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.

leadership dot #3179: bamboo

The bamboo plant is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth – but you would never know it for about five years. That’s the amount of time the plant remains underground, requiring daily watering and fertilizing without any visible sign of progress.

But that effort pays off! Once the plant sprouts through the ground, it can grow at an amazing 1.5 inches per hour – becoming over a yard tall in its first day.

I think of how many other systems function like the bamboo where the initial phase requires intensive attention with no apparent results. Growing a business is certainly like that, as is creating the infrastructure for system change, or even building a relationship where you are friends forever, until one day you’re more than that.

We give too much credit to what’s above the surface. Dedicate your energy to consistent nurturing of your project – whether you can see the results right away or not.

leadership dot #3169: is this anything

“Is this anything?” That’s the title Jerry Seinfeld used to turn five decades of his legal pads filled with handwritten jokes into a book. “‘Is this anything?’ is what every comedian says to every other comedian about any new bit they want to try,” he writes.

On the surface, the book is hysterical. I not only laughed out loud on numerous occasions but ended up reading a fair portion of it aloud to others so they could join in the humor. Seinfeld is one funny guy.

But the real lesson of the book is the work that goes into making it look easy. Seinfeld has been writing – and re-writing – his jokes for over five decades. He does not use writers, opting instead to craft every line of his material himself. After choosing to end his wildly-successful show, Seinfeld saw Chris Rock perform and realized he wanted to reinvigorate his own stand-up comedy routine and return to performing live — but he had no material. “So, it’s back to tiny clubs with flimsy stuff, night after night, month after month,” he writes. This is post-Seinfeld Jerry Seinfeld, trying out new jokes in small venues, just to get it right.

Too often, we look at others who have “made it” and think that they climbed the mountain with innate talent or lucky breaks when, more likely, they have achieved their success due to grit and hard work. Even Seinfeld knows that everything he writes isn’t golden so he asks: “is this anything?” and tries it out before modifying the words, the delivery, or the sequencing.

Adopt your own version of putting something rough out there in the world and let the universe help you ascertain whether it’s anything or not.

Source: Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld, Simon & Schuster, 2020

leadership dot #3089: temporary

For me, this picture sums up the spirit of resilience that has characterized the pandemic. The salon had a mandated closure for several weeks but when they reopened, they made necessary adjustments to comply with the law. One such action involved closing their waiting area.

They could have moved out all the furniture. They could have had a designed, laminated or even printed sign. But instead, they chose this handwritten version – involving the least fuss. “This pandemic is temporary,” is what it says to me. “We’ll need these chairs again so let’s have the least inconvenience possible right now.”

Everyone is experiencing pandemic fatigue, but remind yourself of the resilience and fortitude that you have exhibited during the past eight or nine months. It may not seem like it, but all the restrictions are temporary and someday you’ll be able to safely wait inside again.

leadership dot #3035: sustained

Those with an entrepreneurial spirit or even a sense of adventure take delight in creating change. The early adopters are anxious to try something new or to initiate a program/product/idea that has not been implemented before. There is often much fanfare around the “new” and it generates an energy that is hard to replicate from the routine.

As a result, many people focus on this aspect of the process and, in my opinion, give it disproportionate emphasis. Those who are successful in the long term aren’t as worried about the creation, rather they pour their energies into sustaining the difference. That’s where the real work lies.

Change that is imposed or brought to fruition solo is often overturned, but lasting change requires the buy-in of many. Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said it best: “Fight for things you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

It may be tempting to innovate on your own or to focus on the excitement of having some a soundbite to share, but you may be better off in the end if you slow it down a bit and include others in your quest. The hard work of developing partnerships, overcoming objections, handling setbacks and reworking your proposal is often done behind-the-scenes and without visible reward. Know that your persistence and patience are likely to pay off in the end when, together, you make progress that lasts.

leadership dot #3031: rerouting

I just spent most of the past two days at a virtual “Dream Summit” event where a dozen or so motivational speakers shared words of wisdom about how to achieve “inspiration and empowered dreaming.” A theme of the conference was overcoming failure and persisting, even when obstacles come your way.

A poem by Katherine MacKennett shares much of the sentiment:
Now, every time I witness a strong person,
I want to know:
What dark did you conquer in your story?
Mountains do not rise without earthquakes.

 In my fieldwork as a Census enumerator, I’ve had plenty of occasions where my GPS has rerouted me as I traverse the Iowa farms. I don’t get upset by this, rather am grateful for the guidance that sets me on the right road. We need to treat bumps in the road to our goals the same way. Expect them. Take the detour. And keep going.

No path to success occurs without challenges. Hearing others share their stories of setbacks, failures, misfortune and changed focus reduces the stigma about such diversions and disabuses the myth that there are some lucky ones who have an easy path to success.

No one has a straight road to achievement. Those who reach their journey are the ones who persist through the rerouting.