Imagine A World Where – Ten Practices of Innovators

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Today I ran into a Mexican friend who took me on a tour of his dream come true. He had rented a street-front office for his travel/educational business. This was after he had lost his lease on an office of 15 years in a prime setting on the city square.

In the process of moving to his new location he discovered that there was a run-down mansion in the rear of the property. A dream sparked in his mind and he saw the possibility of a boutique hotel at that location. A year later, there it was in all its renovated glory with a steady flow of international guests.

We all develop mental images of what we want for ourselves. Some are based on fantasies that seem to die an early death. Other visions of the future or innovative ideas are serious intentions based on deep long-standing desires and stellar abilities. Here we need to be alert to signs from the universe (some call those coincidences) that call for bold action. We see solutions to challenges that no one has thought of or developed before that meet real world needs. 

An IT Director in a large tech company told me, “I want to create applications that make my customers wildly successful” When I met her several months later she was well on her way to realizing that dream. 

One thing that is true of all possibility thinking is that people don’t just jump in and support us. Recently a research scientist told me “At a meeting in our corporate headquarters last week they brought in a couple of the top scientists who talked about how they created new and astounding technologies. The amazing thing was that they did it in their spare time. Apparently these same scientists had asked their bosses if they could go ahead with their new ideas and they were told to focus on their present projects. So the work of innovation took place after hours.

We cannot wait for the majority in our world to give us the green light to follow our passion. Most go it alone or with the support of one or two close friends or associates. But it is more important that we cast a vote for ourselves.

Is your imagination stimulated to innovate or move in new directions in life? 

Here are the ten practices of innovators. They

  1. Created a compelling story (imagine a world where) that stimulated their imagination.
  2. Invited influential stakeholders to be partners/sponsors in the venture. They told their story in a way that excited others. Visions are caught not taught.
  3. Persisted despite skepticism and opposition. They knew the difference between “Know when to quit” and, “Don’t give up too soon!”
  4. Broke or at least bent the rules by which others thought they should operate.
  5. Showed flexibility and a willingness to change course quickly if the circumstances demanded such an action.
  6. Allowed their mistakes to act as course corrections or learning trials.
  7. Estimated the risk accurately.
  8. Launched out on an “adventure of faith” before all the resources were available. One ancient writer described faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen”.
  9. Remained very clear on the opportunities built into the vision of the future base on clear data.
  10. Used the toothbrush test (A term used at Google to determine the viability of a project). This test answered the question “will people use it at least twice a day and will it have long-term usefulness?”

 Please share your dream in ten words or less in the comments section

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Assert Your Brand with Humility?

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Why do we even ask the question about a successful marriage between making our abilities known and humility?

Two reasons.

First, talking about one’s achievements or personal success solicits censure in some circles. Many believe that showcasing one’s perspective, product, or person is a sign of boastfulness, a lack modesty and narcissistic tendencies (sometimes they are but that’s another blog). The result of brand assertion is that,

“The tall blade of grass gets cut down.” 

The second reason is that, unless we define carefully who we are we can miss opportunities to get what we really want and make our greatest contribution. 

The negative press on brand assertion is deeply embedded in may societies and is shaped by faulty thinking.   Carl Jung said, “we are battered by the forces of our own psyche”. Each of these forces is shaped by,

  1. Cultural conditioning. In certain parts of the world the welfare of the group is more important than that of the individual. A person advocating strongly for his/her point of view or personal brand is believed to detract from the focus on the group.    Here individualism (equated with assertiveness) is seen as a personal deficit and is frowned upon. This cultural conditioning even extends to the different ways men and women are socialized in Western culture. While it is perfectly acceptable for a man to “toot his own horn” women do not want to be viewed as rising above others.
  2. Assertiveness Misinterpreted. It is fairly common for people to confuse brand assertion with aggressiveness. But the two are worlds apart. Aggression is rooted in the spirit of wanting to dominate or even hurt the other. Declaring one’s brand, in the best sense, comes from a deep desire to serve others to the best of one’s ability.  In a sense aggressiveness is like wrestling. Assertiveness like a dance.
  3. Humility Misconstrued. Somehow humility has been tarnished with the thought the person should apologize for him/herself, remain invisible, and not stand up and speak for themselves or their organization. I heard recently of an organization that lost a sale to a customer because they did not assert the value of their service/product.

The Solution

We need an antidote for the belief that personal brand definition and humility cannot coexist. In this fast-paced competitive world the imperative is “define your brand or die or be ignored”. So as a result, 

  • View the above three beliefs (and our resultant aggression) as the product of our conditioned thinking. So evaluate your self-assessments more carefully.
  • Be careful to distinguish between assertiveness and aggressive tendencies. As Pema Chodron said, “You have to want to lose your appetite for violence and aggression. And to do that, you have to lose your self-righteousness”.
  • Establish a new way of thinking where we give ourselves permission to state our views or advocate for our position or that of a cause/company.
  • Observe the old habit with patience and compassion. Don’t try to push the thoughts away or deny them because that makes them even stronger.
  • Be very clear to have a simple and compelling brand-statement. For instance one IT executive told me recently “I love to create applications that make my customers wildly successful”. You need to define what distinguishes you from others so that you can be deployed as the right person for the right job.

And guess what? Your world will not fall apart if you assert yourself. Many times when we are on the right track we get a lot of criticism. A brand statement makes it far easier to get what you envision for yourself.

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Making Conflict Work for You

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Some find it difficult to handle conflict.

Recently a senior executive told me “I have worked all my life in a collaborative work environment where we seldom openly expressed conflict. However, recently we merged with a company from another continent. They have no problem strongly disagreeing with each other. In fact, the debate gets quite heated at times. I just don’t know how to be that direct. In fact, when I encounter conflict, I tend to avoid it.”

You may be really thin skinned and go into a tailspin when others disagree with you. That may be because in the past inter-personal friction turned out badly. You also believed that you did not have the tools to handle strongly felt differences of opinion. This is possibly due to the fact that in your family of origin you did not acquire the tools to handle conflict well. Also you may be from a culture where folks avoid conflict especially when it comes to disagreement with senior leaders.

There are two sides of the coin with conflict.

The first has to do with destructive or unproductive fighting. This usually occurs with political turf battles or one ego bumping into the other. Here people get their feelings hurt and generally believe “What’s the use of my speaking up, nobody listens anyway?”

The other side of the coin is when conflict leads to positive outcomes. Here both parties,

  1. Stay attuned to each other. This requires skilled listening skills.
  2. Work towards the same high-level goal.
  3. Seek to build on (not contradict) the position of the other. They tend to use “yes-and” rather than “yes-but” responses.
  4. Engage in robust dialogue but at the same time demonstrate deep respect for each other.
  5. Allow their view to be changed in the face new and more accurate data.
  6. Decide, in the interests of higher goals (the need of the customer), to “agree to disagree”.

The senior executive in the opening example learned to experience conflict as productive and the natural outcome of her new diverse workplace. Instead of avoiding it as she had done in the past she adopted the above 6 strategies. In so doing she experienced new levels of creativity and more productive work relationships.

How has conflict worked well for you and your relationships?









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Go Ahead, Break the Rules

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If you have even the slightest inclination to innovate you have to break the rules. You have to at times disregard the majority decisions and follow your own inner truth. If not, your ideas will die on the vine.

An executive vice president in a large financial institution told me that his leadership style was to “break glass”. He thrived on devising original solutions that met business goals. Despite the fact that he did not conduct business as usual, the Board of Directors and his boss (the CEO) loved the results he produced with his team.

Rule breakers are rewarded by organizations if they get positive results. Otherwise there is “organ rejection” — they are told to conform or leave. In families that value conformity, rule breakers are sometimes marginalized and demonized. Conformity, particularly in a dysfunctional family or work system, can result in a slow death.

So, do you want to innovate and be creative? Yes?

By nature, you are not just a rebel for the sake of being a rebel. You have a drive to explore new territory in your field and make a contribution to your organization/society. Here are some things to avoid that will sustain you as you explore and express your creative impulses.

  1. Don’t allow yourself to get squeezed into roles that are not you. Too often I find that people who want to be the architect of new strategies get trapped in tactical roles. This may work for a while but such people become bored and restless. They need to be in situations that play to their strengths.
  1. Don’t allow the fear of what others think constrain your creativity. Innovative people have to resist internalizing the criticism of bosses or families (You want to do what?) and in turn inhibit themselves with self-limiting thoughts. Any idea worth its salt will be criticized anyway.
  1. Don’t stay trapped in unproductive roles/jobs. Many innovative people leave constrictive work environments and either go off on their own or find other work situations that nurture creativity. There are many organizations that keep reinventing themselves in response to industry and customer needs. Find such a culture for yourself.

So go ahead, break the rules. Question authority. Remember, organizations that rest on their laurels for too long, now no longer exist. And people who are not willing to show flexibility of thought and action are trapped in dead end jobs or relationships.

If you have the impulse and talent to innovate and are restricted in your current role, “break glass”! (You won’t be disappointed…)

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Simplify Like Picasso

Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

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Can you share complex ideas and issues using clear, concise and simple language? If so, you are a top notch communicator — your audience will understand your message easily, retain it over the long-term, and be more motivated to act on your ideas.

At Apple, designers live and breathe the notion that optimal function and great design arise from simplicity. Consider this excerpt from the New York Times article By Brian X Chen “Simplifying the Bull: How Picasso Helps to Teach Apple’s Style”

Teachers in Apple’s internal training program, according to Chen,  “sometimes point to a collection of Picasso lithographs that artfully illustrate the drive to boil down an idea to its most essential components.” 

This quest for clarity and simplicity applies to everything we do in life, including:

* Crafting a personal mission statement

* Shaping corporate mission strategy

* Clearly expressing the essential message in our writing

* Having a conversation about an important subject with our children

* Pitching a new service or product to a customer


What do you have to do to simplify your ideas for maximum impact on your audience?

Can you boil down your core idea to one short statement? 

Can you have a conversation about your ideas without beating around the bush?

In all these instances your overriding objective is to:

Simplify and clarify so that your message has maximum impact and influence.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words: look at Picasso’s progressive refinements of his bull. Simplify and communicate like Picasso!


Bull images by Art Resource, NY; 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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A Well-Lived Life

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Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

(Originally published in 2011)

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” – Jung

What is a life well lived—a life filled with quality, richness, and meaning?

Maybe we should start with what it isn’t.

Curiously, it isn’t any of the things we’ve come to associate with “success”: an impressive resume or extensive real estate holdings. Instead, living life well, whether you look inside or outside yourself, as Jung describes, is associated strongly with:

  • The “spiritual” component of life
  • A journey rather than a destination
  • Contentment, but not necessarily, happiness

We’ve composed a preliminary list of experiences that we have found makes for a life well lived. They are not listed in any particular order of importance.

Experiences That Make For A Life Well-Lived

  1. Contributing toward an individual’s growth or an organization’s mission that we highly value.
  2. Demonstrating a consistency between our public and private persona.
  3. Experiencing the love and support of family and/or friends who have stuck with us through challenging times. And growing in the capacity to love.
  4. Learning through and sharing with friends — their perspectives, experiences, and insights.
  5. Growing through education, travel, or other hands-on experiences.
  6. Mastering skills in personal and/or professional realms.
  7. Appreciating the excellence and beauty in other people’s mastery and expression (e.g., in the arts, sports, problem-solving).
  8. Experiencing epiphanies about the nature of life.
  9.  Being immersed in something greater than the self.
  10.  Feeling captivated, awed, and/or spiritually awakened by Nature.
  11. Connecting with many sources of wisdom.
  12. Experiencing gratitude.
  13. Living mindfully in the present.
  14. Deepening one’s awareness by consistently living life’s existential questions.

How would you describe components of a life well lived?

We would love to hear from you.

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Self-Knowledge – The Sign of Great Leadership

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Anais Nin cogently observed, “We see things not as they are but as we are.” The the fog of self-deception needs to be displaced by the sunshine of self-awareness.

The better people know themselves the better leaders they are.

Self-knowledge is the reflective ability to perceive and understand our own underlying motives, strengths, and limitations.

“When the seventy-five members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness.” - Bill George, past President and CEO of Medtronics

One arrives at self-knowledge by being fully awake to our own inner world. It is only then that we even have a shot at being an effective leader.

An Example of High Self-Knowledge

Consider a social situation where leaders are interacting with others in order to accomplish some goal, such as to solve a problem. People with high self-awareness might do one or more of the following during this interaction:

  • Listen carefully to and validate the opinions of others; recognize when they are over-reacting to opposition and modify their response during the encounter;
  • Take others’ views into account and incorporate those views in solving the problem;
  • Demonstrate a realistic self-assessment of their strengths and limitations in solving the problem.

An Example of Low Self-Knowledge

In contrast, people with a profound lack of self-knowledge might approach the same problem-solving situation in a very different way. They might:

  • Push their own agenda without care or regard for others’ perspectives;
  • Not listen to others or pretend to listen;
  • Be highly reactive when their own needs are not being met..
  • Assume that they are the experts and, consequently, the only ones with the key to solving the problem at hand;
  • Misinterpret the group’s reticence to comply with their ideas; take themselves and their enterprise at hand so seriously that they are unable to recognize their own foibles and/or laugh at themselves. Typically, people with low self-knowledge are people who are highly perplexed by the feedback on their 360º’s because they don’t see themselves as others do.

Self-knowledge is an attribute that varies in degree: some of us are naturally good at it, some are very poor, and the rest of us fall somewhere in between.

How does each of us heighten our self-knowledge so that we can become more effective leaders? Begin by trying the following:

  • Learn to know yourself: make an honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to your effectiveness as a leader.
  • Examine your values and underlying motives so that you are aware of them as you interact with others.
  • Make a careful inventory of your conditioned feelings/thoughts all of which are shaped by past experiences.
  • Construct an honest inventory of situations where you over-react and learn strategies to monitor yourself as well as substitute another better adapted behavior.
  • Learn to not take yourself so seriously; use self-deprecating humor.
  • Don’t be so hard on yourself when you over react to others.
  • Ask for and incorporate candid feedback from others as you attempt to make changes.

We have to understand  and regulate our own inner world of feelings before we can even begin to lead others.

Professor Warren Bennis in an interview with the NY Times said “the process of becoming a leader is similar, if not identical, to becoming a fully integrated human being.  Both are grounded in self-discovery.”

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Courage in the Face of Uncertainty

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At times the unknown pushes us way out of our comfort zone.

Studies indicate that some people would prefer intense physical pain to the state of uncertainty. “I don’t know” provokes an unbearable panic and a desire for resolution. For others, the more adventurous types with a higher threshold for ambiguity, they encounter the unknown with a raised fist and a resounding “YES”.

No matter what our typical response to uncertainty may be, remember this

Fear is normal but courage is a better option.

The choice is ours. Raise our defenses and stay stuck. Or, courageously exercise healthier options and move forward.

Erecting Defenses

When we are desperate for answers we can throw up all sorts of defenses. When the ground shakes under us it is normal to seek solid ground. The problem is when we discover that what we thought was a foundation is after all really shaky ground. This leads to a state where we,

  1. Deny the facts. We all have that mental frontier where reason ends and blind faith begins. And this does not even have to include religion. For instance, some accept the scientific facts of global warming but choose to believe the opposite view of what their political position espouses. “Don’t confuse me with the facts” is the fallback position of a seemingly rational person. The reason is that it is not always truth that we seek but security.
  1. Get busy. When we run into a wall of uncertainty we hit the gas pedal. We speed up our lives and frantically run from one activity (addiction?) to another. I find that when I’m compulsively checking my email that I am compensating for some underlying anxiety. I saw a bumper sticker in the South “Jesus is coming. Look busy” In the face of the unknown we turn into the Roadrunner.
  1. Veg out. When we become frightened by the unknown we can surrender to laziness and procrastination. We drug ourselves with lethargy and this numbs the terror of the unknown. But veging out backfires on us. It makes us feel even more helpless and induces self-loathing.

No matter how hard we try life will still be filled with unknowns. How do we turn uncertainty to our advantage?  Rather, one key is to allow uncertainty be our teacher that helps us taps into deep inner and universal resources.

 Exercising Options

When we find ourselves fearful of uncertainty we can make the following choices.

  1. Face the fear and do it anyway is the title of a book I once read. It takes courage to be open to not being/feeling Okay. Why can we not see these moments of our lives the way we do a season like winter? Ranting against the cold and snow is no way to survive the cold season. As Pema Chodron writes, “If you touch the fear instead of running from it, you find tenderness, vulnerability, and sometimes a sense of sadness”.
  1. Come out of our self-protecting bubble by realizing that we are not alone with this feeling. Millions of others face the fear of uncertainty every day. And let’s face it, try this for perspective, my uncertainty as I sit in my armchair pondering the uncertainty of my next work assignment pales in significance to the terrified child or parent in the Middle East wondering if they will live through the next salvo of bombs. So instead of becoming rigid and angry we have the choice of becoming empathic and merciful towards others in a similar but even bigger boat.
  1. Focus on the storyline we construct in response to uncertainty. Physiologically the shelf life of any emotion is but a few seconds. Mentally we continue to scare ourselves with hypothetical “what if’s” based in part on the way things played out in the past. Realize that you are on the path of genuineness as you live with these scary parts. And this is not accomplished by catastrophizing the event but treating it as a “just is”.
  1. Search for the answers you can find. The quest for answers when we are confused, lost, and in pain can be a life saving strategy. I’m glad I searched for better solutions when I found out that I had prostrate cancer. If I had done what my first physician told me to do “Don’t worry about your rising PSA numbers” I would not be alive today. I found another physician who took my condition more seriously and intervened on my behalf by arranging a biopsy.

The best outcome in dealing with our fears is to become what Pema Chodron calls “spiritual warriors”. This is based on the classic Buddhism idea of the bodhisattva ideal, which means,

working on ourselves, developing courage and fearlessness and cultivating our capacity to love and care about other people. It involves taking good care of ourselves, but whatever we do, it’s all in the bigger context of helping” (Chodron)

You may want to also read

“Courage” written with Kris MacKain, Ph.D

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Making Delegation Work for You

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In my time I’ve seen some great examples of how delegation does and does not work.

Here are some practices that bring about spectacular failures.

  1. Handing on the baton in a relay race. An example would be a CEO who devises a strategy with his/her executive team and then hands it on to the rest of the organization to get it done. The pretext for this mindset could be found in statements like “I’m a big picture person and don’t do details.”
  1. Getting others to do your work for you.  It is not that the leader is necessarily lazy or avoiding responsibility but she views her primary task to be different from being too hands on. Sure when the leader gets into the weeds he disempowers people. But micro managing should not be confused with intelligent leader involvement.
  1. Talking about strategy but not executing well. I heard of a CEO who was making a presentation to his executive board on the topic of the organization falling far short of its business goals. He showed a slide of the corporate strategy with these words “We looked at this slide eight years ago. When are going to stop talking and start doing?” There had been all sorts of “delegation” but no real execution. And the situation had persisted for 8 years. No wonder the company was in trouble.

The good news is that delegation can work. Here are some best practices that illustrate how it can be a fundamental and effective leadership skill.

  1. Deciding/Working together. This seems so basic but telling others what to do is not the most prudent and effective way to delegate. It stifles the ability of employees to think for themselves. They have to be involved in the decision-making process in order to “own” the task.
  1. Requiring accountably. Effective leaders ensure that everyone is accountable by acting on group decisions on a timetable, having milestones, and requiring measurable action steps and results.
  1. Staying informed. A key to good delegation is that the leader knows what is going on in the trenches. It may not be the leader’s domain of expertise. However, she knows how to probe/ask the right questions to see if people are doing their jobs effectively in order to meet the business goals. A great delegator masters the art of questioning and is not afraid of the truth.
  1. Assigning prudently. Often leaders are given responsibilities based on tenure, friendship, or even seniority. The issue is “If you cant get the job done get out of the way.” This is a case of up (for the task) or out.
  1. Choosing people for the future. An essential part of delegation is that the leader knows whether she has the right people for the future of the organization. He chooses people with the skills and values that will take the organization into the future and realize the strategy both then and now.
  1. Moving beyond silos. A great leader does not delegate in a vacuum. She sees how the whole organization needs to work together to realize the corporate vision. Delegation is not to silos. A task cannot be given to HR without consideration of what is going on in engineering or marketing.

Leaders who cannot work through others cause their organizations to thrash around unnecessarily and ultimately fail. They may have the brightest ideas in the world. But if they don’t execute on them they have failed.

So let’s get delegation right.



 What worst and best practices have you seen from delegation?

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Your Timeless Wholeness

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For a decade in my childhood I had the same bicycle.

But how it changed over the years. It became increasingly more battered. Bike polo, ramp jumping, stream crossing, beast of burden (3 kids on one bike), races on rickety roads, parts removed and added, and then after ten years, it’s ultimate demise, run over by a car (I left it in the driveway).

With all the changes it was, in one way or another still the same bike and a metaphor for life.  To quote Buddhist writer Bonnie Myotai Treace,

“It’s easy to identify with all the places we’ve been hurt and abandoned, but can we identify with the timeless wholeness that weathers every abuse, every condition? If we can’t, we may spend this life protecting ourselves and never really risk living”

Now at this stage of life I ask again the more important questions like, “Who am I right now? What is my task?”

It is certainly not to be attached to either “look what I’ve done” or “look how I have screwed up”

What I really am, my true task in life, despite my not seeing it at times, it is still what it always was,

Find my timeless wholeness and really risk living.

“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”
― Walt WhitmanLeaves of Grass

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