Category Archives: Philosophy

Lessons from My Best Boss


The best manager I ever had passed away recently. I’ve mentioned him a couple of times in earlier posts—he was the man who told me that “time is your friend” (to which I added the codicil, “except when it isn’t”).

Among the other wise things he taught me were:

1. You can never have an hour long conversation with someone in less than an hour.

hourglass-1703330_640That statement of his taught me that you can never rush through listening to someone with a problem or a complaint. People need the time to tell their stories, and no matter how efficient you can be in the rest of what you do, listening takes time.

He had prior experience in Human Resources and a long history as a manager of large groups. He’d spent many hours listening to people’s grievances.

2. The way to solve a problem is to throw good people at it.

My manager did this many times—he took the best people he had in his division and put them on projects or in roles where important changes were needed. The projects where he set up task forces of strong contributors included productivity challenges, quality improvement teams, and staffing and reorganization issues.

In every situation, the good people he assigned found solutions, most of which worked. And even when success wasn’t immediately forthcoming, he—and we—knew we’d given it our best shot.

3. Even if you can do something better or faster than your staff, you need to delegate.

The only way that people grow is by giving them work that enables them to learn. In my prior roles, I had been an individual contributor, even when I had project management responsibility. My manager taught me that in my new position with direct and indirect supervisory authority, I needed to give my staff the opportunity to do things their own way, even if I was faster, even if it took me time to delegate and supervise, even if I could do it better.

Just as he had given me the opportunity to expand my role, and then patiently coached me, I had to do the same for my staff.

Besides, no one can do everything, and we all need to choose priorities. So for the development of my staff, for my own sake, and for the good of the organization, delegation was important.

4. You’re not a risk.

One time this manager told me that when he named me to my new position, he’d been cautioned that he was taking a risk on an unknown quantity. He told me he’d never believed that. “You weren’t a risk,” he said. “You’d done a good job in your prior role, and I had every expectation you’d succeed again.” Perhaps this is a corollary to his advice that the best way to solve a problem is to throw good people at it. He was telling me I was one of the “good people.”

That was the best compliment any manager ever gave me. I have tried to give similar compliments to people who work for me over the years.

And I will carry all these lessons with me for the rest of my life. I am only sorry this manager will no longer be coaching others in this world. He will be missed.

What’s the best lesson you ever learned from one of your managers?

2 Comments

Filed under Leadership, Management, Philosophy

After the Election, Let’s Hope for Reconciliation, Not Gridlock


Well, the election last Tuesday didn’t produce gridlock, as I had hoped for two weeks ago. Frankly, when I wrote that post about gridlock, I fully anticipated a Clinton victory. I wasn’t eagerly awaiting that outcome, but that was what I thought would happen. I hoped for gridlock to contain the continued Democratic excesses I think have occurred in the last eight years.

5440604654_42e18de586_z

Donald Trump, photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

Now that the President-elect is Donald Trump, do I still hope for gridlock? No. I am no more of a fan of Donald Trump’s than I was before the election, but I now hope for reconciliation.

I hope Republicans can develop a reasonable agenda. Not an agenda that pushes too far right. Not a wacky foreign policy that abandons our nation’s position in the world. But an agenda that earnestly works to improve the economic standing of all Americans.

I hope Republicans preserve the freedoms they value—religious freedom, gun rights, and a broad interpretation of the First Amendment—while also preserving freedoms for Americans who do not typically vote Republican—Muslim Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christian minorities, the LGBT community, and others who feel marginalized by the election results.

I also hope the Republican majorities in Congress will reach across the aisle to pull in Democrats’ ideas on solutions to the thorny problems facing our nation. Many Trump supporters only have to remember how they felt after the excesses of the Obama Administration to understand how Clinton supporters feel now. I hope Republicans learned a lesson from how they felt in 2008-2010, when a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate permitted Democrats to enact laws (including Obamacare) without any input from Republicans.

“Turn about is fair play” is not a good governing strategy for Republicans now.

I’m not optimistic. Not about the Republicans’ ability to work together within their party, nor about their ability to compromise with Democrats. I still would not be surprised to see gridlock. Perhaps not in the traditional sense of placing the Presidency and Congress in the hands of different parties. But Democrats in the Senate are likely to use filibusters and other procedural rules to retain a minority check on Republicans. And the Republicans will probably have difficulty uniting around an agenda. Gridlock is still quite possible.

Still, I hope I’m as wrong in my pessimism as I was about Hillary Clinton becoming the 45th President.

What is your hope for our nation in the next four years?

1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Politics

The Best We Can Hope for Is Gridlock


vote-stars1In some states, voting has been underway for weeks. For the rest of us, we have to endure this presidential election campaign for another eight days. A truly ghoulish proposition this Halloween.

For almost all of us, it has been a miserable year. We have two of the least liked candidates for President in our nation’s history. Both have flaws as candidates, with the flaws evident in their personal traits, in their histories in public life, and in their positions on issues. New evidence of their flaws surfaces almost daily, with the latest being the FBI’s announcement on October 28 of its renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

I’ve written before about the difficulty of choosing between two bad options. I keep remembering the quote from Thomas Merton I included in that earlier post: “an evil choice can never have wholly good consequences.”

The more we have learned about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over the last year, the more difficult the choice has become. I’ve made my decision. I’ve considered the four candidates on every state’s ballot. I’ve considered not voting in the presidential race (but I’ve rejected not voting at all, for reasons described below). I’m not going to disclose here how I’ll cast my vote in the presidential race, because this year in particular there is no good decision, and I do not fault anyone for reaching a different conclusion than I do.

Instead, the purpose of this post is to urge voters to make independent and thoughtful decisions when they select their choices for all races on the ballot. This is not a year to blindly vote a straight party ticket to avoid making choices in down-ballot races. Whatever the reasons a voter has for choosing a presidential candidate—or for not choosing anyone in that race—there are separate reasons to consider Congressional, state and local races.

Our Constitution deliberately sets up checks and balances on each branch of the federal government. The framers must have considered the potential for unsavory candidates for President. Frankly, having Congress and the Supreme Court as checks on the presidential candidates we have before us this year sounds like a good plan to me.

We’ve had gridlock in Washington for the past six years since Republicans gained the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. The split deepened in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate as well. And it hasn’t been all bad. A lot of people fume about nothing getting done in Washington. But getting nothing done is certainly better than getting the wrong things done. Witness the problems with Obamacare and Dodd-Frank after unfettered Democratic actions between 2008 and 2010.

Those of us who were extremely frustrated at the lack of any effective conservative voice in opposition to President Obama between 2008 and 2010 were happy to see gridlock for the remainder of his presidency. Yes, there are important issues that have been kicked down the road for future leaders. That isn’t good, but again, it is better than resolving these issues in the wrong way.

At this point, the best outcome I see for the next four years is continued gridlock. Because I do not trust either of the individuals likely to be our next President to act wisely (meaning, usually in accordance with my beliefs), I hope that Congress and the Supreme Court will continue to check actions that do not appeal to the majority of our nation or that go beyond the Constitutional powers granted to the President.

I might hope for compromise between divided branches of government, and perhaps that is possible. But I would be satisfied with gridlock, given the alternative.

So choose your candidates for the House and Senate with care. If you don’t have a good option for President, perhaps you have reasonable men and women to vote for in these other federal races. And choose your candidates for state and local races thoughtfully also—these elected officials have a tremendous impact on your daily life, and we can hope that the best of them will be our next national leaders as well. Choose people who will represent you better than the presidential candidates we have.

Whatever you believe, vote on or before November 8. Make your choices thoughtfully and deliberately in every race on the ballot.

1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Politics

Three Turning Points in a Career


I recently came across something that an old mentor of mine once wrote me as I approached my 30th birthday in the mid-1980s:

“There are three turning points in your career you will go through:

“1. Wondering if you really like what you do, at about age 30.

“2. Mid-life crisis, at about age 40, when you have a strong desire to do something else, and have a sense of losing your youth and vitality, wondering why you haven’t done more and why you’re not at the top.

“3. The end of your career, which might come any time after about age 60, when you’re ready for retirement, want to do more with your life than work, but may have some regret that you haven’t achieved your goals.”

His words weren’t the most artful description of career stages I’ve read, but they had an impact on me, and I’ve had occasion to think about these turning points over the years. He described pivotal times that I did in fact experience in my career.

MP900341467We all go through our individual variations on these career stages. Our chronological age may vary some from what my mentor stated (in particular, retirement in today’s world can come much earlier or much later than age 60). The depth and severity of the emotional conflict each of us feels are likely to be different from person to person, and one turning point might hit one person harder, while someone else is impacted more by another turning point. Finally, how we choose to cope with each of these turning points will be as personal as each of us and our career paths are.

My mentor wrote this to me when I was approaching my 30th birthday and at turning point #1. At that time, he had passed turning point #2, and was beginning to think about #3. Now I’ve passed #3 myself.

In my case, I gutted my way through turning point #1. I stayed in the same career with the same company for another decade after my mentor and I discussed my disillusionment with where I was at that time. But at my #2 turning point, I switched careers, moving from law to Human Resources. And my #3 came when I was only 50—I quit the corporate world to turn to consulting and writing, which I expect to continue for many years into the future.

In my mentor’s case, he moved into management from an individual contributor role at his turning point #1. He changed careers and industries at #2, though remained in a corporate setting. At #3 he also left the corporate world and moved into a teaching position at a small college in a poor, rural community, which he continued to do until he turned 70, when he retired completely.

My mentor said one other thing to me in that letter he wrote long ago,

“Very few think about these things. They just go as far as they go.”

He encouraged me to really ponder what I wanted out of life at each turning point I faced. Perhaps that’s what started me on my journey of self-assessment.

How have you coped with turning points in your own career, and what helped you work your way through them? How have you mentored others facing turning points in their careers?

1 Comment

Filed under Employee Engagement, Leadership, Philosophy, Workplace

Be Careful What You Write (and Say)—Don’t You Wish Everyone Learned This Lesson?


laptop-1149412_960_720This post concerns a pet peeve of mine. I really don’t understand some people. And by “some people” I mean everyone from Hillary Clinton to Colin Powell to the latest Afghani-American terrorist. They write things down that they never intended to become public.

Don’t they understand that in today’s world, nothing can be guaranteed to stay private? We may not like that aspect of our society, but it is the truth. A secret server won’t do it. Sending your inartfully drafted emails only to friends won’t do it. Not even a personal journal will stay private if there’s a reason to raid your home.

The lack of privacy isn’t limited to written words—even when the words are written only in the ether. Giving speeches to like-minded friends and followers is no guarantee that what we say will stay private, as Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney have learned to their chagrin. Whispering things to a friend in the airport security line can get you into trouble. Making comments when a dash cam is on can lead to criminal charges.

Whatever we say or write can come back to haunt us.

The sooner each of us learns that lesson, the better. And then, perhaps, we will be careful in what we say and write.

As I said, we may not like this aspect of our smart-phone always connected world, but we can’t change it. We should all show a little common courtesy and respect when talking about our enemies as well as our friends. We should all remember the old adage that if you can’t say (or write) something nice about someone, then don’t say (or write) it.

It is far better to be safe than sorry, to have refrained from speaking (or writing) than to be called on the carpet or embarrassed when our words return to bite us.

I can’t say I’m perfect in this regard. I’ve been embarrassed on occasion, more often by what I’ve said than by what I’ve written. I was trained early on that documents can be discovered. It’s only been a small step to recognize that now oral words can easily be made public as well.

As an attorney and an HR professional, I have always advised my clients and colleagues that if they didn’t want their mothers, the CEO or the media to hear or see their words, they shouldn’t use them.

Too bad so many people never learned this lesson.

When have you suffered because of something ill-advised you said or wrote?

Leave a comment

Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Philosophy, Politics, Workplace

We Are Formed By Those We Serve


Servant-as-Leader-600-x-600-e1417632687696-mnm4xm6n1cq5sae1iq6ntpk08do5anyw3katv3xjaoAn acquaintance recently quoted something he’d been told in a leadership development program: “You will be formed by the people you serve.” The program was for leaders in non-profit institutions, and so the service element made particular sense. But I have been pondering that statement for its relevance in all leadership contexts—no matter what organization you are a part of, you serve someone, and you are in fact formed by the people you serve.

I’ve mentioned “servant leadership” before, a philosophy named by Robert K. Greenleaf.  My point in my earlier post was that leaders who engage in systematic neglect—who focus on what they think is important and ignore other issues—must accept the consequences of not doing what they neglect. This post examines the root of servant leadership.

In the introduction to The Servant as Leader, Mr. Greenleaf stated

“ A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.”

He describes the servant-leader as follows:

“The servant-leader is servant first . . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve — after leadership is established. . . .
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”

This is a high standard—to want to serve first, to meet others’ highest priority needs first, to help those served grow as persons. But think of what it means to one’s own development to aspire to this standard. If I aspire to serve, will I not in fact be formed by my attempts to serve?

If I seek to meet others’ needs, then I will become more discerning of what those needs are. If I seek to aid in others’ development, to make them healthier, wiser, and more autonomous, I will certainly become wiser myself and less autocratic. If I seek to benefit—or at least avoid depriving—the less fortunate, I must first become more humane and empathetic.

I think back on my own career. I admit freely that servant-leadership was often no more than an aspiration, and even more often not even on my radar screen. I fell far short of achieving any type of servant status.

Yet the people who reported to me formed me. Some brought substantive expertise to our department that I did not have, and they taught me. Some had far more emotional intelligence than I have, and they saw issues I glossed over. Some pushed at me when I didn’t want to be pushed, and made me a better and more articulate manager than I otherwise would have been.

Even before we are leaders in an organization, we serve. We have bosses. We have clients. These individuals form us also. So even before I was a manager, I was being formed by those individuals I served. Most of my bosses taught me both about our substantive areas of expertise and about corporate politics. Some of my bosses taught me positively by their examples, and others demonstrated behaviors I didn’t want to develop. My clients pushed me and pulled me to get their questions answered and their needs met. They shaped the expertise I developed.

In every case, I was formed by those I served.

When were you formed by who you served?

1 Comment

Filed under Leadership, Management, Philosophy

What Role Should Government Play in Our Lives?


declaration.of.independence.04The question I ask in the title of this post—what role should government play in our lives?—is a fundamental question that has plagued our nation throughout its history. The same question plagues other nations as well, and it is probably at the root of the recent Brexit vote.

I recently read an editorial by Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal on June 29, 2016, entitled Government Hits the Wall. Mr. Henninger quotes Ronald Reagan, who juxtaposed two schools of thought on what government should be as follows:

“We have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?”

So that is essentially the debate—can an elite group govern the people better than they can govern themselves?

Mr. Henninger describes the liberal point of view that in exchange for tax revenue, government bureaucratic experts will deliver socially desirable benefits equitably to the citizenry. The opposing conservative point of view is that we are each better suited to govern ourselves than anyone else is, and, to the extent government is needed, it should be close to the people.

There are pros and cons to both sides of this debate, as with any serious public issue. There is no question but that many people and communities do not govern themselves well. They need someone to impose and enforce restraints on their behavior. Except for the most extreme libertarians, most conservatives want some limits on people’s actions—the “my rights stop and the end of your nose” approach to government.

On the other hand, increasing the size of the national government (or even international, in the case of the European Union) moves government far from the governed. How can a distant national bureaucracy understand the local issues that give rise to controversy? How will a bureaucracy of “experts” stop itself and decide that no more regulation is needed? If the bureaucracy makes a mistake, who will fix it? Or will we all suffer?

At some level, it is all a matter of balancing. At what level does government operate best—national, state, local? The answer differs by issue. When is expertise of value and when is consensus more important? Best practices might best be disseminated on a broader level, but consensus is more easily developed in smaller groups.

In my opinion, the U.S. Constitution did a pretty good job of balancing federal and state responsibilities and individual and governmental interests. It isn’t perfect, and there are things in it I would change—probably different things than many of my readers would change.

In the end, it boils down to “the consent of the governed.” If it doesn’t, we devolve into tyranny. The British voters decided they no longer consented. For better or for worse, their government must address their concerns to avoid tyranny.

On this Independence Day in the United States, when our forefathers declared their independence from tyranny, where do you come down on the role of government—should we commit to governing ourselves (or at least to focusing on local government) or should we look to the national experts and accept a bigger bureaucracy?

Happy Independence Day!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Law, Philosophy, Politics