Raising the level of your leadership

Underground Nests

I hate Bermuda grass. Why? It spreads uncontrolled into our mulch and hides the underground nests of fire ants and yellow jackets. How many stings did I get? Twenty-six! Did they hurt? Yes! Did I get revenge? Yes! (Using Bonide MAX.) I poured out my wrath, hoping the Bonide hurt them as much the stings hurt me. Yeah…I know…that is not a very forgiving spirit. (I looked in scripture and couldn’t find anywhere that said I should forgive stinging creatures of any kind.)

Organizations have underground nests that can sting as well—nests that have a different mission…or personal agendas…or are only concerned about their self-interests. As the leader, you cannot let these nests grow and thrive. In fact, you need to pour Bonide MAX on them ASAP or you will get stung and the organization hurt.

First, make sure the underground nest doesn’t exist because of your ineffective leadership. Sometimes nests develop because the workers have no confidence in the leader to actually lead them. So they choose a queen to follow and go underground as a survival mechanism. As in all things, always start with self-examination. Not sure if you’re the problem? Ask someone who will tell you the truth.

Second, you have to get rid of the queen. All fire ant and yellow jacket nests have a queen at the center of everything. Your organizational underground nest will have one too. Whatever you have to do, get rid of the queen! Until you do, the nest will grow in size and continue to buzz around stinging everyone that is not part of the nest.

Third, you need the workers, so try to eradicate the nest without eradicating all the workers. Give them a reason to choose to follow you instead of the queen. Being a leader instead of boss is a good way to start.

Enough fire ant stings can be fatal to small animals. Underground nests in your organization can be fatal too. So ignore them at your and the organization’s peril.

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© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company.

Garbage Can Wine

Dottie (my wife) and I enjoyed a trip to California a few years back, highlighted by spending several days with Don and Susan Couch. (Don was my college roommate.) One of his hobbies is home winemaking—easy to understand since he lives near a million or so wineries. 

Instead of buying an expensive home wine-making kit, he decided to muster his own kit, only buying what he really needed. Impressed and interested, I asked how he got started and he replied, “I bought a garbage can.” Yes, a garbage can, followed by what looked like a Crystal Springs 5-gallon water bottle, then a small oak container, wine bottles, and so on. He spent about $300 and yielded several dozen bottles of wine, one of which I sampled. His wine didn’t win any awards, but it was drinkable (though we moved to a bottle of fine California wine for dinner).

Now, like me, you may be thinking, “A garbage can? Can you make decent wine using a garbage can?” The answer is yes. Why? Because the first stage of wine making is called primary fermentation and it doesn’t much matter what kind of container you use as long as it is clean. The type of con-tainer used for primary fermentation wouldn’t make the list of the 20 most important things about wine making. Grapes, water, temperature, yeast, etc., are all much more important than the con-tainer you first dump them in to get fermentation started. So why spend hundreds on a container when $10-15 will do just as well?

There is a great lesson in this for businesses, churches, or organizations of any kind. Spend your money on what will really make a difference in the outcome. The next time you are tempted to spend time, money or energy on something, ask yourself: “Am I doing this because it will look good and feed my ego, or will it really make a difference in results?” If you aren’t sure, then try the garbage can first. You can always spend the big bucks later if you need to.

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

© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Beware Of The Un-slain Dragon

Not much has changed since Beowulf had to slay the dragons that were wreaking havoc in Denmark. First, he struck down the dragon Grendal. Later he took out Grendal’s mother—half-human and half-dragon (trust me, she did not look like Angelina Jolie of the 2007 movie). However, one dragon remained to threaten Beowulf’s reign as king, and in end, it brought him down, proving that…

It never does to leave a live dragon out of the equation. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Today, 1600 years later, leaders are still being brought down by un-slain dragons. Almost every organization has one or more. The dragon is the unspoken truth—the issue that most everyone knows about and fears. The dragon can stop change initiatives and sink morale. No one can do anything about the dragon except the leader. If the dragon has been around a long time, most people are resigned to the fact that the leader probably won’t ever do anything. So, the best and brightest leave for greener pastures, and everyone else hunkers down, trying to be invisible to both the leader and the dragon.

Dragons are often people: turf shepherds, abusive managers, or relatives and close friends of the leader. The most dangerous situation is when the leader is the dragon. Dragons can also be incompetence in key positions, obsolete technology, products that are endangered species, or software that doesn’t work (probably sold to the organization by the leader’s brother).

If your organization has a dragon—and it probably does—it will eventually bring you down if you don’t slay it. Most dragons can’t be reformed; they have to be removed. It is your job as the leader to get the dragon—the unspoken truth—on the table:

Leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted. Jim Collins

What kind of climate does your organization have? Are the truth and brutal facts confronted—honestly—even when they are about you? Are you the dragon? If you aren’t sure, get help. If you don’t, you may end up like Beowulf.

© Copyright 2020 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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Bob Dylan Was 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. What’s next? Driverless cars and trucks.

Smart 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). And surprisingly, vinyl records are making a comeback.

Almost 60% of U.S. households are wireless only. We took the plunge last year. How long will it be before landlines are obsolete? Do you know where a working pay phone is?

B&W tv’s were replaced by color which are now in 8K-HDR (whatever that means). If your screen is less than 60 inches, it’s a dinosaur.

About 1/3 of millennials claim no religious affiliation or belief whatever (4x as many as for my generation).

My wife and I handled Christmas shopping without a single trip to the mall. Rats! I missed out on Auntie Annie’s pretzels.

High-speed internet has made Remote Work the fastest growing segment of workers in the U.S. You can live anywhere and work somewhere else!

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.”

Organizations with leaders who resist, ignore or fear change are becoming obsolete and disappearing. 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’)

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©2020 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

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

Thanks, Jessie

sign – THANK YOU – dark red background and white letter, blue sky

Jessie Garrett was my high school math teacher who—when I wasn’t planning on going—asked me, “Where are you going to college?” One year later, I was at Georgia Tech studying Aerospace Engineering. Thanks, Jessie.

John Duhon was my first boss in the aerospace business. He overlooked my “know-it-all” attitude and obnoxious behavior as an engineering intern. He mentored and encouraged me. Thanks, John.

Jim Rourke let me write a paper and present it at an aerospace conference in only my second year out of college. Thanks, Jim.

Jan Drees chose me to become a project engineer, my first step into real leadership. Thanks, Jan.

Ted Hoffman taught me what I needed to know about customers. Thanks, Ted.

Jack Floyd gave me a lot more freedom than I deserved. Thanks, Jack.

Cliff Kalista gave me my first job in marketing. Thanks, Cliff.

Bob Eggars taught me how to manage a project, delivering almost 500 helicopters in one year. Thanks, Bob.

John Kleban trusted me enough to run finance even though I had never even had an accounting class. Thanks, John.

CEO Bev Dolan was my #1 supporter at the Textron corporate office. Thanks, Bev.

Fred Hubbard recommended me to replace him as president at Textron Aerostructures. Thanks, Fred.

Richard, Kurt, Julie, John, Mike, Diane, David, Sandy, Linda, Laura and many others all fully supported me as I stumbled around learning how to lead in various roles. Thanks, all of you.

Rick White gave me my first opportunity to lead in my church. Thanks, Rick.

Carl Roberts told me that Hard Lessons was exactly what I should do and sponsored the first workshop at his company. He also provided the impetus I needed to write 16 Stones. Thanks, Carl.

Dottie, my amazing wife of 50 years, took care of the fort while I traveled more than 2 million miles. She raised two wonderful daughters, stood by me and supported me—for better or worse. She was the better part. I was the worse part. Thanks, Dottie, I love you.

God knows me—really knows me—and loves me anyway. Thanks, God.

Whatever success you have enjoyed, you didn’t pull it off by yourself. Take a few minutes this Thursday to remember those who helped you along the way.

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


Failed change is more common than successful change in people and in organizations. Change is hard to initiate and even harder to finish. Why? Change myths are part of the reason.

Myth #1: People and organizations change when they need to. Really? America has one of the highest obesity rates in the world. A lot of people know they need to lose weight. Most don’t. Some people need to stop piling up debt—but they don’t. Organizations have a lot of changes they need to make. But for whatever reason, they don’t get around to it, or when they try, it fizzles out. It takes a lot more than need to drive successful change.

Myth #2: People and organizations change when they want to. Most of those people who need to lose weight actually want to. Enough said?

Myth #3: Fear is an effective means of promoting change. “If you don’t __________, you’ll be fired.” Or, “The plant will close.” What a waste of time. Any change that arises from fear will be short-lived and marginal. It is a sign that bosses and bullies are in charge, not authentic leaders.

Myth #4: A PowerPoint presentation that fully explains the reason will successfully drive change. “If they understand, they’ll be eager to change.” Baloney. Somebody else will be giving reasons for not changing. And what about all the right brain artists out there? They hate PowerPoint presentations.

Myth #5: Casting vision over and over will bring change. This is just hubris on the part of the leader—believing that people will do whatever he/she asks them to do. People and organizations do not change because of somebody else’s vision. However, if it becomes their vision too, then change can happen.

So what will initiate and sustain change? Two things: people and organizations attempt change when they have to, or when they are inspired to. The leader’s job is to inspire it before the have to kicks in. Have to often fizzles out; inspired to has staying power.

It is easier to get married than to stay married. And it is easier to start change than it is to complete it. The leader’s biggest challenge is between the starting point and the finish line. What myth is holding back change in your organization (or your life)?

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Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Moments Matter

We were offsite for some team building and inspiration. I was walking through the lobby on my way to the meeting room when I veered left to give her a quick hug. Why? She looked like she needed it. A few moments later she was sitting there with tears on her cheeks. Why? “She really needed that hug,” a friend told me, “and she needed it from you—her leader.”

It was a spontaneous moment in time—4-5 seconds—but it changed her day. That was about 20 years ago—it changed my leadership.

We are all familiar with carpe diem—seize the day. Sometimes seizing the moment is just as important. There is a lot of leadership discussion about creating moments. They are important but can sometimes feel contrived. However, capturing moments that occur naturally can be even more powerful. They are not contrived and not expected. And they are not forgotten even after 20 years.

If you are a leader, be alert to moments you can capture: a moment to encourage someone; laugh or cry with someone; hug someone; help someone; or celebrate with someone. Moments matter. Carpe occasionem—seize the moment. This would be a good moment to start.

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© Copyright 2017 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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