Thursday, October 27, 2016

How Adversity Affects the Backbone, and Soul, of a Leader

Guest post from Bernie Swain:   

Leadership requires all sorts of qualities: judgment, character, confidence, an unshakeable commitment to a work ethic guided by a moral compass. But in order to lead others, people also have to lead themselves, a quality that is often tested during periods of adversity.

I got to know many leaders in politics, the military, business, sports, and entertainment over the 30-plus years that I led the Washington Speakers Bureau, a company I co-founded and built. I learned that one of the key turning points in their lives came as a result of a personal setback that shook them to their core. They drew on inner resources they sometimes didn’t know they had to not only persevere through an unexpected job loss, health issue, or family crisis but to define and shape a future that would have new meaning. They emerged battered, but stronger—and much more aware of what they could control, and what they couldn’t.

The lessons they learned—about themselves, the curveballs thrown by life, and the power that comes from staying the course—offer insights to all who aspire to leadership roles that will help them harden their backbones and soften their souls. Here are some of those lessons.
Lou Holtz is the only coach in football history to have taken teams from four colleges to a top 20 ranking. But when he was 28, he was let go from his job as a defensive backfield coach at the University of South Carolina.

He had a big mortgage, no savings, two kids, and a wife who was one month away from delivering their third. “Have you ever thought about going into a different profession?” Lou was asked by the coach who laid him off.
The answer, of course, was and is no, and that coach wound up rehiring him. The lessons young Holtz learned that year “have guided me all my life,” he told me.

“Adversity is part of life, no matter who you are, what your age, and what you do. You will never outgrow or outlive it, but you can be motivated by it. You have two choices: you either stay down or pick yourself up.”
Judy Woodruff has been a prominent television journalist and news anchor for more than 40 years. She’s also the mother of three children. Her oldest, Jeffrey, was born with a mild form of spina bifida, a defect that involves the spinal cord. When he was 10 months old, Jeffrey had a shunt implanted—shunts drain away excess fluid—and he became an active kid who played sports and did well academically.
But when he was in the 10th grade, the shunt needed to be replaced, there was a complication, and “something went terribly wrong” during follow-up surgery, Judy recalls, leaving Jeffrey with a serious brain injury. He would be functional again on some level, but never fully recover. He couldn’t walk, his short-term memory was gone, his speech was severely compromised.

“We willed ourselves to go on,” Judy recalls. She and her husband, fellow journalist Al Hunt Jr., pulled together, helped by a group of Jeffrey’s former teachers who became volunteer tutors and by medical students who served as companions. Jeffrey is just as smart as before, but “because of his physical disabilities, and especially because of his impaired short-term memory, every day for him is like climbing Mount Everest.” Jeffrey met the daily challenge with “courage and determination.”  Eventually, he went back to school and graduated from college. Now, more than 15 years later, he has a “pretty good life,” lives in a group home and has a job.

“I would never wish our experience on anyone,” Judy says, “and yet seeing what our son has accomplished against such long odds has been unimaginably rewarding. When you meet Jeffrey Hunt and see what it takes for him to get through the day—and how he does it with a positive outlook and a sense of humor—it makes your own problems seem very small . . . Al and I could spend the rest of our lives being angry. But we take our cue from Jeffrey. We get on with life.”  

Stew Leonard Jr. led a charmed life for many years, helping to run the fabulously successful chain of Stew Leonard’s food stores founded by his father. Everything was good until New Year’s Day 1989 when his 21-month-old son, Stewie, escaped attention for just a few moments and fell into a pool.  “Life can change in an instant,” Stew remembers of his son’s death. “Even at that moment, I knew everything would be divided into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ “

The “after” was predictably very dark at first. Besides blaming each other for what happened, Stew and his wife, Kim, went through waves of grief, anger, and resentment.

“Sometimes, well-meaning people would say, ‘You’ll get over this.’ But one of the lessons I learned is that you don’t ever get over a trauma that deep. You can’t simply wrap it up, leave it behind, and move on with your life as if it hadn’t happened.”

But what you can do is change. “I am a different person . . . I hug my four daughters and my wife a lot longer and tighter now. And my life is slower now. Oh, work is fast, but I look at people differently. When I look at someone today, I am overwhelmed with the thought, ‘What’s happening in their life?’

“What Stewie’s death taught me falls somewhere between empathy and perspective . . . I was born with advantages and privilege. Most people aren’t. When tragedy hits, it’s very humbling. You realize your basic humanity, and that it’s something we all share.” 

More than 25 years after losing his son, Stew says, “I am still trying to figure it out. What I can say clearly is that I am inspired to be a better person.”

Washington DC-based BERNIE SWAIN is co-founder of Washington Speakers Bureau and today's  foremost authority on the lecture industry.  Over the past 35 years, Swain has represented former US Presidents, cabinet members, business executives, public figures, media leaders, and sports legends.  His new book, What Made Me Who I Am, is available everywhere.  For more, visit

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Leaders Should Define More Than the Mountain Top, but Less Than the Whole Plan

Guest post from Hamish Knox:

When it comes to defining their vision, leaders tend to fall into two camps. Camp one can clearly articulate a mountain top they want to reach, but create zero clarity on how they’re going to get to that mountain top. Camp two has their mountain top defined and they also have a step-by-step guide to get from where they are today (base camp) to their mountain top.
Both camps fail to create sustained motivation in their people. Camp one fails because they haven’t defined base camp so some of their team will draw their own conclusions about the likelihood of getting from base camp to their leader’s mountain top and give up because they feel it is unreachable or unsustainable. Camp two fails because their team feels no connection to their plan and while they may go through the motions of following their leader’s plan they aren’t fully bought in.

To create buy-in and sustained motivation in your team for executing your vision make sure you:
1)    Clearly define your mountain top
Humans are story-based creatures. On the negative side this causes your team to take a snippet of information, which may be inaccurate to begin with, and weave an entire novel-length story that they will share with their colleagues. On the positive side this enables leaders to create buy-in by weaving a story that each member of the team can identify with in whole or in part.

When you are defining your mountain top ask yourself:

·         Where am I?

·         What am I hearing/seeing?

·         What am I saying/doing?

·         How am I feeling?

·         Who am I there with?

·         What are they hearing/seeing?

·         What are they saying/doing?

·         How are they feeling?
Using those questions you can weave a story to share with your people that will create more buy-in than any slide deck filled with statistics.

3)    Define base camp
Without a clear definition of where your organization is today your team may not even be able to see the mountain you want to climb much less the mountain top. This isn’t permission for you to lower your goals, but it is a warning that unveiling your ultimate mountain top to your team (e.g. pivoting your business model from transaction-based to subscription-based with an entirely new set of customers) may cause decreased motivation and turnover.

If you discover that your ultimate mountain top is too far from base camp to create sustained motivation in the majority of your team, define 2-4 interim mountain tops and roll each out as the “ultimate” destination. A mountain top summited becomes your next base camp on the journey to your ultimate mountain top.

3)    Define waypoints to the mountain top

Years ago I set a really stupid goal, which was to triple my business in 12 months. The goal wasn’t stupid because of the mountain top. It was stupid because my response to “how ya gonna get there” was “I’ll figure it out.”

Winners don’t “figure it out” they at least have a clear mountain top, a clearly defined base camp and defined waypoints (camps 1-X) that will indicate they are on the right path to achieving their goal.
Defining your waypoints will give your team comfort in having smaller targets to reach on the way up your mountain and create sustained motivation because their next destination isn’t too far away.

4)    Co-create the path between camps with your team

Humans have a preference for editing over creation. Give your team a complete step-by-step guide from base camp to the top of your mountain and they’ll spend time editing it instead of executing it.

Instead, share with your team your mountain top, base camp and waypoints and challenge them to create the path to the top. You’ll likely discover that they have more effective or efficient ways of achieving your vision that you could have come up with on your own, and because they were involved in creating the path, your team has greater buy-in.
Great leaders not only have great vision they can clearly articulate the vision from where their organization is today to where they will it to be, but they also create buy-in and sustained motivation in their team by lowering their anxiety about stretching to achieve their vision and enrolling them in creating the path to their mountain top.

Hamish Knox is author of CHANGE THE SANDLER WAY:  Understanding The Human Dynamics
That Cause New Initiatives To Succeed.  He currently heads a Sandler Training Center in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. For more information, visit

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Great Leaders Embrace Innovation, and Innovation Demands Risks

Guest post by Randal Moss:

Great leaders consistently talk about the need for their organization to ‘be innovative’ in their thinking. They recognize that innovation is a strategy for growth and that being able to harness that power will drive their organization’s success and their own as well. Often overlooked by great leaders is that very successful organizational level innovation requires a willingness to take risks, cultural openness to external ideas, and a structure to protect non-traditional ideas as they develop and prove value through proofs of concept testing.

No Guts, No Growth, No Glory
Taking risks is an inextricable part of being innovative. Bets made on well researched unknowns led to the most cutting edge products in history. The hubris to use new materials in creative and non-traditional ways led to Teflon, Kevlar, and Viagra. Great leaders develop an appetite for risk and a willingness to support the development of nontraditional idea when they see the potential for gains. Great leaders know the difference between incremental and exponential growth, and which kind delivers glory.

Culturally Open To Greatness
Great leaders also know that they have to create a culture that supports innovation, and therefore a culture that embraces and celebrates risk. In some industries that is daunting. In companies who are market leaders because ‘they have always done things that way’ innovation can face an uphill battle to drive change. Great leaders challenge their organizations to go beyond the day to day and seek out their full potential. Securing executive support for, and then creating, a formalized innovation program is a critical first step. Executive support sends the message that innovation is a priority. Celebrating innovations publicly is another important activity. Whether new products are commercial blockbusters or break even lines of business, publicly celebrating new ventures reinforces the idea that the company is not satisfied with stagnation and appreciates growth. This is even more critical for new lines of business that came from an employee suggestion or innovation submission.

When organizations continue to promote and call positive attention to internally developed new ideas, and encourage their employees to participate in innovation, they become more open to change and the leads to the genuine consideration of external input. Whether this comes in the form of consumer feedback, or partner input in industrial enterprises. Truly innovative companies are not so conceited that they think only the best ideas come from them. They seek out inspiration externally, and are positioned to create partnerships and joint ventures that drive exponential value. Most importantly great leaders measure and demand innovative thinking and effort from their employees. New products and services do not spontaneously appear - they germinate from a seed idea and are intentionally nurtured into self-sustaining lines of business.

Structure For Success
To drive growth and cultural change you have to make a concerted and intentional effort at innovation. Many of the companies we think as ‘innovative’ actually have innovation labs dedicated to creating new opportunities. Dell, Starbucks, Shell Oil, Amazon, BMW, General Electric Consumer Appliances, Under Armor, Google all have dedicated internal innovation initiatives. These initiatives have a number of similar characteristics; independence, executive support, corporate visibility, and a defined structure and path for attracting ideas and developing them into profitable innovations.

To extract the most value from an external facing organization that values new ideas and wants to monetize them you have to have a process for attracting, evaluating, and prototyping ideas. Great leaders are able to energize people and solicit ideas from every corner of the organization. They can lead a diverse team in setting the business requirements for funding new ideas. They have the wherewithal to know that you get what you measure, they craft a review rubric to ensure smart investments, and shepherd proof-of-concept prototypes through the corporate bureaucracy all the way lines of business.

Great Leaders Embrace Innovation, and Innovation Demands Risks
All of this work demands leaders to take on a certain level of risk. There are no guarantees innovation will deliver a specific ROI. Looking at a wide variety of business across a number of industries there are some facts that cannot be ignored; every industry will be disrupted at some point, business evolution is a prerequisite for longevity, the only change is constant.

To grow you must be innovative.

To be innovative you must take risks.

Taking risks is the mark of a great leader.

Randal C. Moss is an award winning marketer who focuses on engaging organizations and applying technology to drive growth. He has over 12 years of experience including institutionalizing innovation development frameworks, and creating consumer engagement solutions for companies and clients across the CPG, Real Estate, and nonprofit sectors. Randal has spoken at conferences such as SXSW (3X), State of Play, National Human Services Assembly National Meeting, Disney Institute’s Digital Now, and the American Marketing Association Hot Topic Tour.
Moss’ first book is The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age (Wiley).  His newest book, IGNITE (August 2016) is available for purchase at most fine book stores,, as well as Amazon and other online booksellers.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Everyone has Values

Guest post from regular contributor S. Chris Edmonds:

Some time ago, I had a conversation online with someone who disagreed with me. I enjoy dialog with people having differing viewpoints, especially if it is handled in a respectful manner (on both sides.)

This leader had read a post of mine (Surround Yourself With Values-Aligned Compadres) and tweeted, “I wish more people had values. Too few do!”  I know what he meant. Many people don’t seem to act in alignment with any particular values. But I had a different take.

To me, everyone has values. Each person aligns to their values every day, and we can (sometimes pretty quickly) see what their values are.

I responded, “Everyone has values. Bullies have values. Teen gang members have values. They just hold values that are different than my own.”

The leader didn’t see it quite that way. In his mind, values were all positive. But values are defined as “a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.”  Thus, a thug may “value” some power or material thing as more important than courtesy and respect toward a stranger. He or she is operating on values--they may be different than yours or mine, but they are values nonetheless.

My experiences with values alignment began formally four decades ago, in my YMCA days.

In the 1970's I was actively involved in values clarification. A couple of my bosses used values clarification in our work teams. I used it with my camp directors and counselors to ensure we were all on the same page with how we'd treat each other, how we'd treat our campers, and how we'd treat their family members each summer.

In all the values clarification sessions I ran (for literally hundreds of people)\ not one person failed to come up with their personal values.  The lists varied, especially in how they defined them, but every participant was satisfied with their own list.

I also learned how values-aligned teen gangs are. I directed a YMCA national project that looked at what teens of “today” (then, early ‘80s) were seeking. That study found that the teens were looking for three things. First, to do “cool, different” things than what they did with their families; second, to belong to a group; and third, to do things with that group that advanced a meaningful purpose.  These same three things are true for teen gangs. The values are often very different than those of other teams, but they still correspond to doing cool things, to belong, and to advance what is (to the gang) a meaningful purpose.

This data and my experiences have led me to believe strongly that everyone has values. We experience others' values in how we are treated and how we see them treat others. We experience them in decisions they make. We often question other’s decisions from a values standpoint. (Have you ever said, “I would never do that. I value my _______ too much to go that route!”)

The beliefs and principles we hold dear guide our individual plans, decisions, and actions. By formalizing them, we can quickly assess how well we are living them, and also assess how aligned the values of people in my life are with mine. This can help me make wise choices about who to hang out with, who to work with, and who to spend my life with.

S. Chris Edmonds is a sought-after speaker, author, and executive consultant. After a 15-year career leading successful teams, Chris founded his consulting company, The Purposeful Culture Group, in 1990. Chris has also served as a senior consultant with The Ken Blanchard Companies since 1995. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Amazon best sellers The Culture Engine and Leading at a Higher Level with Ken Blanchard. Learn from his blog posts, podcasts, assessments, research, and videos at Get free resources plus weekly updates from Chris by subscribing here