Leadership Leadership TrainingNothing of real significant value can be accomplished by a single person.  I love John Maxwell’s assertion that “one is too small a number to achieve greatness.”

No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to find one example of genuine achievement that was performed by a lone human being.  There was always a team involved.

Leadership certainly requires individual & innovative risk taking; but without teamwork true greatness will never be realized.

I’ve gleaned many a lesson on teamwork from my prior experiences with the Marine Corps, aviation, and in business. My greatest and most memorable lesson in teamwork, however, came from being a member of a collegiate rowing team.

Rowing is the ultimate teamwork sport. All team sports have similar traits and characteristics that can be applied to everyday life and business; but the rowing aspects of teamwork are exponentially magnified.  Technically everyone and everything has to be exact; the height of everyone’s arms & hands, the rate everyone slides up the rails, the timing of when the oars hit the water.

From a mental and practical aspect there are no individual stars in rowing; there is no place to hide. If you don’t pull your weight everyone instantly knows it.  Because of this implied “peer-pressure” aspect there’s an unusually high requirement of mental and physical endurance .  It literally takes months of practice for the same eight-crew members to achieve the same sense of self, rhythm, & consistency.

When a crew finally does achieve this synchronicity, after weeks of incessant training, an astonishing wave of power takes over the boat.  What had previously been strained and difficult (and seemingly normal) all of a sudden becomes easy and poetic. It’s as if all of the previous egos, naivety, and insecurity of eight individuals is finally squashed, everyone becomes in tune with each other, and you feel as if all the power in the world is coming through your oar. Ultimate teamwork nirvana is realized.

Rowing set the stage and expectations for me early on what the true benefits of teamwork are, and what can be achieved through it.  It takes a team to do anything of lasting value.

I love Chuck Swindoll’s essay The Finishing Touch that sums up the importance of teamwork:

Nobody is a whole team…We need each other.  You need someone and someone needs you.  Isolated islands we’re not.  To make this thing called life work, we gotta lean and support.  And relate and respond.  And give and take.  And confess and forgive.  And reach out and embrace and rely…Since none of us is a whole, independent, self-sufficient, super-capable, all-powerful hotshot, let’s quit acting like we are.  Life’s lonely enough without our playing that silly role.  The game is over.  Let’s link up.

In this day & age of the where it seems the culture puts tremendous value and hope in the narcissist self-important leader; let’s have the courage to take a step back, become a lot more humble, and understand the true value of teamwork.


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When I think of the concept of courage I’m often drawn towards those larger than life, uncommon examples of valor that are held in reverence and awe.

For example, Medal of Honor recipient Sgt John Basilone on Guadalcanal repelling 3,000 Japanese for three days and nights without sleep, rest, or food; or Neil Armstrong taking control away from the computer and manually flying the Lunar Module to a safer landing spot on the moon with only 40 seconds of fuel to spare.

It’s easy to understand courage in this context; these “life and death” type scenarios.  But what about courage in the “everyday” that we are required to exhibit?

I think most of us equate courage as fearless acts of valor that are reserved for larger-than-life scenarios.  It’s easy to look at these type of fearless acts and wonder if we have what it takes to exhibit courage; and therefore be a leader.

It’s important to note, however, that exhibiting courage does not mean that one acts without fear. In fact fear is actually a requirement of courage.  Courage is the act of being scared to death and doing what’s required anyway.  One of my favorite quotes comes from World War I Ace Eddie Rickenbacker where he said, “Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do.  There can be no courage unless you’re scared.”

In this context, every day we are faced with courageous choices and acts.  Every time you act upon your gut instincts; every time you listen and follow your heart; every time you choose to do the right thing; you’re exhibiting courage.

It takes everyday acts of courage to deal with your life situations, love, family and work.

Maybe you’re required to step forward, make a fool of yourself, and lead your team in the Birthday Song for one of your employees.

Maybe you need to tell your kid no about going to the “party of the year” where all of her friends will be going.

Maybe you’re the father, who for the first time ever, decides to lead his family in grace over the evening meal.

All of these acts require courage.  I realize that they’re not “life-and-death” type scenarios, yet there is still an element of fear involved in each.  Regardless of the fear level, it’s  just as important that we put aside the fear and do the right thing.

Don’t discount the everyday acts of courage that are required in our lives.

You need courage to hold your family together when they seem to be falling apart.

You need to have courage to not lose heart when met with failure.

You need courage to be a leader.

What Is Leadership?

I came across an amazing book titled Toward A Meaningful Life by Rabbi Simon Jaconson.  It’s a fascinating read that gives a fresh perspective on every aspect of our lives; from birth to death, love and marriage, family, etc.

I especially love the following excerpt that deals with the question “What is leadership?” :

In our secular society we tend to think of a leader as a person who’s well connected or who is powerful or charismatic or wealthy. We judge leaders by what they have. But a true leader should be judged by what he has not: Ego, arrogance, and self‑interest. A true leader sees his work as a self‑less service towards a higher purpose. As the sagists say leadership is not power and dominance. It is servitude. That doesn’t mean that a leader is weak. He derives great strength from his dedication to a purpose that is greater than himself…

….A true leader shows us that our world is indeed heading somewhere and that we control its movement. That we need not be at the mercy of personal prejudices or prevailing political winds, that none of us is subservient to the history or nature; that we are history and nature. That we can rid the world of war and hate and ignorance, obliterate the borders that separate race from race and rich from poor.

Still many people have lost faith in contemporary leaders. The solution is not to resign yourself to the sad state of affairs but to search for and demand a leader of sterling character. The ultimate goal should be to have all the benefits of a democracy and the benefits of a visionary leader. It’s important especially today to distinguish between leadership and demagoguery.  A demagogue may inspire people but his motives are impure and his expectations are unrealistic. It is wise to be a bit skeptical when assessing a leader. Is he truly devoted to his mission or just seeking glory? Is he truly interested in the welfare of others or simply building a flock for his own self-aggrandizement? A true leader does not seek followers. He wants to teach others how to be leaders. He doesn’t want control. He wants truth. He doesn’t impose his leadership on others, nor does he take away anyone’s autonomy. He inspires by love, not coercion. When it comes time to take credit, he makes himself invisible. But he is the first to arrive at a time of need, and he will never shrink away in fear. He is so passionate about your welfare that when you consult him for guidance, it’s like coming face to face with yourself for the first time.

I think the last paragraph is remarkably poignant and timely for where we are as a nation today.

Feel free to share with me your thoughts.

Comfortable With Chaos

As a father of four daughters (ages 15, 13, 9, & 7), I feel I’m qualified to speak with authority on the concept of living and dealing with chaos.

As if having children isn’t challenging enough, we are also the owners of one extremely large German Shepherd, a loving & needy Boxer, two mini Dachshunds, four feral cats, and three horses.

Needless to say, there’s never a dull moment at the Rierson household.

The reality is that all of us are dealing with ever increasing levels of chaos in all aspects of our lives.  The question becomes how do we effectively deal with the chaos and uncertainty that surrounds us.

Though I’m not an advocate of bringing gasoline to a fire and adding to the chaos, I’ve resigned my thinking and mindset that uncertainty and chaos are inevitable. Therefore I focus on how to become comfortable operating and excelling within an unpredictable chaotic environment.

I love President Eisenhower’s quote with regards to planning: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

One of the biggest lessons learned from my ten years with the Marine Corps was that endless training and planning was less about executing flawlessly and more about being prepared to deal with the inevitable unforeseen and unpredictable.

Planning is critical for success, but you must realize your plan becomes worthless the moment you put your plan into effect. It becomes worthless because you are guaranteed to encounter something that you weren’t expecting.

Once you accept this reality you become much more effective as a leader; successful leadership demands the ability to remain flexible and making timely decisions in the face of uncertainty.

I’ve seen a handful of leaders become crushed and demoralized because their plan didn’t come to fruition.  Often their plans were overly detailed, rigid, and granular; unable to effectively deal with the unforeseen.

To counter this, we as leaders need to focus our energy on effectively communicating the overall intent and desired outcome of our plan to our people.  The details, or the “how”, of the plan need to be left to your functional leaders.

By keeping most of my focus, as the leader, on the desired outcome I therefore foster an environment of initiative, creativity, and aggressiveness for my functional leaders.

In addition to creating this environment it is imperative that you support and encourage decentralized decision-making.  In other words, once your intent is clearly communicated you need to be prepared to allow your functional leaders to make as many autonomous decisions as possible.

Without decentralized decision-making your plan becomes bogged down and overwhelmed by the inevitable unforeseen.

Remember, chaos is unavoidable.  Learn to become comfortable within a chaotic environment by:

  1. Realizing that planning is not for perfection but for the unpredictable.
  2. Communicating the intent/outcome; leave the “how” to your functional leaders.
  3. Supporting decentralized decision-making down to the absolute lowest levels.

Give Appreciation

When I look back and replay the tape on some of my leadership failures, the failures often stemmed from me taking my eye off of the simple and obvious.  The times I have failed as a leader were those times I was focused on myself.

As leaders we have to realize the basic essential hunger that rests in all of us; the desire to be appreciated, approved, valued, and accepted.

It’s so basic and ripe with “common sense”, but if we as leaders could learn to focus all of our energy on serving others, we could overcome many of the problems that are plaguing our businesses, schools, homes, and personal lives.

If you want to be appreciated, then you must show & give appreciation. You want to be approved and valued, then you must generously dish out approval and value.  You want to be accepted, then you must learn to accept others and love them where they’re at.

As the famous saying goes about recognition: grown men die for it and babies cry for it.

Some of the best leaders I have worked for were those that were generous in their appreciation and validation.  Receiving a simple thank you note, e-mail, or verbal praise at a meeting meant more to me than any fancy award or formal recognition.  The key was that their appreciation was genuine and sincere.

The beautiful thing about appreciation is that it’s one of those gifts that the more you give away, the more you’ll get in return.  Don’t be stingy with this valuable gift.

Remember, at the root of all successful leadership is a servant heart.  Despite what you are feeling inside, be deliberate in choosing to focus your energy on others.

It’s never about you; it’s always about them.

Accountability Vs. Responsibility

Accountability & Responsibility.

People often use these terms interchangeably; often believing that they mean the same thing.

If you are interested in dipping your foot into the leadership pool, you must understand that there is a subtle but very powerful difference between accountability and responsibility.

As a leader you must understand that you can delegate responsibility to numerous individuals all day long; but only one person can be held accountable.

Every aircraft I have flown have had multiple crew members.  Flying the KC-130 I had a Co-Pilot, Navigator, Flight Engineer, First Mechanic, & Load Master.  Each of these five crew members had unique functional responsibilities that were required for a safe and effective flight.

The Flight Engineer & First Mechanic were responsible for all the systems and maintainability of the aircraft.  The Navigator was responsible for air drop computations and secondary navigation.  The Load Master was responsible for all cargo loads and weight & balance information. As the Aircraft Commander, I had my own functional responsibility with the Co-Pilot to safely take-off, fly, and land the airplane.

But, as the Aircraft Commander, I had the additional weight of being ultimately accountable for everything that happened on that aircraft.

In other words, if one of my functional leaders failed in their responsibility, I was the one held to task for the failure.  If my Navigator ultimately fails to navigate me to Hawaii, and I end up ditching the aircraft into the ocean, as the leader I must be held accountable for the Navigator’s failure.  If my Load Master damages the aircraft with a forklift while loading the cargo bay, I have to answer and accept the full consequences of his mistake.

Too often we feel justified in throwing our team members immediately “under the bus” once they fail in their functional responsibility.  What separates and defines you, however, as a true leader is having the moral courage to protect your team members from their honest mistakes and accept the full brunt of their mishap yourself.

This is easier said than done; no matter if it’s a $5 dollar or $5 million dollar mistake, it’s never easy to stand-up and accept the fault of others.  It’s hard to accept this accountability because the reality is you may lose your position, title, or job because of the mistake of someone else.

But that’s the price of real leadership.  The good news is that more often than not you will ultimately be rewarded for standing up and taking the heat for your folks. By having the courage to rise-up and accept accountability, you will breed loyalty, respect, and dedication from your team members that is unsurpassed and hard to define.

There is never a shortage of opportunities to truly accept accountability in our lives.

If you want to consider yourself a true leader, be prepared to have the courage to do what’s right regardless of the consequences.

Remember that you delegate responsibility and hold accountability.

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Hack the Clock

Panic is bad.

It’s inevitable that at some point in your life you will face a situation that will require you to remain calm under pressure.

Your child is choking, a customer is irate and irrational, a team member is not pulling his weight, you come upon a car accident, you fly your aircraft through a flock of birds on take-off and lose all of your engines…

How you respond to stressful situations will make or break you as a leader.

As leaders you have no choice but to remain calm, regardless of the situation.  Therefore it’s required leaders learn how to compartmentalize their emotions and fear.

A compartmentalization technique I learned in aviation is what’s called “Hack the Clock”.

For every aircraft there is a handful of emergency action items that pilots are required to commit to memory.  These “boldface” memory items are steps requiring immediate action in order to keep the aircraft flying and/or safe.  Pilots study and practice these critical items until they become second nature.

The challenge when faced with an aircraft emergency is executing the boldface steps too quickly.  There has been more than one aviator who has shut down a perfectly good engine (while the engine on fire remains running) because they rushed through their “second nature” boldface items.

Its human nature to want to put out an engine fire light as quick as possible; but it’s imperative that a pilot take all appropriate time necessary to make sure that the correct immediate actions are performed on the correct engine.

To help slow things down and help control the natural “fight-or-flight” response to danger, many aviators do something innocuous before performing any emergency action item.  The technique I used was pushing the timing button on the navigation clock (e.g. Hack the Clock).

Pushing this button is not required and certainly doesn’t do anything to alleviate the emergency situation; but it does allow me to slow things down and let my brain catch up to the initial surprise and concern.  The idea is to prevent me from executing an instant, incorrect, and possibly fatal reaction.

It’s important to understand that this technique doesn’t remove the feeling of concern or fear, rather it’s a technique to control or compartmentalize your natural reaction to respond immediately.

I found it interesting what Captain Chelsey Sullenberger had to say about how he felt moments after he realized that he lost both engines shortly after takeoff, prior to his miracle landing on the Hudson River:  “It was the worst sickening, pit-of-your stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I’ve ever felt in my life….”

By all accounts from those on the plane with him, and from what we all heard on the radio transmissions, he was the epitome of calm cool professionalism.  Little did any of us know what he was really feeling inside.

As leaders we can’t afford to fold or lose our bearing under pressure.  The good news is that we can all learn how to compartmentalize and control our natural tendency to react.

The next time you’re faced with a crisis or emergency, your first step should be to do something innocuous (i.e. hack the clock, scratch your head, take a breath, etc.) to help you recover and maintain control.

Charisma & Leadership

How important is charisma when it comes to leadership?

When we think of leadership or ask people to define what makes a great leader, we often gravitate to the high-profile leaders with big egos and larger-than-life personalities.

In Nov 2011, Forbes published an article titled “Egomaniacs make the best leaders.” In this article they reference a study by four professors that studied 78 CEOs in the pharmaceutical / bio-tech industry and they concluded that “narcissism and hunger for attention lead to innovation and daring decision-making.”

There is certainly a ring of truth to this theory; after reading the Steve Jobs biography I’m convinced that Steve Jobs genius and creativity was driven by his ego and narcissism.

Personally I’m less concerned about ego and a larger-than-life personality being the bench mark definition of great leadership.

I’m a believer that all of us should think and act like leaders; that we all have the potential to be great in some sort of leadership capacity.

I also think that people often don’t think of themselves as leaders because they feel they don’t have the personality or “charisma” to be a leader.

I have seen many aspiring leaders spend a great deal of energy and effort on looking or acting the part of the leader.  All of their leadership development centered on developing their charisma.

Instead of studying on how to develop a larger-than- life personality, one should spend their time and energy learning how to be:

  • Calm
  • Confident
  • Consistent
  • Courageous

Regardless of our charismatic style, all of us can become better leaders if we devoted our life to these Four-“Cs”; instead of developing a personality.

Charisma, for the most part, is more of a God-given talent.  It’s great if you have it; but you will get more return on your personal growth investment  learning how to be calm, confident, consistent, and courageous in every aspect of your life.

Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” has a great chapter on this topic called “Level-5 Leadership”.  In his book he argues that all of the “Great” companies of our time had “Level-5” leaders at the helm.  Leader-5 leaders:

  • Are ambitious, but ambitious first & foremost for the company, not themselves.
  • Display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated.
  • Are fanatically driven, with an incurable need to produce results.
  • Attribute success to other factors than themselves; often acknowledging good luck, not personal greatness, for their success.
  • Look in the mirror and blame themselves when things go poorly.

Charisma can be a great enhancer and motivator to leadership; but it has to be backed up with substance and genuine character for it to be effective and long lasting.

Charisma can also be a dangerous thing; it’s an authority that defies natural logic. Regardless, history is replete with tragic example upon tragic example of people following charismatic leaders without character and substance.

Great leadership is not defined by your charisma.

Great leaders  focus on learning how to be modest & willful, humble & fearless.