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)

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.


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”. 

Life (and leadership) is a journey

I recently came across this poem, which spoke to me. I think the lesson is valuable in life as well as in leadership.

Life is a Journey

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then perhaps to wisdom.

From weakness to strength or
From strength to weakness
And often back again;
From health to sickness,
And we pray to health again.

From offence to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
From grief to understanding,
From fear to faith.

From defeat to defeat to defeat
Until, not looking backwards or ahead,
We see that victory lies not
At some high point along the way
But in having made the journey
Step by step,
A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey.

–Rabbi Alvin Fine

Life is a Journey, is a metaphor that I have heard before. A friend and mentor at work has a similar quote hanging framed in his office, that I have noticed on many occasions. The idea that taking a wrong turn, failure, success, highs, lows, are all just a part of the journey of life is one that I find to be healthy and mature. It is also an idea that I have not fully mastered or appreciated in the past.

We can all strive to fully internalize that each and every day is a part of our life’s story. When I worked in government relations, building relationships was the most important part of the job. It was also by far and away my favorite part. I had a working theory that everybody in the world is truly an “expert” in only one thing: their life’s story. If you think about it, you are the only person who has witnessed your entire existence. Understanding the journey in that story helped me give everyone I met the benefit of the doubt and learn about their character.

If we view life as a journey, it is easier for us to cut ourselves some slack as well as cut others some slack. It helps me to be easier on myself and to see the things that didn’t go right as learning experiences. In fact, just last week, I had a conversation with someone that I thought went great, only to learn later that the other person in the conversation had the opposite impression. Seeing life as a journey allowed me to bypass the usual self-criticism and learn from the situation.

Rabbi Fine’s words are also applicable to those of us in leadership positions. There is no perfect leader. Leaders are held to a higher standard, are more scrutinized, and more insulated. That dynamic can make it harder for leaders to learn about themselves in a healthy way. Further, leadership is truly a practice (and thus the namesake for this website). What works for one group, may not work for another. A leader may have to lead a team in a highly transactional culture and then face a new leadership challenge in a transformative culture.

Leaders must be able to adjust in the spirit of embarking on a journey. Many cultures or groups are only understood through experience. That means that some people will be in leadership roles without a clear idea of what leadership style will work for a new group. Especially at the beginning, leaders need to encourage themselves to experiment and enjoy the journey that comes with uncertainty. With some core values in mind, embarking on that journey can yield an engaged team, reaching synergistic production.

In my current role, I was tasked with starting a brand new department. I am the first person in the organization to serve in this role. We started without a team and have been slowly building one. This last year has been an incredible journey and a learning experience. I appreciate Rabbi Fine’s words, which allowed me to reflect on the journey so far.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leadership, like life, is a journey. If we view our work through the lens of embarking on a journey we can be more flexible, less critical, and can yield more dramatically positive results. 

Leaders communicate with emotion

I’ve been listening to a new podcast from author and consultant Patrick Lencioni called At the Table. The podcast is fun, easy to listen to, and has been both topical and conversational. The episodes are relatively short, and like Lencioni’s writing style, they are engaging. I recommend you check out the podcast (and let me know what you think of it too!).

One of the recent episodes focused on a quote from Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s claim that in 30 years, CEOs will be obsolete. According to CNN Money, Ma said, “In 30 years, a robot will likely be on the cover of Time Magazine as the best CEO.” Lencioni and his colleague and co-host Cody Thompson rejected this idea and talked about the human side of leadership.

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In the episode, Patrick and Cody discuss how the old business adages recommending that leaders “keep people guessing” and “hold your cards close to your chest,” are bad advice. They discuss how they have consulted with CEOs whose flat affect or lack of emotion in communication creates extra work in the organization because employees are constantly trying to interpret and extrapolate on any small nugget of information they get. The content made me think a lot about how communicating both in general and communicating with emotion are necessary skills for transformational leaders.

Communicating with emotion is a powerful lesson for leaders for a few reasons. First, without it, it creates a vacuum. Second, without it, it creates politics. Third, without it, psychological safety erodes.

Let’s look at each of these a bit closer.

As an undergraduate student studying government and politics, I remember hearing the saying, “nature abhors a vacuum,” which is attributed to Aristotle. We also learned the related concept of a power vacuum, which means that when there is no identifiable leader, others will rush in to fill the void. When leaders fail to communicate, including failing to communicate with emotion, other people in the organization tend to fill-in missing information for the leader though the information may not be consistent with the leader’s intentions.

Second, when people in the organization or group are confused, it can create politics. This happens when one group interprets the leader one way and hears one message, while another group is reading between the lines hears something different. Then each group positions themselves to have their perspectives win out. All of these dynamics can be avoided by a leader that communicates effectively. Using emotion can also send the right messages, with the right tone, at the right time, to eliminate politics and interpretation.

Finally, the lack of communication by the leader can erode psychological safety. Without communication on relevant topics, followers almost always start to worry about the impact on them and their standing in the organization. Without clarification about the impacts of a decision, most people will almost always interpret them with negativity and worry. That is why shaping the message, which many leaders can do through their emotions, is vital.

Patrick and Cody are right. The Robot CEO isn’t coming anytime soon, at least not in service environments where people are the main asset of the business. Communication, especially communication with emotion, is a vital tool for all transformational leaders.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Communication with emotion can keep the people in the organization focused and on the right path. Without it, followers will spend their time filling the vacuum of information with assumptions, interpretations, and worry.