Raising the level of your leadership

"All In?"

I walked about four miles yesterday morning.

It was about 30 degrees. There were some light snow flurries and a brisk breeze. It was cold—but not too cold for a fast one hour walk. I had on gloves, my ears were covered, and my feet were covered with warm socks and shoes. Plus, I knew a hot cup of coffee and a fire awaited my return.

But I wasn’t “all in”—because if it had been a little colder, or sleeting instead of snowing, and if the wind had been roaring instead of just “breezing,” I would have stayed in the house. There is a limit to what I’ll endure to get a little exercise.

On the night of December 25, 1776, George Washington’s army of 2500 men was “all in.” On a bitter cold night, drenched by sleet and freezing rain, facing a howling relentless north wind, they trudged for nine miles on ankle-deep muddy roads in an desperate attempt to surprise the Hessians (Germans working for the British) in Trenton, Delaware, to gain their first victory in a revolution that was about to collapse. Their clothes were worn and threadbare and many were barefoot. Conditions were so severe that although only two were killed in the battle, several hundred died in the days thereafter due to the exposure and frostbite they suffered that night.

Why were these men willing to sacrifice and suffer so much? My gosh! They had no shoes and their feet were frozen, yet they kept going! They were hungry, sick, discouraged and alone (two other commanders and their troops were “no shows” that night). But these 2500 men were “all in”—their password for the night was “victory or death.” And whichever they faced, they were ready.

From a leadership perspective, there are three lessons from that night:

  • Clear purpose: they had a purpose—a cause—they were willing to die for—their freedom.
  • Compelling vision: they could see what it would mean to be “America” instead of the “colonies.”
  • Great leadership: Washington was the “first to lead and the last to withdraw” (quote from To Try Men’s Souls by Gingrich and Forstchen).

Questions for you:

  • Is there any purpose or vision for which you are “all in”? If not, find one!
  • Are your followers “all in”? If not, what are you going to do differently in leading them?

[By the way, they surprised the Hessians, gained their first victory, and saved the revolution. Get the whole story in To Try Men’s Souls.]

Get Started Today!

How long is your list?

Are there three things you really need or want to get done this year? Seven? Eleven?

How long have you been putting them off? How many times have you started, failed, and given up? How many times have you said, “I’ll start tomorrow” and didn’t?

If you don’t get started, what is at stake? Is your health at risk? Your finances? Your family? Your business? Your church? Your self-esteem?

Wouldn’t you love to get rid of the guilt and disappointment from past failures?

Maybe today is the day you should “forget what lies behind…and press on toward the goal….”
(Philippians 3:13-14; thanks for the reminder, Ken.)

Whatever it is you need to do—or want to do—whatever goals and dreams you have, remember:


Leaders Playing Santa

Christmas is one week from today. I can hardly wait. Highlights will be the candlelight service on Christmas Eve; reading the story of the birth of Jesus on Christmas morning; watching my three buddies open their gifts and getting great hugs from them all; then, Christmas dinner. My wife, Dottie, makes the best dressing in the world. If that was all we had to eat—I’d be happy (well, maybe a little pumpkin pie thrown in).

Giving gifts is a big part of Christmas, but for authentic leaders it should be a big part of leading all year long. A leader can play Santa every day by giving the…

Gift of Appreciation
Philosopher William James once said that the need to be appreciated is at the core of the human personality. What are you doing to show those you lead that you really appreciate them?

Gift of Listening
“…listening is probably our greatest opportunity to give attention to others on a daily basis and convey how much we value them” (from The Servant by James C. Hunter). Don’t forget—authentic listening and just hearing are not the same thing.

Gift of Freedom
There isn’t much worse than being in bondage to a controlling boss—every decision, large and small, reviewed and approved with an “I know best” spirit. Give the gift of freedom. Quit being a boss and start being a leader!

Gift of Honesty
There are a lot of dimensions to honesty, but the greatest gift a leader can give is honesty about self. Be transparent, admit it when you are wrong, and don’t pretend you don’t have any weaknesses.

Gift of Patience
Anger, finger pointing, outbursts, revenge seeking, punishing and wounding have no place in any organization. The leader sets the tone. Do you have a spirit of fear and reticence in your organization? It’s probably your fault.

What’s the greatest gift a leader has ever given you? Let me know.

Leadership Lessons From The Battle Of Franklin

Yesterday, November 30th, was the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin—“one of the worst disasters of the war” (Wikipedia).

In a series of frontal assaults—over a period of about five hours—against strongly entrenched Union forces, the Army of Tennessee was repeatedly thrown back with devastating losses. When the day ended, there were more than 6000 Confederate casualties including 1750 dead. Fifteen Confederate generals were lost (five killed in action, one mortally wounded, eight wounded and one captured). The Army of Tennessee was finished as an effective fighting force for the remainder of the war.

There are many hard leadership lessons we can learn from the story of the battle of Franklin that apply to leaders today.

Opportunities Lost: the real opportunity to engage and defeat the Union army was one day earlier. But the exposed, vulnerable and out-numbered Union army escaped from Columbia through Spring Hill during the night and spent all day on the 30th digging in. Yesterday’s opportunity may be gone today.

Clear Communication: the Union army was not confronted at Columbia or Spring Hill because of conflicting and confusing communication between and among the Confederate generals. You cannot spend too much time making sure that all of your organization is getting the message—clearly, consistently, and continuously.

Defining Reality: when the order was given to attack, the Union forces had spent ten hours getting ready. Plus, they had the huge advantage of having 16- and 7-shot rifles and artillery support. The Confederates had no artillery support and single shot rifles. Facts are your friends and ignoring them can lead to disaster.

Listening: Lt. General John Bell Hood was the commanding general of the Confederate army. He ordered the assaults “over the strong objections of his top generals” (Wikipedia). Proverbs 20:18 (NASB) says, “Prepare plans by consultation, and make war by wise guidance.” It is almost always a mistake to ignore input you get from your front line leaders.

Good Judgment: No one would ever question the courage of General Hood. He had led frontal assaults himself; had lost his right leg to amputation and his left arm was permanently damaged and useless. Some would defend him saying he had the courage to make a “hard call.” Courage is not the same thing as good judgment.

Fitness To Lead: General Hood’s fitness to lead was questionable. He lived with constant pain; his temperament was described as brash and reckless; and at Franklin he was making decisions out of anger. Leadership is a job, not a position. Jobs are hard. Leaders need to be physically, emotionally and spiritually fit to lead. Are you?

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.”

Road Signs

There isn’t much more frustrating than road signs that don’t help you find your way. If you have a GPS system, you can find you way no matter what the road signs say. But if you don’t, you sometimes have to guess and hope you end up in the right place. In organizations, the best road signs are the people. Pay attention to the signals you are getting from them. Ignoring them can lead to dead ends, or worse, bridge-out disasters.


…LOST: It is because no one (including the leadership) has any idea where the organization is. [Input from too few sources and denial of reality is often the problem.]

…UNSURE: It is because the organization is always changing directions–west today, east tomorrow, last week it was south. [This can be a result of a “latest fad” strategy–if it worked for them, maybe it will work for us.]

…CONFUSED: It is because the road signs are in conflict, one pointing north and one pointing south. [One leader is saying one thing; another leader is saying something else.]

…UNCLEAR: It is because communication is unclear: “Do you have any idea what he said?” [Responsibility for clarity is with the communicator, not the listener. What you think you said and what people heard are often not the same thing.]

…PERPLEXED: It is because values, policies, etc., don’t apply to everyone. [Preferential treatment for some (especially self) will kill your credibility as a leader.]

…BEWILDERED: It is because they have no idea “why” the organization is headed a particular direction. [Purpose, values, vision, strategy, etc., are not understood.]

…DISORIENTED: It is because they are LOST, UNSURE, CONFUSED, UNCLEAR, PERPLEXED, and BEWILDERED. The organization seems to be spinning out of control and they feel helpless and hopeless. [Instead of blaming the people, the leaders should take a hard look at how they are leading.]

Wonder where your organization is headed? Look at the road signs. And remember, if you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where you are headed.

Scorpion Stings

In addition to the annoying day cricket (see Listen To The Day Crickets), our week in the mountains was interrupted four times by scorpions — those ferocious looking little arthropods that crawl around looking for something (or someone) to sting. One was successful, dropping from the ceiling onto a friend’s cheek in the middle of the night. There wasn’t any stage 3 or 4 sleep the rest of that night.

The scorpion species most common in the north Georgia mountains is the Vaejovis. Its sting is less painful than a bee or wasp sting. It’s even less painful than the stings we often inflict on each other with our words and attitudes. And, stings from a leader are the worst of all.

I have inflicted many a sting with my “That was good, but…” We perfectionists are never satisfied and all too often we make sure others know it. My wife has felt the sting of my “…good, but…” more times than I like to admit. Evaluating what can be done better is an important part of leadership, but it is best when separated from what was done right. It is less likely to sting that way.

Anger stings. Condescension stings. Stealing or not sharing credit stings. Being judgmental stings. Not listening stings. And so on…

It takes a lot of stings to kill the body, but not too many to kill the soul of the people you are leading. The last thing you need as a leader is the reputation of a scorpion.

Listen To The Day Crickets

The Blue Ridge mountains are at the beginning of their annual glory. God has his pallet and brushes out and is splashing red, yellow and gold all over the mountain sides. I am just returned from a week of 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 organization 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 to 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.

Who's Number One?

My first encounter with Lloyd Shoppa was coaching 5th and 6th grade boys in basketball. My team was the Red Raiders. I don’t remember the name of his team, but I do remember they wore black uniforms and beat our brains out. He was a good coach. He was also a good production control director at Bell Helicopter where we both worked.

My second encounter with Lloyd came soon after I escaped the engineering bullpen and was promoted (my first promotion) to project engineer on the Advanced Attack Helicopter project team. I thought I was now special, and for sure our project was special , because the company president had anointed it as the company’s highest priority. To make sure everyone knew, we printed AAH #1 stickers and put them everywhere; not a popular move with all the other project teams.

It takes about three zillion parts to make a helicopter. Making sure each part is available when needed is a huge and critical task because a shortage can shut down a production line. Not cool. One of my tasks was to attend the daily all-projects part shortage meeting — chaired by Lloyd Shoppa. All the part shortages on all the different projects were discussed. For reasons I cannot now remember, I was not satisfied with the priority being given to the AAH shortages and felt obligated to remind everyone that according to our company president, the AAH was #1. My little speech was about as popular as the stickers.

Lloyd looked directly at me and said, “Dick, in this room, everything is #1.” In that one simple statement, Lloyd sent a message to everyone in the room, especially to me. He brought me down a bit, and lifted everyone else a bit. Something I needed, and something they needed.

That was about thirty-five years ago, but it was a lesson I have never forgotten. Rankings may be fine for college football, but when it comes to people, customers, project teams, etc., a high level leader is going to make everyone feel like they are #1. If you expect #1 level commitment and performance, don’t ever make people feel like they are #2.

So, who’s #1? Everyone!

(By the way, Lloyd finished his long successful career at Bell as the company president.)

Leaders With Their Heads In The Sand

Jim Collins has hit the nail on the head again. In How The Mighty Fall, he identifies five stages of decline that falling organizations go through as they disappear altogether or become irrelevant.

Collins defines Stage 3 as Denial of Risk and Peril. He says:

“In Stage 3, leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data. Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility. The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether.”

Basically, he is saying that the leader(s) are hiding from at least four fundamental tasks and principles of leadership:

1.  Facts (real facts, not opinions) are your friends;
2.  Defining reality is a key task of leadership;
3.  Examine self first — no organization ever rises above the level of its leadership;
4.  Get input and perspective from as many sources as possible (restricted access and input is a certain mark of Stage 3).

It is interesting that organizations get to Stage 3 by way of Stages 1 and 2: Hubris (organizational and personal) and Lack of Discipline (organizational and personal). Why does Stage 3 happen so easily in organizations? Leaders put self-interests and pride ahead of the organization. How many times have you heard a leader say: “This is my fault”?

As a leader, I’ve had my head in the sand a few times (maybe more than a few times). Where’s your head these days?

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