leadership dot #3615: long shot

Even if you didn’t watch the Kentucky Derby over the weekend, you need to see the replay to watch Rich Strike, the colt with 80-1 odds, come from the back of the field to capture the roses. To make it even more like Hollywood, the horse wasn’t even entered in the race until another horse scratched on Friday, the day before the Derby. Rich Strike was purchased in the fall for $30,000 and this win — only its third ever! — earned the owner $1.86 million. Not a bad return on investment.

If you listen to the announcers, they don’t even mention Rich Strike until the final seconds when they are literally at the wire. Before that, all the focus was on the two favorites as they battled it out. It’s a scenario that plays out too often in real life, where all the attention is on the presumed leader, leaving an opening for an underdog (or underling) to successfully slide in.

Many were surprised that Rich Strike was even in the race, and even more shocked that such a long shot won it. But I’m pinning a picture of this beautiful colt in my office to remind me to persevere despite what others’ expectations may be. Even if your odds are 80-1, keep running.

leadership dot #3611: conquer hard

Biographies and autobiographies hit a sweet spot for me — they’re much lighter than many thought-provoking or educational non-fiction books yet much more substantive than “beach reads” or pure fiction. As a result, I can indulge in leisurely reading without any guilt and always take away at least one life lesson when reading another’s story.

My latest devouring was Viola Davis’ Finding Me. The award-winning actress chronicles her upbringing and vividly describes the H.A.R.D. life she led: scores of rats in their home, no running water, often no electricity or heat, bullying, constant hunger, and the ever-present smell of urine. It was rough.

Viola found her escape through an Upward Bound program that became a portal to theatre, competitions, scholarships, and a way out. She was warned that a life in show business was hard but she had already conquered hard. She turned that perseverance into a work ethic and determination that propelled her acting career.

When we face situations that are difficult or even brutal we have a choice to define them as either motivators or barriers. Hard experiences can prepare you to face other challenges as a survivor, knowing that you are able to persist despite the circumstances. Like Viola, allow hard to harden your resolve, not your soul.

leadership dot #3556: will

I’ve never heard any of Will Smith’s rap albums, watched an episode of Fresh Prince, seen the majority of his movies, or considered myself a fan — until I finished reading Will, his authentic and inspiring autobiography. My takeaway from his book is the power of a strong work ethic — his is amazing. Will Smith makes me feel like a slug.

Two examples: 1) Smith wanted to be the Biggest Movie Star in the World so he studied the habits of those who were successful and learned that promoting a movie overseas helped with box office gross which in turn led to bigger movie roles. Smith writes: “So I would shoot The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air during the week, leave the set, go straight to the airport, fly to Europe overnight, land Saturday morning, do interviews all day, do a premiere, sign autographs all night, head straight back to the airport, hop back on the jet, memorize my lines for the next Fresh Prince episode, and land in LA just in time to go to sleep Sunday night.” He even learned a few phrases in the local language to increase the chance he would be featured on their news.

2) He committed to attending all of his son’s high school football games and kept that promise even when the games occurred during his filming in Beijing. Smith recalls: “And then the grace of God revealed itself in the form of the international dateline. Beijing to Los Angeles is a twelve-hour flight. A 10:00 pm flight out of Beijing on Friday crossed the date line, landing in Los Angeles at ten Friday morning, just in time to get to the house, get some rest and make it to Trey’s game at six Friday night. A 4:00 pm flight on Saturday going the other way arrives at 4:00 am Monday morning, just in time to get back to work. Jaden and I commuted ten straight weeks, Beijing to Los Angeles and back, never missing a single one of Trey’s games.”

It would have been easy to skip the promotional tours during the filming of a weekly television show or to prioritize making a movie in China over a high school football contest but Smith “committed to a work ethic of uncompromising intensity” that allowed him to achieve unprecedented success. The next time you find yourself making excuses or rationalizing why you can’t do something, think about Will Smith. Where there’s a will, there probably is a way.

Source: Will by Will Smith with Mark Mansion, 2021

leadership dot #3506: setback

A friend who is working on his dissertation lamented that the work reminded him of what happens after a big snow. “I shoveled for a half hour and cleared the end of the driveway,” he said. “And then the plow kept coming by. It’s progress, then setback.”

It’s clearly an apt analogy as anyone who has ever written a dissertation will attest, but the “one step forward, one back” aspect applies to most projects. You try something and fail. You hire someone, then have a learning curve while training them. You submit a project idea and it’s rejected. You lose weight then gain a few pounds back after a binge.

The trick is to adjust your mindset to know that the snow and the plow are both coming again — to see that as a natural phase of the process rather than a barrier or reason to quit. Shovel the driveway again and keep at the work. Eventually, you will achieve your goal.

Thanks, Dave!

leadership dot #3464: keep creating

The Great Gatsby was considered a failure until 150,000 copies of it were printed by the Council on Books in Wartime to distribute free copies to soldiers in World War II. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald never realized commercial success from the work before he died.

The iPod was invented by Tony Fadell, the VP of strategy and new ventures at Phillips, but they did not pursue production of the MP3 player. Microsoft, Motorola, Palm, Nokia, and Blackberry — all leaders in the electronics industry — also passed on the opportunity to promote the device which eventually sold 400 million units and 35 billion song downloads.

“Take Five” is the best-selling jazz single of all time, made popular by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. But when Paul Desmond wrote it, he joked that he’d use his share of royalties to buy an electric shaver!

Don’t self-edit your own idea or let the initial reactions of others prohibit you from putting it out in the world. Changes that push boundaries may take time to be accepted but are often worth the wait. Keep creating and keep sharing what you believe in!

leadership dot #3402: battles

The Rise Above exhibit about the Tuskegee Airmen (dot 3401) was in town partially to raise awareness for a fund-raising campaign to commemorate a local Airman. Robert L. Martin is a hometown boy who joined the elite Red Tail Squadron, and there is an effort underway to rename the airport terminal in his honor.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? You just change the name. But — like with the Squadron itself — nothing is ever easy. The FAA and the Federal government were involved. The Regional Airport Commission and City Council had to pass motions. Federal funds cannot be used so IRS a petition for non-profit recognition was filed.

It became more than just a name change. You need an impressive outdoor sign. That requires architectural design fees and sign construction. You need indoor signs and an educational video (or what’s the point if no one knows about him?). It has turned into a big project with many grassroots fundraising efforts.

I am confident those involved will “triumph over adversity” as the Red Tails themselves did but use their experience as an example in your own work. Turning a “great idea” into reality isn’t easy to do. If the idea is worth pursuing (as this one is), you need to commit to it for the long haul and take satisfaction from the wins at each stage. Stay focused on the individual battles and don’t let complexity win the war.

Captain Robert L. Martin’s daughters in town as part of a fundraising effort in conjunction with the Rise Above exhibit

leadership dot #3401: rise above

Imagine this: you’re in college but you don’t have a roommate. You have to eat alone. You aren’t spoken to outside of class in the four years you attend.

It would break most people, but instead, it inspired Benjamin Davis to graduate and go forward to become the Commander of the elite Tuskegee Airmen who protected Allied bombers in WWII. I recently learned more about this piece of our neglected story in a film about the distinctive Red Tails (the markings on their planes). The Airmen were a major contributor to the war, but the barriers they overcame to achieve it are even more remarkable.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, racism was more overt than it is today. Black men were segregated and only served as cooks or other support roles in the armed forces. In 1942, in Tuskegee Alabama, an elite, yet separate, experimental pilot training program began in response to the war. It took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt flying with the Airmen to provide it credibility instead of them being seen as “inferior beings.” Tuskegee Airmen were then deployed throughout the war and gave bomber escorts on over 1500 missions. The Red Tail Squadron became known as “red tail angels” because of their skill in providing protection to the bombers. They went from being shunned to being requested by the pilots and becoming integral to the Allied success.

No one who participates in war has it easy, but the Tuskegee Airmen had to overcome so many obstacles just to serve. They came back to continued segregation and did not receive their due recognition until decades later. I encourage you to learn more about their story.

“Triumph over adversity” is the motto of the Red Tails — a good lesson for all of us to take to heart.

Restored Red Tail P-51C Mustang at the Rise Above exhibit at the Dubuque Regional airport

leadership dot #3366: bathtub

The book Systems Thinking for Social Change reminded me of a common-sense principle that is often overlooked — the Bathtub Analogy. The concept is simple: the level of water in the tub is determined by the rate at which the water flows in and the rate at which it drains out. Too often, we only focus on the faucet.

The analogy is applied in many settings such as John Sterman’s Carbon Bathtub (describing the level of CO2 put into the atmosphere vs what nature can disburse) and the analogy framing homelessness (decrease the number becoming homeless/increase those moving to permanent housing). However, it can apply to many constructs in our organizational or personal life:

  • We can reduce the calories we eat to lose weight — or increase the number that we burn
  • We can increase hiring to expand staff — or reduce the attrition of current employees
  • We can reduce spending to meet our budget — or increase income
  • We can purge possessions to have more room — or increase storage space
  • We can increase new membership — or increase retention of those we serve

The Bathtub Analogy reminds us to pay attention to the flow rather than focusing only on the level. When we consider both inputs and outputs — and the relative rates at which they are occurring — often new solutions come to mind as well as a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the whole.

The next time you are trying to shift behavior, draw the system through the lens of a bathtub. The analogy might help you find solutions that otherwise would have gone down the drain.

Source: Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Peter Stroh, 2015

leadership dot #3238: research

I have been asked to teach a class on a topic which I have next to no experience. And it’s going to be great! Already, my mind is racing with people I can invite as guest speakers, new books I can read to learn about the topic myself, and suddenly, everything I see in the news relates to something I can use in class.

One of the first articles I wrote for publication was also on a topic of which I knew nothing. But unlike social media that sends you down an unproductive rabbit trail, doing research often sends you down a beneficial one. You read an article, then follow some of its references, which leads you to more articles. Or, you interview a person, who recommends that you talk with another person, and soon you have more material than you can actually use.

The next time you are interested in something, embrace the idea of learning about it in depth. Google and YouTube may provide a start, but going deeper can give you insights and context that you won’t find on the surface. You may find that you enjoy being the student as much as you do being the teacher or writer. Never underestimate the power of research and all that you can learn from actually doing it.

leadership dot #3225: do

I watched an online conversation with actor and writer Dan Levy that could have doubled as a commencement speech. In a far more serious tone than his David Rose character on Schitt’s Creek, Levy shared some of the ups and downs of his path to the awards podium.

When asked about the genesis for his show, he replied that he “had to do something unconventional for myself.” He created the hit series to provide a venue to act because he is “terrible at auditioning.” Rather than let his nerves stop him, Levy wrote himself into a character and became so in-demand that auditioning is no longer required.

What stuck with me most were his closing comments about the advice he would give to college students. “If you want something, actually do what you want to do and success will come. Doors will open if you have the work to show,” Levy said. “If you actually follow through on what you want, you will be ahead of 99% of the people. It is so rare for people to follow through.”

Think about all the things you have said you wanted and then assess how many of them you have actually done something about. Instead of talking about writing a show, starting a company, or learning a language, take Levy’s advice and follow your intentions with action. Who knows how far it could take you.