Thank you for your Veterans’ Day thank you…but may I point something out?

This morning I sat in my kids’ school assembly along with about 100 other veterans and received the thanks and praise of students, teachers, and family.

It was a lovely ceremony, really.  It was replete with laudatory comments about selfless volunteers and the sacrifices they willingly made (and the coffee and cookies were good, too).  As I looked at the hats, jackets, and other service-specific gear of WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War vets, I became quite aware that most of the other veterans deserved the recognition way more than I did.  But also, it became apparent how different our experiences and interactions must have been in our country’s service.

In this case, I felt really humbled to be receiving group praise and hearing such nice adjectives thrown about in reference to our collective group of 100 vets, all from different eras and service units. While I served successfully and honorably in the U.S. Navy for nearly 5 years myself, I certainly wasn’t deserving of the mentions of valor and bravery that combat-tested veterans would be.  Realizing it would be simply impractical to try to focus such a large forum on specific parts of our 100+ differing journeys in military service, I completely understand why such large, generic ceremonies are still a great and appreciated tradition, perhaps moreso than ever.  But the ceremony was very distinctly impersonal, preferring overarching patriotic themes over anything unique by service, time served, theater, or role.  Probably safer that way, I understand.  So, deserved or not, truly–thanks for the Veterans’ Day group love.

Only one other veteran asked me any specific questions about my service.  I had asked about his role and locations served, as we shared some common military vernacular, but also the common understanding of how different the experience can be…

And so it is usually for such veteran ceremonies—appreciated and noble, but cursory and surface-deep. It’s almost, at times, as if non-veterans don’t feel like they know how to ask about the individual’s military experience, whereas it would be easily relatable and normal to ask about some other more conventional jobs.

In the workplace, the “grouping together” of our veterans also happens frequently, sometimes via military recruiting events and employee affinity groups and special focus on veteran hiring, but sometimes in the form of bias on what impact military service must have on an individual’s leadership.  In my nearly twenty years of post-military work within three Fortune 500s, I have heard more than a dozen times how former military members may not be suited to collaborative environments, may be too rigid for certain roles, and concern over whether a non-directive style could ever be learned to fit these ever-changing, matrixed organizations.  I have also heard how more senior former service members have little chance of adapting to “hands-on” work, because of their clear reliance on their staffs to accomplish the work.  Individually-applied, I’m sure these assertions had a chance of being true in each case, but what I found disturbing were the assumptions made about the experience without any true knowledge of the specific roles, situational experience or leadership competency of the specific leader.

So on this Veterans’ Day, honestly, thanks for the recognition and praise, especially for noting that in an all-volunteer service, it does, in fact, take one’s willingness to supplant personal objectives for the needs of the country and citizenry. But let’s not overdo the individual laudatory adjectives, as we must remember we are speaking to individuals as unique as the fingerprints touching the service records they built.

At work, let’s give our veteran leaders the same chance to individually prove themselves worthy of the roles they hold or might seek.  Feel free to ask them about their unique experiences that made them into who they are.

Thank them for their service, certainly—but don’t leave it just there.

The fine line between gossip and genuine guidance

“I make my living off the evening news
Just give me something-something I can use
People love it when you lose,
They love dirty laundry”

–Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry”

Gossip vs. genuine guidance.

It’s a question of intent: Are we trying to lift others up or tear them down?

None of us have all the answers. We need to consult one another to gain information, educate and assist. But if in the course of sharing someone’s trial, personal struggle or even speculation of weakness, are we doing so in an effort to get educated with an intent to help? Or are we just perpetuating chatter that will intrigue and tittilate, enjoying the feeling of being interesting, practicing judgment with the defendant not present, and, deep down, feeling a little better about ourselves because the negative attention is on someone else?

It’s sometimes a very fine line between the two.

It’s easy and expected to questions others’ motives.

Questioning your own motives takes courage. When you talk about others, are you trying to serve or serving to try?

 

 

 

For leaders, busyness is bad business

As a society, we seem to relish busy-ness.  Full calendars, time-counting apps, multi-tasking to help manage amidst a plethora of activities, and frenetic movement—these are the signals of modern-day success.

And in business, it seems the busier you are (or claim to be), the more perceived value you are generating.

In the workplace, some people even fabricate additional taskers and responsibilities to give off the impression they are busier than they actually are.  And the sad truth of it is—this tactic usually works and draws praise.

If you are a leader, your individual busy-ness (or the perceived equivalent) could be really bad for your business. And sadly, it’s really unlikely anyone will tell you that.

You see, as a leader, what your team likely needs from you most is your availability and your commitment to listen.  In your heart, you may want nothing more than for your team to feel comfortable accessing you any time they need.  But their respectfulness of your time, your actual busy-ness or the mere perception of busy-ness can be barriers that will prevent the connections your team so desperately needs.  Real, genuine connections.

The time you devote to your team must be intentional and purposeful. If your busy-ness is preventing the connections your team needs, you are loudly pronouncing again and again: “My time is more valuable than yours.”

If you lead more than one person and aren’t squarely focused on others to drive productivity, the math even works against you.

Consider subjugating your own agenda and time demands to purposefully devote more time to your team, leaders. Your business will boom.

 

 

Sacrifice and surroundings

I’ve been away for some time. Sorry for that. The best way to describe where I’ve been is wilderness. I’m still there, honestly. On certain days, I’m so lost in this wilderness, I don’t even bother to break out the map.

I know why I had to go. My career pursuits certainly led me in one direction, but neither the timing nor the environment would allow it.  So choices had to be made.  It was sacrifice, but my version of success includes honoring what others need of me in roles beyond just those in my vocation. It has been difficult, but right.

So I’m back in familiar, but undesired surroundings. This wilderness teaches hard lessons, lessons I hope will be beneficial in ways I can’t see right now. I hold out hope this is why I’m here.  This wilderness is as full of people in need as any other environment.  People in need, just like me.  On certain days, I am available to help others.  Those days, I feel like my purpose can be achieved here. Other times, I’m too caught in the snares of these surroundings to offer much help to others.

I had time to look at the map today, and there was a path in front of me that I’ve not recognized before. I pray it’s productive, and I pray for a more peaceful journey, since I don’t know how long I may remain in this wilderness. I pray that I can leverage each day to help others.  The road may be rough and the trail winding, but I must keep my head on the swivel and march on.  I hope to break out the map more often.

 

Ambition of a champion

Ambitious people are certainly revered in our society.  Let’s face it, they certainly make the best stories.  So many of our sports heroes decide early on in life that they want to excel at a particular craft.  They devote countless hours to focused practice and competition to refine their skills with the hope that one day the effort will pay off. Seeing the ambitious athlete competing in the championship game gives us all a powerful image of the possible fruits of the effort of the ambitious.  And how we love a champion

The “most admired” professionals like doctors and lawyers have a prescribed avenue to follow to achieve their ambition.  We reward these professionals with top dollar compensation and our equal societal admiration.

Nevermind the reality that for every “harnessed ambition” champion’s story, there are likely a thousand stories in which the champion’s path didn’t work out as planned.

It is admirable to see that the ambitious take command of the reality they’ve inherited and shape their circumstances to achieve a clear set of personal objectives.  It’s inspiring to see how the ambitious are able to navigate with such clarity.

I often wonder if some of our champions are as revered by their own family and friends as much as they are by society.  I recently saw a number of “behind the scenes” stories that showed the price of ambition.  The appeal of being a champion lost its luster in these stories as it became clear that the ambitious person was willing to sacrifice the needs of others, including closest loved ones, to maintain the individual focus needed to achieve championship results.  I’m not saying this always happens, but it certainly does frequently. I wonder specifically about the impacts on others in the stories that are not as successful—the same potential neglect of others may occur without the ultimate championship-level success.  I wonder most about the regret in these cases.

These “behind the scenes” stories don’t get that much coverage—they make for really depressing TV.

In some ways, I wish I had such clarity and drive to expend on a singular pursuit.  My challenge is diversity of interest and a lack of need to achieve a championship status in any particular area.  First, I guess you could say I accept the reality that I’m just not that good at any one thing. More importantly, I think I’ve realized I wouldn’t be willing to make the trade-offs needed to achieve the fruits of any individual championship ambition I might have.

By society’s definition, this confession paints me as unmotivated.  I’ll take that criticism.

Another form of ambition that receives much less media coverage is others-focused ambition. Mother Teresa may be one of the most famous examples, but few other examples tend to draw such an international limelight.  But there are many others.  I’ve looked into the backstories of a few, and found a much more hopeful record of the quality of relationships with family and friends, not to mention the joy discovered in pursuing an others-focused mission.  My favorite example is Katie Davis, a young woman from Tennessee, who at 18 first visited Uganda; at 19, began to teach at an orphanage there; and at 20, established Amazina, a non-profit focused on serving the needs of the poorest of the poor in Uganda but also teaching vocational skills that allow people to develop a means for supporting themselves.  Oh, by the way, starting at age 20, Katie also decided to personally adopt 3 young Ugandan girls, and now has adopted a total of 13 girls, who she cares for directly.

Katie says,

People tell me I am brave.  People tell me I am strong.  People tell me good job.  Well here is the truth of it.  I am really not that brave, I am not really that strong, and I am not doing anything spectacular.  I am just doing what God called me to do as a follower of Him.

Talk about the opposite of individual championship ambition.

Alas, I also accept that I also lack the razor sharp focus on others that Katie demonstrates.

As a start, though, I think I can muster the motivation to choose who to truly admire.  I’ll start with choosing Katie and others like her.  Hers is the kind of ambition that defines a champion to me.

 

Who’s on your see-saw?

Confidence is the most fascinating leadership balancing act.

Having worked with thousands of leaders over time, I have become increasingly fascinated with the precariousness of the “balance of confidence” a leader portrays and the effect this balance has on his/her team.

Let’s think of confidence as a see-saw.  The slightest shift of weight on a see-saw has a profound effect on tipping, within an increasing effect the further you move from the center balance point.  So it is with leadership.

The overconfident leader forces the team off-balance. Because of a need to either self-preserve or control, the overconfident leader removes power from the hands of his/her direct reports, causing an increasing energy wave of self-preservation down the plank. The top leader of an organization can make it impossible for an organization to achieve  balance.

The underconfident leader cannot stabilize the team when other strong forces start to effect the balance of the team. He is a 70-lb 4th grader on the see-saw with a brawny 120-lb 2nd grader.  Position and maturity and other assets become immaterial, because the leader simply doesn’t have the weight to balance things out.

But how do you know what your see-saw even looks like?  Because we can’t see the effect in the form of such clear movement, we have to work within the realm of the mind to understand our own balance first, and then help our teams translate the effect so we can see what balance looks like.

Think of your own vulnerability first. You have to ask about your impact, and the balance others feel with the weight of your leadership.  Are you willing to hop on the see-saw first to load test your impact, knowing there a chance you’re gonna get a sore tailbone in the process? Are you willing to see how much weight your confidence carries with your team in an effort to ensure your team can deliver results in a balanced way?

Simply being willing to risk it yourself can communicate a powerful message to your team.  God gave most of us plenty of padding down there to withstand a few tailbone bumps. Think of the joy of the sight of your team smiling, perfectly balanced on the other end, legs kicking in the air, knowing there’s no way you’d ever hop off and send them crashing to the ground…

 

 

“Getting it”: Driving an Ownership in Development Culture

As a child, I remember the drudgery of being assigned chores by my parents. When I had to be asked to perform some task, I resented being forced into action. Consequently, my initiative was low in completing the task and oftentimes my quality was poor. Then, one day, I discovered that if I went in search of chores that needed to be performed and I volunteered to complete them, I accomplished them with a spring in my step, and I looked forward to the opportunity to make my mom proud with the quality of the task I had chosen. The driver was choice. There were always plenty of tasks to be performed—I found empowerment in choosing the ones (even hard or unpleasant ones, like cleaning the garage or bathrooms) I wanted to do and looked forward to being recognized for accomplishing these with quality and drive.

I’ve seen it consistently throughout my nearly 15 years in corporate America…some execs “get it”, choosing to proactively engage in a development culture and seeing the personal benefit of doing so, while acknowledging there are some expectations along the way.

Those who don’t “get it” choose to subscribe to either a victim mentality or simply lie in confusion about why they are not seen as successfully developing. I know both schools of counter-culture thought because I’ve fallen into their traps previously.

It’s about choice: So what’s the “it”? In the simplest terms, “getting it” at many companies is the choice to take genuine ownership of one’s own development for the right reason. Feedback is everywhere, but it is a choice to assume we are each our own arbiters of which feedback. It is also a choice to solicit feedback from others, consider the relevance and veracity of the feedback when we receive it, and then decide how we might craft this feedback into an active plan to improve ourselves.

I have many times received feedback on which I have chosen not to take action. I learned to be thankful to receive it, but I found it didn’t fit my willingness for commitment, so it didn’t become a part of my action plan. And that’s OK. If I continued to receive the same feedback again and again and still didn’t think I could own action towards this feedback, then I have a different choice to make. Maybe I’m not willing to change or I’m not a fit for the position I’m in or the organization to which I belong. Either way, it’s still my choice. And it’s still OK, either way.

Choosing to be an owner doesn’t mean we have to go it alone. On the way, we can take as many partners as we need, but the beginning of “getting it” is believing “it” needs to be done, and then owning the path to getting there.

It’s hard not be engaged and positive about what is emerging in an organization when I see my own ability to get better riding on the breeding ground of improvement that exists within the people and organization around me.

The ability to choose even stretches into our daily communications with our peers and bosses. There is nothing more empowering than choosing to share information that we think our peers or bosses may need. The alternatives, withholding information or not effectively anticipating what information will be desired, destroys empowerment the instant that we have to be asked for more information.

Knowing why: The other essential element of “getting it” is learning why you’re doing it. For me, I found genuine joy in improving myself, regardless of whether I’m recognized for my actions or they lead down the path towards opportunity. I remember distinctly the first day I found that a leadership skill that I had practiced at work to be more patient helped me be a better husband and father, too. That’s empowerment. I strive to be a better person, to learn new tactics and model great behaviors I see in others. I find inspiration in the talent level of those I interact with every day. I’ve developed a real sense of commitment to symbiotic relationships where learning can occur. Simply, I choose to harness these many opportunities that are occurring in my life and work.

The best laid plans

Ever spent significant time preparing for a major change, new launch or life transition only to have an unforseen, unpredictable, and unstoppable force bring your plans to a screeching halt?

This just happened to me. And I was, in a word, blindsided.

As I’ve had a little time to reflect on this, it has reminded me just how much my own sense of planning can define my sense of reality, how in love with the tangetially-created forward momentum I can become, and then, how even the smallest shift in any of a limitless set of seen or unseen variables can turn the vision I had created into an warped or untenable pursuit.

In short, things can change on a dime, destroying months or years of work in a blink. And there’s really not a darn thing I can do about it.

In my intense focus to create plans and push them forward, I, of course, had devoted zero time to contigency planning or more importantly, the psychological preparation for “what ifs” if any of the myriad of impediments I had forgotten to consider reared their ugly heads. And they indeed reared their ugly heads. And I had was caught dumbfounded.

I should know better.

A train can be derailed by the smallest anomaly in the track, spacecraft can fail catastrophically beginning with the most minute part, and even the Titanic had her icebergs to contend with.

Best to keep our heads affixed to the horizon and our recovery and back-up systems primed, even when there’s a need to create the best laid plans.

Senseless

It has been one of the most profoundly sad weeks of my life.

A dear friend of mine was brutally murdered in a senseless act, leaving behind an 18-month-old child and abounding grief from countless family and friends who loved this uniquely lovable woman.

A senseless act in a senseless world. I don’t scour the news, but even as a mildly-interested participant in society, I know this heart-wrenching situation is one of many senseless acts that occurred this week. If you trace back over the past weeks, the count of senseless acts starts to get overwhelming. It is easy to start feeling despondent.

My brain is wired to seek logic, and while that can be a benefit when trying to solve puzzles, do strategic planning, or find lost car keys, my sense-seeking brain is failing me right now.

The fact is: there is no sense to be made of this. There is only this fact: evil pervades this world. But love, kindness, and righteousness also abound.

In the reaction to Newtown and in this personal tragedy, I have noted others either questioning or blaming God for what happened. I have been close to offering that petition myself, because, you see, I’m in pain. And I long to find someone in a position of authority to offer me the reasons why these things happened as part of my need to reconcile this, grieve, and move on.

The answer to my logic-seeking mind is a very clear one: it is not for me to understand. I am left as senseless as the world in which I reside.

Not knowing and learning to be comfortable with ignorance is in some ways comforting.

Listening to others struggle to explain tragedy, there are a few interesting lines of thinking:

Some would suggest that each action, even the most terrible, is part of a master plan. There is predestined pain, and when it’s time has come, there is no stopping it.

Others have said that suffering and tragedy are just moves on the chessboard. Necessary to make the game progress. Sometimes you have to give up a pawn or two to get closer to checkmate.

Some have blamed God outright, for either allowing tragedy and pain or enabling it.

For me, this much seems clear, though–in this fallen world, God allows free will.

I believe God grieves at suffering just as we do, that he abhors the sin that causes it, but He chose to give humans choices that enable suffering nonetheless. Why he would choose this remains a mystery.

Another thing that seems clear to me: Free will apart from the guidance of God is a veritable minefield. Looking at my own life, when I have chosen to use my own logic, however rigorous, as the only guide to decisions I make, I am left cold and full of regret at just how many of them do not work out.

And finally, there is inexplicable peace. Senseless peace. I have sought it this very week. So many times in my life, when forced to the limits of my understanding or forced to my knees in pain, I am able to achieve a senseless peace by simply asking for it. For me, this is the ultimate proof that our Creator is there for us, dwells in love, and holds knowledge and dominion over even the most horrific of situations. I don’t believe He celebrates suffering, but I do believe He reconciles it. And I believe He reserves the right to judge evil, on a timeline that is His alone. I’ll take being accused of being senseless, of spouting words of nonsense, but I have experienced senseless peace in the midst of pain this very week.

I miss my friend. But I also have experienced a comfort that I am certain I could never achieve on my own. For that, I am senselessly thankful.

Resolution

Like many others, I’ve never been a fan of making New Year’s resolutions. They are a seemingly artificial, time-bound tradition that are proven to be quite ineffective.

The ultimate example of this can be seen in the tremendous spike in gym memberships that occurs in January, which some experts estimate can make up nearly 50% of the new memberships that are established in any given year. By February every year, the visitors statistics show a return to normal levels as those who made a New Year’s resolution to focus on their health fall victim to the ultimate follow-through deterrents, a perception of no short-term results and a lack of commitment to long-term behavior change.

We can fool ourselves with short bursts of motivation wrapped in delusions of a Jillian Michaels stomach or guns like a UFC champion, but when the short-term results don’t point us anywhere near the images we conjured up, we give up and return to past habits. As the old adage goes, only the tough survive.

Behavior change is a funny thing that way. If the selected motivation is a far cry from our current state, the reality of the small change can be a killer. And yet, small change can make a big difference.

Instead of focusing on some grandiose goal, I’m going to simply try to find joy in the simple effects of small changes. Instead of walking past the Salvation Army kettle in my haste to complete my errand, I’m either going to donate or simply thank the volunteer for taking the time to make a small difference. Instead of letting my nervousness about speaking to strangers prevent me from offering help to someone, I’m going to speak up and make the offer. Instead of pushing through a meeting with someone new to get to the finality of yes or no, I will take the three to five minutes necessary to learn the individual story that makes up the fabric of that other person’s life, looking for commonality and ways to serve them beyond the evident.

And I’ll learn to take joy case-by-case when I live up to these aspiration in the small ways they benefit me and others. I know I’ll fail quite a bit, but I won’t let failure in certain instances destroy the joy I feel from small successes.

Small steps, bit by bit, one person and interaction at a time.

Resolutions of a moment, not a year.

To small moments of success in 2013.