Leadership Four One One: Dead Horses

In his classic song, The Gambler, Kenny Rogers wrote “You have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, no when to run.” Truthfully, I am not much of a gambler. I prefer spending money as opposed to losing it on a wager. Nevertheless, gambler or not, there seems to be great wisdom in these words.

Have you ever been in a situation in which the evidence indicates you need to move on, nevertheless you continue to plow ahead as if somehow you are going to get a different result? Ever found yourself stubbornly leading your team down the road only to learn that everyone knew you should have stopped a long time ago?

Don’t feel like you are alone. Anyone who has led for any period of time has at some point found themselves at this crossroad; wondering whether they continue on or change direction. Whether the issue is an underperforming team member, or a pet project that is draining resources, making the decision to “fold ‘em” and “walk away” is often the most difficult, yet best decision you will ever make.

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

                                                                                                                                                                                 Peter Drucker

As a leader, I pride myself in managing to outcomes. I set a very high standard for myself, as well as those on my team. In my experience, when the target is realistic, and what’s required plays to their strengths, people tend to rise to the challenge they are given.

There are, however, times when they don’t rise to the occasion; times when it is crystal clear that they are not in the right seat on the bus…or worse, they are on the wrong bus! During these times, I preach the same message to every leader, “Take swift action!”

A True Confession

I once had someone on my team who had underperformed for more than a year. Every time they failed to meet an agreed upon outcome, I devised a new excuse for the shortcoming and implemented a new strategy. I sent him to training, introduced him to a new way to organize his work, had him complete a 360, and even had a respected manager serve as his coach. I did everything I could think of; never once considering he was on the wrong bus.

      “If the solution you applied doesn’t get you the results you really want, you may be addressing the wrong problem”                                                                                                                                                                              Crucial Conversations

One day a high performing member of my team confronted me. With complete confidence she stated, “You would never let me get away with that level of performance.”

Wow! Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. And she was absolutely right. As hard as it was to hear, her words served as a wakeup call; providing the necessary clarity to apply the right solution.

So here’s the Four One One…

Executing change often requires both wisdom and courage; wisdom to listen to the people around you and courage to take action. Applying the discipline to resist our natural inclination to press ahead is rarely easy, but the positive impact on your team will be worth it.

For Your Enjoyment

The November 2000 issue of the Austin, Texas ASTD Newsletter contained an excerpt titled, “Dead Horses.” Over the years it has served as a reminder of the many times the wrong solution has been applied to the problem. I have included it for your enjoyment.

Dead Horses

Dakota Sioux tribal wisdom says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. However, in managing any business we often try other strategies with dead horses, including the following:

  1. Buying a stronger whip.
  2. Changing riders.
  3. Saying things like “This is the way we always have ridden this horse.”
  4. Appointing a committee to study the horse.
  5. Arranging to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses.
  6. Increasing the standard to ride dead horses.
  7. Appointing a team to revive the dead horse.
  8. Creating a training session to increase our riding ability.
  9. Comparing the state of dead horses in today’s environment.
  10. Change the requirements declaring that ‘This horse is not dead.”
  11. Hire contractors to ride the dead horse.
  12. Harnessing several dead horses together for increased speed.
  13. Declaring that “No horse is too dead to beat.”
  14. Providing additional funding to increase the horse’s performance.
  15. Do a case study to see if contractors can ride it cheaper.
  16. Purchase a product to make dead horses run faster.
  17. Declare the horse is “better, faster and cheaper” dead.
  18. Form a quality circle to find uses for dead horses.
  19. Revisit the performance requirements for horses.
  20. Say this horse was procured with cost as an independent variable.
  21. Promote the dead horse to a supervisory position.

(Source Unknown)


Straight Talk on Leadership: Adversity

Over the course of the last week, our country reflected on the Kennedy assassination and its impact on the nation. Written records, interviews, and previously unreleased footage reminded us of a time that began with great hope and ended with numbing despair. Listening to the interviews of those who lived through it, I found myself reflecting on an experience from my own history; an experience which coupled with my mother’s wisdom taught me a fundamental lesson in leadership.

I was college age when I first encountered racism face to face. My parents did what I believe was an exceptional job helping me understand what I might face in the world outside of our home. Nevertheless, when I experienced it no amount of discussion could have fully prepared me for what it would feel like to be judged solely on the color of my skin.

When I consider the events of that day, I am still amazed at the indelible imprint it made on my thinking.  Equally as amazing were the variety of responses of my friends; some wanting to get a group together and take physical action, others wondering how something so ugly could happen to someone of whom they cared so deeply, while some were simply at a loss for words. An even more interesting response came from a group of officials who instead of doing something, dismissed the activity as “locals being locals,” with no real intent to harm. It was, however, my mother’s response that provided the most lasting impression. Her response put adversity in perspective; then and now.

A few days after explaining to her what happened, I received a card in the mail. Inside of the card she had written the following African proverb:

“A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor”

Few words have ever been so simple, yet profound. Few have been more timely and impactful. Embedded in that message was both compassion, and encouragement; a reminder that although I was in pain, I had to dust myself off and get back in the game.

As one of the first African-Americans to integrate her high school, my mother understood the impact these events could have.  Having lived through the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., she knew this was a pivotal moment in my life. She had seen a mix of responses from the disenfranchised; some driven to despair and anger, while others rose above the fray. That simple African proverb was her way of saying, this is what I have been trying to teach you and now that you are facing it head on, how you respond will determine its impact.

So here’s the Straight Talk…

Leadership involves facing adversity and it is the navigation of this adversity that shapes us, sharpens our resolve, and makes us skillful sailors. Whether it is addressing a poor performing team member, executing organizational change, or dealing with someone who just threw you under the bus, adversity can serve as the fuel that propels you to greater heights by simultaneously helping you develop both the competency and the heart to be an effective leader.

So consider this perspective, leading and adversity are inseparable therefore…

EXPECT IT: Although you may be surprised at its origin, do not be surprised you are facing it; especially when you are pushing yourself and your team toward greatness. Set clearly defined outcomes, work with your team to create a path of execution, then brace for any adversity that may come your way; living with the recognition that adversity comes with the territory.

EXPLORE IT: “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.” These words from the philosopher Kierkegaard, provide the perfect framework when dealing with adversity. Face it head on, then when it is over, look back and make note of any lessons learned. Ask questions such as: What would you do differently if this situation came up again? Did you in anyway contribute to the difficulty you faced? Are there any preventive steps you can take to decrease the chances this will happen again?

EMBRACE IT: Irrespective of how you respond, adversity is a great teacher. Embracing adversity doesn’t mean you have to like it, rather it means you recognize its long term value. In the words of Nietzsche (or singer Kelly Clarkson), “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”


Straight Talk on Leadership: Ender’s Game

A few nights ago, my daughter talked us into going to the theatre to see the movie Ender’s Game. “A guaranteed hit she told us. Dad you are going to love it.” Well, I don’t normally take my movie recommendations from a 15 year old; nevertheless, I agreed to go, figuring the time with my family would be worth much more than the price of admission.

Family time was great as always, however, to be perfectly honest, I loved the movie…excellent plot, excellent effects, well executed. Keep in mind I’m not a movie critic so my endorsement may not be reason enough to go see the movie. What if, however, I told you that everything you need to know about leadership you could learn from Ender’s Game?

Ok, everything is a bit of an exaggeration; nevertheless there are some great lessons to be taken away from the movie. Here are two of my favorites- minus any actual movie references of course as I would hate to spoil it for you.

Give up Power to Gain Power

The fall of great empires can be traced to many things not the least of which is the abuse of power. Understanding its inherent, intoxicating potential, Thomas Jefferson wrote “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it is your willingness to give up power (also known as control) that exponentially increases your power. Below are three ways to start sharing control.

1. Solicit their feedback: Don’t make the mistake of believing you need to have all of the answers. By asking for and responding  to their feedback, you create an environment where it is safe for them to tell you exactly what they think. You need accurate information in order to make the best decisions; the safer the environment, the more accurate the feedback.

 2. Empower them to make decisions: Ensure everyone is clear on which decisions absolutely require your approval and then allow your team to make the rest on their own. Be present to provide guidance, but avoid setting yourself up as the resident expert. This empowerment will allow them to sharpen their problem-solving skills and you will gain understanding of the way they think and process information when making decisions.

3. Once you have agreed upon the outcome, let them create the execution path: Learn to manage outcomes not process. Even the best laid plans often change once execution gets underway as it is impossible to predict the obstacles they will face. Clarity about the outcome is the key to success. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to this as Commander’s Intent; the idea of creating crystal like clarity about the destination, while allowing your team to use their creativity to reach it.

  How you win is far more important than simply winning

Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” As a former athlete, I understand what he meant; nevertheless true leaders know winning is not the only thing. Sure, your drive for results and desire to be the very best are great assets. Displaying a never ending belief in your team’s collective ability to deliver can serve as a point of great inspiration- a rallying cry if you will.

But here’s the straight talk, winning without the grounding of true leadership character will damage your team and render all of your wins into hollow victories. As noted by Mark Miller in his book, The Heart of Leadership, “If your heart is not right, nobody cares about your leadership.”

Winning may in fact be your goal, but my advice, let winning be the icing on the cake, while you dedicate your time to the more important work of cultivating an environment where the good of the team outweighs the needs of the individual, where you think of others before you think of yourself, and where you “block and tackle” in order to remove the obstacles from their pathway to success. Do this and the winning will take care of itself.

Straight Talk on Leadership: Communication

Clearly, one of the more difficult conversations in which we engage as leaders is classified as a Crucial Conversation.  Anecdotally I know this is a topic of great interest to leaders as “Engaging in Difficult Dialogue” was my most requested workshop for years… my apology for the shameless self-promotion.

Before I share with you a tip that has benefitted me over the years, let’s start by defining a “Crucial Conversation.” In their book “Crucial Conversations,” the authors identify four factors that elevate a regular conversation to a “Crucial Conversation.”

  1. It’s emotionally charged
  2. There are high stakes
  3. The topic is sensitive in nature
  4. There is more than one opinion present

Even for the skilled communicator, a conversation with all four of those factors present is a conversation that will be challenging to navigate. However, I am convinced that with the right tools (the book is full of them) you can certainly increase your effectiveness during these conversations.

So how about that tip…if you are engaging in a conversation and you find yourself ready to immediately disagree with something that has been said…you know that point where your forehead tightens, your palms get sweaty, and your heart starts racing…take these two preemptive steps.

Step One: Clarify

As simple as this may seem, oftentimes disagreements and debates are directly linked to the fact that we did not hear exactly what was said. At some point while the person was still speaking, our brains started processing information and formulating a response. As a result, we unknowingly missed part of the conversation.

Clarifying is simply taking a step to make sure the words we believe we heard are the words that were actually spoken. It goes something like this, “Just to clarify, did I hear you say that I don’t give people the benefit of the doubt?”

The beauty in clarifying is two-fold. If we missed part of the conversation, the speaker will be given an opportunity to repeat herself. If we heard the words correctly, then we are free to move on to step two.

Step Two: Confirm

The purpose of confirming is to ensure the meaning we have ascribed to the words is the meaning the speaker has in mind. Words often serve as triggers; eliciting a deep emotional response that may or may not be appropriate to the situation.

Confirming goes something like this, “So when you say that I don’t give people the benefit of the doubt, are you saying that I simply jump to conclusions and act without thinking?” Much like clarifying above, if we have misunderstood what was meant the speaker now has an opportunity to clarify himself. If however, the speaker confirms our understanding, we can proceed with discussing my tendency to jump to conclusions…something I rarely do by the way…just ask my family…Well…maybe you shouldn’t ask them.

Do you have any communication tips to share, anything that seems to work well for you? I would love to hear from you.


Interested in purchasing a copy Crucial Conversations, follow this link to do so. http://www.amazon.com/Crucial-Conversations-Talking-Stakes-Edition/dp/0071771328