Tag archive for "courage"

by Bill, Leadership

IT’S LEADERSHIP, STUPID… Five Things that will Make a Difference in our Current National Struggle

No Comments 20 August 2011

In 1998, Northwest Airlines endured a strike by its pilots, who were members of the Airline Pilots Association. One day while transiting the Memphis airport, I asked one of the picketing pilots what the strike was all about. After ascertaining that I was not a reporter, he gave me his view on the matter.

He told me that nearly 3 decades prior, he had been shot at on a daily basis while flying F-4 Phantom jets off a carrier deck in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Viet Nam war. It was a job that provided him a salary of about $20,000, and personal living space aboard the carrier of fewer than 50 square feet.  He then told me that while his current job paid him about 10 times as much, affording him a 6,000 square foot home, and no bullet holes in his aircraft, the old job was better, much better than his current gig. Responding to my rather obvious question as to why, he said, “Well, Mr. consultant, I know you guys like things in short, 3 word bursts, so I’ll give you one… It’s leadership, stupid!” He went on to define, with all the grace and precision of a laser-guided smart bomb, the differences between his former and then current leadership groups.

If, as a nation, we’ve ever been in a “It’s Leadership, Stupid” moment, it is now. As profiled in our new book, Rebooting Leadership, Harvard professor, Bill George has very aptly noted that the near collapse of our financial system (and ongoing debacles) had less to do with subprime mortgages than with subprime leadership. Truer words were never spoken.

In that vein, I will submit that rather than wait for someone in elected office to do the job, each of us should bear just a little more perhaps than our rightful share of responsibility, and take steps individually and collectively to pull our national automobile out of the ditch, onto the road, and set it in motion in the right (make that correct) direction.

Following are five leadership precepts that we would do well to heed at the moment:

Leaders are Optimists

Operating on the well-proven premise that you get what you expect to get, leaders are optimists. They wreak optimism. They realize that for the same reason that crowds associated with parades almost always out-number those at funerals, people will not follow a pessimist for long.

As a nation, we need to get our heads out of… the sand (I’m so tempted to say something much more graphic), and realize that America’s future is as bright today as it ever was. We just need to get our mojo back. We may not have the market cornered on brains and good ideas, but we have more than our fair share. We have abundant (yes, abundant) natural resources, including hydrocarbons that burn. Though failed by individuals at times, we have a system of government that works for the most part, and let’s be reminded that it’s a damned sight better than all the others. Most of all, we have our liberty. So, step #1 to regaining our altitude is to fix our attitude, each of us. The “good ‘ole days” weren’t all that great, and today is not as terrible as the folks on the cable “news” outlets would have us believe. And yes, I lost a bunch of money in the market this month, too.

Leaders Display Courage

Courage is defined neither by the absence of fear, nor an overabundance of brass (as in cojones). Rather, courage is at once a matter of being willing to stand tall in the face of both physical and moral pressure or threat, to be willing to do what is right regardless of possible pain, discomfort, economic loss, or unpopularity. You are afraid, but you proceed anyhow.

So, too, is courage a matter of being willing to act in the face of uncertainty. If I hear one more business leader whine that the uncertainty of tomorrow is keeping them from taking steps today to grow their business, I’m going to puke on their wingtip loafers. As Warren Buffett put it recently, “In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” There is always the risk that the world will end tomorrow, too, but we don’t hold our breath just in case it does.

Each of us needs to summon that moment from our youth, or some other time in our lives, when we stared down a mean looking dog and continued walking down the street. Just as a congressman (or woman) with an ounce of courage would say, “no” as readily to Grover Norquist as they would the Teamster’s Union, each of us must find it in ourselves to call bullies or haters by their rightful names, and evict those who like to yell, “fire” from crowded theaters. Why not insist that facts, rather than partisan objectives and shrill rhetoric rule the day for a while?

Leaders Build Commitment

The process of harnessing the attention and effort of others begins deep within the leader themselves. We must be masters of our own time, priorities, and attention if we’re asking others to follow us. We must have, and be able to credibly articulate an abiding sense of purpose, direction, and priority.

In his book, Beating the Street, uber-successful investor, Peter Lynch maintained that people ought not invest in something unless they could explain it with a crayon. The same holds true for those of us who would lead others. If we can’t explain with that same blunt instrument what we’re about and where we’re going, then we can’t explain it well enough for today’s rightfully cynical audience, and people won’t buy it. Mr. President, take note.

We must ask and expect that our elected representatives focus like a laser on things that really matter, and that are in our strategic national interest. There will always be 2nd and 3rd tier issues that can be dealt with as time permits, but at this point we have neither the time nor other resource to deal with them. If, as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has suggested, we should get their attention by withholding campaign contributions until they figure this out, so be it.

Leaders Subordinate Self Interest

If we, as leaders, are to have any hope of gaining the commitment of followers in any endeavor, we must elevate the legitimate interests of the organization and those we lead above our own selfish wants and ambitions. We don’t have to take a vow of poverty or anything, just remain very clear about whom we are there to serve.

Indeed, one of the chief causes of the aforementioned pilot strike at Northwest Airlines was that senior, C-level officers had, at the same time that they were forcing pay cuts on company employees, like hogs at the trough, taken overt, outrageous steps to enrich themselves.

Similarly, the most glaring leadership failure of the recent debt ceiling fiasco was the nearly unanimous disregard for the financial security and reputation of an entire nation, in pursuit of narrow, partisan, and in some cases, personal interests. Many of our so-called “leaders” (more accurately, “politicians”) seemed only too willing to drag Americans (indeed the world) through weeks of clumsy, bad faith negotiations with the attendant anxiety and uncertainty, willing to allow the nation to go into default, but by golly, they weren’t going to abandon their “ideals” or do anything that might risk their political standing. In choosing such a path, many may have created their own term limits (so maybe something good will come from it, after all). Nonetheless, I’ve seen 3 year-olds behave in less self-serving ways than our elected officials have of late.

Leaders are Grown-Ups With High Standards

Deep down, we all understand that high standards are a necessary precursor to winning, and let’s face it, none of us get up in the morning saying, “I wanna go lose today. I want to hang out with mediocre people and do some really crummy work for a third rate company, or live in a AA+ nation.”

We must accept the fact that America will be exceptional only so long as we, each of us, maintains an adult perspective and is willing to live up to high standards. Whenever high standards and lofty expectations get divorced from one another, the outcome is akin to what happened at Chrysler and GM and Lehman Brothers.

Not everybody deserves an “A’, re-appointment, or re-election. Sometimes, “no” really does mean no. We can start by explaining that to our kids, together with the fact that life is not a TV reality game where the losers are voted off the island, but get to come back at season’s end.

I, for one, firmly believe that America’s glass is indeed half full and that our best days really are ahead of us. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t want to be here. Let’s get going.


A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book,Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows

We Need More Like Daniel Hernandez

by Bill, Exemplars, Extra Milers, Leadership

We Need More Like Daniel Hernandez

1 Comment 13 January 2011

Daniel Hernandez

Were I still a corporate recruiter, I would have been on the phone this morning with University of Arizona junior, Daniel Hernandez talking about his future. With both words and deeds, Mr. Hernandez has, since last Saturday’s Tucson massacre, demonstrated many of the essential requirements of being a leader, at any level. Here are four that quickly come to mind:

Courage – Leaders are those we can count on to do the right thing, even when it is difficult, dangerous, or unpopular. Wading unarmed into a free fire zone to administer aid and comfort to one’s teammates certainly qualifies. While thankfully leaders don’t often have to get shot at to prove their mettle, our people do expect to see us personally absorbing some of the risk and punishment that is headed their way.

Decisive – Leaders must have the willingness and ability to act in the face of adversity, uncertainty, and the absence of guidelines. Mr. Hernandez had no clue what lay ahead when he jumped in to assist U.S. Rep., Gabrielle Giffords. It is doubtful that in his young life he had taken courses or read anything that told him to act, but act he did. Especially in today’s risk averse corporate environment, recruiters should screen and probe diligently to ensure that all candidates destined for a management position can demonstrate this quality.

Able to Focus and Communicate – As one who makes a significant portion of his living speaking to large audiences, I can vouch for the fact that efficiently and persuasively articulating a cogent message before a sea of faces (let alone the President of the United States and a world-wide tv audience) can be daunting. Doing it the for the first time on short notice, with short rest, no teleprompter or notes (even on the palm of your hand) is remarkable.

Humility – One of the greatest challenges I find leaders struggling with is the realization that leading is not about “them”, but about others. Given a perfect opportunity to grandstand or take a victory lap, Mr. Hernandez chose instead to deflect hero status to others he deemed more deserving, and focus instead on a powerful message. His behavior stands in stark contrast to a population that at times seems entirely too self-absorbed.

In a nutshell, I don’t know what young Mr. Hernandez wants to do with his life, but I do know this… We could do worse than look for “Hernandez-like” qualities as we go about searching for tomorrow’s leaders.


A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the new released book, Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows

by Bill, Leadership

An Elephant in the Room

No Comments 22 October 2009

Last week I keynoted a breakfast briefing for a group of Memphis area executives. Based on our current book project, Rebooting Leadership, my remarks centered on the leadership realities of the “post-AIG” environment. Three things that seemed to resonate with this audience were:

  1. That, as pointed out by Harvard lecturer and former Medtronic CEO, Bill George, the crisis we find ourselves mired in was induced not so much by complex financial instruments as by a failure of leadership, on different levels and many fronts.
  2. Regardless of one’s position in the management food chain, and whether or not we had anything remotely to do with the crisis, we are ALL being tarred with the same brush, to wit we must each play a role in cleaning up the mess. Fair or not, that’s the way it is.
  3. One of the central pillars on which our return to some semblance of normalcy depends is a big ‘ole elephant that resides in each of our homes and offices. The elephant has a name… Truth. Sadly, we’ve grown too accustomed to ignoring the elephant, or refusing to call it by name. Perhaps that’s due to being self-absorbed, or our desire to remain politically correct, not ruffle feathers, or disrupt agendas.

I think it’s time we toughen up a bit and become more accustomed to speaking (and demanding) the truth. It’s almost as if we think life is all one big reality game where, even if you get voted off the island, you get to come back at season’s end, and everything resets. I was reminded of that Friday afternoon when, for the better part of three hours, much of the nation was preoccupied by what now appears to be a hoax cooked up by some nut jobs masquerading as parents in Colorado.

We would do well to be mindful that in most cases the means exists to readily get at the truth. Even quicker than Wolf Blitzer popped the Heene balloon, armed with an iPhone and Google, a 15 year old can usually do the job in under 5 minutes. A few suggestions for operationalizing this better on the corporate front:

  1. Let’s make courage (as in courage to speak the truth) an absolute requirement for those in leadership positions.
  2. We should treasure (and protect) our contrarians – the folks who care enough to close the door, come in, and tell us something that we don’t want to hear but need to know.
  3. Let’s get better at recognizing failure earlier, and calling it what it is, without being so consumed by the urge to assign blame.
  4. Let’s practice having difficult conversations, and,
  5. We each need to get better at hearing the truth.


A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website at www.contentedcows.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows

by Bill, Leadership, Motivation, Think About It...

Susan Boyle Redux

No Comments 25 April 2009

Tom Bergeron, host of Dancing With the Stars has an excellent piece, Does Susan Boyle Know What’s Next, in today’s NY Times. The article posits that, despite a huge adrenalin rush brought on by her incredible performance on “Britain’s Got Talent”, Ms. Boyle will all too soon be dealing with a man-made headwind as we return to business and thinking as usual.

Mr. Bergeron then connects Ms. Boyle’s situation to our world at large, “After all, “Yes We Can!” communal euphoria is tough to sustain and even harder to market. We’re already grumbling about our president’s choice of puppy and asking whether his wife’s arms are too toned for national magazines. It’s always something, and it’s usually nonsense. But it sells newspapers. At least it used to. Now it sells Web sites and cable television.

“The real problem is that too often we don’t have the courage to sustain wonder. Susan Boyle walked onto that stage and faced down a sea of smug. We need that kind of courage nowadays, and not just on reality shows. We need the courage to believe that stirring voices can be found in unlikely places.” By all means, read the full article.

The piece reminds me of a story I occasionally use in keynote speeches about a Lakota chief who sat by the fire with his grandson one night and shared a story with the young boy about a fierce battle between two wolves. One wolf stood for evil, and it represented fear, envy, cynicism, and greed. The other wolf represented good… hope, courage, perseverance, and honesty.

Eager to learn the result of the ferocious struggle, the young boy interrupted his grandfather and asked, “which wolf wins?” The old man paused for a moment and then said simply, “the one you feed… the one you feed.”

Not unlike Ms. Boyle, the rest of us still have demons to deal with, in the form of the fear and cynicism which, for the last several years have played too big a part in our daily operating system. We, too must decide which wolf we’re going to feed.

A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website at www.contentedcows.com


Considered thought leaders in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden speak to, train, and coach managers on leadership practices for better business outcomes.

OUR PREMISE: Having a focused, engaged, and capably led workforce is one of the best things any organization can do for its bottom line.


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