Success in Life…

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Success in life should never be measured by a job or career accomplishment, but by the relationships we build and the influences we have on the lives of others.

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The Fallacy of Authority

authoritySimply put, leadership is the ability to influence others.

Ironically, however, the ability to influence others, either in an organization or in the political arena, ultimately doesn’t depend on an individual’s title or position of authority. In fact, those in positions of “authority” often confuse their ability to inflict their will on others (where authorized by their position or title) as a “right” of leadership. This is frequently the case with new managers and those whose motivation for leadership is based on a desire for authority in the form of personal control and power.

These authoritarian relationships may command respect in a superficial sense, but are void of trust and respect. They are based solely on fear rather than empowerment and personal ownership, and offer no provision for alignment of ideas or ideals. In this self-centric mindset, the emphasis on success is internal. The success of both subordinate individuals and the team is viewed by the manager as being dependent upon his or her personal success. These managers tend to believe that in order to validate their own value to the organization they must make themselves essential to the success of the team.

I see this in teams that are largely dysfunctional when the leader is absent. Decisions cannot be made without the manager’s consent. Personal ownership and accountability is stifled and autonomy is restricted. There is little or no basis of trust in the competence and discretion of the team members. This type of manager hordes power, controls rather than leads, and lacks the self confidence to allow subordinates or the entire team to excel in his absence. They make the success of their team completely dependent upon their presence and participation.

I believe that just the opposite is true of superior leaders – that the true measure of success for a leader is not how necessary he is to the team, but in fact how unnecessary he is. This might sound radical or counter-intuitive, but if a leader has truly done his job, the people who work for him should be able to function autonomously for an extended period of time without the necessity of his direct supervision. They should all be aligned both individually and collectively with the organizational vision and goals. They should each have a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability, both to their leader and to each other. They should exhibit integrity and self-discipline. They should be enthusiastic and self-motivated. And finally, they should have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement. This is the very essence of a high performing team, and the best managers and strongest leaders, in effect, actually make themselves less and less integral as their teams become more and more self-sufficient.

The ability to influence others is a powerful and awesome responsibility. Effective, superior leadership, under which individual and team performance is developed and cultivated to its highest potential, requires uncommon, illusive, and perhaps innate personal qualities.  It requires confidence and vision with a strong sense of purpose.  It requires courage, discipline, and dedication to the development of others.  It requires authority without authoritarianism.  Superior leaders nurture cooperation instead of mandating compliance.  They build consensus and create a culture of alignment in which every member shares in the ownership and accountability.

Professional Effectiveness or Personal Fortitude?

Chances are you’ve at some point known or worked with someone who has endured a significant personal crisis.  Perhaps it was a nasty divorce, a life-threatening personal or family illness, the loss of a spouse or child, or a similar life event that turned their world upside down.

I lost my father to a heart attack just weeks after I turned 17 years old and days before I started my senior year of high school.  I can still remember the numbness I felt as I went to school that fall, surrounded by friends whose lives were blissfully unchanged while my own was irreversibly altered.  But as difficult as it was, I persevered.  It could even be argued that it was easy for me to move forward simply because I still had my entire life before me.  But I doubt I considered that at the time.  No, I persevered because there was simply nothing else I could do.  I couldn’t reverse or change what had happened.  Like it or not, I could only adapt and move on.

As bystanders – family, friends, and co-workers, we admire the strength of those who have suffered tragedy and yet are somehow able to keep going.  Because we can only imagine their grief and anxiety, we marvel at their ability to continue doing the simplest of daily activities and can hardly understand how they’re able to keep coming to work or to class.  The fact is, like me at age 17, they do it because there is simply nothing else they can do.  They adapt and move on because there is no other option.  They have no choice.  Bills still have to be paid, mouths still have to be fed – the responsibilities of life don’t stop.

It’s human nature to sympathize with people in these situations, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But I think it’s easy to confuse sympathy with admiration, and there is an important distinction between the two.  At the risk of sounding coldhearted, to admire someone who continues to live and work after a tragedy is like admiring a sailor who swims after his boat sinks.  Do we admire him for not giving up and drowning?  Do we admire his courage?  Truth be told, most of us probably do; after all, we’re inspired by stories of perseverance and love to cheer for the underdog.   But again, what choice does he have?  He can swim and live or he can sink and die – not much of a choice.  It’s a simplistic comparison, but I think it relevant nonetheless.

The point I want to make is we have such a natural inclination to admire those who overcome tragedy, we often let it cloud the rest of our judgment about the individual.  Specifically, it’s easy to confuse what we perceive as personal fortitude with the reality of professional effectiveness.  Surely we’re inclined to assess the individual’s performance more generously in light of the adversity they’ve faced, and this is certainly the right thing to do temporarily while the person heals.  After all, no one can be expected to perform at full capacity either during or in the aftermath of a personal crisis.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m referring to the tendency to allow our permanent perception of the individual to be skewed due to whatever past tragedy they’ve endured – confusing their fortitude and resilience in moving on with their ongoing effectiveness in their job.

In short, personal fortitude is ultimately no substitute for, and is indeed in this context only marginally related to, good performance.  It’s not for me to say how long a person should be allowed to recover from a crisis.  That depends on the individual, situation, and circumstances.  However, regardless of whatever tragedy the individual has suffered in the past (or even presently endures), eventually his or her performance and professional effectiveness must be judged on its merit.  We can admire their strength and perseverance, but that alone is a poor substitution for meaningful achievement.

The Social Construct of Morality

Joining the ranks of religion and politics, morality has quietly become a minefield to be publicly avoided at all costs.  Discussion on the matter, let alone debate, is just not politically correct; someone is sure to be offended.  Others might disagree, but I assert that morality, once commonly guided by absolute principles broadly accepted by society, has gradually evolved to a matter of individual preference.  I personally believe that matters of preference are subject to compromise, while matters of principle should be firmly upheld.  The problems begin when my principles differ from yours.  While my intent here is not to impose my ideology, I do want to explore the cultural inconsistencies in the interpretation of right and wrong within our society.  To that end, I pose these questions as food for thought and comment:

Should the foundation of morality be based on an absolute – a definitively established set of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, or should it be left to the interpretation of individuals or larger society groups?  Should these cultural standards be established or affirmed, recognizing that not everyone will be in agreement?  Do we let the majority decide, or do we default to the lowest common denominator within our culture – the individual?

I’m using the term ‘lowest common denominator’ in the context of contrasting two ends of the spectrum for judgment over what is and is not acceptable, i.e., morally right.  By that I am referring to an accepted societal viewpoint in which the wishes/rights of individuals have priority over those of a larger population.  I’m drilling down to the idea of ‘individual rights’ as the lowest level driver of moral authority, assuming ‘rights’ are interpreted in the strictest sense.  I’m also using the concept of right and wrong in the same context as morality, since by definition, morality is the principles of right and wrong in behavior.

The fact is, belief and value systems within our culture vary so greatly that there is an enormous gap between what most of us believe as individuals and the reality that exists within our society.  Despite what many would assert should be, I don’t think a consensus on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ truly exists in our culture because we simply cannot agree on the boundaries.  Sure, there are certain actions that are almost universally considered taboo, but the waters get murky when you start talking about simpler issues of right or wrong.  Subsequently, no one is satisfied.  We assess issues and behaviors, etc., based on our personal perspective, recognizing the influence that our experiences, beliefs, and shifting cultural views have on us.  Perhaps the most commonly accepted concession is that what is ‘right’ for one person or group may not be so for another.

As a society of like minded people (I’m talking in the broadest sense), we’ve traditionally made sweeping cultural decisions about what is considered right and wrong.  In the age of political correctness, those decisions are being challenged by those who believe the ‘one’ is just as important as the ‘many.’  Priority of designated ‘rights’ has shifted away from the absolute and/or cultural majority to individuals and small groups with interests that do not conform to traditional norms.  Current cultural pressure dictates that we are no longer supposed to judge right or wrong whenever there is the potential that an individual or group might take offense or in some way be repressed.

Some would argue that morality is and should be a social construct.  That concept is indeed at the heart of the questions I’m posing.  Since defining morality as a social construct implies that there are culturally established standards of right and wrong, how then should this morality be imposed upon society, when by doing so, it may in fact conflict with the principles and values of those in disagreement?

In a discussion on this subject several years ago, a friend of mine argued that cultures judge right and wrong at will while governments protect the rights of individuals.  I don’t entirely agree with this, although I think I understand what he was getting at.  Cultures do define and judge right and wrong, however, governments obviously do not always protect individual rights.  The legal imposition of morality is in constant flux and the monitoring and protection of affected ‘rights’ depends on a host of social and political factors, all of which vary by culture vis-à-vis country.  I would point out that even in the U.S., public perception of certain assumed rights is itself frequently a cultural misconception, based on popular assumption but with no specific legal basis.  Simply put, just because we think we deserve something doesn’t mean we’re legally entitled to it, and having a voice doesn’t always equate to having a vote.

That same friend also asserted that “tyranny of the masses precludes justice and fairness” in the application of moral constructs imposed upon broader society.  Assuming that’s true, where then is the demarcation between social morality and individual rights?  How exactly should fairness be defined?  Given the imposition of social/cultural morality on the broader population, exactly how and where is the line drawn when a generally accepted social ‘good’ conflicts with the perceived rights of a smaller group within that population?

My point is our individual concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is founded entirely through our personal perspective, which is a product of our experiences, environment, religious beliefs, and cultural influences.  When does the determination of ‘right’ by the majority justify decisions that adversely impact the minority?  I think we’d all agree that it sometimes does.  Perhaps the bigger question is should it?  Is there in fact an absolute truth that supersedes an inconsistent socially constructed morality?

I think our society today frequently confuses its beliefs with its desires, or more accurately, we shape our beliefs to conveniently fit our desires.  More to the point, we allow our preferences to shape our principles instead of the other way around.  We also confuse our freedoms with rights.  As a result, everyone creates his or her own reality.  In my reality are my perceptions of right and wrong.  There are people who agree with (i.e., share) my perceptions, and people who do not.  Consequently, there are multiple social moralities on any given issue.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve been so programmed to embrace everyone else’s opinions and beliefs, we’ve compromised our own principles in the process.  I’m not suggesting that anyone should be intolerant or judgmental, but I think the terms are often used as a convenient weapon against those who philosophically disagree.  There is nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s not politically or socially correct.  In fact, I believe that by adhering to the rules of political correctness under the premise of ‘not offending anyone’, we’ve completely prostituted ourselves to a homogeneous culture where people are persecuted for defending a principle that conflicts with the preference of others.  There are many people who are not concerned by that, so maybe I’m being cynical.  I just have a hard time accepting that actions and behaviors should be justified based on whether they pass the ‘doesn’t harm anyone’ test.  Shouldn’t there be some better criteria for judging the morality of what we think and do?

We live in an age of anarchy – not political anarchy, but social and cultural anarchy.  Everyone is encouraged to ‘do their own thing’, whatever that thing may be – and it’s all supposed to be okay so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or infringe upon anyone else’s rights.  It’s an inconsistent premise at best and I don’t buy it.  When the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing.

Actions, whether by individuals or societies, have repercussions.  Our decisions and behaviors, whether in public or in private, slowly shape the world in which we live, and ultimately influence who we are.  We create our own cultures, just as we create our own realities.  Whether you believe in a single authority or cultural evolution, there are many social moralities.  The trouble with that is, none are right, some are right, all are right.  It all depends on your perspective.

The Restoration of Tools and Refinement of People

I have a thing for old tools.  Not the ones with cords and plugs, mind you, but old hand tools that predate electricity.  The ones guided by hand, powered by muscle, carefully honed and meticulously cared for to retain their edge and effectiveness at doing the job for which they were intended.  These are elegant, tactile tools of history, character and quality – tools upon which the livelihood of their owner depended.  These tools didn’t sit collecting dust on shelves in garages, used casually or occasionally and allowed to rust.  These were tools of journeymen and tradesmen, carpenters, cabinetmakers, shipbuilders, and carriage makers – tools that were passed down through multiple generations.  Every one has a story to tell; every paint spot, dent, ding, scratch and chip reflects a different point in time and a different job completed.

Sadly, most of these tools eventually fell victim to post-WWII modern industrialization when mass production, cheap technology, and the population explosion shifted consumer culture from quality and durability to speed and ease of use.  Today, we’ll spend $200 on a cordless drill and toss it out when the battery no longer holds a charge.  All the while, the noble tools of iron, steel, and wood that built this country sit quietly idle, rusting away in barns and workshops and garages.  Few know how to use them, fewer still know how to restore them to functional condition, and just about everyone else wonders why bother doing either.  I am one of the relative few who does both.

Opinions on the restoration of old tools vary widely and are frequently debated within their communities of interest.  I personally believe that less is more when it comes to restoration. I like the idea of retaining a tool’s character – its scars and marks from use, its patina, etc.  I believe a tool should be cleaned and maintained in the same manner as the original craftsman who owned it would have done. A hundred years ago, these tools represented the livelihood of the owner. They were relatively expensive and the woodworkers who owned them relied on them to make a living. They would not have allowed rust to accumulate and would have cleaned and oiled them regularly.

Refining people is not unlike the restoration and care of vintage tools.  Regardless of age or experience, there are always rough edges to be eased, working mechanisms in need of adjustment, and business implements to be sharpened to produce the desired result.  People in an organization require constant tuning and ongoing maintenance in order to function at their peak capacity.  Good leaders exist, not simply as masters of the tools they wield.  Rather in the manner of fine craftsmen, they are charged with refining, tuning, and honing the tools in their care, through the edification and development of the men and women they lead.

The refinement of these human tools requires a firm but gently touch.  In time, their mettle (pun intended) is reflected in a patina developed through experience, accomplishment, and occasional failure.  Skills develop through hands on instruction and are shaped by practice.  The quality of results improves as the tool is tuned to achieve the task intended.   Adjustments are made, impurities cleaned, and accomplishment is rewarded until eventually the tool attains a confidence, character, and integrity all its own.  Shavings are gossamer thin, lines are cut straight and true, and revealed in every achievement is the precision of the tool and the influence of its custodian.

Without constant care, tools become dulled by use – corrosion slowly creeps in, alignment is eventually lost, and the ability of the tool to perform as expected is compromised.  Just as the journeyman of 100 years ago was personally responsible for the care and maintenance of his tools, so are the business leaders of people today.  In a culture where tools are deemed disposable, easily replaced by a trip to the local home center, leaders of people cannot afford to be so cavalier.  These human tools represent the livelihood of the organization. They are relatively expensive and the companies that employ them rely on them to sustain and grow the business. They must not be allowed to fall idle and rust.

The Nature of Personal Reality

VineyardIn his book, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck wrote that “we don’t take trips, trips take us.”  This reflects his assertion that despite all the planning, scheduling, maps, and good intentions, our travel experience is determined not by any initiative on our part, but by the unexpected twists and turns that lighten or darken our journey.  It is the aspects of our adventure that we cannot control, and perhaps shouldn’t even if we could, that provide the greatest value and most meaningful experience.

I must confess that I am not a good traveler, even when traveling for pleasure.  Traveling, or more specifically, the responsibility for the logistics of traveling combined with the stress of being away from home and my comfort zone causes a degree of anxiety sufficient to diminish at least some of my enjoyment of the experience.  This, I readily acknowledge, is illogical if not downright irrational.  My wife tells me I need to relax, as if it were only that easy.   I love the idea of traveling, of exploring new and interesting places.  But truth be told, when it comes down to the reality of it – of making reservations, packing and getting on a plane or train, I’d really just as soon stay home, or at least close to home.

I believe with all certainty that we create our own personal reality, weaving the fabric of conscious and unconscious disposition into a cloth uniquely our own.  And not to mix metaphors, but if the nature of our personal reality is rooted in preference and intent, it is most certainly shaped by the shifting winds of experience and nurtured by environmental influence and personal interaction.

Personally, I find memories more enjoyable than the actual experience.  The passage of time tends to have a leveling effect on memory, filtering out the bad, the stressful, even fear and pain.  Reality of the moment is fleeting while our memories remain, shaped by time and our tendency to reconcile the past to our own liking.  Thus is the nature of personal reality, and the reason why the same event recollected by a dozen different people can vary so greatly.

What does any of this have to do with leadership?  Only that when working with employees, staff, clients, friends, strangers, or even family members, it’s advantageous to remember that everyone has a different perception.  And more important, understand that each individual’s perception becomes his or her reality.  Leaders are tasked by necessity to navigate through the gamut of diverging realities, responding to often conflicting needs and expectations while maintaining a firm grasp on the helm.  They must often filter the emotion of the moment to influence the course of the future.  Ultimately, the solution is always more memorable than the problem.

Where are our leaders and why do they fail us?

What is it about this culture that we live in?  Just consider for a moment the TV shows we watch, the games we play, the behaviors and values we espouse and celebrate. Our entire society champions greed, rudeness, backstabbing, dishonesty, and entitlement – every self serving, “me” centered behavior you can think of. We view fair play and integrity as boring symbols of weakness.  Even morality is continually redefined and adapted according to whatever purpose or agenda we deem convenient and least offensive to the masses.

Is it any wonder?  Think about it.  Who are our role models, our leaders?  I read once that humans are the only creatures in nature who will willingly follow a poor leader.  Perhaps that’s because we tend to focus on the wrong attributes when accepting leaders.  We value credentials more than we do values; promises and speeches are confused with true strength of character and integrity.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where our role models and leaders repeatedly and consistently fail us and themselves.  Our daily news is filled with scandal and disgrace of people in leadership positions at every conceivable level.  Our political system is overflowing with leaders whose actions are driven not by a desire to help constituents or, heaven forbid, leave the world better than they found it, but by the darker personal ambitions born of narcissism, greed, revenge, sexual perversion, and the good old fashioned pursuit of power.  Personal agendas are self-focused, and party agendas are party focused.

As an ideological conservative, I believe in and support many of the values and positions of the Republican Party platform.  But let me be very, very clear here.  This blog is in no way intended to be a political statement.  Quite the contrary, I find myself disgusted with both the Republican and Democratic leadership in our country.  Both parties have been rocked with shameful scandal after scandal after scandal.  The lack of character and integrity, and indeed, even good judgment, is astounding to me.  No, my focus here is on the concept of strong and effective leadership, the application of which is equally relevant to both liberals and conservatives, and anyone else in a position to influence others.

So, where are our leaders?  What happened to the concept of character, where integrity takes priority over personal desires?  Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, leadership in our world through the gradual, cultural debasement of character, morality, and personal accountability, has largely lost its way.

Next Post – The Meaning of Leadership