it to your office because they are waiting for the safe time. The safe time may be too late.

So, this means that leaders have to do something that is really hard to do, leave emotions in the car—especially anger, impatience, frustration, inattention, etc. Hard to do? Yes. Impossible? No. If you need to rant and rave and throw up, do it before you show up at the office.

Remember, there are no bad days allowed for leaders. What’s at stake? Not much—just your credibility and effectiveness as a leader.

The Hardest Person To Lead Is…


Who is the hardest person you have ever tried to lead? No matter how hard you tried, nothing worked—he or she just wouldn’t follow your lead. You read all the John Maxwell books, went to leadership seminars, and sought advice from the VP of Human Resources (who is supposed to know what to do). It was frustrating, exhausting and discouraging.

Do you have a name or two coming to mind? I do. One of them is my own, Dick Wells.

Bill George in True North says, “the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.” He is right. How can you expect to lead others if you can’t lead yourself? If your life is out of control, without self-discipline, how can you expect your followers to be in control or exhibit self-discipline?

Leadership is job, not a position, and leaders have to be fit to lead. If your life is out of whack emotionally, physically, financially or relationally, it will diminish or destroy your fitness to lead. If you are an executive, your corporation will suffer. If you are a pastor, your church will be hurt. If you are a manager, your department will not perform as it needs to. To lead your organization with excellence, you need to lead yourself with excellence.

If these things are out of whack, it is your responsibility to get them on track. It is no one else’s fault or responsibility. So quit blaming everyone else and start leading yourself with purpose, passion and discipline—yes, self-discipline. Do whatever it takes to become emotionally, physically, financially and relationally healthy. Wow! Start leading yourself, and leading others will become fun again.

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 90’s. 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  The shallow end is always more crowded for a reason. (Think about it.)

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

Bump, Bump, Bump…


On a recent road trip to Oklahoma, I was frequently annoyed by one of my pet peeves—concrete highways. They stink!

The very best case for concrete highways is thump, thump, thump…. After a few years, thump, thump, thump becomes bump, bump, bump…. Then inevitably, it is BUMP, BUMP, BUMP…. Eventually, weather and 18 wheelers take the road all the way to JAR, JAR, JAR…. When the road has been patched—as all concrete roads have been—the patches sing: shrrrrrrrp, shrrrrrrrp, shrrrrrrrp.… So, driving on concrete highways is a bump, bump, JAR, bump, BUMP, shrrrrrrp, bump…experience.

Driving through eastern Oklahoma, I was enjoying a bump, bump, JAR, bump, BUMP, shrrrrrrrp, bump…ride which was suddenly squeezed down to one lane because they were putting in an all new road. So now I was getting to enjoy this bump, bump, JAR, bump, BUMP, shrrrrrrrp, bump…at 40 miles per hour, but excited and hopeful that on my next trip the all new road would be smooooooooth.

Or would it? Unfortunately, the new road is being paved with—you guessed it—concrete. So while it will be smooooooooth for a year or two, it won’t be long before, like all concrete highways, it is back to bump, bump, JAR, bump, BUMP, shrrrrrrrp, bump…. The concrete companies and dentists (a teeth jarring ride is good for business) must have a strong lobby.

There is an old saying: If you do the same thing, the same way, you will get the same results. State highway commissioners must not be aware of this little kernel of truth. The question for you as a leader is: Are you aware of it?

If your organization (company, department, store, church, etc.) is caught in a bump, bump, JAR, bump, BUMP, shrrrrrrrp, bump…cycle, instead of trying to repair the concrete, maybe you should try something entirely new and different—like asphalt. If you are the leader, it has to start with you. Nobody else is going to tell the concrete companies and dentists to take a hike.

By the way, it is possible that the main thing that must be new and different is way you are leading. Just a thought.

Hazardous Cargo In The Office


Trucks carrying hazardous cargo are so commonplace on U.S. highways that most 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 has the stamp of approval of the boss. But it’s still gossip.

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.

Love Your Turtles!


I was back on the Natchez Trace again (see last week’s post), but this time it was a turtle in the road. Not hurt in any way, just crossing the road very sloooooooooooowly—a target for the next car. Remembering my failure with the cardinal, I moved the turtle to the side of the road out of the danger zone—yeah, Dick!

As I continued my walk, I began to think of turtles as employees and how they contrast to race horses which are much faster and realized that some of my best employees have been turtles.

Race horses are fast, but have little endurance. Turtles are slow, but keep going all day.

Race horses are fragile. They break easily and need lots of attention. Turtles are hard-shelled and tough and prefer to be left alone to do turtle stuff.

Race horses are temperamental and have their feelings easily hurt. They have to rest for weeks between races. Turtles go about their business without much fuss and don’t need much couch time.

Race horses need private stalls, trainers, gourmet oats and bottled water—they’re spoiled. Turtles are happy with whatever comes their way–thankful for a good meal and a roof over their head (which they have all the time).

When race horses make their entrance, horns blow and people cheer. Then all but one of them lose. When turtles make their entrance…well actually, turtles don’t make an entrance.

Every organization needs both race horses and turtles. Race horses get all the press, but turtles are crucial to success too. Disagree with me? Fire all your turtles and see how you like working with nothing but race horses.

Time For The Wounded?


The Natchez Trace is a great place to walk/jog—lots of hills and beautiful scenery. I was only about 100 yards into my jog when I came across a bright red cardinal in the road. It watched me warily but did not move as I went past.

About ten yards later I realized something was wrong—the bird was stunned or hurt in some way. I paused, looked back, but then kept going. Another 50 yards and I looked back again—it was still in the middle of the road, a ready candidate to become road-kill. But, I kept going.

Every step become harder as my mind filled with images of a squashed bird and how Dottie was going to be mad at me for not helping it. Finally, at about two miles, I turned around and jogged back as fast as I could—dreading what I would find. Fortunately, it was gone. Either helped by someone else or recovered enough on its own to fly away.

Workplaces are full of wounded people. Wounded by abusive bully leaders, by gossip, by change that is leaving them behind, by personal issues that are spiraling out of control. You can see it in their faces, and you can see it in their performance.

One of the most difficult tasks for any leader is to take some time for the wounded. The leader can’t heal everyone, but it is amazing what a kind word, or cup of coffee, or a hug (appropriate hug), or a “why don’t you go home a little early today” will do to bring some relief to a wounded follower. Of course, if the leader is the one causing the wounds, only a permanent change in behavior combined with “I am so sorry” will help.

Look around at your followers today. Do you see someone that could use some encouragement and comfort? Do something. And don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t your job—it is!

By the way, I did better this morning. I was back on the Natchez Trace and there was a turtle…. (I’m getting ahead of myself; more about turtles in my next post.)

TOMS Shoes


I ordered my first pair of TOMS Shoes today. I don’t really need another pair of shoes, but….

Though TOMS Shoes is a business, its underlying purpose is not to sell shoes, but to give away shoes. TOMS Shoes wants to make profit and they do make profit, but that is not what gives meaning and direction to their business. In fact, their Number One strategic goal is to give away shoes to children in need—One for One (one pair given for every one pair sold). Through April 2010 they have given away more 600,000 pairs. WOW!

Blake Mycoskie (the founder of TOMS) must have read chapter 3 of Built To Last at some point which says that a visionary company has a “…sense of purpose beyond just making money….”

This is a great example of the importance of Purpose in any organization. Purpose comes before anything—before vision, before strategy, before goal setting, before profit—especially before profit. In great and enduring businesses, profit is a “by-product,” not the main product. Jim Collins states it this way in Built To Last: “Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself….”

Not just businesses, but churches can also lose sight of Purpose. It is easy for churches to become all about the pastor, or the denomination, or prominence, or facilities, or being the biggest. None of these purposes will sustain greatness.

If your organization is floundering, it may be because you and your team do not have clarity about why the organization even exists. This would be a great time to stop and re-evaluate everything, starting with “Why are we here in the first place?”

Purpose is the foundation upon which everything is built.
Does your organization have a firm foundation?

(Check out TOMS Shoes at www.TOMS.com)

Corner Office Bullies


On January 14, 2010, a fifteen year old girl in South Hadley, Massachusetts, hanged herself after months of merciless bullying by nine schoolmates. Though she took her own physical life, it was the bullies who had crushed her spirit and will to live. Unfortunately, I have seen this happen in organizations where corner office bullies crush the spirit of employees who for some reason get in their crosshairs.

The characteristics of a bully-run organization are:

  • A climate of fear. Corner office bullies are always threatening to fire people. Duh—no wonder morale stinks.
  • Employees walk on egg shells. People are afraid to say anything. Even when the emperor is buck naked, no one will tell him/her.
  • Frequent explosions. Bullies are thin-skinned and anger is never far from the surface. They especially love to explode at those who are defenseless.
  • Paranoia. Bullies are afraid of being exposed. They become paranoid—believing everyone is against them.
  • Self-deception. Bullies have a posse that will always tell them what they want to hear. In effect, they are always drinking their own bath water. Not a healthy leadership habit.
  • “No Fault” zone. Every issue, mistake or confrontation is somebody else’s fault – never the bully’s.

If your organization is suffering from low morale, high turnover and no dissent or honest discussion about issues, there is a good chance the leader is either a bully, or a boss (see blog post: Boss Is A Four Letter Word, November 9, 2009), or both.

If it is you, get help! You need it.

If you work for one—get out as soon as you can—before your spirit is crushed! Life is too short to work in an environment of fear, egg shells, explosions, paranoia and self-deception.


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