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Year: 2016

Letting Light In

Our 3-year-old Grandson wanted one thing under the Christmas tree this year – a big red fire truck. My wife searched and searched online, and finally found what she thought was the perfect one. It arrived last week and was promptly placed in our secret gift closet. Yesterday she decided to put in the batteries and do a trial run. When she pushed the truck’s horn, we heard a strange sound like a dog in great agony. When she turned the siren switch, a litany of agitated voices, in some Asian language, blasted from the tiny truck speakers. She was angry and disappointed, but she didn’t tarry. She jumped in her SUV, hit the stores full steam and found the perfect big red fire truck with proper siren and horn. She was better last night. This morning we cracked up with laughter.

Many of us hold a vision of the perfect Christmas … when everything is shiny, everybody’s on their jolliest behavior, ideal gifts are given and gotten, the food tastes as good as we remember grandma’s kitchen smelling – as bells ring in the distance. With the best of intentions, we can inadvertently put a lot of pressure on ourselves and on others near and dear to us during this most wonderful time of the year.

When I think about my most memorable holidays, the perfect times are hard to recall. It’s the times when things were imperfect, defective or deficient that stay with me. Do you recall one of those not-so-perfect times? A Christmas Eve when you stayed up all night to construct the 16-foot trampoline and one spring was missing, or a new bike was finally put together then you noticed three shiny bolts laying in the bottom of the box or a multi-story doll house with easy instructions which were anything but that? (Insert your flaw filled memories here). What about the time your dog ate the Christmas turkey and the family went out for Chinese food? No, that’s an old movie scene. Anyway, this might be a good time to remember some famous words.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

These four lines, from Leonard Cohen’s “ Anthem”, is a reminder of the transformational power of imperfection, as does the first Christmas. It was far from perfect as well. If things had gone as planned, Mary and Joseph would have been given a room in the inn that Holy night and would not have heard the heavenly chorus singing Glory to God. Most likely they would have missed the Star’s bright light shining through cracks in the stable walls so they could see the Christ Child sleeping away in a manger.

Journal Entry: For some people who lead an organization, a teams or a family, Christmas is not the only time of year they insist on their vision of perfection. It’s everyday. This fear of missing the mark and exposing their imperfect humanity is a burden to everyone around. On the other hand, the leader who leaves a lasting legacy knows the distinction between excellence and perfection. They do a few things well, fail more than they should, learn from those mistakes and laugh at themselves with ease. Somehow somewhere they grasped the importance of being themselves, cracks and all, because that’s how the light gets in, in Leadership and Life.

Instead of being a time of unusual behavior, Christmas is perhaps the only time in the year when people can obey their natural impulses and express their true sentiments without feeling self-conscious and, perhaps, foolish. Christmas, in short, is about the only chance a man has to be himself. ~ Francis C. Farley, British scientist Fellow of the Institute of Physics and an honorary fellow of Trinity College Dublin

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. ~ The Bible’s New Testament, the book of Luke Chapter 2 verses 11-14 – King James Version (KJV)

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business. ~ Michael J. Fox, actor 

Three Choices

Carnival Cruise Corporation began in 1972. The company couldn’t afford a new ship, so they bought an old beaten-up one. Their cruises consequently took longer than their competitors’ to reach the same destinations. Instead of giving up, Carnival added discos and other amenities to keep their passengers entertained while on board. By doing so, the company reinvented the cruise industry, and today is the largest cruise line in the world and is known as “The Fun Ship” Cruise Line.

The leaders of Carnival had their original agenda, but it was knocked off track. As a result, they had three choices:

1) Give it their all – holding to their vision and reinvent themselves to meet their challenges.

2) Give up and move on – objectively assessing the upside and downside and deciding their best move is to exit.

3) Give away their choice – blame it on something outside, such as competition, market conditions, etc., and whine into a slow death…

In Life

Individuals also have these same three choices when their agenda is high jacked by unseen challenges or problems. Choices one and two are focus by a larger purpose and an assumed personal responsibly. Both are wins and driven by love, humility and confidence. The third choice is fueled by fear, personal ambition and pride. Third-choice people blame such things as their co-workers’ attitudes, a mean boss, entitled career track or team members who “just don’t understand me” for their place in life.

This third choice is attractive to many people, because it comes with built-in excuses and, if it ended there, all would be well. The sad and disruptive truth is the third-choice guy is often spending his or her energy trying to undermine the reason or person they hold responsible for their missed opportunity, instead of making a first or second choice and moving on toward their new vision.

At Work

Most of our short-term agendas are interrupted and adjusted without a hitch every day, but life-long agenda curve balls can be different. Personal and family losses are often among the hardest, but I have found that one of the toughest agenda crises is not getting the work promotion you expected and had worked toward for many years. This can be even more difficult when you have to report to the person who now has the job you believed you deserved – and their agenda becomes your new agenda.

As more and more baby boomer executives are aging out to retirement, I am often seeing three or four managers inside the organization vying for the same top-level position. Which means at least two or three very disappointed people are now expected to move on and lead under the supervision of a past peer. This is tough, but like all of us- they have three choices.

Journal Entry:

Each of us has choices when our agenda gets derailed. Will your choice be to become a fun ship, find a new ship or a stay on a slowly sinking and stinking ship when a big change takes you way off course in your leadership and life?

The fears we flee from are those that eventually master us. Those we face, shrink away from us and become as nothing. — Max Brand, author of western novels

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. — 2nd book of Timothy 1:17 NIV Bible

It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility. — Yogi Berra, baseball player

When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice. — William James, psychologist

We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses. — Abraham Lincoln, US president

It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. — J.K. Rowling, author & playwright

And the Team Played On

On this scorching hot day the local politicians were lined up at the hand-shakin’ door of the old city hall and community center. Armed with a smile and a fistful of flyers, each one assured potential voters that their ballot could be wasted only if it were miscast to some ne’er-do-well opponent – i.e., those who didn’t show up for the Dodge City Lions’ Club annual barbecue and hoedown.

Inside the smoke-filled room, a local all-string band played and sang hauntingly, “They’re tearing the home place down. They’re tearing the home place down. Oh why did I leave these plowing fields to find a job in town?”

At an opportune break in the music, a young man walked up to the band and requested a not-from-around-here song (which, obviously, they did not know). There was dead silence. After a long moment of hesitation, a collective consenting nod rose from the pickers and players. The bandleader winked and said, “Well, you just start ‘er out and we’ll catch up with you.” They did. It was magnificent music, and something beyond what I have every experienced as teamwork.

Corporate Sense or Common Sense
There are increasingly complex models of how teams should work together to meet the unrelenting changes in organizations today. Many team-building models are based on successful big town sports teams’ philosophies or Fortune 500 companies’ project management schemes. Sometimes they work. But many are too cumbersome for most teams- teams who are under unyielding pressure to perform at the next level.

But on this summer day, a ragtag group of guitar, banjo and fiddle players leaned heads together, latched onto the new rhythm and hit the right harmony. Within minutes they ”catched up” and capitalized on a distraction that dropped into their standard agenda. It was easy to see that their next-level performance was the result of valuing 4 things: a clear and shared purpose, laser-like concentration on each person’s role, honor of each team member’s contribution and intentional flexibility to adapt to change.

Could these “plowing field” country band principles apply to other groups who want to become more effective teams? It’s an idea worth playing around with.

Journal Entry: Have you been on a team that got in rhythm and achieved great things together? What things did you learn then, but you may not use now because of pressure to apply some big city ideas? Make a note of some of those common sense ideas . Consider how you might apply them as you play on in your leadership and life.

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships. — Michael Jordan, player

Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work. — Vince Lombardi, coach

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much. –Helen Keller, teacher

Now this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky; And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back — For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack. — From The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

We’re going to turn this team around 360 degrees. – Jason Kidd, coach

Curve Ball Management

“When you see a curve ball coming, don’t bend you knees” is what a baseball coach would tell a player who is batting against a good-breaking pitcher. Don’t bend your knees means: Don’t move when it looks like the ball is going to hit you. Watch the ball, stand firm and swing.

Lots of baby boomer CEOs and key executives are leaving the workplaces these days, which means top leadership and Boards of Directors have to take a swing at managing more complex leadership transitions. The majority of Boards and senior teams think that they have a solid leadership succession plan in place for such events. In reality most have a basic policy statement about actions to take when a senior leader announces their exit. Which is good. The problem is that there is a big difference between a policy statement and a shared strategy. Policy statements work well in simple situations, like a slow pitch down the middle, but simple doesn’t happen much in baseball or boardrooms. There are always curve balls.

Some common leadership transition curve balls:

  1.  The apparent internal successor turns out not to be the one
  2.  The highly qualified next-in-liner says no or accepts a better offer elsewhere
  3.  The designated internal interim is now applying for the open position
  4.  An outside interim is needed and this has never been done before

If a Board or top team has simply taken time before a transition to discuss and decide on specific strategies for possible scenarios, there is a good chance that operations will run smoothly and recruitment plans will happen sooner rather than later.

But if there has been no intentional preparation, hesitation sets in, decisions are changed and things start to look like a series of half swings. Stakeholders in the stands can see the curveballs coming and knees buckling.

“Strike one!” The first mismanaged decision is often forgiven, but after a couple of more wind-maker swings fail to connect, the boos will be the last and lasting word that will linger in the culture long after newly appointed leader walks up to the plate and readies his bat.

Journal Entry: What transitions are you facing? A key leadership change, making a work move into an unclear future, starting a new career, having an empty nest after the last college graduation or reversing roles as you become the parent to your parents?

Are there things you need to think about now so you can better manage the transition curve balls coming soon in your leadership and life?

Baseball is like church. Many attend, most don’t understand. – Leo Durocher

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. – Mark Twain

Great leaders are almost always great simplfiers, which can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand. – Colin Powell

Ninety percent of this game is half mental. – Yogi Berra

River Bends

I was floating down the Green River in Utah in a drift boat with a fly-fishing guide. His name was Boomer. We had drifted along in calm waters for several hours and caught a good many rainbow trout. As his name implies, Boomer was a very loud and dramatic guy, but he also was a great guide and teacher. He taught me several lessons of fly-fishing that morning – like how to cast into a strong head wind, let my drag do the work to land a big trout and roll out my line for a perfect drift. Little did I know that I was about to learn a new lesson that would impact more than my fishing skills?

Without notice, Boomer shouted, “Lay down your rod and hold on.” I did what he said, because you do what Boomer says. As I quickly secured my equipment, I heard them — then I saw them — white water rapids upon us. I held on, and Boomer guided the boat through the wild watercourse and around a big sweeping bend, as masterfully as he cast his fly rod.

When I regained my composure, I looked back upstream and saw parts and pieces of drift boats bashed on the bank of the river bend. Boomer noticed my backward gaze and said with a smirk, ”First timers who said ‘we don’t need a guide’ and obviously didn’t know how to read the creases.” I was puzzled by his term “creases.” Then he reminded me of he had instructed me to cast my fly to where the water was pushed up and deflected by underwater structure – a crease.

“Fish hide behind those obstacles waiting for their next meal,” he said. “Creases can be good news for fishing in an easy flowing river, but can be bad for boating in rapids… unless you hear what the crease are telling you.”

Life can be like a swift river in deep canyon. There are some calm spots here and there, but there are also a lot of bends of change and rapids of transition along the way. If you can read the creases, you can prosper in good times and manage well in the rough bends, even if the rapids distract and try to destroy you.

The challenge comes when we try to maneuver a new bend alone or, worse yet, with some agreeable friends who know as little as we do. Propelled by bad information and over-confidence can turn a risky adventure into a pile of parts and pieces scattered on a rocky bank.

The price of a good guide, who can read the creases, may appear costly at first, but will prove well worth the price when you pull soundly ashore at the end of the productive trip.

Journal Entry: What river bend are you facing soon: a career shift, life transiton, a family milestone, a financial disaster or a spiritual desert? Have you successfully managed this type of transiton before?

If not, do you know a guide who has the wisdom to read the creases and knows the bends?

What would it cost to get their guidance? What could it cost if you don’t request help from a “Boomer” at this time in your leadership and life?

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants. – Isaac Newton

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to wise counsel.  – Proverbs 12:15

Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision. – Peter F. Drucker

Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise the rest of your days. – Proverbs 19:20

In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on. – Robert Frost

Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who will argue with you. – John Wooden

Begin before you Start into the Wind

My wife and I spent the first week of 2016 in a beach vacation house in on the Gulf Shores, Alabama. It was not the ideal time to being on a non-tropical beach, but we thought it would be fun. We knew it would be cold, but we could bundle up. Best of all, we would have the beach mostly to ourselves.

The temperatures were comfortable the evening we arrived, so the next morning, I woke up at the crack of dawn and went outside to see the sunrise. I was totally unprepared for the near gale force wind that hit me cold. With no coat on, the wind went straight through me. Walking to the car, much less a stroll on the beach, felt like pushing a wheelbarrow up a steep hill that never ended. It was exhausting. I may have managed things better and even enjoyed my walk if I had stopped and prepared before I rushed out into the wind.

Three Things
You may work in a world that can feel like a gale force wind of unwanted and non-essential activities that can push you off track and exhaust your time. I have observed that there are three primary things that contribute to extremely windy days at work for many leaders :
1) Meetings: sitting in meetings you don’t need to be in, especially when there is an ill-prepared Power Point presentation

2) C Players: spending too much time trying to fix the C players in our organizations – a nearly impossible mission to accomplish

3) New Technology: trying to learn how to operate new software and getting distracted from operating the business and, of course, attempting to manage the constant stream of untethered electronic communication.

4) add you own here…

It would be wonderful if we could simply step out of these winds while at work and cleverly avoid our time wasters. But after years of watching myself and other people strive to pull out of the gale force activity winds while in the midst of those winds, I have concluded that this strategy fails every time. But there is a strategy that works.

The folks who decide to Begin before they Start each day are the ones who more often keep their footing in a world of unyielding distractions. Their secret , they tell me, is to never let daily activities Start before you Begin. Invest a few purposeful minutes to put on your emotional and spiritual coat, before you step out into the wind.

Journal Entry:
Do you start your day in the wind with email, a calendar check, and a task list or do you begin with some time to reflect on things that really matter? It may be worth a try to intentionally “Begin before you Start” each day of your Leadership and Life in 2016.

“In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.” – Paul Harvey

“The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.

And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.

And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.” – C.S. Lewis – from Mere Christianity

Wisdom of an Innkeeper

Mary and Joseph’s First Christmas (another perspective)

The weary couple at the close of day
hoped this crowded Inn was their place to stay.
Compelled by the expectant couple’s plight,
the innkeeper found them a room that night.

He ushered them into his hectic hall
When he heard God’s voice so still and small,
“Don’t birth my son in the ruckus place
Of noise and drink and want disgrace.
Is this a place to begin a life
that will change the world of dark to light?

So the keeper of the inn did say,
“There is no room for you to stay.”
And he turned the worn out couple away.

Stepping outside his lodging place,
He whispered to the groom in haste,
“There is a spot where you can stay –
out back- in my livestock stable hay.
Though not as warm as sleeping here,
it is distant from this dwelling of leer.”

“This is no place to birth a king
whose life will make the angels sing
Of love and joy and grace to all –
Don’t start His life in this reckless mall.”

Stark words he spoke, were not his own.
Where had his compassion gone?
This kind innkeeper had been used
to protect God’s son by his refuse.

The groom in livid anger said,
“I’ll take my bride to this unkempt bed
to birth a child alone this day.
But you, dear sir, will be known for all days
as he who turned the King away.

In great dismay by what he heard
The innkeeper left without word.

That night a savior child was born
in the silence of a manger lorn
With sheep and mules and cattle there
to gaze upon the baby fair.

The groom looked at his bride and child
in this quiet place of peace and mild.
He understood the innkeeper’s will.
That put them in a place so still
so they could hear the angels’ thrill
and see the star above the hill.

If they were in the noisy inn
the angels’ song could have never been
heard above the party crowd,
the star obscured by a smoky cloud.

Now they both knew the reason why
the innkeeper had passed them by
This tiny king in their arms this night
Will never be found in the noise and blight
And bustle of a world that reeks
of self excess – where egos peak.

Instead He is found in a silent night
Where angels sing and stars are bright.

As you seek your Christmas this year
Look not in the hustle and bustle so near.
Consider the innkeeper’s faithful ear

To God’s whispered voice,
which always speaks,
but seldom shouts or competes
with all the glitter, glitz and haste.
Find Christmas this year in a common place.

By Michael Alan Tate (original 2004, revised 2006)

Working Journal Entry: Where will you find Christmas this year?

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