Sunday, April 25, 2010

How to Handle Distractions

A story is told involving Yogi Berra, the well-known catcher for the New York Yankees, and Hank Aaron, who at that time was the chief power hitter for the Milwaukee Braves.

The teams were playing in the World Series, and as usual Yogi was keeping up his ceaseless chatter, intended to pep up his teammates on the one hand, and distract the Milwaukee batters on the other.

As Aaron came to the plate, Yogi tried to distract him by saying, "Henry, you're holding the bat wrong. You're supposed to hold it so you can read the trademark." Aaron didn't say anything, but when the next pitch came he hit it into the left-field bleachers. After rounding the bases and tagging up at home plate, Aaron looked at Yogi Berra and said, "I didn't come up here to read."

One of the disciplines a leader needs in order to be successful is to watch out for those pesky distractions that can derail your plans and keep you from achieving your goals. While many good things compete for your time and attention, be careful not to fall into the trap of buying-in to the tyranny of the urgent. Answering three simple questions will help you stay focused when faced with distractions.

Does the distraction require my involvement? Knowing what necessitates your direct input and what can be handled by a qualified team member can reduce the distractions that come your way. When challenges come to your organization and are handled by qualified, trained team members, they do not have to be distractions for you.

The simple solution is primarily one of communication. When team members are empowered to solve problems, only the most problematic ones should come your way. Be sure the team clearly understands what is expected and what qualifies for your involvement.

Is the distraction a blessing in disguise? An important thing to keep in mind when distractions come is to see if there is a greater purpose in play. What may appear as a distraction at first may actually be an opportunity at second glance.

In 1914, fire destroyed the laboratories of Thomas Edison. While clearly a distraction by anyone’s estimation, he refused to be defeated by the apparent setback. He determined to press on, saying, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”

While it is important to be on guard against distractions that come through a lack of communication, don’t miss the blessing-in-disguise that comes from a lack of insight. What may appear as a distraction to one is an opportunity waiting in the wings for another.

Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

How will the distraction fit into the big picture? The big picture is what you have to remain focused on and not lose sight of. The list of things that can distract is endless; unscheduled meetings, an unhappy customer, phone calls, personnel issues, etc. can turn the tables on productivity in a moments notice.

The ability to see beyond the frustration of the moment and see the big picture is your gift to your organization. The distractions you face, annoying as they may be, must be taken in stride. The purpose of this question is to help you evaluate whether you are focused on your vision or your distraction.

The question is not whether you will face distractions, but in how they will be handled. Stephen Covey said, “Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.’

How you handle distractions speaks of your communication, your insights, and your focus. The mark of your leadership is in how you answer the questions.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Most Important Things

The secret of a good life is to have the right loyalties and hold them in the right scale of values.
- Norman Thomas

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once told of an incident that may have seemed insignificant at the time, but had a profound influence on the rest of his life. The winter he was 9, he was walking across a snow-covered field with his reserved, no-nonsense uncle.

As the two of them reached the far end of the field, his uncle stopped him. He pointed out his own tracks in the snow, straight and true as an arrow’s flight, and then young Frank’s tracks meandering all over the field. “Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again,” his uncle said. “And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that.”

Years later the world-famous architect liked to tell how this experience had greatly contributed to his philosophy in life. “I determined right then,” he would say with a twinkle in his eyes, “not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had.”

It’s easy to get so caught up in the grind of life that encompasses all of us as leaders that our tracks don’t wander quite as much as they use to. Yes, it’s important to keep your focus and to reach your goals and see your dreams come true, but allowing your tracks to wander will make the journey more enjoyable.

Imagine with me if you will the tracks that you have left thus far on your journey. Are your tracks like that of the uncle; a straight set of tracks that lead toward a desired goal? Or perhaps do yours resemble those of Frank who took the scenic route to the same destination?

When arriving at their desired destination, I can only imagine the stories Frank could have shared with his uncle as he strolled by the fence to observe the cattle or of something observed by the edge of the woods. Through the eyes of the young architect, or through your eyes as a leader leaving your tracks, the possibilities are endless.

A first-grader wondered why her father brought home a briefcase full of work every evening. Her mother explained, “Daddy has so much to do that he can’t finish it all at the office.” “Well, then,” asked the child innocently, “why don’t they put him in a slower group?” The father may not necessarily need to be in a slower group, but like many leaders, needs to start making a different set of tracks.

Wright said he adopted his philosophy not to miss most things in life based on that experience with his uncle. As you set out to make your tracks as a leader, here are some ideas on moving forward.

Don’t miss the simple lessons. A lot of people are looking for the next big experience that will satisfy them. I’ve found, especially living along the Atlantic coast that a sunrise or sunset walk along the beach is one of the most spectacular things I can enjoy. Life, as Elbert Hubbard said, “is one damned thing after another,” which is why enjoying the simplicity of it is so rewarding. There is nothing more humbling than a walk along the beach to serve as a reminder that if God can keep the oceans in-check He can also make order out of my life.

Don’t miss the simple joys. Misunderstanding the source of joy is what causes most to miss it. Sister Mary Rose McGeady said, “There is no greater joy nor greater reward than to make a fundamental difference in someone’s life.” Simple joys are found in what we do for others as we make our tracks. When leaders remember to spread joy it will make someone else’s load lighter.

Don’t miss the simple paths. John Hope Franklin said, “We must get beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths…and tell the world the glories of our journey.” The simple paths may not lead you where you expected, but that is the beauty of them. The simple paths become spectacular when you realize they are not accidental but destined.

Start making your tracks, the world awaits the glories of your journey!

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reacting Like a Leader

If you can react the same way to winning and losing, that’s a big accomplishment. That quality is important because it stays with you the rest of your life, and there’s going to be a life after tennis that’s a lot longer than your tennis life.
- Chris Evert

One of the many wonderful things about living along coastal South Carolina is the annual Family Circle Cup women’s tennis tournament on Daniel Island. The world’s top stars compete at this world-class facility for the coveted title each year. I will enjoy being at the event this week watching these remarkable players.

Past champions of the Family Circle Cup include such greats as Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini, Martina Hingis, Iva Majoli, Jalena Jankovic, Venus Williams and her sister Serena to name a few.

The tennis world was recently shocked and saddened by the news that Martina Navratilova was diagnosed with a non-invasive form of breast cancer. Her prognosis is good and everyone certainly wishes her the very best in her recovery.

Navratilova’s tennis career is a benchmark for all others to aspire to. She won Wimbledon eight times, won every Grand Slam at least two times each and in 1984 held all Grand Slam titles simultaneously. Her accomplishments on and off the court has earned her the respect of fans worldwide.

As leaders we are not immune from life’s setbacks and disappointments. “Trials, temptations, disappointments,” said James Buckham, “all these are helps instead of hindrances, if one uses them rightly. They not only test the fiber of our character but strengthen it. Every conquering temptation represents a new fund of moral energy. Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.”

Since it’s a settled fact that life’s joys and disappointments will be a part of our lives as leaders, how you choose to respond must be examined. The choices you make as a leader today will set the course for where you go as a leader tomorrow. Three factors are worthy of consideration.

The factor of a positive response. You may not choose the things that happen to you, especially the negative things, but you are in command of your response. Henry Van Dyke said, “There is no personal charm so great as the charm of a cheerful temperament.’ As a leader, you set the tone not only for yourself, but for your organization by the way you react to the things that happen to you.

A positive response is not a willful denial of reality as it exists. It is, however, the realization that it’s only a snapshot of one moment in the larger picture of your destiny. When you choose not to be defined by one negative moment, but rather redefine it for good, you have chosen a positive response.

The factor of a positive attitude. I like the lighthearted observation of Herm Albright who said, “A positive attitude may not solve all of your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” A positive attitude in the midst of negative circumstances is exactly the right prescription to turn things around.

While no one can deny that Thomas Edison was a man of great accomplishment, it’s worth noting that he also suffered terrible setbacks as well. Yet it was Edison who said, “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” He chose an attitude that refused to be defeated when beset by failure, and chose the right attitude in all circumstances. The right attitude propelled him to unimaginable accomplishment and it will do the same for you.

The factor of positive perseverance. When you choose a positive response and attitude toward the circumstances you find yourself in, you will begin to experience exponential growth as a leader. The laws of reciprocity are set in motion by your negative reactions or by your positive ones. How that affects you is determined by the choice you make.

Emerson said, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has become easier.” While you still may face obstacles and challenges as a leader, you persevere not as one without hope, but as one who understands that his brightest days are still before him.

Champions like Martina Navratilova may have been stunned by news of cancer, and you may be reeling from the effects of the current economy, but I know that if your choice moving forward is a positive one, you are already one step ahead of the game.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson