Raising the level of your leadership

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

Are You Carrying A Brick In Your Briefcase?

Are You Carrying A Brick In Your Briefcase?


At the beginning of every day, he arrived with briefcase in hand. At the end of every day, he left with the same briefcase in hand. He had the right look—a busy manager with so much to do he had to carry his work home.

However, during the day, the briefcase sat in his office, undisturbed and unopened. After a while, his employees noticed and began to wonder: “Is he really doing any work at home, or is this all for show?” They decided to find out.

How that brick found its way into his briefcase was never revealed. For days, even weeks, it was carried home every evening and returned every morning. Then came the day we all remember these many years later—he complained about how heavy the briefcase was and decided to clean it out. Under the watchful eyes of his employees, the briefcase was opened, the brick exposed. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember that he was angry, embarrassed, and humiliated. It wasn’t just the brick that was exposed—he was exposed.

It’s pretty hard to fool people over a long period of time; especially people we live or work with on a daily basis. And when we try, we wear ourselves out carrying a brick around. People follow leaders they believe are authentic; leaders that really are what they appear to be. And when we aren’t authentic, in any dimension of life, sooner or later, we will be exposed.

If you are carrying a brick for show, take it out of your briefcase (or backpack). It’s a lot easier to be the real you—warts and all.

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Copyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

Bob Dylan Is Still 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. “Self-driving cars” are coming
  • Cell 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). Something is going to replace cell phones. Count on it.
  • We dumped our landline this year. More than 50% of U.S. households are wireless only. AT&T is doing great, but not because of landlines.
  • Broadcast tv is less than 5% of the viewing audience. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, etc. are taking over the airways…and advertising markets.
  • One out of three millennials claim to be “nones” having no religious affiliation whatever. Up from 20% just 8 years ago. How is your church doing reaching this “nones” group?

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.” 
America’s Best Leaders (US News 2006)

Organizations with leaders who resist, ignore or fear change will become irrelevant at some point in the future. When? I can’t say for sure. But why wait until it happens? 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’)

©2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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I spent yesterday afternoon waiting for the Safelite truck to replace the cracked windshield on Dottie’s car. I had spent the last 3-4 years ignoring the chip which became the crack. Replacing the windshield cost $365. Fixing the chip would have cost less than $100. Proof that Benjamin Franklin was right: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

There are hundreds of examples. What happens when you delay changing the oil too long, or don’t change the filters on your HVAC, or let five pounds at Christmas grow to ten by New Year’s, or…well…you get the idea.

As leaders, we usually learn the hard way that problems don’t go away on their own. They may go underground and out of sight for a while, but eventually they reemerge—often at the worst possible time (we were in Florida when the chip became a crack). And it always costs more and takes longer to fix a crack than a chip. In fact, you can’t repair a crack, you have to replace the entire windshield.

Often ignored chips are frayed-and-getting-worse relationships, declining sales or attendance, or key people leaving for greener pastures. Let these go unattended for a while—hoping things will get better—and you’re sure to have a replacement—not repair—on your hands. There’s a chance you may be the one replaced.

What chip are you ignoring, hoping it won’t get worse? In your personal life? Family? Organization? Today would be a good day to begin to repair it. If you delay…

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ãCopyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

The First Responsibilty 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, which according to Max De Pree (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 hear 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 entrenched paradigms

There aren’t many—if any—insiders who can’t say “not me” to this list.

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 first 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. Get help if you need it.

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Copyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company



75 today. It doesn’t seem as old as I expected. We age one day at a time, so it creeped up on me. A new ache here, a stiff joint there, less energy, and more resting my eyes on the sofa. But I’m grateful for every day I’ve had, and everyone I’ll have.

In a couple of hours, I’ll head to my home church (COTC) to worship with Dottie—my amazing and wonderful wife of 51+ years. God will be there and so will many long-time and new friends.

This afternoon (after a nap), Cathy, Russ, Aaron, Caleb and Seth (CRACS) will show up to celebrate. Barbeque from Moe’s plus other stuff I like. Seth will joke (?) about me being “old,” but there’ll be lots of hugs and fun.

Still unretired, tomorrow I’ll head to my current assignment at The Bridge Fellowship (TBF) in Lebanon. No doubt, there’ll be a bit of good-natured joking while we spend the day getting ready to celebrate Resurrection Day (Easter) next Sunday. Tomorrow evening, it’s back home, I’ll mow the grass, then it’s back to TBF on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thursday morning I’ll be at an early morning meeting of Living Sent (Christian business people), have lunch with Dave Wilson of Search Ministries, pick up Seth from school at 2:30, shoot a few hoops with him, then have dinner with CRACS.

Friday I’ll be back in Lebanon, setting up for about 4000 people to attend the two Easter services on Sunday.

Saturday, I’ll mow the grass again, then off with Dottie to an Easter Service at COTC.

Next Sunday, it’s back to TBF for two Easter services, then a couple of hours of cleanup.

I don’t know if that is a typical week for a 75-year-old, but it’s my week and I love it.

A week later, we’re off to Florida for a college reunion with about 20 friends. A month later, it’s Raleigh (NC) to celebrate the 1stbirthday of Gus—our newest grandson (son of Elizabeth and Jay). In July, it’s back to Florida for a week with CRACS; we’ll cap off the summer with a week in Maine (just the two of us).

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…”

I’ve had more than my share of good and perfect gifts from God. So…I’m grateful…very grateful!

Copyright 2019 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

“Oh no, God. Not That!”

It can be a dangerous thing to ask God what he wants you to do—not endorse what you want to do, but tell you what He wants you to do.

Back in July (2017), I asked, the answer was the very last thing I wanted to hear.

If you know me, you know that being busy, useful, engaged, doing, etc. is what I do. Even at age 73, “retiring” is at the bottom of my list. Speaking, writing, coaching, and consulting for businesses and churches, that’s me, my brand, my image, my life. But on a personal retreat (no tv, fb, email, etc.), I began a two-month long argument with God that went something like this:

“What’s next for me, God?”

“Do you really want Me answer that?”


“Clear the deck.”

“What do you mean?”

“Clear the deck of everything you are doing.”

“Everything? In my business, at church, speaking, writing, coaching, and consulting? Are You serious?”

“Yes. That’s what clear the deck means.”

“That is the most terrifying thing You could ask me to do. If I really clear the deck, I’ll get up some morning with absolutely nothing to prepare for, nothing on my schedule. That will be the most humiliating day of my life.”

“That’s the point.”

For two months, I argued, slow-walked, rationalized, and resisted, but finally in mid-September said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Since then I have cleared the deck of all my responsibilities at my church, left two boards, wound down activities with clients, declined new speaking engagements and so on. Today is the 2nd day of 2018, and except for a couple of things that have unavoidably slipped into this year, my schedule is clear. I am sitting here without one thing to prepare for (except finish this post). This feels terrible.

Please don’t give me credit for faithfulness or obedience. I have come kicking and screaming to this point. Most people have told me how excited they are for me—I’m not excited. I have no idea what I will do the rest of the day. I can’t go downstairs and follow Dottie around all day. It’s too cold to go to mow the grass (and it doesn’t need mowing anyway). I suppose I can spend the rest of the day watching old John Wayne westerns or napping. Aaagggghhhhh!

Since God has stripped me of doing for Him, I think there is something He wants to do in me. I can be stubborn about that, so it may take a while. I hope not because I’m anxious to load up the deck again. However long it is, I need to trust Him and see it through. So this morning, I finish my conversation with God relying on these two promises:

for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13, ESV)

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6, ESV)

I hope “completion” doesn’t take too long.

[This will be my last post for a while except occasional status reports on how clear the deck is going.

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© Copyright 2018 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

I Need One – So Do You

It is seven days until Christmas. The tree is up; outside lights come on everyday at 4:00pm; packages are wrapped (for me that means gift bags); Dottie has the freezer full of food (Christmas Day will be turkey and her world’s best stuffing—too bad Buddy the Elf isn’t here to burst through the front door shouting “Congratulations!”); Christmas Eve will be serving in four services at church. A busy but wonderful week and I have the Christmas spirit! (I serenaded myself with Little Drummer Boy while in the shower this morning.)

Among the carols, presents, starry night, manger scenes, wise men, and food, the words of the angel sometimes get lost:

Luke 2:8–11 (NIV84) — 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

Those words—“a Savior has been born”—are the most important words of the whole Christmas story: “A Savior.” I need one—so do you. Jesus is mine. I hope he’s yours too.

Merry Christmas!

© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Cadillac or Chevrolet — Choose One But Not Both

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.)

No organization can be “all things to all people”: not companies, not colleges, not churches, not…yours. Don’t try. If you are the leader, choose Cadillac or Chevrolet, but not both.

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

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Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Start 2018 Early

There are 31 days left in 2017; about 15-20 are workdays for most people. What you do these last days of 2017 can have a huge impact on 2018. So start 2018 with a clean slate, not bogged down with 2017 carryovers.

#1 Do Five Things You Have Been Putting Off For Weeks There’s a “call back” note on your desk…a garage to clean…a report to write…a visit to the doctor…you know what it is. Don’t let it continue to nag you in 2018.

#2 Spend Time With The Water Boys In Your Organization The water boy goes about his job in anonymity. She cleans the office at night or he opens up the church early on Sunday mornings. Take 15 minutes to sit down and talk. Learn about his hobby and her kids. Listen for that hidden message from the heart. Say “thank you.” It will be a great finish to the water boy’s year…and yours.

#3 Forgive Someone There’s a co-worker, family member, neighbor, or ___?___ you need to forgive—for your sake not theirs.

“Forgiving releases you from the punishment of a self-made prison in which you’re both the inmate and the jailer.” Doc Children and Howard Martin, HeartMath Solution (cited in Brain Power by Gelb and Howell).

“If I didn’t forgive, I would still be a prisoner.” Nelson Mandela

In addition to relieving harmful emotions, forgiveness is good for your health:

Forgiveness “boosts the immune system, lowers high blood pressure, reduces anxiety and depression, and improves sleep patterns.” Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project (from Brain Power by Gelb and Howell)

When we don’t forgive, we become a victim twice. First, when we are hurt, and second, when we chain ourselves to the pain. Bitterness and a desire for revenge are heavier weights than the original hurt; carrying them will wear you out emotionally. It’s not easy, but 2018 will be a much better year if you let go.

#4 Clean Out Your Inbox My inbox has 8 items this morning; my goal is zero on 12/31. Zero may seem an impossibility to you, so how about 10? Or 20? Don’t come in on January 2nd with a long list of 2017 carryover emails—get rid of them

#5 Plan Your First Day Of 2018 How you start 2018 will have a big impact on how you finish it. So hit the ground running on Day One. Before you turn out the lights on your last 2017 workday, make a list of five things to do first on the morning of January 2 (or whatever your first workday is). Limit your “holiday small talk” to an hour or so, then pull out your list and get to it. Go home Day One with five ✓ marks instead of “I’m already behind.”

No matter how busy, you have time to do these five things. Start 2018 by finishing well in 2017. You’ll be glad you did.

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

© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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