Leadership Lessons from My Fishing Trip

I recently went with some friends to Venice, Louisiana to do some gulf fishing. Those who know me are right now asking themselves what sort of alien has taken over my body, since they know well that I’m no fisherman. Not even a little bit.

But gulf fishing with a charter is different; there’s a crew on the boat that does the myriad things that need to happen to make fishing a success. Passengers just get to do the fun stuff. Essentially, we have no responsibility whatsoever, except reeling in fish.

So, a-fishing we went. One day inshore (not far from bunkhouse) and one day offshore (way the hell out there).

Good times had by all. Fish caught, fish eaten, cigars smoked, maybe even had a drink or two. Lots of laughs. But, much to the chagrin of some of my fishing partners (…”don’t you ever turn that off?”), I also noticed some appropriate leadership lessons from our days in the boat. Some things that apply to us once we get back onshore and return to our real worlds, where responsibility and accountability seems to run amok.

Lessons learned from my fishing trip:

  1. Leaders are responsible for specific results, not simply effort. Our boat captain, Ronald, took us inshore fishing the first day; the expectation was to catch our limits in red fish. Well, the reds weren’t exactly biting, but we still had a good time catching sheepshead, bass and flounder, along with just a few reds.Only that wasn’t the expectation. So, though Ronald accomplished something, which is nearly always better than nothing, it was not the result we set out to accomplish, and that’s on him.
  2. Real talent can do what mediocre talent cannot. Last year, same trip, our boat captain got us stuck on a sandbar while tentatively trolling in shallow waters. That’s a little too inshore for me, as we bailed out to help push. “Get out and help push” is not a conversation expected when fishing in a chartered boat.This year, Ronald said “hold on and don’t look down,” then slammed the throttles. We hurtled across waters more shallow than last year (inches deep) at breakneck speed. No running aground, no hopping out to push. A marked difference in boat leadership.
  3. Leaders decide, evaluate, then decide again if necessary. During our offshore day, Ronald was having difficulties finding tuna that would bite. We continued to do what always worked for him, until he realized it wasn’t; then we started doing things differently.While we were trying new methods, the environment (weather) shifted, and Ronald immediately pivoted back to his original process, and we started catching fish. Ten tuna in about 90 minutes, to be exact. Not huge, but I can already attest to their eat-ability.

    Decide, evaluate, decide again.

  4. There is always a bigger fish. Though we were ultimately successful in our tuna quest, we actually caught more than ten, only to have 2-3 dismembered by barracudas before we could get them in the boat. Disappointing, though not altogether surprising.You see, we were using bait fish (hardtails) that we caught earlier using a sabiki rig. Those small fish were just going about their business, not bothering anyone, looking for a simple meal. When we later used them for bait, the tuna would see these hardtails in unexpected waters, decide to be opportunistic and jump on ‘em. The barracudas, unable to run down a tuna in open water, would see the tuna on the line, in trouble, and attack from behind.

    Much like at work, you have (a) those just going about their business, doing their job, hoping to get paid; (b) those who are opportunistic, looking for a chance to get something they probably shouldn’t have had access to; and  (c) those who see others in trouble, and capitalize on their misery for their own gain.

    Admit it – you know some workplace barracudas.

There was also the lesson I learned about not trying to drink a beer in the face of a boat going 50 mph, but I’ll save that for another time.

Who says fishing can’t be work?

Leaders Wanted! … Bosses Need Not Apply

Based on the way I read the latest engagement surveys, the number of bosses missing the opportunities their leadership positions are providing is almost mind-numbing. It certainly appears to be numbing the minds of the people working for them.

The storyline doesn’t deviate much regardless of what industry or government service sector I talk to: 1) new boss comes in or is promoted from within; 2) boss gets stressed by pressure to deliver; 3) boss stresses team to deliver; 4) team members burn out and get demoralized; 5) team members disengage or leave. The time spans to get from 1 to 5 vary, but it’s the same old song.

If you haven’t heard the song, that doesn’t mean it’s not being sung in your organization.

Disclaimer: I did not do research for this article. Occasionally I get pushback for stating as fact information that is obvious to me but not to the recipient. Did I do research to reach my conclusion? Do I have data? What was my sample size? Yada? Yada? Yada?

My answer is usually something to the effect that 58% of all statistics are made up. Or is it 72%?  Maybe 37%? Anyway, the average American has one breast and one testicle… you get the idea.

I digress.

Leaders have an incredible opportunity to improve the lives of the people who work for them. Imagine if your employees get up looking forward to the workday and go home happy with their efforts. What effect might that have on their productivity? On the time they don’t spend at work? On their interactions with family and friends? On their sleep?

Bosses who don’t particularly care about the out-of-office time aren’t leaders. They’re just bosses, managers, micromanagers, supervisors, or taskmasters.

What we (the royal we) know about employees that like their jobs is that they’re more engaged and productive. And the converse is true. Why a boss wouldn’t want to learn how to effectively lead, encourage, and empower his or her organization to produce and deliver quality results is beyond me, and yet we in the leadership development space run into that exact scenario time after time.

Please help me understand what I’m missing. In fact, email me and educate me: Why is it like this? Which part of the Leadership Triangle is the boss missing – the They Don’t Know How, the They Don’t Want To, or the We Won’t Let Them?

Bosses tell me: “I’m under pressure to deliver.” Duh! Who’s not? Leaders don’t pass the buck, so those bosses must work for bosses who do (who probably work for bosses that do, who work for bosses that do, etc., etc.). I waive the BS flag at that. Just because the jerkishness starts higher up doesn’t mean it has to be passed down to a lower level. As Kevin Berchelmann likes to say, “Leadership can hurt; wear a helmet.

Plain and simple, I can only conclude that bosses who don’t make the effort to be good leaders are self-centered. They care about themselves more than they care about the people who work for them. Not a new phenomenon, but certainly curable. As an example, look no farther than Coach Tony Bennett of the 2019 NCAA Champion Virginia Cavaliers basketball team who turned down a sizeable salary increase to provide additional opportunities for his basketball program and players.

I like the way Coach Bennett explained it, and I’m going to plagiarize and adapt part of his speech so that it applies to your particular business sector:

If it’s just about winning – if it’s just about being the best – then you’re running the wrong race. That’s empty in the long term. But if it’s trying to be excellent and do things the right way, to honor and benefit the organization that hired you, the human being you work for and the men and women who work for you, then that’s the right thing.

It’s a mindset shift: a boss has to understand that he or she can’t be successful unless their team is successful. A leader like Coach Bennett has a desire to elevate others above himself – the sure sign of a leader who others want to follow.

Actions speak louder than words. Here’s a couple of signs I use to distinguish the difference between your run-of-the-mill, worried-about-themselves boss and someone who’s trying to be a leader:

  • A boss says – and may believe – they care about their employees, but it rings hollow to the people she’s ordering around. A leader doesn’t have to say she cares; people know she cares by the way she demonstrates it.
  • A boss passes tasks down to the next level. A leader describes the results he’s looking for, describes success clearly, then asks what support is needed – and provides it.
  • A boss assumes expectations are understood because no one asks questions. A leader ensures expectations are clear by asking questions.
  • A boss does what he asked someone else to do because he doesn’t trust them. A leader trusts his people to do what has been asked by the established deadline and verifies accomplishment without micromanaging.
  • A boss makes employees feel guilty when emergent, high priority needs require time away from work. A leader finds ways to make her team flexible enough to react to unplanned adversity and deliver success.
  • A boss accepts credit for his team’s success. A leader gives credit to those who actually accomplish the success.

As I look back through my mental book of good leaders and bad bosses, it’s easy to categorize them. Yet thinking back about the hundreds of people who’ve worked for me, I’m not as confident about which category I fell into for them. It’s a shame I didn’t use such an easy rubric on myself at the time.

How about you? Where do you stand on the scale?

It’s truly up to you, boss or leader.

Leaders Develop Leaders… If you won’t do it, find someone who will!

Like many consultants, I sometimes struggle to follow the great advice I give other people. Okay, more than sometimes. The whole ‘physician, heal thyself’ thing comes along like a spiritual two-by-four upside my head pretty often.

But the situation where ‘do as I say, not as I do’ really gets my goat is during a leadership development engagement when the boss is uninterested or disengaged from the effort.

And I’m not talking about one-and-done engagements (I don’t do those). These are six- to twelve-month, multiple group- and individual-session engagements, so there are some talented people doing heavy lifting trying to be better leaders. But I know it will be an uphill slog when the CXO who signs my check wants the team to improve but doesn’t want to be involved.

For instance, a few years back I worked with the team of a CXO who complained that everyone – despite his best efforts – suffered from the same leadership shortcomings. It bears mentioning that these senior managers had exactly two things in common: they had the same boss, and they all breathed air.

I politely suggested to the CXO that if it smelled like dog crap everywhere he went, he should probably check his shoe, after which he made it clear that he was NOT one of the people who needed coaching.

You’ve heard the old saw: “What if I develop my people and they leave?” “But what if you don’t and they stay?”


It was de ja vu all over again during a follow-up phone conversation with an exec about an additional engagement with some of his bright-and-shineys. After he assured me that everything was going great, he said something that could have come from a Wall Street movie spoof (and I’m not making this up). He said he had neither the time nor the inclination to do leadership development.

At least he was truthful.

Now, I’m not claiming to be able to waltz in and waive my magic around and “fix” a team’s problems or instantly improve their leadership skills, but it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out what’s behind his department’s struggles.

For Pete’s sake, you don’t have to have an advanced degree or a special certification to develop leaders in your organization (I use my PhD to plant fence posts). You just have to be smart enough to realize that it isn’t what you do as a senior leader that makes you successful. It’s the efforts of the people who work for you. No success for them = no success for you.

And I’m okay if you don’t want to get your hands dirty making positive and lasting changes in your organization by developing your people. That’s not everyone’s forte, and there are plenty of senior leaders who are above that kind of touchy-feely stuff anyway. After all, I’m sure everyone at C-level models the behaviors they want to see in their employees. (That’s sarcasm if you missed it.)

But someone has to, because doing nothing isn’t a reasonable option.  If your company doesn’t have a leadership skills development process that produces measurable leadership improvement, please, PLEASE hire someone from the outside who can help.

Oh, and senior leadership involvement in the process isn’t optional, either, unless no one’s serious about development in the first place.

So how about it, leaders? Are you intentionally engaged in developing your people, or are you going to hire someone who will be? Because doing nothing isn’t a C-Level option.

It’s up to you.

We Need Reinforcements… Send in the Leaders!

In my many years of experience growing, coaching and training leaders, I’ve discovered that it’s seldom talent… or training… or give-a-shit… that interferes with a leader’s success…, at all but the senior-most (the senior-most) level.

It’s reinforcement. Or, more appropriately, the lack thereof. Managers are trained, facilitated and coached, then return to the barren wasteland of their workplace, left to fend for themselves amid the hyenas, badgers and cape buffalos.

Identifying appropriate leadership behaviors is certainly valuable. Ensuring learners can understand and assimilate those behaviors… equally important. Senior leadership reinforcing those desired behaviors… priceless.

“In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence applied that will strengthen an organism’s future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus.”

Thank you, Dr. Pavlov.

In consulting terms, he means “When you ring the bell, the dog slobbers.”

And before any Psychologist wannabes (or the real deal) start to educate me on classical vs. operant conditioning, cut me some slack. It’s newsletter article, and I’m trying not to induce an eye-rolling coma.

Now, let’s be clear. Reinforcement isn’t reminding. Reinforcement is used to specifically connect awareness to execution. Or to quote the slobberin’ dog Doc: It’s “a consequence applied that will strengthen… future behavior.”

Like all things necessary and valuable, there’s a process involved, or in this case, four “elements:”

1 – Set expectations. And make ‘em clear, using specific, plain language. Employees sometimes have some difficulty doing their basic jobs; adding “mind-reading” to their description is just plain unfair. And by clear, I mean the employee should be able to read it back to you, and you agree “that completely covers it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked if someone understands the expectations, and being told “well, they sure should,” based on peripheral, related discussions. I’m not talking hints, clues or innuendo here—I’m saying use simple, concise English language.

Unless of course you don’t speak English.In which case… ah, never mind.

2 – Follow-up. Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job, exhibiting the very behaviors you are reinforcing. That doesn’t mean “never look back;” to inspect what you expect isn’t micro-management, it’s just good management.

3 – Consequences. Good and bad. Negative consequences generally sound like discipline or punishment and can serve as a learning opportunity. The purpose is to associate a behavior with something unpleasant, so they will not repeat that action (and others may see they are not supposed to act that way either). Positive consequences are still in response to an action, but this time, it’s a pleasant response to positive behavior.

Often times, when we give a negative consequence, we are actually reinforcing a behavior because we are giving that outburst unqualified attention, so be careful here.

4 – Modeling desired behavior. If you want someone to behave a certain way, the gold standard is to make sure they see you behaving that way. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Actually, it is, though we oft-times manage to screw it up. We’ll promote positive motivation, then threaten someone because “it’s a special situation.” We’ll say we want no profanity, then let it slip because “we were provoked.” We’ll talk about timely meeting attendance while justifying our “hectic schedule.” No excuses. Model it, or don’t expect it. So, we reinforce to get the actual behaviors desired. Consistency, awareness, feedback, and a helping manner (we want them to grow and improve) are all essential.

Just do it…

Inspired or Not, Here You Come!

“Leadership is about influence and inspiration.”
– Everyone Who Knows Anything

Who has the most influence on the mood in your workplace?

If you’re part of the leadership – formal or informal – you do.

Especially if your mood reveals your anxieties about the organization or job security, or your lack of compassion for those struggling to meet your expectations.


In one of my favorite comic strips ever, Calvin sums it up nicely: “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around a little bit.”

Around the mid-point of my Air Force career, a mentor remarked one day, “You’re just not prone to happiness, are you?” After he had my 8-year-old daughter explain what a Marsh-wiggle was, we talked about the effect it was having on my Airmen. I got his point, and I’d like to think I’m remembered differently by those who served with me in my later years.

Like leading by example, you don’t have a choice about impacting the office climate with the mood you’re emoting. You may not be aware that you’re doing it, but that’s a matter of your emotional intelligence, not reality on the ground.

No, I’m not trying to resurrect the old myth about leaders having to be demonstrably charismatic – there’s plenty to evidence to debunk that; but from the C-suites to the referent leader far down in the organization, others are taking their positive and negative emotional cues from you. This is anything but new information, and yet we could all benefit from the occasional friendly reminder.

A huge part of a leader’s job is inspiring others to follow in pursuit of a vision. You make it really hard for them to be inspired if they don’t think you’re inspired yourself. Reflect for a minute on a couple of the best leaders you’ve known – were they positive and encouraging in a way that made you want to do more and better, or did their interactions feel perfunctory and their tone and manner show worn places in the veneer covering their anxiety?

Okay, here’s a test: we all come to work at less than our best once in a while. On the rare occasion you do – regardless of whether you’re bothered by something work-related or something that happened outside the office – do people ask you what’s wrong? If not, you should be worried. It means they’re either used to you being in a bad mood, or you’re not as approachable as you should be.

If that strikes too close to home, stop it. Get your fire back… people need to believe that you like being their leader.

I can’t guarantee your motivation and authentic positive outlook will fill your workplace with unicorns, butterflies, and rainbows. But it won’t hurt. On the other hand, I can assure you that your dour mood directly affects your employees’ morale and engagement.

Your folks deserve your best. Are you giving it to them?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Come together, right now… over me!

— The people side of merger integration


Ok, so maybe the Beatles reference was a bit much…

We were two companies, someone decided merger was a good thing… then just one big, happy family… right??

Bain Capital.  McKinsey.  Deloitte… don’t take just my word for it; the single biggest reason for merger or acquisition failure is NOT costs, lack of synergy, shortage of capital, incompatible strategy, etc.

It’s people. Failure to integrate cultures, directions, leadership and communities within an organization result in more failures than any market disapproval could muster.

Pay attention here; you’re paying big bucks for – usually – more than a simple asset. Realistically, even simple “asset purchases” are hoping for more than a simple Return on Asset; we’re always hoping for bigger, better returns that can only happen through the newly combined workforce talent. Again, people.

Let’s get right to it. I’m assuming you’ve competently determined that the merger or acquisition is a logical addition to your business. The technical part is fairly simple… a bunch of spreadsheets, a month or two of due diligence to verify the lofty promises, assurances, and statements from management. Now, let’s work on the more fickle side…

The most important thing to remember is communication.

Frequent, informative, helpful communications. The initial merger time is the most critical, since many of the employees in the acquired company will “overthink” the event, and may believe they will be summarily replaced. Or, more important to key performers, that they’ll lose their “key performer” status.

Frankly, you may actually WANT to lose some of them, but don’t you want the opportunity, at least, to have some input to who stays and who goes?

If you intend to make cuts, announce them and do them quickly. The longer it takes, the worse the retention results. Be sure, if staff cuts will occur, that they occur on both “sides” of the merger equation, if you really want a successful post-merger story.

Read this closely: the longer you take to make the “who stays and goes” determination, the more high performers you lose. It really is that simple.  Mediocre and poor performers simply fret endlessly, duck for cover, and hope to go unnoticed.

High performers don’t look at life – or their careers – that way.

And they have no intention of waiting around to see if you’ll give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. These people are infinitely employable, have probably got feelers out already, and in the absence of anyone helping them do differently, will look out for their own well-being.

Even to your detriment.

Next, assess the acquired company’s culture and strengths, and make the determination on what “works” for you, and what doesn’t. Once you determine what the “combined” culture will look like, no compromise — on either “side.”

Read that again. No Compromise. On the bus or off the bus. No one rides along for sightseeing.  No one – particular if influential and/or in leadership – gets to publicly buck the “new deal. Like the three musketeers, it’s “All for One!”

Remember — and this is ultra-important — there can only be ONE culture. Anything else will lead to fragmented actions, loyalties, and lack of direction.

Finally, be frank and open with the process. The worst thing that could happen is that the acquired employees lose trust in your integration process – they already ‘suspect’ you may not have their best interests at heart.

If my concepts above aren’t specific enough, here’s some detail on crafting a successful integration:

  1. Create an employee integration plan immediately. It takes hours, not days, don’t dilly-dally. Communicate that plan to others (both ‘”sides”).
  2. Execute to that plan immediately, quickly, and strongly. Patton was correct: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”Time is not on your side here. The longer it takes, the worse the outcome… guaranteed.
  3. Decide where you’ll compromise — and where not — and hold firm.
  4. Communicate, communicate, and over-communicate. Rinse and repeat. Even “nothing new to report” is better than silence.People fill ‘unknowns’ with their own “knowns,” and they are generally not the information you’d prefer them using to make decisions.
  5. Clearly define roles, accountabilities, reporting relationships, and performance expectations. It’s the very core of the employee agreement.
  6. “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” Don’t declare integration ‘victory’ too soon.Prematurely hailing success has killed many an integration, as a couple of key people/groups look around and say “not from where I sit, bubba.”

Good luck. Fun but challenging stuff.

Come to think of it, most of this applies to any substantial organizational change effort as well. I’ll be damned; surely must be just a coincidence…