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November 2008


Here are a smattering of leadership insights and musings that can serve as a compass for us as we seek to grapple with the world and influence it through our leadership.


This was Hemingway’s description of how one goes bankrupt. That also matches the financial markets perfectly. Funnily enough I was recently, in Zurich, using this to explain how ‘groups’ become real teams or even a community of people committed to a common cause. Indeed, there is that Gladwellian ‘Tipping Point’ in all things. That too happens, gradually…then suddenly.

Scientists have long written about ‘critical mass’, how across boundaries of geography and cultures, when enough people begin to act or behave or innovate in a certain way, it seems to travel and ‘catch’ elsewhere. How this happened in days past is uncertain, particularly in early history when we’ve seen the phenomenon of such concurrent developments. Today, less mystically, or quantum mechanically or whatever, the Web and other global exchanges serve as powerful transmission mechanisms.

The outpouring of joy we experienced travelling around Asia as Barack Obama was elected President seemed to match in emotional intensity the sense of rallying around America post 9/11 when the French paper LE MONDE wrote: “Nous sommes tous Americains” (we are all Americans). People were proud of the US, and frankly wowed. It was a sentiment people seemed almost relieved to be able to summon re the US once more. There was a global critical mass of hopefulness, of pride, of confidence, of looking forward.

So critical mass, and ‘tipping points’ apply everywhere – in changing business cultures, in family healing, in creating a new habit or overthrowing an old one, in building a new physical aptitude, all of these and more.

If we’re not working on ‘tipping’ something, we’re missing the boat. Let’s look around this month and amass critical mass, or at least endeavor to, somewhere in our business and lives where it really matters.


Stupid things repeated over and over don’t become more intelligent by repetition. In the US election, Barack Obama was accused of being an elitist, though he came from an immigrant mixed-marriage family, and had to earn his way forward, by stint of hard work and initiative. Why that wasn’t the American Dream in microcosm I couldn’t understand. But because he spoke in complete sentences and might have shopped for arugula at Whole Foods, he became an ‘elitist’. However, President Bush, the scion of a rich and influential family, who made his way by leveraging the name, contacts and fortune is considered ‘one of us’. This is where saying ‘aw shucks’ and having a difficult relationship with the English language is supposed to render you more sympathetic — though it beggars the imagination to attempt to figure out why.

Hopefully we’re over it, and as a world we won’t succumb to that trend. We need intelligence in leaders, not posturing, not willful stupidity like the auto-industry CEO’ s arriving in private jets to ask for a bail-out and having no plan to offer! But the American Republic came into being through the thinking and efforts of some of the most civilized, well educated, polymaths the European Enlightenment produced. The US Constitution, the oldest document in existence governing the continuous functioning of a modern state was written in 100 days, despite great factionalism. Today, we would have a hard time agreeing on a paragraph of the tax code in that time.

Plato said, “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” Indeed! Perhaps it’s time to honor once more great intelligence, alongside great character and great commitment in our leaders and throughout society.

BULLSHIT (part two – as a communication medium)

What is bullshit and how does it differ from lying or manipulation?

Arguably, lying is conscious misrepresentation. It is making a statement that is verifiably incorrect, knowingly for some personal advantage. It implies a measure of malice and certainly awareness.

Manipulation is choosing what to say, as well as how to say it and when to say it to produce a certain impact. It differs from persuasion in that persuasion presents relevant facts that are thought to make a certain case. Manipulation ‘selects’ facts and creates, if necessary, smokescreens that keep the full range of an issue from sight.

Bullshit is a blend of the two. It is a lie in the sense that it is a distortion of either the situation or the full range of our own feelings about it. It is manipulative in the sense that our selection of what to present, what to highlight, and what to omit, is based on the emotions we wish to evoke or the impact we want to create.

Candor is telling the truth. It tends to be topical. It means we share what we think and feel and present the known, relevant facts.

Authenticity is when we share also our agendas, the full range of our feelings, our motivations; in short, we share both what we’ve concluded as well as where we’re coming from.

Straight-talk is therefore a combination of candor and authenticity. It presents the facts as we understand them, our best conclusions and rationale, as well as clarity as to what we believe and hope for.

Real communication occurs when we express ourselves through straight-talk and are open and curious about the conclusions, concerns, priorities and agendas of others. Only an exchange of straight-talk can lead to real communication, deep listening, effective partnership and imaginative bridge building between differing perspectives or positions.

One key barrier to straight talk is what we call ‘striking a noble pose’. When we all pretend to already be occupying a noble, self-sacrificial, selfless, team-furthering perch, bullshit is unavoidable. Most of us start with self-interested, fearful, ego-defensive, political vantage points. If we understand that a true team perspective will have to be evolved, worked on, co-created and built one commitment at a time, we have hope! If we pretend we are already there and asserting it will make it so, then we will need several shovels to deal with all the bullshit that will be ladled back and forth!

Another barrier is called ‘assume the best of myself and the worst of others’. When there is a conflict of any type, if this is my default setting, I will rush to create an airtight case for myself, and be ready to tear down my colleagues. Those gifted at cross-examination and self-justification therefore thrive, oozing bullshit as they go. The others may not be as rhetorically glib, but then feel victimized, and bunker down with thinly disguised rancor. But while less vocal, they too feel wronged by the others, confirming within their own cabal the intrinsic rectitude and justice of their own position.

The antidote is to start with the assumption that everyone has a perception and reasons for that perception that are probably a combination of rationale and self-interest, just like us.

Indeed, finally, we may have to transcend our narrow agendas on behalf of a larger vision or aspiration. But to transcend them, we have to first face them, and accept they exist. Only can we then find ways beyond them.

While remaining unconfessed, our secret agendas or feelings or concerns can only remain cankers. Their pernicious power comes from their concealment. When revealed, they can be highly liberating. They can either be honored or at least respected where they are helpful or at least innocuous to the team’s purpose, or collectively uprooted when they need to be as we find a reason to move forward together, beyond them, and onto what we wish to achieve.


This has been an old debate. Some years ago Unilever, minted the wonderful, if tortuous phrase, “Liberating Rigor”. It meant that we need rigor to perform, but we have to ensure we use rigor TO liberate. That means the right type of rigor, in the right dosage, applied in the right way.

Habits require discipline. But once built, they free us, as we don’t have to fight ourselves to do the right thing. Our energy, physical and moral and even mental and emotional, can then go to performing, not trying to talk ourselves into doing what we need to.

If you want to be ‘free’ to speak a language, dance, run a marathon, understand Goethe’s Faust, you have to first engage in the ‘rigor’ of practicing the fundamentals of the language, building up aerobic capacity and muscles, cultivating a sense of rhythm and movement, deeply reading critical commentary as well as Goethe’s monumental play. Only such rigor frees us to be able to engage these aspirations.

Similarly, global economic markets are in tumult because ‘regulation’ had become a dirty word. As billionaire George Soros rightly says, it’s not about more or less regulation, but better regulation.” So that the world’s largest bank, Citigroup, isn’t decimated by joining the feeding frenzy at the trough of bundled up and securitized mortgages – creating dubious complex instruments and derivatives that precipitate a global economic tsunami.

All companies today, struggling to survive and hopefully to still thrive in these challenging times, need to decide where more discipline and rigor is needed, but not in a way that blunts enterprise and creativity. The reason economic markets are so sluggish to rebound, is that the money given to banks isn’t necessarily flowing back out, but is being to some extent hoarded. And the biggest worry is that capitalism depends on risk-taking, and the inevitable risk aversion today, if it becomes protracted, could inhibit the very enterprise that can help us grow out of this morass. Would money flow to the next Apple, Google, or equivalent Green-technology game-changer? Let’s hope so. So, again, a balance between runaway bet-placing and mattress-hugging paranoia is needed.

The ancients had it right: “Fortune favors the bold.” But it doesn’t favor the recklessly stupid or discipline-averse. Google may be a great idea factory, but even they have to read a balance sheet.


Delving into Sun Tzu’s classic THE ART OF WAR, reveals some fascinating distinctions, highly relevant for 21st century leaders. Here is a smattering of lessons NOT typically associated with this classic, but eminently a part of Sun Tzu’s prescription for leadership and success.

Know Yourself — If you know yourself and your enemy, you will win your battles the text suggests. Most of us will do competitor analysis, far fewer know our own company’s DNA, real competencies, potential for dramatic differentiation and more. Even more cogently, ‘know thyself’ is a personal injunction to be explored through interaction, team feedback, personal exploration, mapping results, and seeking to improve key areas.

Listen Deeply and Well — Sun Tzu urges us to be quiet and go for depth of deliberation. We thus create space to listen, to learn, to allow for divergent viewpoints. So Lincoln wanted a ‘team of rivals’. President Elect Obama seems enamored of that idea and seems to be collecting some real heavyweights with a healthy diversity of views. Presumably such approaches are based on the insight articulated by Oliver Wendell Holmes that truth is often ‘the shifting residue from a competition of ideas.’ Ask questions, probe, and sometimes let silence do the heavy lifting as points are internalized or new pathways suggest themselves.

Be Considerate — Smart and savvy leader that he was, Sun Tzu tells us to look after soldiers’ well being, not to fatigue them unduly, keep them in high spirits and preserve their energy. Something leaders today could well learn from! Enroll, engage, remove things that leech passion, protect people’s confidence and energy, make sure they know you are committed to them winning…in their careers and lives.

Creativity Matters — A few recurring elements in life can be combined endlessly for totally different results. Five key musical notes, five key primary colors, five key flavors, and yet a smorgasbord of sounds, sights and tastes abound from the almost infinite combinations, nuances and applications that can be conceived, extrapolated and innovated. The best way out of the ‘box’ is to first define our own ‘boxes’ so we can spot them when they are actually ‘boxing us in’.

Seek Sound Counsel — Get outsider views, be coachable, get input from stakeholders, be hospitable to ideas from peers and direct reports, value candor over political correctness, have an inner circle of people who will tell you the truth rather than just placate you.

Develop Great Strategies — Most battles are won before they are ever fought. Don’t just mindlessly compete, change and perhaps own the playing field, change the game through redefining technology or better yet the terms of engagement. The more proactively you move, the more you can intuit and even ‘provoke’ a crisis in your own complacency and status quo the better. Wait for an actual crisis, and it’s often too late.

Avoid the Avoidable – Always do downside assessments, beware of unfavorable factors as Sun Tzu warns, prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, make sure you spend as little energy dealing reactively with avoidable or predictable problems, much less emergencies. How little you do this, and how much goes into excelling in the present and creating the future, can be a scorecard, at least in part, of your leadership.

Organize a Team — Unity wins battles and advances causes. Four brave men, as Ardant du Piq observed, who don’t know and trust each other won’t dare attack. Those who know and trust each other, and are united by a cause, will let virtually nothing stop them. Shared experiences, working for something they believe in and are committed to, helps to forge teams. As the quote says “You will never get the same effort from one person seeking glory as from a group of people pulling for a common goal.” When they become a team, such effort can become truly inspired energy.


Take some of these ideas, observations and distinctions and put them to work for you, in you, and through you, for your organization, your team, your customers and stakeholders.

There are lots of dismal headlines around. Instead of imbibing them excessively, let’s instead read the headlines our leadership lives write. And let’s make those worthy of our leadership, our vision and our passion!