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.

Your Vision Means Nothing

Truths About Leadership Nobody Wants to Hear Part 5

Your vision and leadership mean nothing – not without the credibility and competence to get things done.

Lot’s of people have lots of ideas. Some of them are even likable enough to get other people interested in working with them on those ideas. But without the ability to support that vision with your own hard work it’s probably not going to happen. Nobody likes to be the only donkey pulling the cart, not even other hired donkeys.

Credibility means doing what you said you would do. Competence means the ability to deliver on those promises. So be careful about what you promise, but once you promise it, move heaven and earth to deliver. Then together with your vision (and the ability to authentically share it) you’ve got a chance.

The Hard Work: 

Making others look good, also known as the Canvas Strategy:

“The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.” – Ryan Holiday

Truths About Leadership Nobody Wants To Hear Part 4: Your Competence Means Nothing

Why Emotionally Intelligent People Make More Money

Once again, being aware of and managing your own emotions is directly linked to your success. While I’m not sure that sharing “how your feeling” at the end of a meeting is would be very effective, trust and vulnerability are certainly behaviours that leaders can and should model for others.

Try opening your meetings with a good news story – have people share a quick bit of good news from their personal and from their professional lives. You’ll be surprised at how it shifts the rest of the subsequent conversation.

Why Emotionally Intelligent People Make More Money –  Lisa Evans

(Re) Starting Your Career #5 – Do What You Said You Would

Over and over again trust, credibility, and integrity come up as characteristics of effective leaders. Many words have been written about trust. It’s one of those words like integrity that has hundreds of meanings to different people. But the reality is quite simple.

In order to be an effective leader, the people you’re leading must trust you. In order to be trusted, you must do what you said you were going to do. I’ll say it again, because it’s that important:

Credibility results from doing what you said you would. Like most basic truths, this is both simpler and more complicated than it sounds.

Credibility means doing what you said you would. It really is as simple as keeping your word. Here is the complicated part:

Credibility means keeping your word even if it costs you. Doing more than you expected to do or losing out on something else if that what it takes.  It means keeping track of your commitments so you don’t “forget”. Unintentionally breaking your word is still breaking your word.

It means being disciplined enough to know what you can say yes to, and most importantly when you should say no. Keeping your word even to people you don’ t like. Saying no even when it means disappointing somebody you do like.

It means being very very selective about what you do say yes to. It means doing your best in all those circumstances. Even when what you want to do the most is just get “it” done and off your plate so you can move on to something else.

It means being transparent about where you are progress-wise. Reporting on progress is part of the commitment. It means being blunt and honest even when it hurts or is uncomfortable. It also means admitting when you can’t keep your word, and being transparent about what you can and will do going forward.

Credibility is your most valuable asset as a leader. Don’t believe me? Go read “The Leadership Challenge”. Or “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Then come back and tell me why trust isn’t at the top of the list. If people don’t trust you, nothing else will get done. Everything will be a struggle, Conflict, not the healthy kind, will abound.

Now, go examine your commitments. Choose only the most important ones.  Choose carefully. Do those first. Honestly manage the others. Then thrive.

Bernie works with small, medium (and sometimes) large companies, start-ups, and volunteer organizations to help them set a vision that is executable, to be effective, and to surround themselves with people who will help them succeed. I believe the workplace is a place to thrive, not just survive. Call me if you want help transforming your business. 

One Email Outta Do It

Fourth in a series about communication and change management.
Face to face communication is always best

I love email. It’s fast, it’s easy, its’ cheap. It also provides us a record of what was said. Sometimes it’s important to have a record.  Also I don’t have to ask people how their day’s going, or remember their kids kids’ names. But maybe that’s just me.

So what’s the problem with email? Words themselves make up only as much as 40% and maybe as little as 7% of communication. Words themselves are only a small part of what’s being communicated. So for trivial or strictly objective communication (“Where are we having lunch?”, “Please send me the numbers for the third quarter.”) email works just fine. After that, the chance of mis-communication goes up.

The more complicated the message, the greater the chance for mis-communication. The more emotionally laden the communication (“I think you have an attitude problem.”) the greater the likelihood of misunderstanding. The more people involved, or the less time people have worked together, the greater the opportunity for misinterpretation. Add all those together and the chance of added drama, resentment, and wasted effort is almost certain.

My experience, both as a manager and as a facilitator, is that mis-communication is really easy. You have to work really hard to *not* mis-communicate. Yet we often choose on one of the worst ways to talk to others about complicated, potentially emotional issues with people we don’t really know that well – email.

Fix #4  Talk to a Human

Talk face-to-face. Wash , rinse, repeat.

Mark Hortsman has an amusing saying (I paraphrase): “I’m glad to hear you want to work with people. All the jobs with trees and dogs are taken.” As managers and leaders we manage and lead people, not email. If our jobs were to manage email I wouldn’t have to write this blog post.

Keeping a record isn’t going to engage and influence people to change behaviour or create enthusiasm. Repeated human interaction, building relationships and trust, is the only thing that does.

Phone calls are better than emails for engaging human beings. Video-conferences better than phone calls. In person meetings better than video-conferences. One-on-one, face-to-face meetings are better still. Regular, repeated contact.

If you need a record of agreement, write it afterwards. First pick up the phone, walk down the hall, learn to speak publicly. Tell stories, have a vision, be passionate. Email is efficient  but it’s ineffective. If you’re a manager of human beings, learn to manage human beings. If you’re a manager of trees or dogs, carry on.

On the Importance of Trust and Relationships

Trust and relationhipsHere’s an article I wrote for on discovering the importance of trust and relationships in business (and life). Enjoy!

The Joy of Networking

I was at breakfast with three friends Thursday morning. It was early at one of those funky little breakfast & lunch joints south of downtown Calgary. I knew everybody, but everybody hadn’t met each other yet, which is why I’d invited them all. Within two minutes of everybody arriving we’d got each other laughing and talking and chatting and catching up. We traded intelligence on work in our respective fields, checked on potential client reputations, and bounced business ideas and opportunities.

I came away from breakfast feeling energized, motivated, and happy. Happy that I was privileged to the part of a small circle of smart, funny, and inspiring people.

Then I said to myself – “Self: You shouldn’t be you’ve just been networking. Networking is supposed to be an onerous chore! Get your head on straight!” Then I told myself to take a flying leap and proceeded to have a great day instead.

Here’s the question that “networking” is trying to answer: If I lost my job (major contract / largest income stream) tomorrow, to whom could I reach out to find my next gig? Who else would I want to work with again? Who knows everybody in the business and could point me in the right direction?

This is networking: keeping in touch with people who can help you, or more importantly, whom you can help. Why not be the one that people reach out to when needed? Wouldn’t that make it easier if and when you need something?

You don’t want the only reason you’re talking to Fred or Flora for the first time in two years is because you just got laid off. That’s awkward. And much less likely to be successful.

Question for the Comments
Who’s the first person you would reach out to if you needed to start looking for work tomorrow? When was the last time you talked to or emailed them?

Other Article You May Be Interested In:
Getting the Job You Want By Talking To the Right People
Your Personal Board of Directors
The Elevator Speech

Bernie works as a leadership and strategic business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well. He believes that not doing anything about bad leadership, once you know about it, is abuse and poor business practice. He believes the foundation of any organization is its values. He believes that that the workplace can be a place for both people and businesses to thrive. Not just survive.

Check out his other articles at

How To Be A Generous Listener

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” — Winston Churchill

The biggest influencing skill is the skill of listening. You cannot hope to be heard until you’ve listened. Your influence will only reach to the extent you’ve payed and attention – and have been seen to pay attention.

As a listener, most of what we think of as listening happens inside our head. Let’s set the table and invite our speaker to sit with us:

Be a Generous Listener

Generous listening is the assumption of favourable intent. It means if somebody says something that can be taken in more than one way, they meant the good way. Or they are, in their own way, trying to help you. Or maybe you misunderstood?

I told a close friend of mine once that she “had to own her own shit.” I meant that she had to take responsibility for her own emotions and actions. She thought I had said “had to eat her own shit.” A subtle but important difference. Hilarity ensued.

Be a Respectful Listener

Is it safe to tell you bad news or give unfavourable feedback? Can you handle the truth? Listening means being vulnerable sometimes. Putting yourself out there. Exposing yourself to things that are hard to hear and maybe even hurtful.

Can you be compassionate and understand that the person telling you the bad news might be feeling vulnerable too? That if they’re telling you something unfavourable that it might actually be happening?

Be a Calm Listener

Your silence is not mean you agree with what is being said. Not interrupting, however, shows respect. Not interrupting is listening.

Sometimes people take a while to get to their point. They need to feel safe before they can get to what they really want. Personally this drives me nuts, but my therapist was really good at it.

President Lyndon Johnson was especially good at this. He could actively listen for hours, and spent much time on the telephone, waiting patiently to pounce when the speaker got to what they really wanted. [On listening to Johnson’s private phone calls]

Your Actions

Can you think of a conversation you’ve had in the past that might have gone differently with using any one of these techniques? What upcoming conversation can you apply these techniques too?

When Trust is Gone, Nothing Else Works

When trust is gone, nothing else works. It’s true for friendships, marriages, politicians, and companies.

I ran into this with recently with a client. Two feuding departments who look to the CEO to resolve differences, but can’t get the decisions they need. Instead of one company working together, there are two departments working in parallel and duplicating effort. But it’s even worse than that.

The Effect

The atmosphere between the two department heads, and between some of their staff, is now poisoned with mistrust. They’re at the stage where they’re actively sabotaging each other.

Instead of having a creative and concrete conflict about substantive issues, solving problems, and moving the company forward they’re covering up weaknesses and mistakes, jumping to conclusions about each others’  intentions and attitudes, and not talking to each other. Grudges fester and meetings are dreadful and unproductive.

So What?

We can’t reach into the past and change things. There are some things we  can do.

First, it’s up to you as a leader to model vulnerability for your team. Admit mistakes, listen to feedback, ask for help. You can’t do it all yourself, that’s why you hired smart people to work with you. Use them to make yourself better, just like you want them to lean on each other.

Support vulnerability. Do not tolerate destructive or critical behaviour. One of my construction clients even has it written in their company ground-rules posted in every meeting room: Swearing is allowed and even encouraged. Personal attacks and blame are not. They laugh a lot, even when things seem to be at their worst. Then they buckle down and get things done.

Lastly, encourage healthy, passionate debate. Get everybody’s opinion. Don’t allow one or two verbal bullies to dominate the conversation. If we all agree all the time, then some of us are redundant. Get all opinions on the table, discuss the worst case scenario, get clear on what you’re trying to do, figure out specifics of who’s going to do what by when.

Then go execute.


Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

It’s About People, Really

I got a huge compliment from one of the company partners this week. He said “You’ve done a great job learning to connect with people the last year.” Now, this might sound like a left-handed complement, but for me it’s something that I’ve consciously focused on the last little while. I’ll never be a Bill Clinton, but it’s something that was important to get better at.

Changing behaviour like that is hard and requires continuous focus. I came from a software and project management background, and in my earlier life I was little better than most at persuading people to work together. Which is to say that I was a little better than a company full of engineers, programmers, and project managers. When I started working at I realized that not only was I going to have to raise my game to the next level, but that there are levels above me that I wasn’t even aware of.

In my current role as a business execution specialist connecting with people and building trust and a relationship is the biggest part of the job. They are trusting me with their companies, their livelihoods, and livelihoods of everybody in their company. If you’re a CEO you’re even more so in the hot seat. The buck stops with you.

Which is why I was surprised when I got briefed in on a new client recently. Part of what I was told is that they don’t want any of that fuzzy-wuzzy psychology mumbo-jumbo. Just come in and fix what’s wrong. This gave me the first sign of what my approach was going to have to be. Except I would have to be patient. Spend time face-to-face with the players. Build trust. Establish a relationship. You know, all that fuzzy-wuzzy psychology mumbo-jumbo stuff. Because at the c-suite level it’s all about the people. And trust. And relationships.

If you’re a lumberjack you’d better know how to use a chain-saw. If you’re a manager, leader, or CEO, you better know what makes your people tick and how to get them working together. Either that or you can pay somebody like me a lot of money to “fix what’s wrong”.