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August 2009


Occasionally, trolling for inspiration, one finds oneself reflecting on various things that can legitimately make leadership and life both easier and more successful. Not short-cuts, but ways through the often encroaching fog of popular misunderstandings, blinkers, and conventional wisdom.

As you go through the following list, my suggestion is to reflect for sure, but find some way of acting on these in the coming weeks. Your actions don’t have to be heroically extreme, just incrementally consistent and focused.

More is changed by actions taken relentlessly, waves lapping at and eroding the shores of our resistance, than through dramatic acts often followed by equally dramatic relapses.

Leadership is shown, most of all, in and by your habits. Those habits in turn are often spawned by generative insights we grapple with enough to act on. Here are a few that deserve such attention…and ensuing action!

Good Ideas Are Tough To Make Happen

You and your team face a roadblock. You use the roadblock as a source of learning, you convert the barriers into insights. You craft a way forward. The idea is bold, but untested. What do you do next?

If you then go to committee with this idea, it will die the death of a thousand cuts, it’ll be hacked into obscurity by every bureaucrat around. Not an enticing prospect…

Alternatively, if you boldly rush out to go where no person has gone before, and it fails, you’ll be assailed by justifiable cries that you should have consulted earlier and generated more consensus.

So where’s the right balance?

Start with setting an action deadline. Then consult fast, consult furiously, but consult those relevant to the idea and critical for its execution.

Consultation is wonderful when you’re gestating an idea over time. Then multiple rounds of prototyping with stakeholders is a super way to tap the widest possible band of intelligence.

But in a challenging situation, when a quick response is needed, the time for this is sharply compressed. Hence you need to prioritize who you will consult and what you will consult them on and for. Narrow the lense, and ask for their input on precise pieces where they have the most insight, and perhaps the most investment.

Beware though, genuinely original ideas (which are rare and are evidenced by the fact that they a) radically address the problem b) often dramatically change the playing field c) frighten the hell out of us as well as others in terms of their bracing implications and d) could change the nature or voltage of key relationships), bring out the worst in people’s defensiveness and second-guessing. In fact, they may well evoke the same in us.

There are so many more good ideas than are ever executed! Most often it’s because we are ourselves intimidated by what they’ll require, or we haven’t faced and taken on the evolution in relationships and interactions the execution will demand.

Pick an idea next week and ignite it, en route to making it happen. Enroll support fast, practice executing it in tandem.

Use this as “resistance training” to thereby stay ready for when the Muse REALLY whispers to you in her coquettish voice and that exhilarating intersection between inspiration and perspiration shows up big time!

Many Things Will Work If We Will Work Them

My wife and I greatly enjoyed the movie JULIE AND JULIA with Meryl Streep. It’s two true stories in one movie.

It is first the story of Julia Child and her life in France and Europe with her husband Paul Child. How she went from designing hats to parlaying her love of food to enrolling in the Cordon Bleu cooking school. As the only woman there, and an American besides, she was ostracized and vilified by many. However her indestructible cheer and passion won over many others. Then with some friends, she spent eight years writing and editing what was to become MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, changing the way Americans perceived food and prepared it, and “democratizing” French cuisine.

Julie Powell was at a dead-end in life, and opted to start a Blog, in which she recounted her experiences cooking her way through all the recipes in Julia Child’s MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING in one year. A huge community and fan base ensued, leading to a book, and now a movie. The movie is highly successful, Powell’s own book has had multiple printings, and due to this initiative, for the first time in the 48 (or so) years since it was published, Julia Child’s book came out as No. 1 in The New York Times Bestseller List in the “How To” category.

Staying in the food industry, last night we attended a very innovative event, put on by a group called OUTSTANDING IN THE FIELD. They travel to farms and other such locations across the US and compose dinners, working with local chefs and local farmers. You tour the farm, a table is beautifully set outdoors, you sit and are served family style, and a truly magical evening is shared. Thanks to the very talented chef from New York’s Allen & Delancey restaurant, we supped on prawn bouillabaisse, grilled lamb belly with mint and goat cheese among other eclectic savory delights.

What started as “Farmer’s Dinners” when founder Jim Denevan started offering them in his restaurant in California, has become a national, and perhaps soon an international phenomenon. They’ve already put on dinners in Florence, and yesterday as we dined, a top Japanese show was filming (with a viewership of about 40 million!). Again, the hobby, the avocation has evolved into a highly successful vocation, arguably now at that much vaunted “tipping point”.

Hugh Macleod reports being adrift, and sitting in a bar starting to doodle listessly on the back of cards. He starting penning insights like “The market for something to believe in is infinite.” These were almost Zen-like koans (not in form, but in elegance, simplicity, and edge). After being an advertising copywriter, he went on to start a blog, Gaping Void, which attracts almost two million monthly visitors. He consults on creativity to numerous comapnies and more than a million people have downloaded his book “How to be Creative.”

And you can go through the lives of artists, entrepreneurs and visionaries and you’ll find the same combinatoin of prototyping an aspect of your passion, learning to execute it beautifully, letting success take its time if it must in catching up to you, and becoming known for something that is authentically and distinctively your own.

And then real leadership resides in making sure, relative to that “something”, there is something truly there. No one can flourish indefinitely by offering what is essentially all facade.

Good Things Sometimes Take Time

Yes, they do. And sometimes they need great stimulus too. I’m fascinated by how internally focused some companies are and how internally inept others are.

What does this have to do with “time”? Hang in there for a few minutes.

Some companies are so process and procedure riddled and driven that they measure progress against largely internal metrics. If they successfully comply with their own plans, they cheer and celebrate. They may be losing share, the market be growing faster than they are, they may have scant profit while others are leapfrogging ahead of them, but they set the bar based on internal realities.

Other companies are so externally driven, that they opportunistically careen this way and that, and ignore the fact that the internal termites are nibbling away at their foundations. These companies may ignore staggering employee turnover, overly centralized decision-making, lack of discipline in key processes, lack of investment in new trends (because no one is actually debating data and trends and what they indicate rather than just running from pillar to post).

Companies need to decide where they want to win, this is an internal area of breakthrough. They then need to align that vision by continuing to “pressure test” it against evolving external realities — in both absolute AND relative terms. They need fixed overall strategies, and emergent highly responsive tactics. They need a dashboard that reports both results in the short term, and progress towards the larger strategic vision over time. Some companies die en route to their vision by ignoring survival in the short term, and many others succeed right into oblivion despite short term success by becoming irrelevant over time or winning in an increasingly isolated niche or being outperformed by upstarts who change the game.

This is an exquisite, hopefully creative tension that has to be maintained over time. We often point out that it is a paradox that things take time AND change can happen in an instant. The paradox is resolved if we dig a little deeper and ferret out the real meaning here. Namely, we can change our intentions, our commitments, our openness at any moment. But for that change to show up in palpable reality, in results, takes time. Results are an aggregate of actions taken consistently enough to really move the needle or change the direction of the vessel.

More personally, take your own aspirations, and advance them productively, incrementally if necessary, but relentlessly, taking all feedback as “data”. Define the battles you will wage courageously and zealously, and also where you will be flexible and adaptable. And don’t confuse the one with the other. People who fight everything, win very little. People who adapt to everyone and everything, become very little.

If each day you make a list of things you “have to do”, “should do (given your role and accountability)” and “want to do (to move your vision forward)”, save some prime-time creative energy for the latter. You’ll do the first batch unless you’re organizationally suicidal. You’ll do the second if you’re a competent professional. But you’ll take on and tackle and advance the third, only if you’re a real leader.

Ask This Question Above All

The question is, “Will this make a difference?”

The next question, “Is the way I’m doing it going to amplify or muffle that positive impact?”

And finally, “Where and when should I draw on others so they can participate in helping us make an even bigger difference?”

A few things to note. We do many things, activity poses for productivity all the time. Always ask if what you’re doing is relevant, meaningful, and the best way to advance the cause. If not, don’t dash into action. The idea is not just to have good ideas, but to take our good ideas and insist on making them better.

This seems to contradict advice that suggests not to wait, but to do something, almost anything to get us beyond inertia, then fix it if we must. Indeed.

So just as there can be a compressed period for consultation, so too can there be for considering the merits of proposed actions and asking how to make a genuinely good idea, truly great.

If honestly it’s something we’ve never done, get going, let experience teach us what we can’t know otherwise, and let’s let mistakes be floodlights on the path to innovation.

If we have done it before, have some experience and knowledge in the area, then rushing out ignoring what we know, is asinine, not innovative. The past shouldn’t limit the future, but it certainly had better inform it.

Once something is, as best we can tell, relevant, meaningful, and cause-advancing and we act on it it — always ask how we can make it more so in each of these categories, but in action. Falling prematurely in love with our own initial execution is like falling in love with the way we first learn to walk. Both can be streamlined, improved and adjusted. An amble is different from a race-walk, each have distinctive dynamics.

Finally, beware of minting inordinate excuses and caveats. Mediocrities look for crutches: Another committee, the need for new IT, state of the art this or that (how many hacks have gleaming Macs, how many dilettantes take few photos but have shining next-generration cameras, how many corporate chumps preen at country club A or gathering B as if “significance” was measured not by your contribution but by your environs?). Real leaders find ways, they mobilize existing resources (while campaigning where they must for additional ones), they make progress, they enroll support. They are chemists yes (in terms of understanding their available organizational resources), but also alchemists (in that they can leverage what there is in ways that are more powerful than others can imagine).

Above all then, real leaders insist on spending the bulk of their time on things that make a difference, done in ways that amplify the difference, with other people in ways that allows those other people to be a part of that difference. Such leaders always seek to enliven and vivify a larger story — one others wish to participate in.

In this way, we turn barriers into bridges whenever possible.


Insights are like cars. You have to turn them on, you have take them out for test drives, you have to fill up their tanks with your actions and commitment, you have to get them proactive maintenance through working with others and tooling up your own skills and education, and you have to know when to pause at “Stop” signs and when to really let them rip when you have a clear highway in front of you.

Take the insights above out for a test drive; test their brakes too, but most critically, shift them into different gears with progress being primary. Above all, keep journeying…in the direction of your company’s vision, your personal leadership commitments and, in synergy with these, towards your own personal dreams.