Sunday, November 29, 2009

Up in Smoke - The Power of Sacrifice

I don’t have to tell you that these are challenging economic times we are living in. In this time of economic challenge, making sacrifices is no longer an option for many organizations. Budgets are being cut, raises are set aside, and discretionary spending is being watched closer than ever. Maintaining strong morale during times of sacrifice can be a challenge.

Warren Lamb shares a story of a Japanese seaside village a hundred years ago that experienced an earthquake that startled the villagers one evening. Being so accustomed to earthquakes and not feeling another, they soon went back to their activities without giving it another thought.

An old farmer was watching from his home on a high plain above the village. He looked out at the sea and noticed that the water appeared dark and was acting strangely, moving against the wind and running away from the land. The old man knew what that meant. His one thought was to warn the people in the village below. He called to his grandson, “Bring me a torch! Hurry!”

In the fields behind him lay his great crop of rice that was piled high in stacks that were ready for market; it was worth a fortune. The old man hurried out to see the stacks with his torch. In a flash the dry stalks were ablaze. Soon the big bell pealed from the temple below: Fire!

Back from the beach, away from the sea, up the steep side of the cliff came the people of the village, running as fast as they could. They were trying to save the crops of their neighbor. “He’s mad!” they said when they saw he just stood there watching them come and staring toward the sea.

As they reached the level of the fields the old man shouted at the top of his voice over the roaring of the flames while pointing toward the sea, “Look!” At the edge of the horizon they saw a long, thin, faint line – a line that grew thicker as they watched.

That line was the sea, rising like a wall, getting higher and coming more and more swiftly as they stared. Then came the shock, heavier than thunder; the great wall of water struck the shore with a fierceness and a force that sent a shudder through the hills and tore homes below into matchsticks. The water withdrew and with a roaring sound. Then it returned and struck again, and again, and again.

One final thme it struck and ebbed, then returned to its place and its pattern. On the plain no one spoke a word for a long while. Finally, the voice of the old man could be heard, saying softly, gently, “That’s why I set fire to the rice.”

He now stood among them just as poor as the poorest of them; his wealth was gone – all for the sake of 400 lives. By that sacrifice he will long be remembered, not by his wealth. He was not saddened by what his sacrifice cost him; he was overjoyed at what was saved.

The rice farmer teaches us valuable lessons about leadership. What are they? Let’s examine.

He was observant. Leaders pay attention to what is taking place around them. He saw the pending danger and immediately began to warn the villagers below. He understood his responsibility and acted on it.

He was personally invested in the well-being of others. He sacrificed his own fortune for the lives of his fellow villagers. Crops can be replanted, the village could be rebuilt, but the lives of the villagers could never be replaced. In other words, he had his priorities right.

Alan McGinnis said, “We lead best when we seek the welfare of those we lead, when we seek to serve rather than being served.” The rice farmers’ self interests would have been served by not torching his crops and letting the villagers worry about themselves. He teaches us that there are some things more valuable than wealth.

Finally, he shows us that when people come together they can weather the storm. The people ran to save the farmers’ crop. What they didn’t understand at the time was that they were saving themselves.

We will weather this economic crisis as we come together not out of selfish ambition, but out of true care and concern for our fellow man. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

A rice farmer who torched his own crops teaches us to observant, invested in others, and to come together to weather the storm.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thankful Leaders

This week we will congregate with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. Millions of Americans will gather around the table to feast on turkey and all the fixing’s and to tune in to one of the traditional Thanksgiving Day football games.

The celebration of Thanksgiving is one of remembrance and gratitude for the blessings of life we enjoy. In his Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1789, George Washington offered a blueprint as to how the day ought to be remembered.

In part, the proclamation read, “Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation…” As our nation’s first president he had a keen understanding of the origins of our blessings.

Washington’s proclamation touched on themes that are worthy of another look. The themes are guiding principles for every generation of leaders. Here are a few observations for consideration.

Thankful leaders are devoted to service. Washington proclaimed the day be “devoted by the people of these states to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of good.” Our highest calling as leaders is to serve.

The most tangible form of service to “that great and glorious Being” is found in service to our fellow man. Frank Warren said, “If you wish to be a leader you will be frustrated for very few people wish to lead. If you aim to be a servant you will never be frustrated.” One of the most defining qualities of a leader is not in who serves him, but in whom he serves.

Thankful leaders are sincere and humble. “…that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks…” Washington said. Leaders are grateful not so much for their position (the weakest form of leadership) but for the blessings that the position offers. With the position comes great responsibility to do good.

John Ruskin wisely said, “I believe that the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility, doubt of his own power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not in them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.’

A leader comfortable in his own skin is sincere and humble. He is not self-absorbed by a sense of self-importance, but understands that it is through humility, sincerity, and service to others that his greatest contributions are made.

Thankful leaders are unifiers. Later in the proclamation Washington said, “And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications…” Like Washington, leaders today understand the significance of what happens when people come together for a common purpose.

Washington understood the struggles of the past and he knew the importance of the future. In order to move forward in unity of purpose he knew it was only possible through unity of heart. Washington called upon Americans to pray to “beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgression," and asked that we be enabled “to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually.”

Thankful leaders unite people around causes greater than self. With all the challenges that we face today, and all that we have to be thankful for, can we do any less?

Happy Thanksgiving!

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Everyday Leaders

On a cold wintry day in January 2009, US Airways flight 1549 taxied down the runway at New York’s LaGuardia airport. The flight, bound for Charlotte, N.C., was a familiar flight for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Within a matter of minutes after takeoff, flight 1543 was floating in the Hudson River, mechanical failure from a bird shot brought the plane down.

In his book, Highest Duty, My Search for What Really Matters, Sullenberger shares not only his life story, but the heroic actions he and his crew took to ensure that not one passenger was lost.

Sullenberger writes, “Through the media, we all have heard about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. They act courageously or responsibly, and their efforts are described as if they opted to act that way on the spur of the moment. We’ve all read the stories: the man who jumps onto a subway track to save a stranger, the firefighter who enters a burning building knowing the great risks, the teacher who dies protecting his students during a shooting.

I believe many people in those situations actually have made decisions years before. Somewhere along the line, they came to define the sort of person they wanted to be, and then they conducted their lives accordingly. They had told themselves they would not be passive observers. If called upon to respond in some courageous or selfless way, they would do so.”

I believe Sullenberger describes what makes leaders tick. The courageous acts that so many people demonstrated that fateful day is characterized by daily decisions long before they were placed in the situation. Everyday leaders- who are they and what is unique about them? Let’s examine.

Everyday leaders exemplify courage. Not only did the crew of flight 1549 act with courage but so did emergency personnel on the scene including ordinary citizens on the ferry boats that came to the rescue of the passengers and crew.

“Courage is not the absence of fear,” said Ambrose Redmoon, “but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Everyday leaders who came to the rescue of the passengers set fear aside and did what had to be done.

Your organization may not be facing a life or death emergency like flight 1543, but courageous actions are being called upon for sound leadership, a fresh approach, a new vision. Summon the courage within you and dare to lead.

Everyday leaders assess risk and respond. In the initial moments after the bird strike, Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles had to rely on their extensive training and instincts in order to pull off the impossible.

At the controls of a descending, crippled airplane, Sully had to make split-second decisions that would mean the difference between life and death for all on board. The distance to nearby airports and the rapid rate of descent of the airplane compounded an already difficult situ`tion. Sully had no choice but to put the plane down in the Hudson River. While not the optimum choice, it was the right one, and all were saved.

Risk can be frightening in some circumstances. Everyday leaders understand what E.E. Cummings noted, “Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” When channeled properly, risk can get you out of your comfort zone and propel you to the next level. Don’t fear risk, embrace it.

Everyday leaders bring out the best in others. Whether it was air-traffic controllers, the flight crew, emergency service personnel; everyday leaders rose to the occasion to bring order out of chaos. The way they acted “on the spur of the moment” is testimony to the power of the human spirit, in times of adversity, to do the right thing.

As an everyday leader, you are the guardians of servitude and the custodians of courage in the time of need. You tap the resources of your leadership not out of impulse, but from what you have nurtured all along.

Booker T. Washington said, “Character, not circumstances, make the man.” That is true in leadership. The events and circumstances of that January day did not make Sully Sullenberger a leader and a hero, it just revealed it. Character is what shows others the type of everyday leader that you are. Lead on.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Heroes in our Midst

I read a story recently by Laura Craven of the Star-Ledger in New Jersey about Genevieve Rausch. At a ceremony in her honor, the 93 year-old sat patiently as local dignitaries paid homage to her. The ceremony, over sixty years in the making was certainly in order, and long over due.

Rausch, a member of the U.S. Army, was a pilot in the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II. From 1942 to 1944, the women took over non-combat military missions across the U.S. – test flying planes, teaching male pilots, and towing targets for artillery practice- so that male pilots could be deployed for combat. The pilots were skilled in the areas of navigation, meteorology, Morse code, and firearms. Yet, they received none of the prestige as their male counterparts did.

President Obama recently signed legislation acknowledging and awarding the members of WASP with the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest honor. Of the original 1,830 members of WASP, only 300 are with us today. Their service to our country is but one more example of why the United States military is composed of the finest men and women our nation has to offer.

As war continues in Irag and Afghanistan, Veterans Day this week will be marked with the soberness that comes from understanding that the cause for liberty and freedom continues. We pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and thank all who have and are currently serving today. Understanding that constant threats exist, we also pause to pray for and remember all those touched by the recent tragedy at Ft. Hood, Texas.

Ask any soldier, active or retired, and they will tell you with a deep sense of humility that they are not heroes. In fact, most would cringe at the suggestion. What we understand from those we honor this week are their leadership qualities that inspire all of us – honor, duty, and service.

In the humble beginnings of our republic, ordinary men and women answered the call to protect and defend. With the recent commissioning of the USS New York, we must not forget the sacrifices made by those who paved the way for our freedom in the most primitive conditions imaginable.

In his bestseller, 1776, historian David McCullough describes the horrific conditions that existed during that brutal winter. “With firewood selling for $20 a cord in Boston, more and more trees were cut down, including the old elm at the corner of Essex and Orange streets, known as the Liberty Tree, which provided fourteen cords. A hundred or more houses were pulled apart. Old barns, old wharves, and derelict ships were chopped up, almost anything that would burn. On orders from General Howe, Old North Church was demolished for firewood.”

From the warmth and comfort of our homes this week, the events of 1776 will likely not be remembered. While we may take the day for granted, unsung heroes go about their duty with pride and honor. They do so with no fanfare, no limelight. But these faithful patriots, people like Genevieve Rausch, remind us that heroes’ in fact do exist.

To the soldiers keeping watch at outposts at the DMZ in South Korea, on the streets of Baghdad, and Kandahar, we say thank you. To the Rough Riders who stormed San Juan Hill (San Juan Heights), and those who stormed the shores at Normandy, we say thank you.

Our brave soldiers of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts deserve our gratitude and respect – thank you. To the shoeless patriots of the Revolution who left their bloody footprints in the snow, we say thank you.

Freedom is fragile and we must never forget the sacrifices made so that we can enjoy it today. “I must study politics and war,” John Adams said, “that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Veterans, we salute you. Thank you for reminding us that heroes are still among us.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Are we Communicating?

“What we’ve got here…is failure to communicate.” The line is from the movie Cool Hand Luke and ranks number 11 among the phrases on the American Film Institutes’ list of top 100 movie quotes.

The movie features Paul Newman who plays the role of Luke, a non-conformist, anti-hero loner who defies authority and the establishment. His nemesis, the Captain, is played by Strother Martin who first delivers the famous line.

Luke has been returned to a chain gang that he was sentenced to prior to a brief and unsuccessful escape. The Captain is frustrated by Luke’s failure to understand the one-way nature of the communication he demands. He strikes Luke, sending him rolling down a hill.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Does this sound like your office? Effective communication is essential to the success of your organization and is a leadership trait that must be mastered. Here is what I call the four C’s of effective communication.

Be consistent. If the team receives mixed signals from the top levels of leadership, it breeds frustration down the line. When leadership comes across half-cocked, the perception, fair or not, is that they don’t have their act together. The team executing the organization’s vision needs to have confidence that all participants are operating off the same script.

Be concise. Tom Lehrer said, “I wish people who have trouble communicating would just shut up.” Concise communication is most effective when it is precise and to the point. How many of you, like me, have been stuck in meetings where re-inventing the wheel was a favorite pastime? Leaders disrespect their teams’ time and resources when in meetings they chase down rabbits no one else cares about.

Be considerate. If your communication mentality resembles the Captain in Cool Hand Luke, then certainly there is failure to communicate, and you are the reason why. “To effectively communicate,” Anthony Robbins says, “we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to communicate with others.”

One of the most valuable asset you have as a leader is the diversity of your team. Considerate communication is inviting, receptive to new ideas, and values the contributions of team members.

Be creative. Someone once said, “When all other means of communication fail, try words.” Communication methods will vary according to need. At times email will be sufficient. At other times bringing the team together in the room is most productive.

Tired of that same old conference room? Why not try quarterly meetings away from the office? Take the team to a meeting room at a nice local restaurant or nearby State park. Placing your team in this environment stimulates fresh ideas, and builds morale.

Since the dawn of time, man has struggled to communicate. Rudolph Flesch said, “Creative thinking may mean simply the realization that there’s no particular virtue in doing things the way they have always been done.” How many times have we held on to archaic ways of doing things simply because we thought that was the expected thing to do? Communication is the lifeblood of your organization, be bold and creative in your approach.

While the tools of communication have changed down through the centuries, the truth is, no amount of communication will ever be effective without trust. Trust is established through relationship and those two ingredients are the backbone for any organization.

Leadership expert John Maxwell said, “People listen not necessarily because of the truth being communicated in the message, but because of their respect for the speaker.” When a leader has the trust and respect of the team, effective communication becomes a reality.

Good communication is a reflection of your commitment to it. Don’t take it for granted, work hard at it, and reap the rewards.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson