Raising the level of your leadership

Circle The Wagons

As a boy growing up in Oklahoma, there wasn’t much I liked more than an Indians versus wagon train movie, especially if John Wayne was the one who led the charge to rescue the wagon train. (Of course, this means my favorite movies and TV shows are 50 or so years old and often in black and white.) When evening came after a long, hot, dry day on the trail, ever alert for hostiles, they would “circle the wagons” so they could sit around the campfires, eat a gourmet meal cooked by somebody named Sagebrush, and sing songs about the prairie while they gazed at the stars. Then it was off to bed for a night of sweet dreams about how wonderful California was going to be. Well…that’s what they did in the movies. The circled wagons were a respite from the constant danger—a place of safety that took the edge off of the fear that hovered over the trail every day.

It is a wise leader who knows when it is time to circle the wagons; there are a lot of reasons to circle up every now and then.

When you are tired and need rest is a good time to circle up. You have been hard at it for weeks on special projects, introducing new products or services, relocating, and so on. Your followers are exhausted and a day or two by the campfire will re-energize them for the rest of the journey.

Sometimes you have to stop to fix the wagon wheel that is busted and fill empty water barrels or put ointment on lame horses. You need to take some time to repair the damage from the hard journey so far before you set out again. Especially, look for damaged relationships.

If everyone is afraid because intense new competition, or new technology, or a slowing economy is threatening the future, you need to circle up to counter the fear. Your followers are looking for you to be calm, unafraid and determined to fight and win.

A good reason to circle the wagons is when it’s time to have a party: you have finished a long climb up a mountain and see the ocean for the first time, the new building is finished, or the numbers are in and it was a record breaking year. You may be ready to move on, but everyone else wants to look at the view and celebrate a bit.

Circling the wagons can take a lot of forms depending on the need and type of organization. As the leader, it’s up to you to know when and how to do it. If you aren’t sure, ask. Your people will love being part of the decision.

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© Copyright 2012 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Wind Music

Dottie and I have just returned from 11 days of relaxation on the Northern California coast. We were entertained by seals, sea lions, whales, waves, fog, sunshine and wind music—through the trees and in the car. While driving south on CA 101 toward San Francisco, we were distracted from enjoying the redwoods on the Avenue Of The Giants by an irritating and intermittent whistling sound produced by a small air leak somewhere in the car.

Since I have a degree in Aerospace Engineering, it occurred to me that I should explain to Dottie why the wind music comes and goes, so I launched into a brilliant explanation of wind speed and direction, car speed and direction, and so on. She dutifully listened. I smugly concluded with “I learned that in college.” Unimpressed, Dottie smugly countered with “I learned that blowing on coke bottles when I was eight years old.” (Please don’t laugh more than five minutes.)

There are a lot of things we make more complicated than they need to be. Leadership is one of them. In simple terms, a leader is someone who knows where he (or she) is going, knows the way, has influenced others to willingly follow, and is out front slaying the dragons, removing obstacles, picking up followers when they stumble or fall behind, and doing it all the way to the finish line. Leading is not about position (CEO, senior pastor, owner or whatever). It is not about power, and it doesn’t depend on education. (Even an MBA from Harvard doesn’t make someone a leader.) It is not about being charismatic or a great communicator. I love this quote from The Leadership Challenge (Kouzes and Posner):

Leadership is an identifiable set of skills and practices that are available to all of us, not just a few charismatic men and women. The “great person”…theory of leadership is just plain wrong.”

If you are struggling in leadership, maybe you have made it too complicated. Quit worrying about your DISC score, personality, position, title, rights, etc., and start doing what effective leaders do. Not sure what they do? A Hard Lessons workshop will help you get started. Contact me (dickwells@hard-lessons.com) for information about the October 24 workshop benefiting Williamson Christian College.

© Copyright 2011 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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

One Month In

Today is February 1st—one month in to 2011. January is gone and it wasn’t a great start to the year. My list of things undone is longer than I would like.

Thirty-one days ago, January was the most important month of 2011. But now it’s February. Why? Because February is NOW—it is what I have to work with. I can’t do anything about the misses in January and waiting until March will only make things worse. So now, my whole year hinges on what I do in February.

I have a choice to make. I can throw in the towel for the year, lower my goals for the year, or restart with renewed determination to finish well anyway. What will it be? I have to decide today. If I wait until tomorrow, another day is lost.

Leaders face this kind of choice regularly. And everyone in the organization is watching. Whatever the reason for the misses in January, the leader will set the pace for February. And remember, February is now the most important month of the year.

What will you do? My suggestion: don’t lose a day!

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Organizations are like Humpty Dumpty: sooner or later they are at risk of a great fall. GM took a great fall when Toyota and Honda came along. They are trying, but it is too soon to tell if they can put GM together again. Blockbuster has taken a great fall—pushed off the wall by Netflix—and probably won’t be able to put the pieces together. Sometimes companies jump off the wall (Lehman Brothers—risk and Enron—dishonesty) and sometimes they slowly slide down the wall to the bottom (newspapers and telephones). All the king’s horses and men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again, and if you wait until it’s too late, you may not be able to put your pieces together again.

Conventional wisdom has been “if it’s not broke, don’t mess with it.” But reality is “if it’s not broke, it will be.” Wise leaders—while working the plan in 2011—are also looking ahead to 2015. Technology will be different. Customer preferences will be different. Demographics will be different. Competition will be different. The question is: Will your organization be different or will you take a great fall? If you are going to be different, now would be a good time to get started.

[By the way, great falls can also happen in your personal health, finances and relationships. Get started in those areas as well!]

Not Ready For NASCAR

Driving home from Indiana a few days ago (cruising along at about 75mph on I65), I was passed by a Toyota Prius running about 80mph. A Prius is a gasoline-electric hybrid that is known more for its gas mileage (50mph) than for its power (1.8L, 98hp) and speed.

However, this Prius was different—it had a rear spoiler—just like Jimmie Johnson’s #48 NASCAR Chevrolet. Even though it passed me, I’m sure it couldn’t pass Jimmie Johnson because a Prius—with or without a spoiler—is still just a Prius and is not ready for NASCAR.

A spoiler may make a Prius look racy, but it doesn’t make it a race car. It is what’s under the hood that counts.

In the same way, a title doesn’t make you a leader. A position and big office doesn’t make you a leader. Being the owner, or CEO, or Lead Pastor doesn’t make you a leader. Dressing like a leader; talking like a leader; acting like a leader; none of these make you a leader.

Having trouble getting people to follow you even though you have the title and the office? Maybe you are relying too much on your rear spoiler instead of what’s under the hood. Ask someone you trust—they’ll tell you.

Underground Nests

I hate Bermuda grass. Why? It spreads uncontrolled into our mulch and hides the underground nests of fire ants. How many stings did I get? Twenty-six! Did they hurt? Yes! Did I get revenge? Yes! (Using Bonide MAX.) And while I was at it, I poured out my wrath on an underground nest of yellow jackets before they stung me.

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 are simply trying to survive and 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 ants 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.

Only 24 days until Raising The Level Of Your Leadership—a Hard Lessons workshop. Sign up today at www.hard-lessons.com.

The Leader's Soul On Fire (#3)

In last week’s post, I wrote about the five dimensions of passion you need to lead a group of followers on a long and difficult journey of significant change. You need passion for the mission (the journey and destination), passion for change, passion for people, passion for personal excellence, and if you are a person of faith, passion for honoring God.

Today, let me mention a few faux passions that aren’t necessary for leadership and in some cases make it harder or impossible to lead.

Faux Passion #1: Sentiment. When you were a little boy or girl, there was always, “When I grow up I’m going to be a….” My boyhood dream was to be a cowboy. (Duh! I grew up in Oklahoma.) Or a baseball player. (Duh! Mickey Mantle was from Oklahoma.) I have a daughter who wanted to be a missionary or a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader—she’s an actress. Neither one of us have regrets that our childhood dreams were not realized as adults. So in spite of what your therapist may say, childhood dreams are not always the answer to adult fulfillment or passion for leading.

Faux Passion #2: Loving The Task. It is great if you love the product or program, but you don’t have to love it to lead it, and often you won’t. Louis Gerstner, Jr., left RJR Nabisco (cigarettes and Oreos) in 1993 to become CEO of IBM (mainframe computers). Do you think he loved computers more than Oreos? I suspect he didn’t love either one. But he did have passion for leading—for “trying to build organizations that allow for hierarchy but at the same time bring people together for problem solving, regardless of where they are positioned in the organization.” Now that’s passion for the mission and leaders have to have it! (Quote from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? by Gerstner; a great read for leaders.)

Faux Passion #3: Emotion. I am sick and tired of people rationalizing angry, emotional, people-hurting outbursts with, “I’m just so passionate.” Emotions and passions are not the same thing.
     Emotions explode; passion burns steadily.
     Emotions are here today, gone tomorrow; passion sticks around.
     Emotions can turn and walk away; passion has to do something.
     Emotions are about self; passion is about something important apart from self.
     Emotions rage; passion reasons.

It may be a convenient excuse to explain bad emotional behavior as passion, but it’s not true and it will hurt your ability to lead—every time.

I would be interested in your ideas on Faux Passions you’ve observed. Also, don’t forget to register for the November 5th Hard Lessons Workshop on the homepage. I look forward to seeing you there!

Myths About Change

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? Why are so many people overweight? I need to lose about ten pounds. I’ve needed to for a long time. But I haven’t made the changes necessary to lose it. 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. Not only do I need to lose those ten pounds, but I want to. Enough said?

Myth #3: Fear is an effective means of promoting change. “If you don’t….., you’ll be fired.” 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 which 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.

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. Think about it.

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. We’ll talk about the entire change journey at the November 5 Hard Lessons Workshop in the AVOIDING CHANGE WRECK session. Register on the home page!

Cadillac Or Chevrolet?

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.)

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

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.”

  • On Leading Well…

    "The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present."

    Kouzes & Posner


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