Saturday, June 26, 2010

McChrystal and the Struggles of Leadership

Affirmation from others is fickle and fleeting. If you want to make an impact during your lifetime, you have to trade the praise you could receive from others for the things of value that you can accomplish. You can’t be ‘one of the boys’ and follow your destiny at the same time.
-John Maxwell

Since the recent dustup over the resignation and replacement of General Stanley McChrystal, I ventured out to the local bookstore to pick up the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine to read for myself the story that took down a top general in war time and what possible lessons can be learned.

I am not a political pundit, but I am an observer of current events, and a student of history and leaders. The insights Michael Hastings offered into the life of McChrystal and his inner circle were compelling and in the big picture showcase a set of struggles that all leaders at some time or another must come to grips with.

Whether navigating the waters of leadership on the battle fields of Afghanistan or your business on Main Street, the leadership challenges you face will either strengthen you or handicap you moving forward. What are those struggles and how should they be addressed?

First - the struggle for your principles and the challenge of superiors. For a General with the temperament of McChrystal, bureaucracy and politics are hurdles to accomplishment. “The son of a general, McChrystal was also a ringleader of the campus dissidents,” writes Hasting, adding, “a dual role that taught him how to thrive in a rigid, top-down environment while thumbing his nose at authority every chance he got.”

For some leaders, there is a fine line between loyalty to those in the command above you and remaining true to self in the process. As a leader, this need not be an either-or proposition. Edwin R. Murrow said, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” Being true to self is the ultimate display of loyalty to those above you.

Second – the struggle for your strategy and vision and the challenge for temperance. Hastings writes of McChrystal, “Growing up as a military brat, McChrystal exhibited the mixture of brilliance and cockiness that would follow him throughout his career.” It is a struggle many leaders face and find difficult to master. Articulating a vision and plan for the future direction of your organization might make sense to you, but winning the hearts and minds of others may take a while.

A Dutch Proverb says, “A handful of patience is worth more than a bushel of brains.” When executing the vision for your company or personnel, a leader too far ahead of the team runs the risk of walking alone. A wise leader will patiently lead them and bring the entire team to victory.

Finally –the struggle of your team and the challenge for authority. When McChrystal was challenged by the men who disagreed with his rules of engagement, Hastings writes that McChrystal told them, “Strength is leading when you just don’t want to lead, you’re leading by example. That’s what we do. Particularly when it’s really, really hard, and it hurts inside.”

Leaders understand that change is never easy and that it is a slow moving ship. Rather than scold the men for their line of questioning or concern, McChrystal confronted it head-on. A confident leader welcomes input, listens to concerns, and provides what he believes are the best options for success.

Leadership is full of rewards and struggles; it comes with the territory. I do not believe that McChrystal’s resignation, while a blemish on his record, should diminish his otherwise patriotic service and devotion to his country.

Important to understand is what Warren Bennis meant when he said, “Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.”

The leadership struggles you face today are making you the leader you are destined to become tomorrow. Don’t shy from the struggle, instead embrace it, and in doing so, you are a step closer to success.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Perfection Denied: Lessons from the Diamond

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.
-Ann Quindlen

Armando Galarraga had never pitched a perfect game in his major league baseball career. But on June 2, in a game against the Cleveland Indians, he was one out away from that distinction.

At bat for the Cleveland Indians was Jason Donald who hit a grounder between first and second base. First baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded the ball and threw it to Galarraga to make the tag at first.

Standing down the first base line was veteran umpire Jim Joyce. With more than twenty years experience, Joyce has made thousands of such calls in his career. He is respected as one of the best officials in the game as voted by 100 players in a poll conducted by ESPN magazine. But what happened next was a mistake of historic proportions.

As the ball entered Galarraga’s glove and Donald’s foot subsequently tagged the base, the call would certainly earn Galarraga the biggest game of his career and his shot at baseball glory. But it was not meant to be. Joyce called Donald safe.

Despite a furious appeal by Coach Jim Leyland and others, Joyce defended his call despite instant replay evidence to the contrary. Detroit went on the win the game 3-0 in spite of the controversy.

Whether in the board room or on the ball field, leadership is essential for the way in which your team performs and for lessons that are far more important. Here are a few observations worth noting.

Always give your best. Your best day can be someone else’s worst. On a professional level, Galarraga was enjoying the best day of his career. Just one out separated him from baseball history. For Joyce, a seasoned professional, it would be the darkest day of his career.

Giving your best is a discipline of all leaders. Whether you are winning the game or not, your best efforts are non-negotiable. But what we learn from this game is how suddenly ones fortunes can change. Your response during good times is predictable, but the true test of leadership is your response during the bad.

As we will later observe, both men would rise to the occasion in which their behavior off the field would be more impressive than their actions on the field. Bringing out the best in ourselves and in others may not come in ways of our choosing, but they will make us better if we act with character.

Be willing to be wrong. After the game, Joyce asked to see the video replay of the call. What he would see in the replay is what millions had already observed. He got it wrong. Appalled by his mistake, Joyce sought out Galarraga to apologize. Galarraga said, “He probably feels more bad than me. Nobody is perfect. I give a lot of credit to that guy. He apologized. He feels really bad. What am I gonna do? His eyes were watering and he didn’t have to say much. His body language said a lot.”

Even seasoned leaders get it wrong. As opposed to an attitude of arrogance and pride, a leader must be willing to admit mistakes and learn from them. Joyce teaches us that humility and confession are good for the soul. The outpouring of support that followed his apology endeared him to both fans and players alike and it will do the same for you.

Be quick to forgive. After reviewing the video a tearful Joyce said, “I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw until I saw the replay.” Joyce was distraught. Galarraga was denied.

Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” An attribute of the strong is also to forgive others which gives strength and courage to come back for another day.

After Joyce’s apology, Galarraga said, “You don’t see an umpire tell you that after a game. I gave him a hug.” Both are to be commended for being stand-up men whose actions demonstrate integrity in leadership and remind us of lessons that transcend the game. It just goes to show you that you don’t have to be perfect to be your best.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Creating a Culture of Inclusion

To succeed as a team is to hold all of the members accountable for their expertise.
- Mitchell Caplan

After considerable pressure brought to bear, President Barack Obama is slated to meet this week with BP executives at the White House. The topic at hand of course is how to deal with the oil crisis in the Gulf. As that crisis lingers on, it is imperative that all key leaders get together to work on solutions.

Many an executive have faced challenges in which strong leadership is required to chart the right course and bring stability to the organization. Essential to the success of any leader is one who is secure enough to seat people at the table, even those with opposing views, in order to move forward and get things done.

The concepts of creating a culture of inclusion are nothing new. In fact, the concepts, at least in theory, are quite simple. The execution of these concepts builds trust, boosts morale, and fosters good will. Your commitment to being an inclusive leader begins when you apply these simple principles.

Welcome dialogue. Any leader worth his salt wants honest, straight-forward information that will enable him to make well-informed decisions. During times of crisis, for example, many leaders take on a defensive posture that is inherently counter productive. When a leader assumes this posture within his organization, he creates barriers that not only hinders dialogue but discourages it.

Nitin Nohria said, “Communication is the real work of leadership.” This is especially true when seated at the table are those who disagree with you. Yet this is precisely the time in which your leadership mettle is earned. Ghandi said, “Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.” Never underestimate the power of open dialogue, no matter how contentious. Dialogue is the lifeblood of your organization.

Develop a plan of action. The purpose of creating a culture of inclusion is to turn ideas and dialogue into action. Simply put, inclusion is not a formality. There is a time for dialogue and then there is a time to act. The best minds and ideas help formulate the right strategy to get things done. As Shakespeare said, “Strong reasons make strong actions.”

Action plans chart the course for inclusive leaders who understand the value of team participation. Churchill said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” That is why your action plan should have measurable results, attainable expectations, with people who are accountable.

Open communication. A culture of inclusion rises and falls on the quality of communication. To this end, the filters that typically guard the flow of information up and down the lines of authority must be streamlined. Regardless of how good the information is at the ground level, it means nothing if it never makes its way to the top.

The inclusive leader understands the importance of quality communication and makes it a personal priority. Bertolt Brecht said, “Society cannot share a common communication system so long as it is split into warring factions.’ This is especially true in the culture of your organization. If warring factions exist within your organization it is imperative to bring unity. An inclusive leader takes responsibility for open communication and creates the environment for it to exist.

What obstacles do you face in creating a culture of inclusion within your organization? Do you welcome dialogue? Are you a decision maker? Do you take responsibility for the communication within your organization? As you develop these core principles you will soon be at ease with the way in which your leadership is received.

When you make a concerted effort to be an inclusive leader your team will respond, your stock will rise, and your organization will be better for it. Creating a culture of inclusion is the best way to move your organization forward.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Wizard of Westwood: A Leader for the Ages

Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.
- John Wooden

Few in the arena of sports and leadership have had such a lasting impact on and off the court than legendary basketball coach John Wooden. At the age of 99, just four months shy of his 100th birthday, John Wooden has passed away.

Wooden’s record at UCLA is that of legend. During his tenure, the Bruins amassed an amazing 88-game win streak from 1964 to 1975. His team went undefeated for four seasons and won 10 national championships. Simply put, Wooden was in a league of his own and he did it with hard work, grace, and dignity that endeared him to his players and opponents alike.

One of the standout players from the Wooden era is Bill Walton. Writing in the introduction to Wooden’s book, Wooden- A Lifetime of Observations On and Off the Court, he gives insight into what endeared pl`yers and fans alike to this amazing man. From Walton’s insights come leadership lessons that are worth emulating and building in our own lives. Here are a few leadership traits Walton reveals about his coach.

Be the best you can be. Walton writes, “John Wooden taught us to focus on one primary objective: be the best you can be in whatever endeavor you undertake.” Wooden by his own admission was not the best coach out there. But he was relentless in perfecting the fundamentals that ultimately set his teams apart from the rest.

“The skills he taught us on the court,” adds Walton, “teamwork, personal excellence, discipline, dedication, focus, organization, and leadership- are just some of the tools you need in the real world. Coach showed us how these skills are transferable. He wasn’t just teaching us about basketball, he was teaching us about life.”

Wooden believed that if he could impart an attitude of excellence to those young men as basketball players, it would transfer to their personal life in preparation for the real world. What Wooden understood and demanded was not perfection, but to simply be the best you can be- nothing less.

Understand the power of right thinking. Walton writes, “You saw how true he was to doing things right, by thinking right. Coach Wooden was more interested in the process than in the result.” In short, Wooden believed that right thinking was the surest way to overcome any obstacle- on and off the court. The most important thing was the process, not the result.

Wooden’s coaching philosophy was about substance over image, it was about quality not quantity. Walton continues, “He really wanted things done correctly and it started with the way he did things, you wanted to follow him and his example.” What Wooden understood and what he imparted was in order to get the result you desire, begins not with your physical ability but with your mental awareness. He imparted the power of right thinking.

Be true to yourself. Walton writes, “He taught us the values and characteristics that could make us not only good players, but also good people. He taught us to be true to ourselves while also striving to be our best.’ This is perhaps one of the highest compliments a player could bestow upon his coach and mentor.

While phenomenal as a coach, his lasting legacy will be the impact he had on the lives of countless people off the court. His faith taught him to value things far more important than a game, st`ts, and records.

Wooden said, “We who coach have great influence on the lives of all the young men who come under our supervision, and the lives we lead will play an important role in their future. It is essential that we regard this as a sacred trust and set the example that we know is right."

Wooden’s success on the basketball court was secondary to his faith, family, and guiding principles that shaped the lives of so many people. As Wooden said, “True happiness comes from the things that cannot be taken away from you. Making the full effort to do the right thing can never be taken away from you.”

In the arena of sports, Wooden’s legacy will forever be secure. As a leader, he will be sorely missed.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson