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Leadership & Life Journal

Failure Can be Hard to Stop

The tire was almost flat when we loaded up the big farm tractor that warm autumn morning. Too busy to take time to repair the tire, we quickly aired ‘er up and marched forward, confidently armed with the certain hope of a productive day working the overgrown hunting land.

The day did not progress as we had hoped.

In summary, we accomplished about 45 minutes of real work in our 10 hours of activity. The remaining 9 hours and 15 minutes were spent in the following comedy of blunders: tire totally flat; stuck in a ditch; repaired the tire; tractor fell off the jack; broke the engine starter; rigged a new wire to the starter; killed the battery; tractor rolled off the trailer. And there we stood in an unplowed field staring at a 4,000 pound tractor wondering how to get it back on the trailer and get back home.

Silhouetted by a stunning purple sunset, we watched in hallowed relief as a monster tow truck lifted the hobbled tractor aboard and took it away. It made it to the nearest tractor hospital. We made it home.

This story verifies the well known, but seldom articulated truth, that one lapse of judgment can quickly create a situation in which only foolish choices are possible. Can you recall a time when you made a decision which, in the moment seemed right, and then everything went wrong? The harder you worked the wronger things got. Experience tells us that sometimes this downward spiral of events is simply a string of bad luck, but oftentimes it is self-inflicted from the start. The verbal birthmark of pending disaster is etched in such signature expressions as: ” I don’t care what you do just do something, or “we don’t have time to plan what we need is results”, or “no need to check those references my gut says hire him”, or “I will never trust them again”, or “that tire looks OK to me.”

So what is the best strategy to keep from getting pulled down and down by a whirlpool of dire consequences? Contrary to some popular opinions “speed up” or “do more” is not always the correct answer. Sometimes “stop” is the answer. Stop and plan. Stop and check. Stop and forgive and forget. Stop and fix the tire.

Working Journal Entry: What day-gone-wild event came to your mind when you read the tractor story? Stop and write down a few lines about your embarrassing experience. Why? It may remind you of an important truth, it may make you laugh at yourself or it may equip you with an inspiring story to tell someone who needs a lift back home in their leadership and life.

Noodle Management

When Momofuku Ando passed away recently at age 96, he left behind one of the greatest modern inventions: Ramen Noodles. According to The New York Times, he also left us a great motto to live by: “ Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time. Give him Ramen Noodles, and you don’t have to teach him anything.”

It is easier to change a structure than to change a person. Have you every experienced an employee you didn’t have to teach? By luck or intention they got in the right spot at the right time and it worked wonderfully. Do you recall when this wasn’t the case? You spent way too much time trying to teach a good person to fit a job they weren’t suited for, all to no avail. Then, as a last ditch effort, you replanted this struggling performer to another position where they grew and produced like okra in August.

When I meet people who are excellent performers they can’t stop talking about how and why they do their work. Then I asked “where did you learn to do that?” They always give credit to some manager who they say “taught me the way”. However, when you look deeper, you learn that this manager of which they speak simply set them up to succeed. Driven by an authentic desire and love for their work, they actually taught themselves the ropes and climbed to the top. The manager just made certain the rope was tight and occasionally jerked it just a bit to make sure they were paying attention.

Effective leaders work hard to bring on people they don’t have to teach. By investing time to understand the true motivation ingrained in each individual, great managers structure things so talented people are challenged, see how their work contributes to the organization and feel they are in control of their career.

Noodle Manager’s Motto: Teach a person the wrong job and he will eat up energy for a long time. Give the right person the right structure and you won’t have to teach them anything. They will teach themselves and produce results so you can spend your time being a leader.

Working journal Entry: When have you acted on this motto? What did you learn? How will you apply what you learned in your leadership and your life today?

The Next Shot

I’m not much of a golfer, but I occasionally watch the closing holes of important events like The Masters and The British Open. This year’s British Open held a lesson that really hit home.

On the 18th hole, Sergio Garcia needed to make an eight foot putt to defeat Patrick Harrington and win The British Open. The crowd sat pin drop still. Garcia’s ball rolled around the edge of the cup and out. He missed. With disbelief draping his otherwise upbeat demeanor, he tapped the ball in. The tournament was tied.

In the moments that followed, a wide angle camera shot showed both possible winners poised for the official overtime play announcement. Patrick Harrington, the ultimate winner, who had hit two potentially devastating shots into a water hazard minutes before, walked confidently forward focused on his next shot. Garcia was still standing on the putting green agonizing over his last missed shot. He may as well have zipped the cover over his golf bag, handed Harrington the trophy and walked to the locker room. He was done.

Garcia commented to a row of reporters “I still don’t know how that putt missed.” He was still musing about it days later. When Harrington was asked to speak to the microphone about his two “wet” shots, he nodded and kept his pace to the playoff tee. He had made that decision long before the game began.

In the game of business we decide what we will focus on each day. Everything a manager says will either move people towards or away from the company’s mission and objectives. In our high pressure, high tech, scorecard driven world, it is easier than ever to spot a missed objective in high definition detail. When that happens we can decide to transfix on the miss or we can help people focus on making the next shot needed to win the game.

Whatever you focus on expands.

Working Journal Entry: What do you tend to focus on: When your team misses a goal? When a project isn’t perfect? When an employee takes a calculated risk and it flops? When your spouse doesn’t read your mind? When your child embarrasses you?
You have the microphone. Last shot? Next shot? What do you say?

Curious Career

The three things that are most essential to achievement are common sense, hard work and stick- to-it-iv-ness” Thomas Edison

Edison may have left one other essential leadership attribute off this list. It isn’t surprising that he didn’t mention it. People who have this one thing seldom recognize and less often articulate it. This attribute is something you can’t make yourself do, it is instead a natural byproduct of being involved in work you love and are good at. Just the other day this success trait was made clear in a rather dramatic way. Here’s how it happened.

The construction project was not going well. The lead architect, who had been a likeable, enthusiastic team member for a long run of successful projects as a junior staffer, was promoted to partner in his firm. Almost overnight he turned from being a helpful creative contributor, focused on service, to a high- handed controller who was centered on doing things the firms’ way. He was nonchalant and appeared distracted in meetings.

Then a new project manager joined this team. He had many years experience in construction, but none with this architect. After attending a couple of project meetings, one of the team members asked what he thought about the architect. He replied, “There is one thing I look for in a great architect. That one thing is curiosity. Does anyone see curiosity in this guy?” The room was true-tellingly still for a handful of anguishing minutes. They confronted the architect about his behavior. He seemed unaware and was without apology. In his defense he recited his personal success history. They hired a new architect.

Curiosity – a sense of wonder, an unquenchable desire to inquire to: find a new,create a better, and think beyond- is an observable trait in talented people when they are fully engaged. Curiosity vanishes when people allow themselves to get off balance, distracted and miss things they truly love. Whether you are an inventor, architect, sales person, manager, hairdresser, physician or president, we all need Edison’s three part recipe for achievement. If you add the leaven of curiosity what will rise from this one ingredient can bring more light to a dark world, put new life in an off balanced career and may even resurrect a few dying projects along the way.

Working Journal Entry– Is anything distracting you from what you are best at? What do you need to start focusing on so you will experience more wonder, curiosity and achievement in your leadership and life?

Being a Student

We’re just hold’n court, my great grandfather would say when asked what he and I had been up to all morning in his grist mill. Settled low in his husk covered worn bottom chair, Papa spun colorful yarns of his past business ventures, river excursions and more big plans, seeding my mind with lessons of life. All the while he kept a working eye on the heavy mill stone that transformed the customer’s grain from gold kernels to the fodder for golden bread tomorrow.

Effective leaders spend a lot of their time teaching. Seldom is it in formal settings, like a workshop or training session. If you watch them closely, you will note the ones who produce outstanding results and build future leaders, are always teaching, even when they appear to be doing something else.

Our world no longer moves at the slow and steady melody of an old fashion grist mill. Yet I have observed that the sit-for-a-short-spell approach to passing on the important lessons and strategies is still used by the best leaders/teachers, even in the high-speed tempo of business today. In our self-inflicted attention deficient work world, holdin’ court just doesn’t register as a viable learning option to some high potential managers who are on the fast track to a larger leadership role. Like the intelligent high school youth who failed the class because she didn’t like the teacher, I see some of the smartest young managers loosing their place in the succession line to the top because they foolishly insist that their mentor needs to, as they say, understand me and my style …adapt to how I like to learn.

Oftentimes the most important answers are not found in the trivia of information, but in the trials of the encounter. The world that encompasses our business, career, family and faith always rewards the humble and determined student who today engages gladly in the grinding transformation that produces the golden opportunities tomorrow.

Working Journal Entry:
Who is your current mentor/teacher? How does she/he prefer to communicate? Are you acting like it is your responsibility to pass or fail in learning the lessons of leadership and life?

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