"Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath. Every moment is the guru." -- Charlotte Joko Beck

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Monkee see, Monkee do? Better make sure your leader is trustworthy.

You wouldnt think that profound words about honesty and integrity would come from the lips of a 1960’s-era pop star, but Peter Tork of The Monkees summed it up quite well. He said, “You should be a hero to yourself. And if you're not... check it out.” In just these few words reside the entire concept of being honest with oneself and having integrity.
Honesty and integrity are the most important characteristics I hope to find in a leader. More than 88 percent of the population agrees with me, according to a survey conducted by the authors of The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner. After interviewing more than 20,000 workers, they summarized that: It’s clear that if we’re willing to follow someone — whether it be into battle or into the boardroom, into the classroom or into the back room, into the front office or into the front lines—we first want to assure ourselves that the person is worthy of our trust.
Honesty and integrity.  Different words with strongly interrelated meanings. Simply put, honesty means making your words fit reality – speaking the truth about the past. Integrity means making reality fit your words – doing what you say you are going to do.  
I could point out lots of examples, especially in the political arena, where honesty or integrity has been doubtful. A former Presidential candidate spoke about the danger she faced during a trip to Bosnia. She said, “I remember landing under sniper fire …we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” The media coverage of that time, however, clearly showed her and her daughter casually walking and greeting people–not dodging bullets. When her embellishment of the facts came to light, people began to doubt whether or not they could trust her. I believe she ultimately lost her race for the Democratic nomination because of this.
There are many other examples, but I think you get the point.
On the other side of that coin is Peter Tork – a man without a deceitful bone in his body – who continues to be a hero to himself and to others. He is a cancer survivor and recently celebrated his 30th anniversary of being clean and sober. I have never seen him at an event where he wasn’t reaching out to help someone caught in the trap of addiction. His honesty and integrity are boldly apparent and that helps put people at ease around him.
Peter’s a good friend of ours and he’s getting ready to go back out with the The Monkees for an anniversary tour. Next weekend, he’ll be performing with his blues band, Shoe Suede Blues, here in Maryland at Club 66 in Edgewood, Saturday, April 2. We’re holding a special Blues Brunch on Sunday, April 3, noon to 3pm, with Peter and his band – a little casual, hang-out time, an acoustic set or two and special surprises. Join us if you can. Details are on Peter’s Website: www.petertork.com
Meanwhile, take a lesson from this Monkee. Before you follow the leader, make sure he's worth following.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A fine 'welcome aboard!'

When I was assigned to my first ship as a Navy Journalist, I met with each person in my chain of command to check-in and be indoctrinated. Everyone tried hard to make me feel welcome. Everyone, that is, except the Executive Officer.

I remember Commander K_______ very well. He kept me standing at attention in his office while he flipped through my meager service record consisting of boot camp and military journalism school. Our first conversation went something like this:
“A G-D Journalist, huh?”
“What the hell am I supposed to do with a G-D Journalist?”
“Well sir, the Navy says this ship merits a Journalist billet, so here I am.”
“Don’t give me any of your lip, son! We don’t need no G-D Journalist onboard this ship! We used to have one about 18 months ago. Do you know what happened to our last Journalist, Seaman Verrico?”
“We kicked his butt out of the Navy cuz he was a G-D fruitcake! Are you a fruitcake, Seaman Verrico?”
“Hmmph!  Well, let me tell you something right here and now. Don’t try to pull any of that crap you learned in school on me either. I have a degree in journalism and I know what’s right and what’s good and what isn’t!”

The message was clear. What he communicated at that first meeting was that nothing I could do would be good enough. Over the subsequent months, every project I worked on was rejected, torn apart and returned bleeding with red ink. He would not be satisfied with anything. I could do nothing to please him, so why bother to try?  But I didn’t give up and I kept trying. I never succeeded and when he transferred the following year, I was greatly relieved.

For many years I thought of him as one of the biggest jerks I ever worked for. He acted this way with everyone, so it wasn’t just me. I could not understand why he would consistently try to demotivate people. What could possibly be the purpose of such a tactic? How productive could that be?

But now that I look back on it with the experience of many years, I realize that what he did was to challenge us to prove him wrong.  I think he felt that if he kept pushing people they would keep trying harder to fight back. Those that did would do well in the Navy. Those that gave up didn’t belong there.

Interesting. I think in the long run he made us stronger.

He was still a jerk to work for, but I think his tough-love leadership style made me a better sailor and a better professional. Thanks, Commander!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Amid the Destruction are Lessons in Decency

While our hearts and prayers, and aid of a more tangible nature, go out to the people of Japan, we also have to give them our awe and respect. 
For the past couple of days, we have been riveted to our televisions and the images of the devastation caused by a huge earthquake and tremendous tsunami, particularly in the city of Sendai. We’ve seen the destruction to businesses, homes and industry. We’ve seen the bodies washing ashore and the injured being carted away. We’ve seen families crying and searching for missing loved ones.  And we’ve sat on the edge of our seats as the engineers desperately try to contain the reactors at damaged nuclear power plants.
But you know what we haven’t seen? Looting.  Rioting.  Disorder of any kind. Why not? Because the Japanese people do not believe in it!
Could you imagine an American city beginning an organized evacuation only 5 or 10 minutes after the initial alert? Where police can focus on helping people instead of having to enforce the law, keep order or prevent people from taking advantage of a situation?
Let’s face it. The Japanese people have a much stronger sense of community than we do. I am certainly not saying that we are all self-centered. We certainly come together in times of great need and we are very generous with our time, energy and possessions when others are hurting.
But one of the images that still haunts me from the days of Hurricane Katrina is the crowds of people raiding a department store and walking out with plasma television sets, gigantic stereo systems and other high-end electronics (all useless because there was no power, mind you). Worse, they were laughing the whole time they were doing it.
This kind of thing is unheard of in Japan. Their cultural teachings are dominant even in the face of disaster. I strive to be as selfless and community focused as they are. I think we have a lot to learn.
CNN’s Marnie Hunter posted an interesting article about the differences between us. Check it out.
Meanwhile, find out how we can help our friends in the Far East.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sea Change! Unexpected leadership encounters on a cruise ship.

When your spouse reaches a certain milestone birthday -- say, the half-century mark, for example -- you should splurge to make it a big deal and celebrate in style. Especially if you want her to still be your spouse. So I recently took my wife on a cruise to the Caribbean for a few days.
Onboard this floating resort where they force-feed you every 17 minutes or so, we found that people become more outgoing and friendly, and even a bit silly at times. Where else can you see an x-ray technician, an accountant, a PR guy, a carpenter and a couple of retired soldiers -- all men, mind you -- enthusiastically win an Olympic synchronized swimming tournament?
[Yes, I am wearing my gold medal with pride!]
But people don't just hop out of bed and say, "Gee, I think I'll dress up like one of the Beatles and dance around like a fool tonight!" or "I bet I could win that belly-flop contest if I make another pass through the buffet line." Somebody has to come up with this stuff and convince you that you want to do it.
Those somebodies are the ship's activities staff -- a handful of young, fit, good-looking and cheerful souls who are out to make sure you let down your hair, and throw your modesty and decorum overboard. 
I have to say that we encountered the best of the breed on our cruise. They greeted us by name, sent hand-written notes to our cabin for my wife's birthday, and made us feel special. Hats (and wigs) off to Tania, Ashley, Luis & Von who treated us like royalty, encouraged us to take part in all kinds of fun activities and helped us to let go of the day-to-day stress we left behind in Washington DC. This is what a cruise vacation is all about!
We were so impressed by them, we made a point to go to their boss and tell him how great they were. We told him how they made our vacation truly enjoyable. We mentioned how professional, upbeat, energetic, and hard-working they were. We even said we'd come back knowing they were onboard.
You would think that a boss would be happy to know that his staff is pleasing his customers. You would think that he'd brag about his staff to the rest of the crew and to other guests. You would think compliments from the guests would show up in performance evaluations and possibly equate to a raise or promotion. You would think...but you'd be wrong!  It seems the wind was blowing in a different direction altogether.
Instead of agreeing with us, he frowned and said, "They don't work half as hard as others on this ship," and walked away from us!
Wow! Now that's leadership for ya!
Not only do you not support your staff; not only do you disregard their abilities and successes, but you dismiss customers who have taken the time to compliment them. Did I mention that this guy is the Cruise Director? Yep! He's supposed to be the most cheerful, upbeat, positive person on the ship! He's supposed to be the primary interaction with the guests. The frontline face of the company.
What signal was he sending?
Well, he could have been saying that he didn't believe his staff was that good [which I find hard to believe]. Now that's a message for the marketing department -- "We hire the mediocre!"
But even if it were true and there were personnel issues behind the scenes, that's where it needs to stay. Behind the scenes. The face to the customer should be a positive, supportive one. Don't lie, but a smile and a simple "thank you" or "that's kind of you to say that." would have been all that was necessary. No matter what your feelings are about an employee -- especially one of your own subordinates -- you should never reveal internal matters to external customers!
I think the real message revealed itself in his reaction. Here we are saying what a great job his staff was doing, but not what he was doing personally. Was that bit of green around the gills a sign of seasickness, or maybe a little jealousy?
Well, Mr. Cruise Director. I have to say that your leadership style just took the wind right out of our sails.