Category Archives: Courage

On the Papal Conclave’s Eve: Leadership Notes from the Past

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John Paul II proclaimed, “Be not afraid.” Ronald Reagan spoke of “a city on a hill.” Both teamed up to stare down communism, backing strong words with resoluteness.

Having had the good fortune of studying in Rome as an undergrad, I recall with sweet fondness standing in the shadow of Bernini’s great colonnade many a time to see  Pope John Paul II bless the crowds from his window overlooking St. Peter’s square. Now, I wait with eagerness along with billions of Catholics and other interested observers worldwide to see the white smoke emerge and a new pope step out to greet the world.  As we wait, I have been reflecting on events from recent papacies that speak to leading organizations of all sizes.

The Unexpected

When the former Angelo Roncalli became Pope John 23rd at the age of 77 in 1958, few expected the portly unknown cardinal to be anything more than a “caretaker,” keeping the papal seat warm for a few years and not doing much else.  No one foresaw the seismic shift he was soon to usher in with the simple but dramatic calling of the conference (known as Vatican II) which more than any other single event brought the Church into the modern age.

  • Lesson: Sometimes one simple but profound, singular leadership decision can change everything – shaping and re-setting all prior agendas.

Bestriding the World Stage

If no one anticipated John 23rd’s actions as pope, even fewer predicted Karol Wojtyla’s election as the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.  From the very first moment of his introduction in 1978, though, the then 58-year old Continue reading

Pope Benedict’s Resignation: Leadership Lessons in Humility

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(Disclosure: As a practicing Catholic, I have a deep affection for Pope Benedict.  However, people of any or no faith tradition should read on without trepidation, as this post focuses solely on leadership issues, not religion or dogma).

This morning’s announcement that Pope Benedict was resigning the papacy for health reasons absolutely stunned me, as it did the rest of the world.  Still taking in the impact of this historic event — something that hasn’t happened in 600 years — a few initial leadership lessons come to mind. While a pope has many roles (as a head of a Church, head of state, and world figure), in secular terms, each role can be reduced to one simple but powerful word: leader.  Here’s what I believe his resignation teaches.

  • Some things don’t need outside counsel
    The fact that even his closest aides didn’t have a hint of his pending resignation indicates the depth of conviction that he felt about his decision.  “Unto thine own self be true,” we’re advised.  In this case, the truth was clear to him, and he acted decisively, with clarity of purpose and (I imagine) clarity of mind and heart.  When clarity is present so strongly, no outside deliberations are necessary to provide “cover” or comfort—clarity is the comfort.
  • It’s not all about you
    By canon (church) law, the pope has the right to preside over the Church until his death.  As a world class theologian, no one would be more fully aware than this pope of the unprecedented nature of his resignation and how it might affect his place in history.  In this act, though, he has chosen to place the needs of the many — leadership of more than 1.2 billion faithful — over his personal, ego needs.In a statement, the pope said in order to govern “…both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” In doing so, he put the good of his organization — of a size and scope that requires active, day-to-day leadership, especially during these complex modern times — ahead of himself.
  •  Set up the next guy for success
    Perhaps the most startling part of the announcement for me was the date of the resignation (two weeks from now).  As a colleague noted with great surprise, this has him stepping down in the middle of the holiest and most important season in the Church calendar (Lent) — setting up a most unusual Lenten Conclave of Cardinals to select his successor.Few would have blamed him for “hanging on” a month longer, so that he might have the satisfaction of leading one more season of Easter services. With this timing, though, the pope has guaranteed that his successor will greet the world at the most sacred and impactful of moments — the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday — thus launching the new pope forward to put his own stamp on his nascent papacy from the very first moment.

In organizations, major change can sometimes occur at unexpected moments—and with great change comes opportunities for (and insights into) leadership.  The impact of Pope Benedict’s decision will be assessed in the days, and months, and decades to come.  Today’s immediate lesson for me is the power that acts of humility can have on our organizations and ourselves.  If we know our own hearts, and look to the needs of others, we will lead through service, for the greatest good.

2013: Making Dreams Instead of Resolutions

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“Make dreams, not resolutions” was a slogan I saw in my Twitter stream recently, and I’ve been quite captivated by the thought.  In that spirit, I offer these few words of encouragement as we head into a new year that—despite looming fiscal cliffs and on-going worldwide strife—is, as always, full of hope and new possibilities.

Resolutions are Duties, Dreams are passions

As a planner by nature, I’m a huge believer in setting goals and establishing plans.  Yet, oddly enough, this doesn’t extend to New Year’s resolutions.  While resolutions are a type of goal or plan, somehow there’s something very downcast and difficult about “resolutions.”  Too often, they seem to be about “giving up” something, rather than moving toward something with vigor and spirit—a duty or obligation rather than a passion.  This is why, I think, resolutions often go by the wayside after only a few days or weeks.  They don’t elevate our hopes or engage our dreams.

We all can be more organized, or manage our time better, or be more focused, or more responsive, or stop doing this or start doing that.  Those are all on our checklist as mature adults—and we should do our best to improve in each area.  But in terms of charting a path for the new year, they’re not going to truly inspire many of us.  What if, instead, our goal was to dream a new dream, or to re-invigorate an old one … even if it’s one that might strike some as impractical or unrealistic?  Maybe so—but that’s ok.  It’s your passion, and who knows where it might lead?

What If

… you gave yourself permission to pursue your love of foreign cultures by Continue reading

Leadership: For-Show, or For-Real?

Do we lead as good shepherds … or simply as hired hands?

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep. ( John 10: 11-15)

Today’s post departs from my usual focus on business leadership to examine political leadership in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s massive destruction in New York and New Jersey.  My comments reflect not the sentiments of any political party or ideology, but rather a deep disappointment with what I observe to be a failing of leadership from many quarters—as many succumbed to style over substance.

The Approaching Storm

As Hurricane Sandy approached, leadership at the local, city, and state levels seemed to do a very good job getting the word out to the people.  And then, when the storm hit as hard (or even harder) than expected, political leaders were everywhere to be seen—holding hourly press conferences, surveying the storm damage, and generally maintaining everyone’s spirits with calm pronouncements, heartfelt compassion, and a palpable presence.

At the worst of times, political leaders rose to the challenge and showed their finest colors.  For 24, or 48, or 72-hours, it was inspiring to watch. Resources were marshaled, hope was spread, and there was a clear sense of direction, engagement, and can-do, we’ll-repair-and-rebuild, by-your-side-every-step-of-the-way leadership.

And then a funny thing happened… as the days passed, and  the tv spotlights started to dim, the politicians–who seemed to be everywhere only days before–suddenly became harder and harder to find. Continue reading

Leading With Pride (The Good Kind)

Johan Santana waves to fans after throwing the first no-hitter in Mets history. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

It is said that “Pride goeth before the fall” (Proverbs, 16:18).

There are countless examples of this maxim in the worlds of politics, business, and our own daily lives. At the same time, there is a spirit of pride (and determination) that can lift up and inspire.  That’s the kind of pride that this story is about.

What Happened

Last Friday evening, at Citi Field, in the working class borough of Queens, in the City of New York, Johan Santana threw a no-hitter. While a noteworthy accomplishment on its own (there have only been 275 no-hitters in the major leagues since 1875), it is not why grown men cried at the feat and an entire city was elated for days afterward.  To understand that part, you need to know the context.

Backdrop

Santana pitches for the New York Mets—a team nicknamed “The Amazins” not for their stellar play, but for their sometimes historic ineptitude punctuated by periods of break-your-heart, so-near-and-yet-so-far brushes with greatness (cue the song, “Ya’ Gotta Have Heart,” from the classic musical, “Damn Yankees,” and you’ve got the picture).  The past five years have been a microcosm of the team’s 50-year history:

  • They came within one pitch of the World Series in 2006 when they had the best team in baseball (losing in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of the League Championship Series with the bases loaded, a 3-2 count, and their best hitter at the plate).
  • They suffered two of the greatest collapses in baseball history at the end of the 2007 and 2008 seasons, missing the playoffs in almost inconceivably excruciating fashion. Continue reading

Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

The start of the new year is traditionally a time for fresh starts, new perspectives, and transitions. I was reminded of this recently when two close friends – both long-time, high-performing senior operating executives in their firms – confided their intentions to leave their positions this year.

Both had similar reasons – in essence, they were mis-aligned with their companies’ visions and values, and they couldn’t (or didn’t want to) fight the battles there any longer.  Their situations led me to wonder, “How do you know when it’s time to say good-bye?”

Signs and Signals

When one – or certainly, a few – of the following are true, it may be time to move on to greener pastures: Continue reading

New Year’s Hopes, Plans, and Dreams

The turning of the calendar page to a new year is traditionally a time for taking stock, considering the future, and resolving to pursue anew our hopes, plans, and dreams.  In this spirit, I wanted to share two brief anecdotes about looking forward with a hope-filled spirit.

“Rapidly Improving”

A number of years ago, I had the good fortune of working with an attorney representing our office in Puerto Rico who was undoubtedly one of the most “glass half full” thinkers I have ever met.  When exchanging pleasantries upon meeting (in person or by phone), Tristan would invariably respond to the question, “How are you? or “How’s it going?” with “Very well, thank you – and rapidly improving! How are you?”

“… And rapidly improving.” Fifteen years later, I can still see, hear, and feel the smile on his face and in his voice when he would say this. I’ve always thought it quite remarkable.  Mr. Reyes was a labor attorney, a serious and accomplished man who wrestled with difficult and often unpleasant risks, concerns, and dilemmas every day.  Yet, in his speech and in his manner, he conveyed a belief that all good things were on the horizon – and if troubles did come his way, he was confident that he would work through them and come out the other side stronger for the struggle.  All of that packed into one little phrase and a smile (along with the subtly re-affirming implication that part of the ‘rapidly improving’ part came from getting to interact with you that day).

May the new year bring us many upbeat encounters with remarkable people such as Tristan – along with the ability to convey such positive beliefs to all who come into contact with us.

“Let’s Go Exploring”

As a big fan of the daily comics, it was with sadness that I read Bill Watterson’s last “Calvin and Hobbes” strip on January 1, 1996.  (For those unfamiliar with the comic strip, it followed the adventures – real and imagined – of 6-year boy-wonder Calvin and his confidante and partner-in-crime, the stuffed toy tiger, Hobbes).  Mr. Watterson honored the strip’s best purposes with a final entry of great whimsy, innocence, hope, and childlike expectation that I’ve always felt was a wonderful and fitting image and message for the new year.  Returning Calvin and Hobbes to one of their favorite settings, a childhood paradise of freshly-driven snow and endless possibilities, here’s what he drew:

(CLICK HERE for a larger, clearer version of the strip)

May we all “go exploring” with hope, heart, and eagerness and experience good and great adventures and joys this year.  Happy New Year to all!

Hearing Evident Truths

The firm I work for has recently received numerous requests from clients to assist them with employee surveys.  My experience is that the difficulty with employee surveys is not conducting them, but truly listening to the results — a truth that was reinforced to me while watching the classic holiday program, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Linus Speaks Up

Towards the end of the program, ever-beleaguered Charlie Brown — despairing over the commercialization of Christmas — asks, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”  His wise friend, Linus, steps forward calmly and confidently and gives an answer for the ages (click here):

It strikes me that Linus’ answer, like so many organizational truths, was known to all — but unspoken but by a few.  It took someone willing to ask the question … and someone willing to say what everyone was thinking … for the answer to come forth.

Missing the “Ah-Ha” Moment

A company I worked for used to conduct an employee survey every year about this time.  For several years, they received consistent answers to a number of questions surrounding “What can we do to improve the company?” Responses were invariably to the effect of, “Communication between managers and employees is very poor,” “The company doesn’t seem to have a clear direction,” “I personally like my manager, but people don’t have a lot of confidence in the management team in general,” and the like.

Unfortunately, rather than trying to solve the communication and confidence issues that the employees identified, the management team — hurt and perplexed by the perennially negative results — decided to discontinue the survey.  (Yes — a heavy sigh, indeed.  They did have a penchant for learning the wrong lesson, I‘m afraid).

A Hopeful Ending

The story above — albeit all too common, I’m afraid — isn’t the only possible conclusion to these issues, of course.  To end where we began, the closing scene of A Charlie Brown Christmas offers a dose of hope that groups that wish to learn from evident truths can do so.  After Linus’ heartfelt proclamation, the Peanuts gang has a chance to reflect of what he’s said and, one by one, they reconsider their views on a symbolically important issue — the beauty of Charlie Brown’s scraggly but noble tree.  In the end, the tree is given tender loving care and it “grows” into a true thing of beauty as the group gathers around it for a heartwarming hymn.

Once spoken out loud, Linus’ wisdom was taken to heart and behaviors changed. Here’s wishing that each of us can help our leadership teams to seek out, embrace, and act on the evident truths in our organizations in the coming year.  Happy New Year to all!

A Lion in Winter: Lessons From the Penn State Scandal

Lion in Winter: Penn State Nittany Lions' head coach, Joe Paterno, watches his legendary 45-year career come to an ignominious end, engulfed in a sordid sex scandal where it is alleged he didn't do everything he could do to protect young victims from a long-time assistant who turned out to be a serial sexual predator

Hubris (noun)
1.  Pride or arrogance
2.  (in Greek tragedy) an excess of ambition, pride, etc., ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin

We don’t know all the facts yet about the evolving scandal at Penn State.  What does seem clear, though, is that we’re witnessing a humiliating end to the career of a legendary figure in college sports – a man who, until this very week, has been regarded as the epitome of uprightness and integrity throughout a 45-year run as a leader and icon for his sport.

While on the surface this is a “sports story,” in reality, it isn’t.  It’s a story about an organization, a leader, and an executive team that clearly lost their way when it came to “the most important things.”  The question for today is, how can other organizations – and ourselves – avoid such a fate?

Quick Summary

For those not familiar with the details, a long-time assistant coach at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted on 40 counts of endangering the welfare of a child (and similar crimes).  While he is not officially implicated in the case, Penn State’s football coach, Joe Paterno, had allegations involving Sandusky reported to him on at least two occasions.  Paterno – the winningest coach in Division I college football history — complied with his legal obligations by reporting the claim to his supervisor (the Athletic Director).  It appears, though, that he did absolutely nothing more than was legally required and did not pursue or otherwise inquire about the matter in any way.  Penn State’s Athletic Director and Finance VP have also been indicted and resigned from the university.  It is expected that Paterno will resign with days or weeks at the latest.

Details regarding the grand jury’s report are available here.  (Warning: graphic details, including child rape).

Heartbreak

There is heartbreak in every area and on every level in this story … Continue reading

Making Your Boss Look Good

Telling "gentle truths" is a way of fulfilling with integrity the "job requirement" of keeping the boss happy by making him or her "look good"

As I was helping a manager write a job description recently, he leaned over and said, “Wait.  There’s one more ‘requirement’ we need to add.”  Waiting a beat, he smiled:  “Ability to make boss look good.”  We both laughed  – but we both recognized the truth in what he had said, too.

While the blatantly “political” (one might say, “Machiavellian”) nature of this idea is uncomfortable for me, there is no doubt that this represents a cold, hard truth in many if not all organizations. It might not be necessary for getting the job, but “making the boss look good” is often a de facto requirement for keeping (or succeeding in) a job long term.

How can one do so with integrity, serving the best interests of their organization, their boss, and – admittedly – their own career? Three “rules” come to mind.

NOTE: The following examples concern qualified, good-performing bosses. Incompetent and “mean” bosses are another case entirely – and, as they say, a story for another day.

#1: Invite them into situations that play to their strengths

We once had a CEO who, while surprisingly quiet and shy in one-to-one or small group settings, was a very engaging speaker in a large room.  Therefore, when we invited him to kick-off a “Welcome to the company” orientation presentation on the day of an acquisition, we were quite surprised when he struggled mightily in telling the company’s story to the crowd.

We later realized our mistake: Continue reading