Leadership Wisdom for Executives: Staying at your level

Leadership Wisdom for Executives: Staying at your level

Leading a team, especially at senior levels, can feel like navigating a minefield. Every word and action is scrutinized, and the slightest misstep can make the 6 o’clock news.

Or a ubiquitous all-employee email.

You can control more of that than you may realize. Just be more intentional about what you’re doing.

Think first, act second. Repeat as often as necessary to drill it into that thick head we have attached atop our shoulders. Keep this simple, as in our article on Occam’s Razor. Some specifics:

Stay above the fray.

A hallmark of all truly successful leaders is their ability to be, well, different. In a good way. Don’t feel like you need to be involved in all things. You don’t, and there are many times where, simply, you shouldn’t.

Don’t allow someone to drag you down to a mud-fight, even if you know you’re right.

(1) Choose Words Carefully. As mentioned above, every word will be washed through myriad bullshit detectors, and many of those are intent on finding a misstep, a misspeak, or a simple mistake.

Choose those words carefully and provide your definitions for words or phrases that can be easily misconstrued. E.g., if we really need to work hard this year, it doesn’t mean we weren’t working hard last year.

That sort of thing can take months to sort out and smooth over.

It’s sorta like being a rock star but without the entourage or drugs. So, choose your words like you’re picking out a wine for dinner – deliberate and with an eye on the good stuff.

(2) You don’t have to join every argument you’re invited to. Just because someone – anyone – invites you to a verbal duel doesn’t mean you need to grab your sword and shield.

Engaging in every disagreement is a fool’s errand and knocks your credibility down a peg or two. You’re the leader, not a gladiator, and you can’t be forced to fight.

Gracefully decline most battles – they are simply not worth your time or effort.

Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”

(3) Emotions are a Sprint; Logic is a Slow Walker.

Count to ten… let the email sit until the morning… walk away for now… take a deep breath…

All are solid thoughts when considering an emotional response. We usually remember it “just after the nick of time.”

Emotions come to the forefront immediately, while logic takes a slow, deliberate stroll, carefully working its way to our brain.

For example: at our house, we have two dogs. One (Pippa) is a wiry, slim and high-strung animal, the other (Riley) a bit, shall we say, “bigger.” The vet, when we asked about his weight, said, “Well, he is a bit round.”

Riley goes everywhere that Pippa goes, just slower. But he gets there.

Like knee-jerk emotional reactions in leadership that seldom serve us well.

Just wait for logic. It’s coming.

Like the fat dog, it’s coming.

(4) Learn to Delete, Ignore, Smile, and Stare. In the digital age, the temptations are many – that snarky email, that provocative comment. Learn the art of the strategic delete, the power of simply ignoring, even the mystical-but-ever-so-effective smile, blink, and stare.

Delete everything not worth your mental bandwidth. Ignore the idiots. Smile warmly, blink in surprise, followed by the “WTF stare” instead of getting angry.

Your sanity – and credibility – will thank you.

The takeaway: Stay at your level.

Remain calm, choose your battles wisely (and sparingly), and speak with purpose. Be the example, as people are always watching.

Do this well and you might just avoid becoming the next boss meme.

Remember that grace and accountability can coexist.

The Future of Work– WFH, RTO, WTF or Hybrid?

Future of Work

Ok, so I just threw in the WTF to see if you were paying attention.

Sort of. Maybe. I mean, there is some application here.

So, what’s the answer? Do we absolutely work from home if at all possible? Come fill an office that we are still paying for? Work from Starbucks? From the beach? (this is why the WTF reference isn’t entirely unreasonable)

From my way of thinking, the answer is “yes.”

And “no.”

And mostly, “It depends.”

The real issue is Trust. Employees seem to believe that managers are over-controlling ogres wanting to keep their thumbs on everybody at the office by keeping everyone within eyesight. Bosses apparently believe that Work From Home is a euphemism for work out, do the dishes and walk the dog.

Next come the studies and research, all appropriately biased for their viewing public.

Then, like political ideology, both “sides” dig in their heels. That, sports fans, is the crux of the problem.

The effort here doesn’t have to be this win-lose, zero-sum game of chicken. It really doesn’t.

Let’s have less focus on WHERE work can best be done, and more on HOW work can be done best.

After all, that’s what we all say we want from our respective views on this, right? The best way to get things done for all concerned?

Some tasks seem custom-made for remote or working at home. Solo brain work, research, front-of-computer interactions with little need for collaborative or external discussions…

Others feel like an in-office appearance may be better: innovative brainstorming, real time problem solving with disparate entities, creating the foundation for a collaborating team…

Both can coexist. Instead of slugging it out over which location is better, realize first that a hybrid creation may actually benefit all – managers, employees, even the organization. Work through the issues and challenges professionally, keeping your mind open all the while.

So, focus on hybrid first, as that gives us choices. Then allow the discussion and decisions to follow their logical course to help arrive at location.

The result should be a complete conversation before ever addressing the location.

More on this in future articles (feel free to email me with thoughts/opinions).

For more about this, see my video, The Future of Work: More Hybrid Less Remote.

Timeless Leadership… This is NOT Rocket Surgery– Good enough for Patton, good enough for you

Timeless Leadership is not rocket surgery.

I’m a military veteran. USAF. 13 years, 8 months, 13 days. If I was counting.

As such, I frequently read old military books, discourses, and papers to compare corporate leadership today with historical military leadership. The similarities are astounding. A 1941 book published by the Military Service Publishing Company is one such work.

Edited by the staff, it has no specific author, but is a compilation of thoughts, ideas, suggestions and directives from a stream of notable military leaders. Some–just as an example–include the likes of General J.G. Harbord, who began as a private in the Spanish-American war, achieved prominence as General Pershing’s Chief of Staff, and later commanding the USMC’s 2nd Division before assuming the Chairmanship of the RCA Corporation.

Just an example of the caliber of input for this book…

In this book, Chapter II discusses “Orientation.” Of course, it is meant to apply mostly to new officers at a new post or assignment.

Truth is, the advice given there — some 75-odd years ago to junior officers — is as appropriate today for first-time (and/or recently promoted) managers as it is senior-most leadership.

Sections and brief summaries include (apologies in advance for the dated, ubiquitous male gender references – these are quotes, not 2024 sound bites):

Your Brother Officers: “The commissioned officers of the U.S. military are a cross-section of the American Public… as a group, they are subject to the same ambitions, variations in viewpoint, and human frailties as the people they serve.”

This, of course, matches up with our corporate situations today. Managers and leaders have different backgrounds and experiences, bringing different thought processes and judgment. When harnessed for the common good, this is an excellent trait, one we should exploit, not suppress.

Different thinking means more choices. More choices usually mean better decisions. Or, as many would put it–embrace your weirdness.

Performance of Duty: “In the military, the performance of duty to the limit of one’s capacity is a fetish. Striving for perfection is more than a figure of speech… as you demonstrate your capacity for additional responsibility, it will come to you… be not impatient… there is much to learn.”

Wow, is this apropos or what!? The fetish analogy may be a bit much, but… Work hard, smart, and consistent. Do what you say you’ll do. Make well-thought decisions. Those of you who have achieved significant corporate rank: Did you get there through politics, trickery, and slight-of-hand, or was it hard work, diligence, and sacrifice??

This stuff really works.

Get Out or Get in Line (if you don’t read anything else, read this!): “Mind your business. If the concern where you are employed is all wrong, and the Old Man a curmudgeon (I love that word), it may be well for you to go tell the Old Man, confidentially, privately, and quietly, that he is a curmudgeon.

Explain to him that his policy is absurd and preposterous. Then show him how to reform his ways and offer to lead the effort to cleanse the faults.

Do this, or if for any reason you should prefer not, then take your choice of these: Get Out, Or Get In Line.

If you work for a man, in heaven’s name, work for him! Speak well of him, think well of him, stand by him and the institution he represents.

If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth more than a pound of cleverness.

If you must vilify, condemn, and eternally disparage, why, resign your position and, when on the outside, damn to your heart’s content.”

This quotation is so appropriate in corporate management today that it needs no explanation, segue, or pithy remarks from me. Simply put–work for whomever you work for. Grammatical errors aside, you get my point. Don’t we all get tired of those who work “for” us part of the time, and “against” us the rest?

Bum Phillips, revered Houston Oilers coach, said it best: “Dance with who brung ya.”

Importance of the Word ‘NO’: “As an officer, many questions will come to you for decisions… the choice you make in the mere act of saying “yes,” or “no,” may constitute the measure of your success.

A weak man can say “yes” to troublesome situations, dissipating the efforts of the whole. An unwise man can say “no,” and by mere obstruction, cause the failure of the unit. It takes a happy combination of courage and wisdom to be able to say “no” at the right time and place.”

Simply put, our most significant, regular responsibility–day to day and strategic–is making decisions.

Anyone can make the easy ones… they seldom take forethought, intellect, or wisdom, since they are usually painfully obvious, and accolades are near. No, they pay us for the hard ones. The lonely decisions. The times when we make the “right” decision in the face of dissent and conflict, and where the easier decision is to abide with consensus.

That’s why they pay us the bucks and give us these fancy business cards.

Adaptability: “Adaptability is required. Leadership is a new and different life. He must be equally quick to detect and avoid those things which are abhorrent to military life… the road to recognition and fame may lie ahead. How well and how quickly the opportunities are embraced depends upon the promptness of adapting himself to the new horizons the career provides.”

You can’t always spell out the details of a leadership role in a nice, convenient job description. Our worlds are dynamic, fluctuating, and ever-changing.

We’ve got to know when to “stay the course,” and when to turn on a dime. All the while keeping those looking to us for leadership engaged in our path.

This is what sets us apart.

I only provided these today for two reasons. First, a reminder: Leadership — its theories, concepts, and approaches, really haven’t changed much in a couple thousand years.

Yes, some applications of principles have evolved over time, given our changing workforce, demographics, and societal norms.

The real concepts and basis of leadership, however, remain constant.

And lastly, we can learn a lot from simplicity. Sometimes we make this stuff too hard, when we could get to the same place — maybe even a better place — with approaches that embrace simplicity and ease of thought.

Grace and accountability can coexist.

Surprise! I Actually Don’t Know It All! — Lessons learned, circa 2023

2023 Business Lesson Learned

As the coach and consultant, I’m supposed to be the expert; offer advice, coaching, and counsel to my clients, and provide insights and thinking to get “unstuck” and make progress. To help them succeed. They pay me to bring concentrated expertise and specific judgment that likely doesn’t exist in their organization.

But there goes another year-end, and I have to say I learned a ton from my clients this past year.


Some of it completely useless and won’t be shared here (you know who you are); other morsels of wisdom have been found to be surprisingly valuable, and I thought I’d share those tidbits with you today.

Lessons I Learned from my Clients – just the Top 5

1. Don’t let anyone else tell you what’s normal. Normal is a subjective term, no matter how many supportive facts others may include as evidence. Facts may be facts, but using those facts to arrive at a conclusion is something entirely different.

What’s normal for one person or organization may be completely and utterly abnormal to another. And both can be correct in their assessment.

And since the apocalypse, the definition of normal keeps shifting for us all. It’s not a “new” normal as much as a “now” normal.

Take politics for example (watching everyone gasp sharply):

        • Candidate Bob did something. An objective, factual comment. Likely footage available.
        • Candidate Bob said something. Another objective, factual comment. Again, there’s probably a reel.
        • Therefore, Candidate Bob is an asshole. Hmmm… methinks there may have been a logic leap, a bit of subjectivity in arriving at the conclusion, even though facts were the starting point.

You get the picture.

You – personally or organizationally – determine what’s normal for you. No one else.

And anyway, normal is vastly overrated. Strive instead to get better. To change what needs to be changed, and reinforce what you should continue doing. That should be your “normal.”

2. Questions are learning moments. Teach. This one is something I’ve used in the past, when describing leadership traits and such. It’s included in my 5 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership article.

The whole “teach a person to fish” metaphor.

From the article: “If you always answer employee’s every question, you’ll forever be answering employees’ every question. Questions are teaching moments — don’t rob employees of the opportunity.”

True dat. Come to find out it applies to coach/client as well. Whouldathunkit??

Smart employees asking questions is a really good thing. And they want to learn, so let’s do the whole teaching moment thing, shall we?

3. Ask for help. When you need help, knowledge, casual assistance, or a full-blown life preserver… ask for it.

We (global leadership) are not good at this one. My friend and partner-in-crime Kevin Ross discusses this better than I can in his article, HELP!

We have somehow convinced ourselves that asking for help is akin to an admission of weakness of some sort.

Which is truly weird, if you consider that:

a. We are forever telling those we lead to do exactly that – ask for help when you need it. We know, intuitively, that it’s too much for a person to know all things, so we jump up and down when they don’t ask… like what the hell were you thinking?

Then we, sometimes sanctimoniously inside, do the exact same thing.

Weird, huh?

Asking for help, when you need it, is clearly seen by subordinates as an indicator of strength and confidence – the very opposite of a weakness.

b. When we ask others for help, we are both admitting that we do not/can not know it all, and that the appropriate thing to do in that situation is ask someone who knows more about that than I do.

Wins all around.

Ask for help when you need it. And trust me, the “when” is more frequent than you think. Really.

4. Offer assistance when you know you can. Here’s where it gets tricky, since it may butt heads a bit with the advice above about asking for help.

When you see clearly (or even not-so-clearly) that someone could use your help, offer it. In the moment. Right then when you see that you can add value.

Now the tricky part: I don’t mean to immediately offer a solution to something that they’re working diligently on, solving problems like a puzzle. They are making solid progress, leave them be.

Nor do I mean stepping in with the white-horse attitude of, “Here, let me fix that for you.”

I tell family, friends, and clients all the time, “It’s only help if the help you’re offering helps the person needing help.” Read it slowly, it’s not nearly as confusing as it looks initially.

Also, to be clear, I certainly don’t mean waiting until someone is near-drowning before stepping in with the offer. I do mean you need to read the room, and offer when it can actually help. Simple prompts, like:

        • Hey, can I give you a hand?
        • Can I offer a suggestion?

Don’t be that leader who, after failure, insists, “Well, if she needed help, she should’ve asked for it.”

5. Expand your reach. One-deep functional relationships are simply inadequate for anything useful. I’m talking here about functional relationships, not personal ones.

Personal relationships are, and forever will be, one-on-one. No one can sit in your stead, and no amount of peripheral or tertiary connections will make up for unsuccessful, one-on-one personal relationships.

Functional relationships, however, are different. And as a leader, you really need to consider broadening yours.

If you have a single go-to in Operations… that’s great, but insufficient. Not only are the inputs you may receive inadequate (or insufficient) to actually get a bead on what’s going on, but if you really need that go-to, and they aren’t there, then what?

Or your single contact in Accounting goes dark. Maybe they’ve taken a week off (called “vacation.” Google it). Maybe they quit, and left you in a lurch. Maybe they got whacked for using the corporate zoom account for some sketchy interactions.

Don’t care, doesn’t matter. It’s not their issue, it’s yours. And you’re in a bind because of a one-deep functional relationship.

Expand your reach. Meet, interact and connect with multiple folks in functional areas. You can combine those interactions if you simply must, meeting with all your Accounting peeps in one lunch, but expand your reach.

You can’t succeed as a leader without it.

Leadership is a journey, not a destination. You stop learning, you stop leading.

As I implied above, this list is far from all-inclusive.

This I merely a top-5 list of myriad lessons that I learned from clients this year. We are forever teaching each other – that’s a good thing, and exactly how it should be.

Some of my clients, it seems, are pretty sharp.

Shhh, don’t tell ‘em I said that.

1:1 Meetings aren’t for you — You know that, right?

One on One Meetings aren’t for you

Look, nobody is saying you guys don’t talk to each other. Really.

I mean, think about it… with some of your direct reports, you speak multiple times each day. Hell, some of them all day. Like it or not. And no, that wasn’t a question, so stop nodding your head.

And anyway, that’s not the point.

The point is, we sometimes speak so much and so frequently that we never seem to get around to the conversations we should be having with those we lead.

The conversations that are about them. Not about what you want, but what they want. Not about your needs, but what they need to move forward. Not about your grandiose vision and plans for the future, but their ideas on what their career, life and future will look like.

Enter the 1:1 meeting.

Everyone likes to talk about themselves. You get to do it all the time – mainly because we like to believe that the rapt attention we receive when doing so means that those in front of us are pining away, wondering what future you have mapped out.

In reality, they’re listening to you discuss the future to help them determine how (or if) they fit into it. Or even if they want to fit into it.

What should be happening, if it isn’t already, is that you sit down with your folks, individually and regularly scheduled, and listen to them talk about themselves. Things like, what they want, how things are going (really), their expectations, and how you might fit into their future.

How you might fit into their future?

Crazy stuff, huh…?

1:1 meetings, solo gatherings between you and your direct reports on a regular (read: scheduled) basis are not just any meeting. For instance they are not:

    • Routine status checks,
    • Repeats of operational updates, or even
    • Personal performance assessments.

They are, however, about:

    • Their priorities,
    • Their targets,
    • The challenges they face, and
    • What actions they (or you) might take to better help them do their job and achieve their goals.

(If you need a template, click here.)

Totally centered on “they” and “their,” not “me and “my.”

We don’t do 1:1 meetings just for the hell of it. As a leadership tool, they foster engagement, improve relationships, give us early warnings, and create that sought-after discretionary effort.

No visible downsides.

Wins all around.

Added resource: A more in-depth, instructional look at 1:1 meetings can be seen here.

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