The Emperor Has No Clothes! …except for his socks

Disclaimer: The identities of the characters in the story below have been changed to protect the innocent from possible repercussions by her moronic boss(es).

The military has an acronym for almost everything… and for the rest, it has initialisms. Today’s acronym is BLUF (pronounced bluff) – Bottom Line Up Front. Often in military briefings, you give the boss the BLUF, so they don’t have to pay attention to the rest of what you say.

Today’s BLUF is: You don’t have to spend money to piss people off; weak leaders can do it for free.

When I was talking to someone I really care about (she’s the innocent I mentioned earlier), she told me about a token of appreciation she’d received at work that day. I asked her if everyone received the same token and if it made her feel appreciated.

Her answer was not surprising: Yes and no, respectively.

The token was, incredibly, a pair of socks with the company logo on them. Maybe not incredible to you, but I was certainly incredulous. I couldn’t help but share my initial impression of the token:

Who the hell thought this was a good idea?

I guess as God rains on the good and evil alike, so the boss gave socks to the high performers and the slackers alike. Heavy sigh.

Of the people I shared my initial impression with, only my friends in Corporate America agreed with me. Those in local government positions scolded me and told me it was the thought that counted, while those in federal government service made it clear they didn’t have the budget for tokens of appreciation. Why was I not surprised (again)?

Somewhere there was a chain of events that led enough people in this organization to convince the Emperor he would look splendid in a company logo-emblazoned pair of socks. And then they began to believe that after 18 months of working in the h—–care industry during a global pandemic, their employees deserved a pair of socks and would appreciate them because the Emperor already had a pair.

I’m a little disappointed for her that not once during the previous 18 months had anyone up the food chain expressed their appreciation to that someone I really care about for working in an environment with a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 – not even providing them with company logo N-95 masks – but they thought giving them a pair of socks was a good idea.

I must be missing something. Now of all times, leaders need to make their employees know they’re appreciated for the effort they’ve made over the last year and a half to keep the company up and running successfully. What follows are some nuggets I thought were intuitive but clearly aren’t to everyone.

  • If we want to know what makes our teams feel appreciated, we have to have heart-to-heart conversations with them and actively listen to discern the answer… or we can ask them directly. There are ways to do both more effectively than guess, and it takes time, trust and approachability or we’ll never get the answer.
  • If we give the same token of appreciation to everyone, it’s not a token of appreciation, unless we’re just thankful that people still choose to work for us. It’s one thing to give everyone the same kind of shirt with a logo to wear at work or elsewhere (that’s called marketing and brand recognition), but socks? Give me a break.
  • If we have money to spend on worthless trinkets for everyone, we have money to give something meaningful to a few (hopefully our top performers).
  • Just because our boss (that’s the moron I mentioned earlier) thinks it’s a good idea – or even just an okay idea – we don’t have to hold our tongues and embolden them to convince the Emperor he/she will look good in their new socks.

Bottom line: You don’t have to spend money to piss people off. I suspect someone I really care about will put the socks in the company logo backpack they gave her a couple of years ago, and I’ll never see them again.

Do you know what makes your team feel appreciated?

It’s up to you, leaders.

So, What’s Next? — Navigating the NOW normal

Being normal is an overrated concept. No one actually fits the definition, since we all have our own, so no one is really normal. We’re all just somewhere on the continuum of abnormality. Some of you are much higher on the spectrum than others (you know who you are), but we’re all in this crazy, non-normal environment together.

And that was even true before the apocalypse. Look at us now… normal is such a distant memory, I’m not sure we’d know it if we could touch it. And since we can’t, there’s no since in lamenting its loss.

Since, even when things were normal… they actually weren’t. Follow me here, I promise I’m going somewhere.

There’s lots of talk these days about “returning to normal,” and “getting back to normal,” and “I can’t wait until it’s normal again.”

Therein lies the problem – it was never normal to begin with.

By that, I mean that if normal is (according to Webster) an adjective, then:

nor·mal | \ ˈnȯr-məl  \  Conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern:

characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine; “normal

working hours” “under normal circumstances” “It was just a normal, average

day.” “He had a normal childhood.”

“Conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.” Actually, we’ve never had much of that, if you really think about it. The organizations we serve, well, they’re always trying to grow and improve – to get better. All of that requires change, which by definition, doesn’t fit the description of “normal.”

According to that definition above:

  • Change isn’t normal.
  • Growth isn’t normal.
  • Our families aren’t normal (Welcome to the dysfunctional zone).
  • Our hobbies aren’t normal. (Ever hit the exact same golf shot twice? On purpose?)

All in all, “normal” is something of a myth; a bill of goods we’ve bought into so we can complain when things start changing and we have little control over the change.

Ahh, now it’s starting to make sense. We’re ok with change that we can easily predict and/or control – that seems normal to us. We’re ok with change that provides us a benefit, even if we didn’t see it coming – that seems normal also.

What we don’t like, and what we view as total out of the normal, is change that we neither control nor benefit from, especially when it’s taking us to places unknown. That intense discomfort we feel inside, that absolute lack of control or expectation, has us wishing for the “good old days” when we could see that predictable, expected, beneficial change coming down the highway.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of the obvious, but this apocalypse took us so far from our comfort zone that we long for the days of old – the days of comfort – not really the days of “normal.”

So, when we find ourselves pining away for “back to normal,” realize what we’re really asking for: constant, never-ending change that we either can control, reasonably expect, or personally benefit from. You know, the stuff we used to have.

This is significant for leadership. From our perspective, things were normal before March 2020. Lots of changes – some good, some bad; some expected, some “what the hell…!?” But it was our normal. Then.

The apocalypse hit – now we had new normal. Masks, physical distancing, hospitalizations, elbow-bumps, vaccines, handwashing (does it bother anyone but me that handwashing was a new thing for so many?). These things became our regular pattern; things that were considered usual, typical, or routine. You know… normal.

Today, and going forward, we have normal again. It’s the Now Normal. Different from the pre-Covid normal, which wasn’t really; different from the pandemic operations normal, which wasn’t really. We have our Now Normal, which isn’t all that normal. But it’s a more comfortable set of changes… a more expected routine or set of activities.

And we seem to be pleased it’s coming our way, though I’d caution that all normal, including this Now Normal, have their share of “oh shit” experiences.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Bad News Bearers

…do we kill the messenger?

We’ve all heard – and probably used – the idiom no news is good news, meaning that if we haven’t been told something bad has happened, then nothing bad has happened… and that’s good news. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never worked in an organization where that was true.

No, leaders who actually believe that if they haven’t heard any bad news then nothing bad has happened are a) wrong, b) just kidding themselves, and c) setting themselves up for spectacular failure. It’s much more likely that they’re not hearing bad news because people are afraid to tell them bad news.

If we trust our teams to do their jobs, and we do our best to help them be successful, then why do they withhold bad news from us? Do they think we won’t find out? Do they think they can fix it before we do find out? Do they hope some other messenger will be the bearer of bad news… and possibly get shot in the process?

Could it be that our usual reaction when things go wrong is something akin to road rage in the office?

A recent unpleasant experience with a local car dealership highlighted that using no news is good news as a business practice is a good way to destroy your service quality reputation. My frustration at my car being held hostage by the service department was fueled not by the department itself but by the rep that promised regular updates and repeatedly failed to provide them. When pressed to explain his lack of communication, he sheepishly replied, “I hate to give bad news to customers.”

My guess is that he’s not much better at giving his boss bad news.

OK, so we’re not road-ragers at work. Still, do we even know if our team is hesitant to bring us in the loop when something goes wrong? A good clue is if there is one person – a trusted agent of sorts – who keeps us informed about how things are running. We tend to appreciate the trusted agent’s insights and rarely get upset with them when they share bad news. Everyone else knows that and feeds us information about trouble in paradise through our informant… even though they probably feel like we’re playing favorites.

We all know that the best time to fix a small problem is before it becomes a big problem. But have we ever asked, “Why did you wait so long to tell me?” It’s probably not because they just discovered it. More likely, they were working up the nerve to tell us because of our usual reaction to bad news.

If we discover it before they tell us, do we behave as if we caught them in the act? Or tacitly accuse them of deliberately withholding the bad news and then mask our micromanagement behind trust but verify?

And how do we feel when we come out of a meeting where our boss confronts us about a situation big and bad enough that we should have known about? Worse yet when it happens in front of everyone and makes us feel stupid. Do we storm down the hall like a headhunter (and no, not the executive recruiter type)?

I’ve certainly been guilty of one or two – or more – of those negative reactions to bad news over the years. It took the intervention of a mentor to change my behavior, and countless unwitting employees can be thankful for him and glad they didn’t work for the old me.

If any of those situations ring true, here are a few hacks that helped me become a better leader… and easier to work for:

  • First and foremost, be a grown-up about hearing bad news. Short of a life-threatening situation, mature grown-ups (and good leaders) don’t lose control of their emotions and raise their voice. Grown-ups don’t intentionally make others feel stupid or incompetent. That’s actually a life hack, not just a leadership skill.
  • Don’t react to bad news; respond instead. Give it the old ten-count before you open your mouth and listen to what the bad news bearer has to say with an intent to better understand the situation. I had a boss that liked to say, “Now’s not a good time to overreact.”
  • When the situation is remedied, make it a lessons learned Include a discussion about ways to avoid a similar situation in the future. Leaders do that with every mistake that’s made – theirs or someone else’s.
  • Forgive and reassure. Remember that the offender already feels bad about the situation and give them an opportunity to both show and tell you how they have addressed it. Make sure they don’t feel like you’re always checking up on them. Trusting leaders don’t keep score.
  • Never go into a meeting unprepared. Make it a habit a habit to ask the team, “Is there anything I might get surprised by?

Remember, the main goal is to restore lost trust and let everyone put their behinds in the past.

Is that already the way you handle finding out about bad news? If not, why not?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Don’t Be a Leadership Dummy

stop making this so hard

I wanted to call this Leadership for Dummies, but that title was already taken. Looking through some of the other leadership improvement offerings, it boggles the mind how we’ve managed to take a subject whose basics haven’t changed in a few millennia and written a gazillion books that make it a more difficult concept to get a handle on. But we just keep writing.

Sure, new hurdles arise, technology changes, business environments change, the economy changes, we invent new ways of doing things, etc., but human nature hasn’t changed since the time of Adam and Eve and neither has what it takes to lead other humans.

As leaders, we often find ourselves in new situations – positions, companies, teams – that require us to adapt how we lead, but nothing changes what we need to do to be an effective leader. Let’s stick to the basics: We have to know where we’re leading; we have to be able to communicate that to others; and we have to be able to motivate others to help us achieve the undertaking. Plain and simple. From the team leader on the shop floor to the C-suites, the basics don’t change.

Do we need help developing a clear vision so we know where we’re leading? Often, yes. Do we need to continually improve our communication skills to ensure our expectations are clearly understood? Absolutely! Is it important to build a culture of trust and authenticity that allows us to give and get honest feedback and helps us know what makes our team feel rewarded? Damned straight it is!

So why the review of Leadership 101? Because there is so much “new” material out there about how we’ll need to lead in the coming post-pandemic era that uses big, strategic sounding words to obfuscate the leadership basics. Here’s an example I ran across from a well-known and respected business publication (paraphrased to remove the fancy language):

  • We’ll have to adjust our strategic vision to account for recent changes in our business environment while remaining faithful to our company’s core values.
  • We’ll need to communicate this new vision throughout the organization – including executable objectives as required – especially leveraging the media platforms that have matured over the last year (i.e., virtual town halls and team meetings).
  • We’ll need to reassess how to keep our followers motivated to perform and succeed in a way that helps us to achieve the vision (or at least keep from demotivating them).


In other words, successful leaders will need to do in the future what they’ve been able to do in the past. Might have well told us that to wash our hair in the future we’ll need to apply shampoo, lather, and rinse (repeat as necessary).

I’ve been helping a former colleague (now a senior executive in the Pentagon) adjust to a new leadership position this past year, and to say that there have been some challenges leading and building relationships with the team she’s inherited would be an understatement. Some were motivated professionals weary of slogging through the bureaucratic morass while others were entrenched, low-performing functionaries who fertilized the morass while waiting for retirement. You get the picture.

It’s been both fun and rewarding to watch her overcome the hurdles and hit her stride. I asked recently how things would be different with the changing ratio of face-to-face to virtual work and her boss’ upcoming short leave of absence… other than having to attend more unproductive meetings.

Without giving it much thought, she replied that she understood the direction the Department wanted her to advance her portfolio in and was clear on her boss’ priorities. She’d laid out her expectations to the team, including regular progress checks, and now she was going to get out of their way and let them do their work. They trusted her to have their backs and knew her motivation was to help them be successful.

Sounds a lot like Leadership 101, doesn’t it?

Leadership isn’t difficult, but we continue to make it more difficult to understand than we have to. On the other hand, leading people is hard, and we can only get better at it through practice. Why do we think we’re any different than athletes or welders or doctors and lawyers? The key to being successful is to start with the basics and continue practicing throughout our careers – or for the rest of our lives.

Leadership dummies? Not if we stop making it so difficult.

How about you, leaders?

Faker! – Leadership & The Imposter Syndrome

You still wrestling with the memory of that bully giving you a wedgie on the crowded playground at recess in the 4th grade*? I’m probably not your guy.

I’m not a psychologist, I didn’t play one on TV, and I didn’t sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night. And though I have no doubt that many of my coaching interactions sometimes feel like therapy to clients, they aren’t, and my endgame is always helping execs become better leaders and better versions of themselves.

Now, with that out of the way… a reasonably common refrain among managers of all levels and ilk is this phenomenon called Imposter Syndrome. Simply put (see “I’m not a psychologist” above), it’s feeling like you’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, and that when discovered for what you really are, folks will judge you to be unworthy – an imposter who only achieved their position through sleight of hand, guile and chicanery.

Curiously, I see it frequently among those who appear most competent and successful. In other words, people who have likely proven their worth a multitude over.

Now, those who know me know I’m fairly direct, and have heard me use and apply Bob Newhart’s Stop It! video about a bazillion times, and this would be no different; feeling like you’re an imposter? Stop it!

Well, at least we know now why I’m no psychologist. I’d have to drive an Uber to feed myself.

But to those who face this malady, and it does sometimes seem significant to those affected, I offer a few pieces of advice:

Open your freakin’ eyes. My clients hear me frequently admonish with the question, “What’s your evidence of that?” Look, if you want to think you’re unworthy or a fraud, or believe that you haven’t actually done anything significant, I’d ask you to look around – do you not see the results of any of your efforts? Are people in your charge not better off? Are results/metrics/goals/objectives not being achieved?

They are, and those data points are what NCIS people call “evidence.” Not necessarily proof positive, put it’s in the same ballpark.

No risk, no reward. If you believe you’re a phony, and that others may sleuth around and pick up on it, you’re likely going to keep your head down, and try to stay off the radar. Lots of status quo in that world, and few leaders succeed being satisfied with status quo day-in, day-out.

There’s risk in leadership – get a helmet. If you are risk-averse because of a non-evidentiary belief, then prepare yourself; the real failure you experience won’t be nearly as imaginary.

Finally, you’re just not that clever. If you hold a reasonably senior role in an organization, do you realize how many people you have to be convinced bought your line of bullshit to reach that level? You actually think that, through your fear of being discovered, you managed to hide your incompetence, lack of delivery, and inability to provide necessary leadership to the throngs of managers and executives that promoted, mentored and supported you throughout your career to date?

Do you have any idea how crazy that sounds? “Why yes, Kevin, I completely buffaloed a Senior Director, an Ops VP and successful CEO in my meteoric – but completely baseless – ascension to this role.”

Seriously? Let me repeat – you’re just not that clever.

I understand – feeling less than fully worthy is no laughing matter (well, an occasional chuckle could be a pick-me-up); I get it. And no doubt it feels pretty real to those who experience that frustration.

But if you have no evidence of such tomfoolery, and you’ve not been cold-busted trying to do something you were obviously and completely ill-equipped to do, then cut yourself some slack.

  • Thinking you’re honored with a promotion is a good thing.
  • Humility in leadership is positive, and can be somewhat rare.
  • Realizing others could probably do the job at least as well as you is not an unreasonable thought, even if those promoting you felt different.

But believing that observable evidence is false? That you can lead others (and functions) while burying your head in the sand? That everyone else must have been a moron or you wouldn’t be here?

You gotta admit, it does seem a bit far-fetched.

Congrats on the role/position/responsibilities. You deserve them, and I have every confidence you’ll do well.

* Now, if you were humiliated when your 2nd grade girlfriend announced she didn’t like you anymore, we can definitely work together (Thanks, Robbie, I’m still working through that trauma).

Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?

  — It’s faster to just stop doing stupid shit

Annulla, Brooklyn /licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The title above is from a book of the same name by Henry Alford, who tries to showcase the purpose and principles of this modern guide to manners — and what’s happened to them in our crazy-fast, interconnected culture. A major premise of his book is for us to know the things we should stop doing, hence the name.

And damn, is it appropriate for leadership success.

When coaching clients, there’s only a couple of ways to help them become demonstrably better at leading: Start doing things they haven’t been doing or Stop doing things they shouldn’t be doing.

In my experience, it’s infinitely easier – and a hell of a lot faster – to stop doing something than it is to learn, internalize and demonstrate a new behavior.

Why? Well, it’s likely some simple human-behavior-psychology mumbo-jumbo or such, but for me, it’s mostly just common sense. For instance:

There’s just too many of them. When your leadership scope is significant, there’s just too many of ‘em. You can stop doing something that everyone knows is a bonehead behavior, or you can ask 100-10,000 people what new change they would like to see in you and get potentially 1,000 distinct answers.

Are you ready to execute to 1,000 new behavior changes? I’m sure as hell not.

Much simpler to work at stopping the 1-2 less-than-positive behaviors we identified in our 360 survey; the results are usually consistent, and we get credit for trying, even if we don’t eliminate the behavior completely.

It ain’t baggage if you don’t carry it around.

All leaders are lugging around various pieces of baggage from our past – some real, some perceived. Some are small carry-on, under-the-seat sized; others are honkin’-big valet-carried, excess-weight, $75 checked bags.

Either way, it’s easier to jettison that baggage – knowing you won’t have to lug it anymore – than to try and make everyone forget about the baggage with new smoke and mirrors.

And finally,

It’s like kids eating their vegetables. They don’t want to, but they’ll do it — but only because they have to, and mainly just to stay out of trouble.

Convincing some leaders to do new things is equally hard. Many times, they think others will see them as “soft,” or worse, “weak.” Other times, they may feel like they’re giving in to the entitlement mentality (don’t even get me started on how ubiquitous across all generations that can be).

Then there are the test-drives – trying out new behaviors, multiple times on multiple people, all to see if it works for them.

On the other hand, simply refraining from doing something seems altogether easier, and feels more like altering others’ perceptions than changing their personal, specific behaviors.

It’s a win all around.

Finally, no “Stop It” commentary can possibly be published without mention of Bob Newhart’s famous Stop It skit from Saturday Night Live. I use it with most of my coaching clients, and I’s funny as hell. A keeper.

In changing your leadership impact now – immediately – today – focus on what you can stop doing, allowing yourself the time to add “start doing” behaviors over time.

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