Raising the level of your leadership

Pumpin’ Gas

GasPumpWhile taking Aaron (my oldest grandson) home from cross-country practice, the conversation went something like this:


“How are you doing otherwise?”

“I’m good. School is my biggest challenge right now.”

Sensing a teaching moment, I responded:

“School may be your biggest challenge now, but without it, the rest of your life will be a big challenge. You’ll end up pumpin’ gas for a living.” (Wise and brilliant—don’t you think?)

A puzzled look was followed by 30 seconds of silence, then:

“Papa, what does pumpin’ gas mean?”

Duh. Aaron has grown up in the self-service world. He has never seen a gas station attendant fill your gas tank, clean your windshield, and check your tires and oil, all for 25-50¢ per gallon. He had no idea what I was talking about. Of course, I explained that today all they do is stand behind the counter—hidden by lottery tickets—and take your money. But at $8/hour, it’s a tough life so keep at it in school. He understood that.

Another communication failure added to the list. The purpose of communication is to be understood, not to be brilliant or eloquent. It helps if you speak the same language and use relevant illustrations. The responsibility for this is on the communicator, not the listener. Attention Dick: Aaron did not grow up in the fifties—speak his language, not yours.

If you’ve had a similar experience, share it in the comments block below.

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© Copyright 2016 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

Are You Feeding The Hippos?

HipposFeedingErnesto 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:

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© Copyright 2014 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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

What Stings Worse Than A Yellow Jacket?

Yellow-Jacket-from-DukeOne of my daily rituals is to thumb through the WSJ—a venture that sometimes takes 10 minutes, sometimes an hour. It is much more than just business and geopolitical news. Today’s edition includes features about students building model bridges out of spaghetti, pessimism, toenail fungus, and Alabama coach Nick Saban.

One recent 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 2014 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Wah wah wAh waH wah WAH wah



One of my favorite things about the Peanuts cartoons is the adult-speak. To Linus, Lucy, Charlie Brown, etc., it always sounds like “Wah wah wAh waH wah WAH wah.”

It is not unusual for adult-speak to invade the business world as well—or church world, or government world, or your world. A recent WSJ article had three great examples of a CEO speaking that was nothing more than “Wah wah wAh waH wah WAH wah.”


Example 1: “profitability framework”—meaning, we are losing money, but maybe someday we’ll make some. (Maybe…if we put an entirely new picture in a new frame.)

Example 2: “optimizing our store network”—meaning we are going to close a lot of stores. (They have already closed or sold 40% of their stores and are losing more than ever.)

Example 3: “transforming select business models”—meaning…I have no idea what this means. (Maybe, “We are hoping for a miracle.”)

Of course, you don’t have to be a CEO to lapse into adult-speak. Preachers do it. Politicians do it. Educators do it. And, gosh, I do it.

The most important thing about communication is not what you say, but what people hear. Hopefully, it’s not “Wah wah wAh waH wah WAH wah.”

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© Copyright 2014 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

Herding Cats

Annabelle (picture) showed up on my daughter’s (Cathy) doorstep about 15 years ago. Minnie showed up on my other daughter’s (Elizabeth) doorstep last summer. Nuisance “turned up one day at our window, a little black cat with bowlegs and signs of the stress that spending too long outside alone can bring” (“our window” referring to the home of Gwyn Teatro).

If you have a cat, you know that the expression “herding cats” is an overstatement. You can’t herd even one cat. And the truth is, you can’t herd people either.

For the rest of Nuisance’s story and its parallels to relationships at home or in the workplace, read Gwen Teatro’s post at http://gwynteatro.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/four-leadership-reminders-from-nuisance-the-cat

Gwyn Teatro is always worth reading, and Nuisance’s story is both amusing (especially if you have ever been adopted by a cat) and thought provoking.

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

© Copyright 2013 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

I'm All Ears!

Great leaders are always great listeners!

…listening is probably our greatest opportunity to give attention to others on a daily basis and convey how much we value them. — James C. Hunter

There are four reasons why listening is so important.

First, listening shows respect. When eye-to-eye with no distractions, it is one of the best gifts you can give to a team member, or your spouse. (Dottie made it clear to me that I could improve on this.)

Second, listening reveals humility. Especially in the work environment, it lets your team know you don’t think you have all the answers.

Third, listening promotes involvement. Giving everyone a voice gets more ideas on the table—some may be the breakthrough ideas you need.

Finally, listening is smart. After all, you might learn something.

Of course, I’m talking about genuine listening, not just letting people talk to make a show of it.

Need to raise the level of your leadership? (For all of us the answer is “yes.”) Become a great listener.

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?

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.

  • On Leading Well…

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