Leadership Lessons: Quotes


I feel powerless all the time but I regain my energy by making a very small difference that won’t cost me much.  I think many people give up because they don’t know how to change just a little bit to reach a better position.

Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist, interviewed by Brook Larmer, Harvard Business School

Tip 1: Transforming difficult conversations

Threshold Conversations

“I think you’re a great team member, you’ve really contributed a lot, and I like your company, but I have to tell you…” You’re not laying her off. You’re telling her something that’s not easy to say: you’re falling short, the way you work is getting in the way, you haven’t been listening. If you were in that person’s seat, you’d feel threatened, too.

The people who coined the term “difficult conversation” understood that the complexity of the conversation is a source of its difficulty. It is hard to listen – to take in – all the messages that are being communicated, and concealed, in conversations where emotions are high. It’s not just the other person’s emotions that distract and demand attention. Our emotions make their own noise. We can’t make the difficult conversation less complex, but we can simplify our approach.

That’s why my colleague Kande McDonald and I have created a two-part webinar on Four Steps to Transform Difficult Conversations. There’s plenty of signal in the noise. And those messages invite us to cross a threshold. On the other side, there’s less freaking out and more shared meaning.

Register now image

Here’s one tip from our webinar, Stepping arcoss the Threshold.

Tip 1: Do less to do more

Most of us are doers, problem-solvers, and we have a bias for action at work. Don’t change a thing, except in difficult conversations. Instead, listen and restate what you heard empathetically. An example: “So you’re saying that I asked you take on a very big project and that I didn’t support you. That must have felt terrible (or isolating, or very risky).”

For those of you who have come to appreciate the value of mindfulness, think of this as a way of staying in the moment. You can’t change what happened, but you can acknowledge the other’s perception of it now. This is also how you build common understanding. And that is the raw material for knowing what to change or fix when the time comes. That time is not now.

Entrepreneurs: Controllable thoughts are key to resiliency

Entrepreneurs:  The data say they are great at starting companies that fail.  That takes resilience.  For those who love the thrill , there are few other ways to work that are as satisfying.  If they are not already resilient, entrepreneurs do well do bulk up on it. Thanks to Eleanor Chin, who recently talked to WEST members, I have some recommendations for leaders who would be resilient.

What it is and what it does

Resilience is the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges and to come back from adversity.

Resilience makes it possible to step back from the situation with a growing degree of equanimity.  I use equanimity to mean acceptance of a realistic view of my responsibility in the success and failure.  It includes an equally realistic view of forces beyond my control.  Some of the things outside any one person’s control are people, circumstance, big-picture dynamics like the economy and markets, and large scale systems like public policy and infrastructure.

The chopstick fly-catch

If you remember your Karate Kid, the student no longer needed the teacher when he could snatch the fly out of the air. Sure, it’s a cliche.  But one path to greater resilience, Daniel-san, is grasping thoughts out of thin air.  It’s how you can take control of them and create a different outcome.

When we look back at situations, we wonder why we did that.  Often it was counter-productive.  Maybe we’re ashamed. Why yell when I could have asked a question?  Why fire someone when I knew that the problem was more complicated?  That reaction can be traced backward to the event.  Take a look at the illustration below.

What Albert Ellis has shown is that if you identify the thought triggered by the activating event (his term), it’s also possible to address that thought with others that can dramatically affect the emotion that it produces.  And since emotion often evokes the bodily fight-or-flight response, it’s a way of breaking the grip of bodily survival response that, be honest, don’t serve us at work.ABC from BIG IDEA

To come back from adversity, we need to have some distance from the thoughts that automatically trigger unbalanced judgments about ourselves.  It can be tough to do in the heat of the moment.  It takes practice.  But when it begins to change reactions, it is also making you more resilient: less likely to be knocked off your feet by those reactions and more likely to get back up when you are.

If you’re working with coach, she can help you apply this method to day-to-day “activating events.”  If you’re not already working with a coach, I’d be glad to introduce you to the practice.

In the meantime, here’s a worksheet to help you think it through:  ABC worksheet

Be your own change leader: Boston Discover Meetup, Mar. 27


The difficulty of leading change in an organization comes from the change that takes place within.  That’s why two colleagues and I get together every month for a Meetup that’s all about tuning the instrument for change: you.

Boston Discover Meetup
Click to join the Meetup!

Because we are all busy, stressed, and over-committed, it makes sense to say, “I’ll think about change when I can breathe again.” And who are we kidding?  Sometimes that’s the best any of us can do.  But we believe that you could be missing the most important information about the change you want to make.  There’s crucial data in the little picture.  It’s staring back at you from something that happened this week.

With a little attention, reflection and the sense we make of it can power your change initiative.  You know the one:  It’s the vision you have of a future you as a remarkable start up co-founder or big company senior leader, or expert and guru, or workplace humanizer, social transformer, good father, mother, spouse, friend, or citizen.

Know a little to have a big impact

Boston Discover Meetup is a conversation.  It uses discussion and a methods of reflecting on experience that we’ve learned over the years.  It started because we wanted to recognize that reflection is important and under-appreciated.  We have  become a little community committed to helping each other have a bigger impact on the world.

We set aside an hour or so to catch our breaths, collect and make sense of meaningful moments from the recent past, and see ourselves more clearly.  We believe this frees us to be the change agent we want to be.  It’s a “course” in the sense that we’re learning, but ourselves and our experience are the text.  We’re not teachers, though.  We’re learners, too.
Greater Boston Discover

Is this Meetup for you?  The best way to find out is to give it a try.  But you might find it helpful if any of these statements resonate with you:

  • When it comes to generating creative solutions, I may be using the same old ideas.
  • I can see that I need to broaden my network and work with people unlike me (in my company, my industry), but I don’t know where to begin.
  • There’s nothing really wrong with my job or my life, but I’d like to feel the kind of zest I used to.  I wonder where it went?
  • I am feeling sort of stuck.  I have a goal that I’m blocked from achieving.  I want to get off the dime, but I don’t move.
  • I’m doing everything I can to bounce back from a setback.

Here’s a one-pager (pdf) that you can share with friends.  Boston Discover Meetup – Thursday March 27, 6:00 p.m. 

And here’s an introduction to the  Boston Discover Meetup founders (pdf).



Entrepreneurs: Traits to develop, but you are not alone

Do you have the right five or seven or ten things you need to be an entrepreneur?  I don’t think so, and that’s great news.

The thrill of running the  show is attractive.  It plays to your strengths. But the litmus test is whether you’re willing to find people to augment you – your skills, experience, ability. If you have the whole package, failure is still likely.  Without others, it’s almost certain and they’re the key improving your odds.  That’s the hidden message in this HBR blog post on The Skills Most Entrepreneurs Lack.  Serial entrepreneurs in the underlying study were ranked higher than a control group in four traits:

  • Persuasion
  • Leadership
  • Personal accountability
  • Goal orientation

Together they can make for a leader with vision who is committed to winning others to that vision; one who makes great demands of herself, who delivers, and who will keep on striving.  These strengths help drive under-resourced, under-funded start ups through significant obstacles.

Leading edge of learning

But as some start-up veterans will tell you, these leaders can drive others crazy. That’s because they don’t demonstrate the traits that help make strong organizations, the kind people that want to belong to. But that’s where entrepreneurs have the biggest chance to open themselves to the leading edge of learning.

If you’re employee number four or seven or more, and not a co-founder, you need something different:

  • Empathy:  You need some appreciation for the challenges of your work, your contribution, abilities you need to develop, and occasionally, for the sacrifices you’re making.  We’re all adults here, but the work is hard.  Entrepreneurs need to develop empathy.

Key traits, from HBR.org

  • Planning and organization to guide you from today to the accomplishment of the company’s vision.  Entrepreneurs can answer to their intuition when they’re solo.  Unless they can recruit psychics, a plan and process helps keep the team on the road together, even if plans change as part of pivoting.
  • Analytical problem solving:  You need to understand how decisions are made. Entrepreneurs’ intuition made be as sound as in Blink, but “that don’t scale.”  It’s encouraging to see the empirical approach that dominates many start-ups these days.   There are times when a leap of faith, a big bet is the right play.  It’s after you’re out of data.
  • Self-management:  People need a degree of consistency in leadership. The average start-up employee has a higher-than-average tolerance for ambiguity. But entrepreneurs throw a long shadow. You want the leader and the company to succeed. But your Spidey sense is always alert: Is this boat stable? Is the captain still in charge? Self-management in your leaders gives you a sense of consistency and that makes trust possible. It also makes leaders more effective on all fronts.

Leaders: You probably already think of your market space as an ecosystem.  Think of your company the same way.  Make the most of the people around you to find the uncomfortable edge of your leadership development and seek support in learning.

  • Who’s got it? Note, honor, and foster traits and abilities in others that you don’t have to the same degree.  Strong leaders aren’t afraid to recognize others for strengths that they themselves don’t have in spades.
  • Don’t delegate it: It’s a relief that you don’t have to do it all yourself.  It shows humility to be open to others.  But it is your responsibility to know yourself and make the most of your raw material as a manager, leader, and entrepreneur.
  • Learn from those who have strengths you don’t.  You may never be a paragon of empathy or planning and organization, but you can learn.
  • Investigate the inside job: What’s keeping you from getting better at say, listening, a skill that enables empathy?

Often the best way to identify your leading edge of learning is to ask for feedback.

Using Conflict Constructively

Whatever you do today, it will make another scene in your leadership story.  If it were part of an HBO series, would it be interesting to watch?  Stories worth paying attention to are powered by drama – tension, conflict, opposition.  If a leadership story doesn’t have a protagonist who’s making trouble – purposeful, thoughtful, intentional – it isn’t much of a story.

conflict is an engine

Conflict is easy to recognize, exactly because drama at work is something to be avoided.  Or is it?  Operatic, fruitless conflict, yes. How can we change our minds about conflict to make it more like a pivotal scene in a fascinating story rather than an recurring scene in a tired melodrama?

As a starting point, it’s easy to recognize three kinds of conflict: careless, habitual, and thoughtful.

Careless conflict makes great scenes in which the actor’s performance eclipses the story.  We remember the person and the behavior, but not the purpose.  In the interest of keeping drama at bay, people learn to keep the volume down. To avoid those scenes, we pre-empt conditions that trigger it.  This can lead to avoidance.  Leaders pay attention to the patterns of careless conflict and the avoidance that ensures.  They step in to investigate, appreciate, and address it.

Thoughtful conflict is the kind that makes good stories.  It has a beginning, middle, and an end.  Start by learning and appreciating the perspectives around you.  Wading in to stir the pot will make things interesting, but it drains the trust you’ve worked so hard to build.  Often thoughtful conflict is productive because it unblocks an impasse.  So the middle of the story often requires patient, deliberate conflict.  Ron Heifetz calls this regulated distress.  Your goal is to generate an encounter with the need to change, the big rocks that that systems and techniques alone can’t blast through.   In fact, he says that “a leader helps expose conflict, viewing it as the engine of creativity and learning.”Habitual conflict can arise from best intentions.  Folks who hold high standards and challenge conventional thinking can fall into a rut.  Nothing is right, good, efficient, creative, profitable, or practical enough.  It’s easy to see this in others, but what about ourselves?  What is the point of diminishing returns on habitual conflict?  Leaders pay attention to opposers, challenge their habit, and investigate the risk – to the company and themselves – that they’re trying to address.

What engine is powered by the conflict you usually engage in?

Delegation: It may not be what you think

Even for experienced leaders, delegation presents fresh challenges throughout their careers.  When you want something done and other person becomes responsible for doing it, a sophisticated exchange is taking place.  It’s easy not to notice the elements of potential success.

I asked  a colleague to develop some materials for a training program.  She’d studied the topic in graduate school, so I was confident she had the knowledge (and probably textbooks).  I wanted to open the minds of people attending the program.  My colleague wanted to be sure she didn’t screw it up.  What I got was less than I expected.  By a lot.  And that was my fault.  I had assumed that delegation was getting someone else to do what I would do.  That’s one of the things that delegation is not.  No merit badges for delegation

Delegation is the act of turning work over to someone else.  It’s that simple.  But there are some important things that delegation is not.

  • Delegation is not work distribution or task assignment).  If you are training or coaching someone to take over a task, you may be augmenting their job or role.  If you expect them to continue to do the work or carry out the responsibility, you may have delegated it at the outset, but you have made it their job when your intention is for them to keep the responsibility.
  • Delegation is not transferring low-level responsibilities to less experienced team members.  In one company, this was called “delegating down.”  No one wanted to be on the receiving end.  This is a case of moving work to the person for whom it is best suited.  That work shouldn’t have been on your desk in the first place.  But we all know, there’s plenty of work that others could do but which can be hard to let go of.
  • Delegation is not stepping away from the work that you delegate.  Maybe you’ve seen a rapper drop his mike and walk off stage.  That’s not you.  In fact, one of the challenges is deciding how and when to remain involved.  More on that to come.
  • Delegation is not an evaluative exercise for the person you’re delegating to.  The underlying assumption is that we, managers, believe that the person is capable.  We expect that they need to develop, round out, get opportunity to demonstrate capability.  Your job is to make the person more capable, bolster needed skills.  Little is gained when we dare the person to fail.

What makes delegation so challenging is that turning work over to another person carries layers of assumptions and expectations that are never discussed.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be introduced to delegation in greater detail.  It’s:

  1. Developing people
  2. Transmitting responsibility
  3. Transmitting choice
  4. Communicating vision  and values

Next month, my colleague Kande McDonald and I will be hosting a webinar on delegation.  We’ll look beyond the four purposes of delegation above. We’ll give you some ways to investigate what’s under the hood that’s powering your delegation efforts, and a method for tuning them up. Watch for more on that in coming days.

What are you missing?

You don’t know what you’re missing. But you’re missing a lot. According to Sherry Turkle, our phones have not just changed what we do, but changed who we are. “We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions any more,” Turkle writes.

“But they make it hard to settle into conversations with ourselves and others because emotionally we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything.” We’re always ready to press pause.

As the neuroscientists seem to be saying, synaptic pathways that go unused deteriorate. If you recall the movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel tries to reconstruct a vanished memory that collapses into dust and darkness around him.   Light flashes on the contents of his mind and go dark as he rushes to seize them.  Or that’s my memory of it.We remake the mind through habits of attention

It’s a good image for what maybe happening in the habit of snapping, checking in, and texting: being ready to pause creates a habit of furtiveness and topical awareness but makes us less capable of conversation with others and ourselves. Turkle thinks that we may be threatening our minds’ richest capabilities. They’re the ones we need most in the 21st century.

Not only do we have big problems to work on, we have great potential that’s not yet realized. I mean yours and mine, but also the capabilities and creative solutions that emerge from working together. Even if you’re leading a company in a very competitive market – playing the zero sum game, the blood sport – you need to know the sinkholes to stay out of and how to motivate your people. Only solving today’s problems sows the seeds of tomorrows problems. What are you missing? If you don’t know, you’re missing a lot.

Unless we’re willing to find out what’s right there below the surface of the present, waiting for a little light and synaptic attention, we won’t know what we’re missing.

Friday: Where did the week go?

Okay, it’s Friday.  You made it through the week again.  Time to make sense of what happened.

Some of the lessons of the week are obvious.  But leaders who are in it for the long haul reflect, not just about what they should do more of or less of.  They’re practicing the wide-angle view.  We learn the same lesson more than once because we interpret what happened the same way.  The wide-angle view is a habit of noticing more than we saw the last time we looked.

The wide angle view

Simple reflection demands a little time, attention, and a willingness not to judge too harshly.  It can be hard to pay attention to things we wish we hadn’t said, done, thought, and felt.  But that’s where a lot of important information lies.

Think about a moment you were very bored this week.  What was keeping you from getting engaged?  When did you get angry?  What was at risk?  I’d be glad to go on suggesting emotions and thoughts for you to consider.

But this is your reflection.  Welcome to Friday.

Try these questions out as you review and plan for next week:

What did I do that I’m proud of?

  • What work?
  • What thinking?
  • What interactions?

When was I not the kind of person I really want to be?

  • Too hard?
  • Too soft?
  • Disengaged?
  • Emotionally wrought up?

Instead of asking, “Why?” consider, “What did I need that I was trying to get out of that situation?”

How has a wider view changed my interpretation of what happened?