Don’t assume that all people have leadership skills

I’ve been a student of leadership for forty years. In 1980 I defended my doctoral dissertation on strategic planning and I’ve continued to study the topic of leadership since then.

One fallacy I constantly see is the assumption that someone can lead well even though he or she has never had any training or experience in leadership.

This approach doesn’t work in other professions: to become a doctor, accountant, or pilot, one must study for years; degrees and certifications must be earned. Sadly, there is no such criteria for leadership. Anyone can call herself a CEO, manager, entrepreneur, or leader and not get arrested for practicing without a license. 

Contrary to popular sentiment, leaders are not “born”; leaders are “made.” There is no “leadership gene” that some people are fortunate to have been born with and others are lacking. Just as it takes years of training to become a commercial pilot, it takes focused training to become a good leader.

Said differently, an effective leader must develop certain skills. For instance, a leader is responsible for formulating the mission, vision, goals, and plans for her organization. But without training, most people don’t even know what these elements are, how they differ, and how they are related. Leaders are also responsible for selecting quality team members (it could be argued that this is the leader’s most important task), but many people who serve in a leadership position have had no training in this area.

We must not even assume that a professional degree qualifies someone to lead in his field. For instance, just because a physician is good at his job doesn’t mean he can lead well in his field. Nor should we assume that because an individual has achieved a professional degree or certification (physician, accountant) in one particular field, that he will lead well in other fields. For instance, the post-nominal M.D. doesn’t automatically qualify someone to be a leader in his church, mosque, or synagogue. Knowing how to read x-rays doesn’t prepare one to make important organizational decisions. Similarly, a degree in theology (learning ancient languages, apologetics, preaching, systematic theology) does not equip one to lead well—leadership requires a separate skill set. 

Many non-profit organizations put people into leadership positions simply because they embrace the organization’s core values or because they have achieved professional status in another field, or both. These qualifications may be necessary but they are not sufficient. To lead well one must possess leadership skills.

Here’s a list of 12 important leadership skills.

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

Mission, vision, and goals—how they differ and why all three are important 

Every organization needs a mission, vision, and goals. There’s often confusion about these three terms—how they differ and what they mean. Here is a brief description of each. 

  • Mission defines why the organization exists. It seldom changes and is usually never completed. It answers the question, “Why do we exist?”
  • Vision gives the organization direction and defines its uniqueness (how it differs from other organizations with the same mission). It answers the question, “How will we fulfill our mission?” Vision is malleable and doable.
  • Goals describe action, are measurable, and have a short timeframe (one to five years). 

For instance: 

The mission of every hospital is the same—provide healthcare for patients.

But the vision of each hospital may be unique. 

  • Serve as a general, regional hospital.  
  • Specialize in cancer research.
  • Focus on the needs of children.    

Goals for a hospital might include:

  • Become a certified level 3 trauma center in four years.
  • Outsource our ER department in the next 12 months.
  • Remodel the common areas next year.

The mission of every church is usually a blend of the great commission and the great commandment—and this mission hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. 

  • Love God; love others.
  • Exalt God, edify the church, evangelize the lost.
  • Share the gospel of Christ in our city and around the world.

But the vision for each church may be unique.

  • Appeal to a young audience.
  • Establish a strong local church and then create satellite churches.
  • Emphasize local and international missions.  

Goals for a church might include:

  • Debt free in three years.
  • Start a Sr. Adult ministry this year.
  • Sponsor a new church every three years.

Mission gives your organization general direction by defining what business you’re in. Vision provides specific direction and even distinguishes your organization from other, similar organizations. Mission is abstract; vision is concrete. Mission is usually never accomplished; vision is. Goals are “near-sighted”—they describe action that will occur in 3-5 years; they are clear and easy to understand—not ambiguous or imprecise; they are measurable—success or failure will be obvious.

Here is a fictitious example of how these three planning elements might be expressed in an organization.

Organization—Hope for Americans

  • Mission—Assist individuals and families in America whose basic needs are not being met.
  • Vision—Bring relief to homeless families. (This would be one of several vision statements.)
  • Goal — In the next four years, build 100 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. (This would be one of several goals.)

Notice how the progression from mission to goals becomes increasingly more concrete, doable, and engaging.

Having a clear mission is necessary but not sufficient. You must also have viable vision. A vision statements are necessary but not sufficient. You must have doable goals.

Sometimes, organizations get bogged down in the vision-crafting stage. When this happens, skip vision-crafting and move directly to goal setting. Goals will get the organization active and engaged. Goal-setting helps identify current opportunities and immediate needs. Ask “what can we do right now to accomplish our mission?” and the goals you craft will immediately activate resources and give momentum to the organization. Eventually, these goals will help clarify vision. 

Often, when constituents cry out in frustration, “What is the vision of this organization?” they are actually longing for goals; they are wanting to know what the organization is going to do. 

Here’s a summary of how these elements relate to each other and fit into the life of an organization. To succeed, every organization needs to have a clear answer to these questions. 

  • Why do we exist? – Mission
  • How are we going to fulfill our mission? — Vision  
  • Who are we? – Culture
  • What are we going to do to accomplish our vision? – Goals
  • How are we going to accomplish each goal? – Plans 
  • Relative to each goal: When are we going to do it (dates needed here), who is going to do it (names needed here), and how will we know when we are successful (metrics that reveal failure or success). – Every goal should include these elements. 

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

Six things you can easily do that will enhance your life (and they don’t cost money)

There are many things in life that we cannot control: other people, the weather, random events…but there are many things we can control and we should focus on those. 

Here are six things we can easily do—every day— that require little time and effort but are beneficial.

Maintain good posture.

Whether you’re sitting or standing, have good posture. You’ll look and feel better.

Here’s a good article on good posture: 

Drink a large glass of water as soon as you get up in the morning.

A survey of 3,003 Americans found that 75% had a net fluid loss, resulting in chronic dehydration. Are you among that 75%? 

Dehydration has dire effects but is easily avoided.

Drink a glass of water when you first get up in the morning. It will begin the hydration process and help keep the issue on your mind throughout the day.

Here’s an article on how much water you should drink per day.

Here’s an article on dehydration.

Strengthen and favor your core muscles.

Your core muscles are so named because of their location and importance. Our center of mass is usually located just below the navel and halfway between the abdomen and lower back, which is midway between the mass of the upper and lower body. When walking, working, bending, or leaning over, I think of my center-point and keep my body balanced over it. Most evenings I do a series of exercises that stretch and strengthen my core muscles.

Here’s an article and video on good exercises to strengthen your core muscles.

Develop a pleasant “resting face.”

Your “resting face” is the way your face looks when you are at ease, with facial muscles relaxed. 

Your “engaged face” is the way your face looks when you are consciously manipulating your face to appear more engaged, approachable, and friendly. I’ve also heard this called a “yes face.”

Most people have an unfriendly looking resting face. At best it’s hard to read, at worst we look sad, unapproachable, unengaged, and even upset.

To display an engaged face, simply raise the eyebrows and forehead, open up the eyes, and smile.

Here’s a post I wrote on this subject. 

Memorize one significant thought a week and meditate on it.

Here’s a mental discipline I enjoy, benefit from, and constantly do: I identify a significant thought, memorize it, meditate on it, apply it to my life, and when possible, discuss it with other people.

This process is a key to personal growth and change.

Here are some thoughts I’ve recently meditated on: 

  • “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” —Einstein
  • It’s amazing how much an organization can accomplish if no one cares who gets the credit for progress.
  • “Envy is the most stupid of vices, for there is no single advantage to be gained from it.” Balzac

Here’s a post I wrote on this subject.

Express gratitude daily. 

There are many advantages to expressing gratitude, not just thinking thoughts of gratitude or feeling grateful, but actually expressing it.

    1. It helps develop a positive attitude. 
    2. It’s an antidote for being negative and pessimistic.
    3. It reinforces our remembrance of positive experiences.  
    4. When we express gratitude to people for specific things they have done, they are encouraged and their behavior is affirmed. 

Here’s a post I wrote on this subject. 

In the past few years, I’ve developed a new catchphrase: “There are some things you cannot do; but what you can do, do.”

These are six things everyone can do.

Question: Please contribute to this list of simple things we can do that will be beneficial.  You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Don’t let bad endings control how you feel about an experience

I asked a friend about his experience at a chamber music concert. His first response (and his only response until I pressed him) was, “During the final song there was a terrible, loud noise that just ruined the concert. I’m not even sure where it came from.” I asked him about the other 57 minutes (the concert lasted an hour). “Oh, the rest of the concert was terrific. Beautiful music played well.” Interestingly, he chose to remember the negative part of the evening, though it represented only a small fraction of the total event.

I asked a friend about her vacation. Her first response was, “When we checked out of the hotel, they tried to stick us with a surcharge that we had not agreed to. I had to escalate the situation to the general manager to get it resolved. It was a very distasteful encounter.” I then asked about the previous six days and 12 hours. “Oh, we had a great vacation,” she said, “very relaxing and satisfying.”

Notice that my friends chose to focus on how their experience ended and fixated on a negative aspect. We all tend to do this. 

We are inclined to remember how an event ended.

In a psychological research project, subjects each immersed a hand in iced water at a temperature that causes moderate pain. They were told they would have three trials. While the hand was in the water the other hand used a keyboard to continuously record their level of pain. The first trial lasted 60 seconds. The second trial lasted 90 seconds, but in the last 30 seconds the water was slowly warmed by 1 degree (better but still painful). For the third trial, they were allowed to choose which of the first two trials was less disagreeable, and repeat that one.

Eighty percent of the subjects who reported experiencing some decrease in their pain in the last 30 seconds of the second trial chose to repeat the 90-second experience. In other words, they chose to suffer for an additional 30 seconds because the ending of the experiment was more satisfying. 

Many similar experiments have revealed that people’s remembrance and assessment of an experience are based on the peak (best or worst moment) and how the experience ended.

We are inclined to remember negative events more than positive ones.

We are predisposed to allowing negative experiences to impact us more than positive ones—an inclination we must actively work to resist. For instance, when the stock market suddenly drops and we lose money, that impacts us more than all the months in which the stock market gradually rose. This may cause us to rashly (and unwisely) sell our stocks and make us reluctant to invest in the market again.

The antidote for both dilemmas is reflection and gratitude. After an event is over (and even when it’s happening) take time to reflect on the entire affair (concert, vacation) and balance the positive with the negative. Thoughts and expressions of gratitude help us concentrate on positive aspects, which enhances and lengthens their influence. 

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

Sometimes, all of us are not smarter than one of us

All of us are smarter than one of us—unless you’re dealing with an issue that “all of us” know little or nothing about and “one of us” knows a lot. Sloman and Fernbach

One of my favorite leadership mantras is: All of us are smarter than one of us. Particularly in the complex world in which we live, no one person is smart enough to lead unilaterally. That’s why a collaborative leadership style works better than a Lone Ranger mentality. Leaders should build a diverse team of informed, committed members and then engage them when making major decisions.

But sometimes, all of us are not smarter than one of us.

Here’s an extreme, hypothetical situation that illustrates the point. Imagine five professionals (lawyer, accountant, business executive, professor, and engineer) sitting around a table, discussing a particular issue, trying to discern the best thing to do. But the decision involves a medical issue. In walks a physician, and suddenly, “one of us is smarter than all of us.” Granted, there’s a lot of brain-power in the group of five, but they’re all uninformed relative to the topic at hand.

Here’s an actual example. Years ago I was part of a group at work that interviewed candidates for a position we needed to fill. Everyone in the group was intelligent, but none of us knew anything about interviewing techniques, HR practices, tests that are available to evaluate candidates’ abilities, or the intricacies of developing a balanced and diverse team. Some of us were not even particularly insightful individuals. Together, we made a unanimous but wrong decision.

Now think back to the hypothetical case in which the five professionals are tasked with making a medical decision, but this time, the five people include an oncologist, cardiologist, surgeon, anesthesiologist, and a psychiatrist. That group will probably make a better decision than a single doctor would.

Granted, sometimes a diverse group is advantageous. For instance, when you’re exploring a radical idea or an entrepreneurial pursuit, it might be helpful to have an anthropologist, mathematician, artist, salesman, and a librarian brainstorm the idea. Each member of this disparate group will see the issue differently and can contribute in unique ways.

I see several factors at work here.

  1. The issue. What is the topic of discussion; what decision needs to be made? Are team members qualified to address this topic? If not, the team should hand off the decision to another group, or an expert “voice” should be invited into the conversation. 
  2. The team. Are we aware of our strengths and weaknesses? Are we confident enough and have enough self-awareness to admit that we may not have the knowledge necessary to properly address an issue? Do we suffer from group-think? (Irving Janis defines groupthink as “The mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”)

Having said all this, I reiterate my conviction that most leaders don’t take advantage of the wisdom of others. We act as soloists. But every idea or plan will be improved upon when submitted to the unfiltered wisdom of others. Just be sure you have the right people in the group. 

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

Beware of fake news and biased reporting

In December 2016, a screenwriter named Edgar Welch read online that Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington D.C., was harboring young children as part of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton. Welch believed the false conspiracy theory and took it upon himself to visit Comet Ping Pong, unleashing an AR-15 rifle on the workers there. By some miracle, no one was hurt and the police arrested him. He was snookered by fake news.

In the U.K. a post on Facebook purported that places of worship are exempt from council tax—but only if the worshippers are Muslim. The post claims followers of Islam who use their living areas as a place to pray do not need to pay council tax. The image attached to the post shows a copy of the petition dated 2013. The fake story was finally expunged in 2018 when the House of Commons officially stated, “It is not possible for owners of domestic property to avoid council tax by claiming that their property, or part of it, is used for religious purposes.”

Fake news is completely false information, photos, or videos purposefully created and spread to confuse or misinform. Not surprisingly, Facebook and Twitter are the two main conduits for the spread of fake news. Fake news is not a new nemesis (consider supermarket tabloids that have been published for decades), but the internet has allowed it to increase exponentially.

I think most of my readers are astute enough to recognize and reject fake news, but many of us may be inordinately swayed by biased reporting in which a news source does report facts (or selected facts) but presents them in a biased way such that the reader is intentionally manipulated toward a certain persuasion. 

That’s why I never watch FOX or MSNBC news channels. Though they may not promulgate fake news, I find their biased reporting to be misleading. If you get a steady diet of either source, you’ll eventually be swayed to an extreme position. CNN and NBC are slightly left of center but are more careful about the stories they choose to report and how they present them. 

Here’s a good article on how to recognize a fake news story.

Here’s a graphic showing the ideological leaning of familiar news sources.

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


Don’t get caught without a pencil

Capture good thoughts, even if you’re not sure how they might help in the future. —Andrew Hargadon

“The novelist Paul Auster tells a story about growing up as an eight-year-old in New York City and being obsessed with baseball, particularly the New York Giants. The only thing he remembers about attending his first major league baseball game at the Polo Grounds with his parents and friends is that he saw his idol, Willie Mays, outside the players’ locker room after the game. The young Auster screwed up his courage and approached the great centerfielder. ‘Mr. Mays,’ he said, ‘could I please have your autograph?’

“‘Sure, kid, sure,’ the obliging Mays replied. ‘You got a pencil?’“

Auster didn’t have a pencil on him, neither did his father or his mother or anyone else in his group.

“Mays waited patiently, but when it became obvious that no one present had anything to write with, he shrugged and said, ‘Sorry, kid. Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.’

“From that day on, Auster made it a habit to never leave the house without a pencil in his pocket.” [From The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, pg. 29]

Several years ago I wrote a blog post on how significant thoughts can positively affect your life. A meaningful thought can change the trajectory of your life, so always be looking for them. You might find one while reading the newspaper, or talking to a friend, or listening to the radio, or (and these are the best kind) you might have an original thought that is worth archiving.

But when you come across a significant thought, you must write it down because short-term memory is unreliable.

So always carry a pen and paper. You never know when you’re going to encounter a significant thought, and if you don’t write it down, you’ll lose it. Don’t miss out on a notable statement just because you “ain’t got no pencil.”

Obviously, the emphasis of this post is on recognizing, valuing, and recording important thoughts, not on writing utensils, but sometimes the smallest things trip us up, like not having a pencil when we need one.

For instance, several days ago I read this sentence by Thomas Huxley—Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. It caught my attention, so I wrote it down, thought about it, talked to some friends about it, and now it’s part of my life. But this bit of wisdom would have been lost to me if I had not written it down.

Get into the habit of writing down interesting and helpful thoughts. [I transfer my hand-written notes into an app called Evernote.]

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

Sometimes, leaders must make major decisions quickly

On June 22, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered an attack on the French Navy after the German-French armistice was signed. Within five minutes of the initial shots being fired, nearly all of the French warships were destroyed or crippled. More than 1,000 French sailors were killed in the attack, all of whom were allies only days previously. Churchill made this decision, amidst strong cabinet opposition, to prevent a potential shift in naval superiority.

That was a gutsy call. It was also a quick decision; Churchill only had a few hours to decide. 

Leaders, 90% of the decisions you make are not urgent. Simply submit them to due process: clarify the decision, seek input from your team, consider alternatives, and take time to get it right. But some decisions must be made quickly. Know and recognize the difference. Don’t be impulsive if you can submit the decision to a considered process, but don’t procrastinate when a decision must be made quickly.

Don’t be rash or impulsive, but do be decisive.

You’ll not always make the right decision. When you make a mistake, admit it, own it, and then press on. 

History proved Churchill’s decision to be a good one. If he had not destroyed the French Navy, each ship would have flown a swastika and the Nazis would have ruled the seas and probably won the war. 

When was the last time you had to make a major decision, quickly? What was the outcome?