I was watching a movie called Pearl Harbor yesterday. One of the very last scenes in the movie, one of the lead actor says the following line:

“There is Nothing Stronger than the Heart of a Volunteer.”

Wow, I love this line. I know that he was specifically talking about those men and women who volunteer for military service but I think it applies for anything.

I grew up in a household where volunteerism was like breathing air. My parents worked with all kinds of non-profit institutions and the blood line of the very existence of these organizations depended on a healthy pipeline of volunteers.

Something must have rubbed off as I spent the last 10 years heavily involved in a professional society. This was a volunteer leadership role that has taken me literally to 6 continents and over 30 countries. I have been to every corner of the globe without being paid a dime other than reimbursed expenses.

As I look at the first 10 months of the year and the 2 remaining ones, I can not but feel a sense of pride. In service for this particular organization, I was away from home, work, and family, a sum total of 120 days. This is almost 1 third of the year. Mind you this does not include time spent volunteering via email, conference calls, etc…

If I had to do it again, I would do it exactly the same. The rewards that I have personally received have been great. Better than financial. I owe a lot of who I am today for this volunteer activity. I have met several hundred people and spoke in front of crowds of 5,000 people.

As recently as last month, we had an annual conference that brought together people from all walks of life. Every one of them were as passionate about this professional society and all share a common value – volunteerism.

The fundamental driver of change in society is not a top down approach. It is grass roots volunteerism. One has to only look at the extent of volunteerism in our society to understand how they can affect positive change.

Even workers who get paid are in a sense volunteers. They can leave and find another job. But the power of the unpaid volunteer leader shows his/her true passion and dedication for the cause. It is to step forward and raise your hand and say, I am willing to lead and I take responsibility.

I just have to always remind myself that with great power comes great responsibility.

Personal Brand: Ego or Entreprenuership?

In preparing a seminar on Business Networking, I did a little research on Personal Brands. One of the key tips from Networking gurus has always been know who you are and what makes you different from everyone else. What is this beyond a personal brand? And yet, personal branding seems to have mixed reviews. There are those who take offense at the idea that all of us are brands. I suspect they miss the point. For most of us, building a personal brand is less about ego and more about firming our self-understanding. In order to be clear when meeting new people, we need to know what it is that we’re good at, right? And, in establishing our brand, we’re really getting at what is it that makes us unique. It sounds to me like these are really the same things. So, I’ll go ahead and suggest to this group of Entrepreneurs that they should have a personal brand. After all, who would you rather meet Mike – a guy who gives numbers their meaning or Mike – an Accountant? What do you think? Are personal brands egomaniacal creations or thought organizing aides?

Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

Prior to joining the professional workforce, I never expected to see verbal abuse in action in companies. In fact, in my first ten years of working, I never did. However, in the last five years I’ve done work in two companies with executives who routinely abuse employees verbally. Is verbal abuse on the rise or are corporate leadership skills declining to a very bad lowest common denominator?

As with most types of abuse, the abuser typically feels powerless and uses abuse as a way to relieve these feelings. However, I’ve noticed in work situations, that verbal abuse seems to also reflect on an inability to accept responsibility. These executive level abusers both ran organizations that had talented teams who were worn down and beaten into submission. Highly qualified, talented leaders were brought into both organizations and then deprived of the authority to actually effect change. In both cases, the executives were unable to see their personal impact on the situation. They blamed others and shouted at them relentlessly. Both of these men reduced female subordinates to tears. What neither realizes, or perhaps admits, is that their behavior is bad for business.

The detrimental effects of this verbal abuse in the marketplace are extensive. Personally observed effects of this abuse include:

  1. Demotivation: Employees lose the will to give their all (or even their most) to the tasks at hand.
  2. Employee Retention Issues: Employees bear the brunt of the abuse for as long as they are able, then move on to other organizations where they are not a target.
  3. Currying favor: Rather than vigorous concern for the best interests of the business, employees begin to worry more about whether they will get shouted at and agree to gain favor.
  4. Hidden Issues and Risks: Rather than bear bad news and the brunt of an abusive session, issues and risks are ignored and even buried.

The morale issues caused by verbal abuse permeate the entire organization leaving employees at all levels ineffective. Companies should be on the look-out for this type of behavior in all levels of leadership. At no point should it be allowed to continue to the point at which it negatively impacts business.

Avoiding Bad Break-ups: Leadership 101

Allowing employees to depart gracefully is one sign of a good leader. Regardless of the investment that your company has made in an employee, their departure to another employer should never be like a bad romantic break-up. Letting people go gracefully is an art that good leaders must learn. Why is important to let people leave your organization professionally?

  1. If people leave well, then later in their career, they may come back
  2. Each person who leaves your organization and succeeds is a tribute to what you have done properly
  3. There is no better PR for your organization than for a very sharp former employee to say “Oh, yes, I worked for XYZ company.”
  4. The last thing you want is for your employees to tell their friends and acquaintances when asked, run, run fast. Don’t even submit your resume. I’ve had to say that to a friend. I can assure you that anyone who has heard that of a company has met someone who had a bad break-up with them.

So ensure that you let people leave as well as you had them join. Your employees’ last memories of you should be the best, not the worst.

Finding Your Voice: Leadership Style and the Power of Motivation

As a leader (or an aspiring leader), the ability to influence people is a key to success. Do not, however, confuse influence with manipulation. True leadership comes from being able to show people where you are headed and demonstrate to them why they want to come along. Each leader accomplishes this differently. It’s really a matter of finding your voice…

Are you a knowledge leader? Do you know so much about a topic that your grasp of facts and figures is likely to sway others?

Are you a visionary leader? Are you accomplished at painting a mental picture of the desired future state so well that other see it and get on board?

Are you a passionate leader? Do you speak with such zeal and verve for your idea that people are swayed by your passion, even if they don’t really see your vision?

Are you a bum-rush leader? Do you shout and bully people until they follow you as cowed and intimidated team members?

Understanding who you are, as a leader, can help you find the voice that you use to lead others. In doing this, you can soften your message and move to new leadership heights. Motivating people is about getting them to do the things you need to get done after all. Leadership is about doing these whether or not you have the organizational authority to command attention. Most of us have worked with someone for whom we’d move heaven and earth. This person wasn’t necessarily a boss. But they were someone who inspired us, who helped us see what we could be, and helped us get there. These people are leaders. Companies today need more leadership at all organizational levels. Simultaneously, most also need less management. What an interesting dichotomy that provides. Recognizing and cultivating leadership can set your organization apart, be it a for-profit or a non-profit. Find your leaders and help them find their voices.

Following: The Most Important Part of Leadership

Recently I was having a conversation with a colleague and he questioned our corporate logo. In case you haven’t seen it, the logo is a red bird flying in formation with 4 blue birds following.

In selecting it, we felt like it was just the right thing to give meaning to our corporate name (Leadership Formation). This colleague was trying to express that leadership didn’t equate to management and so our logo was flawed. Interesting perspective. So, what is leadership and where does it occur?

Leadership is the ability to provide guidance and direction. Oh, so like a Manager, right? Well, no. Not at all. Don’t get me wrong, some Managers are, in fact, leaders. Managing people effectively does require leadership abilities. But, if you are diligent, persistent, and a bit lucky, leadership will occur at all levels of your organization. How so? Well, let’s use the example of a bank.

Everyone’s been to a bank to take out money or deposit a check. Have you ever had a teller who acted as a leader in her (or his) bank? You’ll know them because they’re the ones who are helping the other tellers serve you more efficiently. They are the ones who don’t wait for someone else to solve your problem, but actively seek resolution. They are the ones who guide others into more efficient processing of transactions. Leadership at this level of the organization does many really wonderful things.

  1. It helps spur others to new heights in responding to customer needs.
  2. It provides an example of good behavior to be rewarded and praised.
  3. It identifies individuals who may be ready for more responsibility.
  4. It helps strengthen the team of people with little line of sight to the upper level executives in the organization.

Okay, so what does this have to do with our logo. Well, as you’ll notice above, all of the blue birds are following, right? So the teller in the above example is following someone in the organization (we hope), but she’s also leading others. The ability to accomplish both of these at the same time is the cornerstone of excellence.

To be a great leader, you must know when to lead and when to follow. The CEO of a company, if he or she is wise, will realize when an initiative will be better led by someone else. In that case, the best thing that they can do is follow well. This provides better leadership to the organization than all of the managerial development and training out there. Leading by following enables and empowers others in your organization to both lead and follow.

Characteristics of a Good Leader

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the good leaders I’ve worked for (and with) in the past. So, I thought I’d go ahead and share some of my thoughts about good leaders and the characteristics they share:

  1. Visioning: Good leaders are able to draw a clear and distinct visual picture of the future. They show you the vision that they are working towards.
  2. Credibility: They are able to make you believe them. Both that they are being honest and that their vision is achievable.
  3. Hard Working: Leaders are always willing to lead by example, not just stand on the sidelines telling you what to do. They show you what to do and do it right alongside you.
  4. Patience: In leading, you often have to go over the same thing again and again. The reality is that many people may take awhile to “get” it. So, you must have patience to bring people up to your speed.
  5. Dependability: In order to build a following, leaders must do what they say they will, when they say they will. You must be able to depend on them to do what they say.
  6. Following: In order to lead, you must be able to know when and how to follow. In companies, organizations, and life, leaders will have to follow. Doing that well, gracefully, and effectively is an integral part of leading.
  7. Integrity: Leaders must have it.
  8. Ability to make people feel useful: Leaders need to be able to help people see how what they are doing fits into the achievement of the vision. Each person should feel like an integral part of the success of the endeavor.
  9. Support their team: What happens in the boat, stays in the boat. The leader must be able to work with, praise, and discipline their team. They should always provide praise in public and discipline in private.
  10. Appreciative: Good team leaders know that saying thank you is the most important key to having team members be willing to work with you again in the future. Saying thank you often and well is perhaps the most important characteristic that leaders share.

I hope these characteristics prove helpful to you. Thinking back on great leaders I’ve known, these are the things about them that simply stand out.

But, What Do You Expect?

Setting expectations is a fundamental business concept that is typically overlooked in B schools, business programs, and executive development. Somehow, those who work with us are supposed to magically understand exactly what we expect from them, right? Well, most humans are not clairvoyant. They are unable to read minds and thus, are unable to determine what you expect. So, how then, does the savvy exec go about dealing with this challenge? You must strive to build skills around setting and managing expectations. In fact, you’d do well to learn how to be managed as well!

This list is intended to help you become a star at expectations.

  1. Document your expectations: First for yourself and then for others. You will rarely be clear with subordinates, peers, and managers about what you expect to have happen if you have not clearly outlined it. Putting it on paper gives you talking points that may be used to ensure that the verbal picture you are drawing matches the one the receiver is hearing – every time.
  2. Share your expectations: Documenting what you expect does little good if you hoard the information to yourself, except perhaps in validating what you thought the outcome could be. After you get them clear in your mind, call in the stakeholders and walk them through your expectations. This helps both parties be successful.
  3. Manage expectations: During the course of the project or review cycle, review your expectations document and see how you are doing. Are you meeting your obligations? Are your subordinates and team members meeting those expectations you have shared with them? Were your expectations overly optimistic? It is far better to reset expectations – both your boss’ and your own – during the project or year rather than waiting until the end.
  4. Identify recovery options: If you or your team members are failing to meet expectations, identify ways that you can recover. If it simply isn’t possible, then determine the next best option to a recovery.
  5. Allow yourself to be managed: One of the hallmarks of a good manager is that they are open to reviewing their expectations and revising them if they were not on target. Allowing your team members the freedom to come and talk you through where your expectations were off, and perhaps changing them, will open your team to success.

We worked with a client who was ready to let go of an executive who was viewed in the organization as non-performing. After reviewing the situation with them, it became clear that they had never sat down and spelled out what they were expecting. We counseled the client against making such a costly change without first giving the executive the opportunity to improve. Now, when the performance review a year later occurs, if the executive is still unable to meet expectations and has made limited progress, the time would be right to talk about making a change.

The good manager will use expectations to help them inspire success in their teams. After all, people will typically live up – or down – to your expectations.

Beyond Mediocrity

For the past few days I have been reflecting on the causes and effects of mediocrity in organizations.  Is your organization an incubator of mediocrity or a house of quality?  I suspect that one of the most visible signs of mediocrity is poor customer services.  I have seen so many examples of this that I have been left dazed and confused.  Many organizational leaders seem to forget that the person dealing directly with clients has the biggest impact on the bottom line.  So often this person, whether a receptionist or a low level cashier, is poorly paid, hardly educated, and un-empowered to help the customer.


I have come to recognize though that customer service is not a department, it is a philosophy. It can not be about putting the lowest paid person in the organization on the front lines dealing with clients.

How many of us have worked for organizations who embrace mediocrity?  Is mediocrity learned or built into an organization’s DNA? 

Strategic Principles

One of the most relevant articles that can be put to use in today’s chaotic economy is a Harvard Business Review article that talks about the concept of strategic principles.  In summary, the article argues, and provides examples, that in the fast pace marketplace, managers no longer have the time to sit down and develop detailed strategies.  What the authors argue is that managers need to define some principles by which they operate and ultimately empower their people to work within.  The authors categories these strategic principles as follows:


  • Boundary Principles: identify opportunities an organization should capitalize on.
  • Priority Principles: determine the order in which opportunities should be pursued.
  • Timing Principles: address time requirements.
  • Exit Principles: detail circumstances in which to discontinue.
  • How-To Principles: outline process expectations.