Raising the level of your leadership

Are You Feeding The Hippos?

Ernesto Sirolli—dubbed The Entrepreneurship Coach by strategy+business—tells this story about one of his early failures:

[We] decided to teach Zambians how to grow food in the beautiful fertile valley where they had always lived as pastoralists, shepherding animals but planting nothing. The team imported seeds from Italy—tomatoes and zucchini—but the locals didn’t seem interested. The team tried to pay them money, but there was little in the valley available to buy. Finally, the NGO started importing whiskey and beer in order to coax the men into the fields. “We kept thinking, what is wrong with these people?”

It soon became apparent. The tomatoes appeared on the vines, huge bursting fruits that put the most bountiful Italian crops to shame. The team members were joyful, but the next morning they awoke to find every single one of the plants gone. Hippos had swarmed up from the river and begun gorging. The Italians ran to tell the Zambians what had happened. “Of course,” said the people. “That’s why we don’t plant in the valley.”

 “Why didn’t you tell us?” asked the Italians.

 “Because you never asked,” came the response.1

I have made the same mistake many times. One of my notable failures was when I decided I could run a shipyard without knowing anything about building ships. FAIL.

The primary advice Sirolli gives business leaders is “Shut up and listen.”

That reminds me of one of my favorite, but too often ignored proverbs: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent….” (Proverbs 17:28 NIV)

Effective communication has a pattern:

  • Listen first;
  • Then ask questions;
  • Talk little.

I need to learn to take my own advice.

Dick, repeat after me:

  • Listen first;
  • Then ask questions;
  • Talk little.

Dick, repeat after me:

  • Listen first;
  • Then ask….

Dick, repeat after me:

  • Listen….

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© Copyright 2022 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

1 strategy+business, The Entrepreneurship Coach by Sally Helgesen, 1 August 2014

What Kind Of Leader Would You Follow “Against All Odds”?

One of the most inspiring stories of Greek history is the battle of Thermopylae (480BC) during which 300 Spartans held off an army of 100,000+ Persians for seven days before they were betrayed and all killed. Their leader was King Leonidas—he fought on the front line and perished with them. They were fighting for their country and their sacrifice saved Greece.

A story most every American is familiar with is the battle of the Alamo in which 200± “Texians” held off 2000 or so Mexican soldiers for almost two weeks before being overwhelmed and all killed. They bought time for Sam Houston to raise an army that—about six weeks later—defeated the Mexican army at San Jacinto and won independence for Texas. Jim Bowie and William Travis were the commanders at the Alamo though Hollywood likes to elevate Davy Crockett played by Fess Parker, John Wayne, Billy Bob Thornton, etc., depending on which vintage you watch.

A lesser-known story of a small group following a leader into battle against overwhelming odds is found in the 14th chapter of Genesis. Four kings (all with long, hard-to-pronounce names) made war against Sodom and Gomorrah and “carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions” (Genesis 14:12 NIV). Abram (better known as Abraham) “called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit (Genesis 14:14 NIV). You can read the full account for yourself, but the outcome was that the 318 men led by Abram defeated the four armies led by kings and rescued Lot and all his possessions.

Three stories of men who followed their leaders into battle against overwhelming odds: in two everyone was killed, in the third they were victorious. In all three, they had to choose to follow the leader.

The leadership question is: what about Leonidas, Bowie, Travis, Crockett, and Abram inspired their men to follow them to almost certain death? Now, I could give you my version of the answer(s), but why don’t you answer the question yourself: what kind of leader would you follow into battle against overwhelming odds?” Then aspire to be that kind of leader.

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© Copyright 2022 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Finish Strong…So You Can Start Strong

2022 will be here before you can blink twice—31 days from now. The truth is, what you do these last days of 2021 will have a huge impact on how you start 2022. So start 2022 with a clean slate, not bogged down with 2021 carryovers.

#1 Do Ten 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 2022.

#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.

From the mega-bestseller, Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand:

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer. In seeking the Bird’s death to free himself, Louie had chained himself, once again, to his tyrant. During the war, the Bird had been unwilling to let go of Louie; after the war, Louie was unable to let go of the Bird.”

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 2022 will be a much better year if you let go.

#4 Clean Out Your Inbox

My inbox has more than 50 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 2022 carryover emails—get rid of them!

#5 Plan Your First Day Of 2022

How you start 2022 will have a big impact on how you finish 2022. So hit the ground running on Day One. Before you turn out the lights on your last 2021 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 are, you have time to do these five things. Start 2022 by finishing well in 2021. You’ll be glad you did.

Oh…and don’t forget to celebrate the birth of Christ. How? Worship more and give more. Try it!

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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 your way no matter what the road signs say. But if you don’t, you sometimes have to guess and hope you end up at 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 the organization (including the leadership) doesn’t know where it is, and probably didn’t know where it was going before it got lost. [Denial of reality is often the problem.]

UNSURE: It is because the organization is always changing direction—west today, east tomorrow, and then west again. [This is often a result of a latest-fad strategy. And since the latest fad is always changing…well, you get the idea.]

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 different.]

UNCLEAR: It is because communication is unclear: “Do you have any idea what he/she said?” [The responsibility for clarity is with the communicator, not the listener. What you think you said and what people heard may not be the same thing.]

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

BEWILDERED: It is because they have no idea “why” the organization is headed in a particular direction. [Purpose, values, vision, 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. [This is an organization that is nearing the end. Read How The Mighty Fall by Jim Collins.]

Wonder where your organization is headed? Look at the road signs.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

“It Can Wait”

“How did your meeting with the boss go?”

“Really great. I had a lot to cover in only 20 minutes, but that was enough.”

“Where did you meet with her?”

“In her office. She had a plane to catch so there wasn’t time for her to come here.”

“What happened?”

“Well, two minutes in, her assistant interrupted with ‘You have an important phone call from a customer.’ Her response was, ‘This is important too. I’ll call them back on the way to the airport.’ Then her email pinged. She turned it off. Then her broker called. She didn’t take that call either.”

“So you got to give the pitch without being interrupted?”


“How did that make you feel?”

“Important. Appreciated.”

“Did you get the answer you wanted?”

“No. But I got the attention I wanted, so I’m okay with the answer.”

How are you doing? Cell phone ignored when someone is talking to you? Newspaper down or TV silenced when your spouse or child is trying to get your attention? (I need to do a lot better.)

  • M. Scott Peck: “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
  • James C Hunter in The Servant: “…listening is probably our greatest opportunity to give attention to others on a daily basis and convey how much we value them.”

People—at work or at home—don’t always expect to get their way. They do expect to get a hearing.

Great leaders are—first of all—great listeners.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard lessons Company

He Redefined “Finger Pointing”

According to Merriam-Webster, finger-pointing is “the act of blaming someone for a problem instead of trying to fix or solve it.” A great example of this is: “Tensions remained high in New York City Monday as lawmakers and other political figures battle over who deserves the blame for the weekend killings of two policemen, shot to death indiscriminately as they sat in their patrol car” (The Hill, 12/22/2014).

Legendary basketball coach, Dean Smith, created a positive definition of “finger-pointing.” Smith wanted to make sure that the “passer” got as much credit as the “scorer,” so he started the practice of the scorer pointing at the player who made the pass. It was—and is—a combination of “thank you” and “props” that everyone can see: the players, coaches, crowd, and press.

For Smith, it was all about the team, not individuals. On flights, it was the seniors who sat in first class, not the stars; the coaches sat in the back behind all the players. When a player came off the court, Smith had all the players stand in respect whether he had played well or poorly. Smith believed that appreciation was a better motivator than berating.

Coach Smith’s death (2/7/15) prompted an outpouring of love and respect. His greatest player ever, Michael Jordan, has this to say about him:

Players with different backgrounds, different outlooks, different potential: He seemed to be able to reach all of them the same way. If you talk to a guy who never got off the bench, he says the same thing I say. That’s what a father figure is really like—he never put one kid above the other. The love that came from him: the caring, the advice, the education, and the persistence and determination he had in pushing all his players, not just me.

-Michael Jordan

One of the challenges of leadership is blending stars and mortals into a winning team. Smith had the key: he never put one kid above the other and he appreciated the passer as much as he appreciated the scorer. So what are you going to do differently today? How about finger-pointing one of your mortals?

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

The Kitchen Is Always Hot

The kitchen is always hot for leaders. Leadership is not for the thin-skinned who wither every time the critics show up. If you are “in the arena” (as Pres. T. Roosevelt called it), criticism is certain.

According to Greek philosopher Aristotle there is only one way to avoid it: “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by…doing nothing.” So since you are certain to be criticized, the real issue is #1 should you respond and #2 how to respond.

Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle, said it this way: “Speak when you are angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” So go slowly and be calm.

Before taking it personally, have you taken the time to correctly identify the target of the criticism?

Considering the source of the criticism, is it worth considering at all? Is it from external or internal sources?

What is the motive of the critics? Is it possible they are well-intentioned?

Rather than reject it out of hand, have you honestly examined whether it could be true or not?

If you decide you need to respond, why? Will a response accomplish anything positive, or just inflame the critics?

If you decide to respond, follow these guidelines:

  • The target of your response should be the criticism, not the critic.
  • The purpose of your response should be to elevate truth, not self.
  • The tone of your response should be to build up, not tear down.

Whatever you do, don’t let criticism turn you into a critic.

This post is abbreviated from chapter 10 of 16 Stones. Click here for order information.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

I Love My Job!

One thing is sure. You won’t love your job if you hate your boss. First and foremost, people leave companies (or churches or universities or whatever) because of who they work for, and they stay because of who they work for. It is the day-to-day interactions of boss/employee that make the most difference—one way or the other.

The October 28 (2013) edition of Forbes featured the 50 Best Small Companies. Four executives were asked, “How do you charge up your employees?” I don’t much like the idea of having to “charge up” employees because it implies they show up “charged down.” Fortunately, the four answers had to do with everyday leading that makes employees show up already charged up:

  1. Share the rewards with everyone. Make sure all employees feel like they will benefit, not just a few at the top.
  2. Say “thank you” and show appreciation in small ways (e.g., an afternoon off after a late night of “saving the bacon”).
  3. Actively seek and encourage new ideas and creative solutions to both old and new problems.
  4. Celebrate success and do it every chance you get. Look for small things to celebrate. Progress is a great motivator.

Today would be a good day for you to help your employees love their jobs. Had a really good month? Give everyone a carwash coupon. Ready to finally solve that nagging-every-month problem? Ask for their ideas instead of insisting on your own. And so on…. You’ll be surprised at how much difference it makes.

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells at The Hard Lessons Company

“I Hate My Job”

“I hate my job. I thought working here was going to be great, but my attitude gets worse every day that goes by.”

“I am trained to be an accountant. You know, make ledger entries, draw double lines at the end of the month, explain variances, and help people understand their budgets. But all I do is check other people’s work and grind out reports. A robot could do it.”

“The company is making decent money, but none of it ever flows downhill. I don’t expect to make as much as the CFO, or even close, but a little extra every now and then would sure be appreciated.”

“Too many of the people around me don’t do an honest day’s work. They have been here a long time and feel like they are entitled to the job no matter what. Us newbies are doing more than our share.”

“My supervisor is a jerk. He doesn’t care about us individually—except for his golf buddies—and everything is a last-minute crisis with him.”

“There are a lot of things we could do more effectively and more efficiently, but new ideas aren’t really encouraged. We could actually do with less people, but our boss is always complaining about how understaffed we are.”

Sound familiar? There are two ways to look at this:

  1. this employee is a chronic complainer who will never be happy no matter what
  2. this employee is working in a toxic environment, but could be a great employee if led well

Either #1 or #2 could be true. If you are the leader, it’s your job to know which it is and fix it. And if you are the problem, fix yourself first!

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© Copyright 2021 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Necessary Escapes

A leader’s performance is continually on the line and on display. There is pressure from above, and from below. Boards, bosses, employees, customers, congregations…they all have expectations, all the time. It’s a heavy weight to carry, and the more leadership responsibility you have, the heavier it gets. It’s exhausting, which is why leaders need rest. Actually, leaders need more than rest, sometimes they need to escape—at least I do.

The following excerpt (revised) is from my book, 16 Stones.

ESCAPE: I have found, at least for me, fully restorative rest only comes with escape. My body, soul, and spirit all need occasional escape from the everyday world. For years, my escape has been either the North Georgia mountains or the coast of Downeast Maine—a week of nothing but coffee, a good book or two, eating catfish or lobster, and listening to the creek or watching the waves. There is no doubt in my mind that without escape, the stress of running a large company and later serving a large church would have produced burn-out or worse in my ability to lead.

From 16 Stones

One mistake leaders make is equating different with escape. Let me clarify. Taking your office to a different place is not escape. An open briefcase and ringing cell phone at the beach is different, but it is not escape. Senior pastor, you can round up a couple of pastor buddies, play eighteen holes and then have dinner, all the while talking about your church problems. That is different, but it’s not escape. Business leader, you can take your team to an offsite leadership conference to be inspired and challenged. That is different and worthwhile, but it is not escape. Escape is leaving it all behind, emptying your mind of your ordinary work as Exodus 20:9 calls it, and letting God repair and refresh you from head to foot. In my own experience, I have found that I can get physical rest in a couple of days; however, mental and emotional rest usually takes a week or more.

You need to escape, but who you escape with is also important. My wife, Dottie, is wired much like I am. She doesn’t need to be entertained; she doesn’t need to be sightseeing all the time; she doesn’t need to be talking all the time. A day of nothing but sitting on the porch with a good book or working a puzzle is fine with her. She is a great escape partner. Once a year, I spend a couple of days alone, intensely seeking God, but most of the time I escape with her. My point is, choose your escape partner carefully. Remember, the purpose of escape is to detox from the stresses of your ordinary life, not just drag them to a different place.

By the way, Dottie and I are off to Maine in a couple of days. Two weeks of escape!

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

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