Sensory pollution and it’s impact on leadership

I’ve been thinking lately about pollution. This time, not pollution in the environmental sense, which is how man-made items contaminate the environment. Instead, I’ve been wrestling lately with another kind of pollution.

Leaders face so many distractions, which can pollute or contaminate the mind. Let’s call this “Sensory pollution,” a phenomenon that has been extensively studied in animals, but has a very important impact on leaders as well.

Some culprits of sensory pollution are social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and other value-subtracting stimuli. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are filled with garbage dopamine and cortisol hits. From a sensory perspective, social media contaminates my sense of sight and my sense of touch, reflexively scrolling through my news feed passing by the minutes looking for the next hit.

In fact, my phone is filled with distracting sensory pollution, engaging the sense of touch to select and scroll, the sight of an application opening up and having unread messages, and the sound of someone trying to reach me through the “ding” from the speaker. Just waking up in the morning can be a sensory pollution minefield.

Then there can be the pollution from draining relationships at work. The never ended meetings that do not reach next steps or a logical conclusion can also pollute the mind and cause a leader to focus on trivial tasks, putting out fires, and pure survival.

Finally, there’s pollution through the sense of taste. For example, when I am stressed, I know that I reach for items that contaminate my body including fast food, fried food, and sweets.

My point in sharing the concept of sensory pollution is that all of these things contaminate the mind and make a leader less impactful and effective.

At their core, leaders are responsible for three things:

1) IMPACT – Having an impact on the core measures and outputs for the business

2) LEGACY – Treating other people, including team members, colleagues, and senior leadership, well and with respect.

3) SANITY – Preserving their own sanity by managing the commitment and emotional investments that come with being a leader.

Does sensory pollution actually advance any of these three areas of focus? If, for example, knowing what is going on in the world is a part of your job, how might you minimize the noise of news cycle punditry to reduce sensory pollution?

The answer lies in lessons from the Stoics, among others. Part of preserving a leader’s sanity is to quiet the mind and be able to focus even in the face of distraction. It is one of the most difficult parts of leadership but also one of the most essential.

Ryan Holiday, a modern student of and prolific writer about Stoic philosophy has been a core resource in my leadership practice to learn how to reduce sensory pollution.

In a recent tweet, Holiday shared:

In addition, you can reduce sensory pollution by not checking your phone within one-hour of waking up in the morning, practicing some form of meditation, and developing non-work relationships in your life that do not mind listening to you reflect or vent on hard issues (pro-tip, someone with a long commute is generally excited to spend time with you on the phone).

Sensory pollution is one of the biggest risks for leaders and must be managed to preserve a leader’s impact, legacy and sanity. Work environments, and its values and behaviors, should make an effort to significantly reduce sensory pollution in order to drive its most important outcomes.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: Sensory pollution for leaders are the things that contaminate your mind, make you reactive, and drain your energy. It is not as simple as going cold-turkey on negative stimuli. Leaders must have a routine or mitigation strategies to filter out the contaminants and focus on the three main aspects of being a leader – your impact, your legacy, and your sanity.

Update: Family strategy

On January 14th, I wrote a post about leading the “Most important organization in the world,” about leading a family.  At that time, I shared that my wife, Sheryl, and I put together our own family strategy that I would share at a later date.

Well, that later date has arrived with an extra twist! Sheryl and I had our first family strategy centered around preparing to become a family of 3. Our son Aaron was born a healthy 7lbs 5oz on April 13th, bringing us incredible joy during a time of incredible uncertainty. Aaron’s arrival and impact on our family has been immediate, and caring for him has been a welcome distraction.

Before we knew much about the novel coronavirus, Sheryl and I had a dinner date night and put together our family strategy, including our “rallying cry,” “defining objectives,” and “standard objectives.” Our strategy describes how our family is different. Our “rallying cry” is a short term focus, while the “defining objectives” are the steps to achieve the “rallying cry”. Finally, “standard objectives” are lasting areas of importance that our family has determined to be pillars of importance.

So here was our completed strategy board leading up to Aaron’s arrival (he was affectionately known as “Gummy Bear” before his arrival):

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For us, our family strategy is defined at the bottom of our board, which lives on display in our living room (it’s been a hit at dinner parties!). Our strategy is, “We are a family that is driven and goal oriented. We grow and change while always prioritizing faith, family, friends, and compassionate active listening. We are genuinely curious about our world and contributing to make it a better place.”

Our rallying cry, “Prepare for Gummy Bear” included the defining objectives of preparing his room and play room, getting stuff for him (like a car seat and stroller), taking the parenting classes, figuring out daycare, selecting a pediatrician, and establishing a birth plan.

Our standard objectives, which remain are managing financial health, physical health, spiritual health, the quality of our marriage, pursuing education, socializing, and fun.

Every week, Sheryl and I meet for about 5 minutes to assign tracking to each of the objectives. Red dots mean not accomplished this week, yellow means in progress, and green means complete. During the COVID-19 pandemic, achieving green status for the the social life standard objective has been especially hard due to social distancing.

Sheryl and I were both excited to create and deploy our family strategy. Having witnessed a couple of frantic family dynamics, it was our goal to get ahead of it and Lencioni’s model fell into our laps coincidentally. However, investing the time in developing a strategy and meeting about it weekly has been highly valuable for us. I find that the activity keeps us focused and grounded at home, just as work plans do for me professionally.

I really cannot recommend the activities of developing and tracking a family strategy highly enough. It helped us immensely, even in this time of social distancing, to prepare as first time parents bringing a newborn home with no physical help. Without it, it likely would have been a much harder road for us. Contrary to what we though, the first 3 weeks of Aaron’s life have been pure joy, with some sleepless nights thrown in.

You have the time right now during social distancing to create a family strategy. Everyone is home and looking for something to do. Go ahead and try it. Use The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family to get started. All the whiteboard materials are an easy order from Amazon. Happy strategizing!

As always, if you have any questions, please contact me.

Key Takeaway: Creating a plan and keeping it top of mind is the pathway for success in both business and with our families. Now is a perfect time to develop a family strategy and then to implement the objectives required to meet your goals.

Transformational leadership and Starbucks

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be writing a series on transformational leadership. In my next post, I will define the concept as well as an alternate style called transactional leadership. To kick off the series, I wanted to illustrate the hallmarks of transformational leadership through the story of one of my favorite transformational leaders: Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks.

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Howard Schultz is a transformational leader because of the way he developed a vision and then made it into a reality in partnership with Starbucks’ other employees. His vision was for Starbucks to be a “third place” between home and work and that Americans would pay $3-5 for a cup of coffee. Schultz used his charismatic personality and values to develop a transformational work environment at Starbucks that built a coffee empire. He uses motivation, influence and referent power to overcome business obstacles and achieve shared success.

Evidence of Howard Schultz transformational leadership qualities are a key component of the Starbucks operation. In the most obvious example, Starbucks refers to all its employees as, “partners” and offers them stock options and health care benefits (for both full and part-time employees) . He writes, “From the beginning of my management of Starbucks, I wanted it to be the employer of choice, the company everybody wanted to work for.” Schultz realized that leadership was about the people at the front lines doing the work to bring his vision to reality. He focused on the employees and used his strong motivation and influence skills to achieve his vision.

Schultz has also demonstrated the ability to motivate his employees both in terms of direction and emotional intelligence. On the first day Starbucks was in business, Schultz went to address the other Starbucks partners. He had three points written down on a 5-by-7 note card that read, “1. Speak from my heart. 2. Put myself in their shoes and 3. Share the Big Dream with them.”

When the response to Schultz’s first speech was a combination of skepticism and guarded optimism, he recognized what he needed to do. Schultz knew he had to develop referent, expert and position power in addition to his legitimate power role as the CEO of Starbucks. He used the tactics of shared benefits, consultation and collaboration, emotional calibration and consistency to motivate his new employees. He writes, “The only way to win the confidence of Starbucks’ employees was to be honest with them, to share my plans and excitement with them and then follow through and keep my word, delivering exactly what I promised – if not more.”

Schultz focused on outcomes, satisfaction and trust to build employee commitment to Starbucks, which minimized turnover and retained employees who were aligned to the vision and brand for Starbucks. He writes, “A business plan is only a piece of paper, and even implemented properly [is not complete] unless the people are committed to it with the same heartfelt urgency as their leader.” When Starbucks lost its way, in Schultz’s eyes, he closed all Starbucks locations temporarily for mandatory training, including lessons on how to make the perfect espresso shots.

Schultz has impacted not only the Starbucks partners who have grown and thrived with the company, but also the patrons of Starbucks. In his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing its Soul, Schultz describes the reactions of patrons when they learn that their neighborhood Starbucks was closing due to the suffering performance of the company, when, at one point, it was nearly at the brink of bankruptcy. They felt the loss on a deep emotional level because of what the store meant to the community. Schultz describes stories where people reacted emotionally to the announcement that the store they frequent was closing. One woman in Minnesota wrote, “I can’t believe that ‘my’ Starbucks is closing. You never know how important a place is until you are about to lose it.”

The impact of the Starbucks that Schultz created has also impacted me personally. In fact, I have written portions of this post from a Starbucks. It is incredible to me to witness what Schultz visioned coming to life in front of me. I was recently in one of the first Starbucks locations on the East Coast in Friendship Heights. The layout, the service, and the atmosphere was exactly how Schultz would have described it to a potential investor, partner or customer. There was a romance to the coffee service, and sitting there doing work at a table and drinking from my own personalized cup of coffee was surely a small but meaningful luxury. Knowing how much work it took Schultz to achieve that vision, including overcoming many skeptics and frequent trips to Italy, made the taste of my peppermint mocha even sweeter.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Transformational leaders pursue an important vision by empowering people to be a part of something larger than themselves. Leaders like Howard Schultz lead through respect and empowerment.

The most important organization in the world

Welcome back to Leadership as a Practice. We took a brief hiatus for the holidays but are back with more exciting content for you to enhance your own leadership practice.

Part of the reason for the break is that my wife and I are expecting our first child this Spring and we had some planning to take care of. As our family grows, we did some deep thinking about what it means to become a family with a child.

Coincidentally, I have been listening to a new podcast called At the Table with Patrick Lencioni, and a recent episode was about how to create a strategy for the family, or as Lencioni describes it, the most important organization in the world. My wife listened to the podcast as well and we both decided to try creating a family strategy with core values, defining objectives, standard objectives, and a regular cadence of checking in on progress.

Lencioni3Together, we read Lencioni’s book, The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family, which describes the process families can use to develop their strategic plan. This past Saturday night, we went out to dinner with the book, a legal pad, and pen and mapped out our strategy. The book describes that this process should be fast and we found that to be true. With the prompts and descriptions from the book, we spent about 20 minutes discussing the strategy and 10 minutes refining it. After reading our strategy over several times, we felt comfortable with the product.

From there, Lencioni prescribes developing a “rallying cry” or your family’s short term goal (2-6 months). I have also heard this idea called the “burning platform” in business discussions. The “rallying cry” will be reached by accomplishing “defining objectives”. From there, you define “standard objectives” or the themes that are always important to the family (ex: Physical health). After all of that work, the family meets weekly for 10 minutes to do a stoplight score (green for on schedule, yellow for close, and red for off schedule), which helps prioritize goals for the upcoming week.

My wife and I have our first check-in meeting this week, so we decided that we wouldn’t share our strategy with Leadership as a Practice readers until later (but stay tuned).

At work, I’m a big advocate of the value of strategic planning as well as disciplined and intentional implementation of the plan. Applying it to our family was something that occurred to me but I couldn’t figure out how to implement it. Lencioni’s model has helped my family get focused and organized. Our strategy has already helped us make decisions that are aligned. It also serves as an excellent model for a quick strategic plan for a functional department at any business.

Do you lead with intention both at home and at work? If you have any stories about this topic, I would love to hear them. Please send them to me here.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Strategic planning is a valuable exercise to accomplish both professional and personal goals. Leaders can establish a plan quickly and implement it. What better place to start than at home?


The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family is available for purchase on Amazon for $24.95 (does not include Prime discount)

Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

I always enjoy books that challenge conventional thinking. I find it always important to question and wrestle with the way I typically approach problems or other situations. For that reason, I highly recommend reading the book Range by David Epstein.

Epstein takes on the fundamental assumption that going deeper (specialization) is better for problem solving in our increasingly complex world than it is to have many diverse experiences (generalization). According to Epstein, generalists are in the best position to solve problems and innovate in an increasingly complex environment.

He writes that human’s unique strength is in the ability to think broadly, which is a capability that is uniquely human and difficult to teach a machine or algorithm to do effectively. He cites numerous examples from sports to medicine to space travel where the specialists got it wrong and a more general view would have been more beneficial.

There are many implications to leadership in business in the research Epstein compiles in Range.

One lesson is about over-reliance on data, which Epstein illustrates using the Challenger explosion as an example. At the Johnson Space Center a plaque in the mission control room read, “In God We Trust—All Others Bring Data.” Epstein explains how NASA’s culture made it rely on quantitative analysis too much, which he argues helped to bring on the decision to launch the Challenger when the O-rings were vulnerable to failure.

I highly recommend the book and believe that all leaders can benefit from its lessons. Next week I will write about some of the implications of Range’s findings to organizational development.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Generalized knowledge may be advantageous for leaders to develop new ways to solve long standing problems.


Range is available for purchase on Amazon for $28.00 (does not include Prime discount).