The Leadership Choice- Character


Tough times are the breeding ground of character.

Think about the way humility, perseverance, and generosity emerged in the caldron of personal struggle. When we fail, flounder, and are brought to our knees by unfortunate events the nature of our choices is crucial. We can ascend to be our best (humility) or descend to our more base instincts (revenge).

We can decide to be bitter or better.

Consider the development of perseverance.

We have all lost a job, had a project rejected, and been betrayed by a colleague. After the initial shock of the loss we faced a choice. We could view this crisis as permanent and so descend into learned helplessness or mild depression. However, if we view the crisis as a temporary challenge and a way to explore now opportunities, we start building the muscles of perseverance.

There are key aids to the development of character. One of them is an encounter with grace (you are loved despite yourself and your circumstances.)

Grace is always there lurking in the background. It is one of the constants in our universe. It appears sometimes completely out of left field. It pulls and prods us to the vertical dimension that some call god, others see in the acceptance of friends and family, and others as a mysterious inner resource beyond intellectual knowing.

David Brooks in The Road to Character encourages us in hard times to, “reach out to something outside of you to cope with the forces within yourself.” In that encounter with grace we find the strength to persist until we eventually accept ourselves. This is followed by the courage to take creative steps to rebuild our lives.

At the crossroads of trial, the choices we make on how we view our world and then how we choose to behave makes the difference between the growth of character or its descent into the abyss.




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Our Dog. My Teacher

Sir Geiger and co

Sawyer (The Lab) and dog-in-law Geiger

How important are our animals in centering our lives?

I often quip that our dog Sawyer is my teacher. The life lesson’s I learn from her are those where I can potentially be,

  1. Fully present.

Sawyer never frets about the future. She never stays awake at night obsessing about  innumerable “what if’s?”  In fact, controlling future outcomes (other than barking at the door for us to open for her) are not part of her thought life.

The question. How can I be more present in all that I do?

  1. Satisfied by simple things

In a world driven by consumerism we need not allow satisfaction to be measured by the accumulation of things. Rather, sitting between the front seats of the car is her definition of bliss.

The question: How can I simplify my life and fully enjoy the small things

  1. Embracing of diversity

Sawyer does not care that Geiger is different (she is a Lab-mix and black and Geiger is a Schnauzer and grey). In the world of humans, differences often signal feelings of separation, anxiety, fear, and conflict.

 The question: What can I do to accept differences?

  1. Focussed on the importance of love

Those of us who have lost animals know the degree to which the ache of their death goes to the very core of our being. The thought of losing someone we cherish makes us inclined to savor every minute we have with them.

The question: How can I fully appreciate love in my life?

Your Questions

What life questions arise from your relationship with animals?

How do they make you a better person?

How do they keep you spiritually and mentally centered?




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The Customer Care Challenge

Every organization I know believes in customer care. At Amazon executive meetings have a vacant chair at the table signifying the customer. Most employees will espouse customer care as the central organizational value and practice.

But is this always true? When is a focus on the customer just a slogan and when is it a vibrant reality?

Contrast two cases.

I knew a banker who cared passionately for his customers. He had an intimate knowledge of their dreams, business goals, and details about their families. When he died his funeral service was standing room only as the whole community came out to pay their respects.

The accolades did not just focus on his business and professional success (and there were tons of them). People talked about his character.

There was his playful sense of humor. He was the organist at his church and at times would inject into a Bach prelude a few notes from songs like “How much is that doggie in the window?”

The physicians at the hospital were impacted by his kindness and humor during his last days.

Then there is customer service from hell.

We have been trying for a month to get a phone/internet service at our property in the country. The provider keeps making promises that they will come and set up the service. Day after day they cancel the appointment and reschedule. Of course we have complained bitterly but no one seems to take responsibility. The final straw was an article I read in an airline magazine about the president of this company. He boasted his organization was distinguished from others by its customer service.


At least I know his name and he is going to receive a blistering letter from us.

Your Opinion

What, in your experience, are the central components of great customer care?


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Daydreaming Matters

Have you ever been accused of being a daydreamer?

If so, you were probably given a bad rap because it was a way of criticizing you for some perceived “non-doing” state.

Daydreamers slip into a short-term detachment from their immediate surroundings. They find themselves in a trance-like state imagining they were somewhere else. Some call this fantasy, others idle minds, but in reality it is often some of the most productive thinking we ever do.

Why then does daydreaming matter? It is the

  1. Driver of creativity. When our analytic mind is disengaged we begin to make connections between disparate pieces of information. And the boarder our interests the greater our creative ideas become. A characteristic of some of the most innovative leaders is that they have very eclectic interests, read widely, love the arts, travel extensively, and are curious about more than their immediate business areas.
  1. Explorer of new worlds. The focus in daydreaming is on the future. For a moment we let go of the constraints of the present and muse over what the world would be like in some imagined future. I heard of one CEO who asked her leaders “What would we be doing if we had an unlimited budget, no regulatory constraints, and had leaders that supported our ideas?”
  1. Engager of empathy. While daydreaming we turn off the analytic functions of the brain and cycle into our empathic self. We start allowing ourselves feelings that are typically suppressed. If we pay attention to this data we become more self-aware and connected to others. It gives our leadership a human touch.

Instead of viewing daydreaming as a self-indulgent act we need to make it a regular part of our daily schedule.

So kick back, switch off the conscious mind, and let your thoughts roam freely. After five minutes of this activity jot down the key ideas and feelings that bubbled to the surface.

Who knows what fantastic innovation will emerge and inspire new action.

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The Joy of Going Nowhere

Fall riverside

We live in a world hell-bent on going somewhere.

Questions like,

“What is your five year plan?”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“What are your dreams?”

bring valuable focus and direction to our lives. But an emphasis on “doing, doing, doing” has its downside. All our harried living in pursuit of goals complicate life, stress us out, and can push us into obsessive-compulsive performance.

I am at a stage of life where I’m done with the sole pursuit of professional goals. I suppose that it is easier to do this in one’s seventies when everything is slowing down anyway. However, in reality, I wish I’d had this focus many years ago. I know that such a perspective on life is difficult in our society, especially for men who find their primary identity in work.

So here is what happened.

We moved to the country in N. New Mexico just outside of a small village, got rid of a lot of “stuff”, and gave our television away. We planted fruit trees, learned how to fish again, and named our property


We find it amusing to say that we live on the road to nowhere (our driveway). But the name is more than an amusing aside. We intentionally named our retreat in the woods and on a river to reflect aspirations for a new and centering lifestyle. We can now experience all of our senses here in the country in a way a city does not afford us, we appreciate all the seasons, and discover that going nowhere is the essence of simplified living, being awake to our world, and greatly reduces the perpetually chattering mind.

My wife and I have not felt this level of joy in many years.

You may not be at the stage of life where you can relocate to the country but you can find islands of tranquility where you can experience that presence is peace.

How have you (can you) pulled this off?

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Simplify Like Picasso

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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Eight Imperatives and a Question

The following questions are aspirational ideals and each one can translate into an imperative for life. They are

How can I intentionally pursue the best that I can be?

How can I nurture my most cherished relationships?

What’s not negotiable in my life right now?

Where can I find stillness in myself and in my world?

How can I be fully present in all that I do?

How can I remove barriers to creativity?

What passion could become (or is) my hearts work?

How can I give back in a world that has given so much to me?

 (What question would represent your key imperative?)

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Choose Another Path

Once in a while people tell me about an impossible relationship in their lives. It may be a boss or co-worker from hell or worse still, a highly destructive family member. Then comes the inevitable question, “”What can I do?”

This article is not intended to reinforce a “victim” mentality that leaves you feeling helpless. Nor is it about putting the entire blame on others. It’s about tweaking our expectations as to what we can actually do about the situation.

You may not be able to change the other person’s behavior. But you can change your attitude which is the prelude to you choosing a different course of action. You do this by deciding,

  1. “I am worth more than this”

There comes a moment when we wake up to the fact that we can do without disrespect, hurt, or a ‘death by a thousand cuts‘. This awareness may lead you seek out a better way for yourself. It may also be the occasion to develop healthier relationships or find a new place to work.

2.  “I will push back”

Don’t try to appease the bullies of life by showing them how reasonable you are. They will continue to walk all over you. Learning to say, “Back off” or “Your behavior is unacceptable” may seem awfully risky especially if you have little experience in this direct approach.

Fighting fire with fire is often the only language that some people understand. Talk to some of your peers and friends and see how drawing a line in the sand with this tough character has worked in the past. Then try it for yourself but first get a few influential people to cover your back. If there is no change after such confrontations then,

3.  “I’m out of here”

Life is too short to have exceptionally toxic people around us. Here we listen to our inner wisdom and move on. Continually believing that we can change the dysfunctional behavior of others by being more loving or understanding  is the heart of co-dependency.

4. “I don’t know right now”

Not every relationship decision is cut and dried. Acting decisively just for the sake of a resolution is not always the course dictated by wisdom. There are times we have to live with ambivalence or the gray areas of life for a while. It is often in the “valley of the shadow” that life’s greatest lessons are learned. Actively waiting is also an option. But it is not the same as resigned passivity or procrastination.

However, there is no reason to be ashamed of wanting to take care of yourself.

You will never be made the saint of lost causes anyway.


“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.” –

Maya Angelou


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When Being Smart is not Enough

“His intellect always gets in the way” an Oil Company President told me several years ago referring to one of his senior executives. He continued, “However, he is so talented. I see him as my successor a few years from now. But he has to learn to get the job done through others.”

 Some of Bill’s (fictional name) challenges were that he,

  • Saw the answers to difficult strategic challenges long before others did. (So far so good, no problem with this), but he
  • Was too quick to express his opinions and did not listen to his team. As a result they felt cut off from the conversation and very intimidated by him
  • Did not “grow” his team by letting them develop their thinking….
  • Manipulated others into adopting his point of view and as a result was seen as pushy.

And so my coaching engagement began with the smartest person in the company (He really was that bright intellectually).

Bill was well aware of these problems. In addition, he wanted to change because he saw his opinionated style as a hurdle to future promotions. Finally, it also pained him that he was viewed as heartless.

The first story I told Bill was from the book “Sacred Hoops” written by one of the great basketball coaches Phil Jackson. When Phil assumed the coaching position of the Chicago Bulls the team was stacked with superstars like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. However they were not winning championships on a consistent basis.

The first order of business for coach Jackson was to remind the players that the name of the team was on the front of the jersey. Their individual names were on the back. The message was stop being selfish by going for personal razzle dazzle that would get them on a Sports Illustrated cover. The message was “Play as a team. Share the ball. Make other players look good by letting them score”. Each player had to learn that there is a higher wisdom in teamwork.

Bill got it. He began practicing the following behaviors that slowly altered the perception that he was selfish and arrogant. He

  • Learned that “telling was not selling.” He began to really seek out and listen to the opinions of others
  • Asked more questions than making statements
  • Validated each person’s position and built on each one of them with “yes/and” rather than “yes/but” responses
  • Recognized that he did not (nor could not) have all the answers especially in areas outside of his function (engineering)
  • Routinely gave credit to team members that made significant contributions.

Bill learned that it was just as important to be emotionally smart and get the job done through others.

Intellect is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for great leadership.

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Communicating From The Heart

There are many paths to enlightenment,

Be sure to choose one with heart

– Lao Tsu

Everyone seems to want to make deeper emotional connections with others but often fail in the process.

Part of feeling frustrated with the limitations of  heart-felt responses is captured in the title of a recent article “Don’t Google me. Talk to me.” This reflects a world where people seem more comfortable looking at the screens of their mobile devices than having eye contact with others. In the face of this interpersonal disconnect, relationships are superficial,  fact-oriented, transactional, and head-only.

This last week our beloved cat of 16 years had to be put to sleep. In the throes of grief we went to a local restaurant for dinner.

The server gave us the “How are you?” ritual greeting.

When we replied “Not too good!” she quickly added, “Fine, what would you like to order?”

Our very obvious feelings were quickly dismissed.

Contrast that encounter with a two-minute exchange I had on a plane with an ordained Buddhist nun whose writings I deeply value. I drummed up the nerve to approach her and ask, “Are you Pema Chodron?” When she replied affirmatively, I thanked her for her writings. She looked directly into my eyes, held both my hands in hers, asked me my name, and thanked me for my expression of gratitude. In those few moments I felt a profound sense of connection and acceptance.

There are lessons to be learned from cultures that are more comfortable with matters of the heart. We are deeply indebted to the Mexican people (where we lived for seven years) for teaching us the value of expressing our deepest emotions. For instance, when it comes to grieving, in our Western culture we are supposed to “get over it” and are given the message, “Don’t bother me with your feelings.”  In Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebration, embraces the ongoing life and memory of the deceased and gives folks permission to experience the full range of their emotions.

The price we pay for cutting ourselves off from our hearts is that we,

  1. Seldom know the joys of a soul to soul relationship or the oneness of our shared humanity
  2. Miss the depths of joy and gratitude for what we had or have. As poet Kahlil Gibran said, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
  3. Stay stuck in our heads and seldom engage our hearts for fear that we will be rejected, feel uncomfortable, or lose control
  4. Mask our feelings with addictions like work, shopping, and substances (alcohol and food).


How have you moved from intellectual only to the depth of heart relationships?

For a reflection on the way to navigate our sorrow you may want to read the Sun Magazine’s interview with Francis Weller on “The Geography of Sorrow.”

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