Why Lead?

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Why Lead?

In my career, it is rather typical of Engineers to avoid management at all costs.

As I was discussing leadership topics during a recent graduate class, I proposed the question, what is the incentive for people to be great leaders? Lets be honest, being a leader can be a thankless job most of the time. In my career, it is rather typical of Engineers to avoid management at all costs. They don't see any benefit from taking that career path, they see hard work, long hours and little in the way of rewards. The hard work consists of problem solving, counseling, coaching and negotiation. Items that usually don't show up as financial KPI's for the corporation, at least not directly. 

Managers can get by without any leadership skills and deliver results, although I would argue that these results will be  short sighted and unsustainable. Quite honestly, this happens all too often. How many managers have you seen promoted without one minute of leadership training? To lead a high performing team, over the long haul, is what we all should strive for. More importantly, this is what corporations should be focused on preparing their managers for.  

According to a  poll of US workers by Parade35% of employees would forgo a  "substantial" raise in pay just to see their current manager fired. Putting it another way, 1 out of every 3 employees would "pay" to see their manager removed. To me, that is staggering to consider. This kind of statistic should bother us, the system is broken. 

Another statistic from the 2013 Gallup study on "The State of the American Workplace," says that 70% of workers are not actively engaged at work. Good leaders create an atmosphere of engagement for their team. This statistic is just another glaring indicator of poor leadership. Its been said, most workers will leave a manager, rather than a company. Poor leadership is chasing away good people. 

Why do we have so many managers, gainfully employed, who just don't get it? Is it training? Do they possess the proper skills to be a good leader? Is it indifference? Do they just not care enough about being a good leader? Are they blind to their shortcomings? Are they receiving the proper feedback and coaching? Are they recognized and rewarded for their efforts? Do we have the proper performance indicators in place for leadership? These are tough questions, but ones we should be asking.

I believe most companies are blind to the hidden costs of poor leadership. How do we measure that? Some of it, like the cost to replace an employee have been closely examined, but figures vary. What about the unforeseen costs? Those ripple effects that propagate from the source. It reminds me of the quote by Dr. Deming, "the most important things are unknown and unknowable."   

In an ideal world, managers should be drawn to leadership for unselfish reasons. To serve a greater good, to be part of something larger than themselves. Great leadership comes from a place of servitude to the team and ultimately the organization. We should be selecting our leaders, not based on their technical expertise, but by their ability to serve and a desire to be a great leader.

In the movie Miracle, about the 1980 gold medal winning US Olympic hockey team, Herb Brooks is asked by his assistant coach why he is passing over some of the best players available? His response was, "I'm not looking for the best players. I'm looking for the right ones." When you choose your leaders, look for the right ones. Lastly, once you have given them the tools (train them) to succeed, you must reward your good leaders for their efforts. Your company will be better for it in more ways than you'll ever know. 

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Is Competition Useful?

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Is Competition Useful?

The problem lies in the fact that I think more often than not, competition results in more negative, rather than positive results.

Last week as I was preparing to fly an aerobatic contest, the idea of competition ran around in my mind. I grew up playing competitive sports and as a younger man would be described as very competitive. I have since mellowed and find myself competing more with myself than someone else. Every now and then, however, old habits come to the surface and I find myself desperately wanting to "win" as I did this weekend. To be in first place when the competition  ended was the goal.

I like to always keep an open mind and I asked myself the question, is competition useful? Is it more harmful than helpful? Let me tell you, from a guy with my background, this was borderline blasphemy to even utter the words. I am the guy that considers the new youth sports rules that prohibit keeping score a bunch of hooey manufactured by parents that want to protect the feelings of their entitled kids. In life, we are keeping score and there are winners and losers, the sooner kids learn that lesson the better. So, as you can see, I definitely fall into the pro-competition camp. 

America and capitalism were founded on the idea of competition. Without it, our country and economy would cease to exist as it does today. Competition can be found in business, sports, games and even recreational activities. When taken too far, competition spawns greed, insecurity and vanity, none of which are helpful to society. What if we lived in a world of collaboration instead of competition? Look at Tesla's approach to sharing its patents with other businesses and consider would we be better off if all companies did this? Or do you think that healthy competition pushes us to higher levels of achievement? What about competing with your co-workers for compensation and promotions, is that in the best interest of the organization?  I realize it sounds awfully touchy feely but I have to say, its not without merit to let the imagination wander into such a futuristic world.

In the book,  "The Practicing Mind", the author talks of focusing on the process, not the product. When I locked in on placing first in the aerobatic competition, I strayed from this path. I lost the proper focus on improving my maneuvers (the process), being in the present moment and attaining a coveted state of  flow. My distraction with winning (the product) was the direct result of my competitive juices taking over, to my detriment, I might add. I placed second. 

I am still on the fence on whether we would be better off without competition. I do believe, when done properly, it can be a healthy and productive exercise and pushes us to greater heights. The problem lies in the fact that I think more often than not, competition results in more negative, rather than positive results. Think of the recent steroid scandal in baseball,  deflategate in the NFL or the Enron scandal, all of which you could argue were the product of competition taken too far. Can you see greed, vanity or insecurity in these examples?  If we can't manage this as a society (teach our youth), maybe its time to think differently. 

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Four Levels of Listening

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Four Levels of Listening

if everyone practiced these four levels of listening, I can only imagine the world would be a much better place.

How many of us were taught the four levels of listening? For myself, I was oblivious to the existence of such a concept up until about five years ago. I had been taught the difference between hearing someone and actually listening to them, as most of us have. However this is just scratching the surface. In fact, this would be characterized as level 1 listening. Let me explain the four levels of listening and how you can be more influential and a better leader by honing these skills.

  • Level 1 is directly influenced by our habits of judgement. At this level, we are only reconfirming old opinions and judgments. This is an act of "downloading" information, of hearing, but not listening. Most people will never move beyond level 1 listening in their day to day interactions.
  • Level 2 is the first level where we start to open our minds and disconfirm past judgments. At this point, we have now started to listen to the facts and notice differences in what the other person is saying. Our own judgement is the obstacle to achieving this level.  
  • Level 3 is where we practice empathetic listening. We now move beyond opening our mind to opening our hearts. At this level, we start to see through the other person's eyes and develop an emotional connection. Cynicism will put a monkey wrench into this level of listening.
  • Level 4 is generative listening. At this final level, we open our will to the other person's point of view. We connect to an emerging future whole. This will result in a shift in identity and self. Our fear is the main roadblock to achieving this enlightened level. 

In today's fast paced world where everyone is out for themselves, you can see where listening with this kind of depth is rare. Author Gary Cohen states it well in "Mastering the 4 levels of listening", We're used to getting what we want when we want it in this on-demand world. Listening is about others. It's about giving them what they want and need. It's about connecting with others on many different levels.

Here is another possibility to ponder. With the difficult discussions that seem to be happening on a regular basis in our world today, if everyone practiced these four levels of listening, I can only imagine the world would be a much better place. Do your part and practice this in your daily life, see if it makes a difference for you.

 

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Start with Finishing

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Start with Finishing

The more difficult the journey, the more rewarding the finish.

I spent 59 months encompassing 2800 labor hours building my own airplane. I learned a lot about myself, my character strengths and flaws and more importantly what it takes to finish a job--a task that by today's standards is quite complex and difficult. It seems there are very few people who will stick to a task that doesn't deliver immediate results. We are a society seeking immediate success in everything we do, patience is not commonplace. A five year journey is not something many people are willing to sign up for. Count me as one, who, if I had known what I was getting into may have chosen differently. In the end, I'm glad I didn't, the rewards are immeasurable. I emerged from the journey, a forever changed person. I have a new found confidence in exactly what I am capable of, what I can accomplish when I push through discomfort. This journey was, for me, from start to finish, outside of my comfort zone. If you are willing to spend five years of your life being uncomfortable, constantly learning and pushing yourself to new levels of competence, you will inevitably evolve along the way. As you can imagine, I learned a lot along the way. I was asked to give a motivational speech about this topic and I condensed it down to the following five bullet points.

  1. Persistence -  "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time"  (Thomas Edison). I think you would agree, if you attempt a difficult task, you have to start with this one. Without persistence, you really have no foundation to reach the finish line. Websters dictionary defines it as, firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Quite honestly, the definition says it all, this mindset is a must and is number one on this list for a reason. Bull dogged determination will see you through, quitting is not an option.

  2. Balance - "Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance" (Epicurus). If you embark on a long journey like this, be very aware of maintaining balance in your life. I do not believe we function well as human beings being obsessed with one thing, burnout is very likely, before you ever see the finish line. Its a marathon, not a sprint is a key concept to remember. I was sure to make time for hobbies like snowboarding and hiking, maintained my diet and exercise, and took vacations. This helps keep you sane, which is key. 

  3. Celebrate - "The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and that alone" (Martina Navratilova). Enjoy the process, and don't focus so much on the productTake time to celebrate the small victories along the way. For every sub-assembly that I completed, I was sure to celebrate in some way. Typically for me that was some good scotch and a cigar, it may be quite different for you, but you get the point. No victory is too small. These celebrations are the coal for the fire, the fuel to keep your furnace burning hot.

  4. Small Bites - "When eating an elephant take one bite at a time” (Creighton Abrams). If you look at the journey in its entirety, you will most likely be overwhelmed and intimidated. You must break it down into manageable tasks. I remember the first time I climbed a 14,000 foot mountain here in Colorado. As I first gained sight of the summit, my excitement level soared, I was almost there! I soon learned, that the hardest part was yet to come. The air was thin, my lungs were burning as I gasped for air with each slow step. I kept staring at the summit and it didn't seem to be be getting any closer as the time passed. It was then that I decided to focus on one step at a time, and not even look up at the summit. I wasn't sure I could make the summit, but I knew I could do one more step. When I changed my focus to manageable tasks like one step, my perception of difficulty changed. Celebrate each step, if you must.

  5. Resources - "The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot" (Michael Altshuler). Time and money are scarce, that is a fact we must live with. We all have different talents, intelligence and skills in life, but there is one thing we all have in common. One thing that is equal among us all. We all have 24 hours in a day. Use your time wisely and that doesn't necessarily mean working 20 hours a day, just be smart. To reach the finish line, always making progress in the journey must be a priority, even if its slow progress. 

In the end, when people say, the first step is the hardest, I say that’s a fallacy and here’s why. The last step, not the first, is truly the most difficult. I can vouch for the fact it is not easy. But if it was easy, everyone would be doing it and that wouldn’t be any fun. The magic happens when you cross that finish line and achieve your goal. The more difficult the journey, the more rewarding the finish. Name someone who ever did anything significant by starting, and not finishing? Success in life is not a participation game…unlike many youth sports leagues in America, in life we are keeping score and don’t hand out awards for giving it a good try, results count.

We should all aspire to be great, not merely average. Everyone who ever did anything disruptive in the history of mankind was a finisher. It quite simply is the most important prerequisite for success. If you want to change your life…if you want to make a significant impact, or as Steve Jobs phrased it, “if you want to make a dent in the universe” …my advice to you is start with finishing.

 

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