Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Attitude of Learning Leaders

Much learning does not teach understanding.

From Bits & Pieces a few years back is a story about musician Hoagy Carmichael. As the story goes, Hoagy once decided to take up golf. Lessons were arranged with an instructor. At the first session Carmichael was patiently shown the basics of the game: how to hold the club, how to stand, how to swing, etc.

Finally, after a half hour of this, the instructor felt Carmichael was ready to drive a few toward the first hole. The ball was teed up. Hoagy stepped up to it, swung, then watched the ball sail down the fairway, bound onto the green and roll into the cup--a hole in one!

The instructor was dumbfounded. Hoagy flipped the club to a caddy with a jaunty motion, then turned to the still speechless instructor. "OK," he said casually, "I think I've got the idea now."

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “It is what we learn after we know it all that really counts.” Regardless of what level of success you enjoy as a leader, one thing is certain; learning is a life long process. More importantly, the knowledge that got you where you are won’t be enough to keep you there. You must never stop learning.

With vast resources of knowledge now available at our fingertips in the ever-advancing age of technology in which we live, staying ahead of the curve is more critical than ever. The way in which you invest yourself and take responsibility for your learning will make you all the more productive as a leader. Here are a few tips for going forward with an attitude of learning.

Be inspired by your mentors. Simply put, never stop being a student. Your mentors may not necessarily be up-to-speed on the latest technological gadgetry and know-how, but they possess something far greater – experience and wisdom.

As technology advances and business operations become more sophisticated, it’s all too easy to be further removed from the human touch that once defined our leadership elders. What our mentors can teach us has less to do with the rapid rise and pace of technology and new media, and more to do with what we lost along the way – personal relationships.

Mentors keep us grounded and remind us of the value of face time in place of Facebook. They remind us that our word is our bond, and that we treat others the way we want to be treated. Mentors are needed now more than ever and are a great source of inspiration.

Be challenged by your peers. Helpful here is a healthy amount of respect and a generous dose of curiosity. Leaders with a healthy self-esteem know that there is much they can learn from their peers.

A Japanese proverb says, “One thousand days to learn, ten thousand days to refine.” When leaders learn from their peers they open themselves up to new experiences and levels of understanding. This not only helps you as a leader, but enhances the overall intelligence and performance of your team.

Peers are built-in extensions of your corporate classroom. The next time you plan professional development or educational days, consider the talent pool that already exists in your organization. Utilize your peers as resources that can be of service to the entire organization. The best and brightest are not as far away as you thought.

Be motivated by your competitors. For many leaders, the competition is one whom must be pushed back. The attitude of a leader who is a learner is quite different. The question becomes not, “How can I beat them?’, but rather, “what can I learn from them?’

Gil Atkinson, the American business inventor of the automatic sprinkler system said, “Thank God for competition. Whenever competitors upset our plans or outdo our designs, they open infinite possibilities of our own work to us.” What an amazing attitude of a leader who understood the value of competition.

The learning process as a leader is never ending. Class is always in session. As a leader, you are both the student and a teacher. What have you learned today?

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Power of a Sacrificial Leader

In this world it is not what we take up, but what we give up, that makes us rich.
- Henry Ward Beecher

In his book, Life Lessons from the Game of Golf, Steve Riach shares a story about golf legend Jack Nicklaus. Considered by many to be the greatest golfer ever, Nicklaus won seventy tournaments. He finished in the top five of fifty-six Grand Slam championships and won each of those at least three times, including six Masters titles.

“What the record does not show,” writes Riach, “is the person Nicklaus says is most responsible for his success. It is not his coach, agent, or teaching pro. Rather, it is, according to Nicklaus, his wife Barbara.

Of Jack’s eighteen major championships, he figures Barbara “has meant at least fifteen’ to him. This is due, the golfing legend says, partly to her undying support, and also because she has been “99 percent responsible” for raising their kids.’

While Nicklaus became a household name in the realm of professional golf, it is his wife Barbara, “Momma Bear”, whom he credits for his success. Without the sacrifices she made, the world may have been denied the joys of knowing one of the greatest golfers of all time. If he was the golf legend, she was the pillar upon which he stood.

Napoleon Hill said, “Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness.” Jack and Barbara Nicklaus are fine examples of shared success and sacrificial leadership. So what are the characteristics of sacrificial leadership?

Sacrificial leaders bring out the best in others. “She’s made her life second to mine,” Jack told the Palm Beach Post. “She’s never said, ‘Jack we’re going to do this.’ She’ll always say, ‘We’ve got your schedule. We’ll do this. Then if we have time, we’ll do the other.’”

Leaders with this mentality are indispensable not just to their families, but to the organizations in which they serve. By allowing others to shine and succeed, they do so by laying aside their own desires or ambitions for the good of the team. When team members carry within themselves this attitude, everyone wins.

In his book, The Fred Factor, Mark Sanborn writes, “Ultimately, the more valuable you are to others-the more value you create in your work or your interactions with others-the more value will eventually flow toward you. Faithfully doing your best, independent of the support, acknowledgment, or reward of others, is a key determinant in a fulfilling career.”

During his legendary career, Barbara added value to Jack’s success. It’s when you add value to others around you that you realize that your success is linked to those whom you elevate.

Sacrificial leaders share the credit. Nicklaus readily acknowledges Barbara as the source of his success. Leaders are like that. They realize that no matter the degree of their personal success, they have others to thank for helping them attain their dream.

In The 360-Degree Leader, John Maxwell says, “It’s the truth that when you help someone bigger than you, it makes you part of something bigger. You cannot contribute to something significant without being changed. If you want to be better than you are, become part of something bigger than you are.”

An important principle comes into play when you understand the power of sacrificial leadership. Sacrifice begets success. When you sacrificially commit yourself to the success of others around you, it will one day be reciprocated.

More so than anyone else, Jack Nicklaus understood the sacrifices made by his wife Barbara. Her life is a testament to the principle that sacrifice begets success. For her exemplary example and lifetime support she was given the inaugural PGA First Lady of Golf Award in 1999.

The power of sacrificial leadership is realized when you understand that the key to your success is helping others succeed. For in the end, it is the sacrifice of one that makes for the success and joys of many.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Satisfying the System

So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.
- Peter Drucker

Patrick Ryan in a column for Smithsonian shares an interesting story about novelist and essayist George A. Birmingham. Birmingham was in his nonliterary life a clergyman in Ireland where he was pestered by bishops and other authorities to fill in recurring questionnaires.

He took partibular umbrage against the annual demand from the education office to report the dimensions of his village schoolroom. In the first and second years, he duly filled in the required figures. The third year he replied that the schoolroom was still the same size. The education office badgered him with reminders until Birmingham finally filled in the figures.

This time he doubled the dimensions of his schoolroom. Nobody queried it. So he went on doubling the measurements until “in the course of five or six years that schoolroom became a great deal larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral.” But nobody at the education office was at all concerned.

So, the next year, Birmingham suddenly reduced the dimensions of his colossal classroom “to the size of an American tourist trunk. It would have been impossible to get three children in that schoolroom.” And nobody took the slightest notice, for nobody needed the information. But the system did, and the system had to be satisfied.

Leaders often find themselves in situations like Birmingham in which satisfying the system is part of bureaucratic responsibility. One of the definitions of bureaucracy by the Random House dictionary is “Administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine.” Red tape and routine are the evil twins as seen by most leaders.

How many times have you been frustrated by having to satisfy the system in the organization in which you work? At each turn there is red tape and routine that consumes more of your time than the actual projects you are working on. What is a leader to do? Perhaps these suggestions will give some guidance.

Build a system based upon respect and productivity. Leaders who foster an environment of creativity and efficiency remove the obstacles that hinder progress. This is done not by imposing unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that prevents team members from excelling, but by removing them.

In as much as a leader will remove burdensome obstacles that hinder success, he will lead by example when it comes to developing a system in which accountability and transparency is modeled. At best, systems within your organization should not restrict growth but foster it. Systems must be built on the basis of trust and accountability, anything less breads frustration and low morale.

Develop your systems from the ground up. Often in the execution of systems within the typical organization, they are developed and executed from a top-down mentality. This top down mentality however well-intentioned is antiquated.

When the flow of information, ideas, and procedures are passed down from those far removed from the operation of the organization, it can stagnate growth and potential by a leader out of touch with his organization.

When systems in your organization are developed and executed from the ground upward by those closest to every level of the operation, your chances for success are enhanced by those with the greatest level of understanding. A smart leader will listen and learn from those making it happen for his organization.

While satisfying the system is an important aspect of any organizational structure, having the right systems in place will make it all worth while. It must be clear what you are doing and why. Matters of bureaucracy ought to be limited, practical, and helpful. How smooth your organizational system works is testament to the leader at the helm.

In the end, systems are what you make them and how you execute them. Most importantly, they should be viable in your organization, embraced by all, and a reward for those who follow them.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Running in Circles – A Leaders Guide to Musical Chairs

In a Guidepost story, the world renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti shares a story about growing up in Italy. “When I was a boy, my father, a baker, introduced me to the wonders of song,” he relates. “He urged me to work very hard and develop my voice. Arrigo Pola, a professional tenor in my hometown of Modena, Italy, took me as a pupil. I also enrolled in a teachers college.

On graduating, I asked my father, ‘Shall I be a teacher or a singer?’ “Luciano, my father replied,” if you try to rit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.” I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera.
And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it. Commitment is the key. Choose one chair.”

While well- intentioned, leaders often find themselves running in circles like a game of musical chairs trying to wear hats that don’t fit. Instead of choosing the one chair from which to lead, a more pathological choice is made – the belief that being the jack- of -all trades and the master- of- none will work.

From the story of Pavarotti we learn leadership insights that will have your whole team singing in harmony. When a leader finds his voice, knows his role, and learns to trust the team he has assembled, it provides the freedom necessary to move forward. Here are three things a leader must do to stop the game of musical chairs.

The leader must find his voice. Pavarotti’s father told him to work hard and develop his voice. This is a must for any leader who strives to succeed. Finding your voice as a leader comes in understanding that while you may unmistakably be the best visionary in the world, it does not mean you will make the best PR person, accountant, or IT guy.

The test of leadership in finding your voice is affording the same opportunity to the capable and qualified people on your team to do the same. They will never perform at the maximum level of productivity if you are trying to sing their part. As Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.’ The key to success is being comfortable with your own voice and giving others room to find theirs.

The leader must say no to good ideas. The world now knows that for Pavarotti, the choice to be a singer was best for him and a blessing to the world. Would he have made a good teacher? With guidance from his father coupled with the work ethic instilled in him, surely he would have made a fine teacher.

The challenge of leadership is in learning to say no to good ideas and opportunities that come your way and instead be guided down the path that destiny has for you. By anyone’s standard, teaching is a noble profession. Yet for Pavarotti, the path of destiny was in lending his voice to the world, not just a single classroom.

In musical chairs, the closest seat available when the music stops is the safest place to be to avoid elimination. In leadership, the closest seat available may not be the one that is meant for you. When facing the music of life’s choices as a leader, it is important to not just listen with your ears, but with your heart. It is a matter of good faith more so than good choices. Learn when to say no.

The leader must choose one chair. Pavarotti said, “Whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that’s the key.” It took Pavarotti years of study and hard work to see his dreams come true.

What chair have you chosen? Your road to success as a leader is not found in trying to sit in two chairs or in singing someone else’s part. When you commit yourself, work hard, train and listen to your heart there is great reward in store for you.

For a leader there is no greater satisfaction than in knowing that when the music stops, you are seated in the right chair doing exactly what you were destined to do.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Leadership is Good

If you are not familiar with Bert and John Jacobs, you should be. They are the creators of the wildly popular and ever optimistic Life is Good brand of tee shirts and other accessories.

On their website ( is the story of their humble beginnings on the streets of Boston selling tee shirts door-to-door in college dormitories. While collecting some good stories, they were not very successful.

After a long and not very successful road trip in 1994, they returned to Boston. But soon their fate would take a dramatic turn. Jake’s contagious grin seemed to express everything the Jacobs brothers believed in.

One fateful day in September of that year, they printed up 48 Jake shirts for a local street fair in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They laid out the shirts on a card table. By noontime, all 48 of those tees were gone. And the rest they say is history.

Today, the New England based brand stays close to its roots, with an emphasis on simplicity, humor, and humility. Through Life is Good Festivals, positive products, and a steady dose of ping pong, Jake’s crew does its best to keep the good vibes flowing.

I like the story of the Jacobs brothers for numerous reasons, least of which is their tenacious commitment to success and to a simple message of hope and good will. Good leaders are emblematic of the Life is Good philosophy and would do well to emulate it throughout their organizations. To coin a phrase, I believe that leadership is good. And thanks to the Jacobs we can learn a few reasons why.

Leadership is good because it builds character. The Jacobs brothers, despite many setbacks, continued to chase a dream they believed in. Not deterred by disappointments and dismal results at first, they did not give up.

Colin Powell said, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” I think that is what propelled the Jacobs brothers to success – perpetual optimism. When you relentlessly pursue your dream despite your circumstances and remain optimistic, you will build character as a leader. And your optimism will be contagious and be a source of encouragement to those around you.

Leadership is good because it rewards commitment. I am sure there were days when either one of the Jacobs brothers wanted to throw in the towel, or in their case, the tee shirt. Yet, through commitment and dedication, they stayed the course and now spread their brand of cheer nationwide.

Commitment to stay the course and not give in to critics or circumstances is what will separate you as a leader from the rest of the pack. When they started out, the Jacobs brother knew nothing about the business, but were committed to succeed regardless.

As a leader you can choose to be defined by others or you can make a new path that shows you are cut from different cloth. The Jacobs did not let what they did not know keep them from becoming what they could be. This would never have been achieved without commitment. The same holds true for you. Your dream becomes a reality so long as you remain committed.

Leadership is good because it spreads cheer. The emphasis the Jacobs place on simplicity, humor, and humility is noteworthy. Mark Twain said, “The best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer someone else up.” Whether on a tee shirt, tote bag, hat, or other product, their message is simple and encouraging.

John Maxwell defined leadership as influence. The leadership of the Jacobs brothers is being used in a fun, creative, and influential ways for good. Regardless of your station in life as a leader, the influence by which you are known ought to be one that lifts others up, brings out the best, and gives hope.

Cicero said, “While there’s life, there’s hope.” As a leader it is your responsibility to embrace it, believe it, and share it. Leadership is good and within you are the reasons why.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson