Category Archives: Contemplation

When Leaders Insulate: The Dangers of Corrosive Privilege

I recently read a fascinating article by Rebecca Solnit on how being born to privilege has had a corrosive effect on Donald Trump and his presidency. She discusses the ways an individual raised in a protected bubble of wealth and power becomes isolated from the rest of the world. After reading Solnit’s piece, it’s evident that the trappings she associates with Trump can become obstacles for all leaders. Here are three lessons that sound out:

Setbacks

We gain awareness of ourselves and others from setbacks and difficulties; we get used to a world that is not always about us.—Rebecca Solnit

There is a mentality amongst some leaders that acknowledging failure is a weakness. As a result, they shift responsibility (i.e. blame others) so they are no longer accountable, artificially reframe setbacks as new opportunities, and/or outright change the end-goal so the outcome can now be viewed as a win.

While “not failing” may feel good, it is a false sense of satisfaction. Leaders must build the thick skin necessary to accept and learn from disappointment without carrying the weight of feeling like a failure. Otherwise we risk becoming overly sensitive and brittle, unequipped to make the adjustments necessary to rebound and adapt.

As leaders, we must also allow others to fail. Solnit writes of rich college kids who are not allowed to fail because their parents “[keep] throwing out safety nets and buffers” that protect them from experiencing adversity. As nice as this may sound, when we live without consequences, our lives become inconsequential—we cannot feel the highs of achievement without also having faced the lows of failure.

Self-Reflection

Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it.—Rebecca Solnit

In Hannah Arendt’s book On the Origins of Totalitarianism, she promotes the need for an inner dialogue where we can cross-examine ourselves, where we can ask the difficult questions. If we can master this skill, we are better equipped to have these discussions with the people around us. If we lack the ability to self-interrogate, we are prone to suffer from, what Arendt calls, the banality of evil, i.e. “the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself, or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.”

Obliviousness

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society.—Rebecca Solnit

We need people in our lives who have the ability to provide unfiltered commentary. These individuals cannot be fearful of repercussions, nor can they hold back in the hopes of gaining some type of advantage. They must be willing to give it to us straight and we must be open to what they are saying. Otherwise, we risk becoming oblivious.

Obliviousness is not a sign of low intelligence, but an indication that the leader is sequestered from information that runs counter to their viewpoint. It tends to happen over time as we weed out those who are the bearers of bad news, those who are perceived as not being “on board,” and those who are damaging our precious self-esteem with their critique. Before we know it, we are surrounded by yes-men and sycophants who tell us what we want to hear versus what we need to hear. In the end, not only are we alone, but their biased feedback has infected us with delusional thinking, faulty decision making, and a general lack of insight into how our team and the population-at-large are feeling.

Being in a position of power can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to. Leaders must seek and foster relationships outside of their power structure. Our associates keep us honest. They ensure we remain grounded and in touch with reality. And they provide the feedback, criticism, and advice that, while not preferable, is essential to avoiding the impairments of corrosive privilege.

The OODA Loop: Your “Lasso of Truth” for Enhanced Decision Making

What makes Wonder Woman such a fierce warrior? We can chalk it up to her royal lineage or her upbringing as the princess of the Amazons, but it really comes down to her mission-driven, strategic mindset. She is able to break down a problem, formulate a new plan, and flawless execute. Famed military strategist John Boyd believes we can do the same.

In the 1960s, Boyd developed a strategic tool called the OODA Loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This four-step decision-making process provides a systematic method for addressing uncertainty with a strategy for winning direct competitions. It does so by helping us categorize and organize the ways we think about our environment. And those who make it through all four stages the quickest, wins.

Wonder Woman is a fighter, better than most, but it’s what she fights for that is important. It’s her vision of a future of peace and acceptance that makes her the right ambassador for everyone.—Gal Gadot

Leaders are surrounded with ambiguity. When circumstances change, too often we fail to shift our outlook, instead continuing to see the world as it was. Then, when our old outlook doesn’t work, we keep trying to force it to work. To overcome this ineffective cycle, we need to adapt our outlook so we can deal with the actual reality. That is where the OODA Loop comes in.

The OODA Loop illustrates a process to help us learn, develop, and thrive in an ever-shifting environment. Let’s break down each step.

Observe

The first step in the OODA Loop is to observe. This involves absorbing new information about our environment, maintaining a strong sense of situational awareness, and remaining open to change. Intellectual curiosity is the key.

From an Amazonian warrior’s standpoint, observing is remaining in a state of relaxed alert where while there’s no specific threat, you are taking in your surroundings in both a relaxed and alert manner. For the rest of us, observation requires us to be diligently aware of internal and external opportunities and threats. To do so, we need to keep track of revenue, expenses, and profit but also industry trends, company culture, and the overall business environment.

It is not necessarily the one with more information who will come out victorious, it is the one with better judgment, the one who is better at discerning patterns.—Frans P.B. Osinga, Science, Strategy, and War

Orient

The second step is considered to be the focal point of the OODA Loop. Orientation shapes the ways we interact with, observe, react to, and behave towards our environment. Just as Wonder Woman cannot approach every adversary with the same tactical strategies, we cannot approach every situation as if they are constant. Effective orientation involves a process called destructive deduction where we shatter old paradigms so as to put them back together in a way that is more closely aligned to our current reality, i.e. creative induction.

To improve your orientation:

Start shattering and rebuilding your paradigms. The more you do it, the better you’ll be.

Never stop orienting. Deductive destruction and creative induction is not a one-time event; it is a continual process of updating outdated mindsets to fit the changing environment.

Validate new paradigms before enacting them. Utilize past experiences to determine what has worked in similar situations, study best practices, and brainstorm with the team. Then you are ready for the next two steps in the OODA Loop.

Decide

Once we’ve observed, deductively destroyed, and creatively induced, it is time to decide on the course of action. This involves moving forward with our best hypothesis about the paradigm we feel will be most beneficial. To avoid this step is to remain unfocused and aimless. To tackle it, we are indicating that we are ready for the next step.

Act

Action is how we learn whether our hypothesis is correct. If it is, Wonder Woman wins the battle and we overcome our obstacle; if it is not, we start the OODA Loop again using our newly observed knowledge.

Whether you are an Amazonian princess or a mild-mannered supervisor, we must have a clear, applicable process to cut through uncertainty so we can make quick decisions in an organized manner. The OODA Loop (or Lasso of Truth for you Wonder Woman fans) makes this typically implicit practice explicit through an easy to follow method. It’s a wonder you haven’t used it yet.

Why Leaders Should Be More Like Ebenezer Scrooge: A Five Step Process

a_christmas_carolThe story of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of my favorite holiday traditions. As much as I’d like to say that I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year, in truth I read it once, really liked it, and have since made a ritual of watching Scrooged with Bill Murray. With every viewing of this movie plus the multitude of other renditions, I wonder why calling someone a “Scrooge” is such a bad thing.

As leaders, we should strive to be Scrooges. If this sounds wrong that’s because you are focusing on the pre-Christmas Ebenezer. That guy is a selfish, egotistical miser who says things like, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be…buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” But this is not the message of A Christmas Carol, it is simply the beginning.

A Christmas Carol is the story of self-improvement. It’s about learning from your past, having foresight into your future, and making the changes necessary in the present. This is not a feel-good self-affirmation; it’s a motivator to introspectively pick apart our flaws and work towards becoming a better person.

We can’t be forced to change our ways. There is no Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come to serve as a catalyst for evolving. Our fate will not be on display to pressure us into an epiphany. All we have is inner drive. Unfortunately, the determination to change is not enough; our bad habits are too embedded into our psyche. Therefore, according to Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model, we need to follow these five steps to make positive behavioral changes that stick.

  1. Precontemplation. In this first stage, we are Scrooge on December 23rd–making a change has been the farthest thing from our mind. The signs have been all around us, but we’ve fought or just ignored them.
  2. Contemplation. In this stage we’ve begun to think about the need to change a behavior. The impetus is different for everyone. For some it takes a particular event to wake us up, like Scrooge’s surprise visit from his deceased business partner Jacob Marley. For others it involves years of deliberation.
  3. Determination. Now we begin to mentally prepare for action. While Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning with a new outlook on life, we may download a new calendar app or buy running shoes. This stage involves mapping out our plan of attack and scheduling a start date. This culmination of willpower is the resolve to change and the fuel needed to attain your goals.
  4. Action. Time to activate your plan. Give Bob Cratchit a raise. Get medical assistance for Tiny Tim. Start moving!
  5. Maintenance. Day 1 of a new behavior is easy; true change takes persistence. Scrooge wasn’t just a more virtuous person on December 25th. As the book states, “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more… He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man…” Maintenance involves continuing to chase your goal every day, with every decision, and every deed. It requires that we uphold a high life-condition where our changed belief continues to manifest as action. Create short milestones so you can appreciate the sense of accomplishment and reward yourself along the way.

Want to be a better leader? Be a Scrooge—remain in a constant state of self-improvement. Want to be a better leader? Be a Jacob Marley—guide others towards elevating their skills and performance. And if you really want to be a better leader, be a Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come—foster a culture where people can learn from their mistakes, understand the repercussions, and make changes before its too late. Or say, “Ba-Hum-Bug” and suffer the consequences.

Weekender: Veronica Roth on Strategically Organizing Your Thoughts

veronica-roth-2Welcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a faction of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just one faction? Because it’s the weekend!

When I take on a new project, my initial reaction is to jump into it…and by “jump” I mean headfirst without examining the depth or temperature of the water. I hear an idea that excites me and it takes all of my willpower to slow down, assess the situation, and develop a plan. It turns out that author Veronica Roth has experienced the same thing.

A few years ago, some friends suggested I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. The premise had me by the end of the first chapter—a post-apocalyptic Chicago where citizens are segregated into one of five factions as defined by personality traits. With the complex plot and growing cast of characters, it can get difficult to keep track of everything going on. Apparently, this is true for both the reader and the author. In a recent interview, Roth said:

I learned a lot from writing the Divergent books, like ‘plan ahead,’ and ‘keep track.’ I loved writing those books, but by the time I got to Allegiant [the third book in the series], I was like, ‘I have set myself up with some very difficult rules because I didn’t think this through.’ I was definitely a little bit more flying by the seat of my pants with the Divergent books. This time [with my new series Carve the Mark], I was like, ‘No, you’re going to think through these planets, how they work, what they look like, what they’re called, how these languages work, all of these things. Figure it out.’

We could discuss the need for a solid implementation plan via project management practices, but knowledge of the project specifics is only a piece of the preparation process. Time must be set aside to organize your thoughts.

Some people organize their thoughts through spreadsheets; others (like myself) plot it out in charts and diagrams. Some start at the beginning; others work backwards. Some involve people from the onset; others wait until they have a skeleton of a plan. The point is to be methodical and purposeful. Think it through, consider consequences, and have the details in order before it’s time to launch.

Too Many Television Choices? How Leaders Can Avoid Faulty Decision Making (and a Jam-Packed DVR)

Tvs bannerI’ve really enjoyed this summer. Unlike the rest of the year, summer is the one time when I don’t feel pressure to keep my television viewing current. My DVR is not on the brink of overflow and I can leisurely catch up on programs I’ve missed without worrying that someone will spoil it. But fall is coming and with it is a whole lotta of new TV.

My issues are of my own doing. I don’t have to watch all of my shows; there is just so much good television. I both can’t keep up and I really, really want to. Therefore, to ease up on this unnecessary, leisure-time pressure, I’ve decided to remove some shows from my viewing rotation. Making this resolution is easy; keeping it is not.

There is simply too much television… [The audience] is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of shows.—John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks

How do I decide what shows to abandon? I have two that are wrapping up this year, so I can’t miss their conclusion. Three are frequently referenced at work, so I can’t cut myself out of the break room chatter. Others make me think, are reserved for family time, or are simply too good to ignore. And let’s not forget about the promising new shows coming out.

With so many shows to pick from, I don’t want to choose the wrong ones. This quandary is not uncommon. Numerous studies have concluded that we often make a bad decision when presented with too many options.

In a recent experiment, acclaimed neuroscientist Paul Glimcher asked participants to choose one candy bar amongst those offered, including their favorite, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, an Almond Joy, and a Milky Way, the Snickers was always chosen. However, when participants were offered twenty candy bars, including Snickers, they frequently picked a candy bar other than the Snickers. This may not seem unusual except that when Glimcher removed all the choices except the selected candy and the Snickers, a significant number of participants were unsure why they chose a candy bar other than their favorite.

Malcolm Gladwell’s classic Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking discussed an overcrowded hospital Emergency Room in Chicago that had too many patients, not enough doctors, cramped space, an inadequate number of beds, and scarce resources. Finding that over thirty patients a day came in complaining of having a heart attack, the hospital conducted a study. They found that…

…extra information is more than useless. It’s harmful. It confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.

And in a 2004 study, Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar concluded that extensive choices in retirement funds hinder purchasing decisions and decrease subsequent satisfaction with the purchased plan. Using data from 800,000 employees, Iyengar and her team found 75% participation when offered two 401k plans, but it dropped to 70% when eleven plans were offered and 61% when there were 59 plans. Then, once the employees with more options chose their plan, many opted out or chose lower-return plans.

Consumers are saying that greater choice does not always lead to a better experience.—Jonathan Hurd, Altman Vilandrie & Company Director

Thankfully, there are ways we can sift through the options to improve our decision making. Consider the following:

What’s the problem? Before getting lost in the infinite number of solutions, spend more time defining the problem. You can then concentrate on a clearer, more distinct objective.

Narrow it down. Since decision making is hampered by feeling overwhelmed from an excessive number of options, begin by removing the undesirable choices. This will minimize distractions and allow you to focus on the best decision.

Rank it. Once you have a list of the best possible solutions, make a pro/con list. Order them by favorability consult with your team, and carefully analyze the data.

Do your due diligence. Time pressures are a sure path to faulty decision making. A sense of urgency is necessary, but allow yourself time to weigh your options before committing.

Don’t let an overwhelming number of options harm your decision making. Remain vigilant of the impact this can have on you and your team. Like my clean DVR cue, maintain a clean approach to how you organize your thoughts. With a little discipline, it can be as easy as pressing delete.