The Taste of Success

I’m not what I do. I’m not what people say about me. I’m not what I have. My life is not rooted in this world , the things the world gives me – Henri Nouwen

At times success can be a bitter/sweet experience. What happened when it leaves a bad aftertaste?

I work with some very talented people who have accomplished a lot and dream big dreams. Some are deeply satisfied with the results of their efforts and others seem to be continually in a state of restless unease. What is the chief difference between the two groups other than the resultant emotional state?

When I ask them why they pursued the project or dream in the first place the answer is very revealing. If they are driven by self-centered interests they are in for a big shock.

Those dreams never fully satisfy.

 Dreams That Disappoint

One would think that we would relish the accomplishment of a dream. But the opposite could be true. If the dream is based on ego drives then the person is left wanting after the achievement of the once prized goal.

Essentially the ego is self absorbed through achievements such as career advancement or financial gain. These personal advances may initially produce satisfaction but in the long term can leave the person with empty feelings and a bad aftertaste.

Why is that?

The answer lies deep within the human psyche. We are designed to find fulfillment in serving others and transcending our selves. A NY Times article “Is giving the secret to getting ahead” sets out the research basis for the giving is better argument. “How can I help?” proves to be much more satisfying personally than “Let me show off stuff”.

If after your stellar performance you are left with some of the following feelings or thoughts

“Why does this achievement feel so empty?”

“When is the other shoe going to drop?”

“Why am I restless to get to my next goal?”

“How can I keep advancing my brand with more performances like this?”

Then  more likely than not you will have an ego-generated bad taste.

But not every dream has to end with the blahs. Sometimes our achievements are

Dreams that Fulfill

The most satisfying and fulfilling dreams start with the deep desire to serve by improving other peoples lives and in turn, improving one’s world. It also touches peoples’ deepest aspirations for themselves. And, incidentally as the NY Times article points out, altruism spurs productivity and creativity.

I met an award winning investigative reporter who told me, “My work is not just about winning awards. In fact, it is not just about the story. It is about bringing small and significant changes to people. And sometimes, with luck and lots of hard work, the story leads to a major change in a group or organization.”

Humans are not just motivated by self interest (ego needs) but by self transcending drives which are at the heart of people with a bent towards service.

Here are some of the behaviors of a service-driven person. They

Focus on “us” not “me”

Downplay their status and uplift others

Ask how they can be of service

Are not in it primarily for the awards or recognition

Take themselves with a pinch or salt

Have a humble streak

Altruistic people can be goal oriented and glad for a good outcome. However they are not overly attached to the recognition that comes from success. In fact they are quick to give others recognition.

Questions for Reflection

So, how did you give at the office or at home or in the community?

Why did you decide to give in the first place?

Your answers will shape how your success tastes.

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Moving Towards a Soul-Based Life

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You Have a Strategy But Do You Have a Compelling Story?

Does your organization have a story that is the heartbeat of your strategy? Does the organizational narrative capture everyone’s imagination and inspire all to give of their best?

In my experience I hear so many well crafted strategies but seldom do I see them backed up with a story that grabs employees and the public at an emotional level. Without a compelling story your organizational strategy is weak-kneed at its very best.

For many the story on your Company’s website may simply evoke a big yawn. Any similar business could have the same motto. So you say that you want to be a strategic partner with your customers? What competitor does not aspire towards the same goal? The question is whether

Your story inspires you to show up for work each day?

Here is why stories are so important.

First, stories touch our emotions, making them highly memorable because we remember best what we powerfully feel. The leader who wants to be the most persuasive must have a story line that resonates with what the audience strongly feels and values. This will increase the likelihood of buy-in for the vision or idea being presented.

Secondstories breathe life into statistics. When we read a newspaper article where hundreds of people have perished in an earthquake, our intellect registers the news and although we may think the news is terrible, we somehow remain detached from it. But, when we read the harrowing personal story of a survivor emerging from the rubble after her family had given up hope that she was alive, our emotions are triggered and the story takes on a completely different quality-it becomes real, urgent, and palpable.

Third, stories have the power to orient people towards the greater good. Anything that smacks of being self-centered will turn an audience off. A “What’s he/she trying to get out of me?” audience response is the death-knell of any speech. A powerful story must step into the real world of the audience and mirror what they believe to be good for their organization. They need to be left with the feeling “We can make a difference in this important area.” Such a response insures that they will heed your organization’s call to action and in so doing make your proposed idea theirs as well.

Your story always represents your aspirations. It tells others where you want to go as an organization. You talk about inclusion and diversity. However, you realize that your organization still has a long way to go. You never reach your goal but you know what it is. You are always in the process of continual improvement and are passionate that strategic objective

Without a compelling story your strategy lacks life, fails to engage employees and customers, and in the end fails miserably.


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Can Do People – A Profile

“When she says she is going to do anything she gets it done.”

These words describe a very successful friend of mine who is the President of an organization. She embodies the words of J.K. Rowling

Anything’s  possible if you’ve got enough nerve

Other examples of people with an insatiable drive for success include

  • A colleague who told me he wanted to write a book
  • A friend who expressed an interest in living in a foreign country
  • An executive who decided to explore a bold new business strategy
  • A person who ran for political office despite the odds being against her.

What type of person goes out on a limb with major life decisions and subsequently enjoys the fruit of that adventure?

Mostly they are “ordinary ” people who were never told in their high school yearbook that they were among those most likely to succeed. They capture the spirit of the advertisement for the Mt Sinai Medical Center which states,

“But rather than going step by step, the goal is to make bold, conceptual leaps. Impatience is a virtue. Failure is an integral part of success, and no journey is as exhilarating as going out on a limb.”

Such “can doers”

1.    Are convinced of the value of the dream

2.   View obstacles and failures as problems to be solved

3.    Find ways to reach their goals

4.    Believe that they will be successful

5.  Are not deterred by naysayers

6.    Build on the knowledge of past success

7. Have the intellectual horsepower and domain expertise to back up their ambitions

Each personal quality is a component of character described by John F Kennedy in “Profiles in Courage”. Such trailblazers to success put their convictions “ahead of their careers”. Their soul pursuits transcend the tantalizing lure of the ego.


What new ideas do you want to pursue?

What rewards would you miss if you held yourself back?

Where can you get the needed support and/or resources?

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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.


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


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.


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



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


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


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”

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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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