Unexpected Gift of the Pause

Yesterday was the perfect day for a ride. The weather was as bright and inviting as my blank calendar.  So, I manufactured several errands, put on my new boots, slid on the most comfortable helmet I owned and started my motorcycle.

The last thing I do before setting out on a ride of any length is to pause, bike in neutral rumbling beneath me, check the mirrors and take a long, deep breath. Relaxed, focused, smiling, I shift into first gear, ease the clutch, twist the throttle, and I’m free.

Yesterday’s ride did not disappoint.  As always, the trip reveals as much about me as about the space between stops and towns.  And yesterday’s did not disappoint.

On a particularly beautiful stretch of narrow road, winding along the rugged shoreline of the Puget Sound, I slowed, downshifted and braked behind an early model blue Fire Explorer.  Well, I think it was blue under a decade of dirt and moss.

The driver, head barely visible, drove cautiously, brake lights illuminated, at half the speed limit.  Half. For miles. Old Explorer

I’m a big fan of passing people.  It’s a sport. I also like guessing what the driver looks like before overtaking. I think drivers should match their vehicles. It’s a thing. I’m not judging, just observing. (Okay, sometimes I judge.)

But, nothing remotely approaching a safe, or safe-ish, opportunity to pass Filthy Frank’s Ford, so I stayed behind.  For a hundred miles. Or, maybe a mile.  Time moved as slowly as he did.

And, I became impatient. Then, irritated. My jaw tightened, my gaze intensified, and my hands clenched. My full-face helmet covered my one-sided conversation. Places to go! People to see!  What is your deal? How unaware are you??

After another hundred miles (or yards), it occurred to me that this reality-enforced slow down might be a gift.  I was not actually in a hurry to be anywhere or to see anyone.  Everything in my day on this ride was optional. So, I took another deep breath, hung back another 50 feet, relaxed my grip, and noticed. I noticed the sky, the shore at low tide, the spring blossoms. I noticed the smell of fresh, salty air and of a barbecue.  Saw a father and daughter standing on a dock as the little girl waved. I enjoyed the perfect rumble of the bike beneath me.

Eventually, Filthy Frank’s Ford slowed more and turned right cautiously, ever so cautiously, down a side road. As he did, I felt vaguely grateful for the gift he imposed on me. And, I was reminded again that constraints can be good.

As his mossy Explorer disappeared, I did not feel the urge to roll the throttle and test the limits of physics again. Rather, I found myself doing what I set out to do. I simply enjoyed the ride.

Today, you may encounter slow moving people, plans or projects.  Perhaps the constraint imposed by others is a gift.  For now.


Focus on Where You Want to Be

See the obstacles. Look at them and then look past them. Prepare for corners by slowing down a little.  Look where you want to be.  Look as far ahead as you can. Accelerate through the corner. Lean in. Trust the bike.

Most riders prefer, indeed live for, corners. A winding, sloping road is always better than a flat, wide straightaway.

Roads, and rides, that demand all of my attention, all of my focus and skill, are a thing a beauty.  Inspiring. Engaging. Invigorating.

Inexperienced riders forget to slow slightly before corners. They fixate on obstacles and think, “Don’t hit the pothole. Don’t hit the pothole.”  Thump!  They hit the pothole.  Target fixation is what we call this behavior.  It’s never good. Looking at an object results in small adjustments in balaTriumph Bonnience, small changes in focus.  And, when we look at obstacles we want to avoid, this phenomenon results in bad outcomes.

Life feels like a ride. The corners are better than mind-numbing routine. Uphill, worthwhile work that demands total focus, total engagement, is worth all the effort it requires.

But, like the ride, I’ve learned to slow down before corners, see the obstacles, look at where I want to be rather than at what I need to avoid, lean in, and power through.

The ride has taught me to be clear about my goals.  And, it’s taught me to prepare for corners, glance at obstacles without fixating on them, trust and power through.

Enjoy the ride.

Leaders of Leaders (of Leaders)

Much has been written about becoming an effective leader. I’ve even contributed a few thousand pages to the digital and paper hurricane on the topic. Whether looking for common sense tools or searching for how to create core competencies, there is an unending safari in search of guidance on the development and execution of fundamental leadership skills. I’ve benefited greatly from the wise counsel of Leadership Sherpas and from unwise bumbling examples of The Powerfully Incompetent over the years. I’m grateful.  Thank you, regardless of the category to which you belong.

On my cross-country and cross-discipline leadership safaris, I’ve found and studied theIMG_0133 rarest kind of leader: the leader that leads other strong, successful leaders of leaders. “Leaders of leaders of leaders” are rare, difficult to find, and more difficult to study. The characteristics that make them effective also make them difficult to spot in an overcrowded, noisy world. Like an elusive tiger in the wild, when I’ve stumbled across them, they enthrall. Their power and grace are a thing of beauty surpassed only by the vast impact, often uncredited, that follows in their path.

Leaders (let’s call them L-1s) create clarity and manage alignment among committed, capable and engaged teams. They are results oriented. Nothing of significance occurs without them. Nothing improves, nothing changes unless we have leaders.

Leaders of Leaders (L-2s) inspire, instruct, and create complex interlocking strategies multiplying impact across robust organizations, professions or industries. They are the ones who take a concept in an existing market or culture and align groups with complementary interests to make the ideas better. Often, much better.

Leaders of Leaders of Leaders (I know, awkward but let’s call them L-3s) are a different breed altogether.

They invent new worlds and shift old ones. Their impact crosses generations. They stand at the crossroads of history because they created them.

Societies at large, and individuals, in particular, owe the quality of life they enjoy largely to these invisible L-3s. We need them but, like the elusive creature deep in an ecosystem around which other species pivot, they are difficult to find and more difficult to study.

In our treks across the jungles of society, we’ve begun to identify a few of their characteristics. So, in honor of their profound impact, and because of their impressive beauty, I’m sharing what we’ve found:

L-3s are particularly comfortable in the company of strong leaders with large personalities and defined visions. They rarely feel out of place in the company of Titans. They authentically and affectionately communicate the truth mostly in the form of questions. They are energized by complexity, clashing strategies, intense passions and never feel the need to be seen as powerful, right or important.

These tigers are, like most leaders, capable of seeing the big picture but are especially, even uniquely capable of sliding that big picture into the future. They know how to time-travel with complexity. They don’t predict the future as much as imagine it in great detail, with Technicolor brilliance. And, they are compelled by what “could be.” And they set about creating it.

What others see as threats, they see as an opportunity. This includes financial challenges, tectonic cultural shifts, and even threatening personalities. They have high “fight” responses but lack the anger, bitterness and kill-or-be-killed motives when leaning into difficulty. Life is not a war but a sport. Life does not happen to them but through them.
They are intensely unselfish. Their own needs simply never occur to them. They sometimes seem personally rumpled as they focus on engaging, empowering, correcting, and multiplying the effectiveness of other Leaders (1s and 2s). With pure motive they cheer, clap, and slap other high impact leaders who invite them to do it again.

They are not as much “behind the scenes” as ahead of the scenes, even creating the scenes in which others will star. They are the Preamble to Greatness.

They are acutely aware of relationship and causal connections to the third and fourth degree. Every relationship represents other very real relationships and they move among the tight and loosely connected web of people and perspectives with gentile, and only rarely severe, gestures. They are aware of the reverberated impacts of action (or inaction) and carefully invite others to see what they see.

They think of themselves as responsible. As stewards. They are voraciously curious and laugh with giddy joy at regular discoveries. Every conversation, every email, every waking moment is infused with attentive humble curiosity.

They know how to lose so that others can win. And win big. They shun the spotlight, not from a sense of false humility, but because they deeply admire those whose hands are on the tools, mops, and machines of society. Their anger, a rare thing, is calculated and white-hot, focused only on injustice. It is reserved for Leaders (L-1s, and L-2s) who squander the passion of those under their stewardship.

They candidly dare others to be great. They are tireless. In every aspect of their life, their energy is boundless. They are utterly reliable. In my encounters with these amazing people, I’ve never seen them drop even the smallest ball. Phone calls are returned, emails handled, bills paid, apologies made, gratitude felt and expressed. Relentlessly. They make promises carefully and fulfill them without fail. They get to “yes” quickly, regardless of the complexity of the challenge.

Their deepest joy in life arises from contending with the discomfort created by gaps between grand vision and granular reality; by marshaling and focusing impossibly difficult personalities with selfish clutches on resources; by creating the stage on which the future actors (L-1s and L-2s) will star in yet-to-be-written plays.

It’s likely that you have seen one of these people in your life. Perhaps two. When I meet them, I’m in quiet awe of their impact. I’m most intrigued by their assumptions and mental models. I’m curious about what they think is true and True. In my experience, they freely share. So, if you know one of these Mentors of the Mighty, take time to slow down and admire as I’ve done. The time with them leaves me slightly more curious, slightly more humble, significantly more courageous and inspired.

Good hunting.


Reality, Deflected

Winter in the Seattle area is often wet and cold.  It does not compare to the extremes in other northern regions, but it does have a bluntness all its own.  Yesterday was such a day.  I decided to ride my Harley Davidson Street Glide the 25 minutes from my house to my happy place at Rottweiler Motorcycle Company (www.rmco.us).  I felt all of the 38 degrees and most of the rain within the first mile.  Joined by Donnie riding his Sportster, I left the back roads for the freeway cruising at 70 mph for the last leg of the ride. We arrived partly wet, mostly cold, and completely invigorated.  The best way to start the day.

Street Glide

“That was great!” I said, grinning and shaking the water off of my jacket.

“I’m sure it was,” Donnie responded.  “Better for you because you have a reality deflector,” he said pointing at the Street Glide’s bat-wing fairing.  We laughed.  Well, I laughed and went about our morning.

A Reality Deflector.  Donnie’s experience of reality on our many miles riding together is different than mine.  Bugs and rocks are real things to him.  I don’t even know most of them exist.  His bike has no windshield, no fairing.  As headwinds buffet him, I barely notice them.  My bike’s V-Twin engine is also nearly twice the size of his Sportster’s.  My experience of acceleration, hills and passing lanes are also different.

“A Reality Deflector.” The comment rolled around in my thoughts throughout the day.  I like my Reality Deflector.  It diverts the wind and part of the rain.  It makes the ride a little more quiet and bug-free.  It keeps small rocks from bouncing off of my hands and chest.  It looks cool.  It works.

Deflected reality is sometimes great!  But, what if it is not a good thing?  What if I create other Reality Deflectors that work against me? 

In the three decades I’ve been working with Influencers and Leaders across the country, I’ve observed the most effective ones all have at least one thing in common: They are driven by a voracious curiosity about how things really are.  They use very few Reality Deflectors in their pursuit of impact.

Since Reality is sometimes uncomfortable, I have developed several ways to deflect it.  I can Delay Reality by looking the other way.  I can Discount it by telling myself, “It’s not all that bad (or good).”  I can Decorate it by looking at only the beautiful parts.  I can Deny it by negating all objective measures.  I could even Drink it away, supported by the delicious single malt, aged Scotch industry.  But, Reality is relentless.

So, I’ve learned (too slowly) to embrace it.  To lean into it.  To look at it.  To experience it fully.  I’ve learned to choose the adventure of Reality over the comfort of deflection.  This lesson may make me a better friend, father, grandfather, and leader.  It may allow me to make better decisions.  It certainly makes me less proud.

Reality Deflectors can keep me from genuinely listening.  Or, from deeply understanding.  They divert my attention and make me less curious.  They prevent me from connecting the dots in complex situations, and they may result in stupid decisions.  My indiscriminate use of Reality Deflectors may also make me unwilling, even unable, to enter into genuine debate and result in a prejudiced and tribal lifestyle.

I wonder if Reality Deflectors are in full operation when the fringes shout at each other in social media or on Fox News or CNN.  Or when parents scream at their children.  Or when coworkers gossip about each other.

Of course, sometimes Reality Deflectors are crucial.  Sometimes gloves, helmets, sunscreen and anti-lock brakes are essential.  Buffering the damaging effects of Reality is one of the most significant benefits of civilized cultures.  Don’t get me wrong: I ride with vigilant confidence knowing my jeans have Kevlar woven into the denim.

But, sometimes Reality is exactly what I need.  Directly experiencing the Reality of a different worldview or opinion, or measurements contrary to my emotions, is precisely what I need.  It changes me.  It changes my decisions and investments of time, talent, and money.  Such experiences frustrate me at first, but then fuel me.  The Reality that my performance at a task, for example, is below average rather than stellar embarrasses, then frustrates, then inspires me.  The Reality that I am not as active at communicating as I think feels a lot like a cold wind on my neck.  And, that Reality is not always delivered in a warm, dry, and delicately scented experience.  But I need it.  So, I’m taking stock of the Reality Deflectors in my habits and lifestyle.  Some of them, I’ll set aside.  Some, I’ll keep.

To be candid, I am still going to ride my Street Glide.  I’m still going to wear a full-face helmet and water resistant jacket in the Seattle winter.  And, I’m still going to enjoy a glass of Glenfiddich 15, one ice cube, please.  I’m still going to enjoy my Xbox (thank you, Jon and Kylie!!).  But, thanks to Donnie’s slightly satirical comment, I am now just a little more aware of those Reality Deflectors I’ve installed in my life that makes it harder to learn, love and lead.

Time to ride, fairing, gloves, full-face helmet and all.


Look at Your Feet. Take the Next Step.

My soul is drawn to the mountains here in the Pacific Northwest.  I am less than an hour away from world-class trailheads.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles hiked have mapped and organized many of my life’s most poignant moments.  As with the trails, subtle introspectively prompted pivots have opened panoramic vistas of gratitude.  Steep inclines and uncooperative rock faces created endurance where little existed.

Olympic Trail

Complex climbs taught me that determination is not theoretical but exists in small acts of will, one step at a time.  Many adventures started with a clear and compelling idea of where I wanted to end up.  The mountain peak, cascading waterfall or razor ridge invited my imagination.  Clarity and curiosity blended to urge me upward.

Most adventures require imagination and a great deal of intentional, gritty effort.  The ridge is crested only after thousands of well-placed steps and hundreds of small, resolute acts.

As a leader, much of my work follows a similar rhythm.  I imagine the end result and its panoramic benefit.  I convince another person to join me.  Then, I convince myself to take the next step.  Again and again.

Thoughtful and extraordinary leaders I’ve known carefully consider the value planning and work at doing it well.  Some have even learned to strategically position their teams to take advantage of rugged, boulder-strewn journeys of opportunity.  A few, however, when faced with grand challenges, find themselves paralyzed.  They are tired, underfunded, overwhelmed, overstimulated or afraid.  The mountaintop calls but they cannot move their feet.

I have experienced this sensation and learned to apply the disciplines of the trail.  First, I work to become clear about the end result, the destination, the outcome, and benefits.  I have learned to take the time to imagine the goal in the fullest sense.  To visualize the sounds, smells, people, feelings, benefits, joys and impacts of the mountaintop of accomplishment.

Then, and this is crucial, rather than creating an overly-detailed strategy with specific steps, turns and details in advance, I pick a general route to success and merely take the next step.

After a few steps in the project, I look up, momentarily revisit the destination and general route, then look at my feet and take the next step.

As I’ve come to know many interesting and impactful leaders, I’ve been struck by this:  They always know the next step to take.  Regardless of how complicated the journey, or of how daunting the road ahead, they know the next step. And they take it.  Following their model has served me well.

As you face a challenge or a mountain range of challenges, look down at your feet.  What is the next step?  Take it.  Look up, look around, look down, and take the step.  Repeat.

Occasionally, we need to carefully choose the next step.  The risk of a misstep is too high, so we decide wisely and step accurately.  But, we take the step.  Other times, we can glance at the trail and move ahead with little risk and attention.  But, in both situations, we take the next step.

When the ridge is too high, or too far away, and when the environment pushes back, look down and take the next step.

Then take another.  This is the discipline of the trail.  And it leads to the achievement. This is also how you and I make it to the top of that ridge in the Olympic Mountain range in Washington State.  Look up, look down, and take the next step.


Speed Bumps and Mental Models


Our brain is primarily a survival mechanism.  You are reading this, so yours is working.  Its drives and mechanisms are fundamentally about survival. Therefore, our brain conserves energy. And, it is very good at it.

The survival system is augmented by a habit system. Its purpose is to turn decisions, actions, and complexity into pre-programmed habits, each requiring almost no energy to process. Test it. Get someone’s attention and toss him your keys. Without flinching, without conscious complex decision-making, and without an act of will, he will simply catch the keys. Habit. If he is a stranger, you may lose your keys, so apply just a bit of judgment here.  Or not, and tell the story later.  Your choice.

Above the habit system is our brain’s goal system. Its purpose is to focus, decide, plan and execute. It is the system that imagines a different future and acts to get it. It is the slowest and most energy-intensive of our systems. If you are concentrating on these words right now and finishing each sentence before your eyes get to the period, you are using this system. If your mind wandered as you read these words and now just realized it, you were in your survival system. If you got up, poured a cup of coffee, returned to a comfortable seat, without spilling the coffee while you thought of buying a different car, you were in your habit system. Pretty amazing.

The survival system is the default in our brain. Think of it this way: our brain only does what it needs to do to survive unless prompted (intensely) to shift up into the habit or goal system.

With this understanding, let’s think about your mental models. They are the constructs of reality we have created. They are proximate models of ourselves, our family and friends, and of the world around us. They help us organize, without overly dense detail, the world around us. They are just accurate enough to enable us to make it through our days and years.

speed bump

Have you experienced any conflict, any bumps in the road, recently? Good. Those speed bumps, or sharp left-hand turns, are an invitation to see your mental models more clearly, to learn and adjust them. Your brain will not naturally look at mental models unless prompted to do so. It takes too much concentration, too much energy. Rather, like the lenses on eyeglasses, we look through them and are largely unaware of their influence on what we see.

Imagine that someone ignores your suggestion (or even your directive). This action is a prompt to pump the brakes and think about your mental models. It’s a mental speed bump. Rather than downshifting and powering over the person, slow down and look at your mental models. You may, like Cartman on SouthPark, want to shout, “You will respect my authoritah!” But, slow down for a moment.

What is your authority? Where does it come from? Why do you think that person should “respect” it? Can you be effective even if someone does not respect your authority? Can you be effective without authority?

Speed bumps, from minor inconveniences to outright conflict, give us an opportunity to check our mental models.Don’t miss the opportunity.Take advantage of these interruptions because your assumptions were built over time and they will only be updated through the speed bumps of conflict.

It’s possible you have had one or two of these speedbumps of conflict today.  See them for what they are: a very low-cost way of updating your mental models.


Ten Characteristics of Excellent Performance Standards

As a Leader, clear performance standards are your best friend. Memorable and meaningful standards are linked to the rationale that created them.  The “why” behind the standard must be tattooed on the brain of every team member.  Effective Leaders link expected behaviors and tasks to standards by talking about the relationship dozens of times a week.

Performance standards differ from goals.  Standards are completely within our control.  Goals are mostly, sometimes only partly within our control.  When your team knows the standards they are to achieve, and when they have effective training in support of those standards, your work as a Leader is made less complicated.  In the absence of such standards, inconsistency reigns and strong personalities are in charge.  Have you been there?  I have.  It’s no fun. standards-performance

Whenever conflict arises, check to see if you have clear standards that inform the conflict.  If not, create them, test them and implement away!  Then, if clear standards exist, use them as the arbiter of the conflict.

All good performance standards have many of the following ten characteristics:

Clear performance standards are easy to understand.  They contain concise terminology and leave no question as to their essence. Everyone knows exactly what the standard is and how to achieve it.

Clear performance standards are directly related to the explicit values of the organization.  It is easy to see how the standard expresses one of your organization’s core values.

Clear performance standards relate directly to the mission.  The organization’s mission should be a realistic, concise, and focused statement of the purpose of your work.  The mission should be able to be accomplished.  It differs from an expansive vision statement in that everyone should be able to say how they accomplish it daily.  Performance standards are the leading measurements of the work of the mission.

Clear performance standards must be supported by tools and technology. Standards that are not are incredibly frustrating.  If tools and technology create unnecessary friction in the work, or if the processes are not lean, the standards are less meaningful. l They become a joke to the team.

Clear performance standards are measurable. Performance measurements must be consistent and easily captured.  They must occur regularly and as close to the point of the performance as possible.  Measurements that report performance from last year, last month or last week are much less helpful than those that report my performance in real time. Think of the difference between a bathroom scale and a Fitbit.  The scale measures what happened in the past, one donut at a time.  The Fitbit measures activity as it happens, at the source.

Clear performance standards measurements must inspire confidence. The measurements themselves must be reliable and meaningful.  We need to trust that the numbers are accurate and that they measure the right things.  This inspires confidence.  Think carefully about how you measure success.  Most team members love keeping score but loathe doing so about things that don’t matter or in an unreliable manner.

Clear performance standards are attainable. Most team members are able to attain the standards all the time.  Carefully reserve 100% standards for those themes where absolute achievement is essential.  Set 90% standards, or year-over-year improvement standards, for the rest.

Clear performance standards are trainable.  Your training approach can replicate the skill in anyone you hire, regardless of aptitude, personality or haircut.  Never hold the team to a standard that is not supported by training.  Expecting the team to learn it on their own means it is a performance goal rather than a standard.  If standards are not being met, look first to training.  It is likely your solution will be found there.

Performance standards are consistent.  As you develop and use clear performance standards, ensure the supervisory team uses them consistently.  Inconsistency about performance standards is incredibly frustrating, especially to high performers.

Finally, clear performance standards are not in conflict with one another.  If achieving one performance standard makes it impossible to achieve another, neither will work. Look closely at conflicts and resolve them.

Once you have clear and meaningful performance standards, your entire work as a leader gets easier.  All challenges are met in the context of these standards.