Last November our country reflected on the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and its impact on the nation. Written records, interviews, and previously unreleased footage reminded us of a time that began with great hope and ended with numbing despair. Listening to the interviews of those who lived through it, I found myself reflecting on an experience from my own history; an experience which coupled with my mother’s wisdom taught me a fundamental lesson in leadership.

I was college age when I first encountered racism face to face. My parents did what I believe was an exceptional job helping me understand what I might face in the world outside of our home. Nevertheless, when I experienced it no amount of discussion could have fully prepared me for what it would feel like to be judged solely on the color of my skin.

When I consider the events of that day, I am still amazed at the indelible imprint it made on my thinking. Equally as amazing were the variety of responses of my friends; some wanting to get a group together and take physical action, others wondering how something so ugly could happen to someone of whom they cared so deeply, while some were simply at a loss for words. An even more interesting response came from a group of officials who instead of doing something, dismissed the activity as “locals being locals,” with no real intent to harm. It was, however, my mother’s response that provided the most lasting impression. Her response put adversity in perspective; then and now.

A few days after explaining to her what happened, I received a card in the mail. Inside of the card she had written the following African proverb:

“A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor”

Few words have ever been so simple, yet profound. Few have been more timely and impactful. Embedded in that message was both compassion, and encouragement; a reminder that although I was in pain, I had to dust myself off and get back in the game.

As one of the first African-Americans to integrate her high school, my mother understood the impact these events could have. Having lived through the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., she knew this was a pivotal moment in my life. She had seen a mix of responses from the disenfranchised; some driven to despair and anger, while others rose above the fray. That simple African proverb was her way of saying, this is what I have been trying to teach you and now that you are facing it head on, how you respond will determine its impact.

So here’s the Straight Talk…

Leadership involves facing adversity and it is the navigation of this adversity that shapes us, sharpens our resolve, and makes us skillful sailors. Whether it is addressing a poor performing team member, executing organizational change, or dealing with someone who just threw you under the bus, adversity can serve as the fuel that propels you to greater heights by simultaneously helping you develop both the competency and the heart to be an effective leader.

So consider this perspective, leading and adversity are inseparable therefore…

EXPECT IT: Although you may be surprised at its origin, do not be surprised you are facing it; especially when you are pushing yourself and your team toward greatness. Set clearly defined outcomes, work with your team to create a path of execution, then brace for any adversity that may come your way; living with the recognition that adversity comes with the territory.

EXPLORE IT: “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.” These words from the philosopher Kierkegaard, provide the perfect framework when dealing with adversity. Face it head on, then when it is over, look back and make note of any lessons learned. Ask questions such as: What would you do differently if this situation came up again? Did you in anyway contribute to the difficulty you faced? Are there any preventive steps you can take to decrease the chances this will happen again?

EMBRACE IT: Irrespective of how you respond, adversity is a great teacher. Embracing adversity doesn’t mean you have to like it, rather it means you recognize its long term value. In the words of Nietzsche (or singer Kelly Clarkson), “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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Back to Basics

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9

With so much written on the subject of leadership, it can be challenging to identify the right pathway to success. Personally, I am always searching and exploring the topic in hopes of finding a nugget of truth to apply to my life and make a more positive impact on my team. Over the years, however, I have reached the conclusion that oftentimes what I am studying is not a new concept or construct, but rather a repackaging of a former idea that has been modernized for a new audience. I have found that in reality there is nothing new under the sun.

Now before you think I have gone off the deep end, please know that I am in no way attempting to discourage you from studying in order to perfect your craft, quite the opposite actually. In my opinion, the restatement of an old idea both validates and demonstrates its value. It’s survival of the test of time increases its relevance and provides a firm foundation for the current generation of leaders.  I am indebted to the great leadership writers of our generation.

Perhaps, however, this repurposing of old ideas is a way of saying that we need less newfangled epiphanies and more return to the basics. Maybe our greatest success as leaders lies in our ability to embrace the simple over the complex, and to remain faithful to a set of tried and true fundamentals.

So here’s the Four One One…

If you want a team that follows you by choice, let the following serve as the four cornerstones of your leadership…

Others First

As simple as it sounds the “others first” attitude stands as the great differentiator between good leaders and great leaders. Always remember, your position carries with it a great deal of power; making it easy to focus on your needs, your success, and what you can accomplish. Great leaders, by contrast, seek the good of the team over their personal good. As Mark Miller writes in his book, The Heart of Leadership, “…your ever present question is not what can you do for yourself; rather it is how can you serve them. When decisions are made, you consider the organization and your people before you weigh the personal consequences.”

Your Word is Your Bond

Before the time of written contracts, a handshake or a spoken word was considered binding; whereas today, so called white lies, half-truths, and broken promises are the norm. As a leader, your words and your deeds must be inextricably linked. Failure to do so will erode your team’s trust and once trust is lost, it can be nearly impossible to recover.  “Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean.” Miguel Angel Ruiz, Author

Own Your Mistakes

Legendary Coach John Wooden wrote,” If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” Perfection may be your goal; nevertheless mistakes will be made during your pursuit.  Your team will be willing to accept your short comings as long as you are willing to admit you have them. Your hard earned reputation can be easily lost when you blame others or make excuses for your mistakes. Application of the Three T’s will serve you well. They are Tell it all, Tell it fast, and Tell the Truth.

Block and Tackle

As a leader it is your responsibility to “block and tackle” for your team; identifying and removing obstacles from their path to success. You sit in the position of power and you must use it for the benefit of your team. Do they have training they need to be successful? Is there a process in place that hinders their ability to perform at a high level? Are there people in the organization making unrealistic demands on your team? Are there conflicting priorities that are immobilizing them?  It is your job as their leader to get answers to these questions, and then use your power to ensure their success. Always remember the immortal words of Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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Looking in the Rearview Mirror

A few months ago my 15 year old daughter received her Learner’s Permit. According to the State of Florida, she can now drive the car as long as a licensed adult is in the car with her.

To be quite honest, this is a milestone of which I am not yet ready to accept. It seems like just yesterday that I was holding her in my arms, singing My Cherie Amour, and crying as I pondered the tremendous responsibility that came with her arrival. Now this bundle of joy that was once completely dependent on me and my wife is driving a car.

Interestingly enough, there is a fundamental difference between my daughter behind the wheel at fifteen and me behind the wheel at fifteen; a difference of which I am very pleased. She is cautious, respectful of the road, and seems to understand that driving brings with it a certain amount of danger. I, on the other hand, being blindly confident, took to the streets like a mad man; believing from the very beginning that I had it all under control.

I remember being out driving one day with my mother in the passenger seat. Although she never said so, her death grip on the arm rest seemed to indicate she was more than a little nervous. Of course, I was cooler than the other side of the pillow; completely oblivious to the fact that this 4000 pound hunk of steel (yes steel, it was the 1970s) could do great damage if I crashed.

At some point during our drive, my mother turned to me and the following conversation took place:

My Mother: Are you doing ok?

Me: Yes.

My Mother: Are you sure?

Me: Yes. Stop worrying, I got this!

My Mother: Ok, but be sure to check your mirrors periodically.

Me: Mirrors? What mirrors?

Looking in the Rearview Mirror

Loosely quoted, the philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, “Life must be lived forward and understood backwards.”  Yet oftentimes we are so focused on the next achievement,  we fail to stop, look in the rearview mirror, and celebrate what was been accomplished.

As you wind down 2013 and before you get too focused on 2014, take a moment to look back and evaluate your impact this past year. Here are a few questions to consider.

Who is in the wake of your influence and how are they doing?

Whether you are a mother, father, teacher, coach, pastor, or CEO, if you have been leading this past year, your influence has been felt by those who follow you. How have they faired under your leadership? Have you created an environment in which they were able to flourish? Did you remove obstacles from their pathway, or were you a hindrance to their success?

Rather than hazard a guess, I suggest you go straight to the source by setting up individual meetings with those you lead. Prior to the meeting, ask them to come prepared with answers to the following three questions.

  1. What is one thing I have not done this year that you would like me to start doing?
  2. What is one thing I have done this year that you would like me to stop doing?
  3. What is one thing I have done this year that you would like me to continue doing?

What has the team accomplished?

The end of the year is usually accompanied by a deep exhale, in some cases figuratively, but often literally. So while everyone is catching their breath, take time to reflect on the accomplishments of the team and celebrate success. Did the team set goals this past year and reach them? Perhaps your goal was to increase teamwork; is there evidence that this occurred?

Do not feel pressure to come up with the list yourself. Ask the team to make a list of accomplishments, and then post them on the wall for everyone to see.

What have been the individual contributions to the team’s success?

It is highly likely that everyone on your team made an individual contribution that led to the team’s success; think individual action, collective power. Send a hand-written note to each member of the team thanking them for their contribution. Try to avoid making blanket statements like, “Thank you for your contribution this year.” The most meaningful recognition is individualized, deserved, and specific.

What individual character traits have you seen exemplified?

Has anyone on the team displayed honesty, integrity, or empathy? How about a drive for results, attention to detail, or holding oneself accountable? Make note of what you have seen and take time to tell your people that you noticed. This is great way to encourage them to continue. Admittedly, character qualities can be more challenging to identify. If you need some ideas to get you started, check out the Character First website at for a great list of character qualities.

So here’s the Four One OneIf you want to increase your team’s desire to follow you in 2014, take the time to recognize them for what they did in 2013?

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