The Difference Leadership Makes

I was watching one of those pseudo-documentaries about the American Navy SEALs on the History Channel the other night(1), and an interesting little tidbit came up during the part where the teams are trying to get their boats past the surf and out into the ocean. If you’ve never seen this exercise (or “evolution” in Navy-speak), it’s actually an entertaining spectacle.

Instructors divide the class into boat teams, each with a student leader. Then there’s all the usual running around with the inflatable dingy carried above their heads, yelling and screaming, push-ups in the sand, and so on. When the surf conditions are just right (the ideal seems to be a combined high-tide and a storm surge, with multiple metre-high waves), the instructors send the boat teams out in the surf. The first team past the surf gets to sit out the next evolution. Everyone else, on the principle that “second place is first loser”, gets to do more running around with the dingy above their heads, push-ups in the sand, etc.

You just can’t get past the surf without everyone working together. You can see a clip of the exercise here: Navy SEAL BUD/S Training – Surf Passage(2)

Image result for surf passage

In the episode I was watching, the instructors noticed that one team was consistently last (and therefore earned their special, unwanted attention), and one team was consistently first (and got the break). So the instructors decided to run an experiment. They took the crew leader(3) from the worst boat and switched him with the leader from the best boat.

The two crews switched results in the race, dramatically and immediately. The last place boat became the first place boat and vice-versa.

Without clear purpose, direction, and motivation provided by somebody, anybody, the team fails and the team suffers for it. Without changing the other members of the team, changing the leadership changes the team’s performance,

When There are Too Many Leaders

I was mentoring at a student civic innovation competition last year. The students were from several different institutions and disciplines (architecture & design, finance, business, marketing, social innovation, etc.) The challenge was to take an under-utilized civic space and research, analyse, and propose a low-cost, community-centred update of the space in a weekend.  Then pitch it to a panel of judges.

It’s an interesting human-centred design exercise, and an interesting team-work exercise. Also they don’t get a lot of sleep.

One team ended up going in circles. They were unable to decide on a design, agree on a way forward, or complete the work. In the end it came down to having one too many leaders. Two of the students in particular saw themselves and driving the process forward. What they didn’t realize was that by pushing so hard for “their solution” they were shutting down the creative process, collaboration, cooperation, and frustrating everyone else on the team with their bun fight.

Listening was non-existent and ego ruled. Despite attempts by myself and another mentor, they never really overcame this friction and failed to win in any category at the pitch competition.

What Kind of Leadership Do You Need?

So what? We need to think carefully about the culture, structure, and ground rules of our teams – how they’re put together, how decisions get made, its purpose, and how it’s going to succeed.

In a military context teams need high levels of trust. The ability to resolve conflicts and make decisions quickly, to coordinate effort, and to motivate members (such as promotion up the chain-of-command.) Hierarchy has its advantages, but…

Not everyone is a soldier. Collaboration, creativity, problem solving, and execution are the order of the day. This means everyone pays attention to the other team members(5), everyone contributes, and nobody hi-jacks the process. Leaders need to be comfortable with messy, even uncomfortable conversations while making sure everyone contributes and stays focused on the task. It’s hard and requires a high emotional intelligence, but then good leadership always has.



(1) Don’t get me started on how the History Channel doesn’t have any history on it, although my sweetie and I really enjoy watching Forged in Fire together. As long as you know what you’re in for (not history, but rather entertainment) then it’s all good.

(2) I find the music overly dramatic and unnecessary, but some people like that sort of thing. The camera shots from the drone are pretty cool though.

(3) This is a common feature of military training – assigning leadership duties to the students. It lightens the load for the instructors, trains the students in leadership and accountability, and is invaluable in motivating everyone to do their best to make sure everyone cooperates when it’s their turn. It’s a great development tool in any context.

(4) Nothing wrong with consensus, if that’s what you need. Just be ready to take a very long time to make decisions, and have a very clear process for collaboration, discussion, and conflict resolution.

(5) This is where women have an advantage over men. So if you’re trying to solve a really difficult, complex problem, one way to stack the deck is to have more than one woman on your team.


Working to Code – An Example of Defining the Basics

My partner and sweetie introduced me to the concept of knolling (a method of organizing objects). She is a university professor who teaches a creative design-heavy capstone marketing class. Turns out that knolling is only Bullet #7 in Tom Sachs “The Code”, the rules for being a successful employee at his design studio. It struck me how fundamental these rules were, The Basics if you will, and how important he must believe they are to the success of his company for him to codify them in this way.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every company or organization were this clear on their values and expected behaviours? That they understood what drives their success? Many organizations do, but most don’t. At least not in a living and authentic way.

What are you personal, team, or company bullets/basics/code? What disciplines, processes, and tools drive your success?

p.s. Tom also has a “How to Sweep” video. I would argue that if you or your company cannot thoughtfully and elegantly describe its work in a similar way, you might now know what you’re doing.


In Support of Clear, Simple Language

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

I’m not always a good communicator. Things that I think are straight-forward get bungled in the strangest ways sometimes. Part of my world-view comes from growing up in a German-speaking house-hold in Canada. I like to joke that I learned English off the TV. Me sharing this will probably upset my mother (yes my mother reads my blog, hi Mom!), but isn’t too far from the truth. I often had to translate, explain cultural context, or figure out even in my own head what was going on for my parents. You can imagine as a child I didn’t always get this right. It’s a common experience for first generation immigrant children.

      Plus I’m also a bit left-brained, procedural, and rule-following. Again, I joke that with a German father and Swiss mother I had to have my room cleaned up on time. But this isn’t how everyone sees the world, so this also make for “translation” errors. You can imagine the knee-slapping adventures that ensue in a household where my partner and sweetie teaches creative design, my step-son is a professional musician, and his girlfriend is an animator. But they love the project manager me and even find me useful on occasion.

Painting a Picture

“People think people create stories. It’s the other way around.” — Terry Pratchett

 The very best communicators tap our emotions this way. Think of the Churchill’s “we will fight on the beaches“, JFK’s “send a man safely to the moon“, or Martin Luther King’s “I have seen the promised land.” No matter what you think of them as historical figures, it is objectively demonstrable that their ability to tap into clear, simple, evocative language tapped into people’s motivations and affected how people behaved.

The Science

Why does the brain like pictures so much? We express our feelings or make decisions with words all the time, don’t we? Maybe not.

Depending on how you measure it, 30 percent of the brain is used or involved in visual processing (with 8 percent for touch and 4 percent for sound). The brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 9/10ths of the information the brain receives is visual.

In his seminal TED talk Simon Sinek talks about the golden circle (“How Great Leaders Inspire Action”) and how this golden circle corresponds to different parts of the brain. The newest parts of our evolved homo sapiens brain, the outer layer called the neocortex, is responsible for all our rational, analytical thought, and language.

Great leaders seek to motivate. They appeal to the emotional, the visual. This corresponds our limbic brains. Our limbic brains, in the centre and the oldest parts of our brains evolutionarily speaking, are responsible for all our feelings, emotions, and decision making. Our limbic brains have no capacity for language.

The part of us that makes decisions doesn’t use words.

In Practice

The U.S. Army defines leadership as “…the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation….” You’ll probably notice that two if not all three of these factors are influences applied to peoples emotions, feelings, or even values and beliefs. Getting people to make the right decisions, act in a positive way, and commit to a particular outcome or goal (for whatever definition or “right”or “positive” you care to define) means making an appeal to their motivations.

The Army leadership manual goes on to talk about such airy-fairy leadership responsibilities such as developing future leaders, fostering trust, open communications, and earning respect.

So, providing clear, simple language means more than just using small words. It means understanding others’ motivations and applying influence. It means painting a picture of what the future looks like and why they should care. It means providing direction and purpose that appeals to people’s need to be part of something greater than themselves.

Clear communication means doing the work to be clear.

How about you?

What’s the worst miscommunication you ever had? How do you make sure you’re saying the same thing the listener is hearing? How well do you pay attention to other’s motivations?

Book Review: Narconomics – How to Run a Drug Cartel

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug CartelNarconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Works on Many Levels

This book worked on many levels for me. First, as a primer on international economics by comparing the strategy and tactics of drug cartels with those of corporations. Secondly as a study in critical thinking by describing and analyzing the current state of national and international counter-narcotics effort, assessing its effectiveness, and providing alternative policies where those efforts have failed. Thirdly I appreciated the research methods, and was inspired by them in my writing. So thanks Tom! Great read.

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I Was a Weird Kid

“The best do the basics better” — Eric Frohardt

It was third grade when a teacher at a new school figured out that I might need glasses. On the way home from getting my first pair of glasses I read a billboard out loud from the back of the car. My two younger brothers (who couldn’t read yet) got very excited. We got ice-cream, they liked me, but the glasses where just another reason I was different.

Up to that point I had mostly kept to myself, in retrospect probably because I couldn’t see out past the length of my elbow. Now I could connect with the world, but ironically still socially isolated. Now I knew.

Awkward, geeky, lonely, I got lost in books and building plastic models. Then I joined a cadet corps, learned to march and shoot, earned my pilot’s license, forged my mother’s signature on a permission form and took her car for a weekend of parachuting. I spent a summer back-packing in Europe, went to school and learned to program. I built a meaningful career building things that mattered, raised a family, grew up, and fell in love again. It got better and kept getting better.

Always learning, always sharing

I’ve learned a lot over the last 35 years of being an adult, and I like sharing what I know. It’s why I’ve been a business coach the last nine years. It’s been amazing.  It’s a really cool virtuous circle. I learn from every client and apply many of those learnings to my life, then often share them with the next client.

And I’ve wanted to write a book since I was that geeky kid, but not just any book that anyone else could write. So when I heard “the best do the basics better“, it hit me: that’s the book! The speaker was talking about physical training and firearms instruction, but the same principle applies to many different things. You know, like being able to see the blackboard…that’s a basic requirement for learning. Or being able to see facial expressions and body language when making friends.

What are the “basics” of a successful and meaningful life? What are the simple things outstanding people do well in leadership? I started writing topics headings, and by the time I finished I had three books worth. And that was just from a work/business/entrepreneur perspective.

So here’s my ask:

What are the process, tools, tricks, routines, or habits do you rely on to make your life meaningful? Reduce friction in the daily grind? Be more effective? Do better? What works for you at the personal, leadership, or company level? What are the simple things that you’ve tried that didn’t work?

Let me know either in the comments, or by email, or however you like. I look hearing from you all…and thank-you.

Book Review: Thriving in a 27-7 World

Thriving in a 24-7 World: An Energizing Tale about Growing through PressureThriving in a 24-7 World: An Energizing Tale about Growing through Pressure by Peter Jensen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book, I really did. But the voice / narrative device was just awkward. I agree with other reviewers that you should skip everything but the last two chapters, where Dr. Jensen speaks with his authentic voice – it’s much more engaging, readable, and memorable.

I did learn and have made part of my daily routine some of the strategies/tactics described, and they work, so worth working through regardless.

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Mistakes New Leaders Make

Back in November I asked my on-line tribe a question: “In business, community, or volunteer roles, what are the biggest mistakes you see new leaders, organisers, or volunteers make? Or in other words, what should new leaders stop doing?”

I organized them a bit, but didn’t change them. What would you add to their advice?

Stay Humble

I would suggest new leaders sit with the existing people and processes long enough to understand them before implementing change. This way, they can make more informed decisions. — AC

Thinking that they know more than an older person because they are the new generation. They need to sit in a position and absorb from others before they pass judgement. — MDP

Myself, when I as a new leader years ago, I thought it was all about “me” and I that had to have all the good ideas… very bad move! —  GF

Be Competent

Be organized and focussed while communicating effectively. — TC

Learn to run a goddamn meeting! — EM

Set Clear Goals and Share Them

Made many but I’ll go with when I chaired Josh’s scouts, I didn’t set out clear goals and direction thereby not supporting our fantastic leaders who were investing so much time and effort into our boys. — TC

Not thinking strategically, being too focused on tactics and near-term. Managing instead of leading. Not creating space for authentic communications and relationships. — AK

Be Real

Thinking they have to “act like a leader” instead of being authentic. They become a caricature of leadership. The main task is to not rely on your positional authority. — TS

Ask For Help

Assuming other people’s needs to do the job they have to without consulting with them. A lot of volunteers get in over their heads and miss the details professionals know to cover. Case in point, twice in the last year we have participate as performers at fund raising events that assumed band’s needs were simple and they were ill equipped for the event….Consult with accredited professionals if you aren’t one yourself. Don’t assume there’s nothing to know just because you don’t know. — SM

Learn to Delegate

One mistake I see both new and experienced leaders make often is to get way too deeply into the weeds and try to know every single detail. They need to stop trying to manage the work and start leading the people. As [AC] mentioned above, take the time to learn and observe, respect the history, but don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions. Stop winging it and have a 90 day plan. Most of all, stop talking and listen. — DS

Pay Attention to the Team

The rubber band phenomena. Moving people/agencies/businesses along is all about the tension – too slow and nothing moves because there’s not enough push to move the stagnant along; too fast and the band snaps, tearing the group apart. Finding that balance of tension – fast enough to move forward but slow enough not to cause things to rip apart – is a delicate one. New leaders need to stop trying to make change happen instantly, take the time to learn about that tension, and then move forward. (I’ve done both too slow and too fast far too many times.) — DR

Have Standards

Not focusing on performance and well-being . . . [of] their teams and direct reports. — AM

Make Decisions

My response is a hybrid of others’ responses. I think a new leader might make decisions based on their own experiences pre-leadership. Which is fine, but one has to consider the needs of the many. —  KP

Book Review: the Coaching Habit

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More Change the Way You Lead ForeverThe Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love the model, started using it with clients before I even finished reading it. Replaces Coaching for Performance as my first-book-to-recommend-about-coaching on the bookshelf. Easy to read with a lot of back-up supporting material in video and references format. Especially appreciate the book list at the end.

[…and as an aside: I’ll never read 100 books a year, like some business experts do. I can’t waste my time even skimming that many books a year, so I always appreciate when others do and make recommendations. Thanks Michael!]

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Ask For, Get, and Use Feedback

Good tips here about how to get feedback from employees – interestingly they’re all action we need to take, not changes they need to make. Not only will it make you a better leader, but you will also:

  • be able to give feedback to them that is more likely to be heard and acted on (having set the example)
  • have another opportunity to share your values, expectations, and vision (and they get to make the “right” decisions without having to check with you constantly)
  • you get to check that your team is hearing what you think you’re saying (and make the appropriate adjustments)
  • you hear about real issues sooner
  • your being open to feedback (which feels vulnerable) raises the level of trust

Getting Feedback from Your Employees

…and if you’re still not convinced you need to get feedback:

The Benefit of Speaking Up

…and if you think staying quiet has no cost:

The Cost of Not Saying Anything


“Sometimes people use “respect” to “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority” and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you don’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”  And they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay”

— Emotional Labour Metathread