Wake Up – Life is Good

From time to time we all have very scary nightmares both during our sleep as well as in our daily lives. We need to be reminded that the nightmare is not the total reality of our lives. Here is how.

  Wake Up

The antidote to being scared out of our minds by the difficulties and challenges of life is to recognize the totality of our experience.

We live in a world of paradox. We are strong but we also have our weaknesses and limitations. We shake in our boots in the wake of life’s challenges but we can also find ways to be resilient. Our world may be filled with scary atrocities (think Trump and Russia for a start) but there are wonders and miracles to behold for those with eyes that see. Such a perspective keeps us from being to cocky or cowering in a corner.

  • There are actions we can take like driving out the vote in our next election that is an antidote to learned helplessness.
  • We can choose to listen to honest and accurate feedback about our blind spots to ensure that we stay awake.
  • We need to put our egos aside, listen to the feedback we don’t want to hear, and finally internalize such advice and reorder our lives accordingly.
  • A typical wake up call often comes when life deals us a painful blow. As we reel with shock and disbelief the key is to allow this painful moment become a “teaching moment” or a lens through we see the wonders of life. . Here there are two lessons to be learned.

 Life is Fragile

I recently received the diagnosis of an irreversible heart condition that shook me to my very core. It reminded me of the Latin root of the word humble humus meaning earth, ground, or soil. It is reminiscent of the name given to the first biblical figure Adam whose name is derived from the Hebrew word for ground or dust. He was literally a ‘man of the dust.’ The Taoist philosophy, found in the book of ancient Chinese wisdom Chuang Tzu, reflects a similar theme. The universe and its people are viewed as a mighty mud ball (Hun Tun -’dark essence’).

Each reference reminds us how vulnerable we are and how little control we have over life and death – in a moment we can be killed or disabled by sickness or accident. We can lose all of our material possessions in a fire. A sudden corporate merger can mean the end of our job.

The notion that we are fragile/mortal can be a powerful wake up call reminding us that we don’t have unlimited time available. We should live every moment to its fullest. We also don’t waste time on the regrets of the past or the anxieties of the future. All that really matters is that we live life to the fullest right now. We also embrace our ‘mud nature’ by factoring in the possibility of judgment errors and even business failure. Such a realization of our human frailty in turn should lead to reflect on the fact that

Life is Good

Occasionally, especially in those tough moments, we find ourselves astonished at the goodness of life. Most of the time, however, we wander through life clueless to the goodness that surrounds us. We fail to notice the beauty of the countryside or the kindness of others. We can spend most of our reflective time focusing on the past and especially the future without truly being in the present.

People who are filled with gratitude have often just experienced extreme hardship or suffered profound losses. For example, you meet many grateful people who are recovering alcoholics, or those who have found genuine love after enduring years in a loveless relationship. Sometimes it takes the shock of facing one’s own mortality to experience gratitude. Playwright Dennis Potter (who was dying from cancer) remarked during his last television interview that he was living so intensely in the present that he noticed the beauty in ordinary things that he’d hardly paid attention to before. He captured this beautifully in his comment:

 “ The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.”

How wonderful if more of us could achieve that level of awareness and appreciation for life!

 Finally, don’t wait for tragedy to wake you up. Wake up by yourself.

Reflect on the words of Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello,

“Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep. They are having a nightmare.”

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Go Ahead. Be a Devil’s Advocate

The phrase Devil’s Advocate (DA) originally came from the Latin Advocatus Diaboli. This was a role prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church to an official who argued against the appointment of individuals to sainthood. He was typically looking for character flaws that would disqualify the person from being elevated to sainthood.

In a similar fashion, a DA in an organization “kicks its tires” by challenging the ideas of others.

The process insures diversity of thought and opens the way for innovation.

However, how exactly does a person have to behave to be an effective DA? Here are some do’s and don’ts.

  Don’t

1.  Confuse being a devil’s advocate with an oppositional personality.

Such personality types love being contrarians with the compulsion to argue every position. Their goal is not to seek the best solution for the organization through consensus.

It reminds me of the contrarian who asked folks who were having an argument, “Is this a private argument or can anyone join in?”

2.  Always contradict what others are saying

An ineffective devil’s advocate always needs to be right and does not tolerate other opinions. The typical communication style is telling and not facilitating since they typically view themselves as the ultimate Subject Matter Expert. Dealing with their self-assured posture is like running into a brick wall. You go nowhere fast and come away with a severe headache.

The key to being effective as a DA is to find ways to build on what others say with yes/and responses rather than yes/but interactions.

3.  Be a jerk

A true test of whether a person is acting like a jerk in a group setting is that everyone comes away from the experience with a bad taste. A jerk is someone with a major personality disorder and needs to be shunted out of group discussions as quickly as possible. This requires skilled management abilities where firm ground rules are set for participation in a group

  Do

1.  Add to the diversity of thought in the group

Someone who adds to the diversity of thought in the group increases the possibility of innovation. In so doing a DA forces the group to see things in new and different ways.

2.  Respectfully challenge leaders.

The other day a senior executive told me how to one of his reports challenged him on his proposed strategy. He said, “I found it very refreshing to be challenged by one of my junior staff. He forced me to see issues in a totally different light

3. Protect the messenger

In organizations where conformity to authority is the cultural norm the devil’s advocate is typically silenced. A person who can raise critical questions in a constructive way is crucial to the success of any group and is worth his/her weight in gold.

4.  Push the boundaries

The DA is not constrained by the plea “we have always done things this way”. He/she would typically ask “Why?” The key to the success of this questioning style is that the organization gives permission and encourages others to call into question its very tenets.

So go ahead and encourage the role of a DA in any of your organization’s group discussions. The sky will not fall down but the world of creativity will open up before your very eyes.

I know a highly successful IT Executive who fulfills the DA role exceptionally well. He describes his personal brand as one where he “breaks glass”. He was tasked with totally reshaping the IT business in his organization and broke all the rules in doing so.

Question

How have you been an effective Devil’s Advocate?

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A Perspective on Feelings at Work

We all carry wounds from the past. A deep disappointment at not being promoted or the death of family member may leave us raw and at times reactive at work. How can we protect ourselves and others from any spillover from our bruised emotions?

And  since work is not group therapy and managers are not trained psychotherapists, what does one do with hurts that potentially disrupt our work?

The sad thing is that in the corporate world we seldom cater to feeling states . One leader who had just been through a messy marital breakup minimized his feelings by saying; “I’m not touching that stuff with a barge pole. I’m leaving my troubles at home” He literally froze in his own emotional Cul de Sac. But unfortunately for all that was not the end of his story. His unprocessed feelings continued to bleed into his work life in the form of hostility and irritability.

The challenge for this man, like for many males, was that he had chosen to spend very little time focusing on his feeling world. When he did, he lacked the words to describe what was going on in his heart. All he could really say was “I’m stressed out and frustrated”.

 How could he find a safe place/people where he could

Slow down and pass through his painful feelings rather than skirt around them.

How could he prevent stuffing his feelings and then have them blow up in his face?

 Slow down and acknowledge 

Our hurried lives leave little time for reflection on our hurts and those of others. However, we can take time to listen with empathy and say, “This is so painful for you. I don’t understand what you are going through but I see your pain.” We don’t try to be the person’s therapist and spend hours commiserating with them. We are just there for them in the moment.

It takes time and perseverance to uncover and give words to one’s painful feelings. In a world of “say it quickly in less than two minutes” we need kind folks who give us the gift of just listening, not judging, and who resist the drive to “fix” what seems to be broken.

Go through and not around

There are many ways we try to skirt around our pesky emotions. We escape into busyness, become intoxicated by substances, twist our feelings into anger, become crippled by anxiety, and distract ourselves in a thousand ways. I have heard of veterans of the Viet Nam conflict who did not talk about their painful war experience for decades and in so doing had the underlying pain contaminate their intimate relationships.

Going through rather than around one’s pain means looking at it full on, considering it for what it is, and not minimizing the experience. And then slowly, sometimes very slowly, we come to gain a perspective on our pain. This is where it is so important to be there for others over the long haul.

Permanence does not mean dominance

We cannot ultimately erase painful memories. It only takes a flashback to an old wound for us to realize that the pain is a permanent part of the topography of our minds. It is incorrect to say “time heals”. Rather, our responses and choices change over time as we develop a different perspective on our pain. In this way we can prevent ourselves from either being lost in a sea of despair or having our life disabled by our memories.

The best outcome of self-reflection is for us to show strength at the point that we were broken. Examples of the latter are women who were hurt in their own “#MeToo” experiences helping others who are going through the same process.

There is really no need to stuff our feelings when there are effective ways to understand and regulate them. In this way our work lives can come more fully from our hearts as we choose compassion with ourselves and others

 

Question

What have you done to heal the hurts of your past and not allow them to contaminate your daily life including work?

 

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Are You Emotionaly Prepared for a Winning Strategy?

Do you want to be emotionally prepared for a winning strategy?

Then indulge me for a moment and finish this sentence

Imagine a world where….

Where does that exercise lead you?

As you engage is such a mental exercise with a positive vision of your future you are priming your brain for success by

1. Rehearsing the successful outcome

There is strong scientific data to prove that regular positive mental rehearsal powerfully determines the successful outcome of our aspirations. In so doing, you reprogram your neural pathways to move you to that successful future. What happens is that you install the neurological hardware that prepares you for successful execution.

Think of an Olympic gymnast mentally preparing for an event or a basketball player setting him/herself up for a free throw. Each athlete is rehearsing mentally what it is like to perform that skill perfectly. Such a mindset activates the body memory that is formed over years of skillful practice. And wham. The athlete hits the mark! The same is true for anything from public speaking to formulating a successful strategy.

Furthermore, each person is

2. Orienting fully to the present

Mindfulness or staying in the moment is not just the latest fad. It is a powerful tool that aids successful execution of any task or skill by bringing you solidly into the present.

Take the example of a biathlon athlete. He/she has to transition from one sporting activity to another, cross-country skiing to target shooting. The athlete has to be fully present and fully focused on aiming at the target. He/she cannot be breathless from the skiing. There can be no attention on the outcome (e.g. this shot could win/lose me the gold medal). He/she cannot be glancing on the competitors.

Be here now is the task.

Added to that, in order to bring the future into the present, the athlete has to find a way to sustain a calm confidence linked to the joy of achieving what one has trained for over many years. They have to be

3. Anchoring emotionally to success

We remember best what we feel the most. Hence it is imprudent to tie our selves into knots with negative feelings like fear, lack, or resentment. Instead, we aim to experience positive emotions right now. Each feeling will be wedded to the realization of our bold plans. For instance, live as if you

Realize your organization’s strategy?

Right now in this moment you

Feel your heart swell with pride

Experience deep satisfaction with your accomplishment

So now, how then does one balance planning for a successful outcome with the ever-present dangers of overconfidence?

4. Balancing self-compassion with optimism

The older I get the more I am aware of human frailty and foibles. However despite that, we are capable of doing far more than we could ever dream or think. If I tell myself that

·    I’m too old then I behave as if I’m too old

or

·   This strategy is not that important then somehow I introduce the seeds of failure into the mix

or

I am really not up to the demands that change will make on me

If you prepare yourself emotionally for your grand vision and do the work  you have to do (evidence-based best practices) you will more than likely achieve your lofty goals.

Give it a try.

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When We Build it They May Not Come – Three Strategy Questions

Your organization had a brilliant strategy. It was all about the service or product YOU could produce for the customer. But the strategy fell flat on its face.

Contrast that with another Company. The organization took time to do an in-depth study of customer needs, did an analysis of industry trends, and sought to partner with the customer on THEIR strategy. The strategy succeeded.

Three simple questions would have prevented the first fiasco and set the stage for an effective strategy. They are,

  1. What is our focus?

An organization-centered focus is more often than not on the path to failure or obsolescence. A change to a customer-centered focus leads to the realization of a winning strategy.

The customer is always asking, “What are you going to do for me? It is here that we have to let go the mistaken notion “If we build it they will come.”

A failing strategy is centered on what WE do.

By contrast, a winning strategist says, “The customer comes and we build it with them”

Serving and empowering others is the foundation of any effective strategy. The customer asks and we move heaven and earth to make it happen. We also ask,

  1. How can we see around the corner into the future with you?

Such a long-term customer-centric perspective will draw on our imagination, courage, and ingenuity and become the heart of a vibrant and robust strategy.

I often ask folks to “Imagine a day when”. This exercise is not just some “rabbit out of the hat” trick. It is based on solid market research combined with an intuitive sense of where future trends  will go.

Part of the “imagine a day when” exercise is to help others reach beyond what is to what could be.

A true visionary goes beyond doing business as usual. Many times the old ways of doing business become redundant. Next we ask,

  1. How can we keep our eyes on the destination and not on the journey?

Many times the plan to execute the strategy is confused with the strategy itself.

In planning any trip we first choose our destination. So don’t confuse strategy with a strategic plan.

Spend more time on the “what” of your plan and the “how” will naturally flow from there.

What key questions would you ask in the formation of a winning strategy?

Read also: “Preparing Yourself Emotionally for a Successful Strategy” https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/emotional-preparation-successful-strategy-cedric-johnson-ph-d/

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A Mentor for Tough Times

Every time I hear of a person or organization that bounced back from hard times I am more convinced that history is not destiny and that one cannot tough it out alone.

·     The failed business that reinvented itself and now is an example of success in its industry

·     The middle aged executive downsized from her job who launched a successful small business

One theme of each redemptive story is that there is far more to us than we can even begin to imagine.

We are defined more by our potential and strength than by our past missteps or failing to reach our goals .

But we need others to mirror this potential for us.

I often reflect back on how I made it through tough times. Sure it was my philosophy of life, a belief in an empowering and loving Source, that sustained me. Other times I lost myself in fulfilling work. But in all cases I managed to sail through those dark moments with the help of friends and mentors. They did not judge me. Rather they accepted me and imparted the occasional word of wisdom that jolted me to my senses. In tough times then it is important to

  Find an Empowering Mentor

Take the many cases where people discovered a new path assisted by mentors. These guides saw talent in them where sometimes they could not see it for themselves, facilitated the expression of that talent, and empowered them to move beyond the dark period of their lives.

In an article in the NY Times “It Takes a Mentor” Thomas Friedman discusses the predictors of success in students. Each of these students had one or more mentors who took an interest in them.

A wise mentor listens beyond any pessimistic view you may have of yourself. She/he

1  Refuses to limit you to your history of hurt and disappointment.

2 Works to bring out the best in you.

3 Treats you as an unfolding mystery where you are in the process of writing the ongoing scenes.

4 Discovers what inspires you and let that be the true north on your life’s compass.

5. Has a personal and professional knowledge of where your potential is taking you.

So always remember

Your history is not your destiny

You are writing a new chapter in your life right now

Remember, after the destructive forest fire all sorts of new life appears in one form or another. It does not bring back what we lost but it sets in motion a new and potentially richer life.

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Emperor – Get Some Clothes

We are all great at some of the things that we do and mostly we know it.

But are we aware of the dark side of our strengths?

For instance

·     You are lightning fast at seeing the core of any issue. You get it right away. But, are you impatient with folks who operate at a slow burn and need time to come to clarity?

·     You are a strategy type and see the big picture immediately. But, it blows your mind when people get down into the weeds and fuss over details.

The good news is that if you can admit facts like the above then you have a good dose of self-awareness.

But self-awareness is not enough. You need to be able to compensate for your weakness in some productive ways.

Since there is no point in being dazzled by our brilliance when our bull can quickly baffle everyone, here are some ways to balance our weaker personality or leadership traits.

Some Experience Required.

 When working on a project it is prudent to include team members outside of our areas of strength. That is where diversity matters. Sometimes those who attempt to practice outside of their Subject Matter Area start to believe the myth that experience is not necessary. Recently Frank Bruni wrote in the NY Times,

“You would choose a pilot who had flown 999 flights over one with nine, and you would want your child’s teacher to be practiced with pupils, not merely a vessel of great enthusiasm.”

Advice: Partner with experienced and skilled practitioners

Try a dose of humility

The advice of the oracle at Delphi “Know thyself” is at the root of humility.

Self-awareness is essential to humility because by recognizing both our strengths and limitations, we keep ourselves from slipping into either a sense of inferiority or superiority. In remaining self-aware, we neither over-dramatize our weaknesses nor flaunt our strengths.

When we are humble we are being as realistic as we can be about ourselves. We are in balance and aware of our humanity and the real value of our person. 

Advice: Remember that ‘eating humble pie’ is not humility

Get over being the Emperor

An extension of humility is to have a realistic perspective on the relative importance of our position. Emperors have life tenure. But organizational leaders come and go every few years. We have to get over the “my position, my self” habit. The ancient Romans had a custom of welcoming home conquering generals with a parade. Accompanying the general in his chariot was a slave who reminded him throughout the parade “Remember you are human”. This supposedly helped the general stay humble. We need to plant a voice in our minds that relays the same message.

 Conclusion. Know your strengths and leverage them with humility. Be aware of your weaknesses and don’t underplay them or think that you can “fake it until you make it”.

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Five Ways to Avoid the Overconfidence Trap

 

We all want our leaders to be confident. However, we don’t want this self-assuredness to bleed into arrogance.

Of course, not all confidence is bad. Decisiveness can be a positive behavioral trait in leaders. The ability to execute with speed and conviction is one of the top behavioral predictors of a person becoming a successful CEO.

So when does confidence work against us? How does one not succumb to the arrogance of “I know more than the generals”? Most of us don’t go that far. However, at times we can get too cocksure about our ideas, opinions, and decisions. It is then that we are caught in the confidence trap.

I remember when I sat next to a heart surgeon on the plane. After enquiring about my work he commented, “I could be an executive consultant. I know about that from my life experience. I don’t need training for that”. Needless to say at that point I clammed up.

How does one avoid being perfectly sure and completely wrong?

Here are five ways to avoid the overconfidence trap.

Stick to what you know 

I often find that people talk to me about my field psychology where for them bit of knowledge can be dangerous. Note how quickly people slap a psychiatric diagnosis on friends, enemies, and celebrities. It took me several years of study, internships, supervision, and licensing exams until I could hang out my shingle as a psychologist. Even after all that, one of the ethical constraints was “Don’t practice outside your area of training.”

I would add that in the area of business leadership one may not have domain knowledge but certainly can learn to ask perceptive questions.

 Adding to practice what you know we all need to learn,

Don’t confuse seniority with competence

Watch out for strong opinions especially when you are very experienced. An attorney friend who specialized in malpractice law once told me that the majority of professionals who were sued by their patients had been practicing for many years. They may have relaxed their standards, not thought as deeply as they once did about a challenge, and had come to believe the myth that longevity of practice meant competence. Such persons needed to

Temper confidence with humility 

Very smart people sometimes have a mistaken sense of their infallibility. However, the more senior the leader, the more he/she oversees functions outside of his/her subject matter expertise. One mark of a great leader is humility that builds on the input of others. However, even in such cases experienced leaders still

Give everything the “smell” test

There is a level of knowing that some call ‘gut instinct’. Here one just knows whether one is reaching the right conclusions about a particular topic or challenge. When you sense that “something is not quite right here” you need to sleep on the problem, consult others, or wait until the path becomes clearer. You do this by

Recognize that you may be wrong

 You need to entertain the fact that your idea needs to be tested and maybe proven wrong. Don’t be so attached to the outcome you may have seen at the beginning of the project. This is a way of asking others to tell you what you do not know, show you your blind spots, and become joint owners in the pursuit of truth.

All of the above will keep you honest with yourself and help you not fall into the confidence trap.

 How have you kept yourself out of confidence trap?

 

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Leading from the Soul

Our natural inclination as humans is to live from the perspective of our ego: our thoughts and behaviors revolve around what we are getting or not getting from life or other people. We seek satisfaction; however, we never fully realize it because the ego is insecure and insatiable—it is never satisfied. Consequently, we are often left feeling somewhat empty or disturbed, as if there is something missing from our lives.

Interestingly, many of us go through our lives never realizing that we can make another choice, a choice that allows us to see our lives and relationships with others through a very different lens, the lens of the soul.

Switching from an ego-based to a soul-based perspective is a powerful paradigm shift.

The switch dramatically changes the way we experience the world, improving the quality of our experiences, opening our hearts, and leading us to a deeper understanding of life and the great gift that it is.

How do we make the shift to living from the perspective of the soul or living as ensouled loving beings?

First, we need to learn to distinguish ego-based versus soul-based thoughts and actions. When the ancient sage encouraged a person to “Know thyself” he was not speaking of knowing one’s ego. It was knowing one’s soul.

Second, because the ego is a constant presence in our lives, we need to recognize when it threatens to derail us.

Finally, during these destabilizing moments, we need to intentionally choose to view our life’s circumstances differently.

Here’s an everyday example of making a different choice. On one of my business trips I had a very frustrating travel day. The following morning, feeling exhausted and very grumpy, I left a popular hotel chain to meet a customer. As I exited the elevator, I read the hotel’s slogan, “Wake up on the bright side” and thought, “You must be kidding!” After I met the customer, however, I felt inspired to collaborate and help solve her problems. Suddenly, I found that I was engaging and energetic.

What happened? I made a choice. (Grumpy consultants are unemployed consultants!) But moreover, in choosing to be the best I could be for this customer, I discovered I had inner resources I wasn’t aware of.

I had suddenly got in touch with my soul!

We are all capable of viewing life from a soul-based perspective because it is an inherent part of who we are. It does, however, tend to be overshadowed by the insatiable needs of the ego.

At work and at home, it takes an intentional focus to respond to life’s challenges from a soul-based perspective. It also takes time to develop this awareness so that we can choose to shift our perspective at will.

As Thomas Moore notes: “Soul doesn’t pour into life automatically. It requires our skill and attention.”

Let’s take a look at some of the wiser soul-based skills we can develop:

  • We can choose kindness in responding to others (especially when they irritate us) rather than being judgmental
  • We can focus on using our talents and abilities to serve others as opposed to showcasing our accomplishments.
  • We can be present now, accepting what is and embracing it, rather than ruminating about the past or distracting ourselves with fantasies about the future.

An example of soul at work is the life and career of Ken Frazier, Merck CEO. In an interview with the NY Times “Corner Office” Ken commented

The most important role of a leader is to safeguard the heritage and values of the company.”

Read this important interview about a soul-based life. Read why and how he left Trump’s advisory business council, represented pro bono a person on death row, and made a series of value based decisions at Merck.

What choices are you making to live a more soul-based life?

What impact has this choice had on you and others?

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Unforgettable You

“Unforgettable. That’s what you are. Unforgettable” Nat King Cole

How do you stand out in a crowd of other talented, personable, and intelligent leaders?

In what positive way are you unforgettable?

That’s what personal branding is all about.

I have travelled the road to the ‘unique you’ with many talented leaders over the years.

Here are four words they use to position themselves.

Integrity

Integrity is about keeping one’s promises and living the content of a good character. For instance, employees at Avis that go the extra mile for customers back up the Corporate brand “We try harder”.

Question. What aspects of your brand reflect your character?

 Investigation

You have to dig for the nuggets of your brand. Here is where looking at your past, reviewing key phrases in a resume, and doing a 360 Assessment yields great bounty.

Look for recurring words and phrases that become become the foundation of the unique you. View my article on “The Barn Raising Leader” that became the brand statement of an executive.

Question. What recurring phrase or word captures your essence as a leader?

 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leader-barn-raising-whats-your-story-cedric-johnson-ph-d/

Imagination

 “Building a brand does not take millions. It takes imagination – Harry Beckwith

A mundane brand statement leads to mundane results. You need something that captures the imagination of others.

I know an IT Executive that is known as someone who “Breaks glass”. That phrase is perfect for him since he was hired to completely revamp the IT systems in his organization. The brand speaks of courage, innovation, and in the end a major paradigm shift. It makes him stand out from all the other leaders in his organization.

 Question. What unique phrase captures what you are/do as a leader?

Invigoration

A powerful brand statement leads to positive feelings in both the listener and the speaker. At the end of every encounter, folks not only remember the great ideas we have but also how we and our ideas made them feel. In that way brand is an experience.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Question. How do you make people feel?

My brand statement

Inspiring Global Leaders to Empower Others

 Please contact me if you want help formulating a winning brand statement

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