Do You Have What It Takes to Succeed?

Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, and his first start-up, Traf-O-Data, was a big failure. J. K. Rowling was divorced, depressed, and on welfare. Theodor Seuss Geisel had 27 different publishers reject his first book. Albert Einstein was expelled from high school and was refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic. What these people all have in common is that, at one point in their lives, they were abject failures. Yet without these “failures,” we would not have Microsoft, the Harry Potter series, Dr. Seuss, or the Theory of Relativity.

Some people seem destined to succeed in their chosen endeavors, in spite of any failures they encounter along the way. Others seem to experience difficulty bouncing back from defeat or disappointment, and they have only intermittent success or no success at all. What is the difference? Is it intelligence? Interpersonal skills? Charisma? Or is it just luck? There is research about the relationship between emotional intelligence and success, personal characteristics and success, and intelligence and success. However, the research in those areas does not explain how the view or perception of one’s success is what leads ultimately successful individuals to be persistent in the face of failure.

The most important ingredient to being successful on a sustained basis is how we interpret our success. This interpretation, or our explanatory style, is the way we explain our success or failure to ourselves—it is directly related to how likely we are to experience success or failure in the future. Are you a complainer and subject to focusing on a black cloud in every silver lining? Are you prone to having a consistently negative and pessimistic view of life, needing “a check-up from the neck-up,” as motivational speaker Zig Ziglar used to say. Or are you someone who regularly sees the glass as half full and therefore failure as a passing event and a learning opportunity on the way to success? Optimism, pessimism, resilience—or the lack thereof—are all rooted in how we talk to ourselves about our successes and failures. Our interpretations make all the difference in whether we have any control of our lives and our outcomes.

In fact, there is a clear difference between people who consistently complain about their plight and those who do not. Those who have a sustained level of success actually think differently from those whose success is fleeting or non-existent. The way you think about yourself is foundational. These three characteristics are critical to experiencing success on a regular basis:

  1. Personal Control: Successful people believe that their success is a result of internal qualities over which they have some control, such as attitude, effort, preparation, experience, or skill set. People with lower levels of success feel like success is more dependent on external circumstances over which their control is minimal. As a result, when a typically low-performing individual does experience success, they attribute it more to luck or coincidence. A typically successful person experiencing the same success will recognize the link between the outcome and personal characteristics, such as their effort, preparation, skill set, attitude, and determination.
  2. Generalizability: Successful people believe that success is not an accident of time, location, or circumstance. Instead, they believe they will continue to have similar successes at other times and in other settings. Successful people believe that if they are successful in one situation, they are capable of being successful in other situations. That does not mean they avoid risk or failure. Quite the opposite—they are not afraid of risk or failure because they are determined to persevere until successful. Both Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were not successful until late in life, after they had both experienced many public failures. In spite of those earlier failures, both of them changed history dramatically.
  3. Stability: Stability is the degree to which you think that the capabilities you have are reliable over time, because they are an internal part of you. Successful people know that they can rely on their capabilities when learning new tasks and facing unfamiliar challenges or situations, while unsuccessful people experiencing success do not have the confidence that it can be attributed to a stable trait they possess. They are more likely to say they had a “good day,” “dumb luck,” or “a one-time thing,” not likely to happen again. These people are more likely to live life like a lottery ticket purchaser, with the expectation that the odds are strongly against them winning or being successful.

The roots of victimization are feelings that, no matter what one does, the outcome will be not be good. Individuals who have a “victim” mentality go through life believing the “cards are stacked against them,” and have little motivation to make a difference in their lives or their work. Risk is to be avoided at all costs. Failure and lack of effort begins to define them. On the other hand, people who are consistently successful in life believe that success is a product of personal choices that we all have in response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

There is a clear link between the outcomes of our lives and the attitude, effort, persistence, and abilities we apply to various circumstances. When failures do happen, they are considered passing events that do not define us. Zig Ziglar cautioned us to “remember that failure is an event, not a person.” Taking on new risks and challenges can be seen as adventures to explore that offer new and exciting things to be learned. What defines us is a realistic appraisal of our abilities and attitudes, including a confidence that can be applied to any new situation. How we view our success or failure will either move us forward or back. How will you choose to interpret your successes and failures?

The Founder’s Dilemma: Moving from Entrepreneur to Professional Manager

A client recently engaged me to help her with problems she was having in her business. Her small, ten-year-old, privately-held company was reaching a tipping point. The company had a strong client list with a decent backlog of business. She had good people working for her, and the upside was significant. What was the problem then?

The founder was beginning to experience what all successful founders do ultimately—the limits of being able to run the business by themselves. Like most entrepreneurs, she had built her organization opportunistically, based initially on survival, and then based on sustaining survival. She was wearing multiple hats, including finding new customers, managing inventory and quality, hiring and firing—plus keeping an eye on cash flow. She found herself on a treadmill with employees to manage, overhead to meet, and a feeling that she needed to both manage operations and “feed the beast” through ongoing business development. She was a tired and frustrated victim of her own success. The irony was that she had everything she dreamed of and yet had come to resent it. Her predicament added credence to the idea of “be careful what you pray for.”

Upon initial assessment of the business, primarily through employee interviews and observations in key business meetings, the solution was clear. The founder needed to fundamentally change the paradigm of how she ran her organization. The company needed to evolve from one in which she controlled all of the pieces to one in which the business would become professionally managed. The implications all sounded logical and made sense to her; however, the reality was fraught with difficulties that started with the founder’s reluctance to give up control.

By necessity, entrepreneurs view their businesses as “their baby.” They have “birthed” the business, nurtured and fed it, and helped it move from crawling to standing and walking. Like any parent, they are very proud as they see their fledgling business move past a point of surviving to the point of thriving. It would be impossible to hire anyone who would know the nuances and history of a business better than the founders.

The growth of the business is usually a product of the founder’s persistence, instinct, and cunning. The way of conducting business is mostly in the head of the founder. It is common for there to be a paucity of documented processes or procedures that others can follow. Deals may be cut with customers that are haphazard and “spur of the moment,” with more of an opportunistic and short-term approach than one that is more strategic and intentional. Hires are typically made out of extreme necessity; roles, responsibilities, and job duties are poorly defined, if at all. Employees tend to gravitate to what needs to be done now, using the particular skills they already possess rather than what is good for the business long-term.

Once a business reaches a “critical mass” that moves it from surviving to thriving, the founder then faces the consequences of their short-term planning. With the absence of repeatable processes, multiple people are involved in decision-making and tend to overlap or “run into” one another. The potential for customers to experience this internal confusion can be catastrophic, with potential quality lapses, inventory shortages or overages, and missed deadlines. This is where my client was. A thriving business can risk “the wheels coming off” if some drastic steps toward professional management are not taken.

It is human nature not to want to change until there is a compelling need to do so, a point at which the pain of the situation exceeds the benefits. Even with a recognition that change is required, founders have great difficulty relinquishing control and trusting others to help in the process of “caring for their baby.”  This is the typical dilemma of entrepreneurs: stay small and continue to manage it themselves, or grow larger and trust others to help in the process.

The thriving business structure needs to move eventually from everyone on the staff being generalists and managing multiple tasks to having specialists. This requires looking at the structure of the organization and determining where specialists will truly add value. Because of the way entrepreneurs have created and grown the business, they tend to be micromanagers. The fear of others “screwing-up” the business, over-spending, hurting customer relationships, not managing operations tightly enough, and, especially, not doing things the way the entrepreneur has done them keeps these founders from hiring strategically and trusting people to do their jobs.

In order for businesses at this inflection point to become more professionally managed, they need to move:

From:

  • Opportunistic growth
  • Centralized decision making
  • Staff wearing multiple hats
  • Loose and changing roles
  • Haphazard delegation
  • Processes ad hoc & changing
  • Opportunistic decision-making
  • Low accountability
To:

  • Intentional and targeted growth
  • Broader decision-making
  • Having greater specialization
  • Clear roles and responsibilities
  • Delegation and empowerment
  • Consistent processes
  • Strategic decision-making
  • Measurement and Accountability

 

Needless to say, this takes a significant leap of faith on the part of the founder. To be certain, there are inevitable fits and starts in changing one’s business to being more professionally managed. At times, there will be “bad” hires. Customers may not want to change their relationship with the founder to a relationship with a senior business development professional. Suppliers that have become friends of the founder may find their prices or quality undercut by a competitor, causing distress for the founder. Favorite employees of the founder may be found to have been lacking in their performance. The chances for missteps are clearly present. In addition, the founders may see each bump in the road of transition as confirmation that they would have been better off to have stayed the course and never to have moved to a more professionally managed organization.

The biggest challenge is for the founders to redefine their roles and move from tactical “doers” to more professional leaders, learn how to delegate and keep their focus at a higher and more strategic level. This allows them to look out for the future of the business and leave the managing of the current business to their staff. As always, a “trust but verify” posture is prudent, but it cannot be one of micromanaging, criticizing, or not giving people the opportunity to grow.

Unfortunately, the risk of making changes often keeps founders from making them. They start down the path, only to retract and become once again over-involved in the business. As my client understood that to grow her business she would fundamentally need to change the way she thought about the company and her new role, she was met by feelings of both excitement and fear. She was determined to grow her business and choose the path of making the changes. Fortunately for her, she had the courage to make the changes to keep growing and the tenacity to stick with her plan.

Stumbling onto Happiness

High-achieving executives may wonder how well success correlates to happiness. We have been molded, especially in America, to believe that the more we have in terms of money, assets, position, power, or authority, the happier we will be. But what if the link between success and happiness is not as clear-cut as we have been taught to believe?

Research on Happiness

Positive psychology is a field that has emerged in the past 15 years that focuses on understanding and applying the key principles of happiness. So what do we know about the link between happiness and success? Most people operate under the following assumptions:

  • If I work harder, I will be more successful.
  • If I am more successful, I will have more external validation, including more money, a higher position, more status, and more things.
  • If I have these rewards of success, then I will be happier (a commonly held belief reinforcing parenting and management styles intended to motivate others to behave in specific manners).

According to Thomas Merton, a highly esteemed Catholic theologian, “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have—for their usefulness.” Research has found that the way the brain works keeps us in a constant state of seeking, whereby every time our brain experiences success, we simply move the goalposts of what success looks like in the future. Here are some typical examples of how goals can shift:

  • If I have a good job, I have to get a better one.
  • If I get good grades, I need to get better ones.
  • If I am in a good school, my next one needs to be better.
  • If I hit my sales target, I need to set a higher one next time.

But what often happens to us once we have the success we thought we wanted is we find that the happy feeling is fleeting. Very shortly after the success, we begin to focus on the complaints, the competition, the workload, and the stress. The joy of the success is soon lost on us as we quickly return to our previous state of happiness or unhappiness. In fact, researchers can predict only 10% of your happiness by knowing about your external conditions (e.g., the car you drive, the home you own, where you vacation, your family), while 90% of your happiness is created by your internal world. Let’s take a closer look at happiness.

Happiness and Generosity

A study of happiness that might surprise you was published in a 2008 article in Science. This experimental study concluded that money could buy happiness as long as the money is spent on someone else. Analysis of surveys and data led to the following findings:

  • For participants who disclosed personal spending data, the amount of money people spent on gifts to others or on charitable contributions was positively associated with general happiness, even when controlled for income variances.
  • For employees at a company who had received profit-sharing bonuses, the amount of the bonus the employees spent on others was a greater predictor of happiness six to eight weeks later, whereas the amount of the bonus spent on themselves was not.
  • For survey participants who were given either $5 or $20 and instructed to spend the money either on themselves or on others, those who spent the money on others were happier, and the amount of money did not matter.

This brings us to Conclusion #1 about happiness: Happiness and deep satisfaction are found when you extend yourself on behalf of another, either through acts of service or acts of generosity.

Happiness and Money

Surely having more money equates to happiness. Yet a survey of 43 countries by the Pew Research Center found that people in developing countries express nearly the same level of satisfaction with their lot as do people in wealthy countries. In 2007, 57% of respondents in rich countries counted themselves as happy, compared with 33% in emerging markets and only 16% in poor countries. However, in 2014, 54% of rich-country respondents said they were happy, but the share in emerging markets increased to 51%. Poor countries still lagged behind, with a share of 25%. The conclusion to draw here is that there must be some level of financial security to be happy, but after that threshold is crossed, additional wealth does not equate to additional happiness. As income increases, its added contribution to life satisfaction becomes smaller. The impact of additional income is greatest among those who have little money, but matters increasingly less once someone is able to meet basic needs.

This leads us to Conclusion #2: Greater happiness comes through maintaining an attitude of gratitude for what you already have and getting into the habit of noticing what you appreciate and why. Adopting this attitude strengthens your appreciation for what you have in your daily life and takes the focus away from things you want but do not have.

Happiness and Life Circumstances

You may be thinking that surely people with privilege, better circumstances, and more opportunities are happier than those without. But are they? Looking at happiness relative to life circumstances, we bump into what’s known as outcome bias, the idea that outcomes, even non-monetary ones, will have a greater positive or negative impact than they actually end up having. Examples of such circumstances include:

  • Winning or losing an election
  • Having or losing a romantic relationship
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Moving to a more or less desirable place to live
  • Getting good or bad medical lab reports

The impact related to these events is often much less than you might expect. In fact, if something happened over three months ago, with very few exceptions, the outcome has very little impact on your happiness. In fact, people who have experienced negative outcomes tend to confirm this. In his 2004 TedTalk, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, considered these examples:

  • Lottery winners vs. paraplegics—Believe it or not, one year following either winning the lottery or receiving a diagnosis of being a paraplegic, the levels of happiness on a survey were exactly the same. Three examples of this phenomenon are Christopher Reeve (quadriplegic), Amy Van Dyken (paraplegic), and Stephen Hawking (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
  • Jim Wright (1989)—He resigned in disgrace after 34 years in Congress, ultimately as Speaker of the House of Representatives, when it was discovered that he had a shady book deal. As a result, he lost everything—money, power, etc. He said, “I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally, and in almost every way.”
  • Harry Langerman—He could have purchased a McDonald’s franchise for $3,000, but was talked out of it by his investment banker brother-in-law. Instead, Ray Crock bought the franchise and became, for a while, the richest man in America. As Langerman said, “It worked out for the best.”
  • Moreese Bickham—He spent 37 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit and was exonerated, at age 78, through DNA evidence. Upon his release, he said, “I do not have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience!”
  • Pete Best—He was the original drummer for the Beatles before they became famous. After Best decided not to tour with the band, they found Ringo Starr. As Best said, “I am happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

So, is the secret of happiness to:

  • Have a debilitating disease or physical problem?
  • Accrue power, wealth, and status and lose it all?
  • Make someone else really, really rich?
  • Spend as much time in prison as you possibly can?
  • Never join the Beatles?
  • Of course not!

Maintaining Happiness—and Success

So what do we make of all of this? How do we increase our happiness while also striving to attain more professionally? We must understand that happiness resides entirely in the internal world. Our longings and our worries are overblown because we have within us the ability to create for ourselves the very thing we are constantly chasing.

You have probably heard the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Research in the field of positive psychology has determined that we can train our brains to become more positive—tapping into serenity—through the following activities:

  • Exercising—Exercise increases the level of dopamine in the brain. This increase in dopamine elevates the feeling of being content and teaches your brain that your behavior matters.
  • Meditating—Meditation allows the brain to focus and not try to do too many things at once, focusing on the issue at hand in the present.
  • Performing random acts of kindness—Write one email per day to affirm someone else. Even in the absence of an email, do not let a day go by without telling someone how important they are.
  • Keeping a gratitude journal—Create a journal in which you write three things you are grateful for every day for 21 days and record at least one positive experience that occurred within the past 24 hours. Recording such things will allow you to see the world in a more positive light, more optimistically, and more successfully.

Finally, this brings us to Conclusion #3: Real happiness is in accepting and appreciating the things and conditions we cannot change and working to make the most of them.

Great Leadership: Getting Out of Our Own Way

When you consider the obstacles and challenges that stand in the way of you moving from being a good leader to being a great leader, you may be surprised at just how simple, and obvious, the answer is. It is common to assume that those great leaders whom we admire have risen to their lofty heights through superior intelligence, exquisite interpersonal skills, effective networking, benefit of cronyism, being subject matter experts, tenure in the company, and even luck. It is true that these assets play a role in creating great leaders; however, none of these is the root characteristic of great leaders. You may be surprised to learn that individuals who ascend to leadership positions in organizations have one thing in common—they have overcome their own inertia! With the wealth of available advice about leadership, it can be confusing to know what is really helpful. However, learning to overcome your own inertia is foundational to becoming more than just a good leader. In other words, the path to great leadership requires overcoming internal, not external, obstacles and challenges.

It is not enough simply to do the things that we know are necessary for good leadership. Even a delay in doing what we know is necessary can contribute significantly to leadership stagnation. This means that great leaders must exercise a level of discipline that goes beyond doing “more of the same.” Making that uncomfortable call, taking an opposing position, having that difficult conversation, or meeting with that tough client are all very important. The list is endless. For leaders, time is always the most important variable. Once we lose it, it cannot be recovered. How we use time impacts exponentially the options available to us in the future. Becoming intentional about taking action puts you in control of the direction of your leadership. We have amazing powers of rationalization when we are faced with tasks that we do not want to do but we know in our hearts we need to do. This procrastination ties up energy and brain space. So, why do we procrastinate and what can we do to overcome it?

Lacking the confidence and discipline to confront difficult decisions is, by far, the strongest underlying reason for not taking action. This lack of confidence can take several forms, including:

  • Lacking Courage: When we are fearful because we are faced with strong opposition, we can allow those internal voices of “not being good enough” to overwhelm the facts of our competence. For most of us, the personal apprehensions we feel about ourselves early in life have not caught up to the real capabilities we have developed. In times of stress, those inner voices can drown out our genuine competencies and capabilities. We allow our unreasonable fear of failure to control and dictate our behavior. Furthermore, any negative consequences of our actions would rarely be as dire or calamitous as our inner fears would lead us to believe. In contrast, the results of our being decisive and taking action typically bring a sense of inner satisfaction and usually “move the ball down the field” for our organization. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
  • Wanting to Be Liked: The Achilles heal in leadership is the irrational belief that being liked trumps getting results. Unfortunately, many of us wrongly put a premium on being liked and getting along, rather than keeping our focus on getting results. Taking difficult positions, having hard conversations and tough negotiating do not negate being kind and respectful. However, yielding when your position is substantiated by data in order to preserve being liked, risks not getting results and not being respected. We are trained to be competitive, to win and get ahead, but not at the expense of exploiting others. When we frame our ambitions so dichotomously, we put ourselves in no-win situations. Either we win at the expense of others or we lose but everyone likes us. In reality, trying to please everyone runs the risk of pleasing no one. It is important to take your leadership behavior out of this frame of thinking and focus your attention on accomplishing your goals. Disagreements, hurt feelings, and difficult conversations do not necessarily mean broken relationships. In fact, great leaders are able to establish a loyal following, while also being able to hold others accountable. It is not a mutually exclusive choice. As management-guru Peter Drucker said, “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked, leadership is defined by results, not attributes.”
  • Perfectionism: Believing that a solution can be perfect will not only delay decision-making but is misguided thinking. The search for the perfect answer is almost always a fruitless exercise. Perfectionism is rooted in low self-esteem, in which people believe that they will be perceived as incompetent unless they present flawless work. Perfectionists usually spend excessive time in gathering data, reviewing their work, double-checking for errors, working extra hours and doing the work themselves, rather than delegating. Some studies suggest that even successful general managers are correct only about 65% of the time. In his work with his patients, psychologist David Burns (author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy) has determined that perfectionism undermines both productivity and happiness. As a result, perfectionists end up watching the world pass them by as they pursue their perfect answers when excellent answers will do just fine. Very rarely are problems as complex as brain surgery or rocket science. Most decisions are routine. Even if solutions to problems can be transformational, the ability to identify themes from a subset of data is almost always sufficient. As Voltaire is quoted as saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

In summary, the first and most elemental principle of becoming a great leader is meeting head on the issues, problems, and people that present the greatest challenge to you. By committing to dealing with the least desirable issues you face first, you are able to get them out of the way and free up time and energy to focus on other important issues. Once you muster the courage to conquer your inertia, stop worrying about what other people think, and calibrate your efforts to be commensurate with your tasks, you will be well on your way to becoming a great leader. Getting out of your own way is remarkably effective!

Leadership Lessons from Bernie Sanders

Another surprise in this year’s presidential campaign has been the popularity of Bernie Sanders. He came seemingly of the nowhere to catapult to an almost-even position with Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Who is Bernie Sanders, and what has he done in such a short time to rise to such prominence? Although he has been in the House of Representatives since 1991, serving as an Independent from Vermont, he is hardly a household name outside of his home state! How can his popularity be explained? He has been attracting unexpectedly large crowds across the country and has a broad, growing base of support.

1. Authenticity

Sanders’ message and platform are congruent with his behavior. Sanders fights for what he believes in. His belief in civil rights has led him to be arrested for coordinating a sit-in protest. He was at the forefront of representing LGBT rights. He has introduced legislation for raising the minimum wage. He has been against the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. He was an early voice warning about the dangers of climate change. He has not been afraid to go up against the establishment. His long-term record is consistent with this.

Unlike the view that most politicians cater to polls and their audiences, Sanders does not seem to care what other people think of him, and he says what is on his mind without regard for the consequences. At a time when Super PACs and wealthy supporters rule candidates, Sanders takes pride in not having a PAC or taking corporate money to finance his campaign. Prior to getting into politics, he worked as a carpenter for a period of time. He came from a working-class family and did not grow up in a wealthy environment. Part of his appeal is that he relates well to the common people.

At a time when people’s opinions of candidates are unfortunately shaped by negative-ad campaigning, robo-calls, and pointless vague phrases about why they are the best candidates, Sanders presents a platform that has been consistent over time. People hunger for this kind of authenticity.

2. Targeting His Message

Sanders has a long history of having represented the poor, minorities, and those otherwise disenfranchised, rather than the wealthy and those he considers entitled. This message alone speaks to those who share the feeling that they have little power and that the wealthy and powerful are the decision makers. He targets those who want to see change, not just on a personal level, but also on a global level. He wants to represent the needs of everyday, ordinary people, and not the rich and powerful. Sanders, himself, has the lowest net worth of any of the candidates in either party—again, demonstrating that he is not part of the rich and famous.

Sanders works to inspire and motivate people who see themselves as having been victimized by the powerful and wealthy. His message of engaging people to be involved in the political process has resonated with this group. He gives people the sense that they can make a difference and are not alone and powerless. This message has had particular impact on young voters. His message of wanting control of the government to be in the hands of the people, not in the hands of a few powerful elite, has struck a chord with his base. He addresses the growing discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots and the inequality of the distribution of wealth.

3. Communication

Perhaps the greatest reason for Sanders’ popularity has been his extraordinary success in communicating to his supporters and would-be supporters. Before each speaking event, Sanders’ team puts out “blast” social media messages as to the time, place, and purpose of each event. His use of social media is unparalleled, even by those candidates with more campaign money than Sanders. His campaign has a huge number of volunteers that have adopted a method of signing up supporters at all his events for text message alerts. These volunteers have nationwide conference calls every other week to train people how to best use Twitter and Facebook for his campaign. These grassroots efforts have contributed significantly to the record crowds he has gathered.

In addition to his effective methods and frequent communication, he was also among the first of the candidates to have clearly laid out his platform. Often, other candidates offer vague platitudes when moderators ask about their positions or they disregard questions completely and use the time to expound on their rehearsed talking points. In contrast, Sanders published his “Agenda for America: 12 Steps Forward” at the same time that he announced his candidacy. While many candidates continue to waffle on where they stand on certain issues, Sanders has been clear from the beginning on how and where he will focus his efforts.

When we look at Sanders’ campaign and his unexpected popularity, we see that he has provided three major lessons in leadership that have resonated with his following:

Authenticity: He has demonstrated that the manner in which he has lived his life has been consistent with the positions he has taken as a candidate. Employees consistently view authenticity as one of the most desirable characteristics in their leaders—right up there with trustworthiness.

Clarity of Messaging: Sanders effectively offers a clear and compelling message. It is not uncommon for organizations to have “lost their way” or to have difficulty articulating their strategies. A Sanders-led organization will have no such problem.

Communication: Sanders has demonstrated high levels of effectiveness in the variety of methods and frequency of his communication. Poor communication consistently ranks among the chief complaints employees have of their leaders.

Whether or not you like Sanders’ politics, he provides good examples of how to lead in an environment in which the candidates in the rest of the pack often seem indistinguishable. In today’s competitive business environment, when employees distinguish themselves from the predictable blandness, lack of courage, and lack of focus of their colleagues, they garner the respect and following of those around them. Maybe Sanders has something to teach in that regard. Do you agree?

Leadership lessons can come from both sides of the aisle. Read more in last week’s post about leadership takeaways from Donald Trump.

Managing Leadership Anger: Recognizing the Emotional Threshold

A client called me recently to work with one of his business unit presidents. The president had been with the company for some time and had made significant revenue for the company. My client had been aware of the business unit president’s occasional angry outbursts and had even talked with him about his behavior over the years. However, my client acknowledged that this president’s behavior had been justified, overlooked, and minimized by the fact that he had made so much money for the company. Recently, within a short time frame, the president had been involved in a series of disturbing incidents with other people in the company, and they were demanding that my client take action. In addition, for the first time in years, the president’s business was beginning to slow down. My client called me to help salvage the long, and otherwise successful, career of this employee.

After the initial introduction, I met with the client on-site to begin the process of understanding him and what triggered his angry responses. To my surprise, I found him to be surprisingly charming and non-defensive. In fact, he acknowledged that he periodically becomes rattled and could become both reactive and emotionally intense. My suspicions immediately surfaced. I have enough experience with being “played” to be cautious when there seems to be early compliance, especially about changing one’s behavior! I did some due diligence and found that the president had, in fact, been verbally responsive to feedback in the past but continued to be unable to maintain a level of civility in the midst of difficult discussions. I went into the assignment assuming that he had not been given the tools to change and that, with help, he might be able to make some changes.

When exploring further, the president seemed helpless to address the problem, saying that his anger “just overcomes” him. This feeling of helplessness is a common one with individuals dealing with unbridled emotions. The belief is that the emotions “take on a life of their own.” It is what I refer to as the emotional threshold. The emotional threshold is the point of no return when emotions become so intense that the individual feels unable to “rein them in.” The individual then says things he later wishes he had not said, in a way he wishes he had not said them. Education requires the individual to be able to recognize ahead of time that they are at immediate risk for crossing this emotional threshold and take action to prevent further damage.

There are two ways of working with executives who have excessive and extreme reactions to situations. In the first, a consultant tries to help the individual understand the roots of his behavior (i.e., psychotherapy) and help him or her change through insight. This is a process that can take years and still may not result in behavior change. In the business world, time is always critical and the odds that an employer will wait for the person to understand the origins of their behavior is unlikely.

We chose the second approach, which was to help the individual accept responsibility for his behavior and equip him with specific tools to help mitigate future damage. We began this systematic process of helping him become more able to manage both his emotions and his reactions to them.

The first step was to help the president begin to recognize that, prior to any angry outburst, there is a physical response to either the situation or what has been said. Recognizing the physical triggers to a situation—prior to reacting—gives warning that a loss of control is imminent. We looked at how different physiological sensations can indicate the feelings associated with them (see chart below). We were able to identify that, when he is starting to get angry, his face flushes, he gets a warm sensation, and his breathing increases (see chart below). He spent the next week simply noticing his physical reactions and not trying to change any behaviors yet.

 

Emotion Body Location Possible Sensation
Sadness Throat, chest, belly Lump, narrowing pressure, aching, empty
Anger Back of neck, head, shoulders, arms, hands Ropes of tension, lumps, throbbing temples, clenched jaw, drawn in tight, held back, heat
Fear Belly, head, face, chest, throat Butterflies, fluttering, clutching, dizziness, shortness of breath, tension around eyes and mouth, dry mouth

 

At the first recognition of a physical response, we initiated the second step. Once he was able to regularly recognize his emotional response to stress and frustration, we initiated the second step: At the first recognition of a physical response, he was instructed to take a “time out.”

We told him to take a deep breath and a short 30-second break before responding to the situation at hand. The process of breathing helps regulate the body and lowers emotions. This gave the president time to reconsider his initial response before allowing the strength of his emotions to carry him over the emotional threshold. This small variation in his responsiveness made all the difference in both the degree and velocity with which he responded.

The third step was to use this time out to as an opportunity for him to reflect and become more intentional about his responsiveness. He could even question the assumptions he was making that would have led him down a regretfully angry path. He was able to think briefly about what a desirable outcome would be, the reactions of others involved, and how he could achieve a positive conclusion for all. He could then formulate his response.

The final step focused on his response. We created a few simple ground rules about not publicly humiliating, criticizing, or judging others. In addition, we discussed focusing on solving the problem and not “winning” the battle. Last, he identified someone that would provide him feedback post-meeting about his behavior.

As in any process of changing behavior (think golf swing!), there were initially fits and starts in the president’s progress. He made a log of his difficult conversations and his reactions to them. By providing some specific ways to recognize his behavior, pay attention to his physiological triggers, take a time out, and become more intentional about his responses, he was on his way to communicating in a much more effective manner. Gradually his outbursts diminished significantly in both frequency and intensity. At last communication, his career was intact and, even though his business was declining, he was still at the helm and back in the good graces of my client.

Summary

Executives who are unable to manage their emotions are at risk for over-reacting in response to common problems. These executives do not effectively calibrate their responses to the situation at hand, and can both intimidate others and shut down valuable conversation through the emotion in their responses. They risk using their power inappropriately and losing credibility among their colleagues and subordinates. Why do they have such extreme reactions, and what can be done to change this behavior?

There are three primary reasons that executives continue a pattern of getting what they want through the strength of their emotions.

  1. Bullying: Bullies have been able to intimidate people in the past, and the success of these outcomes has reinforced this behavior. As a result, they come to believe that the ends justify the means.
  2. Fear: Fearful executives are basically insecure, and their fear of losing control impels them to try to get back in control by covering their fear with anger. NOTE: This is the most common reason.
  3. Interpersonal Intelligence: Executives in this category have either never been confronted about their behavior or, if they have, they do not have the skills to change it. These people often do not have a high level of emotional intelligence.

[There is a fourth category, that of a narcissistic personality. However, this type of person is unlikely to change their behavior, even under pressure.]

When executives have difficulty managing their emotions, it can be helpful to recommend the following process:

  1. Help them identify their physical response to stress prior to crossing the emotional threshold.
  2. Have them take a 30-second “time out” and breathe deeply.
  3. Use the time out to reflect and become more intentional and less reactive in responding.
  4. Stick to some simple ground rules, such as having the executive respond when under less emotional duress.
  5. Find a trusted adviser who is able to provide the executive feedback on his or her behavior in the situation, in order to facilitate improved responses to future occurrences.

By providing these tools to executives who regularly experience overly emotional reactions, you create the possibility of behavior change and more effective responses in the future.

Brian Williams and the Cultural Context in Which We Live

There has been a great deal of interest in well-respected NBC newscaster Brian Williams’ revelation that he “misspoke” about an incident 15 years earlier, when he was covering the war in Iraq. The details of the incident are not as important as the fact that Williams had told his viewers, over the years and in different settings, that the helicopter in which he was riding came under fire when, actually, it had not.

Because Williams was such a celebrity, with more than 9,000,000 viewers nightly, this story attracted much more interest than similar news involving lesser public figures. Now, Williams has been suspended from NBC while they sort out what actually happened. Some believe that he also exaggerated what he saw in New Orleans while he was reporting on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. By the way, he was one of the only national reporters to be there.

This is neither an attempt to further vilify or to be an apologist for Williams. There has clearly been a failure of leadership in Williams’ reporting. However, his gross exaggeration is neither an isolated event in the history of celebrities, nor is it uncommon. In our culture of seeking bigger, better and more, there seems to be a general propensity to be dissatisfied with what we have, where we are in life and with ourselves, in general. The use of exaggeration to buoy our personal stock happens regularly as we try to “one-up” our colleagues, friends and, especially, our enemies.

Exaggeration is also common in the world of business, with companies whose CEOs have allowed the overstating of profits or minimizing and rationalizing shortfalls in order to benefit their company’s stock price. A recent example of this includes the SEC fining Office Depot $1 million for overstating earnings in 2010. Other examples of companies guilty of financial irregularities include WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, Enron and Adelphia. These financial irregularities were particularly true before the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation that gave the notion of a CEO in pinstripes a different meaning! The root problem in all of these situations involves similar attempts to pretend to be something more than we are.

As David Brooks noted in an op-ed piece regarding the Brian Williams’ faux pas, “…no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry. Even very famous people can do self-destructive things in an attempt to seem just a little cooler” (New York Times, Feb. 10). After the Williams revelation, the Huffington Post cited NBC as promoting a culture where newsroom reporters became more celebrities than they were journalists such as Edward R. Morrow and Walter Cronkite.

Williams was subject to a most basic of human deceits, the misplacing of personal value. When we value ourselves on the basis of our accomplishments and not on the basis of our intrinsic value, we are on a slippery slope indeed! At the root of this is what noted theologian John Claypool called “casting the sideways glance.” There is always someone more—and less—successful, wealthier (except, I guess Bill Gates), smarter, more attractive, more charismatic, who has a nicer house or car or more accomplished offspring. In other words, this “casting the sideways glance” always leads to misery and an unending cycle of despair. I am getting depressed just writing this!

To confuse what we have, or have accomplished, with who we are is a misplaced, but common—unfortunately, accepted and, even, rewarded—belief. The feeling of being perpetually dissatisfied with what we have or who we are begins early. Go to any youth sports event and watch parents cheering for their children. You do not see parents shouting out “have fun,” “enjoy your time on the field,” “be nice to the players on the other team.” When children score, parents admonish them to do it again. If one score is good, then two is twice as good and so on. When the child does not score, get a hit or block a shot, the parents admonish these “underachieving” children to practice more or try harder so that then can do better next time.

In a similar manner, our preoccupation of pushing children to get good grades to get into the best schools becomes an obsession. Children always take their cues from their parents, so getting better grades becomes an outcome in itself rather than being rooted in enjoying learning. The joy of learning becomes sabotaged by the pursuit of a perfect report card. This skewed pursuit of grades is further reinforced when children overhear their parents brag to other parents about their accomplishments (or lament when their grades have lagged).

To be sure, most parents are well-intentioned. They want what is best for their children. They want to give them every advantage in life so they can be successful and happy. However, these well-intentioned parents are operating on a fundamentally flawed assumption about happiness and contentment: the assumption that, if one of something is good, more of the same thing can only be better. Then if more is better, you will be happier. This false premise creates insecurity about what we have and who we are, adding to the fallacy that “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” This desire to have more is deeply rooted and very difficult to overcome once its hooks have taken hold. Such desire is pursued in the name of happiness and, as Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has observed, our mind works in such a way that each time we experience success, we simply move the goalposts. If happiness is on the other side of success, we can never get there! (Stumbling onto Happiness, 2006). Wasn’t this the dilemma that Brian Williams faced?

There is very clear research on happiness by a number of sources. Multi-year studies carried out with a variety of populations, including entire countries, have determined that there is only a slight relationship between financial success and happiness. This relationship is linear, up to the point where people are able to cover basic needs with their level of income. Below this level, there is a lower degree of happiness as people struggle to have basic needs met. However, once this level is met there is not an appreciable increase in happiness for a commensurate increase in financial accumulation. This research has been repeated time and again with the same results. The same is true for success in getting a new position, new car or a beautiful home. The enjoyment of the success is short-lived and, once the thrill of the new success or acquisition has abated, people return to their previous levels of happiness, rather than a higher level of happiness.

If it is not financial success that makes for happiness, it must be living in great circumstances, or having the position and status that Williams achieved—right? According to this line of thinking, those that have lost significant positions, influence, freedom and even significant physical capabilities should see life as less happy than those who have not lost such things. However, Dan Gilbert has provided many anecdotal accounts of individuals who have lost their jobs, their status, all of their lottery winnings, been to prison and lost opportunities to be rich or famous or had significant physical losses. Innumerable such people claim that their misfortune were blessings in disguise. These individuals believed that their lives were better because of their significant losses. These examples fly in the face of what we, as a society, believe about the link between success and happiness. Contrary to what most people believe, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has estimated that only 10% of a person’s happiness is derived from external circumstances. The other 90% is determined by their internal world or the way their mind processes the world (The How of Happiness, 2007). To quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” If we want to be happy, we must reverse the formula for happiness and success.

So what is a person to do? What does account for happiness, if not financial success, comfortable circumstances, elevated position or status? A new field of Positive Psychology has emerged in the past 20 years that has addressed this very issue. In the research conducted by psychologist Martin Seligman and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania, they have found three unique and intuitive areas that contribute to happiness.

Their first conclusion was that people who experience happiness are those that want what they have, rather than having they want. People who are content with what they have and are not seeking more, better or different have been found to have a level of happiness that is significantly greater than the population as a whole.

The second conclusion from this research is that happiness and deep satisfaction are found when you extend yourself on behalf of another, through either acts of service or generosity. In several clever research studies looking at the relationship between getting and giving, the results are unequivocal that those people who share what they have with others experience a level of personal satisfaction that is greater than those that do not. Giving fundamentally changes how people view themselves and their positive connectedness to others provides great contentment.

The final conclusion had to do with maintaining an attitude of gratitude. People with the ability to regularly reflect on those things, or experiences, for which they are grateful are happier than those who do not take the time to appreciate what they have. Whether it is family, friends or flowers, the ability to appreciate the benefits of everyday life seems to be a key to having contentment and happiness. When looking at ratings of general happiness in various countries, the United States is far down that list, and countries such as Mexico rise to the top!

This takes us back to Brian Williams and his false statement. In a society and culture that mistakenly believes that achievement, acquisitions, power and status bring ultimate happiness, we are all at risk for exaggeration and “puffing-up” our accomplishments to get the accolades of our friends, family and, even, competition. When we look in the mirror to see our own tendency to exaggerate or lie, we can be less critical of others’ tendency to do the same. Being our best selves resides in accepting who we are honestly and facing life with authenticity. Adding money, status and power will not move the needle in our quest for happiness. Wow!

Problem Solving: Is a Team Really Better Than an Individual?

Is the Whole Really Greater Than the Sum of the Parts?

When solving problems, one challenge facing executives frequently is their belief that “I can do it better on my own.” A sense of urgency (or impatience) often drives executives to under-utilize those around them when needing to make decisions that impact the business. In addition, it is common for those in management positions to show reluctance to delegate work. This not only keeps their workloads excessively full, but it also prevents their direct reports from being able to develop their own capabilities.

Can one person solve problems more effectively than a group? A recent University of Pennsylvania study of 743 adults (cited in the March 2015 issue of Monitor on Psychology) sheds light on this issue. The researchers wanted to understand whether individuals or teams were more effective at predicting 199 world events of interest to the US intelligence community. Participants were assigned to work either on their own or in small teams. The findings showed that the teams were approximately 10% more accurate in their predictions than were individuals working alone.

You may wonder if 10% is a big enough difference to gather a team together, as opposed to an individual solving a problem alone. Well, the answer is not always, but sometimes. In fact, when solving routine problems that are incremental in nature and have little or no impact on the business, it is probably just as efficient to “do it yourself.” There is very little value added by assembling a team for such lower-level simple problems. Gathering a team for such problems may waste the time of team members and take too long to get out routine information.

However, when problems are unique and novel, complex, cognitively challenging and have a larger impact on the business, the research is clear—gather a team to help you solve it! There is nothing heroic about doing it yourself when, in fact, a team solution could be more effective, accurate and impactful. Keep these three guidelines in mind when deciding whether or not to assemble a team:

  1. Why am I solving this problem alone? Is it the most effective and efficient approach, or is it because of my impatience or the attachment of my ego to the outcome?
  2. Is the problem familiar, routine, simple and incremental, or is it unfamiliar, complicated, cognitively complex and one that may have great impact on the business?
  3. Is the problem one that could be a development opportunity for individuals on my team?

The answers to these questions will help you determine if that extra 10%, or the opportunity to help others develop, justifies involving others in the problem-solving process. Remember, be intentional about your leadership!