Category Archives: Leadership

Pop Quiz: Can You Teach Me Leadership?

Two things wrong with a good portion of what I see on the web on leadership: 

photo by lumart on flickr

  1. You can’t teach me leadership. We’re different people. What works for you — or somebody else, some prominent successful person — is specific to who you are, your styles, your background, your instincts. Look at some great leaders: they’re all different. So are you, and so am I. 
  2. Position doesn’t make anybody a leader. Being named CEO or president or c-level officer or VP gives you authority (presumably) and responsibility (we hope). Being in charge doesn’t turn the wrong person right. 

And here’s the good news (maybe):

  1. Talking of leadership, showing examples, and lessons in leadership might still be useful. They are to me, at least. They’re reminders of things I know, or feel, but forget. 
  2. Thinking and reflection are good when they happen, if they help people remind each other who they want to be, how they want to behave. 
  3. Clichés get to be clichés for a reason. Call it resonance. Relating leadership to vision, listening, empathy, and so forth probably helps everybody do it, in their own way, but better. Reminders are good. 

So you can’t teach me. I can’t teach you. But maybe we can remind each other. 

(photo credit: lumaxart via photopin cc)

Are You Guilty of One-Size-Life-Fits-All Thinking?

I was talking to my older brother the other day, about startups, siblings, raising children, and he shocked me, right in the middle of an otherwise smooth conversation, with this: 

Now you’re guilty of one-size-life-thinking. You do that way too much. You want everybody to do things the way you did. 

make your own pathThat took me aback.  It sounded insulting. But (damn) it’s also true. 

What’s more important is how much writing on startups and entrepreneurship and business stories flows from that same basic premise: 

You should do what I did. It worked for me. It should work for you too. 

There are so many problems with that. They are too obvious to list, all about different times, different worlds, resources, goals, and so forth. 

Conclusion: beware of best practices, recipes, checklists, and anything a successful entrepreneur is too sure of. Trust uncertainty. Make your own way. 

photo credit: jenny downing via photopin cc

A Conflict-Free Organization is Near Death. Really?

I saw an interesting post on last week, with a title that was hard to resist: A conflct-free organization isn’t great. It’s near death. Hmm … there’s one to think about. It was posted by “serial CEO” Margaret Heffernan. 

Margaret had spent a day at a Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in London. Here’s the key point: 

The big problem with conflict isn’t the conflict itself but the fear and anger it invokes when left unresolved. Most people are afraid to wade into an argument because they don’t feel confident they will be able to manage it, and they’re afraid they’ll become embroiled in something they can’t control and are unlikely to win.

The solution to that, of course, isn’t to keep avoiding the problems. It’s to train people how to deal with conflict effectively, calmly, and fairly. Yet only about a third of managers have any training in coping with conflict of any kind.

The headline bothers me a lot. Granted: Sacrificing ideas, progress, change, and solutions to just to avoid conflict isn’t good. But conflict isn’t good either.

And I question the research. Margaret writes:

In a Roffey Park survey, 57% of managers reported that “inaction” was their organization’s main method of conflict resolution, and cited “avoidance” and “pretending it isn’t there” as a regular course of action. Sound familiar?

Yes, it does sound familiar. Sounds to me like middle managers forced to interrupt their busy day to take a survey enjoying a passive-aggressive revenge with their answers. 

Come on, it was a survey. Do you think the respondents told the truth? 

Here’s my favorite way to avoid conflict: Talk about the ideas, the problems, the issues, the opportunities, and don’t personalize. It’s an idea or an option, not Ralph’s suggestion or Mary’s. Watch your tone. Keep your mind open. Listen. They are ideas, options, problems, but not people. 

Maybe it’s a bit like physics, with conflict like friction, and friction what happens when things move forward. A friction-free vehicle would be really cool until you tried to steer it. 

10 Ways to Be Smart in Business Discussions

  1. Listen
  2. Look at the eyes of the person talking
  3. Don’t be thinking about how to interrupt and make your point; absorb that person’s point firstchange your mind
  4. Keep your mind open. Smart people don’t win arguments; they gain insight. Let your argument go. 
  5. Acknowledge points made by others. Absorb those points. Get them. Get them before you try to counter them.  
  6. Understand counter examples. If somebody says trees lose their leaves in the fall then pine trees are a counter example. Counter examples can narrow or disprove a point. The can be logically significant. 
  7. Understand analogies. One of my favorites is “paying somebody to write a business plan is like paying somebody to exercise for you.” Analogies can shed light on a subject. They can also be off target, and not apply. 
  8. Question the assumptions. Make them explicit. Ask about underlying or hidden assumptions. Help to get people into the right context.  Question them if that’s appropriate. 
  9. Never be shy about asking what you don’t know. “I’m sorry, I don’t know that term” makes you smart, not dumb. Lots of businesses develop their own insider acronyms and forget that nobody else knows what it means. Don’t assume that the term you don’t know is a commonplace term and you should have known it. 
  10. Change your mind sometimes. Often. Smart people listen, think, acknowledge, and, learn. They have open minds. And open minds will change when they absorb new ideas and new angles. Changing your mind makes you smarter. 

Kurt Vonnegut, Music, and Proof of God

(I went hiking in some beautiful mountains over the weekend, with one of my daughters, and decided to repost this one from 2007, just slightly changed. I can’t believe it’s been more than five years since this was first posted. I feel like it’s as timely as ever.) 

“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007.

The quote is from Man Without a Country, his last book, my favorite. The same thought appears in some of his earlier books.  Here’s a picture of a page from Man Without a Country:


He wrote many great books. My favorites are Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Player Piano, and Welcome to the Monkey House.

Some of his quotes are put together into Confetti Prints, at

The work above is Copyright 2007 Kurt Vonnegut & Origami Express LLC.

Good Advice Often Makes Bad Things Happen

Mike Myatt, who writes on leadership, says it straight. In a post titled Really Bad Advice, he first sets the scene:

I just finished reading an article where the author (a self professed innovation guru) recommended strategy be aligned with capability, and that to allow ambition to exceed capability is a nothing short of a recipe for disaster.

And then he tears into that: 

Let me get right to it – if you want to fail as a leader then please follow the flawed advice given by the wizard of innovation mentioned in the opening paragraph. But if you want to rise above the crowd and become a truly innovative leader, I’d ask you to regard said advice for what it is – more of the same. It’s just another well-intentioned sound bite that will destroy your company and your career if you choose to follow it.

The underlying problem, much more general than Mike’s specific issue, is quite common: Good advice makes bad things happen. Business, like life itself, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Every case is different. What worked for me could easily be disastrous for you. I’m flattered when people ask my advice, but I’m always hoping they have the common sense to listen, digest, evaluate my story for their situation, and execute on it only if it actually makes sense for them, then, in their situation. I shudder when it seems like people are going to just execute on my advice without internalizing first. 

Meanwhile, back with the specific issue on strategy, Mike puts his objection very clearly: 

leaders who complain about a lack of resources, are simply communicating they are not very resourceful. Great leaders find a way to develop and/or acquire the best capability in order to create a certainty of execution around a winning strategy. If you want to fail as a leader, hire B and C talent and ask them to win with an inferior strategy. Thinking in a limited manner will only accomplish one thing – it will limit your future.

That too, I think, is good advice that might or might not apply to some other situation. To be taken in moderation, and used with care.

Conclusion: This goes straight to my general feeling that there are no such things as best practices


Hooray the Late ’60s Are Finally Winning

No surprise to me: Alexandra Levit reports on Amex OPEN that big-company CEOs are “abandoning command and control.” IBM studied more than 1,700 chief executive officers from 64 countries and 18 industries.

Of course. Look around. You’ll see complaining sometimes about alleged millennials, but all they’re doing is wanting people to care what they think. That’s true of Gen-T too, and us aging hippy baby boomers as well. Nobody wants to mindlessly obey. Computers and software first, then the Internet, created a meritocracy of sorts. People share jobs and work from anywhere and it’s about results, actual work, not time warming seats.

Just a couple days ago I was sharing with a good friend that I thought I was bad as a manager building my own business because I wasn’t good at structure and command. I didn’t like authority that much. Now it turns out I was just ahead of my times. Hooray.

My favorite part of this report is the conclusion:

The IBM study has revealed a new type of CEO—one that lives on the ground rather than in the ivory tower and one that is able to adapt to a rapidly evolving business world. In many ways, small-business owners and entrepreneurs are accustomed to this form of leadership.

Hmmm … so in the smaller companies, the startups, the grass roots entrepreneurs are leading this change? Are you surprised? Big company leadership is taking longer to figure this out? Still surprised?

What I like is that what we started in the late 1960s is rolling along towards 2012. Power to the people, and all that.

It’s about time.


5 Traits of A Great Startup CEO

I’ve been meaning to post about Jason Baptiste’s 14 Ways To Be A Great Startup CEO for a while now. With so much myth and misunderstanding slung around the web as advice on entrepreneurship, it’s unusual to see 14 good points in a row on this topic. I’m highlighting my five favorites here, but all 14 are valid. This is my selected best five. (And all the bullets here are direct quotes from Jason’s post.

1. Be a keeper of the company vision

No explanation needed on this one. 

2. Absorb the pain for the team. 

Be a keeper of the company vision doesn’t need explanation. Jason explains absorb the pain for the team:

A startup CEO needs to be the personal voodoo doll for a startup. They need to be able to take on a strong burden of stress, pain, and torture all while making level headed decisions. You can’t have the troops stressing and worrying about the difficult challenges at hand. A good startup CEO will absorb the stress, so the rest of the team can carry on. He also needs to be able to mask this pain and stress. Not that he should hide or lie to the team- I’m not encouraging that. Most of the day to day nuances+stresses of a startup aren’t worth having the entire team worry about and the CEO needs to bear that pain.

I love the voodoo doll metaphor. And although Jason’s explanation winds around a bit, it’s a tough concept to deal with: The right mix of absorbing and sharing the problems is critical. No extremes here; somewhere in the middle. 

I think my absolute favorite is…

3. Find the Smartest People and Defer on Domain Expertise

Jason lumps two things together under this point, both very important: 


The key is finding people that are smarter than you on specific topics. It might be technical team members/leaders or it might be a new VP of Biz Dev. A startup CEO has to have the ability to find these people and make relatively fast decisions to hire them. They also have to be able to show the fire and passion to convince them to leave what is most likely a better paying and more secure job to join the company.

And second:

The real key to hiring as a startup CEO comes after the hire. A great startup CEO will be able to trust the hires that they make and defer to them on areas of domain expertise. It’s hard to let go, but you have to learn to, especially when the company grows.

This seems obvious I think from the outside, but I can say from experience, it’s really hard to do. I found as I grew my company that, especially in the beginning, it was hard as hell to let go of me knowing everything best. As Palo Alto Software grew up, we had trouble dropping the flat organizational structure and going from decision by team vote to decision by functional expert in charge. That’s a hard change to make. But vital. 

4. Have an uncanny ability to say no

It’s all about focus. Jason says a startup CEO gets a flood of suggestions, many of which sound wonderful, few of which can be implemented. One of my mentors once told me management is knowing when and how to say no. And there’s the important displacement principle that says everything you do rules out something else you don’t do. 

5.  Have the ability to call an audible

“Call an audible” is a American football reference to changing the pay at the very last second. I want to close this post quoting Jason on this one: 

Nothing goes according to plan. Things fall through, people quit, shit happens, servers crash, and other random things go bump in the night. You’re going to have to deal with it and fast.

Amen to that one. And I totally believe in planning, but that’s planning process for me, the Plan-as-you-go method. which means planning is steering and steering is constant review and revision. 

Only If You Don’t Say So Yourself

In 10 Ways You Should Never Describe Yourself, on Inc.Com, Jeff Haden makes an extremely important distinction. He writes:

Here are some words that are great when used by other people to describe you, but you should never use to describe yourself. 

For example: motivated, creative, guru, passionate, innovative. Jeff lists 10 of them. 

I didn’t see it as clearly until I read it the way he put it. Somebody else calls you Guru, congrats. Call yourself a Guru — or passionate, innovate, creative — and, well, not so much. 

Nice post. Good point. 


5 Excellent Leadership Tips for 2012

As the year draws down, a good time for reflection, I’d like to call your attention to Mike Myatt‘s 5 Leadership Tips for 2012 on, posted yesterday. I think he’s 5-for-5 on this. Here are my three favorites:screen shot

  1. Family. Mike says “If you’re struggling with the family balance thing my advice is simple: don’t attempt to balance your family – make them your priority. I’ve simply lived too long to buy into the myth that success in the workplace will create happiness at home.”
  2. White space. I love this. “Leading doesn’t always mean doing. In fact, most often times it means pulling back and creating white space so that others can do. This is true leadership that scales.”
  3. Unlearning. Also brilliant: “We’ve all acquired knowledge, beliefs or positions that but for the protection of our ego, would easily admit are outdated. I can think of no better definition for a closed mind than someone unwilling to change their opinions. Smart leaders recognize it’s much more valuable to step across mental lines in the sand than to draw them.”
  4. Listening.
  5. Engagement.

Mike gives much better explanation than the summary here, and there are some excellent comments too, so I recommend this post.