Category Archives: Courage

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

9-11: Hope and Healing

Tribute lights representing the World Trade Center in New York City (photograph by DiGitAL Gold)

As I write this, ceremonies are underway marking the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Former New York Mayor, Rudy Guiliani, is reading from Ecclesiastes:

To everything there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under heaven;
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time plant and a time to reap;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up …

It strikes me that after tragic events — whether in the life of an individual, or an organization, or of a society — there are moments that occur and images that are created which serve as symbols of hope and vehicles of healing.  So often, these images aren’t spurred by leaders, but by “ordinary” people.  Here are a few examples:

The Power of Images: Raising the Flag

For the Greatest Generation, after coming through the rigors of World War II, there was perhaps no greater symbol of resolve and triumph than the iconic photo showing the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

For the 9-11 generation, there is perhaps no greater symbol of the hope of tomorrow and the resolve to rebuild than the photograph of firemen raising a flag amidst the ashes of a still-smoldering Ground Zero — eerily reminiscent, as it was, of both the Iwo Jima photo as well as Francis Scott Key‘s immortal words:

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

(photograph by Thomas E. Franklin, The Bergen Record)

One of the beauties of baseball is that, like life, you get the chance to try again tomorrow.  In a very powerful way, baseball helped the people of New York find some measure of hope and healing in the days after 9-11.  On September 21, 2001, the New York Mets were scheduled to play the Atlanta Braves in the first Continue reading

September 11th Leadership Lessons

A New York City fireman calls for 10 more resc...

In the hours after the towers came down on September 11th, servant leadership was on fullest display (Image via Wikipedia)

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a great deal will be written about the political, religious, and societal impact of the events of that day.   It has oft been noted that —  like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the death of FDR, and the assassination of JFK — anyone who was alive that day will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news of the first plane hitting the tower, and everything that occurred thereafter.

Certainly that is the case for me.   For my part, I wanted to share a few brief thoughts on leadership lessons learned from heroes — most who were “famous” only to their own families prior to that beautiful and awful morning — who answered the call of duty that fateful day.

First Responders: Leading Without Saying A Word

If to lead one must serve, can there be any greater definition of authentic “servant leadership” than someone who runs into a collapsing building when everyone else is running out?  And yet, that is exactly what hundreds of fire fighters, police, emergency personnel, and other first responders did that day — seeking to get as many people to safety as they possibly could.  They saw the task before them, and they acted — not in consideration of their own interests, but of those they were charged with serving. Many thousands lived because of their actions … countless millions more have been inspired by their bravery and selfless service.

Flight 93 Passengers: Observe, Plan, Act … NOW

As we all know now, while events were occuring in New York (World Trade Center) and Washington (Pentagon), another drama was playing out in the skies above western Pennsylvania.  There, a quick-thinking group of individuals — forming one of the most remarkable ad hoc “leadership teams” in history — was determined to do all they could do to influence the unprecedented (and almost wholly incomprehensible) events in which they were now participating.

Observing the unfolding events, they quickly gathered all available data, pieced together a plan, and acted. They didn’t wait for “perfect information,” didn’t wait for others to clear a path through unchartered territory, and didn’t miss their window of opportunity.  They formed a simple and powerful vision with clarity, gathered others onboard, and acted.  We may never know exactly what greater destruction their actions that day saved us from.  We do know that there may never be a greater example of leadership “in the moment” than their stepping forward as “Let’s roll” was declared.

In grateful appreciation.  May their example always serve to uplift and inspire.

Drawing Leadership Lessons from the Harry Potter Movies

In watching the conclusion of the Harry Potter epic last weekend (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2), I was struck by a number of themes that have become visible during the 10-year evolution of the J.K. Rowling book-based movie series.  As Scott Eblin of the Next Level Leadership blog has written a wonderful column on the servant-leadership ideas inherent in Harry’s story,  I’d like to reflect on leadership lessons visible in the making of the movies themselves.

(Director David Yates gives direction to Daniel Radcliffe on the Harry Potter set). Matching management talent to the evolving needs of the material was a key element in the success of the movie series.

Leadership Lessons

These leadership points stand out to me:

Hire for “talent” … then provide them with all the support they need
I wrote several months ago about the unique challenge of casting three 10-year old leads on whose shoulders would rest Continue reading

CEO’s: No Longer Accountable?

More than 40 years ago, Simon and Garfunkle sang their famous lament, “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?”  Judging by recent news reports, maybe today’s question should be, “Where have you gone, Harry Truman?”  Truman’s “the buck stops here” perspective on executive accountability seems to be sadly missing from the current age.

Did He Really Just Say That?

Truman-style "buck stops here" accountability isn't evident in recent CEO testimony. (image via Wikipedia)

For the past few weeks, the”phone hacking” scandal centering around News Corporation executives has been plastered across front pages around the world.  I have to admit that I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the details until News Corp‘s CEO, Rupert Murdoch appeared before parliament in London the other day.  Acknowledging that he was “shocked, appalled, and ashamed” by the tumult engulfing his global media empire and which casts a pall over Scotland Yard, among other institutions, a chastened Murdoch said, “This is the most humble day of my life.”

Fair enough.  If he had stopped there, it would have been Continue reading