Leadership Lessons Ripped from the Headlines

Through his work as an executive coach, leadership strategist, speaker and author, Scott Eblin has become known as a thought leader in identifying the behaviors that executives need to pick up and let go as they transition into new and larger roles. President of the leadership development and strategy firm The Eblin Group Inc., Scott is a former Fortune 500 executive, with a coaching client list that runs the gamut from Astra Zeneca to the U.S. Navy. He is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success which Business Book Review calls a “fascinating read” that “is full of potentially career-saving advice.”

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Conan This is the time of year when commencement addresses are given at high schools and colleges across the country. The speech that’s getting a lot of buzz this year is the one that late night TV comic Conan O’Brien gave at Dartmouth College.

You may remember that last year O’Brien was more or less squeezed out of the job he had always wanted when Jay Leno decided that he really still wanted to be the host of The Tonight Show.  Conan hibernated for a few weeks to lick his wounds and then, as recounted in a great article in Fortune magazine, morphed into a social media comic juggernaut winding up with a new show on TBS.

Still, for all of his success on the rebound, it wasn’t what he had dreamed of doing all his life. In the Dartmouth commencement speech, O’Brien explains why he now realizes that “There are few more liberating things in life than having your worst fears realized. He says, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for reinvention.”

One thing that’s for sure about leadership is that the circumstances around you are going to constantly change. You’re not going to get everything you want. That’s when it’s good to know how to make lemonade out of lemons. Conan O’Brien has figured out how to do that.  

One of the things I do on a regular basis is speak to groups of new and high potential executives about what they can do to succeed in bigger jobs. In the run-up to those sessions, I often to ask them to complete a short self-assessment on how they think they stack up on some of the leadership behaviors outlined in The Next Level.

The average self assessment scores tell a pretty interesting story. The headline? 

Lots of leaders are so busy doing things that they don’t see what needs to be done.

Overwhelmed1 In their self assessments, most of the leaders I’m working with think they’re doing a great job on action oriented behaviors. They give themselves relatively high marks on things like taking accountability, making timely decisions and being clear about communicating desired outcomes. 

Don’t get me wrong. That’s good stuff. Effective leaders demonstrate those strengths. You know what they say about strengths, though. A strength when overused can be a weakness. That’s where the lowest ranked behaviors in the self assessment come into play.  There are five of them that really stand out and, collectively, they’re signs that you’re so busy doing things you may not really see what needs to be done.

How do you stack up on these behaviors?

Ringoffire Yesterday, I was in Pittsburgh talking with a group of executives from different companies headquartered there about what they had taken away from my book, The Next Level.  It was a really interesting conversation as everyone shared their lessons learned and ongoing challenges with taking on bigger leadership roles.

One of the things we talked about was “they,”  as in “They will never go for this, approve this, let us do this, etc.”  A pretty senior executive in the room started us on that line of discussion by saying that one of the things he’s been working on is questioning his assumptions about who they even are. He’s concluding that a lot of things that should be done don’t get done because leaders stop before they get started.  Since these leaders assume that “they” won’t go for it, they don’t go any further with their good ideas.

Everyone in the room agreed that they had seen this play out in their own real life experience. I shared that I certainly have in mine both as an executive years ago and as an executive coach for the last ten years.  My observation, which resonated with the folks in Pittsburgh, is that a lot of rising leaders overestimate the risk of stepping forth with a good idea or a big idea and underestimate the rewards of that idea being implemented.

Most everyone agreed that as long as the risks are grounded and calculated, it makes sense to take the risk of going to “them” with the good ideas. It’s probably not as big a risk as you think it is and it might just yield rewards that everyone associated with your organization can benefit from.

That was the take of some leaders in Pittsburgh about adjusting their personal risk to reward ratio.  What do you think about adjusting your risk to reward ratio?

Am I the only one who’s gotten tired of all the stories we’ve had lately about self absorbed “leaders” behaving badly? Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve written about four of them in the posts, Four Dogs, One Hero and Three Danger Signals That Your Integrity Is At Risk. Now, we have Congressman Anthony Weiner and his creepy sexting scandal and world class lying about it.  I wrote about Weiner on this blog three years ago and, clearly, things haven’t gotten any better with him.

Weiner1The part of the Weiner story that really stood out for me was the self-portrait that was released in which he’s holding up a little sign that says “me” to prove to one of his correspondents that,  yes, he’s the same Congressman Weiner she’s seen on TV.  We’ve all heard that, “There’s no I in team,” and now Weiner has reminded us that there’s no “me” in leadership.

The real leaders are the ones who make it all about them – the people they’re leading. They’re what some call servant leaders.  They act in service of the people they lead. I’m fortunate to have a lot of coaching clients who fit that definition. One of them is a guy I’ll call Sam who was just assigned an interim senior management role after his previous boss left the organization. Frankly, Sam’s strategy since taking the role has been to do the opposite of whatever his boss did. In a nutshell, that means connecting with people in ways that work for them and create the focus and morale required to get stuff done.

The stuff Sam is doing is simple really. They’re the kind of things that people do if they’re focused on the needs of others and understand that there is no me in leadership. Here are a few examples of what Sam’s doing that’s working for his team:

As is often the case,  The New York Times’ Corner Office feature offered an interesting interview with a business leader last week. The subject this time was Bing Gordon, a partner with the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Gordon said something about leadership that might sound counter intuitive:

“Early on, I learned that I’m better with influence than power. .. I like having influence. I like being with interesting people and helping them become better and being part of the flow of ideas. And that’s a little bit uncomfortable, as a boss.  It doesn’t make sense to people that the boss, who is kind of a figurehead and maybe a confidence-giving parent figure, just wants to be an experienced helper. As a person of authority, I’m kind of teacher-consultant more than wielder of power.”

So much of what we read about leadership is about the exercise of power. A lot of people are drawn to leadership because they want power. Things often end badly for those who equate leadership with power. For those who equate the two, leadership and the accumulation of power essentially become ends in themselves. As Lord Acton wrote in the 19th century, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You don’t need to work very hard to find examples of what Lord Acton observed.  (For example, you could read this recent article in the Washington Post on the rise and fall of former Prince George’s county executive Jack Johnson.)

Bing Gordon’s perspective on leadership reminds me of a conversation I had with an executive recently.

It’s conference season which means free books and authors talking about their books. Heard and started to read a good one this week. It’s You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. Schwartz was a keynoter this week at the annual conference of the DC Metro Chapter of the International Coach Federation. His big idea (backed up by his research on functional MRI’s of the brain) is that the brain and the mind are two different things. We can use our mind to train our brain to overcome its baser and non-productive impulses.

He offers a four step approach to doing this which I highlight in this short video. The headlines on the four steps are:

Some recent news stories, one in particular, have caused me to pull out my dictionary to look up the word, integrity. (I like to use the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language because it offers the roots of the words all to the way back to the Indo-European roots.)  The primary definition of integrity is steadfast adherence to a moral or ethical code. The Latin root is integer which, in this context, means whole and complete.

Tressel So, if you have integrity, it means your approach to life is integrated. Everything is whole. By that definition, the recently resigned coach of the Ohio State University football team, Jim Tressel,  doesn’t have it.  As a thoroughly reported and sourced article in the current issue of Sports Illustrated points out, Tressel has at least an eight year record of willfully ignoring violations of rules in which Ohio State boosters gave his players sweet deals on cars, free tattoos, marijuana and other favors in exchange for football memorabilia and the opportunity to hang out with them.  When the story came to a head a few months ago, Tressel let his players take the fall and denied any prior knowledge but documents now show that he knew and tried to cover it up. 

None of this is what anyone expected from a coach known for his button down, sweater vest demeanor. In addition to his winning record and national championship title, Tressel was admired by many for conducting pre-game quiet times with his team to study humility and other virtues. He kept a prayer request box on his desk and was praised by retired NFL coach Tony Dungy for his integrity.

It’s not my intent to pick on an easy target. My point is that the cumulative pressure to win whether it’s coming from your fans, your shareholders or yourself can make it is easy to compromise your integrity. The person you thought you were or want to be can get buried by the decisions you make that don’t square with that ideal. Using the Tressel story as a case study, here are three danger signals that should tell you you’re putting your integrity as a leader at risk:

Carrier2 As we move into the unofficial beginning of Summer in the United States with the start of Memorial Day weekend, I want to give a reprise to a post I ran at the beginning of last year, What I Learned on an Aircraft Carrier.  As is often noted, only two percent of the U.S. population serves in the military that provides protection for us around the globe.  As part of the 98 percent who rely on the two percent, I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity last year to see firsthand how good these professionals are at  their jobs.

So, the midst of the swimming pools opening, the cookouts and the fun this weekend, let’s take a little time to stop and say, “Thank you for your service,” to the active duty and retired men and women of the U.S. armed forces.   As we’ve seen again and again, they do amazing work for us in very challenging conditions.

Yesterday marked the beginning of another Next Level Leadership™ group coaching program with a cohort of high potential leaders at one of our client companies. One of the big events in the first day of the program is to review the results of 360 degree surveys we run for the participants prior to session one. The 360 presents the assessments of colleagues on a range of leadership behaviors that people taking on more responsibility need to master.

Like most groups of high potential leaders I’ve coached over the past five years, the group that started yesterday has a lot of opportunity to make a bigger impact by delegating more effectively to the people on their teams. The kinds of delegation behaviors that regularly show up in the Next Level 360 survey as opportunities for leaders include:

  • Regularly takes time to step back and define or redefine what needs to be done.
  • Spend less time using his/her functional skills and more time encouraging team members to use theirs.
  • Makes clear to his/her team the best ways to involve him/her in the process of achieving the desired result.
  • Gets involved in determining solutions only when there is a clear and significant value in him/her doing so.
  • Sets up and uses systems to monitor results and the progress towards them.

With the increasing volume of work that everyone expects to get done, more and more of my clients are asking for help on improving their delegation skills. Based on the best practices of leaders who are really excellent at delegation, I’ve come up with a five step approach called TRACK™.

Here’s how it works:

As I write this, it is Sunday afternoon and I'm happy to report that, contrary to a firm prediction from the founder of Family Radio, we're all still here. The world didn't end. I have to say that I wasn't really that worried because I've had direct experience with people who were convinced the end of the world was imminent.

Worlds-end Older readers may remember the guy who used to wear a rainbow colored Afro wig and a John 3:16 t shirt and had a knack for getting himself on TV at sporting events in the late 1970’s and 1980s. His name was Rock’n’ Rollen Stewart.  My best friend, Ty, and I met him when we were in college and went to Atlanta one weekend to see the PGA Championship. Stewart was standing beside us in the crowd in full regalia and we started talking with him. He wanted to head up to the US Open tennis tournament later in the weekend and was trying to convince us to wear a couple of his extra wigs and represent him in Atlanta as he drove to Flushing Meadows, NY.  We politely declined the request but asked him what motivated him to do what he did. He told us that he thought the world was going to end on a particular date in the near future (I don't remember the date but it was going to be on a Friday.) and he wanted to get his message out before then. One of us asked him what he'd do if the world didn't end that day. He told us that he'd take the weekend off and come back the following Monday.

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