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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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One of the questions that I get asked all the time in coaching sessions and speaking engagements is, “How do I work with or influence my new boss?”  That’s a great question because it outlines a situation that most executives are going to face multiple times throughout their careers.  I wrote about this topic a few months ago in a riff on how Secretary of Defense Robert Gates rather seamlessly transitioned from working for George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  (You can see that post here.)

A  couple of weeks ago, I got a call from a reporter who was working on a story about how to influence your boss and found the Gates post online. He was pitching the story to a web site that’s focused on Gen X and Gen Y guys in the workforce.  When he told me the intended audience, my first thought about how to influence your boss was, “Ask for directions.” Of course, as any wife or girlfriend who has been lost with her guy in the car knows, asking for directions is one of the hardest things for guys to do. Getting into why that’s the case would provide enough material for a whole separate blog. So, let me focus in on why asking for direction is my first piece of advice for anyone (not just guys) who wants to influence their new boss.

Here are three quick tips:

Starbucks1 Been to a Starbucks lately?  If so, what do you think?  If you’re a long time Starbucker, how does the experience in the stores lately compare with the way things were four or five years ago?

What do any of these questions have to do with leadership, you ask?  (After all, that’s what this blog is supposed to be about.)  Here’s where I’m coming from.

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about how Starbucks is starting a company-wide program to implement the concepts of lean manufacturing to raise the efficiency and productivity of its stores. In a tight economy, it’s understandable why Starbucks or any organization would focus on controlling its costs.

Clock1 Last week was a vacation week for me and this week sort of, kind of is. What’s the difference?  Well, one big difference is location – Laguna Beach, CA vs. Northern Virginia.  I learned last week that when the Pacific Ocean is a three block walk down the street from where you’re staying that it’s pretty easy to lose track of time. And then there’s the three hour time difference between the West Coast and the East Coast.  That always throws off my rhythm a bit.

It’s the end of July and I’m on vacation so let’s have a little fun today. Let me start out by saying that I love William Shatner. He was great as Captain James T. Kirk, hilarious as Denny Crane of Boston Legal and I never get tired of his Priceline Negotiator bits. The man completely knows how to walk the razor’s edge between maintaining his dignity and making a complete fool of himself. That takes a lot of self awareness.

Armstrongfeud For most Americans, cycling’s annual 15 minutes of fame has come and gone with Sunday’s conclusion of this year’s Tour de France. In case you missed it, this year’s winner was Spain’s Alberto Contador. Finishing third and making a comeback after a three and a half year retirement was the seven time winner Lance Armstrong. One thing that made the race more interesting than usual this year was that Contador and Armstrong were on the same team although you’d never have known that from the way they’re sniping at each other now.

In a post race press conference, Contador said, “My relationship with Lance is zero.  He is a great rider and has completed a great race, but it is another thing on a personal level, where I have never had great admiration for him and I never will.”

Armstrong fired back on his Twitter account. Quoting the tweet, "Seeing these comments from AC (Alberto Contador). If I were him I'd drop this drivel and start thanking his team. Without them, he doesn't win."

Snap and double snap.

Gates2 Let me say from the outset, that this is one of those posts that I’ve debated writing. Let me also say what I’m not writing about. I’m not writing about racial profiling or who was right or wrong in the situation of  Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates being handcuffed and arrested by Cambridge, Mass. police officer Crowley in his home last week. You’ve probably heard the story by now that after returning to his home from a trip, Gates and his cab driver were jimmying a stuck door to get into the house. A neighbor who observed them working on the door called the police. After Gates was in his house, Officer Crowley arrived and asked Gates for his ID. This is the point at which their stories diverge in terms of who did or said what. One thing that is clear, however, is that the situation escalated to the point that Gates was led out of his house in handcuffs.

Amygdala The key phrase for me is that last sentence is “the situation escalated.”  I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this case the past couple of days and have been surprised that I’ve seen nothing on the role that one or more amygdala hijacks likely played in the scene at Gates’ house. If you’re not familiar with this phrase, I believe it was first developed by Daniel Goleman the author of Emotional Intelligence and many other books on the topic. The amygdala is a small part of the brain located just above the spinal cord that stores emotional memories, particularly those associated with fear. It’s where the fight or flight response resides.   If you’re in a situation that feels threatening to your physical being or your ego, it’s the amygdala that stimulates your reaction to either fight or get out the heck out of there. The fight or flight response was probably really useful for our prehistoric ancestors who had to deal with the occasional sabre tooth tiger.  It’s usually not a particularly useful response in today’s world.  When the amygdala kicks in the adrenaline surge it releases can overpower or hijack the logical, critical thinking skills that come from the brain’s frontal cortex. 

Given the tense situation at Gates’ house and the outcome that resulted, it’s not hard to imagine that one or probably both of the men involved suffered from some form of amygdala hijack. We’re all going to find ourselves in situations where we’re going to feel threatened from time to time so what can we do to prevent a reaction that leads us to say or do something that ends badly? Here are a few tips:

Last week,  I sent out one of my periodic newsletters which featured my recent blog post on leadership lessons from the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. That article prompted a note from Rich Beach, a director at IT services provider CGI and an alumnus of our Next Level Leadershipgroup coaching program. In addition to being a smart and interesting guy, it turns out that Rich is also a great writer and quite the rock and roll aficionado. In his note, he shared with me one more leadership story about Springsteen and a lesson from the Beatles about getting the right people on the bus.

So, with his permission, and in his own words, here’s Rich Beach with two really cool leadership lessons from the history of rock and roll.  Thanks Rich!

Rockybull When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time watching the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. (I spent a lot of time watching TV, period.)  They used to have a segment on the show called “Peabody’s Improbable History,” in which the highly intelligent talking dog, Mr. Peabody, and his boy, Sherman would use their WABAC machine to travel back in time. The events of this past weekend took me way back to my childhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In thinking about them, I learned a little bit about more about how some of the things that happened back then shaped me as an adult and a leader. In particular, I’m talking about the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, the death of TV anchorman Walter Cronkite and the completely improbable (Mr. Peabody would have loved it) performance of 59 year old Tom Watson at the British Open.

So, jump into the WABAC machine with me for a few minutes and let’s see what we can learn.

For the past several months, the New York Times has been running interviews on leadership with the CEO’s of well known organizations. They’re almost always interesting. Sometimes I agree with the points they make, sometimes I learn something new and, honestly, sometimes I find myself wondering, “How did this person become a CEO?” The latest Times interview subject is Dave Novak, CEO of Yum Brands. I think it’s the best one in the series so far.

Yum-novak To counteract the karma of my last post about how terrible leadership helped blow up AIG, I thought I’d share ten thoughts from Dave Novak on how to be a great leader along with a tip from me on how to follow through on that thought. The bold face points are direct quotes from Novak, my accompanying tip is in plain face type:

If you’re looking for a textbook example of how to be a dangerously ineffective leader, look no further than the great writer Michael Lewis’ article, “The Man Who Crashed the World,” in the current issue of Vanity Fair. It’s the story of  a guy named Joseph Cassano who ran AIG Financial Products from the end of 2001 to 2008 when his unit helped crash the global economy. Based on reporting he undertook after receiving a few phone calls from a former AIG FP trader, Lewis details what can happen when what he calls a “cartoon despot” ends up running something important. It’s an amazing article and worth your time.  If you want my Cliff Notes version of how to lead your team to a $182 billion loss, read on.

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