The Secret to Expressing Your Opinion as a Leader

Too Big an OpinionWe’ve all experienced a discussion that’s supposed to be open-ended and elicit the real opinions of the team, but where everyone shuts up as soon as the boss expresses their own opinion

This is a hard trap for a boss to get out of. A truly safe team environment, where people are comfortable expressing contrary ideas, is the epitome of the high-functioning team. But it’s also a hard environment to create.

Here’s an example of how one of my coaching clients used the right kind of language to let his opinion as boss be part of the mix, without letting it dominate. This is based on the Deep Democracy work of Myrna Lewis, and it’s a technique that works as well for a team member as for the boss.

The discussion was about what to do together as an office at Christmas. The boss thought everyone would exchange Secret Santa gifts and have lunch together as they had in past years. But one man told about his friend in another office where everyone gave a donation to a charity they chose together, instead of spending money on themselves. He felt that was more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

The boss didn’t agree with that idea. He supported charities that he had a strong emotional connection with. His gift-giving felt like a personal matter that he didn’t want made part of an office discussion. He was confident that some others in the team felt the same, and he thought he had a duty to let any objections be expressed.

But how to get those objections heard? He knew if he just baldly stated his negative opinion that would shut the idea down just because he’s the boss. He also felt that others in the group might be uncomfortable publicly going against the moral implication of the “spirit of Christmas.”

So this is what he said:

“I’m personally of two minds about what to do. I can see the power of all of us getting behind a good cause together at this time of year, and sharing our generosity. That feels good. I also have a bit of a question about how my charitable giving and my work go together, because charity is something really personal for me. Does anyone else feel a little of those two sides?”

A couple of people did. They spoke also about wanting to keep their donations separate from work. The discussion continued without the ED saying anything more, and it became obvious that, while the giving idea had appeal, most of the team preferred to continue to do what they’d done in past years

This approach worked because it’s always true that if one person in a group has a thought about something, someone else in the group has the same thought. Even when something seems unanimous, some aspect of the contrary thought will be present in more than one person.

So as a leader we can afford to hold back from heavy handed opinions because some part of our opinion is always held by at least one other person. If we can open the door for that person to speak, we can foster a genuine conversation in a way that might be stymied if we expressed the opinion ourselves

In this case the ED opened that door with a light touch, not by asserting his opinion, but by expressing uncertainty about the two sides. This put both sides of the question on the table without weighting either one. Then his question, “Does anyone else …?” got the discussion going on an unbiased basis, and the real opinions of the team came out.

Anyone can do this, boss or not. When we’re afraid to go against what seems to be the favoured idea, we can open the door to a fuller discussion by acknowledging the potential of the favoured idea, and adding, “and I have a question about …,” or “and I’m wondering about this aspect …,” or “and part of me feels uncertain about …,” or some other light touch suggestion of an alternative view. By then asking, “I wonder if anyone else has any of that concern?” we open the door.

If the goal is a truly open discussion, the leader’s job is to open all the doors that need to be opened, but in a way that doesn’t kick people through any one of them.

How To Get People To Do Things

The Conversation Roadmap

Here’s part of a conversation roadmap for talking with people about what they need to accomplish. The idea of the “roadmap” is that if you make yourself familiar ahead of time with the conversational territory you might encounter, then you won’t get lost no matter what direction the conversation takes.

The roadmap technique gives you structure for planning what kinds of things to say and not say, what the other person might say, and map out your responses. How do you steer back to the main road from any detours or dead ends, and how do you not throw up roadblocks or take people down the wrong road yourself?

For starters, don’t say, “Here’s what I need you to do.” We don’t motivate people with our needs. We motivate people with their needs.

We should have already taken the trouble to know what motivates each individual we work with, with questions like, “What gives you the greatest motivation here?”

Then we might say, “Here’s another chance to do the kind of work you did on your last (report, design, whatever). I’m confident you can do as good a job or better on this.”

Or maybe it’s, “Here’s something where I think you can really shine, step beyond how people see you now and show everyone what you’ve got.”

Whatever way we find to start, the next key question, after explaining the task, is this: “What do you think?”

It’s an open-ended invitation, and we have to say it with genuine curiosity. Then we follow their lead. We express interest in their view of the way forward, discuss the steps they suggest taking, share their concerns. The conversation is about them, their views, and so on. Many roads can lead to the same destination. Which one is best for them?

Along the way we don’t give directions. We ask questions. “What do you think Joe’s reaction to that will be?” “Do you see a way we can make those resources available?” “How will this fit with your other deadline on project Y?” And so on.

Ideally we’ll have anticipated their concerns and are ready with the right questions for any issue they don’t raise themselves. Our questions can allow the person to give themselves the directions we might have been tempted to give them ourselves. People listen to themselves much better than they listen to us.

If something is still clearly missing and we have to tell them, we don’t say, “Here’s what you need to understand,” or “Here’s what you’re missing.” That subtly emphasizes their inability rather than their ability. It’s a roadblock to their self-direction.

We say, “Here’s what I experienced in a similar situation.” Or, “Here’s something you might look into.” Something that has a tone of colleagues sharing information.

We also don’t say, “I’m here to support you. Come to me for any help you need.” That effectively takes responsibility and ownership away from them. We don’t offer them an “open door” that invites them to interrupt us with a question whenever they don’t want to make a decision.

Instead we might say, “I know you have the experience, the judgment, and the tenacity to do this. All I ask is that we check in together regularly so we can be sure you’re getting all the big picture information from me that you need.” These check-ins are of course the chance to correct the course, assess the competence, expect accountability and so on. But the check-ins start with, “What parts are going well? What are your next steps?” “What’s getting in your way?” We give people the chance to bring up any shortcomings themselves, before we do.

But what about real resistance? What route do we use then?

At the start we said, “What do you think?” We may have to probe here, to invite resistance early. We might even say, “I’m not sure if this is your personal first choice for a project right now.” Or, “I can see that this task might have some downsides for you.” Then we wait, but with a warm, sympathetic attention. We make it safe for people to raise an objection. We’re not laying a trap.

If someone does raise an objection, however small, we say, “Tell me more about that.” If it’s an objection we think others may share, we can ask the group, “Who else feels a little of what Joe’s talking about?”

We let people feel heard. More importantly, we actually hear them. And then we ask, “What would make this work better for you?” People may have surprisingly useful suggestions that will improve the effort significantly.

And finally, when objections remain, we say, “I’m sorry this isn’t exactly how you want it to go. But we have to proceed. What do you need now to go along?” This is a powerful question. It acknowledges resistance, and invites goodwill anyway. And it opens the door for mutual accommodation.

This approach takes time, yes. We may be tempted to say, because we have other fires to fight, “I need this next week and I don’t really care what you think about it. It’s you’re job, get on it.” But that is guaranteed to start yet another fire we’ll just have to put out in the end.

This is an “eyes in, fingers out” approach. and it may make some leaders nervous. But setting things up so we can keep our fingers out saves time in the end. It preempts resistance, and it builds capacity in the people we work with. It builds our own leadership capacity too.

(Questions about resistance used here come from the Deep Democracy work of Myrna Lewis.)

For more roadmaps for difficult conversations, click here.

Free New Year’s Offer: 30 Minute Coaching Call With Crane About Your Next Difficult Conversation

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How Not to Get in the Way as a Leader

Kicking Your PointLeadership is not about the leader. Management is not about the manager. Teaching is not about the teacher. If we think the people we’re working with need to learn a lesson from us, that’s a sure sign that we’re thinking about ourselves rather than about them.

Here’s a cautionary tale.

At a conference on experiential education in the corporate sector, a trainer named Melinda presented one of her intervention techniques that she thought we could all learn something from. It was a disaster.

Melinda asked us to bring something of ours that we cared about; jewelry, journal, photo, whatever, though she advised us not to choose something too fragile. She arranged us in a circle and invited us to put our objects together on the floor in the centre. She asked us to look at them and think of why we care about them. She asked us to write out the story of our objects, how they came to us, how we have held them, what they mean to us, how it feels to be separated from them.

Melinda engaged us in this appreciative reflection for several minutes, building up our connection with our objects, and then in the middle of our writing, she suddenly stepped into the centre and started kicking the objects around, stomping on the ones that wouldn’t break, trashing everything.

We were all outraged, insulted, hurt. We felt set up and betrayed.

Melinda explained by asking, “What so-called precious thing do you need to destroy to liberate your potential for the future?” She uses this with corporate clients, those she has worked with for a while, when she feels they are stuck in old ways.

Whatever our reaction, we had to admit that Melinda’s technique was powerful. The exercise was real, visceral and mind-stopping, and allowed us to see very clearly for a moment our emotional attachments. We all knew of course the importance of looking at how emotions can get in the way of innovation in the business world.

The problem was, our anger at Melinda completely distracted us from the lesson she wanted to teach. She had made herself the focal point.

She might have invited us to try throwing our objects into the trash can (if just for a moment), or we might have given them away to each other, or she might have asked us to imagine destroying them ourselves. But Melinda deprived us of making the experience our own by putting herself in the spotlight. By forcing her lesson on us she made herself the agent of change. She gave us no chance to practice changing our attitude ourselves.

This meant that rather than learning something about how we might be stuck in our attachment, we couldn’t get past feeling angry at her. It was all about her.

When we create a learning situation for a group we must stay out of the centre of it. The participants are in the centre, and it’s their territory. If after the exercise they remember us more than their experience of learning, then we have failed.

As leaders, or teachers (and the difference is small), our mantra must always be, “It’s not about me.”

(For more on leaders who know how not to get in the way, click here.)

How to Engage People Without Engagement Work

Let the Work Do the EngagingThere’s a huge industry grown up these days around employee engagement. This is great, but how many of the retreats and strategies and engagement committees bear lasting fruit? How good a use of time and money are they?

In the last couple of years I’ve been hearing more and more people talk about “engagement fatigue” whenever they’re asked to sit on yet another committee or be part of yet another initiative, in addition to their regular work. We all have stories of suffering through workshops facilitated by well-meaning people who are obviously clueless about our organization. We’ve all completed engagement surveys that we never hear the results from.

These kinds of efforts aren’t necessarily bad. There are some good ones. But on the whole they’re a distraction. The real engagement potential, the real team-building opportunities, are already right in front of us, in the work.

So work with the work.

Here’s an example. My friend Gerry Giffin is an industrial engineer who worked at the Michelin tire plant in Nova Scotia a number of years ago. A lot of his work ended up being engineering processes that involved people rather than just machines.

One of the production lines at the plant had been having productivity and morale problems for a while. Some of the workers had been on that line for 12 years, but they hardly ever spoke to each other, except to blame each other when there was a problem. And there were lots of problems. What to do?

Management of course tried coaxing and threatening, all the usual tactics, but without success.

Then Gerry suggested they take a bigger view of what the solution could be. He designed and undertook a two-year initiative to change the way the line worked. Each worker got trained in every position on the line. This took time, but eventually they were able to rotate through all the positions. Each shift was also given responsibility for its own supply chain, to make sure everything they needed for their shift was ordered and available.

Two years is a long time, and the initiative cost money too. But it had powerful results. First, because all the workers were familiar with all the positions on the line, they could rotate through and have more variety in their work, so they didn’t get stuck in so much repetition. They also couldn’t blame each other as easily for problems. They knew how difficult some of the positions were, and how things could easily get backed up or out of sync. So there was a big increase in mutual support, respect and appreciation.

Having collective responsibility for their supply chain gave the people in each shift a chance to work together, rather than just separated along the line, which also helped build a cooperative culture. And because the workers had these new skills and responsibilities, they all got significant raises, which made them happy.

And what was the benefit to Michelin of all this time and money? Productivity on that line rose 30%. Michelin made pots of money, even after all the raises. It was a very smart and very effective investment.

And no third party, offsite, empowerment retreats were involved. They just worked with the work.

Let’s face it. The work is what it’s all about. It’s the thing everyone is most personally invested in, either positively or negatively. It’s the place where the money is. It may be hard to justify an expense for vague notions of attitude change, but it’s much easier to justify the expense for something that will directly improve the work.

So take advantage of the work itself to be your ally in dealing with stuck attitudes. See if you can change how the work itself is done in a way that has a beneficial affect on people’s attitude. Often it doesn’t even have to cost any money. Changing the snow day policy so that people can work at home on snow days costs no more than the paper the new policy is written on. But allowing people the flexibility to handle snow days the way they want to, individually, that has a huge beneficial effect on people’s attitude even when it isn’t snowing. And no manager has to give any kind of moral uplift harangue.

For more on innovative snow day policy, click here.

Magic RocksWe often look for inspiring things “out there” someplace. An inspiring speaker or book, a Facebook video, a story of someone else’s accomplishment. But if inspiration is always found someplace else, then it’s always a struggle to go find it. That’s a problem.

Here’s how to make inspiration ever-present and accessible, in what’s around us all the time.

Prof. Eduard Franz Sekler, an old-world Austrian gentleman who is one of the patriarchs of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, had a rock. I took a seminar he taught when I studied architecture (a previous life).

At the start of class Prof. Sekler would set his papers and notes on the table and put his rock on top of them. We could tell by the way he placed it each day that he was very fond of his rock. Though we didn’t pay much attention to it.

One day Prof. Sekler asked us to consider how the design of things can influence the way we experience our lives. He picked up the rock and handed it around to us. We all held it, felt it, admired it. For the first time we really paid attention to it.

He then took the rock and stood it up on the table. It had always lain flat on his papers, but it had a smooth end we hadn’t noticed that let it stand upright. It shifted from mere rock to “object,” and we admired it afresh. He moved the rock to a tall stand that had been sitting in the corner of the room all semester with nothing on it. Given this place of honour, the rock was now the most interesting thing in the room. Finally, there were track lights on the ceiling that we didn’t generally turn on, but Prof. Sekler flicked the switch and the rock was spotlit against the wall, casting shadows and reflecting light from unexpected facets. It had become sculpture.

We all burst out laughing with delight. The rock was so much more than we thought. We applauded the rock for its achievement, and we felt suddenly good about the world, optimistic and appreciative, eager to accept the rock’s invitation to see more in ordinary things.

The way we experienced our lives in that moment suddenly changed for the better, which was the answer to Prof. Sekler’s question. We had been looking to the great architectural achievements of others for inspiration. But the inspiration we needed, to see things with a fresh eye, to appreciate detail, to take a creative risk, was sitting right there on Prof. Sekler’s papers all semester.

This was one of Prof. Sekler’s great leadership skills, to show us how to stop looking elsewhere for what we think we lack, and to look to ourselves and the things we already have around us.

A great teacher and a great leader are not far apart. As a leader, you can help your colleagues, your employees, your family, to draw on what they already have, which is always more than we think.

Here are some useful links:

To read more on the leadership power of ordinary things, click here.

To read about a simple way to inspire a workforce, click here.

Golden Chains – A Personal Story

Golden ChainsThis is the anniversary of when I fell off a ladder at the Sea School’s old wharf building in Lunenburg, and broke my left heel bone.

Now I don’t see ghosts, but some of the Sea School staff have seen ghosts in that building, and other people in Lunenburg say, “Oh, yes, there’s ghosts in that building for sure.” So some people were thinking, maybe I was pushed.

I don’t know. I didn’t feel anybody push me. But I don’t have any other explanation for why I fell. I’ve been going up and down that ladder between floors for 20 years. My foot didn’t slip. I have no memory of losing my balance. Suddenly I just wasn’t on the ladder, and I fell 6 feet and landed standing with all my weight crashing onto my left heel. And that was that.

If I was pushed I don’t think it was anything malicious. Maybe there was just someone who saw me, and could see that I needed a noodge. Like, “Hey, buddy, (shove) wake up.” Maybe on some level I even saw that myself. Could I have pushed myself?

However it happened the result was surgery, two screws, crutches for 5 weeks, and an incapacitated summer.

But there was an upside to my injury, because there’s a golden chain tree in my back yard, and for two weeks every June it’s covered in bright, glowing yellow flowers, hanging densely like bunches of grapes from every twig, blazing in the sun and dancing with the wind against the clear blue sky. It’s mesmerizing.

Since I couldn’t go anywhere, I spent a whole week in the back yard with this tree. I tried to work, but my computer kept falling asleep in my lap as I sat captivated by that glorious yellow. I felt so fortunate that I had this natural blessing right in my own back yard, and that I had the time to really soak myself in it.

And then it hit me. I felt captivated by the beauty of the tree, and I loved it. I felt held captive by the pain in my foot, and I hated it. And I wasn’t sure I really understood the difference.

The Golden Chain Tree suddenly seemed well-named. My mind was bound in its golden chains, like a luxury prison, and I began to doubt my own delight.

My back yard, especially on fine summer days, is a place I have trouble leaving. I want people to come to me, and share my golden chains. Share my mud hole.

Because maybe my back yard is really a mud hole. A very fine mud hole, mind you, with the most exquisite, velvety, high class mud, made from the finest mountain spring water and rare ooze hand-imported from the soft banks of the upper reaches of the Amazon. The best mud you’ll find anywhere. But no matter how exquisite it is, maybe it’s still mud, and I’m a stick.

So if someone did push me off that ladder, if someone did realize I needed a noodge, and said, “Hey buddy, (shove) wake up,” maybe this is the question they thought I could wake up to. What things that I cherish, that I find so nurturing and delightful, are really my mud, that I let myself be stuck in?

This feels like a subtle, even profound question, and I’m still puzzling over the answer. But that’s okay, because questions are more trustworthy than answers. So this story doesn’t end with a moral or a lesson. It ends with a question. What are the things we cherish that are really our favourite mud?

But this story also ends with a song. A very appropriate song by Flanders and Swann, an English duo who wrote comic songs in the 40’s and 50’s. The song includes an invitation that I always found fun and delightful. But now when I sing this song I wonder, is this an invitation I should embrace, or an invitation I should be wary of?

This is the chorus from the Love Song of the Hippopotamus. If you know it, please sing along.

  • Mud, mud, glorious mud.
  • Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.
  • So follow me follow
  • Down to the hollow,
  • And there let us wallow
  • In glorious mud.


The Simple Rule to Make Networking Pay Off

The art of givingThe best networking communities have a sense of wealth and generosity. By offering something of value to our colleagues we foster a culture of giving that makes our whole business environment richer and richer.

At a recent networking gathering I attended in Halifax, hosted by a local magazine, I was offered an invitation to speak about leadership to a local business group. I hadn’t asked for it, someone just offered. I went to the event with a colleague, and he was offered an invitation to be introduced at a prestigious private club. He hadn’t asked for it either. Someone just said, “That’s where you’ll find the people you should be talking to.”

One young man at the gathering had an opposite approach. He came up to me and a woman I was talking with and interrupted us to give us his card, saying a version of, “If you’re looking for the kind of services I offer, I’m the man. Be sure to call me.” Then with a nod he walked off to do the same with the other people in the room.

His approach may seem like confidence, putting himself out there and asserting his worth. But it felt more like poverty. He had nothing to give, and only wanted us to give him business. He seemed small.

In contrast, the woman who offered to introduce me to a speaking opportunity felt like a leader in her field. If I need help with the kind of services she provides I’ll call her, not her competition, because I’ve already experienced how helpful she can be.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” (Winston Churchill)

I’d go a step further. A good living and a good life aren’t two separate things. Business ethics are community ethics, and generosity is a best practice in either one.

For more on generosity as a business practice, click here.

The Key to Managing Up

A Useful Question?The Director of Supply Chain Management at a major Canadian industrial company, who took one of my leadership development classes, told me about the snow day policy he has to enforce that he thinks is crazy. If someone decides it’s not safe for them to drive to work in a heavy snowfall, they have 3 choices. They can make up the hours another time. They can take a vacation day. Or they can take an unpaid day.

This is because the VP of Finance doesn’t trust anyone, and assumes that, even though people can take work home and still put in a full day, if paid snow days are allowed people will just go skiing or watch TV, and he won’t be able to monitor them.

Now the director cares a lot about trust, both because it’s a big theme in business these days, and also because he personally values trust very highly. He makes building trust within his own team a priority. He knows the VP doesn’t trust him, or anyone else, and this is very personally frustrating for the director. The director is always trying to find ways to address the trust issue, and rarely gets anywhere.

This raises a very helpful guideline for dealing with attitude: the difference between an interesting question and a useful question, between a question you care about, and the question the person you’re working with cares about.

The Supply Chain Director might really want to know why the VP is so untrusting. But the VP, as the senior person, might not see any reason why he should humour the director with that conversation. It might go nowhere.

Because the question, “Why doesn’t the VP trust anyone,” may be an interesting question for the director, but it’s not a useful question. The VP probably doesn’t feel the need to be psychoanalyzed by his staff, which might be how he would take it if the director approached him about issues of trust. It’s not a question likely to start a conversation the VP cares about.

The more useful question in this case is, “What is the VP trying to protect with this snow day policy?”  The VP would probably have a lot to say about that. About how the company can’t afford to throw wages away on people who aren’t doing any work, the need to keep productivity tight, having to protect the bottom line, and so on.

So if what the VP cares about is protection for productivity and the bottom line, what effect is the snow day policy having on those things?

This is the approach the Supply Chain Director and I decided he should take. He spent time assessing the effect on morale in his team. If there was snow in the prediction everyone got nervous and crabby and distracted from their work. Communication was less fluid. Details got missed. And this effect carried over even on days when snow wasn’t an issue. It pushed the enthusiasm-for-work factor down a notch altogether.

It’s hard to put an exact value on these things, but the Director made some assumptions and some estimates. He figured that the snow day policy had a negative effect on productivity overall, and he put it conservatively at 1 or 2 percent. He thought it might be more, but he had enough concrete data points of missed orders, delayed paperwork and so on that he thought he could defend 2%.

This process he went through is called dollarizing. If you can put a dollar figure on the costs of attitude, you can make it personal for people who’s job it is to care about numbers.

What’s 2% of the cost of operating the Supply Chain department for this huge company? It’s huge. It’s far more than the cost of giving every employee a paid day for every snow day even if they do just go skiing. The policy was counterproductive to what the VP actually cared about.

This was how the Director made the issue personal for the VP. Not by asking about trust, but by asking about numbers. By asking about what the VP personally cared about.

When you need to get peers or the boss unstuck from an unhelpful attitude, you have to start with understanding what they really care about, personally. That’s not always so easy to find out. And you don’t have as much sway with people at your level or above your level as you do with direct reports, to get them to engage in a conversation about it with you. Often you have to extrapolate from their behaviour, and the VP’s behaviour seems to indicate that he cares more about numbers than about trust. No matter how interested you may be in trust, the useful questions are likely to be about numbers. So you go with that. Because you have to find a way to make the question personal for the VP. When it comes down to core issues, work is always personal.

One Way to Motivate Performance


Robert Hessen tells this story in “Steel Titan: The Life of Charles M. Schwab.” It’s a provocative way to motivate performance. Is it a good one? What do you think?

Charles Schwab was a labourer at Carnegie Steel who rose to be supervisor of  all of the plant supervisors for Andrew Carnegie in the 1890s. Apparently he had an uncanny talent for engaging his people. Schwab often recalled a story which demonstrates this talent.

“I had a mill manager”, he recounted, “who was finely educated, thoroughly capable and master of every detail of the business. But he seemed unable to inspire his men to do their best.

‘How is it that a man as able as you,’ I asked him one day, ‘cannot make this mill turn out what it should?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘I have coaxed the men; I have pushed them, I have sworn at them. I have done everything in my power. Yet they will not produce.’

It was near the end of the day; in a few minutes the night force would come on duty. I turned to a workman who was standing beside one of the red-mouthed furnaces and asked him for a piece of chalk.

‘How many heats has your shift made today?’ I queried.

‘Six,’ he replied.

I chalked a big ‘6’ on the floor, and then passed along without another word. When the night shift came in they saw the ‘6’ and asked about it.

‘The big boss was in here today,’ said the day men. ‘He asked us how many heats we had made, and we told him six. He chalked it down.’

The next morning I passed through the same mill. I saw that the ‘6’ had been rubbed out and a big ‘7’ written instead. The night shift had announced itself. That night I went back. The ‘7’ had been erased, and a ‘10’ swaggered in its place. The day force recognized no superiors. Thus a fine competition was started, and it went on until this mill, formerly the poorest producer, was turning out more than any other mill in the plant.”

Now maybe you think internal competition is a good motivational strategy. Maybe you think it’s manipulative. But two things strike me about Schwab’s chalk numbers.

First, his approach was wonderfully indirect. It took no effort on his part, no getting buy-in for stretch goals, no engagement strategy, no “leadership” at all really. If he’d expressed any expectation or demand when he drew the 6, it would have changed everything. But he left without a word, letting the “6” do all the work. As it turns out, the “6” was more compelling and engaging than any “leadership” could have been.

Second, Schwab knew what his employees cared about and what they didn’t. They weren’t interested in producing more steel so Carnegie could meet its quarterly earnings guidance, or be ranked among the most productive US companies for the year. They didn’t care about winning the “Mill of the Month” award. They didn’t even care about pleasing the big boss, or even about not getting yelled at by their mill manager.

What they cared about was being a better steelworker than the next guy in their own steelworkers’ sphere.

Schwab understood his people well, perhaps because he began as a labourer himself. He knew what they needed, and what they didn’t need, to perform at their best. In that sense, I call Schwab’s leadership generous. Generous leadership is giving what’s needed, not giving what’s not needed, and above all, knowing the difference.

Ask yourself, “What’s the ‘6’ for my people? What do they really care about.” If you’re not sure, you may be thinking too much about what you want them to care about, which isn’t the same thing.

For more on taking the indirect approach, click here.

(Story adpated from “Steel Titan: The Life of Charles M. Schwab” by Robert Hessen)

How to Be the Sage Commander

Entering the forest

“As the Sage Commander, you start with yourself. Thus the first question is not what to do, but how to be. Simply being oneself brings about a power that is often lost in the rush to be something else.” (The Art of War, Denma Translation Group)

We can’t hope to be clear and insightful in charge of others, if we can’t be clear and insightful when we’re just in charge of ourselves. Part of what we need to practice is cultivating the innate wisdom that we all possess, that is often obscured by our performance of what we think we should be.

Sounds good, but we need a path of practice to follow to make any such leadership ideas real and applicable. Here’s a simple Sage Commander practice you can do every day. Jim Drescher taught me this.

Jim and Margaret Drescher have an amazing forest woodlot at Windhorse Farm, and he has studied sustainable forestry with many experienced foresters. One old-timer, trying to get Jim to relate to his work in the forest in a more discerning way, told him, “When you go into the forest, stop and state your intention before you enter. Say it aloud, in a loud voice.”

Jim does this. I’ve tried it too. It’s strangely embarrassing to speak aloud when we’re totally alone. No one can hear us, but we feel exposed. How weird is that? We don’t like being exposed even to ourselves. But this can be a surprisingly powerful way of “starting with ourselves.”

Sometimes when I hear what I say it sounds trite or incomplete or self-deceptive. Sometimes I realize that I’m saying what I think my intention should be or what I think would sound good to others if they heard it. Sometimes I even feel I need to turn and walk away without entering the forest, to collect my thoughts and try again. I really feel as if the forest sees through my lack of authenticity. It can take a few tries to understand and accept my real, best motivation.

Try this when leaving the house in the morning. Find a place where no one can hear you, perhaps at your front door, perhaps in your car, perhaps in the bathroom with the water running. Perhaps not in the shower; too comforting.

State your intention aloud about some aspect of the day ahead. Choose something that matters. Speak up, as if you are telling not just yourself, but the world you are about to enter. You can’t do this silently in your head, you lose the power of it. Wait, and listen to it. Does it sound true? Ask yourself, “Why did I say that?” What does it tell you about yourself? If it doesn’t feel true, try again.

When you’re satisfied with it, step forward into that intention. Carry it with you. Perhaps find a place at midday to repeat it to yourself, out loud. Speak up. See what sort of feedback the day gives you about it. See whether you understand your intention well.

Why do this? Because it’s hard to be deeply engaged with life if we don’t know why we even show up. And it’s easier to be engaged with life if we feel we’re showing up for the right reason.

Doing this regularly over time, as a practice, gives us a moment each day to have some insight into what matters, and to be clear about what we’re doing. It’s a Sage Commander practice for everyday, whether we’re in charge of big, complex operations, or just ourselves.

To find our more about Windhorse Farm, which is now for sale, click here.