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Book Review-It’s How We Play the Game

Generally, I don’t read biographies.  For me, they’re boring.  However, Ed Stack became very interesting to me, so I decided that there must be more to him and his book, It’s How We Play the Game, than meets the eye – enough that it was a worthy investment – and I was right.

A Sporting Chance

Ed Stack grew up around his father’s sporting goods store – Dick’s Sporting Goods – and took it from a two-store organization in upstate New York to the retail powerhouse it is today.  The journey, as one might expect, wasn’t straightforward and wasn’t without peril.  Stack recounts the good and bad times in the book.  Certainly, from a business perspective, it’s a reminder of the hard work and luck that allow an organization to grow.  However, that’s not the interesting bit.  The interesting bit is how the experiences shaped the character of a man and, ultimately, an organization in a way that supports communities and helps children develop life skills they’ll need.

When I was growing up, sports weren’t a real option.  Two factors conspired against me.  First, there was always a shortage of money.  I remember breakfast cereal with powdered milk – because that’s what we had.  I remember our cups were recycled margarine cups.  Sure, others had it much worse than I did – but it meant that the idea of spending on sports wasn’t a priority.  A roof, food, and clothes were more important.

The second factor was much more powerful.  My parents couldn’t agree on anything and often consciously or unconsciously put my sister and I between them.  Stack acknowledges that his own parents’ divorce put the kids between them.  In my family, the conversations occasionally came up about doing sports, but the fact was that practices and games would be on the weekends sometimes, and weekends were hotly contested times between the parents.  It was clear pretty quickly that I’d never make it to stay on a team, because I’d never make the number of required practices and games.

To be fair to my parents, I’ve never been particularly interested in or good at sports.  It’s not something that interests me.  I’ve been honored to know professional athletes in many disciplines – baseball, football, and auto racing.  I respect what they have done – without getting so wrapped up in it that I’d believe I ever would have been very good.  (I know I should have a growth Mindset, and that Peak performance is just purposeful practice – but knowing one’s own limitations isn’t a bad thing.)

Foundational Beliefs

Woven throughout the story of Stack’s life is the dedication to the community and the recognition of the value that youth sports bring – even realizing that very few youth will ever make it to play professional anything.  That’s okay.  The foundation of hard work and teamwork is an important life skill – one that Stack credits with keeping him out of too much trouble.

For my part, I agree.  The focus of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation on supporting youth sports programs is laudable.  It’s a good way to support the belief that sports build the kind of character traits that we all want to see in our youth, our adults, and our society.  Just because my son wasn’t good at soccer didn’t mean he didn’t play.  He played enough to learn some lessons and to hopefully develop some character that will serve him later.

The Shot

The truth is that I came to the book because I was curious.  We’re working on some firearms means restriction in the suicide prevention work we’re doing, and Dick’s Sporting Goods was expelled from the Firearms Industry Association (NSSF).  We were working with them to get safe gun storage information in the hands of as many people as possible.  Expelling one of the nation’s largest gun sellers seemed odd.

I learned that it started with the tragedies at Sandy Hook, CT and Parkland, FL.  Stack was touched by the tragedies, and both personally and organizationally took a stand to make a difference in protecting children from mass murder.  They removed all modern sporting rifles – assault rifles – from most of their stores.  They’ve also limited the number of handguns sold across their stores.

The tricky bit is that I can applaud Stack and the organization for being committed to take action to make things better.  I can even say that the moniker of modern sporting rifles is not the way I’d describe them.  At the same time, calling them assault rifles is probably not fair either.  Do I think that they should be as easy to get as they currently are?  I don’t know.  Certainly, Dick’s decision to remove them from the shelves made them slightly more difficult to get –but not in a fundamental way.  What it did was allow the executives at Dick’s to have a clear conscious – and I can respect that.

I’m not interested in entering into a Second Amendment debate.  Much like Stack, I have guns, I enjoy shooting them, and I want others to be taught how to use these tools.  I’d hate for people to say that I’m anti-gun, because I’m decidedly not that.  The nuanced challenge comes in whether the answer was the right answer – and whether NSSF expelling Dick’s makes sense.

As for Dick’s decision, the problem is that I know the numbers, and while the mass shootings are tragedies, they make up a trivial percentage of deaths by firearm.  It’s something that can compel someone to action, but it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of injury and death.  I don’t say that to minimize the suffering of anyone injured in the all-too-frequent mass shootings.  I say it to put things into perspective.  The leading cause of death due to firearm is suicide.  That’s not fundamentally changed in decades.  The non-mass-murder aspect of firearm deaths is a large portion of the remaining.  Accidental shootings and mass-murder are relatively trivial in comparison.

For NSSF, it makes sense.  Someone is publicly moving in a direction against where the firearm manufacturers and industry is going, they shouldn’t be a part of the industry association.  I’m not sure why they’d want to be.  I think the tragedy is that both organizations – NSSF and Dick’s – are aligned in the desire to prevent unnecessary deaths.  They’re both committed to finding ways to stop gun violence.  They just find themselves on opposite sides of a particular sub-group of the problem – and as I explained above, it’s a trivial percentage of the violence that’s happening.  For reference, modern sporting rifles or assault rifles are a trivial amount of the overall industry.  It’s a position and talking point, but it doesn’t move the needle in terms of overall sales of the industry.

Dreams of Greatness

The number of kids that grow up to be professional sports athletes is vanishingly small.  The odds of winning the lottery are also small – but people still play, because they can dream of winning.  There aren’t many people who will make the investments necessary to reach peak performance.  Though Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s research about what it takes to reach peak performance was oversimplified by Malcolm Gladwell, the truth is that becoming the best takes a lot of work – work that most kids won’t invest.  (See Peak for a summary of the research.)

However, what Dick’s sells when it comes to kids is the dream of greatness.  It’s not that anyone really believes that their child will break world records, it’s that they want to have the dream for a while, because it makes everyone feel better.

That’s at least part of the point.  It’s in learning how to play the game that we discover how to hope, dream, and live.  It’s How We Play the Game that matters.

Leaders Lead from the Back

Not everyone gets the opportunity to go hiking in the mountains, but there’s a valuable leadership lesson to be had by hiking in the mountains with others – particularly a family.  Hiking with a family necessarily involves people with differing abilities, needs, and skills.  Keeping everyone together is what makes a great leader effective – and it’s rarely the thing that people see when they’re watching a family or group pass them on a trail.

Head of the Pack

Some people – generally a father figure – will take up position at the beginning of the group, leading the followers on the right well-worn paths to prevent them from getting lost and ensuring the hike that they set out to do is the one they complete.  By all accounts, this is what people would describe as a leader.  Fearless and intelligent, hard-charging and determined.

The message this leader often sends – either directly or through indirect means – is that the only way to “do things right” is by hard-charging into the future.  It’s blazing trails that wins the day, not careful, deliberate attempts to keep everyone together.  Ironically, in most cases, they’re not blazing the trail but instead finding one that they’ve been promised leads to the destination or experience that they desire.

The image we have of leadership is one of a leader and followers rather than a group of people who desire to share an experience together.  We sometimes forget that the journey matters, too.

Bringing Up the Rear

Equally common as a leader in front is a person in back.  Generally, this is a caretaking role, like a mother who carefully watches those ahead of them and intuitively slows down to stay behind the last person, or recognizes the need for resources like water and gets those resources to them.  There is no pace-setting or direction-setting in this role.  It’s the role that makes sure that everyone is going to the same place in a way that prevents people from being left behind.

What’s interesting about the role is that it most closely aligns with the supportive role that many effective leaders take.  They’re not just setting a direction, but they’re also tending to their people who need help.  Instead of dictating, they’re facilitating.  Instead of charging, they’re caring.

There’s a greater awareness that the goal is the shared experience as much as the destination.  It’s a caring for people – with the desire to have a new experience.

Leadership Defined

I won’t be able to go to the depths how Joseph Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century does.  He dedicates nearly 2/3rds of the book to getting to an understanding of leadership that’s summarized neatly as people in a relationship intending real change.  That opens leadership up to everyone, not just people with titles or special talent, but also people who are in relationships and intend to make a real change.

In this context, families and organizations want to make their interactions more positive and the people in them want to do it together.

Lost Causes?

One would be right to question the analogy when applied to business or civic life.  After all, we can’t easily replace a child or a crazy uncle.  Families have a relatively fixed relational structure that other groups do not.  There will always be times when the people you’re bringing with you on the journey are the wrong people.  In corporate life, it’s a hard decision to make to ask someone to leave and, in tight labor markets, even harder to find the right person to replace them.

However, until you’ve decided they must leave, you should support them as best you can – even if you don’t fully believe that they’re going to make it.

Why the Back?

It’s too easy from the head of the pack to leave one or more people behind.  In fact, it’s easy to leave everyone behind.  A leader without followers (or collaborators, as Rost began to call them) isn’t a leader at all.  It’s only from the back that you can ensure that everyone makes it and truly shape the experiences they have.

Book Review-The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

It’s an uncomfortable conversation. There is a group of change practitioners who believe coaching is required to accomplish change. I’m not convinced. However, to investigate the premise a bit, I picked up The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Along the way, I discovered why it’s possible that I’m not so convinced that coaching is essential yet others are.

Good Leadership

Leadership isn’t easy to describe. Joseph Rost spent the better part of his book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, just trying. However, there are aspects of leadership that many believe are important. Robert Greenleaf is known for his work on Servant Leadership. Daniel Goleman and his colleagues make the case for emotional intelligence in leadership in Primal Leadership. Liz Wiseman talks about the way that leaders bring out the best in others in Multipliers. Patrick Lencioni lays out his perspective in The Advantage. Everyone seems to have their own perspective on what good leadership is.

There are, however, common threads that run through the conversation. In Heroic Leadership, Chris Lowney explains how the Jesuits listened to the environments they were in and demonstrated behaviors rather than relying on rules. It turns out that good leaders are leaders that listen.

Motivational Interviewing

For me, every leader and manager should be taught Motivational Interviewing. The skills are based on listening and are designed to help even the most stubborn resistors to accept that there are changes in their life that can make their lives better. The rub between this and coaching is that motivational interviewing starts with listening and recognizes that the person is the expert in their lives.

Coaching provides the appearance of listening before giving advice – but that’s the rub. The expectation is that the coach will provide their advice and expertise. Built on the wisdom of Carl Rogers, motivational interviewing respects the individual. (See A Way of Being for more.) So perhaps my issue with coaching isn’t that I don’t believe it’s valuable – it’s that I believe it’s often not done well. Anyone can call themselves a coach without understanding how people are effectively moved to better performance.

Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer

The triangle goes by different labels. In my Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting post, I explained the triangle with the labels of victim, villain, and the rescuer. Whatever labels are in use, the power dynamics remain the same. The dysfunctional system is fueled by the relationships and the need to see people in one of these key roles. One of the best functions of a coach is to break people out of these sick cycles and get them to higher levels of functioning.

The trick may be to view the roles differently and to see how the dysfunction of the systems impacts our ability to see ourselves. (See Beyond Boundaries for more.)

Performance Coaching

Coaching does add value. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool make this clear in Peak. However, at the same time, the ability to assess the value of the coaching is difficult. Because we have no expertise in what it takes to get to coaching quality, it’s hard for us to determine if our coach is good or not. This is the same problem that we have with finding an appropriate counselor. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for the challenges.)

So, I think that there is value to coaching when done well. Perhaps the best way to generate value with coaching is to turn your leadership into The Coaching Habit.

Book Review-Quiet Leadership

There are a lot of noisy leaders in our world today. There are too few people who have the courage and desire to demonstrate Quiet Leadership. The book is interesting, because, ostensibly, it’s introducing you to a six-step process for transforming performance. However, I found that it was hard to hold a line through the book and follow a straightforward path. Each step was clearly marked, but the path to the step and why it’s important was at times difficult to discern.

Lofty Goal

To be clear the idea that you’d be able to have someone read a book and through the reading suddenly be transformed in their performance into a more powerful leader is a good one. It’s the basic framework for any leadership book. The author says, “Follow my path to success.” The problem with this is that the author rarely followed the path they lay out themselves, and even if they did, they don’t describe the individual steps with sufficient clarity that they can be followed.

David Rock makes solid points in Quiet Leadership, but in the end the points feel more disjointed than a straight line down a path. So, this book is less likely to be a map and is more useful as a tip guide that shows you a few interesting points without necessarily transporting you to the destination.

The Business of Change – 1970s Style

If you’re a manager of the 1970s era, you were taught that employees needed to be managed. They would take advantage of the organization in any way possible, and your job as a manager was to prevent this from happening. The basic tension had existed for almost as long as organizations. Management and the Worker explains how it impacted the Hawthorne Works in the 1920s and 1930s.

More recent thinking and writing about management, including the works of Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership and Fredrick LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations, suggests a different view, one that focuses on how to unleash the power of employees. That’s the opening quote by Richard Florida from The Rise of the Creative Class: “People don’t need to be managed, they need to be unleashed.”

This is just one of many changes that would have the 1970s manager feeling as if they were on a foreign planet if they were to try to manage an organization today. It’s like The Planet of the Apes. The place is the same, but the rules are different. More importantly, the rate of change is so high that the 1970s manager wouldn’t be able to cope.


“Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence,” says Jeff Hawkins. Think about that for a moment. Of all the wonderful things that a brain can do, it’s prediction that’s at the core. Jonathan Haidt said something similar in The Righteous Mind. It was our ability to have a theory of mind – a prediction about what others were thinking – that allowed us to work together and to conquer the planet. Mindreading seems like a parlor trick until you realize that it’s a game of attempting to predict what others are thinking.

One of the key problems with our predictions is that they’re subject to numerous biases, as pointed out in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Simple things like the anchoring effect, described in Superforecasting and How to Measure Anything, cause us to fail to correct our predictions sufficiently in the face of new evidence – and this can be catastrophic. (See The Signal and the Noise for the statistical approach to revision in the form of Bayes Theorem – which is the basis of machine learning.)

Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Josh Waitzkin was a chess wiz and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, and he’s also an accomplished martial artist. However, he believes that his greatest skill is in learning. In The Art of Learning, he explains how he does it. The answer in short is, “My instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it.” What discomfort? All discomfort.

For my son, I used to play Pokémon. I lost a lot. The national competition was in town, and I’d lose over and over again in random matches because I didn’t really understand the game. It sucks to lose so frequently, but at the same time, I could do it, because the real goal wasn’t winning the game. The real goal was to find a way to connect with my son. Over time, we’d do local and regional tournaments, and I got better – but never competitive in either sense of the word.

I had to get comfortable losing every match. I had to accept that I’d lose again and again if I wanted to be able to converse with my son. He and I got relatively matched in our skills and in the ways that we had our decks configured. It became a way that we could connect. (Read Comfortably Uncomfortable for more examples on being comfortable being uncomfortable.)

The truth is that we need struggle as humans. Even in the animal kingdom, there’s a need for discomfort. I mentioned in my post The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children and my review of The Book of Joy that helping sea turtles find the ocean dooms them, as they need the struggle to establish their orientation system. Baby chicks similarly need to escape their shells themselves or be doomed. In learning, it’s called desirable difficulty. (See How We Learn.) It can even be heroic.

When Joseph Campbell discovered the Hero’s Journey, he wasn’t expecting it. He didn’t expect that the formation of a hero in lore would follow a predictable 12-step pattern. (See The Hero with a Thousand Faces for more.) What’s most interesting about the journey is that we invariably discover the weaknesses of the hero, including the external and internal struggles. Even heroes, it seems, must struggle before they can become who they need to be.

Quiet Leadership says, “A big chunk of the world’s economy is built around reducing discomfort.” That’s a good thing if it’s directed towards our material needs and safety. We’ve learned to prepare and preserve food to reduce the burden of finding and cooking it. However, when the discomfort that we’re avoiding leads to ultimately unhelpful approaches that lead to addiction, we’re creating our own problems. (See Dreamland for more.)

Quiet leaders are not uncomfortable making other people appropriately uncomfortable. If it’s necessary for people to be concerned, upset, or angry, they’re willing to enter that space. It’s not conflict for the sake of conflict but conflict for the sake of everyone’s betterment.

Getting Personal – Changing Thinking

There’s probably nothing more personal than trying to change someone else’s thinking. Our consciousness is how we define ourselves, and changing our thinking therefore changes us… and that’s dangerous territory. When we implement change in organizations, we’re changing people’s behaviors and hopefully their thinking. (See Change the Culture, Change the Game for more.)

If you want to change your thinking, maybe it’s time to read Quiet Leadership.

Book Review-Management and the Worker

It started two years before The Great Depression, and the impact on what we know about management can’t be understated. Management and the Worker seems to share the insights that were discovered at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works based in Chicago, and it’s strangely richer than most of us may have been led to believe.

A Different Time

For those reading the book today, they’ll be struck by many things that would not be politically acceptable today. The workers – operators – in the relay assembly test room are repeatedly called “girls,” not women, workers, or operators. Such was the expectation then. There were jobs that women did and different jobs that men did, and it was reasonable to refer to them by gender.

In was also a time when graduating high school wasn’t common. Many of the operators didn’t finish high school, much less attend college. There were several cases documented in the book where the operators would turn over their wages to the family to help support the family unit and more than a few cases where the operator left school to get a job to help support the family.

Even back then, there was the conversation about the increasing demand for higher education, both completing high school and going to college. The concern was raised that it would become a requirement for someone to complete college to get a job, and that would eliminate the ability of poor folks to get jobs.

More interesting was the concept that single women could have jobs but that married women were taking jobs from men who needed a job to support their family. While this was at times overt, there were many cases where a societal pressure to discriminate against working married women was apparent. There were even negative comments shaped around the need for married couples to eat at a restaurant because the woman was too tired to cook.

The standard work week back then was 48 hours. This included a half day on Saturday. There was no expectation of a 40-hour week and the transition to a 40-hour week – and the resulting reduction in wages – was an unfortunate result of the Depression and the reduction of demand.

I address these here, because I want to both draw attention to the discrepancies and to explicitly share that the challenges we face with motivation of employees and the broader context of the employment relationship isn’t a sign of today’s times. It’s always been with us – we’ve just not seen it.

The Observer Effect

This book is largely focused after the famous illumination experiments that drove Hawthorne Works to be largely synonymous with the observer effect. The observer effect says that people will behave differently when they know they’re being watched. This truism has been extended and adapted over time, including “You get what you measure,” variations of which have been assigned to both Edward Deming and Peter Drucker.

The famous experiments that made the Hawthorne Works famous were variations in lighting that were done to measure the impact of lighting on performance. When lighting was increased, productivity increased. When lighting was decreased, productivity was again increased. This caused the experimenters to realize that they were unintentionally introducing another variable to the experiment. Later, they’d change bulbs with new bulbs of the same wattage. Employees were expecting increases or decreases, so they commented on these expected increases or decreases rather than recognizing that the lighting level hadn’t changed at all.

The experiments were initiated because the company was interested in how to increase productivity, and the results only spurred further interest in the way that employees worked. If the observer effect was so powerful, what other powerful forces were being left undiscovered?

The Relay Assembly Test Room

One of the many functions performed by the Hawthorne Works was the assembly of relays. Relays are electromechanical devices that are used in switching – particularly the kind of switching that was needed to operate the telephone network. The assembly operations were typically done with many operators in a large, open area. A particular section of relay assembly operators might be 100 people. To test changes in working conditions and their relationship to productivity, the Hawthorne Works pulled five volunteer operators into a specially-designed room where the conditions of work could be changed without affecting the entire group.

Care was taken to minimize the differences between the main room and the new relay test room. The intent was to have a controlled experiment, where only the changes in the working environment that the experimenters were testing would influence the results. However, what they discovered was that they unintentionally introduced major changes by separating the operators.

Social Loafing

The Evolution of Cooperation and Collaboration both speak about social loafing – or the tendency for people to slack off in a group expecting others to carry their weight. However, the effect wasn’t well known at the time of the Hawthorne Works experiments. What wasn’t realized was the extent to which the compensation system allowed for social loafing to occur, nor were they aware of how to establish countervailing forces to keep social loafing in check.

The details of the payment system for workers is largely irrelevant, but what is important is that one component of their pay was based on the productivity of the group. That is, if everyone performed well, then there would be more money in everyone’s paycheck. The problem with this is that, when spread across 100 workers, no one felt as if their individual contribution was enough to make a difference. The result is that some of the workers would loaf, because they didn’t expect that they could make a difference in their pay.

When the operators were moved into the relay assembly test room, their pool went from a pool of 100 to a pool of 5. That meant that individual performance did matter; not only that, the group norm was also something that could be influenced.

Forming a Group

One of the other side effects of the changes was that the group naturally formed into a group operating unit. That is, they started to look out for and support one another. They intentionally tried to cover for each other’s poor days and genuinely cared for their fellow workers. This wasn’t an intentional byproduct of the change – nor was it replicable in further experiments – but the fact that the group became an operating unit had a profound effect on productivity. The relay assembly test room’s productivity kept climbing even as the experimental conditions continued to be changed in ways that should have had a negative effect on productivity.

Subsequent test rooms with similar conditions never formed a group and therefore didn’t see the continuous rise in productivity. This was likely influenced by the design of these other rooms, which specifically did not change the compensation in a way that made the room’s participants dependent upon each other and solely on each other. In other words, they sought to avoid solving the social loafing problems – and in doing so, they may have prevented the group from forming.

Group Formation

It’s time to side-step the material in the book for a moment and share the work of Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence. He was focused on how you brought people together and got them to function together as a team. He would have said that the test rooms created at Hawthorne Works would not have fallen into his criteria as a team, because they weren’t performing interrelated tasks. They formed a group identity, because, in the case of the relay room, they felt a responsibility to one another. They didn’t have the benefit of some of the way that Navy SEALs train together nor the life and death circumstances. (See Stealing Fire for more.)

The personalities and perspectives were such in the relay assembly test room that they spontaneously formed a group. Some of this may have been the wedding of one of the operators, forming a bond, or the personality of another operator to push everyone towards working together. There’s no one single cause; instead, the set of conditions were sufficient that it happened.


Another unintended change in the test room was the change in supervision. While the operators were formally still supervised by the supervision structure of the main room, unofficially they were being managed by the experimental observer – and the relationship was very different. Instead of the kind of command and control experienced in the main room, the operators were treated with concern and compassion. One of the controls for the tests were the health of the employees, so their health was monitored.

Another was the ability to talk. While this at times exceeded the comfort level of both the observer and the individual operators, the ability to talk while they were working was greatly appreciated. While studies for fatigue were generally not successful in discovering fatigue, the ability to talk to one another was helpful in breaking up some of the monotony.

To frame this in the context of Reinventing Organizations, the test room was operating in Orange instead of Amber. The workers felt like there was a relationship to management instead of a competition with management in a struggle for power.

Power Struggle

Readily apparent and frequently repeated were the concerns that the test room was a front for management to squeeze more performance out of the workers – instead of the stated objective of providing optimum working conditions. The difference is subtle but important. If they’re just trying to improve performance, the organization can do so at the expense of the workers. If they’re trying to create optimal conditions, the workers must be inside the circle of considerations.

Concerns about whether the workers were being taken advantage of – or things were moving in that direction – was a persistent theme both in the relay assembly test room and in the subsequent tests that the organization embarked upon. The lack of trust of the worker with the organization was palpable.

While the test room continued to make progress in allaying those fears, it seems as if they were never really fully quenched. As a result, there would be, from time to time, situations where it became necessary to revisit the intent, purpose, and mission associated with the tests.

More for Less

One curious way where working less generated more productive output was the introduction of paid breaks to the schedule. Breaks were added, thus reducing the total time working, and the output still increased. The given explanation for this was that the operators were trying to compensate for the time they were being given.

However, there’s another more subtle factor here. Operators were allowed personal time for their biological needs, and though they weren’t asked to, they tended to use a portion of their break times for these purposes. In this way, it seems that when management – or in this case, the experimenters – gave something the workers gave back.

The introduction of breaks was very well received personally, thus it seems that the workers were willing to work harder during their normal work periods to continue to be allowed the privilege of the breaks. Being an experiment, they were removed for a time, and this predictably resulted in the workers looking forward to their return.

The Mica Splitting Test Room

Because the relay assembly test room was such a success, there were attempts to replicate the results without the complicating factor of changing compensation. The results were not as dramatic, but there were external factors, which likely impacted the situation.

By the time the mica splitting test room was created, the Depression was already in effect. It has created a reduction in demand for all things, including the kinds of parts that the Hawthorne works was creating. In part due to this reduction in demand, the mica splitting function was gradually being moved to another plant. This impacted the folks in the main room more rapidly than in the test room, but eventually there was no longer a way to shield the test room from the changes.

However, before the room was shut down, it was already apparent that the fear of losing their job was reducing worker productivity. As the concern for mica-splitting jobs increased, their performance decreased.

However, another key difference was evident in the mica splitting test room. The five operators never fully integrated as a group. While there are some personality reasons for this, there was also the fact that their compensation never got tied to the group in the test room. They were still compensated in part by what was happening in the main room.


Management and the Worker concludes with a review of the interviewing that was done in the plant and its impact. A significant effort was undertaken to listen to workers at every level and to ensure that their perspectives were captured appropriately. Despite the fact that there was never any real intent to act upon these interviews, the workers reported that conditions were improving.

This reaction reveals how just listening to employees discuss their concerns has a twofold effect on improving the situation. First, supervisors, knowing that the workers are being listened to, made changes to their behaviors – consciously or unconsciously. This resolved many of the concerns.

Secondly, and more importantly, there seemed to be a psychic discharge, where once the items were heard, they were of less concern in the mind of the worker. The net effect of which was that the workers felt better – whether the conditions changed or not.

It may be that there’s still a lot to learn from experiments that were performed 90 years ago. It may reveal more about the relationship between Management and the Worker.

Book Review-The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking

Conflict is a good thing. Conflict between our fingers and our thumb – our opposable thumb – created the ability to create tools and ascend to the most dominant lifeform on the planet. In The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, we learn how it wasn’t just the mechanics of our members but the integrative nature of our intelligence that has really allowed us to remain king of the biological mountain on this planet.


F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Genius is in creating situations where we’re able to leverage the power of “and”. It’s not the finger or the thumb in isolation that allows us to pick up things and to create tools – it’s the use of both.

It was 15th century Florence, Italy, when the Medici family assembled some of the greatest minds in one place to work on their own projects. In the process, they managed to create a kind of cross-pollination between experts and disciplines that kicked off the Renaissance period. They created a safe environment where different disciplines could sharpen one another.

Today, it’s easier to assemble great thinkers virtually for an hour or a few hours. It’s easier to hop on a plane and arrive in the same destination for a deep conversation about how my perspective and yours aren’t the same. It is, however, simultaneously harder to find the right people.

Non-Linear and Co-Causal

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The egg is the answer because of reptiles, but the real question is which one causes or creates the other. The challenge is to draw the causal arrow from one thing to another. However, integrative thinkers tend to think in terms of systems. (See Thinking in Systems for more about systems.) Instead of seeing a set of discrete, unconnected events, integrative thinkers see everything as connected and causing a network of reactions, some of which feed back and drive the very behavior that started things off while others inhibit the behavior. Instead of following the simple linear logic of A causes B, integrative thinkers think in terms of the influence that A has on B and the influence that B has on A and how they might reach a steady state – or might be completely unstable.

Some systems are dynamically stable. That is, the forces are designed in such a way that they dampen oscillations. Private aircraft are designed this way. It’s what makes it possible for a pilot to control them and for the changes to get smaller over time. Military aircraft are not dynamically stable, and micro-adjustments are made by the flight computer to compensate for the instability and execute the intent of the pilot rather than the commands of the pilot. The computer doesn’t wait for the pilot to respond to a slight pitch right or left if it wasn’t what the pilot was indicating on the controls; it quickly and automatically makes the control surface corrections to keep things in balance. The fact that the computer reacts faster than the instability operates allows it to keep things stable.

Dynamically unstable systems are more performant – thus why they’re used in military aircraft. However, the dynamic instability means that they are more susceptible to faults, failures, and “black swan” events. (See The Black Swan and Antifragile for more.) Integrative thinkers simulate what they see in their head. They automatically create models to look for how systems are going to react – rather than looking for the simple causal arrows. (See Seeing What Others Don’t and Sources of Power for more.)

Not Afraid of the Mess

Integrative thinkers aren’t afraid of the mess that the model causes. They’re not afraid to go in and tinker with things to see what the results are. Ultimately, integrative thinkers aren’t afraid of the mess that happens when you build models for everything and try to connect them, because they’re comfortable that, in the end, they’ll figure out how things fit together.

They accept that their initial models of the systems will be flawed. They accept that there will be forces they don’t see or understand. However, they’ll remain confident that, given enough time and experiments, they’ll be able to find their way to a model – and a map that works.

Map Is Not a Territory

One downfall of the integrative thinker is that they sometimes forget a map is not a territory – that is, their map and model, no matter how good they get, will always be fundamentally limited and remain imperfect. This can lead to poor decisions when you consider them against the actual system as compared to how their model was constructed.

One of the challenges with building a model is that it’s built on the back of our perceptions of reality, and those perceptions are themselves necessarily flawed. Our perceptions aren’t always what they appear to be. We believe we’re perceiving reality, but it’s closer to say that we’re making our reality up from our perceptions. (See Incognito for more.)

Integrative thinkers need to be on guard for where they may be ignoring conflicting signals that may indicate their model is imperfect.

Required: Deep Understanding and Empathy

To be an integrative thinker, it should be no surprise that there needs to be a deep understanding of the relationships between the various aspects of the system. Deep understanding is what the whole model-building process is about. However, there’s another aspect that transcends understanding and moves into the category of empathy.

Instead of just intellectually understanding what is happening, integrative thinkers develop an emotional connection to their models and the people who are stuck in the systems they’re modeling. They begin to be compassionate to those whom they see marching along in the system with no way out.

Refusing to Accept Tradeoffs

Integrative thinkers aren’t likely to accept tradeoffs. Instead of accepting the standard approach to balance A and B they look for ways to change things to get more of both A and B. Like the Nash Equilibrium they look for ways to create win-win situations where there is no obvious win-win. (See The Science of Trust for more on the Nash Equilibrium.) Their approach might be to reconfigure the pieces they have, remove pieces, or add in pieces that aren’t normally a part of the equation.

For instance, there’s always a tradeoff between the ease of storing information and the ease of retrieving information. However, creative thinkers look for ways to leverage technologies like full text search to make it easier to both store and retrieve information. Why make people enter an invoice number if it’s in the full text of the document and can be searched? Even more powerfully, why not use artificial intelligence to pick up the invoice number and place it into a metadata field for you? Thinking like this doesn’t seek to create balance in a zero-sum game, instead it looks to create a new, larger game.

Best Available, Right Now

Integrative thinkers have given up on the idea that they have the best answer. Instead, they just believe that they’ve got the best answer for right now. There is no delusion that they’ve got things figured out. Instead, they’re aware that the answers they have today are the best answers they have for now. Instead of maximizing and getting to the absolute best, they’ve settled – they’ve satisficed – for the solution that is good enough. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on maximizers and satisficers.)

In the end, the best answer you can get to right now about how to approach problems differently to find better solutions may be to read The Opposable Mind.

Book Review-On Becoming a Leader

Sometimes my reading list has me walking down a long hall with statues lining each side. The statues are the great men and women who moved forward our understanding of ourselves, the way that we work, and the way that we lead. On Becoming a Leader is Warren Bennis’ capstone. Though he had an autobiography written after this work, this was the last book focused on the process of becoming a leader.

Many people who were the foundation of leadership have passed. Edward Deming may be remembered more for management than leadership but he was a leader in his own right. Chris Argyris brought us the idea of the ladder of inference (see Choice Theory for more). James MacGregor Burns shared his perspectives on political leadership through his book, Leadership. Robert Greenleaf led us to his perspectives on Servant Leadership. Jeff Barnes reminded us of Walt Disney’s leadership in The Wisdom of Walt. There are, of course, many others whose contributions have helped leadership move forward but who didn’t always focus on leadership.

The Crucible

Leadership isn’t something that you’re born with. It’s not like eye color or height. It’s something that everyone must work on to develop and cultivate. The way that leadership is cultivated is through the crucible of hard times. There’s no path to leadership that doesn’t run through a path of sorrow. There are plenty of books that are published each year that promise you’ll become a leader if you only follow their five-step plan or if you only envision it first.

Bennis’ wisdom says this isn’t true: there are no shortcuts, and those who say otherwise are like the fad diets that promise great results with no work. Certainly, there are accelerators that allow for leaders to be developed faster; otherwise what would be the point of leadership development? However, there is no path that will not require some work on the part of the future leader.

Leadership Development

While most organizations extol their virtuous development of leaders, few do the work. Surveys indicate that, while most organizations say they do leadership development, only about 10% of organizations had any formal leadership development practices. The gap between those who know they need it and those who prioritize its execution is large. The development of leaders is lost in a world where we seem to change jobs more frequently and there’s a constant pressure for immediate, short-term results.

Leadership development is a long-term game. It requires extraordinary patience and diligence on the part of the organization to ensure that everyone is given the tools they need to maximize the value of all the difficult situations they must go through.

Adaptive Range

There’s been a shift happening in our society, which was captured in Range. The shift is from the deep-deep specialist to someone who can integrate across the boundaries of professions and who can adapt to the changes that our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world requires. Bennis knew this, and that is why he explained it’s a leader’s adaptive capacity that makes them the most valuable.

Always a Character

Many will share Bennis’ belief that leadership is about character. However, not everyone will draw the conclusion that the kind of character needed for leadership is the same kind of character necessary to become a fully integrated human being. Some, like Brené Brown when she talks about a wholehearted person (see Daring Greatly), share this belief.

Bennis makes the point that when you look at great leaders, you rarely find people who have had no struggles. Mostly when you find great leaders, you find that they had some sort of difficult phase or event in their life, and they found their way to the other side. What they developed during these struggles was the character that fuels their greatness. In Antifragile, Taleb explains how the right level of challenge or struggle at the right time can allow people to grow and become more, much like how you get stronger muscles by tearing them down just a bit through exercise.

Great leaders learn how to create this same kind of challenge for those they lead. They find ways to push them in ways that allows them to grow. The process is very long, but it pays great rewards.

In the Long Term

Short-term thinking is a “societal disease.” Those were the words that Bennis used to describe what has become the plague of our century. As a species, our ability to work together allowed us to conquer the planet. (See The Righteous Mind for more.) Our ability to support some people working on long-term endeavors has led us to the Moon – and to a gradual shift in the amount of effort required for our basic needs. Diffusion of Innovations recounts the improvement in farm productivity – and the drop in the number of farmers that were needed to support our food needs. We build roads and machines to make the work of people in the future easier. Well, at least we used to. It seems like today we’re more focused on the quarterly returns than the returns to humanity.

While there is a need for enough short-term focus to keep things going, too much focus on short-term needs leaves us with the same struggle year after year. When some effort can be invested in long-term needs, compounding kicks in, and we’re able to make our load lighter – and, ultimately, our overall lives easier.

If You Can Understand It, It’s Yours

“Nothing is truly yours until you understand it – not even yourself.” From the Socratic dialogues and the inscription of the oracle at Delphi, the instruction has been clear: know thyself. However, too many people aren’t in touch with who they are. We wander through life wondering what our purpose is. We aren’t sure what we believe in or what we stand for. We don’t understand why we get angry or sad. Instead, we bumble our way through the darkness of our thoughts and emotions hoping to find the door that leads to happiness. (See Stumbling on Happiness if you’re looking for more about how we look haphazardly for happiness.)

Perhaps one of the reasons why we don’t think in the long term is that life seems like a collection of random events over which we have no control or influence. In those situations, why would someone try to think of the long term? If we can’t learn enough about ourselves to predict our behaviors, then what good would it do?

Mistakes Aren’t Failures

Because leaders are so varied in their approaches and skills, it’s often hard to draw a dividing line between someone who is and someone who is not a leader. However, one key marker is the way they treat a mistake. Leaders accept – but don’t like – mistakes and work to prevent them or mitigate their impacts. Non-leaders see a mistake as a failure.

Some people have internalized the idea that you must be perfect. For some, that undoubtedly came from a performance-based love in their childhood. (See The Four Loves.) For others, the cause may not be so clear, but the results are the same. By expecting that everyone and everything must be perfect, the results must be disappointing. (See The Paradox of Choice for more.)

Chance Favors the Prepared

Louis Pasteur said that “chance favors the prepared.” More commonly, we say that luck favors the prepared. The truth is that luck is random, and it comes to everyone. Those who are prepared are more able to take advantage of the lucky break when it comes. Leaders are constantly preparing for the lucky break – while not expecting it or expecting that everything will be perfect.

At some level, the preparation that must be done is the constant balance between preparing for the future – paying attention to the long term – and tending to the moment, the everyday, and the present. Because luck is, by its nature, random, you’ll never know which investments you should be making as a leader. You only thing you know for sure is that you want to continue to make long-term investments in ways that prepare you for what will be your eventual turn at luck.

On Becoming a Leader reverberates through other works and provides a simple and straightforward context that we can use to develop our own method for becoming a leader.

Book Review-Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change

Never has the relationship between leadership and change been so laid bare as in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change. It should not be surprising that leadership and change are so related. Leaders are the catalysts and instruments of change. They help organizations and individuals make different decisions and exercise different behaviors. They are, in some ways, the embodiment of the best parts of change.

Defining Leadership

Joseph Rost spent most of his book Leadership in the Twenty-First Century trying to come around to a conversation about what leadership is. In the end, I’m not entirely sure he nailed it – but neither has anyone else, so whatever you’ve got is, I suppose, good enough. Rost – like James MacGregor Burns – believes that we focus too much attention on the leader and not enough on the relationship between the leader and the team. (If you’d like more about Burns’ work, it was titled, simply, Leadership.)

It’s in the context of realizing that leadership is about how a person – the leader – manages their relationships with others and how that can generate amazing outcomes.

Long Term Leadership

There’s definitely an awareness that leadership is a long-term game of developing people and accepting the criticisms that come your way when you’re willing and able to make some hard choices. Of course, effort must be consumed to keep from becoming the issue instead of just being the messenger of the issue. That being said, the essence of leadership is taking the hard-to-swallow pills and waiting to see how things are going to come out better.

The key to effective leadership is a long-term focus, but if you’re going to be around for the long term, you’ll have to expose people to a rate of change that they can absorb. Too fast, and the wheels come off the cart. Too slow, and the competitors in the market eat you for lunch.

Rate of Change

Post-It notes are interesting things. If the adhesive is too weak, they fall of the page. If it’s too strong, they tear the page when removed. Post-It notes work because they’re in that narrow band that’s neither too weak nor too strong. That’s where you want your rate of change for the organization and for individuals. Not too fast and not too slow. This sounds relatively simple in theory; however, in practice, it’s very difficult to accomplish.

Every person and every part of the organization has their own measure of the ideal rate of change. Some people have a high degree of tolerance for change, so they can handle a higher rate of change. Others in the organization have a much lower tolerance and need a slower rate of change. This means trying to find a general pace that’s in the center between most individuals, finding ways to mitigate the degree of apparent change for the folks who have a low capacity for change while accelerating the degree of apparent change for those who have a much higher capacity.

Complicating this process is that different parts of the organization will experience different amounts of change at different times. The result is a constant struggle to stay on the ball to ensure a degree of change that’s working for most people in most departments.

Leadership on the Line calls this “controlling the heat.” It’s about pushing enough to keep people and parts of the organization from falling out of the change process and not pushing so hard that people exceed their capacity for change.

Apparent Change

While Leadership on the Line doesn’t directly address the gap between actual change and the perception of change, the managing the heat metaphor certainly reflects this constant management of perceptions so that people perceive the change inside of their band of tolerance. There are several ways to manipulate this.

One way is to spread out the required behavioral changes over time. In the context of a single department, this may lengthen the time for the change, but depending on how things are sequenced inside of the overall change process, it may not impact timeline at all. By starting with the groups that have the most change and allowing them to process that change over a longer period of time, it’s possible to “turn down the heat.”

Another approach is to deploy a temporary compensating measure. Consider the idea of a need to do double entry during a transition for a short period of time. It’s possible to ask those responsible for data entry to enter into both the old system and the new one, or it’s possible to hire assistance to do the old work. (I’d encourage this rather than the added requirement of doing the new work.) Similarly, it’s possible to add help to take care of mundane tasks to create time and availability to do the double entry.

Obviously, care must be taken that the compensating measure doesn’t become a permanent crutch, but as a part of ensuring that the rate of change remains acceptable, it’s an important option.

Quality Connections

Not to discount the importance of mass communication, stakeholder management, or any of the other things that one needs to understand in managing a successful change project, but above all, the connections that people make and maintain with one another are critical. Humans are wired for connection. In fact, in The Heart and Soul of Change, it’s asserted that the most powerful component of the therapy process is the alliance between the therapist and the patient – their connection.

We see this need for connection everywhere. Even baboons whose mother has a better social network have a higher survival rate. In the wild and in our domesticated societies, connections matter. (Even connections with dogs matter – see How Dogs Love Us.)

Accepting Anger

When someone – particularly when they’re in a close relationship with you – expresses their anger at you, it’s hard to stay detached and absorb it without becoming personally defensive. (See Conflict: Detachment not Disengagement for more on detachment and Dialogue for more on automatically being defensive.) However, as difficult as this may be, it’s a powerful way of building trust. By absorbing the attack without retaliating, you demonstrate that you’re safe both physically and psychologically. (See The Fearless Organization for more on psychological safety.) This isn’t the normal expectation for folks.

We expect that when we attack others, they’re likely to attack back. It’s human nature to defend yourself. However, when you find ways to not perceive anger as an attack, you show that it’s safe for others to share their feelings without retaliation.

Technical and Adaptive Change

Some of the changes that an organization undertakes are well known. Instead of doing X, you’ll do Y. These changes Heifetz and Linsky call “technical changes.” They’re straightforward, because the answers and outcomes are all known. The other kind of change – the kind of change that we face when dealing with complex organizations and individuals – are adaptive changes. These kinds of changes require adaptation and experimentation.

For adaptive changes, there’s no one known way to do it right or, in many cases, even a pattern for what “right” looks like. Instead, we must set out in a general direction and work our way through the challenges and opportunities to find an answer that works.

Adaptive changes are therefore more challenging and require more preparation and energy. They’re often worth the extra effort because of the transformational effects that can be realized when the changes are implemented.

Evolutionary not Revolutionary

Successful change is more evolutionary than revolutionary. In adaptive changes, we evolve to one change, then adapt and make another push forward. Often, there’s no one defining moment where we move from one space to another. Instead, there’s a gradual progression to more changed thinking and more of the newer, more desirable behaviors.

Leading in these environments, where change is continuous and evolutionary, requires a greater level of manager than was needed fifty years ago. It’s the state of constant change that puts Leadership on the Line.

Book Review-The Leadership Machine

There’s an old I Love Lucy episode where Lucy and Edith are workers at a chocolate factory, and they can’t keep up, so they start eating the chocolates and stuffing them in their clothes. Laverne and Shirley are standing in front of an assembly line in the opening starting with a slow pace and ending with a rather overwhelming pace. The idea of an assembly line is neither foreign to me personally nor, I think, to most people. However, most people don’t think of talent development or leadership development as an assembly line. However, this is the perspective of The Leadership Machine.

It’s called a talent development pipeline, but that only thinly veils the perspective that you start young professionals in one end of the machine, and out the other end of the machine is supposed to pop out highly skilled and qualified leaders. There are so many problems and breakdowns in most organizations’ leadership machines. The Leadership Machine seeks to both address the common breakdowns and to lead you towards building your own leadership development pipeline.

One Size Fits All

If you’re a small or even medium-sized organization, you may think that you don’t have much of a machine for finding, developing, and retaining employees. You may believe that you have little capacity to build the kind of sustainable infrastructure that’s required to make the system work, and you may more importantly be concerned about how you manage the short-term demands on your business that may make an effort in such a long-term program pointless. Certainly, there’s truth to this when taken to the extreme. Smaller organizations cannot afford to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars training people hoping they stay with the company after the investment has been made and the employee can contribute.

However, there is a way to leverage the learning from a big system and integrate the best parts into smaller organizations. It’s possible to use the work that has been done to identify and categorize key skills to refine your thinking about positions and what they need to be good at – even in organizations that aren’t that large.

Talent Development

It gets a bad rap. In many organizations, talent development inside an organization is seen as boring, ineffective training that is required. Too many talent development organizations are stuck delivering mandatory OSHA and sexual harassment training – and not enough of the kind of leadership development training that makes a real difference. (Hopefully, they’re delivering on anti-sexual harassment training, but that’s another story.) Because of this, most managers and leaders don’t even think to approach their talent development team with the kinds of skills building necessary to build tomorrow’s leaders of the organization.

This gulf between the tactical execution of mandatory training and the kinds of leadership development training that’s possible is something worth crossing for both the business and the talent development professional.

Seeking Skills Models

If you want to develop anything, you need to know what you’re shooting for. You need to know what’s important to the organization and, by extension, what isn’t. There are so many skills that can be trained, how do you focus your limited time and resources on the skills that are going to matter? Of course, there are some variations to every organization, but in truth, leadership is the same across organizations. The skills that make a leader good in one organization are likely going to make them good in another organization. That’s why Lombardo and Eichinger don’t recommend that you reinvent the wheel. They recommend a model called Leadership Architect® developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. A summary of the model (pulled from the book) follows:

With a model for skills in place, it’s important to understand the number and types of skills needed both in general and specific to roles or levels in the organization.

Number of Skills

The answer, in terms of what skills should the ideal leader have, is always answered with “All of them;” however, as the outline implies, there are more skills than anyone can be reasonably expected to excel at – or even to be proficient at. Instead, the leader needs a basic toolkit, with deep skills in a few areas and no deficiencies in others that are barriers to their career advancement.

They break down skills into groupings:

  • Price-of-Admission – These skills are necessary for and expected of everyone, so they won’t help differentiate candidates in the talent pipeline.
  • Competitive Edge – These skills deliver differentiation between average performers and high performers.
  • Competitive Edge by Level – These skills differ by level in the organization, with some skills being needed by managers but not by executives and vice versa.
  • Competitive Edge for Superior Performance – These skills seem to only be found in superior performers at any level of the organization.

The answer to the number of competitive edge skills by level seems to be 5 skills for managers and 8 skills for executives, but the tricky part is that the skills aren’t all the same.

Better Hiring

One of the things you might expect from a book about how to develop a leadership machine (or a leadership pipeline); however, the view is more organic. The expectation is that there is so much competition for the best people that, if you want to develop a pipeline of leaders, you had better plan to do it yourself rather than hire it from the market.

Competitively, the best (read: most expensive) offers go to the candidates who show the highest GPAs – or at least meet some arbitrary GPA cutoff. There are not enough of these candidates to go around, and the demand has driven the cost up. A better investment, supported by research, is to build effective training programs that allow you to develop the leadership skills through your internal development process.

Effective training programs aren’t all in the classroom or online. Effective training programs are designed to nurture the candidates through challenging them appropriately. Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile explains how we need challenges and how the right challenges at the right intensity with the right recovery time make us stronger. The training programs we develop internally should progressively challenge candidates without overwhelming them or pushing them too hard – and that is very hard to do.

Returning to Defaults

Left to our own devices, we’ll fall back on a few of our core strengths – things that we learned during our journey into adulthood or soon after we entered the corporate world. These strengths are great until they’re misapplied or applied too much. When these core skills come out, it can be a sign that someone is under too much stress. The result of the application of these skills are problems rather than solutions, because even executing on skills that you’re good at when you’re supposed to be doing something else is a bad thing.

In our office, I have a real, full-sized stoplight. It’s just to the right of my desk and it’s a constant and visible reminder that just because I can do something (I have the skill or capability) doesn’t mean I should do it (it’s the right thing). “Can do” aren’t green lights, they’re yellow. If I’m exceptionally good at crafting introductory language and start to sink my teeth into it, it could mean that I’m addressing something that requires finesse for a high-profile client. Conversely, it might mean that I’m avoiding a difficult personnel discussion that I need to have – perhaps with the person who should be doing this work. When I’m doing something I can do – but shouldn’t – I’m depriving myself, my team, and my world of the more challenging or rare skills that I’m being asked to execute on.

The Secret of Success

It’s learning. It’s learning how to learn. It’s learning how to hunger for additional skills. When Stan Lee put the call out for people to become the next superhero in a comic and on the big screen, he got a lot of entries. People wanted to see their personal brand of superhero come to life. Most of the superhero ideas were duds, but one was just unique enough. The character Domino had the capability to influence luck. The degree to which this is played out in Deadpool 2 is ridiculous, even by superhero movie standards – but it represents an intriguing argument. What skill – like the ability to influence luck – would be more useful than anything else?

While none of us can influence luck, we can influence learning. The ability to learn and the world of information that we live in today means nothing is out of reach for someone ingrained with the metaskill of learning. It’s not quite as slick as downloading new skills into someone’s brain, like they did in The Matrix, but it is the ability to expand beyond the normal limits of humanity.

Learning is Risky Business

Everyone wants to know the secret of success, and here it is – be continuously learning. It’s simple. However, most people don’t do it. Why? Because learning is risky business. It means you must admit that you’re making mistakes and you’re vulnerable. It means you must admit that you don’t have all the answers, and in most business situations today, that’s risky.

Showing vulnerability is inherently risky, because the person you exposed the vulnerability to may choose to exploit it (or at least try). However, learning is risky for another, more profound reason. Learning allows you to change your world view, and in doing so may threaten everything that you believe. So, when it comes to the key to success, the answer is simple but not easy. It takes courage to stay focused on learning, even when it might hurt.

High Performer but not Highest

If you wanted to predict the best leaders in your organization ten years from now, who would you choose? Would you choose those with the absolute highest performance for the last quarter or the last year? Obviously, you want successful performers, but do you want the absolute top performers? Curiously, the answer is no. What you want are solid performers who are making long-term investments in their learning and development.

Richard Hackman, in Collaborative Intelligence, explains how he measures the effectiveness of teams on multiple levels, and short-term performance is the simplest but poorest predictor of long-term performance. The highest level is learning and growth. The same is true for individuals. If they’re focused only on short-term results, they’ll be a brighter star than their peers at the expense of their long-term performance.

Ideally, if you’re looking to find your highest potential future leaders, you’ll look for someone who has learned to balance short-term results with long-term development. If they can do this in themselves, they’ll likely be able to deliver this balance as a leader.


There has a been a greater focus on the idea of agility as the world seems to be changing more rapidly than ever before. Entire industries are under siege from startups with a new way of doing things. The venerable Kodak lost its hold on the photography market during the digital disruption of digital cameras that ironically, they helped to create. Taxi companies are struggling against Lyft and Uber. The automobile and energy industries have been confronted with the fact that electric cars are becoming a reality and both industries are trying to determine how they’ll cope.

Sometimes agility is couched on the language of innovation. If we just learn how to innovate, we’ll leapfrog the competition. This neglects the reality of Kodak’s situation. They demonstrated innovation in the introduction of digital cameras but were ultimately overcome by the reality of an organization too married to chemical photographic processes to fully adapt to the new electronic world.

Learners are agile because of their capacity to connect diverse ideas and to pull from different places to create new combinations of solutions that can be applied to their company and their industry.

Career Freedom Option Accounts

On the one hand, you’ll hear that you should do something that you love, and you’ll never have a day’s work in your life. On the other hand, you hear that you’ll have to pay your dues. You’ll have to keep your nose to the grindstone and work for years before you start to enjoy the fruits of your labor. How can both be true?

The answer lies in flow. Flow is the high-performance psychological state that balances challenge and skill that is itself rewarding. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more about flow.) In flow, you’re working hard, and you’re not really seeing the rewards in the tangible sense, but the intrinsic rewards are enough to keep you going. (See Why We Do What We Do for more on intrinsic rewards.) Still, this doesn’t mean if you can’t find flow and find the intrinsic rewards that you should immediately quit your job; you should first check your career freedom options.

The choices we make in terms of learning, persistence, and savings can help us drive up the balance in our career freedom accounts. The more skills be have (learning), the more results we can demonstrate (persistence), and the more resources (savings) we have, the greater the opportunities for us to safely quit our current career and start another career that may be more appealing for its intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Someone who is an accomplished carpenter and an accomplished plumber clearly has more options than someone who has only one or the other of these skills. When they decide they want to do something new or work for someone new, they can make the leap quickly and easily. Someone who fails to finish high school and has no specific skills is stuck working entry level jobs in manufacturing or service. They can’t afford (figuratively) to make a change, even if they don’t like their current situation.

Someone who didn’t finish high school, college, a trade school, or anything that grants a certificate of completion (which is what a diploma is) isn’t in a position to provide any marker of their value to a new perspective company or client. Without these markers of persistence, many organizations won’t give you a chance.

You’ve probably heard about the people who retire in their 40s. They’ve saved enough money that they don’t have to work any longer. The interest on their savings are enough to cover their modest needs, and as a result they’re not going to work. They’re going to spend their time doing what they want. At some level, we’re all trying to do this. We’re looking to acquire enough assets that we can make the absolute decision to walk away from working. Whether we call that retirement or FU money, the goal is to be able to have ultimate freedom in our careers including what we do and don’t do.

The War for Talent

While the market changes due to COVID-19 may make the war for talent a thing of the past for a time, the fundamental issue remains unchanged. The war for talent is framed in the perspective of not enough people. However, that framing is fundamentally flawed. It’s not that we don’t have enough people to do the work. The reality is that we don’t have enough skilled and persistent people to do the work.

The challenge isn’t one of absolute numbers but rather ratios of the number of people who are occupying the planet and the percentage of those that possess the skills that we need for the positions that we have created. Certainly, we need to try to create positions in ways that minimize the depth and diversity of skills required to increase the chances that we can find people to fit the role, but we must simultaneously find ways to encourage the development of skills. This includes not just access to the tools necessary to develop the skills but also the tools of motivation to create a desire for people to learn those skills.

People Development

The sad fact is that only 7% of managers are held accountable for the development of their people, according to a McKinsey study. In a world of management by objectives, dashboards to hit, and a continuing increase in the general pressure, developing the people under your care gets lost in the shuffle. (See Servant Leadership for more on the idea of the people you lead being under your care.) Because it’s not measured, it’s not happening.

In my personal world, I can tell you that I left my corporate job and started Thor Projects because I felt like I wasn’t receiving career development. My journey since then has been eclectic, but it’s been good. I know that I didn’t know what I was doing for my career development – and still don’t. It would have been good to have someone who has been through the challenges that I was and am facing, who could guide me through developing the skills that I need to be successful, but sadly that almost never happens in an organization.

Whether your organization is good about your development or not, you can take your own steps to become a leader by reading The Leadership Machine.

Book Review-Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders

Have you ever had that bewildering moment when you’re in a conversation and you suddenly realize that you have no idea what the conversation is about? You’re going along, disagreeing but still conversing, until you reach the moment when you’re aware that you’re not talking about the same thing as the other person, and you wonder exactly how you got here. Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders is designed to help you better understand the dynamics that are in play in a room and be able to observe and react to them better.

I was first introduced to David Kantor’s work via Bill Issacs’ work, Dialogue. The revelation that was shared was that people speak from three different points of view: power, meaning, and feeling (affect). When people are in the same conversation but speaking from these radically different perspectives, it’s often as if the people in the conversation are talking past each other, unable to even hear, much less process, what the other person is saying. As I was preparing the Confident Change Management course, I decided that I needed to dig a bit deeper into Kantor’s work. I’m glad I did.

Operating Systems

When a computer boots up, it starts the operating system, and thereafter it just becomes a part of the way the computer works. It’s largely unnoticed except when you go to launch a new program. Yet all the time, the operating system is coordinating and shaping your experience with the computer. The operating systems that we use in life are the same. They’re the default assumptions, way of working, and underground of our consciousness. Kantor explains that there are three operating system types:

  • Closed – We believe we have all the answers, and we must share them with the world so they can execute our great ideas.
  • Open – Collectively, we know more than anyone can know. We just need to bring everyone together in a conversation (or dialogue) to expose it.
  • Random – Insights come but only if we’re willing to ignore the structure and work through problems in the way that feels the most natural.

None of these are good or bad – just good or bad for the environment they’re used in.

Communications Domains

The power, meaning, and feeling (affect) I mentioned above make up the communication domain. Some people are concerned with the movement of power, some with the meaning of it all, and some with how it will make people feel. What is important here, as it was with operating systems, is that people don’t realize this is happening.

They have a style of communication that is their preferred style. It is the one they’ll fall back to most often, particularly when stressed. Communicating with people speaking in a different domain can be as foreign as speaking with someone in a foreign language. It takes great concentration and focus to understand what the other person is saying.

Action Modes

The third part of the model (or third layer, if you’d prefer) is the way that someone is responding in a conversation. Here, most of us have more flexibility, but still tend towards one of the following approaches:

  • Move – A drive towards action
  • Follow – Support of a previous mode
  • Oppose – To move against the proposed move either by stopping or moving in another direction.
  • Bystand – Watch what is happening and observe, but don’t outwardly act.

Kantor says that people can only take one of these four stances in a conversation. I disagree, because I think it underplays the need for curiosity, inquiry, and understanding. Whether you want to use Motivational Interviewing, The Ethnographic Interview, or some other guide to understanding the position of another person, I believe that it’s essential to communication. So, I support the attempt to identify archetypical moves, I’m not sure this is the comprehensive list.

Dialogue Mapping exposes the IBIS model of dialogue mapping that includes questions, ideas, pros, and cons. Fundamental to this approach is the question, which is both the central theme for discussion and a way that the problem can be clarified.

Seeing Ghosts

A key, and appropriate, observation of Kantor’s is that sometimes the conversations aren’t about the conversation happening in the room at that time but are instead ghosts left over from our childhood, the stories we told ourselves, and the patterns we were left with. We see reasons to trust where none should be given. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revised for more on trust.)

Sometimes the challenge with the conversation that’s going on has nothing to do with the here and now and instead is some remnant of some experience that was had a long time ago, and it’s left an indelible mark on our psyche, a permanent fixture that we’ll spend the rest of our lives covering up or addressing.

In the Shadows

Shadows are places where the ghosts live. They’re the places that people don’t want to go. They’re spooky, scary, and frightening. However, the greatest risk to our conversations isn’t in not learning a new skill. The greatest risk is in not being able to address those things that hold us back.

Whether these barriers to success surface as ghosts or as undesirable consequences of our default operating modes, learning to shine light in the shadows of our psyche – and then having the discipline to do it – makes us more complete as humans, coworkers, and leaders. Unlike many popular psychology books today, Kantor invites us into the space of our weaknesses, so that we can discover them more fully and learn to address the most grievous issues that are causing us harm.

Courteous Compliance

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott has a place called “ruinous empathy,” where there’s caring for the other person but no willingness or ability to challenge directly. Kantor calls this “courteous compliance,” when you disagree with the conversation but aren’t willing to speak up to have your voice heard. Kantor explains that we need to have the other voices to test and check our perspectives. It’s the silence of dissenting voices that can prove disastrous to the person and to the organization. (See The Difference for more on being inclusive of all voices.)


Often in organizations, you see compensating systems. These are systems with the purpose of limiting the negative effects of other individuals. Instead of confronting the person directly about the problem, you’re faced with a system designed to limit the limitation of a leader or group. The system might take the form of an additional review meeting, an extra sign off, or additional activities, but ultimately the goal is to prevent the negative consequences from happening again.

The problem with these systems is that they are necessarily both wasteful and incomplete. They’re wasteful, because if you could only correct the root problem – or even create a higher awareness – the system wouldn’t need to exist. They’re incomplete in the fact that they’ll never cover every possible situation.


Organizations exist through their ability to keep the chaos of the market and the world on the outside. They resist change, because it’s the status quo that keeps the organization together. People with random operating systems are a threat to the very nature of the organization. They’re called disruptors, and there’s a reason. They disrupt the carefully crafted control of the organization and replace it with just a little chaos.

Organizations resist the chaos that those with a random operating systems bring only to often find themselves unresponsive to the broader world until it’s too late.

Model Building

Kantor continues with a conversation of model building. That is, building a way that the organization will function – a leadership model. Though he uses different terms, it’s the same following, fluent, detaching approach that I’ve discussed before that is the heart of the apprentice, journeyman, master trades model. (See Presentation Zen, The Heretics Guide to Management, and Story Genius for other places where it’s occurred and Apprentice, Journeyman, Master for a core conversation about the progression.)

He uses the words imitation, constraint, and autonomy for the progression, but the concepts are nearly identical to the following, fluent, and detaching that are more commonly used.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been through the progression myself that I don’t get locked up with Kantor’s approach to everything. However, I feel as if I’ve gained some appreciation and skills for Reading the Room through reading the book.

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