Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Journey of Successful Leadership

Early in my career I thought there would be a point where I could officially call myself a successful leader.  Read one more book, attend one more seminar, or learn from one more mentor and I would know everything.  If I could develop one more team I would have experienced everything.  I have long since realized that leadership is not a destination but a life long journey.

One of my current mentors says, “From this point forward you will go so far, it will take binoculars to see where you started.”  Imagine that, after twenty five years I still have exciting journeys in front of me.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery a French aviator and the author said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

On your Journey of Successful Leadership, don’t settle for just what you learned today; long for the endless pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

If You Want To Love What You Do, Then Do What You Love

In a team mentoring session I was asked this question, “You have been leading teams and mentoring people for over twenty five years.  How do you keep it fresh and exciting, how do you stay engaged?”

I answered the question with a sales strategy; focus on the benefit, not the feature.  Here’s how it works: If I were selling picture hooks, the features could be the weight each hook can support, or the number of hooks in the package.  But as a customer when you go to the hardware store to buy a picture hook, you are not just buying a picture hook.  You are actually buying the feeling you will get each time you pass the picture of your children hanging on the wall in your family room; that’s the benefit.

I view leadership the same way.  I focus each day on the benefits not the features.  Here’s how this works:  Some may view leadership as successfully completing projects using people’s strengths; that’s the feature.  I view leadership as successfully developing people who use their strengths to complete projects, and that’s the benefit.

The successful completion of projects brings short-term rewards, but when you build people, you have an everlasting accomplishment.  Each day in everything I do I am not just completing projects, I am changing lives.  I love what I do.

Do The Right Thing

When I was in the fifth grade my school decided to experiment with different styles of teaching.  My class was selected to receive cardboard boxes to store their books instead of desks.  Since we didn’t have desks, we could sit anywhere in the room we wanted.  This was all pretty fun until about halfway through the year, when everyone’s boxes began to wear out.  The tops fell off and there were tears in the sides.  This experiment was not going well at all.

One day our teacher announced that the students would have to pay to replace their boxes since they didn’t last.  Looking back, this wasn’t an extraordinary cost, but still, I didn’t attend a rich school.  Many of the kids in my class said they didn’t have extra money to support this type of cost.  The fact of the matter was we didn’t have a say in adopting this new teaching style, so we shouldn’t have to pay for new boxes.

Before I finish my story of the fifth grade boxes, let me tell you about Edmund Burke, one of the many historical leaders I studied while living in Virginia.  For more information on that topic see my blog from last week

Burke was a member of the British Parliament before and during the American Revolution.   Known for his staunch support for the British Parliament, he nonetheless sided with the American colonies on the right of fair representation on taxation.  When the stamp act and then the tea act were passed causing the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, Burke saw that someone needed to take action to avert what were soon to be larger issues.  In April 1774, he gave a speech to Parliament in which he argued that Britain should maintain peace and end these unfair taxes.  Burke said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

As a leader, you are responsible for your team and must take action when negative situations arise within it.  Furthermore, like Burke, who sided with a potential foe because of his principles, a true leader will take action to guard the rights of anyone who is in harm’s way.

Now back to fifth grade.  I can proudly tell you I did do something.  I talked to the principal and explained that this experiment had not worked and the additional cost to the students in my class was not fair.  The principal ended the experiment and brought the desks back into the room.

I would like to finish this blog telling you that I have been heroic and successful in every situation like the fifth grade box story; but that wouldn’t be true.  I do stand up for the rights of others, but just like Burke’s speech didn’t avert the Revolutionary War, my actions haven’t always proven successful.  But that doesn’t keep me from doing something; don’t let it stop you either.

Think Big; Plan Big; Achieve Big

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work…Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us…Think big.”

I first heard this quote from Daniel Burnham on an Architectural tour of Chicago.  Shortly after moving to The Windy City, my family and I boarded a small boat to learn the history of downtown Chicago.  The tour guide mentioned Burnham’s name many times when describing the classical buildings we admired.

He then described the man who changed the face of architecture in Chicago and cities across America because he accepted the challenge to Think Big.  

Daniel Burnham was one of the most sought after architects in America in the early 20th century.  He designed one of the first American skyscrapers: the Masonic Temple Building in Chicago, and was influential in shaping the design of the National Mall of Washington D.C. under the McMillan plan.  He and his company designed over forty well known buildings across America.

His best known work was his design of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.  The World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893 celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. It also demonstrated to the world that Chicago had risen again from the great fire which destroyed much of the city in 1871.

Over 27 million people attended the fair during its six month run.   It covered more than 600 acres, and featured 200 new buildings of neoclassical architecture and people and cultures from around the world.  Its scale exceeded any other world fair before it, and it was the first world fair to have international pavilions for forty-six nations.  It was the prototype of what Burnham thought a city should be; the first example of city planning.

The Big Plans of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 left quite an impression on the world.  The design brought international prominence to Daniel Burnham, and is said to have inspired the Emerald City of the Land of Oz and Walt Disney’s theme parks.

In his book Built to Last, Jim Collins highlights great successful companies that Achieved Big.  Most had what Collins calls Big Harry Audacious Goals or BHAGS.  Like Jack Welch and General Electric whose BHAG was, “To become #1 or #2 in every market we serve and revolutionize this company to have the speed and agility of a small enterprise.”

In leadership you need to inspire your teams to achieve greatness.  For your vision to be successful you must Think Big; Plan Big and you will Achieve Big.

Filling your tool belt

My family and I lived in Richmond Virginia for several years.  Richmond is centrally located between many of America’s founding cities.  We were just a few hours to the east of Williamsburg, a few hours south of Washington DC, and a few hours west of Monticello.  Weekends and summer vacations were spent seeing history first hand while we learned more about the people of these great generations.

There was something for the entire family to enjoy on each trip.  My children were in grade school and we could all see the pages of their history books come alive.  My daughter became interested in the American Girls Collection of dolls, books and movies.  One doll in particular, Felicity, was set in Williamsburg during the Revolution.  The books we read and movies we watched were very realistic.  For me, I couldn’t get enough information on the leaders who formed of our country.

General George Washington; known to his soldiers as His Excellency, was an imposing figure on top of his horse.  He commanded the respect of his ragtag band of pioneers that we know as the Continental Army, and they followed him tirelessly.  Why?  He never accepted defeat as the end; just a step to on the path to victory.

Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong learner and educator.  He sold his collection of more than six thousand books to the Library of Congress in 1814 when a fire destroyed the Government’s collection.  Jefferson spoke five languages and studied many disciplines including science and architecture.  His interest in education led him to found the University of Virginia.  One of the tour guides at his home in Monticello remarked that Jefferson didn’t welcome visitors unless they came to teach him something or learn something from him.

Ben Franklin influenced many leaders through his willingness to share his knowledge.  He left his mark in print as the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette and the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac among many other writings.  He also spread his wisdom through mentoring as he gave advice to Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence and visited George Washington on the battle field of the Revolution.

Gilbert Lafayette, better known as The Marquis de Lafayette, was a selfless protector of freedom who sailed from France at his own expense to join Washington on the battlefield of the American Revolution.  He commanded three regimens and was instrumental in the final battle that resulted in Cornwallis’ surrender.

These are only a few of the many people who inspiration and action helped form the United States of America.  With my study of each leader I had one more example of success to follow.  Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow said “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you are likely to perceive every problem as a nail.”

As leaders, we need to fill our tool belt of leadership with as many tools as you can hold.  I have found that no matter how many examples of great leadership I add to my tool belt, there always seems to be room for more.  I challenge myself to find one new tool each day and test it out before the day is over.  You may be surprised to find that if you would take this challenge yourself, the leadership tools seem to appear everywhere, and the opportunities to put them in practice are endless.


What does success look like?

Not long ago I attended a conference focused on envisioning success.  We talked about the common language used today to refer to changing your circumstances. “Out of the Box” is a phrase often used to describe the thought process that needs to change before your circumstances can change. If you picture yourself inside a box desiring to be outside of the box, there are two ways to accomplish your goal.

The first way has a low probability of success, but is the most chosen method; I call this, “All by myself.”  In it, you push yourself to just try harder doing what you have always done in an effort to bring about change.  This is much like a fly on the inside of a house that flies faster to bang harder against the window in an attempt to break through to the other side.  When your efforts are not successful, you and others around you start to believe that you must have not tried hard enough.  So the cycle continues with everyone banging their head against the window even harder the next time.

The second, more successful, method is called “Read the Directions.”  The one major hurdle to this method can be identified if you once again picture yourself inside the box – the directions on how to open the box are printed on the outside.  Therefore for this method to work, you will need to ask someone who is already on the outside of the box to read the directions to you.  Here is where the envisioning part comes in.  Now that you know the directions for getting out of the box, you envision yourself following those directions to success.

I first followed the “Read the Directions” method when I was in my twenty’s and sought to bring my golf game to a more successful level.  I studied the great Jack Nicklaus and wrote down one quote that really changed the way I played the game.  He said, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. First I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I see the ball going there; its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there is a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.”

In leadership, long term success will come when you learn the way of success from those already on the outside of the box and envision yourself achieving that same success.

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

My wife and I both grew up in the greater Cleveland, Ohio area. When we met as adults we shared stories of attending Cleveland Indians baseball games.  Not stories about the low attendance games at the old stadium by Lake Erie like the ones in the movie Major League; but stories about the sell-out crowds at Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) during the 1990’s.  Some thought the new stadium brought the crowds; it probably did for a while.  But what kept the crowds coming were the team and their sustained success of five straight years in the playoffs and two World Series appearances.

How did the Jacob brothers accomplish this?  They invested in building a great team with established veterans like Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez at the mound.  They developed exciting young hitters like Albert Belle, Jim Thome, and Manny Ramierz.  The Jacob brothers were successful because their team was successful.  Like the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it he will come,” they invested in building a great team and the fans came.

The path to becoming a successful leader is the same as the story of the 1990’s Cleveland Indians.  Long term success in whatever you do requires that you invest in building your team.  If you surround yourself with established leaders while developing the next generation of leaders, success will come.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere the Signs

On a recent tour of Europe with my family we spent time in Italy. The history, food, gelato, and the architecture can only really be appreciated through a personal experience.  We traveled in a tour group of forty four made up of families with children ranging from about 10 to 18 years old.

We met our tour guide who handed out radios so we could hear her every instruction on the busy streets. She taught us Italian phrases we would need and pointed out signs all along our trip for us to remember in case anyone became lost.  One of our stops was Venice. We learned that the city is built on stilts and contains many winding, inner-connecting water ways and streets that are intentionally confusing. Venice was built this way as a defense against invading armies.

We all took an early morning walk to a shop to make Venetian Masks.  As promised, the walk was very confusing and seemed to take us through at least twenty different streets that all looked alike.  Our tour guide pointed to several signs overhead labeled “San Marco” which pointed to St. Mark’s Square and Basilica in the center of Venice.   This is where our hotel was located and where we would meet later in the evening following an afternoon on our own.  We were cautioned to pay attention to these signs to guide our walk back, as it would be very easy to get lost.  One more word of advice we received that made following the signs even more important was that the number one way to spot a pick pocket in Venice was if anyone approached you and said “Excuse me, do you speak English?”

That evening forty two of the forty four tour group members met for dinner.  We found out later that two of the older boys had become lost on their walk home because they didn’t pay attention to the instructions of our tour guide.  They didn’t look for the “San Marco” signs.

Remember this story as you lead your team.  To you, the experienced guide, the signs of success are obvious and everywhere.  But to some, you might was well be speaking a foreign language.   Like our tour group, many of your team members will understand and follow the signs.  But some may not grasp their importance and find themselves lost.

Have you had this experience as a leader?  How do you make sure everyone follows the signs?

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