Three phrases that will enhance personal integrity and sustain relational peace

Plus: Peggy Noonan's terrific commencement speech on Why Read Books

We are reluctant to say them, but when spoken honestly and appropriately, three simple phrases can help maintain our personal integrity and sustain peace in relationships.

“I don’t know.”

Often, when we don’t know something, we make stuff up. When we don’t know the answer to a question, we attempt to answer it anyway. Instead, we should just say, “I don’t know.”

In his must-read-book, In The Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides writes that in the late 1800s no one knew what the North Pole was like because no one had ever been there. The most famous cartographer of the day was a German professor named August Petermann. He was, supposedly, the world’s foremost authority on world geography. The world wanted to know what the Arctic was like, so Petermann wrote, “It is a well-known fact that there exists to the north of the Siberian coast, and, at a comparatively short distance from it, a sea open at all seasons.” He firmly believed that when a team of explorers finally reached the North Pole, they would find a tropical environment, complete with palm trees and perhaps a new race of humans.

Huh? Why didn’t he just say, “I don’t know”?

When was the last time you said, “I don’t know”? I admire people who use the phrase; I have little regard for people who should but don’t. There’s no shame in admitting that you simply don’t know.

“I made a mistake.”

When I hear someone say, “I made a mistake,” my admiration for that person escalates. My regard is diminished when there is stubborn refusal to admit the obvious. Politicians and leaders, in particular, are reluctant to admit mistakes, but it’s nearly impossible not to make mistakes when you’re leading aggressively and making a lot of decisions. To err is human.

Even when we do admit that a mistake was made, we have a hard time using the personal pronoun “I.” When Richard Nixon commented on Watergate, when Ronald Reagan talked about the Iran-Contra affair, and when Hillary Clinton spoke about Whitewater, they used the phrase, “Mistakes were made.” That doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, does it?

Compare these responses to the most famous unsent message in history. General Eisenhower penned the following memo before the Normandy Invasion. Fortunately, it was never posted because the invasion was successful.

“Our landings…have failed..and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

When was the last time you said, “I made a mistake”?

“I was wrong; please forgive me.”

Only an infallible person can avoid saying this phrase, and you and I don’t qualify. Speaking this phrase doesn’t make you a bad person; it simply means that you messed up and want to make it right.

I once counseled a couple struggling in their marriage. In one of the sessions I asked the husband, “How long has it been since you’ve spoken these words to your wife: ‘I was wrong; please forgive me.’” Awkward silence ensued. At least he was honest when he replied, “Never.” They had been married 22 years.

I appealed to his logic: “What is the probability that in 22 years of marriage, you have never hurt or offended your wife?” Again, he was honest in saying, “The chances are slim.” Their homework assignment was rather obvious: identify ways in which you have hurt your spouse; admit it; and ask forgiveness.

When was the last time you said, “I was wrong; please forgive me.”?


What? – We are reluctant to speak these three phrases, but we should.
So what? – We gain credibility with our family and friends when we speak these phrases, when appropriate.
Now what? – When was the last time you spoke each of these phrases? In the coming weeks, find an appropriate time to speak each one.

Leaders – Leaders are often reluctant to use these phrases, thinking that doing so will diminish their standing among their followers. But just the opposite is true. Leaders actually lose credence when they should speak the phrases but do not, and gain respect when they do.

Click here to read Peggy Noonan’s commencement speech at the 2017 Catholic University of America. It is a compelling argument for reading books.

Expand your learning environment; get into a “larger tank”

There is a species of fish – the Japanese carp, known as the Koi – that will grow in size only in proportion to the size of the body of water it is in. When placed in a small aquarium the fish will only grow to be two or three inches long. If placed in a larger body of water, it will grow to six to ten inches. When placed in a large lake, it can reach its full size of two or three feet in length.

In like manner, your environment can inhibit and limit your personal growth and development. It may be the job you’re in—although you feel secure and the work is tolerable, you’re stuck in a mind-numbing environment and your head is hitting the proverbial glass ceiling. It may be the town you live in—the provincial mentality is stifling. The friends you associate with may be stymying—you may need a more intellectually invigorating group.

But the right environment can stimulate your growth and help you reach your potential. Fortunately, you do have control over this dimension of life; you can choose where you work, you can move to a city that inspires you, and you can choose friends that will stretch you.

To illustrate this idea, I’ll use two of my family members.

After graduating from college, my daughter, Lauren, made some bold moves that placed her in a “large pond.” First, she moved from a small college town in Texas to New York City. She got a nice and adequate job, but after working there for a few years she realized she needed a greater challenge so she went to work at American Express. Soon, AMEX moved her to Singapore for a year, then back to NYC. In the meantime, she completed a master’s degree from Columbia. Can you sense the mix of challenges, thrills, fear, insecurities and joys involved in making these moves?

My son-in-law, Jonathan, is a board certified emergency room physician. He has served two tours-of-duty in the Navy. For one of his assignments he was stationed at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. It was one of the busiest trauma centers in the world. He saw more and learned more in nine months than some physicians would see and learn in a lifetime here in the states. It was a large pond.

Don’t underestimate the courage it takes to change environments and the effort it takes to adjust to and flourish in a new one. It can be intimidating and challenging. You may even fail. But it’s worth the risk and effort. Life is too short to waste; it’s not a dress rehearsal, and it’s the only one you get.

You don’t want this written on your tombstone: Died, 55 years old; buried, 70 years old.

Question: Share your thoughts about this essay. You can leave a comment by clicking here.


What? – Our personal growth and development can be enhanced or stymied by our environment.
So what? – Beware of the times in life when you are too comfortable and unchallenged. You may need to “get into a larger tank.”
Now what? – Analyze where you are in life. Does your environment provide the room and stimulus for personal growth? If not, what will you do?

Leaders – Do you create environments and opportunities in your organization in which people can grow and develop? Consider each member of your team and customize a plan that will optimize their personal development.

Pay attention to leemurs

Several years ago Mary and I toured Morocco. We started in Marrakesh, then went to Fez and ended up in Casablanca, which is a really rough, dirty city. (The movie Casablanca was filmed in Hollywood, so it’s not an accurate depiction of what the city really looks and feels like).

One of the must-see sites is the Hassan II Mosque; it is the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world. I took a taxi from my hotel to the mosque, but when the tour ended, I decided to walk back to the hotel. About a quarter mile into the two-mile route I found myself in a rough neighborhood, the slums. I’m not easily frightened but I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that I was in the wrong place and in danger. I reversed my course, got back to a main street, and took a taxi back to the hotel.

I yielded to my unsubstantiated uneasiness and possibly avoided a bad situation.

Pilots are taught to pay careful attention to what they call “leemurs”—the vague feeling that something isn’t right, even if it’s not clear why.

At times, we should do the same.

Don’t be extreme with this suggestion. Ninety percent of the time, there is a logical explanation for  feelings of uneasiness – your understanding + experience is sounding the alarm – but sometimes there’s not. That’s when we need to heed that quiet, subtle voice that’s saying, “Be careful.”

My son-in-law, who is a flight surgeon for an F16 squad and a pilot himself, tells me that in the cockpit of a military plane a lower-ranking officer can “pull rank” at any time he or she feels that the mission is going in the wrong direction. They have the authority to act on leemurs.

Leaders: Wouldn’t it be beneficial if you gave your team members permission to vocalize the leemurs they may experience in the context of the organization?

Question: When have you experienced leemurs? How did you respond? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Don’t be constrained by artificial limits and barriers

Join me in testing the view that most individuals and companies are functioning at only 40, 50, or 60 percent of their capacity, and that the much higher levels of performance reached in emergencies are actually more closer to true, sustainable potentials than are the “normal” levels of performance. Robert Schaffer

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in recorded history. The 25-year-old native of Harrow on the Hill, England, completed the distance in 3:59.4.

For hundreds of years, a sub-four-minute mile was thought to be humanly impossible. Many predicted that it would never happen. But then Bannister broke the record by 6/10th of a second.

Interestingly, within one year of Bannister breaking the record, 37 other runners ran the mile in less than four minutes. The next year, 300 runners did the same. Today, high school athletes do it regularly.

The current world record for the mile is held by Hicham El Guerrouj. His time? 3:43.13—an incredible 16 seconds off the “impossible mark.” Here’s a video of that race.

We often limit ourselves by yielding to artificial boundaries. Sometimes the boundaries are set by others, often by ourselves.

Before completing this post, I experimented on myself.

Part of my exercise routine is doing pushups. I don’t remember how or why I set my maximum at 25, but for years I have thought that was my best. When I get to 22, 23 I start feeling feeble, but I push on to 25. Yesterday, when I worked out, I told myself that doing 40 pushups was my maximum. I whizzed past 25 and when I got to 38, 39 I thought I was reaching my maximum but I kept going. I did 42. I was reminded of Roger Bannister’s statement, “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ.”

I have a friend who manages a sales team for American Express. Every year her boss raises her sales goal 15-20% over the previous year. When challenged by the new goal, my friend is incredulous—how is that possible? But every year she meets or exceeds the new target.

Conventional wisdom may seem safe, prudent, and trustworthy, but it can also blind the eye to possibilities and make us apathetic and complacent.

Personally—are you coasting through life or do you push the limits of what you can achieve? Have you been inhibited by your upbringing, environment, and expectations?

Professionally—are you in a tight box with a low ceiling? Years ago my daughter was in a dead-end job here in Dallas. In a bold and audacious move, she moved to New York City, enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University, got a job at Juilliard and, later, American Express. None of that would have happened if she had not stepped out from under the glass ceiling.

Organizationally—does your group ever challenge the status quo?

I double-dog-dare you: identify three areas of your life in which you might suffer under the perceived restraints of a false barrier. Identify the faux constraint and ignore it; push past the previous status quo and do more.

I’ll conclude with one more example I read about in the must-read book Think Like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner.

Believe it or not, there exists an annual, televised eating competition that pays $5,000 to the person who eats the most hot dogs and buns. For years the record was 25.1 HDB in 12 minutes; a formidable performance. But in 2000, Kobi Kobayashi, who was studying economics at Yokkaichi University and behind on his rent, decided to enter and win the contest.

To make a long story short, in his first competition he ate 50 HDB. Today, the record is 69 HDB in 10 minutes. (In 2008 the contest was shortened by two minutes.)

Do not be constrained by artificial limits.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Benefit from organized abandonment

Information about the June 21-22 Lead Well workshop

Peter Drucker coined the phrase “organized abandonment” to describe the process whereby we can free up resources that are committed to maintaining things that no longer contribute to performance and no longer produce results.

According to Drucker, the change-leader puts every product, every service, every process, every customer, and every end use on trial for its life. The question to ask is, “If we did not do this already, would we, knowing what we now know, go into it?” If the answer is no, abandon it. The change-leader must also ask, “If we were to go into this now, knowing what we now know, would we go into it in the same way we are doing it now?’” [Drucker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, pg.74]

The term organized means doing this regularly and on a systematic basis.

Over time, organizations and individuals become burdened by unproductive and unnecessary actions. On a regular basis we must ruthlessly evaluate all functions and jettison those that no longer contribute.

In your personal life, organized abandonment might probe these areas:

  • Do I still benefit from reading a physical daily newspaper or should I get my news digitally?
  • Should my typical breakfast menu of bacon and eggs be abandoned for a healthier alternative?
  • If I was not currently living in my particular neighborhood, would I choose to move here?
  • Have some of my relationships grown stale; would I benefit from new, more invigorating relationships?

In your organization, this exercise might probe these areas:

  • As I consider every position in my organization, is each one still needed?
  • Do I have the right people in key positions?
  • If I had the opportunity to fill a position, would I hire the same person who is presently working in that position?
  • As I analyze every line item of the budget, are all expenditures still justified?
  • Are our products still viable?
  • Are there any customers we should “fire”?

Another approach to this topic is to regularly adjust your life using the Keep—Stop—Start formula:

I want to keep doing, or do more of _______.
I want to stop doing, or do less of _______.
I want to start doing _______.

“We’ve always done it that way” is an unwise justification for any activity.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Click here for more information about the June 21-22 Lead Well workshop.