I’ve just started Alfred Lansing’s Endurance – Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the story of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew’s adventure of living on an ice-moored ship near Antarctica for 10 months before their ship sinks, followed by 7 months living on an ice floe in the open sea until finally reaching safe harbor. I can barely put it down.
I’ve always loved real life adventure books, such as Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth, Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and Stanton’s In Harm’s Way. I follow the stories with maps next to my chair and Google Earth on my IPAD. I do background research on the people, the places and the times. Every one of these stories engages me in a way fiction, however exciting and adventuresome it might be, rarely does.
I think it starts with the obvious fact that these stories are about real people and real events. Now understand I’m a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, but when the story brings you to the tightest places, I expect Gandalf to show up with some magic, and of course, he or some other character usually does because Tolkien can make it so. In real life adventure stories, there’s no magic. There’s the occasional miracle (I do believe in those), but there’s also a lot of remarkable behavior and action by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
So, as a result, I’m always inspired by these stories. They remind me that whatever challenge I’m facing (like a winter in northern Michigan), there’s always others who’ve went through a lot worse and not only survived but were victorious. But I also approach these books as I did business school case studies, an opportunity to learn, to grow and to gain new perspective and insight into people and the world. I learn from both the successes and the failures that are always a part of real life stories.
In particular I love to look closely at the leaders in these stories. I ask questions such as – what was their leadership style? Was it effective? What can I apply in my context? If I could, I would love to sit down and have a cup of coffee with Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men so I could learn firsthand about his leadership. But since that’s not possible, reading a well –written and researched book about him and his adventure is the next best thing. And, in this case, it also reminds me that my winter in northern Michigan isn’t really so bad after all.
Winning and being on top is a great place to be personally and organizationally. There’s nothing like setting challenging goals, working hard to achieve them and then enjoying the sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing you and your team have won.
Yet this place is one of the most dangerous places to be. We’re at our most vulnerable because winning and being on top is a very slippery and deceptive place.
It’s slippery because no organization, team, or person wins all the time, nor sit on top forever (trust me I know this because I’m a Michigan football fan). This means we can never plan on or expect our lofty perch to last forever. There’s always a fall, a stumble or loss along the way.
And this is exactly why being on top is so deceptive. The longer we’re on top the more it feels like it will last forever, that our organization is somehow immune to whatever causes others to lose or fail. We even begin to feel that we’ve earned the right to be in this place regardless of what we do going forward. We may even admit intellectually that this can’t last forever. Yet too often we never allow this intellectual ascent to descend into our heart and our emotional being. The result is we never truly change our behavior or our direction until we find ourselves no longer on top.
So what can we do to protect ourselves and our organizations when we’re winning or sitting on top?
Play and Lead as if we’re behind.
We need to work as if the wolves are nipping at our heals, the barbarians are at the gate, that impending doom is sitting at our door. We can do this by always setting new goals, tougher standards, and expecting more from ourselves and our teams. If necessary, as leaders, we may need to find or create a crisis that reminds everyone that we’re much more vulnerable than we feel.
Or sometimes it’s as simple as giving all the naturally pessimistic people on our team a voice and really listening to that voice. When we’re on top we lose our sense of urgency about change. Our job as leaders is to create that urgency again, in ourselves and in others. And finally we can never allow ourselves and our teams to make decisions from the perspective of being at the top. The only perspective in which we should make decisions is in the light of being behind.
Finally, whatever we do, we cannot allow ourselves and our team to trust that feeling we have when we’re on top. Instead always, always we need to feel, play and lead as if we’re behind.
Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in an era, to think that what was standard “back then” must still be standard today. We think this because we believe really smart people had it all figured out back then (translation – it’s not possible someone today could actually be smarter than we were yesterday, thus it’s impossible anyone today could figure out a better or different way).
My toes, in particular my left big toe, paid the price for such shoddy (and arrogant) thinking.
This is how it happened. A couple of months before our trip my son, MD, and I were reviewing our equipment list. He mentioned having found a good deal on trekking poles, implying I might want to buy some as well. I told him, with serious conviction, “I’ve never hiked with trekking poles before. I’ve always used just a simple walking stick and it has worked pretty well”.
Now honestly, I was also thinking to myself “the only people I’ve ever remember using trekking poles were old people and wimps. And since I’m not old nor a wimp I sure as heck wasn’t going to be using them.” (I was also having doubts about my son’s manhood).
I should have realized the first day I was in deep trouble when I was both one of the oldest hikers and the only one without trekking poles.
You see the developers of the AT must have liked to hike up and down mountains because we walked up and down mountains multiple times a day. We rarely walked on flat ground; it was always up or down. As a result I quickly began to experience toe jam (toe jam is where your toes are constantly being jammed into the front of your shoes when going downhill) resulting in swollen toes and later, as I experienced, losing your toe nails.
By the painful third day it finally dawned on me why everyone was using trekking poles. Trekking poles break your downward steps. They take the pressure off your feet (and knees) helping to avoid toe jam among other injuries. Suddenly I saw all these young hikers, including my son, not as wimps but as smart and pragmatic, and I, in turn, was the aching, old fool.
So what’s the AT leadership lesson in all of this? Never assume that what worked yesterday is still the best option today. Be humble enough to believe that people are as smart today (or smarter) than we were yesterday. As a result it’s highly likely that methods have improved or new technology has been developed today that solves the problems we experienced yesterday (like toe jam). If we can embrace this reality about yesterday and today, our toes will be happier, and we’ll be better leaders.
- “What was I thinking carry all this food?”
- “What was I thinking having three changes of clothing when I’ve only worn one?”
- “What was I thinking not having trekking poles?” as my toe nails started to fall off because of toe jam.
- “What was I thinking not have my pack fitted and adjusted properly before I left?” as my shoulder ached.
- “What was I thinking not taking a closer look at my son’s well thought out itinerary and his packing list?” when I couldn’t remember where we stayed or planned to stay.
- “What was I thinking not being in better shape before the trip?” when I was so winded climbing up those mountains.
Now the beauty of backpacking is the thinking time as you walk (I was too winded to talk much). It was during these daily hikes that I’d find myself asking the “what was I thinking?” questions. And each time I asked these questions I also reflected how these AT experiences could speak into my life and leadership back home. The reality is I had some “ah ha” moments that have led me to make some significant changes when I got off the trail.
So join me over the next few posts as I share some of these lessons (and the stories behind them) with the hopes you’ll also find some useful nuggets for your leadership journey.
Could it be cutting edge academic, athletic and fine arts facilities? A curriculum loaded with options comparable to a small college? Maybe it’s a large student body that creates intense competition in the classroom, on the sports field and in the auditorium? Or the ability for students to specialize in a particular academic pursuit, sport, or fine arts discipline? Maybe the secret ingredient is as simple as parental involvement or small class sizes?
Now based on our four children’s experience, I can say with certainty, that most of these ingredients aren’t necessary to create a life transforming education. I also now believe it’s likely that some of these ingredients can actually stand in the way of one.
So then what is the secret ingredient? To answer that question, take a look at the above photo of our school’s conference and regional men’s and women’s 4×400 championship teams. They represent the secret ingredient. But to see this ingredient you need to know a bit about these eight students.
- 5 seniors, 2 juniors and a sophomore
- Six 4 sport athletes and one 5 sport athlete
- The valedictorian and salutatorian of the senior class
- Leads in the school plays and musicals
- 7 students (with the other next year) who participated in an overseas mission experience
- Members of the:
- School band and choir
- State runner-up Quiz Bowl Team
- MHSAA Student Advisory Council
- Student Council
- National Honor Society (6 students)
Now do you see the secret ingredient? It’s the ability for students to participate, in a meaningful way, in a wide range of life developing activities both inside and outside the classroom. As a result these eight students and their class mates will graduate as well-rounded, versatile people prepared to enter an ever-changing, complex world and to be a difference maker in it.
But what about getting into those top-tier colleges and universities? Well these seniors received acceptance into and will be attending nationally acclaimed colleges and universities. There is no doubt, because of all of their educational opportunities, these seniors were able to create impressive and persuasive college applications.
And here’s the real secret –the only kind of school that creates the opportunity to participate in a wide range of life developing activities, and to do so within the context of a small, supportive community of facility, staff, coaches, parents and families – is a small school.
And this is what our four children have experienced in their education at Northern Michigan Christian School. We have no doubt their diverse educational experience, combined with the people and community who provided it, have set them up not only to be successful in their careers but to be difference makers in the world. .
when doing a benchmarking visit of another camp I asked one of their senior people “do you ever visit other camps?” I was hoping to return the favor and offer him the opportunity to come to SpringHill so we could share with him what we’re doing. His answer was shockingly honest – “why would I want to do that?” You see this leader believed that he and his camp had already arrived. And when you’ve arrived why would you be interested in learning anything more?
In this series of posts about the seven attitudes and behaviors that can cause you to lose your job the fifth attitude “believing you’ve already arrived” can be the slowest way out. Slow because this attitude in and of itself typically isn’t enough to cause someone to lose their job especially if they are performing to expected levels.
But the problem is, over the long run, a person who believes they’ve already arrived will stop learning and growing. And learning and growing is essential because the world continues to change. As a result a person who quits learning, and loses what I call professional curiosity, will soon fall behind and will ultimately not be able to perform as expected.
The worst part of this attitude is that it can spread in an organization. And once it spreads, an organization can become complacent and be at risk of becoming irrelevant. As a matter of fact, unless this attitude changes, it’s only a matter of time before the leader and the organization finds itself in dire straits.
So, if you want to keep your job and continue to making a difference in the world, never allow yourself to believe you’ve arrived. Continue to be professionally curious, it will serve you and your team well today and into the future.43.928283-85.286682
Every fall I make two trips to northern Ontario, Canada fishing with two different groups of friends. We stay at one of the great places in the world – Camp Anjigami. By making Camp Anjigami our home base we’re able to fish many lakes for different species of fish (Walleye, Northern Pike, and Brook Trout).
Each species provides its own challenges and thrills. But my favorite species, by far, is the Brook Trout, or as the Canadians call them “Speckled Trout”. They’re beautiful (and elusive) fish that put up a big fight. The only issue with catching these little darlings (at least for some of my buddies) is that the best Speckled Trout lake is also the most challenging one to get to. The trip requires us to boat over four separate lakes (including 2 sets of rapids) and make 5 portages, all of which takes about 3 hours, one way.
There is no short cut (unless you charter a floatplane) to this lake. So if you want the chance to catch Speckled Trout, you boat and hike. Now for me I love to catch these fish, but truthfully I may even love the journey there and back more than the fishing.
Now why would I love the journey more than the fishing?
First, because it’s an adventure. Every time I make the trip something unexpected happens.
Second, the lakes and walks are absolutely rugged and beautiful.
But primarily the journey reminds me of the most important work and activities in my life such as raising kids, building a lasting marriage, achieving career goals or becoming the man God’s created me to be. I’m reminded that these endeavors are also journeys. And like my Speckled Trout journey, if seen in the right perspective, all have a sense of adventure, beauty, and a quest for something big, meaningful, and lasting which makes the journey itself as joyful as the destination.43.928283-85.286682
“Defense wins championships” is the often quoted sports proverb about what it takes to win it all. It’s this proverb and its application to my career that motivated me to read Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakesby Sydney Finkelstein. Like Jim Collin’s little book How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, it tells the stories behind the collapse of great companies run by really smart and talented people who, it turns out, focused too much on both personal and organizational offense at the expense of having a championship defense.
And every once in a while it’s good for me to have a little defensive perspective, to be reminded of the attitudes I, as a leader, can have and the actions I can take that could lead SpringHill to “lose the game”. One of the best chapters in the book’s called “Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful People”.
Finkelstein describes these seven habits in this way (as you read each one do as I did and ask yourself “am I displaying any of these habits or tendencies in my leadership?”):
- They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environments, not simply responding to developments in those environments.
- They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and corporate interests.
- They seem to have all the answers, often dazzling people with the speed and decisiveness with which they can deal with challenging issues.
- They make sure that everyone is 100 percent behind them, ruthlessly eliminating anyone who might undermine their efforts.
- They are consummate company spokespersons, often devoting the largest portion of their efforts to managing and developing the company image.
- They treat intimidatingly difficult obstacles as temporary impediments to be removed or overcome.
- They never hesitate to return to strategies and tactics that made them and their companies successful in the first place.
- They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environments, not simply responding to developments in those environments.
Implied in my last post, What’s Required to Lead Teams, Organizations and Movements, is the reality that best Organizational Leaders ask the right questions.
That’s because asking the right questions creates dialogue, and dialogue is critical for creating shared vision and values, as well as creating a strong commitment to both the people and the organization’s mission. So the leader’s job is to ask the right questions and listen to all the answers and discussion that follows.
Asking the right questions also requires asking the right people. In most organizations the right people included include employees, board members, customers, potential customers, volunteers and donors (for non-profits), and yourself. Of course it’s not always practical to ask every person in each category, but it’s important to find the right number of people in each group, remembering that the goal is to create dialogue, commitment, and clarity in the answers to the Right Questions.
Finally, though it’s obvious, if leaders are to lead through asking the right questions it requires them to ask these questions with humility, to be truly open to hearing things they may not like to hear, to respect both the messages and the messengers, and finally, to have the wisdom to sort through the array of answers to find the common themes which, ultimately leads to the right answers.
So what are the right questions that need to be asked?
They’re questions that center on the four areas leaders need to lead – Organizational Thinking, People, Resources, and Self – discussed in my last two posts. Though there may be many right questions, you might want to begin with the questions SpringHill asks by clicking here (or see my page on the above right side of my blog called “Questions Leaderships Should Ask and Help Their Organization Answer”); they’re formatted into a checklist you can use to evaluate your own organization and its journey of asking and answering the Right Questions.43.928283-85.286682
Last week three SpringHill staff and I taught seminars at the Christian Camping and Conference Association’s (3CA) Great Lake’s Regional Conference. It was a chance for us to share with other Christian camping professionals some of what we’ve learned over the years. Teaching in this context clearly aligns with our vision of being an “influential ally” of other like-minded and kindred spirited organizations.
But the truth is teaching is also one of the best ways to learn and so, to be honest, it’s also another reason we were willing to invest the time of four people to teach at this conference. You see when you teach (and do a good job teaching) it requires a number of things from you that benefits you as a learner.
First, it requires you to know your subject well enough to confidently stand before people to present and to handle any questions and disagreements that arise.
Secondly, teaching forces you to be able to communicate what you know in a clear and compelling manner. And the more clearly you can communicate something the more clearly you actually understand it.
Finally, teaching requires further learning because you always discover the gaps in your knowledge and understanding which leads to the need to fill those gaps before standing in front of a crowd.
So I’m a big believer in teaching as one of the best ways to learn and take every opportunity I have to teach. And every time I do I always walk away better for the experience.
So will you consider teaching at a conference, class or other venue if offered an opportunity? You’ll be glad you did, and so will the people who’ll benefit from all that you’ve learned.43.928283-85.286682