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Skunk Works Leadership

I finished writing my review of Skunk Works and I realized that beyond the amazing aircraft that they created, they developed a culture that managed to side-step the government bureaucracy and get things done. Somehow during the mountain of paperwork, they managed to be as agile as a gazelle. This is something that large organizations aspire to today. They feel the pressure to be more competitive, adaptive, and agile because of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we find ourselves in.

The hope here is to find a few nuggets of how the Skunk Works was successful, so that other organizations trying to mimic the results have a blueprint they can use.

No Blueprints

The irony of trying to build a blueprint is that, often, the blueprints came after the part was made at the Skunk Works. There were many times when designers would work with machinists and assembly personnel to figure out how to make something work. They’d mock something up on cardboard, the machinist would make it, and then return the cardboard or part to the designer to get it drawn up.

From most perspectives, this is backwards. However, at Skunk Works, that’s just how things worked. The team worked together to address the need or solve the problem, and then they’d make sure that their individual commitments to the rest of the organization were met. Agile software development would take a page out of this book decades later in deciding that ceremony wasn’t important, people and interactions were important.

You Can’t Contract Your Way Out of Conflict

Own your own business for a while, and you’ll make friends with an attorney or two. It happens because they’ll save your bacon at some point – and because you’re going to be talking to a lot of them. A wise friend of mine explained that contracts are funny things. You write a contract, so it’s clear what should happen when things go wrong – and then you hope nothing goes wrong. You write a contract so you can trust what the other party will do – and you know that you can’t write a contract with someone you don’t trust. It just won’t ever work.

The point of this is that, at Skunk Works, the relationships people had mattered. It wasn’t position, power, or prestige. If you weren’t working together to solve the problem, you weren’t working.

Clear and Present Danger

The Soviets at the time Skunk Works was created represented a clear and present danger to the United States. What we didn’t know was the degree or aspects of the danger. That’s what Skunk Works would eventually end up solving for the US. They’d level the playing field with advanced jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft that provided the best understanding about what was really happening inside the Iron Curtain.

Skunk Works always had clear targets. At the largest level, it was to be able to protect the United States’ interests. At the micro level, the targets for the aircraft could be specific. The SR-71 Blackbird project was targeted to fly at over 80,000 feet and Mach 3. (For more see, The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird.) They achieved these goals, in part, because they were specific. They had something that the team could shoot for and desire to be a part of.

Secret Handshakes

Being a part of Skunk Works was something special. It was something that few people could say – and to some degree, it was something that even the people inside couldn’t say except to each other. It created a special sense of community inside that circus tent. This was the crack team. They were going to save the US from foreign interests. Everything was riding on them.

There may not have been any secret handshakes, but the secrecy of their projects bonded everyone together in a way that not every organization can accomplish. There was something to being a part of the group – it meant something. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

The Fewer the Better

While they weren’t many people, they were handpicked to be the best at their jobs. What was assembled became a testimony to Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The model that the Skunk Works operated under didn’t require more people. In fact, Johnson recognized early on that Skunk Works raises and promotions had to be different, because there wouldn’t be as many people for them to lead. The group wouldn’t require leadership in the same way that the rest of the organization thought about it.

Rather than focusing on empire-building by collecting the most people working for them, Skunk Works managers would focus on output and results. Instead of worrying about competing with others, they’d be focused on how to collaborate with their peers – and compete with the enemy. (This is a lesson that Richard Hackman would drive home in Collaborative Intelligence years later.)

Lessons for Today

It’s great that Johnson and Rich were able to build and maintain a culture at Skunk Works with such amazing characteristics. But how do the leaders of today leverage this wisdom to create a culture of their own that’s capable of incredible results? Here’s a few ways.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek explains, in Start with Why, that people need a shared purpose. While most organizations today don’t have an enemy the size of Russia to target, they can target a change they want to see in the world. This change provides a central theme for everything that the organization does. Organizing principles make it easier to work together towards the common good.

Clear, Compelling Goals

It may start with “why,” but it doesn’t end there. It ends with the specific goals that individuals and teams need to accomplish to allow the organization’s mission to be successful. The specific goals – sometimes very difficult goals – drove the engine forward. The SR-71 Blackbird was only 84% efficient at burning fuel, leaked like a sieve on the ground, and had a horrible habit of the jet engines “unstarting” during flight. Because the goals were clear, these “annoyances” were acceptable. When you’re building something that’s generations ahead of anything anyone else can do, there are going to be drawbacks.

In your organization, clear goals allow you to focus on the requirements, the “must haves,” and allow some of the other things to land wherever they need to.

Compete Outside, Collaborate Inside

Too many organizations have managers pitted against each other in a struggle for resources and power. The real enemy should always be outside the organization. Hackman’s Collaborative Intelligence makes it clear that internal competition doesn’t create well-performing teams. Of all the things that we can learn from Skunk Works, I feel like this is the one we forget most often.


Skunk Works wasn’t easy. It was hard, demanding work, and people didn’t “pussyfoot around” when there was a problem. Results – the ability to get things done – was always at the forefront of mind.


In Johnson’s rules for Skunk Works, he made a point that evaluations (budget reporting) had to be timely – and problems needed to be disclosed as quickly as possible. Knowing bad news late does you no good. You need to know bad news as soon as possible, so you can mitigate the risks caused by it. If there was one thing about Skunk Works, it was communication – for better and for worse.


For the first time, the people who needed to work together to get things done actually worked in the same space. Instead of designers lobbing designs over the wall and machinists handing them off to assembly, everyone worked together because they were close together. Agile software development learned the value of the product owner and the software development team being close together. It improves the measurable communication – and it builds bonds of trust that allow you to transcend the normal rules for working together.


Too few people in organizations trust each other or the organization. At Skunk Works, everyone knew that if you did your job to the best of your ability – even if you failed – Johnson (and then Rich) would have your back. You trusted the people you worked for and with. That makes all the difference. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.)


It seems odd that failure should be a part of success. However, it is perhaps the most important part of success. Without the ability to fail safely, you won’t know about failures until too late, and the organization won’t be able to learn from the failures. So, paradoxically, failure allows you to succeed – when you’re willing to accept and acknowledge it.

Back to Skunk Works

According to the current literature few organizations have matched Skunk Works’ level of functioning. Books like An Everyone Culture and Reinventing Organizations make it clear that our organizations are falling far short of their aspirations. Perhaps if we’re willing to take a look back to the Skunk Works, we can see just some of the ways that we can make our organizations more powerful.

The Evolution of Leadership

It’s impossible to really understand what things were like a generation ago. We apply our perspective from today and come up with a distorted version of the past. We can’t imagine how leadership worked at the turn of the last century, with authoritative leaders creating a group of employees only slightly removed from slavery. We look at a new generation of workers and wonder why they behave differently than us when we were starting our careers – and fail to recognize that this is both true and untrue at the same time.

It’s time we hopped a ride in the way-back machine to get a better picture of what things used to be like, so we can understand the changes that are happening – and what it means to us.

Safety and Fear

The common thread that we’ll find as we walk through the changes in society, and therefore leadership, is the prevalence of safety and its relationship to fear, both physical and psychological. Human behavior is shaped by fear and safety in large and small ways. When looking from the leadership lens we see that we need to lead in ways that are more aspirational and less authoritarian. Why is that case? As it turns out, there’s a reason that drives this change in leadership styles.

Physical Safety

Our ancestors primarily considered their physical safety. Given their mortality and the struggle for water, food, and shelter, they didn’t have much room to consider how they felt. The introduction of “the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence was, at the time, a foreign concept. Most people were locked in the struggle for mere survival, and happiness wasn’t a concept that was worthy of consideration for all but a select few.

The driver when it came to safety was our physical well-being and the well-being of our families – because they were a part of our safety net.

Driving Safety

It’s 1926, and Route 66 is becoming the experience of a lifetime for many travelers. It’s a call to adventure and an opportunity to explore the country in ways that hadn’t been possible before. The road was a continuous stretch from Chicago to California – but it was just that: a stretch. Automobiles had been made practical through Ford’s innovations of mass production, and since 1908, they were an affordable way to travel. Ironically, Ford shut down manufacture of the Model T shortly after Route 66 was completed. (Source

Reliability of the automobile isn’t what it is today. The first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 wasn’t initially a race as much as it was an endurance test. Getting automobiles that could travel 500 miles without breaking down was a challenge. Sure, there was a winner, and the goal was to cross the line with the highest average speed; but of the initial field of 40 cars, only 12 finished. Another 14 still had engines running, but flagged out when they were disqualified – the remaining 14 cars weren’t functional by the end of the race. (Source

These were the top automobiles of their time, and fewer than a third finished 500 miles. Route 66 was roughly 2,500 miles. Breakdown wasn’t so much of a possibility as a probability. If you did break down, you had a toolbox on board to try to resolve the problems yourself, because, in this world, there weren’t cell phones, and the service stations weren’t close together. You’d also expect to have food and a tent in case you needed to camp out along the route. (Source

It is difficult for us to conceive of a time when traveling was so hazardous and error-prone. Today, we punch in an address in our GPS receiver and wait for turn-by-turn directions to our location. Just a generation ago, we taught map skills to children because it was important to understand how to route ourselves. We expect that cellular signals will reach mobile phones so that, even in the rare case of a problem with our car, we can call someone to help us with a repair, a meal, a room, or directions.

We feel safer in many different directions. We believe that problems happen much less frequently, with lower severity, and we believe that we’re able to recover more rapidly. Few of us keep stable food in our cars today, much less camping equipment or tools in case we need to plan on camping out or repairing the car ourselves.

Food Costs

The truth is that we were able to take risks like traveling the “mother road” of Route 66, because our discretionary income was increasing. Sure, the 1930s were marred by the Great Depression, but there were other factors that were moving towards greater affluence. Consider that, in 1900, the average American family spent approximately 40% of their income on food. By 1950, that number was down to 30%. Today, our cost for food is less than 15% of our income (on average). (Source: In the space of 100 years, we freed up 25% of our income.

Reducing the cost of food means that fewer people were at risk of starvation. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still families struggling today to keep enough food available, but the number of families for which this is a problem is substantially lower than it was a century ago. The problem of food safety (enough food) is still an important social issue, but the prevalence of families for whom this is a consistent struggle is decreasing.

House Sizes

Many families took their new-found discretionary income and poured it into their houses. In 1950, the average home size was less than 1,000 feet. By 1973, the size ballooned to about 1,500 square feet. (Source: From 1973 to 2015, the average size of homes ballooned another 1,000 feet, while the number of people living in each home went down. The net effect was a near doubling of space per person in the space of about 40 years. (Source:

The perceived financial safety transferred to Americans making larger investments in their houses. In 1950, the average house price was $7,354. The average home price today is $236,400. Even adjusted for inflation, the cost of a 1950s home would only be $44,600. That’s nearly a 5-fold increase in the last 70 years. We’re feeling safer about our financial futures and we’re turning homes into castles – almost literally.


It may be frustrating to not get to our destination, but it’s more challenging to realize that we’re not going to live to see our grandchildren. In the 1800s, the average life expectancy was 35 years. Today, the life expectancy is around 70 years. In the last 200 years, we’ve doubled the life expectancy of humans across the planet. (Source: Measured differently, in 1900, about 2,500 people of every 100,000 would perish each year. Today, that number is approximately 750 people – roughly one-quarter. (Source: Our fear of death is real – but it is waning because we know that the average lifespan keeps climbing.

Instead of a persistent fear of death and injury, we’ve quelled our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.

Hyperactive Fear

The landmark study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) taught us that a tumultuous childhood has long-range impacts. (See a wealth of resources about the ACE study at The primary stress response system is the HPA, and activating it too much causes a predisposition of continued activation. That is, once you create a high degree of fear in a child (or an adult), you’re likely to see them be sensitive to fear in the future. They’ll respond with fear more readily than someone who hasn’t been similarly primed. (See How Children Succeed for more on the impact of the ACE study on children.) It turns out that the clock winds back even into the womb, as David Barker discovered in his research around the fetal origins of adult disease (FOAD). Some adult diseases can be predicted based on the stressors to the mother during pregnancy. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on ACE, HPA, and FOAD.)

In short, the impacts of stress on children – even before they’re born – have long-term consequences for their ability to control themselves and their long-term health. Walter Mischel and his colleagues showed that the ability to delay gratification has substantial long-term impacts for a child’s life through their “marshmallow test.” (See The Marshmallow Test.) When we reduce the fear that children feel and the stresses placed on them in utero, we can place them in a position of being more able to regulate their own emotions and quiet their fears and desires. As the societal stressors are reduced one by one, we’re literally changing the wiring of our brains and making them more thoughtful and less fear-based.

Psychological Safety

Amy Edmonson is responsible for crystalizing the term “psychological safety” as a representation of how safe members of a team feel about the team itself. In some teams, there is a real belief that they can be themselves – their whole selves – and in other teams there exists a perception that you must only do what is expected of you, and you shouldn’t share your all.

Bodies and Minds

It used to be that people hired the bodies, and the minds were just along for the ride. However, with today’s more taxing requirements for creativity and innovation, it could be said that we hire the minds, and it’s just the body that transports the mind to work – even if that’s just across the hall to the home office.

It’s hard to understand that, before the extreme automation that we’ve developed today, we really did need people performing backbreaking work. It was necessary for people to do many of the jobs that today are handled by robots or other kinds of automation. Today, not everyone even sweeps their floors any longer. A robotic vacuum does scheduled cleanings, makes a map of the places it’s cleaned, and notifies you when it needs its bin emptied or if it’s gotten stuck. It’s no surprise then that the physical aspects of work are no longer key. Today when we lead, we need to do more than just command other people’s bodies where to be. We must inspire them to think in ways that are useful.

Minds Aren’t Easy to Manage

We all love to believe we’re in rational control of our faculties. It’s a convenient lie to believe that we can command ourselves to do things. However, few New Year’s Resolutions are kept: dieters, on average, gain back 107% of the weight they’ve lost. Clearly, our conscious decisions don’t always work.

Drive shares how a small amount of stress – time pressure – can change the degree to which people can be creative about their solutions. Getting the best work out of the people you work with is something that takes a Multiplier, but that guidance isn’t particularly clear about how you lead every day by getting the most out of others.

Making of Managers and Not Leaders

Until the last two decades or so, it was enough to lead by directing, or managing, people. However, this is no longer the case. Today, we must find ways to inspire the hearts and minds of people. This is substantially more challenging than just bossing them around. However, that’s how leadership has evolved.

Book Review-Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization

Why is change so hard? Whether we’re trying to change a culture, a team, or ourselves, change is hard. The core answer from Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization is that change is hard precisely because it’s designed to be hard. We’ve developed a resistance or an immunity to change to protect ourselves from unnecessary, too frequent, or too extreme changes. The result is a natural immunity to change. While this serves us well in most circumstances, some of the most difficult challenges in our lives are changes we want to make, desperately need to make, and for which our immunity has activated to prevent our best efforts to change.

Should I Change or Should I Die?

It seems like an easy answer: we should change. However, as Change or Die points out, 90% of cardiac patients don’t make the recommended lifestyle changes even after a heart attack. Criminal recidivism rates exceed 67.5% in just three years. Even after their freedom has been taken away, criminals don’t change their behaviors. The question becomes why is this? What is it that allows someone to put themselves in danger of death when their stated goals are to live?

The answer lies in the contradiction between the stated goals and the hidden, conflicting goals that are only exposed through our behaviors. We can identify our goals, our desired behaviors, and ultimately what the unstated goals are that drive those behaviors. Typically underlying these conflicting and unstated goals are big, hidden assumptions about the way that the world works.

Defining Goals

Each year, millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Six weeks later, very few people are still working towards their resolution. They’ve made a rational decision about what they want – but they’re not doing it. The most common resolution is to lose weight. The health benefits in a nation of predominantly overweight and clinically obese people are obvious. No one is confused that there are long-term health issues that are substantially influenced by being overweight. The research around this isn’t changing.

What does change are the hidden goals that can’t be articulated. You can chalk the problem up to a Rider-Elephant-Path problem, where the rider makes a rational decision, but the emotional elephant isn’t going to do that. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on this model.) You could say that it’s just too hard – but the relative challenges of weight loss are well known. It’s even well known that most people fail in the long term, returning to weights that are 107% of where they started. There’s a hidden goal of protecting our self-image of the person we see ourselves as – and not changing it even if ostensibly we have a goal to change.

Mental Models

There are different ways that we see the world, and, in the context of Immunity to Change, the belief is that there are three progressive ways that we see and experience the world:

  • Socialized Mind – Here, there’s a clear recognition that it’s necessary to be a team player and work with others. Direction and orientation largely come from outside of oneself.
  • Self-Authoring Mind – Self-direction and the desire to direct others arrives as problem solving and independent thinking emerge. Direction is largely internal.
  • Self-Transforming Mind – The inherent contradictions that troubled the self-authoring mind are accepted. The realization appears that we all live interdependent lives.

This set of mental models is like how Steven Covey explains the maturity from dependence to independence and, finally, to interdependence in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. However, there’s a twist to the self-transforming mind. In addition to the awareness of interdependence, it’s also capable of looking at the filters in place and evaluating them. Said differently, a self-transforming mind need not just look through their perceptual filters; a self-transforming mind can directly examine and evaluate the filters. I mentioned this in my review of Resilient, how you can evaluate what’s happening without becoming a part of it.

Types of Challenges

What if all challenges could be broken down into just two categories? One category of challenges is technical. That is, once you know the solution, you can use it every time to solve the same problem. It’s simple cause and effect, problem and solution. In this model, you need only know what the solution is and execute it to solve the problem.

The second kind of challenge is an adaptive challenge. The challenge is constantly adapting and changing as you try to solve it. This is what might also be called a “wicked problem” by Horst Rittel. (See Dialogue Mapping for more.) Behavior change lives in this space where not all the components are known – or even can be known. The process for changing behavior through Immunity to Change is one that seeks to illuminate the dark places of tacit knowledge and beliefs and seeks to make them more explicit. (See Lost Knowledge for the distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge.)

Illuminating the Hidden Commitments

Our immunity to change comes from our deep-seated and hidden expectations, perspectives, and commitments that keep us trapped in where we are and what we believe despite our conscious desires to change. We want to be better as a leader but can’t let go of tasks that others could do quicker and better than us, because we need to feel like we’re “hands on” and are really contributing value.

The problem is often that we’ve not had a chance to really understand ourselves. We spend our time rushing from one thing to another, barely pausing to consider whether what we’re doing is what we want to be doing or is consistent with the way that we see ourselves. (See How to Be Yourself for more on this.) In our dealing with other people, our lack of understanding of ourselves shows itself. In my reviews of Dialogue, I wrote about the inner game of dialogue. I spoke about how our internal views and perspectives leak out everywhere, even in our attempts to dialogue with one another.


Immunity to Change focuses on the idea of an X-RAY that has four columns, which provide a view of why the conflict exists and why it’s not a simple technical fix to resolve the issue. The columns are:

  1. Visible Commitment – What is the commitment that the person wants to make in their world?
  2. Doing/Not Doing Instead – What are the behaviors that are currently in operation instead of the desired behaviors?
  3. Hidden Competing Commitments – What are the invisible commitments that are preventing success? Whether these are about the commitment itself or about the perceived identity of the person, what is preventing success?
  4. Big Assumptions – What are the assumptions that drive the hidden commitment? What are the perspectives that sustain the hidden commitment?

An Everyone Culture, a book I’ve previously reviewed by Robert Kegan that was published after Immunity to Change, adds one additional bit to column 3. That is a worry box. It’s what you’re worried about – as a prompt to help you better articulate what is holding you back. If you can walk through these four columns and get clear the idea is that you’ll know how to change.

One Big Thing

Sometimes, when people begin a journey of growth, they become overwhelmed with the opportunities for improvement. It’s important to recognize that we don’t have to grow or change in every area all at once. The reality is that most people’s success is inhibited by one or two key skills You don’t have to be great at them, you need only to reach a level of minimum competency.

In The ONE Thing, Gary Keller tries to lead us to focusing on just one thing but, in doing so, acknowledges that we may need to have one thing in multiple areas of our lives. The goal is not to drive that one thing – in each area – to the point of being excellent. All that is necessary is that we reach competency.

In fact, Benjamin Franklin, who was famous for many things including his productivity, tried to push himself sequentially to develop a set of virtues. He found each time he focused on another virtue, one of the ones he believed he had mastered faltered. (See Primal Leadership.)

We cannot be best in everything, but we can sequentially try to improve ourselves. Though we may experience periodic setbacks – like Franklin – in the end, we’ll find that, if we just work on one thing at a time, just to the level of competency, we’ll keep improving ourselves, and we may even find that we like ourselves.

I Like Me

If we’re really good at continuously challenging our immunity to change, and we continue to work on our ability to change – to overcome our Immunity to Change – we may just find that we like ourselves. It could even be enough to say that you have no regrets – because you like the person you are, and everything you’ve done has led you up to this point.

Book Review-Beyond the Wisdom of Walt: Life Lessons from the Most Magical Place on Earth

What happens when you step out of Disneyland or Walt Disney World? You take the shuttles, monorail, or boats back to your vehicle… But what then? What happens after you’ve been to a place of magic and you come back to the “real world?” Do you bring a bit of the magic with you to nurture and spread, or do you leave it all behind with the hopes of returning real soon? Jeffrey Barnes’ vision in Beyond The Wisdom of Walt: Life Lessons from the Most Magical Place on Earth is for you to take the magic beyond the parks.

Barnes’ first book, The Wisdom of Walt, explains Walt Disney, his life, and his passions. It explains the man, the movies, and the parks. It highlights for us where the magic was to make it a bit easier to find and a bit easier to understand. Without diminishing the quality of the experience, he shares with us the magician’s tricks so that we can look in wonder at what shaped the story without ruining the illusion. However, Beyond is different. It’s different, because instead of confining the story to the parks, Barnes seeks to help us find a way to integrate the best of Walt and the parks and bring that to our everyday lives.

It’s Kind of Fun to Do the Impossible

“Impossible” is just a word, but it holds so much power for most of us. It’s impossible to write a book or get a patent. Except that it’s not. We know that it’s possible – we just believe it’s impossible for us. The funny thing is that it’s not impossible. It’s just hard. Disney knew that what most people believed was impossible was just hard, and he was always willing to do the hard work.

For me, writing books has become almost passé. I know that writing a book is just like writing a bunch of articles and stringing them together. I know that writing an article is like writing a bunch of summaries on topics and stringing them together. I know that no matter how much you hate writing, you can write a book if you dedicate yourself to it. I once had an English teacher tell me that I should never do anything with writing. To say my writing back then wasn’t good would be very generous. I didn’t use that as a personal mission to become good – it just happened to me naturally as one thing led to another.

Barnes explains in Beyond that The Wisdom of Walt took twenty years and 142 days to write – and the 142 days is all that mattered. 142 days is less than a half a year. What would it be like to have written a book this year? It’s not impossible. It’s just hard.

In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler speaks of some of the incredible feats that extreme athletes are able to do. They seem almost super-human. No human could possibly do these things, but they do. And why? Well, there’s a mix of a lot of purposeful practice (see Peak) and a state of mind called flow. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman.) What we believed was impossible was – in fact – very possible. If you need something specific, the sub-four-minute mile was considered impossible. Someone who accomplished this would surely die because it was beyond human capacity. When Roger Bannister did it in 1954 – nine years after a slightly over four-minute mile run by another gentleman who maintained the record – he only got to enjoy the glory of being the fastest man for two months before someone else bested his time.

Impossible is just a word. Nothing is impossible. It’s impossible to create an amusement park that doesn’t draw in an undesirable carnival atmosphere, but Disney did it. It’s impossible to build a company, a way of life, and a culture around a mouse, but that’s exactly what happened. It’s impossible to put a man on the moon and return him safely home – except that’s what America did.

Had you asked me five years ago if I’d ever get a patent, I’d have told you it was impossible. I didn’t have any particularly deep knowledge of chemistry, mechanics, molecular engineering, or any of the other skills that I thought would warrant the issuance of a patent. However, together with my wife we devised a way to make it easier for patients to be safer in the hospital by some changes to the humble dressing that protects from infections. Three years later – yes, three years – we’ve got a patent. It was impossible – right up to the point where it wasn’t.

Walt Disney got the chance to make the impossible happen. He got the chance to change reality and you can too.

Creating Reality

Walking down Main Street, U.S.A., there are two competing thoughts. The first is, this isn’t real. It isn’t like any real place you’ve ever been – and at the same time, it harkens back to a time that we all wish was real. This thought is interrupted by the realization that, though it may be, in some ways, a front, it is also objectively real. You can see it, smell it, touch it. It must therefore be real – whatever that means.

It’s difficult to accept that Disney created lands and worlds, but we know that he did. We know that he shaped his reality around his dreams and visions. So why can’t we create our realities? I’m not suggesting that we create our own theme parks, but aren’t there small ways that you can create your reality today?

I can hear the voice inside your head (because I think it got there by way of mine) that says: “But you’re not Walt Disney.” That’s right. You didn’t go bankrupt. You didn’t have a father that never understood your art or what you were doing. You, in fact, may be more likely to succeed at creating your reality than he was.


I should be careful to add that Disney didn’t make wild, unfounded bets. He made small attempts and then progressively larger ones. He didn’t start with Snow White (his first full length animated film). He started with animated shorts and perfected the skills necessary to move to the next level. The opportunity to create (or shape) your reality isn’t a license for recklessness. It’s a license to move forward.

Barnes explains that he’s descended from General George Pickett, who led the disastrous charge at Gettysburg. His wife, Niki, is the voice of reason that helps him make slow and steady progress instead of wild charges into the unknown. That steadying force is important. Whether internally motivated or externally provided, we all need someone who can temper and help us to regulate the passion to move forward and the persistence to move through barriers.


It’s in the way. The thing that I want is on the other side of this barrier. Getting past it seems like a frustration, a waste of time, or just plain depressing. However, sometimes the barriers are exactly what we need to develop our character in ways that allow us to reach our dreams and shape our realities.

I’m reminded that if you “help” newly-hatched sea turtles get to the ocean, you condemn them to death. They need the struggle to find their way to calibrate their sense of direction. Chicks will die if you “help” free them from their egg shell. While no one likes struggle, it’s the struggle that makes us who and what we are – and we’re better for it.

Disneyland exists, because Burbank didn’t want the carnival atmosphere they expected from Disney’s plan for a Mickey Mouse Park. The Seven Seas Lagoon exists, because the geology wouldn’t support a parking lot that was planned for the location. Instead of pictures with a sea of cars in front of the park, we have pictures with an actual, beautiful, sea in front of the park. Barriers sometimes stop you from the easy and ordinary and force you into doing something extraordinary, something worthwhile.

Doing Something Worthwhile

Simon Sinek implores leaders to Start with Why when leading others. It’s the “why” that is the purpose. Strangely, it was a quote from Jack Lindquist that made Disney’s mission make sense to me. “We are not a cure for cancer, we are not going to save the world, but if we can make people happy for a few hours for a day, then we are doing something worthwhile.” The key was that something worthwhile.

Barnes relates the story of Walt’s father (Elias) coming to see his brand new studios. Unable to help his father understand the practicality of the studio, he finally described it in terms of how it could be used for a hospital. To Walt’s dad, his drawings and his movies weren’t “practical.” Practical was a proxy for “useful.” Elias’ question seemed to be whether or not what Walt was doing was contributing to the world. While Walt spent the entire tour speaking as if the studio could be a hospital, he was telling a story that his dad could hear and understand. As the master storyteller, one couldn’t expect much else, but Elias missed the point. He missed the point not just of the studio but of his son’s legacy.

It isn’t that the Disney brothers cured cancer. However, they did change the course of human evolution. They’ve helped millions of Americans see a world that encourages us to be the best that we can be. Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point explains the power of small things that make a big difference. The streets are clean. The “cast” are friendly. The world seems just a bit safer – a bit better – inside the parks. For a moment, Guests (Disney reportedly insisted that the word “guests” was always written with a capital G) can believe in a world that’s a little bit brighter and a little bit better than it actually is.

Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” For Walt and Roy, the change was to make the world a bit happier, and hopefully their desire for happiness could spread.

Hard Work, Patience and Persistence.

It’s easy to think that the theme parks work on magic. However, the sobering truth is, as Lee Cockerell says, “It’s not the magic that makes it work; it’s the way we work that makes it magic.” Even today, operating the parks is hard work. Creating them was hard work. All the magic comes from hard work.

Walt Disney went bankrupt. He lost his first major character to Universal. He fought and struggled. He worked hard to make his visions a reality. From animated shorts to full-length films, he fought for what he believed in. A little-known fact is that most of Disney’s movies lost money on their first run in the theatres. However, he didn’t stop.

The project that became the 27,000 acres of Walt Disney World were a reality that Disney himself never got to see. He died six months before groundbreaking. Unlike other projects that Disney waited to see, this one he had run out of time for. His smoking habit had finally caught up with him. However, while he was living, he waited until his team had developed the skills to do feature length films. He waited to build Walt Disney World until he felt the timing was right. In the end, his brother and his team completed his vision for a theme park on the east coast.

The combination of hard work, patience, and perseverance is what built the experience we know today. The question for all of us is how are we going to use these same qualities to go Beyond the Wisdom of Walt?

Book Review-Leadership for the Twenty-First Century

Leadership is a tricky word to define. That’s why, in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Joseph Rost takes more than two-thirds of the book to try to define it – and probably still doesn’t get it quite right. You might expect that I wouldn’t be a fan of a book that spends so much time on something that most would agree should be relegated to a foreword or, at the very most, an introductory chapter. However, the story is more complicated than that. There’s a lot of wisdom in looking back and realizing how poorly we’ve defined the term and the issues that this has caused.

Rost walks through decades of different perspectives on what leadership is and wades back in the waters of time to try to find the root of what leadership is. He believes that you can only work on improving something once you know what it is. As it comes to leadership, few people have stopped to ponder what it really is. Most have some vague sense that leadership is management.

Management and Leadership

When you have managers enter a room for a leadership meeting, it’s just another day in the office, and, at the same time, it comingles the terms “management” and “leadership.” If your managers are the ones doing the leading, then how are the terms different? Unfortunately, when used in this way, they’re likely not different. Leadership loses its special meaning when it’s just a synonym of management. Management, too, loses its distinct meaning when anything considered leadership can be lumped in. It’s not that one is more necessary or better than the other – just that they’re different.

Some would argue that leadership is successful management, but that lays down the gauntlet as to what successful management is. Considering that the same managers for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Lego were called successful during one period of the company and unsuccessful during the next using the same strategies, were they leading all along or not? The answer is perhaps that we’re looking at the wrong measures. Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence suggests that you can’t look purely at output measures. You must consider how the team is working together to know whether they’re effective or not. Perhaps leadership has the same qualities, which transcend short-term output and lead to longer-term goals. At the same time, without clear criteria, leadership takes on mythical properties.

Myths and Legends

Great leadership is the stuff of legends. People able to lead were like the knights of the round table, slaying dragons and saving the land. We lifted good leaders on pedestals and gave them massive salaries commensurate with the value we felt they could bring to organizations. This myth-making created CEOs whose income is orders of magnitude above those who worked below them.

Whether or not a CEO deserved the salary and bonuses they received isn’t the point. We saw the CEO as the chief leader and therefore worthy of enormous compensation packages. No one bothered to question whether the CEO was just lucky in their last role or whether they really had something special. No one bothered to pay attention to whether anyone was following them or not. We idealized the leader into something that couldn’t possibly be true, and no one was willing to speak out about “the emperor’s new clothes.”


The problem is that no one wants to admit that the CEO isn’t a mythical leader who always wins the day. We live in a probabilistic world. (See The Halo Effect.) Because of that, we must realize that a CEO may – or may not – be able to lead an organization through the current times. Some CEOs will have a better probability of success, but there are no guarantees.

Because there’s no way to know what the forces are and whether the CEO’s skills will be enough to overcome the barriers placed in their way – and there’s no way to know how luck is going to fall – we must take a risk and guess at success, and we don’t like to do that. It’s easier to believe in a myth than it is to accept the difficult reality that leadership – even good leadership – isn’t always successful.

Leaders and Followers

Rost’s essential point is that leadership isn’t and cannot be expressed in a single person. Rost’s point is that leadership is the name for the relationship between a leader and a follower. You can’t extract a leader and transplant them to someplace else and expect that they’ll immediately be followed. There are behaviors and things that can be done for a leader to encourage followers – but the followers still get to choose whether they want to or not.

By refocusing the conversation about leadership to one of relationships, Rost avoids the trap of creating a mythical leader and simultaneously recognizes the criticality of relationships and persuasion. Leaders don’t preside over followers, they join in a relationship with them, where the followers are persuaded to participate for the betterment of their collective goal.

Persuasion and Coercion

Persuasion is getting someone to do something that you want – or that your group collectively wants – without the use of force or threat. If you must threaten someone, then it’s coercion. However, the challenge is that coercion is not in the explicit threat, but it is also in the implicit threat. While no one might say that you must do this, or you’ll be fired, the implication is all too often well understood.

Persuasion makes people WANT to do something, and coercion makes it clear they MUST do something – or suffer the consequences. A person who is being coerced lives in fear, and fear isn’t good for creative tasks. (See Drive and Creative Confidence for more.)

Four Essential Elements

Rost summarizes his perspective on leadership with four essential elements:

  1. A relationship based on influence
  2. Leaders and followers are the people in this relationship
  3. Leaders and followers intend real changes
  4. Leaders and followers develop mutual purposes

Effectively this describes the parties in the relationship, the structure, and the purpose. There are, however, some nuances.

There’s no need for a person to always remain the leader and others always the followers. Co-led and self-organizing groups are OK. In Rost’s view, both the follower and the leader are active participants in the relationship. If someone isn’t active, they’re neither leader nor follower.

The intent to create real change is difficult, because the scope and scale of the change is very different. Leaders and followers may seek to solve world hunger or merely satisfy their hunger for a while. They share purposes – view of the world in the future – rather than specific, tangible goals. They may not always agree on the exact path moving forward, but they agree on the destination they’re trying to reach.

Direct and Indirect Effectiveness

Being a leader means expending energy in the development and maintenance of the leadership relationship. That energy necessarily must come from somewhere else. That “somewhere” is often personal, direct productivity. A leader sacrifices their individual output in the service of the greater good of maintaining the relationships.

Done correctly, the productivity of the followers drives the goals forward faster than would ever be possible by an individual contributor. A large or even moderate group of followers with a reasonable degree of alignment can be a powerful force.

Still, a leader must be able to accept the fact that they feel like they’re personally getting fewer things done – in service of the greater good.

Leadership as a Transformational Process

If leadership is different than management, then what makes it different? One consideration is that it’s transformational. What is happening is more than the direct results that are being achieved. Instead, the people in the relationship – both the leader and the follower – grow and become more than they were. Not only does leadership transform the objective reality through results, but, more importantly for the long term, the people involved transform.

In the context of Rost’s work – based from Burns work – is that the transformation moves the people to “higher levels of motivation and morality.” While this is interesting, I’m not sure that it quite captures transformational leadership. Motivation is a slippery topic, because it’s not single dimensional. It ebbs and flows, and it is very situationally-dependent. Whether we’re looking at our willpower to push through something (see Willpower) or hope that something will get better through our efforts (see The Psychology of Hope), motivation isn’t a fixed thing.

Morality is its own sticky mess. The Righteous Mind places morality on six foundations that have differing ratios – but not real levels. Moral Disengagement wanders through the ways that we lose our moral bearings without indicating ways that we transform into more moral creatures.

I tend to think of the transformation of leadership in terms of increasing our capacity. This carefully side-steps our direct results and acknowledges that someone who has been through transformational leadership has a greater ability to do things in the future.

What Others Are Saying

With all the discussion about the research Rost had done – and the research that the people he was quoting had done – I thought it would be interesting to review the leadership books that I’ve read and taken notes on to see what they had to say about leadership. Just as Rost found, I found that some of the books that I put into the leadership category didn’t define it – a fact that had escaped my notice while reading the book. However, I was able to pull quotes from my notes for several. There are listed below in alphabetical order by the primary (first) author’s last name:

  • Organizational Traps (Argyris) – “Effective leaders are still seen as exhibiting four competencies, namely, adaptive capacity, engaging others by creating shared meaning, voice, and integrity.”
  • The Wisdom of Walt (Barnes) – “Leadership is not about managing things as they are today. Leadership is about transforming reality into your vision for a better tomorrow.”
  • Coachbook (Bergquist & Mura) – “Effective leaders, therefore, must be ‘not only concerned with what is but also with what might be.'”
  • Creativity, Inc. (Catmull & Wallace) – “When companies are successful, it is natural to assume that this is a result of leaders making shrewd decisions. Those leaders go forward believing that they have figured out the key to building a thriving company. In fact, randomness and luck played a key role in that success.”
  • Good to Great (Collins) – “…these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”
  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey) – “Leadership deals with the top line: What are the things I want to accomplish?”
  • Extraordinary Minds (Gardner) – “…influence occurs significantly in a set of exchanges between the minds of leaders and the minds of followers.”
  • Tribes (Godin) – “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea”
  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Goldsmith & Reiter) – “Becoming a better leader (or a better person) is a process, not an event.”
  • Primal Leadership (Goleman et al.) – “…leader creates resonance—a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people. At its root, then, the primal job of leadership is emotional.”
  • Originals (Grant) – “As entrepreneur Derek Sivers put it, ‘The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.'”
  • Servant Leadership (Greenleaf) – “I believe that the essential quality that sets servant-leaders apart from others is that they live by their conscience—the inward moral sense of what is right and what is wrong.”
  • Influencer (Grenny et al.) – “We call this ability to create changes in human behavior influence and the people who do it influencers. At the end of the day, what qualifies people to be called ‘leaders’ is their capacity to influence others to change their behavior in order to achieve important results.”
  • Dialogue (Isaacs) – “I will define leadership here as the capacity to hold the container for gradually larger sets of ideas, pressures, and people as the different crisis points unfold.”
  • An Everyone Culture (Kegan et al.) – “When Next Jump studied how things fail, the leaders concluded that the number one recurring pattern was the inability of people to manage their emotions, what the leaders call ‘character imbalances.'”
  • Leading Change (Kotter) – “Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles.”
  • Reinventing Organizations (Laloux) – “Consciously or unconsciously, leaders put in place organizational structures, practices, and cultures that make sense to them, that correspond to their way of dealing with the world.”
  • The Advantage (Lencioni) – “The only reason that a person should be on a [leadership] team is that she represents a key part of the organization or brings truly critical talent or insight to the table.”
  • Heroic Leadership (Lowney) – “Jesuits became leaders by understanding their strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview; confidently innovating and adapting to embrace a changing world; engaging others with a positive, loving attitude; energizing themselves and others through heroic ambitions.”
  • The Halo Effect (Rosenzweig) – “James Meindl at SUNY Buffalo concluded after a series of insightful studies that we have no satisfactory theory of effective leadership that is independent of performance.”
  • The Titleless Leader (Russell) – “When asked, followers were able to describe exactly what they need from a leader with remarkable clarity: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.”
  • Theory U (Scharmer) – “The essence of leadership is to shift the inner place from which we operate both individually and collectively.”
  • The Fifth Discipline (Senge) – “If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create.”
  • Seeing David in the Stone (Swartz) – “I realized that great leaders knew the lesson of the stone. They approached each new mission with the humility of a sculptor. They knew that if they put themselves above people, people would oppose them.”
  • Multipliers (Wiseman & McKeown) – “As leaders, probably the most important role we can play is asking the right questions and focusing on the right problems.”

What is – and What Can Be

In the end, manager see what is and leaders see what can be. Managers see today and the current reality. Those in a leadership relationship see what can be. Perhaps seeing what can be is what Leadership for the Twenty-First Century should be.

Book Review-Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity

Why is it that some people seem to reach their goals and do great things while others languish in obscurity, not sure what to focus their time on or whether they should watch TV or go to a movie? We all want success – though we may define it differently – and the path to success is, we believe, productivity. In Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, Charles Duhigg seeks to illuminate the path.

Believing the Lie

Productivity starts with believing a lie. It starts by believing that we’re in control of our destiny. If we look deeply into anyone’s success, we will find that luck and circumstances played a huge role in their success. Yet for ourselves we must believe that our self-agency, our ability to control our destiny, is limitless.

Carol Dweck’s research proves that people do better in life if they believe in a growth mindset. (See Mindset for more.) The heart of the growth mindset is a belief in self-agency, or what is sometimes called an “internal locus of control.” To encourage a growth mindset, we praise the work and not the results. We help people understand that their effort drives their results, not their inherent skill.

Change or Die explains that if we were to truly look at our weaknesses, we’d never be able to function. A life-threatening asteroid may strike the planet tomorrow – but the odds are against it. Taleb might argue that The Black Swan event is always around the corner, but if we’re hypervigilant in this way on everything, we’ll get nothing done.

The Halo Effect reminds us that, though we love the world of certainty, we live in a probabilistic world. We need to accept that there is a certain amount of chance in our daily doings. While we have some important impact on our lives, our level of influence isn’t limitless. In Extreme Productivity, Robert Pozen spends most of the book explaining his techniques for productivity before admitting in the end that his life has not followed the path of a straight arrow. He’s followed the twists and turns of fate – or luck.

Success, it seems, isn’t dependent completely on luck or work. As Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared.” It’s possible that your number will come up on the roulette wheel when you have a small bet or a large bet. The payoffs are much larger when the bet is larger. Working hard – on the right things – allows you to make those larger bets.

A Thousand Steps

An old proverb says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Developing productivity is like this. The Rise of Superman talks about how extraordinary things are accomplished by mere mortals and how those feats are typically the results of a very small improvement followed by another and another. Like the compounding of interest, our capabilities grow slowly as we invest in them. If we continue to make small incremental improvements over time, we can do amazing things.

Sometimes people are discouraged when they realize the large gap between where they are today and where they want to go. They don’t know how to break large goals into smaller goals. One man who figured out how to get big things done through small steps was Walt Disney. As I mentioned in my review of Primal Leadership, despite his setbacks, Disney learned to try things in small scale before trying larger projects. He made short movies before feature-length movies. He built a path to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs though shorts and other tests to ensure that he could produce a full-length animated movie.

Connecting Steps to Journeys

The real magic of Disney may not be in the parks but in his ability to connect long-term objectives to the step-by-step progression of smaller tasks. One of the challenges is that many people become overwhelmed when faced with large goals. They feel lost because they don’t know how to get to the end goal. The trick isn’t to know how to reach the goal. The trick is in knowing how to get closer. As The Psychology of Hope points out, what we think of as willpower – the ability to keep moving forward – contains two components: what we’ve traditionally called “willpower” and a second component called “way power.” Way power is an awareness of how to move forward.

This is one of the great learnings of agile methodologies. You just move things forward a little and then reassess to see if you can figure out what the next small step should be. You don’t have to reach the end in one giant leap. You move forward, learn, adapt, and then move forward again. Eventually you learn how things work – for real – and you’re able to make larger and larger leaps.


Gary Klein recognizes that fire commanders had built models in their head about how fires were supposed to behave. (See Sources of Power.) They learned and fine-tuned these models in their experience. They had stumbled across the capacity to think in systems. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) It became possible for them to see everything as connected, and when this happened, they could simulate in their heads what was going to happen. When it happened, they knew they were on the right track; and when it didn’t, they knew they had to adjust their thinking and their response.

One of the funny things is that these fire commanders weren’t always the person with the most experience. They were sometimes just the people who could build the models faster and better than the others. It’s the ability to think in systems that made them good at what they did. Highly productive people, it turns out, generate lots and lots of theories and start to use their systems thinking to model them – and eventually to know which things to test.

Thinking in systems doesn’t come with a cursory interest. It takes commitment.

It’s All About Commitment

In Freemont, California, they’ve witnessed a change. A plant that made cars so poorly that GM had to close it down became a shining star in a partnership with Toyota. The plant is the stuff of legend. Many books have been written about it and reference it. It’s heralded as the quintessential reason why Japanese cars are so much better than American cars – even when the cars are made by largely the same workers.

In the GM command and control model, you didn’t dare stop the production line, because you had been told repeatedly how much that costs the company. In the Toyota model, if you needed to stop the line to do something right, you did. It’s simple, but the transfer of accountability and responsibility is enough to do something magical: create commitment.

When you’re committed to your goal, job, career, or company, you’ll volunteer to work harder. You want to do more than the minimum, because the minimum isn’t great. When you want to take a leap forward, sometimes it means slowing things down to get it right and learn more.

Random Connections

The most innovative people you meet aren’t the people in the science lab learning to stop all vibration of an atom. The most innovative people are the people who take discoveries like that one and combine it with other ideas to create something great. The truly innovative research that has been done, the greatest ideas that have been created, are a result of merging diverse fields. Whether it’s The Medici Effect that set off the Renaissance period by bringing together different artists and inventors or it’s Edison’s lab that brought metallurgy and gas lighting experts together to create the incandescent light, breakthrough innovations are more about combining the thoughts of others than doing your own detailed, tiny, but ground-breaking research.

For me, these random connections are Discovered Truths. Like the periodic table of elements, when you can see the order in the chaos, you can tame it and ride it to the end – rather than trying to grind it out. In the end, Smarter Faster Better is the way we all want to be.

Book Review-An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization

A friend, mentor, and manager of mine once relayed a conversation that he had with the HR manager at our company. The HR manager said that you couldn’t change the stripes on a tiger but – in a sense – this was exactly what my friend was trying to do. He wasn’t content with people where they were. He wanted people to grow and change and become the best possible versions of themselves, even if it was painful, as it often was. He was ahead of his time in trying to carve out his corner of the larger organization and make it deliberately developmental for every team member.

Nancy Dixon and I began a conversation years ago at a KMWorld event. Since then, there has been the passage of time and only a few powerful conversations. When she heard some of the work that I was doing in teaching people how to listen better and how to resolve conflict, she encouraged me to read An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. As I suspected, it was a good book. It helped to bring into focus some of the things that I had been working with clients to create in their organizations.

Too Many Ideas So Little Time

I’ve been making a concerted effort to be more judicious with what I cover in my book reviews. I recognize that reading a 7,000-word post is like reading a half a chapter of a book – so I’ve been breaking them down. This one got broken into a series of posts that have already made it to the blog. The triggering moment for five posts came from An Everyone Culture.

That isn’t to say that all the content in these posts came from An Everyone Culture. It sparked the thoughts and the need for me to capture and relate my experience in a way that others could capture as well.

Weakness Is Strength

There’s an interesting paradox in our weakness. It’s our weakness that gives us strength. It’s our weakness that demonstrates our perceived safety and our ability to grow.

When we were growing up in the proverbial school yard, exposing our weakness was sure to result in being called out for that weakness at some point. We were powerless to avoid harm when the words hurt us as much as the sticks and stones. We learned not to be weak for fear of being harmed.

However, there’s another framework from which we can expose our weaknesses. If we know that, no matter what happens, we’ll not be harmed, there’s no reason to hide our weakness. It’s not really hiding our weaknesses that is our goal. Instead, our goal is to avoid hurt. If you can’t get hurt by someone by them knowing your weakness, why hide it?

Consider for a moment the power of a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous. The greatest addictive weakness is known to everyone in the group. The check-in practice all but requires it. Simply showing up is a relatively clear indication. Yet this greatest weakness is safe with the rest of the group, because they share the same weakness and therefore can’t harm you with the knowledge. (Though this is not technically true, it feels this way.) The reason that it’s an anonymous group is so that people can’t take the information to people outside the group who might harm you with it. (See Why and How 12-Step Programs Work for more on this powerful tool that addicts – and non-addicts – use to elevate their lives.)

To be able to expose your weaknesses with a broad audience makes you powerful, because it means that your weakness can’t be used to hurt you – or at least it’s hard to use them to hurt you and requires malicious intent, which fortunately most people don’t possess. To get to this point, you must feel safe with the knowledge of sharing.


Safety is an illusion. We believe that flying in a plane isn’t safe. It’s scary. We believe that driving or riding in cars is safe. The problem is that we have these precisely backwards. Cars kill many more people than airplane accidents, but airplane accidents make the news, and car accidents rarely do. We rely on the What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI) and assess that planes are less safe than cars when the opposite is true. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on WYSIATI.)

Consider a move to a perfectly middle-class neighborhood. In this fictitious place of Normalville, everything is at the statistical mean – schools, crime, everything. Whether you consider this place a safe place to raise your family will be assessed against your current situation. Is your current neighborhood a high-safety place or a low-safety place? If you’re used to a gated community with a Barney Fife-type security guard driving around the neighborhood, you’ll find the transition to Normalville very unsafe. Conversely, if your last neighbors were a drug dealer and a pimp, both of whose clientele had a propensity for random and non-random shootings, your move would add amazing perceived safety.

Cultivating the perceived safety in our work environments comes from the development of trust. Trust that our coworkers have our best interests at heart. Trust that we can rely on them when we need help.


For me, when it comes down to how do you change and grow – whether as a child or as an adult – it all comes down to trust. Do you trust the folks who are trying to help you through the growth and change (even if this is just you)? If you do, there’s a chance for success, and if not, there may be better ways to spend your time. I’ve written extensively about trust, particularly in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy.

Changing ourselves is possible. It’s possible to grow and change. Dweck’s work shows that a growth mindset is better than a fixed mindset (see Mindset). Knowing that we can change and trusting that the people around us are the ones to help us make that change aren’t the same thing. Organizations that want to be deliberately developmental must focus on trust as a critical ingredient for that growth, without it a great deal of energy will be spent without much in the way of results.


Burnout has been a lifelong companion of mine. Sometimes I’m able to push it away for a week, a month, or a year, but eventually burnout comes back to catch up and remind me it’s there. Burnout is not, however, what most people believe it is. Burnout isn’t overwork. Burnout isn’t trying too hard. Burnout is the result of not feeling like you’re changing anything. You don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. Burnout tells you that nothing ever changes. (Del Amitri has a song that I always hear when I write about burnout titled “Nothing Ever Happens”.)

Burnout can surface in our personal lives – we’re never going to find that perfect person or our children are never going to learn those important lessons. Burnout can happen in our career – endless job opportunities appear to other people but not to us. Burnout can happen in our personal development – we’re making the same poor choices and getting the same poor results in our diets, our exercise routine, and our ability to control our anger and communicate our feelings to others.

The first feelings of burnout show as we start to put forth less energy into the things that we are – or at least were – passionate about. This initial appearance of burnout tentatively tries to take hold of your future – to cause you to change your direction.

Getting out of burnout isn’t always easy, but there are simple exercises – like exercise – that can help make it better. Physical activity is one way to help, as the physiological response is sometimes enough to help us escape a rut. For those, like myself, for whom exercise isn’t a pleasurable experience, there are other approaches as well.

The things that you focus on get bigger. If you focus on where you’re blocked in your growth, those blocks will seem bigger. Conversely, if you’re able to focus some thought on how things may be getting better – even if only slightly – you can help yourself out of the pit of burnout. (See Hardwiring Happiness for some more tips here about instilling happiness which helps relieve burnout.)

If you want to transform your organization into an organization that rejects burnout, perhaps you need to read An Everyone Culture.


Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism

“Bless her heart.” The words seem to conjure up an image of a Southern belle speaking about a poor unfortunate soul that she pities. It’s a recognition of the suffering of another person without a connection, a desire to relieve their suffering, or a willingness to go out on a limb to help them.

Buddhism in particular calls us to be compassionate for our fellow man, but this thread runs through most major religions as well. Even evolutionary biologists admit that, as a species, we survived due to our willingness to help one another and alleviate others of our group’s pains and struggles. However, in the realities of every day life, how far should we go? Should we live the altruistic life so that we can be remembered as a hero, or should we play it safe and just pity the pour souls that cross our path?


Pity is such a toxic emotion. The person being pitied feels shame that they are the subject of someone else’s sympathy. (See Brené Brown’s Rising Strong for more on shame.) They feel disconnected and distant, because inside of pity is no connection. There’s only the unspoken message that you aren’t good enough. You didn’t make the cut.

Unlike the other ways that you can approach someone that indicates your understanding of their situation and the desire to help, sympathy or pity isolates them and actually lowers the person that you’re pitying. You believe that they’re less than or lower than you – and they often pick up this impression


While sympathy and empathy differ only slightly in their word construction, the difference in meaning is profound. Empathy means “I understand this about you.” Inherent in empathy is a connection. The connection may not be strong, but it’s present. As humans, we need connections. It’s a part of the way that we survived, so it’s encoded deeply into our DNA.

Empathy recognizes the suffering of other people and how that suffering may be affecting them. However, empathy stops in the world of thoughts and feelings. Empathy says nothing about how a person will behave. As a result, empathy helps someone feel connected and thereby may lift their feelings a bit. However, empathy doesn’t lead to change.


Compassion expands on empathy and connection with people, but it does so inside of the context of a strong desire to alleviate suffering. In Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama argues convincingly that, unlike sympathy or empathy, compassion isn’t an emotion, because it must be cultivated, it is an enduring characteristic, it doesn’t distort our thinking (as feelings do), and it is restricted to the relief of suffering.

Compassion is an amazing place to be with our fellow humans. Professions, like nursing, are built on the foundation of compassion. Professionally, there are discussions about topics like compassion fatigue, where the nurse expends their capacity for compassion at work and has trouble expressing it in the rest of their life. There are techniques to cultivate greater compassion for others, but often the challenge isn’t the need to increase the capacity for compassion, but to manage the disconnect between the way that folks feel they should be seen and the actual compassion that they’ve cultivated.

Compassion, true compassion, is hard to fake. By attempting to project a false image, we expend energy and build resentment within ourselves. (See How to Be Yourself for more on projecting a false image.) In professions – again, like nursing – there are times when you must protect yourself from feeling others’ pain too intensely so you can complete your work. Unfortunately, in needing to blunt some degree of your awareness and empathy for others’ pain, you can unintentionally stunt your cultivation of compassion.


It’s one thing to be compelled to alleviate the pain of another human, and it’s quite another to feel that so powerfully that you’re willing to risk harm to yourself. The fireman – or good Samaritan – who charges into a burning building to save a child demonstrates this level of commitment. They’ve moved beyond compassion into altruism – it’s the place of heroes and myths.

Heroes are known for their selfless sacrifice and their willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to alleviate the suffering of others. In the legends, myths, and movies, the hero ends without any harm, despite the risks. In the idealized world, the sufferer is saved, and the hero is victorious. However, this is the stuff of stories.

In real life, people get hurt – sometimes critically – as they attempt to save others through their altruistic acts. This is an unfortunate reality that we must accept. It’s also why altruistic acts need to be carefully considered and executed.

For most situations, altruism goes too far. Altruism creates the risk that you will not be able to be there to have compassion for the next person.

Finding Our Place

Too often, compassion explicitly or implicitly bleeds into altruism. Sometimes the choice is conscious, as a decision is made that this cause or this person is simply too important to give up on. Other times, we exceed our current capacity for compassion, and we continue anyway. This causes what’s seen as compassion fatigue and can cause real damage to our capacity to recultivate our compassion.

For the most part, we must avoid the toxicity of sympathy, move towards empathy and connecting with others, and through to developing compassion for their suffering and the willingness to help them change it. At the same time, we must learn to stop short of altruism, except in the very rare conditions when the personal risk is well justified based on our personal convictions and our possibility of transforming a situation with our willingness to accept personal risk.

Cultivating compassion in every interaction while acting in a way that is consistent with our capacity should be everyone’s goal.

manual transmission stick shift

A New Way to Manage: Up, Down, and Around

Most of the organizations that I’ve been in have a culture that values the perception of perfection even in the face of evidence that we’re not perfect and no one else is either. Understanding this seems obvious – however, too many organizations unconsciously ignore this fundamental truth. Let’s take a quick look at what organizations look like – beyond the tall buildings, fancy offices, and expensive chairs. How do we as humans relate to each other? How is it that we truly connect with our peers, managers, and subordinates?

Managing Up

To be successful in a corporate environment, you must learn some key skills, not the least of which is the art of managing up. While in some minds, this is as simple as making sure that your boss likes you, it’s slightly more nuanced than that. Certainly, having a friendly relationship with your manager is important – after all, no one wants to have hostile relations with anyone, much less their boss. However, you must also make sure your manager believes that you can do the job that you’re currently in, whether that’s a manufacturing manager, a digital marketing specialist, or a fry cooker.

If you’re particularly skilled at managing up, you’ll create the impression not just of a relationship with your manager, but that you want to make your manager look good. While your relationship and your skills and capabilities matter, they don’t matter as much as the manager looking good to their manager.

Together, these expectations mean that you must hide your weaknesses from your manager so they don’t discover that you don’t really know how to do your job. (Here’s a secret: none of us really know how to do our jobs completely – or we’re in the wrong job.)

Managing Down

Much has been written about how to manage your subordinates. There are different strategies, but most of them involve the central tenet that you, as the manager, know more than the person doing the work, and as a result, they should listen and do what you stay. In this position, you must become the all-seeing oracle at Delphi. You’re supposed to have the answers to offer up that you don’t know, or encouraging exploration could be construed as weakness.

The result is that, in the typical organization, you’ve got to hide your weakness from your subordinates by claiming that the problem is difficult, and you want to review all of the information or reflecting the problem back on them, so they can “grow,” all the while silently realizing that you don’t have the answers either.

Managing Across

Managing peer relationships with no authority-power gradient is just as complex. The folks that you’re working for will be the very ones that you’ll be competing with for the next promotion. You certainly can’t expose your weaknesses to them, because they might take those weaknesses and use them against you at the last moment.

Without the power gradient, you can’t be sure that you can trust them. What if they decide to “air your dirty laundry” to the rest of the organization? You’d be ruined. So, the best strategy with peers is to keep things close to your chest and share your expertise with them, but never ask them for anything that might demonstrate your weakness.

The Legacy of Stack Rank

Some of this is a result of the thoughts of Fredrick Taylor, who brought out the stop watch to measure, evaluate, and stack rank employees based on their ability to drive solid metrics. Peter Drucker warned us that you’ll get what you measure. He saw how Taylor’s ideas warped the behavior of the front-line workers towards the metric to the exclusion of everything else. Kaplan and Norton tried to address the limitations by urging us to move towards balanced scorecards – where we looked for good performance on a series of metrics, not a single metric.

However, even in this world, employees were stack ranked at organizations like GE. The top performers got the best bonuses. The bottom performers were encouraged to find opportunities outside of the organization. This approach is often criticized in knowledge management and collaboration circles, because it places dramatic barriers in front of the kind of sharing to make these initiatives successful. (See Collaboration for more on how internal competition breaks collaboration.) It’s also been the bane of many managers with high-performing groups where everyone in the group is a solid performer – but one must be let go to address the structure of the stack rank system.

Managing Developmentally

That’s what it looks like in most organizations. Safety is elusive. You must hide at least part of your real self to stay relatively safe in an unsafe environment. (See How to Be Yourself for more on the stress of denying yourself.) However, what would it be like to experience an environment where you can be the whole you? If your weaknesses were not just acceptable but were expected? What if the model were flipped over, so that it was the managers that served the managed? (See Servant Leadership and Heroic Leadership for more on how managers might become servants for the managed.)

When we can confront the reality that none of us are perfect and we all need to grow, we create the opportunity to be more transparent about our weaknesses, both in order to grow personally and to allow the team to cover them so they don’t get the better of us.


Organizations for Humans

Organizations have missions and strategies. They differ but there’s one way that every organization is the same. Organizations are designed by humans for humans to work in. They are organized around the principles that the leaders believe will move the organization to its goals. However, more importantly, no organization can exist without humans. Despite this relatively straightforward observation, too many organizations don’t want humans to show up. They only want the happy pictures of tireless workers who never have their own issues that the organization should support them through.

Chemical Reactions

Some organizations view employees as a simple exchange. It’s money for services. It’s transactional, and the organization can and should be less involved in the lives of its employees. During the mergers and acquisitions of the 1990s, the illusion of employment for life was shattered. Though we never fully held this belief in the US, we deluded ourselves into believing that, if we were loyal to the company, the company would be loyal to us. However, this was shattered, as tens of thousands of employees were displaced during mergers. (See America’s Generations for how our views have changed over time.)

With this implicit promise irretrievably broken, employees began to be seen as raw materials, like energy. They were to be used up during the production of the organizational goals. On one side of the chemical reaction was two raw materials, and on the other side was the desired product and the used-up capacity of one of the raw materials – the employee. Certainly, not every organization holds the extreme view of employees as a commodity or as disposable, but the view is still held in some organizations.


It’s a totally different perspective to see used-up employees as byproducts of the process, one which realizes that the organization’s goal is the furtherment of humans. Organizations may serve one, few, or many humans, but they’re always serving someone. In this service, they can expand the capacity of humans on the planet or transfer the wealth of one group of people to another group of people.

Consider predatory lending for example. It preys on those least able to pay and transfers their financial resources to someone who can lend the money. The other side of high-risk lending is that, without high-risk lenders, many poorly-resourced people would never get the financial help they need to get out of the holes that they’re in. Notice that, in one view, there is a need for high-risk lending that supports poorly resourced people getting a leg up. The other view – which is sadly just as likely – is that the loans are predatory and keep the poorly-resourced people down.

When organizations change their view from being all about money and shift it to understanding that being financially successful is integrated with the need to help move the human race forward, we’re left with an organization that sees every customer and employee as fully human. Sadly, this is all too rare.


The gravest tragedies in the history of our world have been instigated by dehumanization. Whenever there is genocide and torture, you will find that dehumanization led the way. (See Moral Disengagement for why dehumanization leads.) Before the concentration camps, the Nazis made the Jews less human. Before the abuses in prisons – both war prisons and domestic corrections – there is the necessary dehumanization of the inmates. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on dehumanization in prisons.) The less human someone is, the less necessary it becomes to treat them with “basic human decency.” If they’re not human – if they’re the enemy or an inferior group of beings who are no longer human – then there’s no need to treat them decently.

Dehumanization of anyone makes us less as well. By dehumanizing others, we steal from our own humanity and from the broader group of souls who coinhabit this world. (See The Anatomy of Peace.) The more we can dehumanize others, the greater we understand that we, too, can be dehumanized. Our personal safety erodes as we seek to build ourselves up relative to others.

Cardboard Cut-Out Employees

If you ask most executives what they want from employees, you’ll hear things like productivity, innovation, dedication, work ethic, etc. Rarely do you hear an executive say what they want most is that employees bring themselves fully to the organizations. Sure, they want collaboration as long as it’s quick and painless. Collaboration serves the master of productivity, so it’s a good fit – if it isn’t too hard.

Real humans and true teams are messy things. They don’t fit into boxes, and their issues don’t always align well to corporate priorities. Real people have weaknesses and faults. It’s easier to think of people as cogs in the machinery of the organization than it is to realize that everyone is broken but also valuable.

It’s easier to only see the Hollywood smile of an employee on a cardboard cutout of themselves. It’s easier to not have to worry about the faults and foibles that lay beneath the surface of every employee.

Crazy Creative

In the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we live in, we need employees to bring their whole selves. We need people who aren’t afraid that their weaknesses will be the reason why they’re in the unemployment line next week. Their creativity depends upon their sense of safety. (See Drive and Creative Confidence for the impact of stress and fear on our ability to be creative.)

If your organization wants to be successful as an organization today, it needs to accept change and encourage the messiness of innovation and creativity through the recognition that employees are whole humans, and as such they need to be developed into their best possible selves, not just harvested for their capacities today.

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