Your reputation precedes you

The bible tells the story of two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Their story sheds light on how we develop reputations. As Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky points out, both Jacob and Esau have their names changed in the story. Jacob’s name was changed to, “Israel” after outsmarting his uncle, Laban, fighting with his brother Esau, and battling an angel. For Esau the story is different. Esau’s name was changed as well to what is loosely translated as, “Blood-hungry Wild Man” simply for the way that he asked for some of his brother’s red lentil soup.

Rabbi Kamenetzky asks, “It is quite disconcerting. Each brother had a name change. But [Jacob] had to have his hip dislocated, he had to battle an angel. All [Esau] had to do was slurp some soup, and he acquired a demeaning name for eternity. Is that fair?”

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While it may not be fair, it is an important lesson in life, especially for leaders. It is much harder for a leader to positive a reputation than it is for them to earn a negative reputation. For example, I remember a colleague of mine once giving me some good advice: “In managing people, there are no throw away lines.” Lack of clarity can throw a team into chaos and this sentiment could one day evolve into a leader developing a reputation for being a bad communicator, for example.

The solution to managing our reputation is self-awareness and the ability to control our emotions. We do that first by being intentional about what we are trying to accomplish and what reputation we need to accomplish those goals. For example, as a leader, I feel that it is a regular part of my job to remind my team that I am a human-being and that I make mistakes. In being transparent, my goal is to help build a team culture where we give everyone the benefit of the doubt (this only applies for team members without performance issues – that’s a different topic) so problems come to the surface to be solved. At the same time, I need to balance this by being self-aware about over-sharing, which could cause undue stress to the team.

In contrast to self-awareness and emotion managing, some leaders have a reputation for being pushy, unreasonable, and generally challenging to work with. However, they develop a reputation that, in spite of their behavior, “they get things done,” which justifies keeping that person in a leadership role on the team. That reputation can hurt a leader in a role with transformational goals because the leader’s reputation is that they cause havoc among teams, but the ends justify the means. That kind of transactional reputation undermines the leader’s abilities to be successful in achieving transformational goals, as the culture will be inherently more resistant to any suggestion made by a bulldozing leader, as it would be seen as more hierarchical than transformational.

Regardless of the specific line of work, a leader’s reputation precedes them. People will always talk about the leader, and whether a leader can control it or not, he or she will always have a reputation. Even the bible tells us that it is easier to earn a negative reputation than a positive one. It is for this reasons that leaders must become self-aware and manage their emotions, so that they can manage many different situations without being burdened by a negative reputation.

KEY TAKEAWAY: If you are a leader, you already have a reputation. Is it a good one or a bad one? If you could be an invisible, “fly on the wall,” what would people say about you? How does that help or hurt you accomplish your goals?

Am I serving the group?

At work, I have been sharing with many teams lately about the concept of reflection as a reflex. The concept is about using what Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning as the space between stimulus and response. Stephen Covey also included this concept in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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At times in my career, I have found myself hesitating in meetings. Reflecting on it, I think I hesitate because of things like Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS), fear that what I say will sound obvious to the rest of the group, or that others in the room are smarter or more experienced than I am and I probably do not have anything of value to contribute. Is this something you struggle with too?

Over time, I have learned a quick “test” that has helped me and I hope will help you too.

Any time I hesitate to speak, I ask myself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?”

This yes or no question gives me enough time to reflect without missing the germane part of the conversation and to make a decision on whether my comment will add value to the discussion. This question is also consistent with my personal definition of leadership and my desire to practice servant leadership. It gives me the confidence that even if my comment is controversial, it will be received in the right way because my motivation is service to the group.

I use this test in almost every meeting that I attend. It helps me to reflect in the moment and make sure that I am contributing at a high level. The test also keeps me centered. For example, the “test” prevents me from being too quiet or too dominant because my comments are always in pursuit of service to the group.

I hope you find value in this test as well and it helps you create better and more productive meetings.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders can practice reflexion in most contexts, including meetings. Before you speak, simply asking yourself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?” will give you the confidence to speak up and reflect the authenticity of your point of view.

 

Practice and preparation

Last week I wrote about the Washington Nationals historic run to win the World Series. Continuing on the sports theme this week, football can teach us a lot about the value of practice and preparation.

Unlike baseball’s grueling 162 game schedule, the NFL plays just 16 regular season games over 17 weeks in their season. Therefore most of the work of a football team is practice and preparation for each game. Coaches and players study film from previous games, practices, meet together, and strategize for their opponents, often around the clock.

Football coaches teach us about the value of organized practice and preparation, which we can apply to the practice of leadership. Over the summer, I read Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time by Ian O’Connor. Of the many excellent examples and anecdotes in the book, O’Connor wrote about a now famous play in the final minutes that helped the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX (49) against the Seattle Seahawks.

In the play, Malcolm Butler intercepted Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s pass at the Patriots goal line. The Patriots coaches had the team run this play several times in practice, where Butler played it incorrectly. In the big game though, Butler got it right and helped seal the win for the Patriots. Here’s the story from the coaches:

(If you are having problems viewing the video, you can click here for it)

Practice and preparation can make a world of difference. At work, I have developed a couple of systems to aid in making sure I am prepared. For example, I always print out my calendar for the upcoming week. I highlight in the color blue all the scheduled events that require preparation. I put copies of the documents I need for those meetings in a folder whose front cover is my highlighted weekly agenda.

I know I feel the most confident in presentations that I have practiced and tested with different audiences. I will take bits and pieces of new ideas and test them out in smaller settings before adding them to larger presentations to make sure that they work with an audience. I will also practice the final presentation repeatedly (usually practicing in front of my patient wife, Sheryl) to feel confident that I know the order and timing of everything when the time for the big presentation arrives.

What are your systems for practice and preparation? I would like to hear more about them and include them in a future blog post. Please share them with me here.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The practice and preparation involved in football teaches lessons for leaders in business as well. Often times leaders develop systems to prepare and practice for opportunities ahead to stay at the top of their games. 

Lessons from the World Series Champion Washington Nationals

On Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros to win the World Series. It marks Washington, DC’s first world championship in baseball since 1924, which was 2 franchises ago. Baseball is special and as a huge fan of the Nationals since they came to Washington in 2005, seeing the team win the World Series brought me more joy than I can really put into words.

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So while I process the emotional significance of the win, this Nationals team provides incredible lessons in leadership, resilience, and the value of culture that is worth exploring.

The season began with the Nationals losing arguably a once-in-a-generation talent, Bryce Harper, to the division rival Philadelphia Phillies. In one of the first games of the season, the team’s leadoff hitter, Trea Tuner, broke his finger trying to execute a simple bunt. Turner was the first in a long line of injuries to starting players.

The Nationals relief pitching was laughably bad, including one player, Trevor Rosenthal, who did not record an out through the first several weeks of the season. The team, who had the third highest payroll in baseball, was a dismal 19-31, 50 games into the season. The media was calling for the manager, Davey Martinez, to be fired and suggesting the Nationals trade away their best players to prepare to rebuild for the 2020 season. During one press conference, Martinez was heard muttering under his breath, “Just wait until we get healthy.”

According to the statistics, when the Nationals were 19-31, they had a 3% chance of making the playoffs and a 0.1% chance of winning the National League championship.

What happened next nobody could have predicted, including yours truly. At the time, I was a proud member of the #fireDavey campaign, and boy was I wrong.

On May 10th, the Nationals signed a veteran outfielder named Gerardo Parra to a one-year deal. Parra’s best years were arguably behind him and he was on his second team in 2019 and in a hitting slump to boot. To break the slump and appease his young children, he changed the music that the home stadium played when he came to bat to the catchy children’s song, “Baby Shark”. Soon, it became a sensation in Washington both among the team and its fans.

But that wasn’t all that Parra brought. He brought fun to the Nationals dugout, which ignited over a dozen rituals and traditions that helped the team bond. From donning rose-colored glasses, to a ritual of the player who just hit a home run dancing in the dugout, to bear-hugging the introverted, shy and now World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg.

Manager Davey Martinez challenged the team to just go 1-0 every day. He coined the mantra, “Stay in the fight” as the team’s rallying cry.

By now, you can probably guess the rest of the story. The Nationals went on a historic run, finishing the regular season 74-38 and making the 1-game, winner take-all, Wild Card against the Milwaukee Brewers. Down late in the game and facing the best closing pitcher in baseball, the Nationals came back and won. They then came from behind to beat the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers, swept the St. Louis Cardinals, and finally won the World Series in historic fashion against the powerhouse, best record in baseball, 107-win Houston Astros. They did all of this with the oldest team in baseball and the worst relief pitching in the National League.

There are several important leadership lessons in this story. I will touch on just a few of them:

Leadership can come from anywhere – One of the major criticisms of the Nationals carrying over from last season were that the team lacked leadership from its veteran players. Many pointed to the departure of long-time National Jayson Werth as hurting the morale in the clubhouse. It took Parra, a brand new member of the team to help the team play loose and have fun. He was not the team’s manager, best player, or really even one of their good players. He just led from his place in the clubhouse and it made a huge difference.

Never underestimate the value of a rallying-cry – Martinez consistently said, “Stay in the fight” and “Go 1-0”. The sayings united both the players and the fans in understanding the singular focus required to win a championship. If the team knew nothing else, it knew its job was to remain resilient and stay focused on the game today. Providing clarity and focus are some of the main responsibilities of leaders and a rallying-cry is a great way to target everyone’s energy.

Rituals that work help teams come together – The rituals the Nationals used were exciting and organic. Early in the year, the Nationals had a tradition of smashing a cabbage after a big win (I don’t know if it continued). In previous years, they used chocolate syrup to celebrate.

Baby shark, dugout celebrations, and Brian Dozier dancing shirtless to the song “Calma” took rituals to a whole new level. Rituals bond teams together. I am sure there is a scientific reason why that happens in terms of belonging, but I’ll save it for a future post. Regardless, this Nationals team would provide all the evidence needed to make the argument for the value of rituals to a team. I counted a dozen different rituals the Nationals adopted in their historic run and I am sure there are private ones that only the players will ever know about. To me, it looked like those rituals were some of the things that helped the team “Stay in the fight” and keep their optimism even when they had to play from behind, which they had do virtually all year.

The World Champion Nationals are a special group and have taught me a lot about how to never give up. While this team has left me with so much to celebrate, I also greatly appreciate the valuable lessons in leadership we can learn from them as well.

The biggest highlight of the season for me was attending a World Series game with my wife, my father, and my father-in-law. Every year that Nationals made the playoffs, I always secured a ticket to what would be the first World Series game in Washington in 86 years. A “bucket-list” event, I will always have those memories and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

GO NATS!

KEY TAKEAWAY: The 2019 World Champion Washington Nationals taught us that leading a team requires building a culture of resilience through team bonding. Giving others the ability to lead, creating focus through a rallying cry, and integrating rituals help create enjoyable, sustainable, and world championship-level teams. 

 

Shining Eyes

Lessons in leadership can come from many different sources. A mentor and former colleague of mine shared this with me and I thought I would pass it along to you.

In a 2008 TED Talk, classical music conductor Benjamin Zander discusses, The transformative power of classical music. In it, he shares an important lesson about leadership.

He says, “But the conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said, “Ben, what happened?” That’s what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it.”

Like a coach or a CEO, most leaders create the conditions for success rather than doing all of the work on their own. Zander’s description of his role as conductor is a basic function of leadership. His feedback mechanism of looking for “shining eyes,” is one that I always keep in mind when practicing leadership, public speaking, and presentations.

Please watch the TED Talk and contact me if it spoke to you too.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Part of a leader’s impact is to, “awaken possibility in other people.” Leaders can see if they are successful by looking for “shining eyes”.