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Walking through the Season of Lasts

2013-09-03 05.13.34-2“I just played my last high school soccer game” our son, Jonathan, said amidst tears and hugs from teammates, classmates, parents, and coaches. Tis the season of lasts for our youngest son as he finishes his last year of high school. Being a 4 sport athlete and highly involved in the life of his school, Jonathan knows he has some more lasts before his year’s done. So based on the sadness he felt after his last soccer game I think he’s already dreading the next major last.

So on our way home from his last game I reminded Jonathan that a season of lasts doesn’t last forever. In fact a last of something means a first for something else. Though I acknowledged to him that early in the season of lasts it’s not always clear what the new first will be. For example Jonathan knows he’ll be going to college, which is comforting at a certain level, but he doesn’t know where. And not having a clear and specific picture of the first can make the season of lasts most difficult.

Yet once there’s clarity about the new first – in this case where Jonathan will be attending college, it’s easy to move from the sadness and loss to excitement about the promise that new first brings. But the key is finding that new first, to have a real and tangible plan beyond the last last. The more specific the plan, the easier it is to have the lasts feel like they’re giving birth to the new first instead of bringing an end to all things good and happy. That’s why this week Jonathan, Denise and I are making our first official college visits. Not to run away from the lasts but to put them into a different light, a light of a new first.

Now this all sounds really good as I’m saying it to a 17-year-old but here’s the real test of my fatherly advice – with Jonathan being our last child it also means Denise and I are also experiencing a season of lasts. After nine high school soccer seasons as a parent, Jonathan’s last game was also our last soccer game, his last basketball game will also be ours, his last day of school will be ours. I’ll admit I’m very sad about it all and already feel the loss that having no kids in school will bring to our lives.

Yet now it’s time for Denise and me to heed our own advice and have a plan and envision a life as “empty nesters”, and to discover our next first. What will it be? I don’t know but I’m excited to find out.

Rules are for Rulers not Leaders

??????????????????????I don’t like lots of policies and rules, especially when they’re detailed, specific and inflexible. They’re like rocks. A few provide healthy boundaries, too many will weigh a leader and an organization down. Unfortunately people who struggle leading others will revert to policy and rules to do their leading. But policies and rules can’t truly lead; only people can. So when leaders rely on them to do their job, they’ll find that these rocks will cause a growing distance between actual and potential performance (or what I call the Performance Gap).

You see policies and rules are for managing not for leading. And, as I often tell my team, you manage things (time, money, etc.) but you lead people. Managing people instead of leading them will cause them to feel like a resource, tool or a cog in a machine, instead as a unique and gifted human being, capable of making a tremendous impact in the world for good. Being treated as a cog will result in uninspired and low committed people – again leading to that dreaded Performance Gap.

Often policies and rules come into existence because of one bad situation or one bad person. Instead of addressing the situation there’s a policy written with the belief it’ll help assure that the situation doesn’t happen again. unfortunately what the leader is really doing is adding one more rock to the backs of the talented and committed people who didn’t need nor deserve the policy in the first place. Again this pushes open the organization’s Performance Gap.

On the other hand, where there’s good leadership, there’ll be talented and committed people who are clear on the organizations values, mission and goals, and the roles they play in helping achieve those goals. This combination of commitment, talent and clarity puts people in the place to make the right decisions at the right time without requiring the answers to be spelled out in black and white. Lots of policies and rules are for rulers not for leaders and great organizations need great leaders, not managers, so that there’s never a Performance Gap.

 

 

Play and Lead as if You’re Behind

Brady Hoke

Winning and being on top is a great place to be personally and organizationally. There’s nothing like setting challenging goals, working hard to achieve them and then enjoying the sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing you and your team have won.

Yet this place is one of the most dangerous places to be. We’re at our most vulnerable because winning and being on top is a very slippery and deceptive place.

It’s slippery because no organization, team, or person wins all the time, nor sit on top forever (trust me I know this because I’m a Michigan football fan). This means we can never plan on or expect our lofty perch to last forever. There’s always a fall, a stumble or loss along the way.

And this is exactly why being on top is so deceptive. The longer we’re on top the more it feels like it will last forever, that our organization is somehow immune to whatever causes others to lose or fail. We even begin to feel that we’ve earned the right to be in this place regardless of what we do going forward. We may even admit intellectually that this can’t last forever. Yet too often we never allow this intellectual ascent to descend into our heart and our emotional being. The result is we never truly change our behavior or our direction until we find ourselves no longer on top.

So what can we do to protect ourselves and our organizations when we’re winning or sitting on top?

Play and Lead as if we’re behind.

We need to work as if the wolves are nipping at our heals, the barbarians are at the gate, that impending doom is sitting at our door. We can do this by always setting new goals, tougher standards, and expecting more from ourselves and our teams. If necessary, as leaders, we may need to find or create a crisis that reminds everyone that we’re much more vulnerable than we feel.

Or sometimes it’s as simple as giving all the naturally pessimistic people on our team a voice and really listening to that voice. When we’re on top we lose our sense of urgency about change. Our job as leaders is to create that urgency again, in ourselves and in others. And finally we can never allow ourselves and our teams to make decisions from the perspective of being at the top. The only perspective in which we should make decisions is in the light of being behind.

Finally, whatever we do, we cannot allow ourselves and our team to trust that feeling we have when we’re on top. Instead always, always we need to feel, play and lead as if we’re behind.

How to Get Unstuck when You’re Stuck in a Moment that You Can’t Get out of!

???????????????????????????????Sometimes I quote the chorus of the U2 song, “Stuck in a Moment You can’t Get Out of”, to my kids. They know exactly why I say it and what it means. It means if they feel stuck they need to find options. In other words I encourage them to never allow themselves to be stuck, handcuffed or trapped in a situation, place or relationship because they think they have no way out or no place to go.

You see the reality is when we’re “stuck in a moment and can’t get out of it” it’s almost always a state of mind, not the truth of our situation. And the more we feel stuck or trapped, the harder it is for us to see there could be alternatives. When we have options we’re not truly stuck, even if it feels that way. And, from my experience, we rarely have zero options.

So here are four things I’ve learned that help me get unstuck:

  1. Keep an open mind, always believe there’s another way, place or option. Don’t ever give up this belief.
  2. Think creatively. What may seem impossible is usually more possible than it looks at first glance.
  3. Seek out other perspectives from people not stuck in your moment. They often see the options more clearly and quickly than we do.
  4. Don’t seek input from those stuck with you. They’ll only reinforce your sense of having no options.

Remember your options will most likely be less than perfect. You’re not trying to find nirvana, just someplace better than your current situation. Think of it as just one step to a better place along a path to the best place.

And here’s how it all works – when you identify your options, you now have a choice. By definition, having a choice means you’re free, and when you’re free you’re no long stuck in a moment you can’t get out of.

Oozing Excellence without Arrogance

IMG_3338As Denise and I walked through a building on the Yard, we saw the words, “Excellence without Arrogance“, predominately displayed. As many of you know our third child, Mitch, entered the United States Naval Academy this summer as a freshman, or as they’re known as – Plebes, and where the campus is referred to as the Yard. When I read this maxim, six weeks into Mitch’s Plebe summer (basic training), I knew immediately it wasn’t just a pithy saying that someone painted on the wall but was a value that my son, as well as the other 1200 Plebes, learned during their training.

How do I know this?

First, the people affiliated with the USNA that Denise and I met, be it Naval and Marine officers, upperclassmen, facility and support staff, all demonstrated this incredible balance of excellence and humility. They were both gracious, friendly and helpful as well as they oozed with professionalism, commitment and excellence.

Secondly, when we were with Mitch that weekend, we saw change in him. He was no longer the same person we dropped off on Induction day. His sister, Christina, describe it best when she said “Mitch seems more confident and less arrogant.” An interesting play on words but an accurate description of this important Navy value, Excellence without Arrogance, becoming a reality in a future officer.

So here’s what we, as leaders, need to grapple with – a value of an organization or individual is not core just because it’s written on a wall, a card or in a website. It can only be core if it is so deeply embedded that it oozes out in such a visible and tangible way that others outside the organization can see, experience and name the value without ever reading the website.

 

 

Rain and doing Your Homework -Leadership Lessons from the Appalachian Trail – Part 6

???????????????????????????????The weather report was calling for heavy rain beginning about midnight. It was our 5th day on the AT, and my son, MD, and I were standing outside one of the many hostels along the trail. MD’s plan called for us to keep hiking further up the trail and stay at a rustic camp spot. But because of the weather report we had to decide – stick with the plan and keep hiking, or stay at the hostel?

As I mentioned in my last post, MD had a well thought out plan for our trip. He knew where we would camp each night, how far we’d walk each day, where we’d leave our car and how we would get to the starting point. He was even thoughtful enough to send me a copy of the plan before we left so I’d be fully in the loop.

But unfortunately I didn’t look at his itinerary very closely (actually not at all) nor did I do any research about where we’d be hiking, what places we’d pass, even what the names of our planned campsites. There was no excuse for me not having a clue about this section of the AT, with MD’s written plan and all the details about every section of the AT readily available on-line and in books. So there I was standing in front of the hostel, with no clue, trying to help us make this decision.

Late in the day, after deciding to keep hiking, we found ourselves stumbling around in the light of dusk, trying to find this remote campsite. I was once again little help because I just wasn’t familiar with the details of the trail or the plan.

In other words I didn’t do my homework as good leaders (and followers) must do.

You see, when leaders don’t do their homework they can’t contribute to their team’s decision quality, potentially hindering success. In our case, it all turned out fine because of MD’s good plan. But what I did by not doing my homework was lay all the responsibility for our trip’s success on my son’s shoulders. That wasn’t right or fair. Because I was a part of the trip I owed it to him to have done my homework so when the circumstances called for it I could help us make the best decisions possible.

The lesson learned? Good leaders and followers must do their homework so, the situation calls for it; they’re ready to help their teams make the best decisions possible.

Have a Great Plan so you can Enjoy the Journey -Leadership Lessons from the Appalachian Trail – Part 5

???????????????????????????????The AT has a very simple trail marking system. It’s a white line painted on trees or posts along the trail. So hiking the AT requires nothing more than looking up for white markers, looking down so you don’t trip over any rocks, and looking around at the incredible beauty along the way. Not much daily strategizing if you have a good plan as my son, MD, did.

You see MD spent a lot of time planning out the trip. He created a great itinerary for my week with him as well as his three weeks on his own. He did a lot of research, talked to people who had hiked the AT, and reviewed his thinking with others. All this work fed into a great plan.

So while on the trail we spent little time figuring out where we were going each day, or calculating how far we’d walk, etc. The plan was good and unless conditions changed there was no reason to spend any time rehashing it. Instead we just got up, packed our gear and followed those white markers to our next camp site, enjoying the trail and the people we met on the way.

It reminded me of the temptation we have to continually want to rehash and revisit well thought out plans. People like to arm-chair quarterback, to debate and to continually question where a team, department or organization is going and how they’re getting there. Some people also have a high need to change, tweak and continually adjust a plan, in an effort to find perfection.

But when you have a good plan, this additional work brings little value to the process or end results. Too often it keeps people from focusing on the immediate, day-to-day work, the plan requires. And, more importantly, the extra work distracts us from the joy, adventure, and relationships that the journey of making the plan a reality brings.

“What was I thinking not having my pack fitted properly?” Leadership Lessons from the Appalachian Trail – Part 4

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI knew better. I knew the two most important pieces of gear I would use on the AT were my shoes and my pack. With everything else I could make some compromises, but not on shoes and packs. They had to be right. If they weren’t right my 7 day experience would be painful and exhausting. And unlike tents or stoves, shoes and packs have to fit correctly. In other words, you have to assure they’re customize to your body and walking style to function well. For instance I bought and broke in a pair Montrail shoes months before the trip. They were high rated trail running and hiking shoes which also fit me well.

On the other hand, I borrowed my pack from a good friend. It’s a quality pack but I never bothered to have it fitted correctly. I only began trying adjusting the straps while standing anxiously at the trail head getting ready to embark on our adventure. Not a very smart move considering my friend is taller and broader shouldered than I am.

So I spent the first four days desperately trying to adjust my pack so it sat properly on my hips and shoulders, all the while each of my shoulders, in turn, became sorer by the hour. Finally, I rigged up the straps with some string I brought (the Boy Scout in me) to hold them in relatively the right position. In the end the pack never quite fit right even after all my MacGyver moves which lead to a very sore body.

What’s the leadership lesson in all this? Well there are two, and you already know what they are. First, make sure you and your team have the right gear to do their job. It needs to be quality gear designed specifically for the work to be done. And second, the gear must meet the needs (style, environment, etc.) of the individual using them. The gear needs to be as personalized as possible. If you follow these two lessons – quality gear, personalized for the person using it – then work will be less painful and you and your team will be less likely to leave the trail early.

 

 

“What was I thinking carrying all this stuff?” Leadership Lessons from the Appalachian Trail – Part 3

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGenerally, the principles and values I learned as a Boy Scout have helped me in my life. But sometimes, unfortunately, I’ve confused the habits I’ve formed as a result of a lifetime of practice with the actual principles and values I’m committed to, as I did in getting ready for the AT.

In particular, the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared”, is burned so deeply into my psyche that I now, out of habit, over pack for every trip. For example, when I go to Canada fishing I always pack two (and sometimes three) of everything piece of essential gear just in case I, or someone else on the trip, loses or breaks something. This has worked for me because I don’t have to carry any of this gear on my back.

But that’s not the case with the AT. All the food and gear I brought with me I had to carry. That meant those extra meals, shirts, pants, socks and underwear, the extra flashlight and bottle of stove fuel (and if I would have had room – extra shoes, hat, and a solar charger) were dead weight I carried every one of those 70 miles. I estimated it all added up to an extra ten pounds (or about 25% of my total pack weight).

Now ten pounds may not sound like a lot when one wants to “be prepared”, but in reality it was like carrying a gallon of milk, in addition to the rest of my gear, for 70 miles up and down mountains.

You see, with so many people on the trail, with towns, stores, hostels and roads dotted all along the path, the best way to be prepared is to know where you can get something if and when you need it. It’s why some people hike the AT with only 25 pounds of gear (a little more than half of what I was carrying). So the hard truth was, if I was truly prepared like a good Boy Scout, I would have known this about the AT and would have packed much lighter.

So what’s the lesson in all this? Do not confuse a motto, value or principle with its application. Memorizing a motto (Be Prepared) is easy. Learning a single way to apply it (over packing) is a mindless habit. But leadership requires the wisdom to know when a context is different, because different contexts requires different applications of those timeless mottos and values.

So how do I know this? Because, for seven days, I felt it deeply in my hips, shoulders, knees and back.

 

“Oh, My Swollen Toes”, Leadership Lessons from my week on the Appalachian Trail – Part 2

2014-07-10 19.13.35Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in an era, to think that what was standard “back then” must still be standard today. We think this because we believe really smart people had it all figured out back then (translation – it’s not possible someone today could actually be smarter than we were yesterday, thus it’s impossible anyone today could figure out a better or different way).

My toes, in particular my left big toe, paid the price for such shoddy (and arrogant) thinking.

This is how it happened. A couple of months before our trip my son, MD, and I were reviewing our equipment list. He mentioned having found a good deal on trekking poles, implying I might want to buy some as well. I told him, with serious conviction, “I’ve never hiked with trekking poles before. I’ve always used just a simple walking stick and it has worked pretty well”.

Now honestly, I was also thinking to myself “the only people I’ve ever remember using trekking poles were old people and wimps. And since I’m not old nor a wimp I sure as heck wasn’t going to be using them.” (I was also having doubts about my son’s manhood).

I should have realized the first day I was in deep trouble when I was both one of the oldest hikers and the only one without trekking poles.

You see the developers of the AT must have liked to hike up and down mountains because we walked up and down mountains multiple times a day. We rarely walked on flat ground; it was always up or down. As a result I quickly began to experience toe jam (toe jam is where your toes are constantly being jammed into the front of your shoes when going downhill) resulting in swollen toes and later, as I experienced, losing your toe nails.

By the painful third day it finally dawned on me why everyone was using trekking poles. Trekking poles break your downward steps. They take the pressure off your feet (and knees) helping to avoid toe jam among other injuries. Suddenly I saw all these young hikers, including my son, not as wimps but as smart and pragmatic, and I, in turn, was the aching, old fool.

So what’s the AT leadership lesson in all of this? Never assume that what worked yesterday is still the best option today. Be humble enough to believe that people are as smart today (or smarter) than we were yesterday. As a result it’s highly likely that methods have improved or new technology has been developed today that solves the problems we experienced yesterday (like toe jam). If we can embrace this reality about yesterday and today, our toes will be happier, and we’ll be better leaders.

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