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Leadership Thought #424 – The Example of George Washington

Tomorrow is George Washington’s birthday.  There are very few people (and an even a smaller number of Americans) where you can honestly say that their birth ended up changing the course of human history.  Not only did he lead the upstart Continental Army to victory against of the most powerful military power in the world at that time, he also walked away from supreme power when he refused to become king of the newly formed United States of America, and voluntarily gave up his position as our first President.  I think sometimes we forget how unusual, risky, and selfless these two actions were at the time.  You can seriously argue that if George Washington had not existed, the U.S. experiment with democracy would have never had a chance of taking flight and much of modern history could have turned out differently.

While most of us cannot scale the heights of his character there is still much to learn from the man who would not be king:

  • The way you carry yourself as a leader matters.  Washington was known for having impeccable manners and professional attire.  He was also highly regarded for treating everyone around him with dignity and respect.  Your behavior should match the nobility of your purpose.
  • Strive to be as honest and straightforward as possible.  Everyone knew that when you spoke with Washington you were getting the truth and he would be a man of his word including his slaves who were freed upon his death as promised.
  • An army needs structure and discipline and you don’t provide it at your own peril. Washington was definitely a “by the book” type of guy. 
  • Training matters – he made sure his underfunded and overmatched troops where properly drilled and instructed.
  • Keep your communication clear and concise.  Washington was not a great orator or writer. He accepted this fact and instead made sure his messages were devoid of ambiguity.
  • Keep detailed records of important matters in both your personal and professional life.
  • Strategy should drive tactics not the other way around.  The Continental Army lost many more battles than it won, but Washington knew it was a war of attrition and that if he played his cards right the British would eventually give up.  He had a plan and stuck to it, just as Grant did almost 100 years later.
  • Surround yourself with the best talent possible (regardless of politics), give them clear direction and then trust that they will do their job.  And, when you need to give constructive feedback only ever do it in private and in a gracious manner.
  • Experience what your troops are experiencing. Don’t get too far from the front lines or remove yourself from Valley Forge type situations. Your people need to know that you appreciate and care about what they are going through.
  • Don’t get sucked into the vortex of political infighting or non-productive interpersonal communication.  Washington was notorious for always rising above the fray and having little patience for pettiness and backroom posturing.
  • Don’t try to do too much. Understand the moment you are in and focus on the most important issues/ priorities and do those well.  Avoid the leadership temptation of over-reaching.
  • Know when not to fight.  It would have been easy to get pulled back into another conflict after The Revolutionary War  but he steadfastly and wisely refused to take the bait as President.
  • Know when to walk away. It sounds easier than it actually is.  Washington knew when it was time for him to move on and let others step up.  He wouldn’t have been human if his leadership ambitions were never about him, but it does seem that he always put the good of the country above his own ego.
  • Appreciate and love your spouse and be a generous supportive family member and friend.  Your core personal relationships provide the foundation (or not) from which you can cultivate your talents and launch your professional ambitions.

I think sometimes we get a little numb to our annual holidays or other days of remembrance.  I’ve never liked the fact that we simply lump Lincoln and Washington together and call it President’s Day.  If ever there were two American men who deserved their own day of acknowledgement it is these two.  George Washington was truly a great man.  We are all still benefitting from his immense leadership character back in the 18th century.  Our current leaders could learn a great deal from him if they would only take notice and follow his example.  Those of us in other leadership positions also have something to strive for which includes the added benefit of making us better people.

Martin Luther King As A Leader

Donald T. Phillips in his wonderful book, Martin Luther King on Leadership, does a nice job providing significant detail as to why Martin Luther King (MLK) was a great leader.  We often focus on the rhetoric and powerful speeches that he gave, but there is so much more substance to the man than just what he had to say.   There were many civil rights leaders who were talented with their rhetoric, but only one that had the full package of leadership skills to truly change a nation’s attitudes and its laws.  I took away the following points from Phillip’s book about MLK and his gifts as a leader:

  • He was exceptional at tailoring his rhetoric and communication style to fit the needs or particulars of a given situation.
  • He was a very active listener and was diligent about striving to understand individual motivations and the rationale behind different points of view.
  • He was an unusual student of human nature and knew how to connect with people in a positive and nonthreatening manner.
  • He truly led by example, and never asked his people to do anything he wouldn’t do himself and he literally put his life on the line for the cause he believed in.
  • He was a talented grass roots organizer, who had an uncanny ability to get groups of people focused and acting on a common cause.
  • He was an amazing alliance builder and could stitch together strategic coalitions that were critical to what he was trying to achieve on a regional and national level.
  • He was a skilled negotiator and managed to win many incremental battles along the way by being fully prepared and compromising as needed to keep things moving in a positive direction.
  • He was a determined goal setter and planner and was very disciplined about putting the important pieces in place that would leave to goal achievement.
  • He was a staunch advocate of creativity and innovation and was always looking for better and more effective way to get things done.
  • He was a tireless learner who never stopped pushing himself to grow his own capabilities and the skill sets of those around him.
  • When he had to be, he was incredibly decisive and made the tough decisions necessary to move the agenda forward, even under extremely difficult circumstances.
  • He had incredible emotional strength and while some of his peers allowed themselves to succumb to emotional triggers and got sidetracked by personal attacks, he was able to rise above the fray and stay focused on his mission.

I have always believed that the Unites States has been blessed with incredible leaders at certain points in our history.  Martin Luther King is certainly a prime example of this.  At a time where our country was in social and political disarray and struggling to come to grips with our past, present and uncertain future, he stood up and led us in a way we needed to be led.  He pushed our nation to reexamine and live up to our core principles and values.  He appealed to our better natures both individually and collectively. He was the rare breed of nonviolent revolutionary who ended up sacrificing his own life for a cause he deemed greater than himself.   We are all fortunate today that he was such an exceptional leader at a critical time in our history.

Leadership Thought #245 – Leaders Are Paid To Make the Hard Decisions

Leadership is very rarely about doing what is easy.  If the decision ends up on your desk it typically means no one else can or should be making it.  As Harry Truman was fond of saying, “The buck stops here.”  If you are delegating properly, then your people will feel empowered to step up and make most day-to-day decisions.  If you are picking the right people, then they will be capable of using sound judgment and thinking through just about anything.  However, some issues come down to leadership prerogative and accountability.

As the leader, once you get to 10 or more employees you should spend more time “thinking” and less time “doing”.  This is a difficult concept for many people to grasp.  The reason you ended up where you are is that you were more proactive than others were and did what you said you would do.

As your company grows, the stakes will only get higher and you must accept that you can’t do everything anymore.  What used to be simple decisions become more nuanced and complicated.  You cannot simply outwork the competition anymore and you must also outthink and outmaneuver them.  You no longer have the time to be mired in the weeds of day-to-day business actions and decision making.

A leader should be ahead of the market curve and see things others don’t see.  Today’s opportunities could be tomorrow’s nightmares.  Saying “no” becomes more important than saying “yes.”  Your business model will require constant refinement and can grow stale quickly.   Financial risk can grow exponentially.  New and established competitors will always be lurking on the horizon and testing your vulnerabilities.  Your talented people will want to take more initiative and expect greater autonomy.   Sadly, you will outgrow the capabilities of many loyal people – understanding and acting on this reality while painful is essential to sustained growth and success.

It takes both self-confidence and courage to lead an organization, but you must be careful to keep your ego in check. You won’t always be right, but you should be quick to learn from your mistakes and create an environment where others do the same.   The only way to grow your organization is to grow your people.  The only way to grow your people is to step back and let them do their job.  You already have enough on your plate that needs to be done without getting distracted by the “lower hanging fruit” of other people’s responsibilities.   Creating an environment of accountability is different than doing employee’s jobs for them.

I have a colleague who encourages his clients to put a post it on their computer screen with the question -“Whose job am I doing right now?”  A leader’s job is to ask and then find answers to the difficult questions that are critical to his/her company’s success and survival.   This doesn’t mean you still don’t act as the “closer” on big sales or ensure solid financial management or focus on employee/cultural issues or customer satisfaction.  It does mean, however, that you begin to view these issues strategically not tactically and as part of a larger interconnected strategy that ultimately will need to be executed by others.

Leadership Thought #493 – All Waves Come Crashing to Shore

We have experienced a very good run in business over the past decade or so. After experiencing a difficult recession, our economy roared back to life. Many of us have not only regained but grown our personal wealth as a result. It has been fun to participate in this Bull Market. Business conversations are much less strained when the biggest concerns you have are around managing your growth and not having enough employees. However, all business cycles have peaks and valleys. Anything that goes up will eventually come down (or at least slow down considerably). All waves do come crashing to shore even the beautiful powerful ones.

It’s important when times are good not to take this for granted. When the wave is cresting, ride it. Use this as an opportunity to pay down debt, make strategic investments, enhance margins and increase cash reserves. You can hedge your bets a bit more without worrying about too much market risk and/or volatility. It becomes possible to strengthen both your business and personal balance sheets. Up cycles are what make the responsibilities and rigors of business ownership/leadership worth it.

I do not have a crystal ball and cannot tell you when the next recession will come. I can only guess. There are some early indicators that a correction looms in our not too distant future. I also do know how long or how deep the next market correction will last. All I can say with certainty that it will happen and there will be some adverse consequences for most businesses.

My gut tells me that it is time for business leaders not to double down on high risk possibilities but instead to begin to take a more careful thoughtful approach. Don’t assume that relatively cheap debt will last forever, especially if you are vulnerable to variable interest rates. Lock in your rates now if you can. If you are nearing your debt limits or pushing against loan covenants, it might be time to tighten things up financially to free up a bigger cushion. Look for enhanced opportunities to increase your margins through better pricing and increased efficiencies. Do what you can to limit your company’s economic exposure.

The good news is that smart businesses can even benefit from a downturn. If others are struggling under the weight of bad or mistimed financial decisions, there might be opportunities for you to benefit at a reduced cost. All your competitors who just road the industry wave without doing anything special will be found out. You may be able to leverage your relatively strong cash position to negotiate better business deals and acquire other available companies and/or top talent. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, “when everyone else is nervous and selling, that’s when we gain our confidence and find our best buying opportunities.” However, you need to be in a strong economic position to do this.

Even though all waves do crash to shore, most of the water still returns to the ocean to once again reform in a new wave configuration at some point and time. Thank goodness business leaders are a resilient group. The best ones practice proactive not reactive resilience. They navigate not just where they are now but where the ocean current is taking them. They position themselves to ride the waves higher and longer than anyone else but don’t operate under the illusion that any given wave will not end. It’s the ability to stay in the water to keep finding and surfing waves when others can’t or won’t that ultimately makes all the difference to your business.

Leadership Thought #425 – 10 Ways To Ensure Your Business Success As A Leader

I often tell my clients that business is simple but people complicate it.  A few basic things every leader can do will increase their effectiveness right away.  If you practice discipline on the following items 10 items, I guarantee you will see rapidly improved business results:

  1. You mission statement and core values should be easy to read and understandable and revisited in every leadership/management meeting before you get started. This information also should be posted in as many locations as possible.
  2. Make sure your organization manages to a dashboard of 5-7 key performance indicators and that this information is made public and the topic of ongoing management discussions.
  3. The organization should go through a strategic planning process every 3-5 years where you establish a strategic direction for the company with supporting goals and major action items.
  4. Make sure you don’t make big decisions in an ad hoc or gut level fashion. Create and use a formal decision making filtering process aligned with the previous three points and stick to it.
  5. Make sure each of your direct reports has a succinct position description with crystal clear responsibilities and definitions of success. Individual definitions of success should easily track back to your mission, values, goals and organization-wide key performance indicators.
  6. Have regular 1-1 meetings with your direct reports where you discuss their individual progress in their position, obstacles to their continued success, balancing of shifting priorities, check-in on major action items, and discuss training/support needs. I highly encourage you to create a 1-1 culture throughout all levels of your company.
  7. Have all of your direct reports meet together as a leadership team at least monthly where you discuss progress against key performance indicators and goals, balance organization-wide priorities, and coordinate performance efforts.
  8. Make sure you have an HR approach that hires people carefully and screens individual employees for basic leadership/management competencies before you promote them into a supervisory position. Once the move is made, ensure there is ongoing training and support to maximize individual growth and development.
  9. Create the infrastructure within your company to regularly solicit customer feedback, reward success, identify opportunities, and make adjustments based on this information.
  10. Make sure every employee has at least some variable pay built into his or her compensation package. The higher an individual goes in your organization the more of their pay should fluctuate based on performance.

Leadership is not rocket science.  Creating the conditions for business success is actually pretty basic:

  • Be clear about where you are going and why
  • Define what success looks like and track performance
  • Make sure all of your key people on the same page
  • Don’t “wing it” when it comes to important decisions
  • Ensure that every single employee knows how they fit in the big picture and what they are supposed to be doing
  • Create a process for providing on-going performance feedback
  • Hold people accountable for results
  • Be careful about who you hire and put in supervisory roles
  • Provide extensive training and support
  • Never stop communicating with your customers
  • Make sure everyone shares in the success of the business but also feels the pinch of nonperformance

Leadership Thought #301 – President’s Day Is A Special Day

President’s Day is a very special day.  We take time to honor two great men and past presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.   A case could easily be made that without the influence and leadership of these two men our country wouldn’t exist or at least wouldn’t be as strong and united as it is today.  In their own way they contributed to building a strong national foundation which required great personal sacrifice and the willingness to make bold decisions focused on the greater good.

George Washington was a man who could have easily remained a loyalist.  He had much to lose and little to gain by standing up to England at a time when it was near the peak of its military dominance.   His life could have been filled with wealth and privilege if he just went along with the status quo.  He certainly wouldn’t of had to spend so much time away from his beloved wife Martha and their beautiful home/farm at Mount Vernon.

When you read about Washington you get the sense that he knew he was predestined for greatness. It is clear he felt it was incumbent upon him to live a life that warranted this responsibility.   He strived to build the personal fortitude to step up when the time came regardless of the circumstances.  He led the Continental Army for the duration of the long war without pay only asking that Congress reimburse his relatively meager expenses.  He lost more battles then he won, but was keenly aware of his resource/skill disadvantages and won when it counted.  It is said that when he walked into a room he earned instant respect and made all of those around him better.  Moreover, when they wanted to make him a king, he voluntarily gave up power and stayed true to the democratic origins of the movement.  Just look at world politics today.  How many leaders or revolutionaries walk away from power once they achieve it?  A rare man indeed!

Unlike Washington, Lincoln was born to very humble circumstances.  With only one year of formal schooling he managed to become one of the most widely quoted leaders in modern history.  His childhood was filled with much adversity and his path to leadership a very difficult one.  Lesser men would have given up at many different times, but Lincoln persevered.  He always persevered.

At a time where our country was coming apart at the seams and some would say the very morality of our nation was being tested, Lincoln stepped up to the challenge. He chose to do what’s right rather than what would have been easy or politically convenient.  He suffered constant personal attacks and second guessing of his leadership abilities but soldiered on anyway.  When times looked dark and it would have easy to give up, he stayed the course and never lost sight of what was most important.  He literally risked everything and gave his life for a cause he believed in which was keeping our relatively young country united and committed to the value and dignity of all human life.

So far our country has been very fortunate that throughout its history we have been able to find leaders both willing and able to step up to whatever big challenges confronted us.   I believe that this leadership has been what has kept us strong and united at time when it could have been easy to dissolve or come apart.  The growth and trajectory of the United States as a world power and beacon of democratic principles is unprecedented in the history of mankind.  Let us hope we find similar leadership as we need it in the future. Washington and Lincoln cast a big shadow and raise the bar considerably on what we can and should expect from our leaders.   Greatness may be rare but it is often required to keep a community, organization, society, nation or mankind on the right track.

Leadership Thought #457 – Eight Things You Can Do To End The Year On A High Note

Holiday Lights

Holiday Lights (Photo credit: ImageMD)

As we wind down another year, I thought it would be useful to share some best practices I have observed over the years by leaders who tend to end every year on a high note:

  1. Close as many big deals as you can before the Christmas vacation.  Redouble your efforts and offer incentives to get the deal done.  Put off tinkering with internal operational issues.  Nothing launches a new year better than a flurry of sales at the end of the previous one.  As a leader it makes you feel confident and secure;
  2. Personally reach out to your top 10 (or more) customers and thank them for their business.  Holiday cards and emails are a poor substitute for genuine relationship building;
  3. Say no to last minute unreasonable customer demands or at least negotiate more agreeable terms.  Moreover, always walk away from a bad deal.  Some people, especially those who have somewhat one-dimensional lives will push just because they can.  It’s important to have professional boundaries and stick to them;
  4. Instead of procrastinating, have whatever difficult conversations you need to have and get them over with.  Don’t let the challenges of managing difficult people issues linger – they only get worse with time and occupy much needed mental bandwidth;
  5. Ensure you have a strong handle on your financial situation and make smart tax and cash flow decisions.  Don’t spend what you don’t have.  Do your best to avoid self-created financial crises;
  6. Spend the majority of your management time with your top performers making them feel appreciated and supported. No leader ever led an organization to greatness by getting distracted by his/her weakest links;
  7. Make sure there is an actual business/operational plan in place for the next year.  Hint: You shouldn’t be starting this just now.  It should have been months in the making.  Hit the ground running on January 2 and don’t look back;
  8. When you are spending time with family and friends during the holidays, be fully present in those moments.  Work will always be there when you get back.  If you execute on the previous seven actions and avoid unnecessary distractions, you should be in a good place personally to unwind, tend to close relationships, recharge your batteries, and count your blessings.

I have watched many a leader get stressed out in December and run around like a chicken with its head cut off.  Instead of focusing on the few things that actually matter, they try to get too much done in too little time.  There is too much stress and not enough enjoyment.  There are no business problems that took eleven months to create that will get resolved in one short month of work.  Do what you should doing to close out the year  in the most effective and efficient way possible and then focus on what truly is most important – your loved ones!

Daily Leadership Thought #139 – When You Commit – Fully Commit!

I am regularly flabbergasted by the number of professional people I interact with who think it is okay to just miss or be late to meetings and/or under-perform on commitments as it suits them.  This is especially true when it come to peer group, philanthropic or voluntary responsibilities.  I do my best to give people the benefit of the doubt and understand that they can be stretched way too thin, but after a while, why should this be anyone’s problem but their own?  Whatever happened to personal responsibility?  We are all busy. We are all striving to find work-life balance.  Life is about making choices and establishing priorities.

Once you commit to something you should fulfill your responsibilities.  This doesn’t mean that emergencies and/or scheduling mishaps won’t happen, but they should be the exception not the rule.  Being disciplined is hard but it’s a requirement if you ever want to get anything significant accomplished in work or life.  It is also rude to always have the burden fall on other people who are more dependable and responsible than you.  Your actions are ultimately representative of your personal brand – good, bad or otherwise.

Your intentions may be pure, but ultimately it is your actions that matter.  Doing just what you can should never be viewed as good enough.   Excuses are the refrain of people who are too self-important for their own good.  They are also quick to pass blame on to others.  Why is your time any more important than anyone else’s?  Have you ever noticed that truly successful people tend to get things done and live up to their commitments?  People quickly learn that you can count on them and respond in kind.  There is an ease that forms in relationships where there is mutual accountability.  When you have limited time, you want to invest in people who make your efforts worth it.

A regular refrain I hear from people is that there is too much to do and not enough time.  However, if you are being honest with yourself, whose fault is it when you find yourself in this situation?  You! If you are over-committed then scale back. If you are struggling with establishing priorities then seek guidance or help.  Be more realistic about deadlines and allow yourself some more flexibility on the back-end.   Calendar meeting dates and deadlines and keep them to them in all but rare cases.  Learn to say “no” so that when you say “yes” it actually means something.  If someone has offered you the courtesy of their professional time, then be respectful of that gift.  However, don’t overload yourself with things that truly don’t interest you or you don’t have time for out of some misguided notion of respect.  Honesty is always the better policy.

It’s not okay to leave other people hanging.  It’s not okay to regularly miss meetings or deadlines.  It’s not okay to talk a good game but then fall flat on execution.  It’s not okay to over-commit and under-deliver.  It’s not okay to always rely on the good graces of other people to make up for your own shortcomings. When you commit to something – fully commit!  It really is that simple.



Leadership Thought #240 – Eight Questions Leaders Should Be Asking All The Time

As a company grows a leader’s role because less tangible and more symbolic. You graduate from the world of constant “doing” and need to move towards more conscious “being.”  Others will take their lead from you.  You will always be an important role model no matter how big the company gets or how many layers of management exist between the front line and you.  If there is a disconnect between what you say and what you do, then everyone will pick up on it (and more quickly than you think).

As I’ve covered many times in previous blogs it becomes less and less and about you working harder or having all the answers and more about you diligently asking the right questions and letting others guide you. You need to become an expert “question asker” and never miss an opportunity to interact with all employees in this manner.  There are eight questions that when asked on a regular basis will encourage your people and ultimately the company as a whole to learn and grow:

  • What did you learn today that other people in the company should know?
  • Is there a better more effective way of doing this?
  • How can we improve upon what we are already doing well?
  • How can we make it easier for you to do a good job?
  • What are we currently doing as management that makes minimal or no sense whatsoever?
  • How well are we living our cultural values as a company (note: they should know what these are)?
  • What are you hearing about us or the market from our customers, vendors or partners?
  • If you were me, what major changes would you make in the company and why?

Don’t ever get defensive about the answers. In fact, encourage people to speak up and acknowledge their honesty and candor when this happens. You certainly don’t have to act on everything that you hear but if there is an obvious quick fix that makes sense then act on it right away.  On the bigger issues, use the information you receive as fodder to drive productive discussions amongst your leadership/management team.   Asking good questions and actually listening to the answers is one of the best skills a leader can develop.

Leadership Thought #202 – Do You Always Wait Until The Last Minute?

I have heard many leaders tell me they always wait to do something until the last-minute because they perform best under this type of pressure.  Sounds like a bit of rationalization to me.  I know that when I procrastinate on something it is not because it is the best way to work – it is often quite the opposite.  I just don’t want to do whatever it is because I view it as drudgery, am unsure how to proceed or I’m not sure I’ll be pleased by the outcome.  I cannot imagine any scenario where purposefully putting yourself under time pressure until the last-minute makes any sense.

Most of us are very bad at managing our time.  We waste many hours and minutes throughout the day and then try to push all of our productivity into only a few intense bursts of energy – hopefully we are focused when this happens.   Unfortunately, this work style only adds up your burdens over time and we get further and further behind on important responsibilities that require any significant amount of thought and/or work.  In addition, the little things that are seemingly less important at the time start to fall through the cracks.  We have all experienced that a bunch of little things untended to can lead to bigger problems.

I’ve also seen in myself and others that managing your time poorly only leads to a bad mood and increased stress for you and those around you.  There is enough stress in life as it is without creating it unnecessarily.  It also should be obvious that working until the early morning hours and adversely affecting your sleep isn’t a great plan for your performance the next day.  How many times have you seen someone yawn, struggle with focus and fight to keep his or her eyes open during an important meeting?

Many years ago, when I was in college I was talking to my mom on the phone about schoolwork and a big test that was coming up the next day.  She encouraged me to go to a movie and take the night off.  Her advice was that cramming rarely works and that you can’t make up for a semesters worth of lessons in one night.  You were either paying attention or you were not.  You were either doing the assignments or not.  If you didn’t understand something you asked for help or you didn’t.  She believed that putting yourself under this type of pressure only made things worse the next day and you would confuse the information or even if you got it right, you would never remember it after the test.   I still remember her saying, “Knowledge is about studying, practice and application not memorization. Give your brain a rest it knows what to do…Being an adult is about being responsible for your actions.”

The major problem with procrastination is that it usually leads to less than ideal results despite what we would like to believe.  You may get the job done but at what cost and are the results optimized.  There are many resources out there on time management including David Allen’s great book – Getting Things Done.  You also should be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do well and seek help from other people who are better at certain things than you are.  They may even like to do what you hate doing.  If you are honest with yourself, you will realize that the biggest barrier to your own happiness, productivity and success is you and how you view and manage your time.