I like my way of doing it more than I like your way of not doing it

Have you ever met someone who is quick to give his opinion about how things should be done but doesn’t accomplish much himself? The bystander. The critic. Present but uninvolved. Passive but opinionated. Occasionally, his input may be beneficial, but I prefer the thoughts of people who are fully engaged in the process they’re commenting on, or at least fully engaged in something.

I do enjoy and see the benefit of, getting multiple inputs and opinions. One of my favorite leadership thoughts is “All of us are smarter than one of us.” Getting input from a lot of people on any idea or plan will improve it. But good input usually comes from engaged, active people — those who have earned a place in the conversation through involvement.

In a speech titled Man in the Arena, Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the importance of individual responsibility and involvement: 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

[For a unique and interesting commentary on Roosevelt’s full speech, read Michael Cullinane’s article What celebrities get wrong about a famous Teddy Roosevelt Speech. ]

Notice, savor, and enjoy small, slow, and simple things

What beauty are we blind to? — Toby Ord

Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize), is about life in Grover’s Corners, a small town in New Hampshire. One of the main characters is Emily Webb. The play follows her from a precocious young girl through her wedding to George Gibbs, and her early death.

In act three, Emily returns from the afterlife and visits her hometown, wanting to relive one day—her 12th birthday. She joyfully watches her parents and some of the people of her childhood, but her joy soon turns to pain as she realizes how little people appreciate the simple joys of life. She realizes how every moment of life—particularly the small, simple, mundane aspects—should be treasured. 

When she visits her grave on the hill, she says, “Good-by, good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” 

She then looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute” The stage manager replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.” The play ends.

I’m admonishing myself in this post. I like to stay busy: I always have a to-do list, I’m goal-oriented, I don’t like to waste time, and I’m inordinately time-sensitive. But I’m probably missing out on a lot of wonderful things in life. I need to recalibrate my life so that I notice and savor small, slow, and simple things that don’t cry out for my attention but will reward it. 

Things like: Buddy’s bark, Benjamin’s freckles, a perfectly shaped cluster of grapes, a well-tuned chord, holding Mary’s hand, a fresh blackberry, a perfectly still lake, a well-written phrase, a kind gesture, growing a plant from seed, the sound of thunder in the distance, the smell of a sliced lemon, gravity exerting its influence on a tomato plant.

Psychologist Carl Rogers noted, “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” He advocated launching “fully into the stream of life.” Our lives will be richer if we embrace adjectives such as enriching, rewarding, awe-inspiring, meaningful, and yes—small, slow, and simple.

Avoid having a static mindset toward others.

In his must-read book, How to Know a Person, New York Times journalist David Brooks warns about having a static mindset toward people. He writes, “Some people formed a certain conception of you, one that may even have been largely accurate at some point in time. But then you grew up. You changed profoundly. And those people never updated their models to see you now for who you really are.”

I recently conversed with a colleague I had not talked to in 30 years. Years ago, because of my own insecurities and professional competitiveness, I had pre-judged him—thinking him to be aloof and condescending—and that initial impression had endured through the decades. In our recent conversation, I found him to be approachable, generous, and engaging. I misjudged him in those early years but I also sensed that time has mellowed both of us. I look forward to pursuing our friendship.  

I wonder what he has thought of me through the years.

People change, so we should adopt a flexible mindset that allows us to recalibrate our opinions about them. I am not the same person I was several years ago and neither are you. Hopefully we have all changed for the better. 

Updating our perceptions is a grace we extend to other people, and we hope they do the same for us.  

So when you reengage with someone from the past, assume that time and life has worn down the rough edges of their persona and they have grown and matured.

As a leader, I want to surround myself with people who speak their minds, and I must encourage them to do so.

dialogue-cartoon-300x242In 1997, managers at Samsung didn’t question a $13 billion investment that would take the company into the automobile industry because the idea’s champion, Samsung Chairman and CEO Kun-Hee Lee, was a forceful personality and a car buff. When Samsung Motors folded only a year into production, Lee wondered why no one had expressed reservations. (Teams That Click, HBSP, pg. 74)

Robust dialogue could have prevented Samsung’s debacle.

Simply stated, robust dialogue occurs in a group when everyone is encouraged, allowed, and even required to give their unfiltered input on issues. The value of robust dialogue is: Every idea or plan will be improved upon when submitted to the unfiltered wisdom and input of others.

Robust dialogue is not just the right thing to do; it is the best thing to do. It’s not just politically correct, it is practically helpful.

The prelude to robust dialogue may sound like this:

      • The boss says, “I’ve got an idea and I would really value everyone’s input. I want you to be totally honest.”
      • A team member says, “My division is thinking about offering a new service, but before we get very far down the road, I want to get your opinion on the project.”
      • A team member says, “I think we’re going in the wrong direction on this project.”

Bossidy and Charan teach that robust dialogue is based on openness, candor, and informality.

      • Openness—people are not trapped by preconceptions; they’re open-minded.
      • Candor—people speak candidly and express their real opinions. Truth is valued more than harmony.
      • Informality—informal dialogue invites questions, mental experimentation, and creative and critical thinking. Formality suppresses dialogue and leaves little room for debate.
        (Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, pg. 102)

Robust dialogue will help maintain a transparent and healthy workplace. It’s amazing how often there’s an elephant in the room, but no one is willing to acknowledge it. Clarke and Crossland warn, “Every time your team avoids the critical ‘real issues,’ you lose. Every time the discussion outside the meeting room—physical or virtual—is dramatically different from the discussion inside the room, you lose.” (The Leader’s Voice, pg. 118)

Often, we avoid challenging dialogue because we value unanimity and harmony. But when we ignore the tough issues, we inadvertently dilute any sense of consensus; true alliance is achieved only when all the major issues have been identified and wrestled with. Consensus is good, unless it is achieved too easily, in which case it becomes suspect.

Robust dialogue is not only helpful in the workplace, it will also improve dialogue among family members and friends. See a previous post – Don’t go to Abilene — for an example of how robust dialogue might help family communications.