leadership dot #3657: commemoration

I vividly remember driving a friend to the airport several years ago so that he could tend to some critical business at his hometown bank. We were halfway there when suddenly it occurred to us: OMG, it’s Casimir Pulaski Day in Illinois tomorrow and the banks will be closed!

Casimir Pulaski Day is in March, but I suspect that others will experience a similar scenario today due to the celebration of Juneteenth. It’s a two-year-old Federal holiday so people are not yet accustomed to it, and it’s more complicated this year with Juneteenth being celebrated on June 20th. But there is no mail, no in-person banking, and no open government offices.

Neither of us knew who Mr. Pulaski was or why he merited his own holiday, but we were inspired to find out. (He is honored for his contributions to the American Revolution and is considered the Father of the American Calvary.) I hope you do the same today. Instead of considering it an inconvenience, treat it as an opportunity to learn about Juneteenth and the freeing of enslaved Americans. It’s a day to atone as well as celebrate as well as a chance to understand and own the history that shapes who we are as a nation today.

leadership dot #3654: contributors

Do you recognize the names of Frank Wills, Mark Felt, or Alex Butterfield? Whether you do or not, the course of U.S. history was changed by these men.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. What was first described as a “third-rate burglary” eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon and a host of indictments for people on his staff. Watergate was the office building housing the Democratic National Headquarters. On this date in 1972, Frank Wills, an astute security guard on his evening rounds, noticed that a door latch had been taped open. He alerted the police and set an investigation in motion.

Mark Felt, the FBI’s number two, provided invaluable direction to the Washington Post reporters pursuing the cover-up story. He supplied deep background material which earned him the name of Deep Throat, and his covert intelligence kept the investigation alive and led to Congressional hearings.

But the real break came during a Senate Watergate Hearing in 1973, when Deputy Assistant to President Nixon, Alex Butterfield, was asked: “Are you aware of any listening devices in the Oval Office?” His decision to tell the truth (unlike several of his colleagues) led to the bombshell revelation of Nixon’s taping system — and the discovery of tapes that eventually implicated the President.

There are many people who played prominent roles in the Watergate investigation but these three were outside the limelight — yet crucial to the outcome. It’s a reminder that everyone — from the security guard to the deputy assistant — can be important contributors to your overall effort. Never minimize the impact all the members of your team can have. There is no such thing as an inconsequential role.

The Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.

leadership dot #3639: ten years

In Christine Hawkinson’s book 50 Years in the Bleachers, she shares her dad’s coaching philosophy: D.D.S. Richard Maher, an Illinois Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame inductee, believed that players must have Desire, Discipline, and Structure for a program to be successful.

D.D.S. is a good formula for many other pursuits, including blog writing.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of leadership dots! I went on hiatus for two weeks when my Mom unexpectedly went into the hospital and then hospice, but otherwise, I have published every single day for the past decade. Ten years. Three thousand, six hundred and thirty-nine dots. Over 870,000 words.

There were many (many!) times when Desire was missing but Discipline and Structure prevailed. I think of those days – or more accurately, those late nights – when I would have chosen a root canal over writing. But I promised myself I would write daily for 10 years, and I would feel worse about breaking my commitment than I did about writing yet another post.

So, as I enter Decade #2, the dots will continue but with some breaks built in. I’ll republish some of my favorites while I’m on vacation and during the holidays — we’ll see whether that modification to the Structure is enough to sustain my Desire for another million words or so.

I hope the dots have been a thought-provoking nugget for you each morning, and that you’ll encourage others to follow along on the journey.

leadership dot #3626: shredder

Our town provided a free shredding service last weekend, and my contribution was about a thousand pages of long-hand writing on notebook paper. I decided it was time to clear out old journals — ripping pages out of dozens of spiral notebooks that contained a mixture of venting, dreams, and nonsense. The term “journaling” sounds so lofty — what I really mean is a free-flowing brain dump put on paper just to clear it out of my head.

I had not read the contents in the past 20+ years (and certainly did not want others to read them!) so I did some spring cleaning and sent them all to the shredder. My housemate who saw my pile commented on all the trees that were “wasted” by my ramblings. Au contraire! Notebooks are the cheapest form of therapy that I know. The mere act of writing things down is a magical elixir — it moves the emotion from a living distraction in my mind to an amorphous nothing on the piece of paper. And, as with all writing, it gives the gift of clarity.

Writing anything down is the secret sauce for me. My millions of lists increase my capacity to remember and to get things done. Putting ideas to paper helps immensely to flesh out a concept (and its pitfalls) and allows me to implement far more than if I had just thought about them. Writing down my finances helps me be a better steward and saver. Writing letters maintains my friendships. And writing dots helps me pay more attention to the world and make connections I would not see otherwise. I rarely know where a dot is headed until my fingers actually touch the keyboard, but once I start writing it’s like there is a muse sitting on my shoulder whispering new insights.

You don’t need to save what you write, or even read it again, but release the untapped power of your subconscious with your pen or keyboard. The value lies in the act of writing, not saving it from the shredder.

leadership dot #3625: thinkers

Outside my classroom hangs an art display featuring stylized portraits of 11 Great Thinkers. I’m fascinated by it — not only because of the drawings but by who the artist chose to be on the list. It’s such a subjective assessment — who is a great thinker in your field may not be as relevant in mine, and someone may not make the list because their impact is yet to be felt, etc.

But the engraver, Mauricio Lasansky, chose these eleven: Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Giuseppe Verdi, Louis Pasteur, Francisco Goya, Michelangelo, Leo Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, and the only woman, Marie Curie. I noted that they aren’t all philosophers or “professional thinkers” but were able to exert their influence through art, music, writing, politics, medicine, science, and psychology — many excelling in multiple fields.

We place great value on “doing” but too often fail to reward or even recognize the virtues of thinking. Perhaps you can add your own gallery of great thinkers from your organization — people who have had the foresight to envision something that others could not see, who influenced those that came after them by how they performed their craft, or who caused others to pause and reflect about what was even possible. Great thinking precedes great doing.

leadership dot #3617: reflect

In a podcast, culture expert Daniel Coyle proclaimed that “reflection is the most underused power source of any group.” I agree!

He noted how the world is constructed to put things in front of us for either action or reaction, and as a result, too often reflection doesn’t happen. People don’t pause, he notes, so questions such as what the organization is about or what your personal purpose is are left unconsidered — and the culture suffers.

Coyle advocates for the power of pausing — to learn from what went wrong, to remember what went well, to align the organization’s purpose in concrete ways that help people know what is best to do, and to create relationships that foster a sense of belonging and vulnerability. One of his Playbook exercises is to define your “True South” — what you are not going to do — as a way to gain clarity on your True North and guiding principles.

As the workforce shrinks, culture becomes a distinguishing factor that determines which organizations are able to succeed. You can spend your time recruiting and training new employees — or invest that time in reflecting on what is/is not working in your organization. I hope you take a timeout to invest in the latter.

Learner Lab podcast with Daniel Coyle and Trevor Ragan (41:04) April 2022. Coyle is the author of the best-selling The Culture Code and the brand new The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed.

leadership dot #3610: look up

Yesterday’s dot (#3609) about how the former Sears catalog building had been transformed into a food hall sparked two comments from a former colleague who had recently visited the Boston spot I featured. Her observations:

  1. She was focused on looking at “ground-level” and had no idea about the significance of the building when she was there. She never looked up to see the exterior at all. It’s a Boston landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — but you could never appreciate that if you only focused on the street view. It’s a good reminder that we to consider things from different angles — and not just buildings.
  2. Her experience in the food hall “pointed out to us how white Boston is. It was visually obvious in the crowded hall.” Coming from Detroit, she was understandably struck by the whiteness but coming from small-town Iowa, I had the opposite reaction and found Boston full of different ethnicities and languages. It’s another example of how others may experience something differently depending on their initial frame of reference.

The original dot and the reflections from reading it reaffirm one of the core principles of leadership — a broad perspective is essential. I would have never known about the building had someone not enlightened me and my colleague provided additional insights that I had not recognized. To appreciate all an idea has to offer, look beyond “ground-level” to consider all sides and embrace the multiple viewpoints a diverse team can provide you.

Thanks, Colleen!

leadership dot #3607: be anything

When I was growing up, I played with Barbies (of course!). My Barbies had ensembles to play nurse, teacher, bride, beauty queen, and waitress but that was about it. Mostly, she played beautiful-girl-trying-to-attract-Ken.

My, how things have changed. Now Barbie has an entire line promoting “You Can Be Anything” and sells the dolls dressed as a firefighter, scientist, teacher, boss, paramedic, scientist, soccer player, and a whole series on space discovery. I’m so glad that Mattel’s worldview has expanded along with other roles for women.

And yet I can’t help but notice that the collection of careers features a selection of roles that are unlikely to be realized. How many people actually are astronauts or soccer players? Think of the impact if Mattel encouraged girls to consider construction, welding, data analysis, foreign languages, software developers, or entrepreneurship. They may not lend themselves to cute outfits but they could inspire youngsters to prepare for fields that actually could employ them.

If you’re in a position to encourage young people to “be anything,” take advantage of the opportunity to expand their minds to consider things they haven’t and give them a head start in preparing for something they may actually be.

leadership dot #3604: hints

We see what we look for, and nowhere was that more apparent than when I re-watched the Ted Lasso series. On my original viewing, there was a big surprise at the end of the second season. But when I watched the show again, I saw numerous clues throughout the first two seasons that foreshadowed what occurred. It wasn’t a surprise at all the second time around. In fact, it was surprising to me that it was a surprise the first time because there were so many hints that this may occur.

It got me wondering what we miss in real life — things that are almost predicted, yet ignored because they don’t fit with your current worldview or opinion of someone. Are there signs around you about a possible job layoff or firing that you are brushing off? Or a relationship break that is about to occur but you don’t want to acknowledge it? Or maybe your business or finances are trending downward in a precipitous way that you dismiss as temporary instead of addressing them?

Among the many lessons that Ted Lasso has taught me, add to the list “paying attention to those nagging disconnects that I want to overlook.” We’d be faced with a lot fewer surprises and rarely be blindsided if we did.

leadership dot #3562: two years

It’s the anniversary of the initial pandemic lockdowns, causing me to reflect on the past two years. A recent Pfizer commercial replayed pandemic moments that seem so long ago: banging pans outside to honor essential workers, sewing masks, neighbors delivering groceries to neighbors, and drive-by parades to celebrate birthdays. In a personally symbolic moment, I finished my bottle of soap yesterday — from a twin pack of hand soap in the more-soap-I-could-use-in-a-lifetime vat size I purchased at the start of all this. (In a move that seems inconceivable today, the other bottle and an open bag of flour were mailed to my sister in Boston when both items were unavailable there two years ago.)

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was great angst and many, many changes. Almost everything was disrupted. There was delusion as to the “temporary” nature of the pain. Two years later, we are still affected by COVID but in a way that has become part of our routine. We’ve figured out how to use Zoom, rely on curbside pick-up or delivery, and expect all restaurants to have takeout. Now that hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and even vaccines are readily available, live events are happening again, and no one is wiping down their mail, it seems as we have made it through. Yet, it’s not like it was — nor is it like it will be.

The thing is that the pandemic is not over. The U.S. daily death toll from COVID averages more than 1,000 people/day. There are still mask mandates and volatile disagreements about them. Supply shortages and reduced hours are still prevalent. Just because people have change fatigue, doesn’t mean the disruptions are finished.

Step back and consider how the pandemic parallels change efforts in organizations. It’s chaotic in the beginning — whether from a pandemic declaration, new software installation, or a different direction imposed by a transition in leadership. There is backlash and denial — as well as many missteps and improvised solutions. Slowly, most people adjust and eventually become comfortable with the way things have evolved — sometimes becoming too set in a new routine before the changes have matured. As a leader, you need to help them (and yourself) remember how far you have come — and remind people how far you have yet to go. As a whole, we have been adaptive and resilient. Keep going.