Monday, January 20, 2020

Before You Lead Others, Learn to Lead Yourself by Embracing Eight Core Principles

What passes for leadership guidance often comes in the form of lists of what you should and shouldn’t do. Add to them a modest sprinkling of desirable leadership skills, attitudes, and aptitudes. Then, relentlessly strive to be “authentic” and “empathetic” Voila! You’re a leader. 

I can’t argue with this collective wisdom. You can’t go wrong heeding any of it. But it misses the point.  

Aspiring leaders need to embrace core principles essential for a healthy sense of self. You learn to lead yourself in specific, tangible ways first. Then, you can lead others. 

I urge you to embrace these eight core principles to achieve self-leadership. 

1. Get clear about what you can control and change. I've lost track of the hours I've spent trying to change other people. For example, consider my first boss. He micromanaged me. Clearly, I argued, he was blind to my obvious talent and ability. He needed to change! I deserved better! I told him how I felt, again and again. I expected him to change. He didn’t. Likewise, I’ve expressed confusion and frustration when applying for a mortgage loan. Still, my lender won’t change its paperwork based on my feedback.

2. If you cannot control or change something, give up trying to do so. Time and energy attempting to change something that cannot be changed is pointless. I’ve found it more productive to direct my energies where I can at least influence what’s going on. More importantly, if I'm so busy trying to change people, I'm not working on changing myself. My attitude and behavior are the only things in this world I can control.

3. Know what angers or negatively triggers you. Every day we encounter people, places, circumstances, and processes. If we’re fortunate, we feel positive about most of them. But some will trigger darker thoughts. On our worst days, we respond to them negatively, perhaps inappropriately. I know I have done so, and it hurts me. That’s why I strive to be sensitive to the ongoing flow of developments in all aspects of my life. I know I’m susceptible to “stinking thinking,” and behaviors that go with it.


4. Accept responsibility for what negatively triggers you. You choose what triggers you. No one makes you feel a certain way. Likewise, you can choose how you respond. No one else can.

5. Identify your part in the trigger, and do what you can to address it. You recognize your part in emotions and feelings when you accept responsibility for them. That is, somehow, in some way, you made possible the circumstances that led to your upset. They might stem from a childhood experience. Perhaps they reflect an unmet expectation or need. That’s not to say all anger is unjustified. Yet only by embracing your responsibility for your anger can you address its underlying causes. Only then can you change your response.

6. Admit you’re wrong as often and quickly as possible. As much as I’d like to think I’m right most of the time, I’m often wrong. I’ve mixed up dates. I’ve gotten the facts wrong on a particular situation. Sometimes I stay stuck in why I was wrong. Other times, I question whether or not I was responsible for being wrong. These responses only prolong the agony. I need to see the error of my ways quickly, and move on.

7. Apologize when you’re wrong, without explanation or qualifications. To paraphrase the Elton John song, “I’m sorry” seems to be the hardest words to say. Why? Because you admit a lapse in judgement or a mistake. You acknowledge something you’ve done or said has hurt someone. You proclaim your imperfection. What happens as a result? First, in our zeal, we apologize for foibles real and imagined, minor and major. In addition, we qualify or explain to our apologies. In both instances, we undermine the intent of the original apology. The recipient wonders—rightfully so—whether the apology is sincere.When you apologize, simply say, “I’m sorry.” You could add a brief explanation, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” But that’s it. Don’t add anything else. Apologize when you’ve clearly hurt someone. Only then. If you’re not sure about whether your words or actions hurt someone, ask.

8. Cultivate a dynamic sense of gratitude. Maintaining a list of what we’re grateful for challenges us to pause to take stock of good things in our lives. That's especially critical when we feel overwhelmed by negativity. Yet we can fall into dreadful routines as we compile our lists. It becomes another thing to get done. Let’s say this morning I write down five things for which I’m grateful. The next day I come up with five more things. The process repeats until I’ve run out of things to note. I end up repeating myself. My ardor for the exercise diminishes.


Consider instead the concept of dynamic gratitude. It’s an in the moment, 24 hours a day, /7 day a week commitment. It means we remain present and aware from moment to moment about what’s happening in our lives.

Dynamic gratitude means we note what’s good. We isolate the beauty, joy, and wonder. We relish the bounty that makes our lives worth living.

That said, pain, fear, and loss are unavoidable. Yet I know these negative life experiences will pass. The next moment, and the moment after that, will be different. I don’t have to stay stuck in ingratitude—or gratitude—for long. Everything will change, including my perspective. 

Indeed, embracing these principles takes effort. It’s difficult to change longstanding patterns of thinking and behavior. I know that all too well. Yet if we’re truly meant to lead, we must first transform ourselves.  

(Originally published in the January 2020 edition of Public Relations Strategies and Tactics. See it here.) 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Sometimes You Just Have to Get Out of the Way and Let it Happen


In the Fall 2009 I didn’t have a clue about the focus of my doctoral dissertation. I had lots of ideas, but not one that stood out. I felt anxious and concerned about whether I would finish by my deadline.

A year and a half later, I had finished my dissertation and graduated.

In retrospect it seems like my dissertation happened effortlessly. I read.  Opportunities to contribute to scholarship on a topic appeared. I quickly identified other resources I needed to consult. Just as effortlessly, I lined up a site where I could conduct my research.

I didn’t question it. I didn’t doubt what I felt. I didn’t wonder if there was “something better.” I simply proceeded to do the work, day after day, one step at a time.

I felt at the time that the process was a miracle. I knew how long I had been blocked from identifying a dissertation topic. Somehow the path unfolded before me. I didn’t have to apply the full force of my brain power. The dissertation seemed to just happen.

But it wasn’t a miracle. Everything I had done up to that point in my life led me to my topic. I only needed to step back, relax, and let the idea step forward in my subconscious. And it did. And then, BOOM—I saw what I needed to do. And I did it with all due enthusiasm and speed.

In other words, my idea took hold of me in a deep, visceral way. I could feel it, not just think it. And I only needed to get out of its way to allow it to happen. And I did.

That feeling was special. I hadn’t experienced it a lot up to that point in my life. I knew how rare it was. And how vital it could be for helping me to create what I truly want (which is not what I necessarily believe or even say I want).

I have that feeling now about a piece I am writing. I know I only need spend the time to do what’s required. Then, I can open the doors to my energy and commitment. I need to let it flow. I only need to start by getting out of its way. Just like I did with my doctoral dissertation.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Writing, Fast and Slow


I’ve learned to love to write, after many years of struggle. I especially relish opportunities to work on a piece over time. Being organized and starting long before deadlines makes that possible. More importantly, many of my current writing projects enable me to write in this fashion.

Yet during countless instances throughout my career, I’ve had to write quickly. Consider some of my public relations work. A client needed a press release in 20 minutes to share at a meeting. A crisis demanded an immediate response. In these instances, little time existed for word smithing. Nor could I extensively analyze the context. I needed to draw on my experience and insight in an instance. Then, I wrote.

In short, I’ve learned that you need to learn to write fast and slow. Because sometimes you’ll have the time or can make the time; sometimes you won’t. Regardless, you’ll need to draw on experience melded with a passion and, optimally, a flair for writing. Both take ongoing effort and commitment.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Everyone is the Client


As a consultant for over half of my career, I’ve been keenly sensitive to tending to the wishes of my client. That meant the person who oversaw and ultimately signed off on my work, at least in the beginning. As I gained experience and insight, I learned to focus more intently on the “economic buyer.” That’s the individual ultimately responsible for hiring and retaining me. Sometimes that was my “supervisor;” sometimes, it was someone else. Regardless, I learned to attune myself more to this person’s concerns.

I’ve heard it said that the person who ignores the “economic buyer” suffers. Far be it from me to argue with such wisdom. That said, I believe that focusing solely on this individual neglects others who can make or break a consultant’s work.

And that’s potentially everyone at an organization. From the receptionist to the IT department, each professional matters to a consultant. That’s why I’ve worked to forge relationships with individuals throughout my clients’ organizations.

In short, everyone is my client. Not just the person signing off on my work, nor the person who can hire or fire me. Everyone I come into contact with matters. As representatives of my client, each is critical to my success. Their role, informal or not, may not be immediately apparent. Yet ultimately their support may ensure my long-term engagement with the organization. 

I act as if my client is everyone. That attitude continues to serve me well.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Seeking San Francisco Bay Area Organizations to Work with Naval Postgraduate School MBA Students During the Summer 2020

This summer,  I'm teaching “Managing for Organizational Effectiveness” to MBA students at the Naval Postgraduate School. The course runs from the second week of July through mid-September 2020. I'm recruiting organizations to serve as "clients" for students in these classes. They will work in groups to analyze an organization’s culture, as the group pictured here did last summer. The organization can be for profit or nonprofit, from any industry. 

Participating organizations designate a point of contact for the duration of the project. My students will interview that individual at least once. Subsequent contact likely will be necessary to help students prepare for an in-class presentation. Optimally, students also will visit the organization’s San Francisco Bay Area offices.

There's no cost to participating organizations. The investment of time and energy is minimal. You'll gain fresh, invaluable insight into different aspects of your business. Perhaps most importantly, my students relish the opportunity to work with real-world organizations.

Please contact me if you'd like additional information, or if you have questions. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Put the Damn Phone Down and Let Yourself Daydream


Earlier this week I spent about an hour sitting in a local coffee shop. I did not have my phone with me. Nor did I have a pen and paper. I spent 15 minutes perusing local publications that were scattered on the table where I sat. Afterwards, I had nothing left to do. Or so I thought.

I stared out the window adjacent to the table. I watched individuals enter the coffee shop or simply walk by it. I noticed them, but my mind was elsewhere. My thoughts wandered aimlessly. I pondered a writing project that I had started to plan earlier in the day. I also noted thoughts about upcoming teaching assignments. And, sometimes, nothing came to mind. 

I didn’t force myself to think about any topic. I observed my wandering without judgment. I didn’t crave Internet access to explore further any thought or idea that came to mind.  Nor was I anxious about not being able to “capture my ideas” on paper.

The experience left me satisfied, focused, and connected to myself and the world around me. I wondered: why don’t I spend time like this more often given how good it feels? Back in the day before the Internet, I used to do so regularly. Now, not so much, as the ready access to technology has relegated that activity to the dustbin. Until now. 

And so, one of my mantras for the new year is, “Put the damn phone down and let myself daydream.” Because I need to do so, for my own mental health and overall effectiveness.  

Monday, December 30, 2019

Four Questions to Help You Tackle Your Learning Goals

The most important thing you can learn is how you learn. Sure, the skills you master, the information you take in, and/or the insight you gain is important. But the need to learn is ongoing. The worlds we encounter continue to pose ever more difficult challenges for us to tackle. So, we must continue to master new information and skills. It’s the only way we can hope to remain relevant and vibrant over the course of our lives.

To get started on your learning goals, ask yourself these four questions:

ONE
What subject or skill do I want to learn? Why? Why now? Desire kicks off the learning process. That is, you’ll learn something if you want to. Motivation is critical. Then again, you may need to change. There’s no alternative. You must learn and, voila, you’ll (hopefully) want to learn. 

TWO
How can I learn about the subject and/or master the skill? You can listen, watch, read, write, take a class, or interview others. You can create something. You can immerse yourself in a different organization or culture. That is, we learn in different ways—often, in more than one way. For example, I learn best through writing after reading and thinking about a topic. Once I write about a topic, it becomes part of me. 

THREE
Which of these options makes most sense for me? You’ll no doubt have experience with these ways to learn, and some will appeal to you more than others. For example, perhaps you learned most from your instructors’ lectures in college. So taking classes might make perfect sense to meet your learning commitments. Or, listening to podcasts or audiobooks might work equally well for you.

FOUR
Which of these options do I feel comfortable and confident using? Which ones do I enjoy using? In other words, what will you actually do (as opposed to say you’re going to do) to achieve my learning goal? In other words, will you attend a class and complete assignments? Or will you painstakingly read, reflect, and write about a topic for as long as it takes? There are no right answers here. What matters is that you follow through on your commitment to learn, however that makes sense to you. 

It’s taken me many years, and lots of formal education, to learn how how I learn best.  I continue to return to the guidance I’ve outlined here as I plan future learning projects.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Close the Loop


When you seek someone’s advice and choose to follow it, let them know what happened as a result.

When someone helps you with some part of a project, let them know how it turned out.

When someone introduces you to a friend or business associate, let them know that you made the connection. Tell them what happened as a result of meeting that person.

When someone refers you to a prospective employer or client, let them know that you made the connection. Tell them what happened (if anything) as a result of this introduction. 

In short, if there’s some way someone helped you, let them know. Close the loop! When someone tries to help you, they want to know if they did. Or didn’t. They sincerely want and need to know how things went for you. It’s the only way they’ll know if they’ve been helpful. The feedback can only help them improve in their willingness and ability to help others in the future. 

Most importantly, that person will be delighted to hear from you. You’re telling them they made a difference in your life. So, close the loop. Make their day!

Saturday, December 21, 2019

My Quick Take on Jennifer Brown's "How to Be An Inclusive Leader"

Berrett-Koehler Publishers has hired me on occasion to review books on diversity and inclusion in their development stages. The first such book I reviewed, How to Be An Inclusive Leader, was published in August 2019. 

The author, Jennifer Brown, provides a model for understanding what “inclusivity” actually means. More importantly, she lays out a path for leaders who want to go beyond merely paying lip service to the concept by actually helping to make it a reality in their organizations. For that reason alone, I consider the book valuable and a worthwhile addition to one's library. 

Go here to purchase How to Be An Inclusive Leader.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Two of My Case Studies Published in Ethical Decision-Making: Cases in Organization and Leadership

Two case studies based on my professional experiences have been published in Ethical Decision-Making: Cases in Organization and Leadership. One focuses on faculty-student relationships in higher education; the other, conflict among board members in a nonprofit organization.

The book offers a wide range of cases covering ethical leadership in both the public and private sectors. Instructors of classes on leadership (and, more specifically, those who teach ethical leadership) would no doubt find plenty of options appropriate for in-class discussion.

You can purchase Ethical Decision-Making: Cases in Organization and Leadership here