Volition and Spirit

The pace of personal growth is directly related to the ability to apply lessons learned in one area of living to as many others as fitting and as time permits. These are the “aha” moments or personal victories, the magical moments where an area of limitation is overcoming, where frustration gives way to satisfaction.

I’ve been pouring over an insightful and well-written book on horseback riding called Reflections on Riding and Jumping by William Steinkraus and I cannot help but mark the passages that stand out to me most in this reading, while zooming out and drawing parallels to other fields of activity in which I feel privileged to work.

Today’s realization applies neatly to the business of management, particularly human resources, though I am sure you’ll see other applications in your field of responsibility that are equally if not more valuable and meaningful. Steinkraus advises that horsemen must never forget the fact that horses are always bigger and more powerful than we are (as is the larger team in relation to its manager). As such, we must find subtle and creative ways to gain dominion over its strength and might, lest we succumb to the temptation to dominate it through force or coarser strategies.

Steinkraus describes this beautifully in chapter five:

In all of this, you must remember that the horse is your partner. Of course, there are all sorts of partnerships, some quite equal, others involving a considerable degree of domination by one of the partners. But it is important for the horse to always retain a sense of its own volition and spirit; if you dominate it to the point that it becomes only a prisoner, and cannot freely give itself to you, you will never get the best of which it is capable. In other words, if you can’t get the horse to accept and enjoy its relationship with you, and to accept the mechanisms through which you communicate with it, then those measures aren’t any good in the final analysis, no matter how effective they may seem for a while. I’ve seen a lot of horses that have been bullied by their riders and made to do everything through strength, coercion and the threat of pain. Their riders often brag about their accomplishments and all the things they can make their horses do. In the end, however, if the horse can’t learn to like it, their riders’ accomplishments are illusory and temporary, because the horse will always get the last word. Sometimes the word is funny, sometimes tragic (some riders aren’t aware of what they’ve done until the horse “comes up empty,” if then); but the horse will get the last word, even so.

This approach applies as much in the boardroom and classroom as it does the riding ring. Sure you can gain a measure of control by forced compliance, but if those for whom you are responsible do not share their powers with you out of love and respect, the relationship will be neither lasting nor satisfying.

A Discipline of Simplicity

Business is never so healthy as when, like a chicken, it must do a certain amount of scratching around for what it gets.” ~ Henry Ford

While it is not always the most comfortable place to be, working in a small business during the lean years can teach you a lot about how to function efficiently and effectively. The lean periods don’t just relate to downturns in the economic cycle, in fact, they can also come in the early stages of a new business, at the onset of a large project or while careening through a period of rapid growth.

It’s best to plan ahead and have a cushion, but occasionally you are caught up in a perfect storm of factors for which you are less prepared than you would like to be. The decisions you make and the swiftness with which you enact them have a significant impact on the future of your company. In many cases, the choices you are forced to make are do or die. As I said, such times are not comfortable, but they are chock full of learning opportunities.

One of the best questions to ask during these constrictive phases is: “does this relate to our core business?” Knowing your core business is vitally important, especially during the lean years as it is easy to spend time, energy and money on peripheral concerns that don’t advance the company’s core business operations. This is true for projects, systems, departments and in the most dire of circumstances, personnel. Just as your body shuts down all but the most basic functions in an attempt to save the body during hypothermia and other critical situations, a wise manager must work swiftly to adjust to the emergency.

As with gardening, pruning should be done periodically to keep the corporation tight, tidy and under control. Projects, departments and systems can grow like bamboo and in my experience it is best to prune lightly and regularly, than heavily less often. How you prune depends on the configuration of circumstance you face, but it always relates in some way to making things simpler.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

Five Habits

The powerful recession that swept the globe over the last few years was a game-changer for businesses everywhere. Lulled into a false sense of security by the the many years of plenty, companies operating with bloated payrolls, lavish spending on nonessentials and lax management practices suddenly found themselves confronted with a new reality.

Corporate leaders were forced to adapt to the times, or they found themselves replaced by someone better suited to the new paradigm. Exactly what skills are required of today’s leaders? I came across an excellent article yesterday in the New York Times entitled “Distilling the Wisdom of CEOs” which described five must-haves for any aspiring leader.

If you don’t have time to read the article, the qualities examined in the article are:

  • Passionate Curiosity – they learn from everybody
  • Battle-hardened Confidence – they possess a strong work ethic forged in times of adversity
  • Team Smarts – not just team players, they are good playmakers
  • A Simple Mindset – they keep it simple
  • Fearlessness – discomfort is their comfort zone

Isn’t this an excellent list? I must say that I look for those same qualities when I consider who is ready to be promoted into a position of leadership in my companies. To this list I would add two of my own current favorites:

  • Energetic Service – deeply motivated by a concern to help others
  • Practical Vision – a grand vision with a knack for getting from here to there without much ado

If you aspire to leadership in your field, you would be wise to consider these qualities of character that, incidentally, can all be developed through deliberate application no matter how little experience you’ve had with them.

Have a great day and dare to lead!

Your Purpose in Life

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” ~ Henry David Thoreau

How many of your daily activities are devoted to honestly purposeful, generative activity? Like ants, we move around busily from place to place and activity to activity, but how often do you stop and take an inventory of that which you do to determine if it is making a difference in the world you center?

There are a great many things in this world which can command your attention, yet how any of them would you say really truly matter in the scope of life? Some might rule out entertainment in response to this question seeing it as frivolity no matter when or where it occurs, yet it has its place. Others might object to undertaking anything that does not directly relate to career advancement, or job completion, but is that balanced?

A great many people have come and gone on earth over the eons, some busier than others, yet I have to wonder how many of them stopped to consider the thought: “What am I busy about?” If it is just to survive, to make the rent, or something along those lines, you are likely only scratching the surface of life itself, missing the deeper point, that is, your purpose in life.

Why are you here? What is your purpose? What have you come to do? I cannot answer that for you, but I do know that to the degree that you center you life in service to others you will discover your purpose in no time. If, instead, you center your life on self-interest, self-service, self-gratification, etc., you will forever be blind to your deeper purpose and unfortunately, far away from happiness.

This process works out with mathematical precision, despite the many millions, if not billions of people who have come and gone on earth without ever realizing even an ounce of their true potential. Your life, no matter how humble its beginnings, is meant to be glorious, radiant, fulfilling, and dynamic. Let no man tell you otherwise.

If you dedicate yourself to helping others to their fulfillment, you will leave this earth a happy, fulfilled person, who made a difference and left the earth a better place that you found it. Sure, some will disappoint you, turn on you and fail to live up to their potential in life, but many others will hear the call, rise up to the challenge and dare to be busy about something that truly matters.


Last evening I had the rare pleasure of being reunited with an old and dear friend from my university years. Our friendship was forged not just at school, in fact he and a few friends and I went on a volunteer vacation in West Virginia where we spent our holiday renovating a poverty-stricken neighborhood. We also bicycled around southern Germany, covering some 50-60 miles per day as we moved from Heidelberg to Munich to Lake Constance, through the Black Forest, to Freiburg and back to Heidelberg. What a trip!

Our paths after university diverged, his centered on education, while mine focused primarily in healthcare, yet we found in our conversation that our career and personal lives had many elements in common. Our children are roughly the same ages, our larger life interests (to better humanity in some way) had not changed from that time and the industries in which we work are both in terrible need of fundamental reform.

He went on to obtain his PhD and has worked with organizations like Teach for America, always preferring to work with inner city schools, and his heart is a big as his smile. He is now Headmaster of a Core Knowledge K-5 charter school in Indiana and is loving the challenge of running what is essentially a small business that has the potential to change the future for the lives of those whom he serves. What a wonderful job! No doubt it has its challenges, but he seems to have developed the ability that is so precious to businessmen, the ability to appreciate to the depth of his soul the opportunities at his doorstep from day to day.

Do you see what you do as an opportunity to better the world? So doing is one of the criteria for truly living rather than simply existing. One of the elements we agreed could use revitalization in our educational system is the matter of providing a sufficient base of knowledge to students so that they could attain the necessary cultural literacy to not just survive, but thrive in the American system. The challenge, of course, is to decide which elements must be taught to a group of inner city children, for instance, so that they can have a fighting chance against the gravitational pull of social determinism.

I don’t envy my friend’s position and responsibilities, but I do admire his courage, tenacity and generosity in the face of seemingly impossible odds. This brings me to another ability so important to those who desire success in their careers, namely, the ability to say with confidence-coated humility, “don’t tell me the odds.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not so much what you do that matters, but the spirit and attitude in which you do it that counts. No job is necessarily better than another, and while one position may give you more scope of influence than another, every job you can or will hold in your lifetime is an aperture through which you can serve your fellow man, if you so chose.

Never waste time simply biding your time until something bigger or better comes along. Fill what you have to overflowing and watch what happens. I guarantee you’ll be delighted with the results.

Oh yes, one more thing. If you get a chance to catch up with an old friend, I highly recommend it! You never know what creative thoughts it might spark in relation to your goals and dreams.

Working Together

Coming together is a beginning.  Keeping together is progress.  Working together is success.” ~ Henry Ford

It is interesting to watch teams form up in the workplace. The phases a group of individuals move through as they bond to form a unified team are somewhat predictable, yet the pace of that development varies wildly from group to group. Of particular interest to me are small teams, say of two or three people, as much of the work done in small businesses depends on the company’s ability to quickly form small teams under frequently changing circumstances.

The first step as Henry Ford so succinctly laid out is for the individuals involved to come together. This rapprochement is facilitated by certain attitudes and approaches, such as civility, patience, careful listening and respect and retarded by other less dignified modes of expression like hostility, impatience, pushiness and disdain.

You would think that shared vision would equate to cooperation, but I have witnessed on far too many occasions groups of individuals dedicated who share a common goal fail due to an unwillingness to (1) put aside differences in style, (2) forgive past transgressions or (3) grow internally in relation to the need at hand. Such failures are a sad testament to human stubbornness, really.

To come together, you must be flexible, capable of seeing even the most familiar people in new ways and willing to give people a fresh start…every time you meet. Grudges and other forms of prejudice are the death knell of a potentially generative collaboration.

You can’t really keep together until you’ve come together. Mutual respect is the glue that binds teams together. Anything less than respect dissolves the bonds, oftentimes more quickly than they can be formed. Teams that are held together on the basis of “mutually assured destruction” (I can destroy you and you can destroy me so we had better just get along) will not withstand much pressure, neither will they be much fun to work in or around. The atmosphere of such arrangements whiffs of poison.

Keeping together, without the usual careless expression of snide remarks, disparaging comments and declarations of self-righteous indignation is real progress. Rare is the group that works together cleanly, efficiently and seamlessly, so my suggestion is that you do not wait until you find one, but instead, raise your personal bar to the level that you know is possible and stick to your guns! Don’t take offense if it is offered, never quit and don’t resort to the “devil’s tactics” to get a job done. Gentlemanly and ladylike conduct is of the utmost importance no matter how ugly things may appear round about.

If you manage to keep together over time, through the good times and the bad, you are then entitled to claim that your team does in fact work together. And as Henry Ford said so well, “Working together is success.” When a team works together, the hard earned respect and trust is not compromised by shifts in configuration, changing tactics, differences in opinion the loss or gain of team members. Neither is the level of camaraderie as the pressure rises and falls around the team. Respect reigns supreme when a team truly works together.

If you value friendships, live in a family or work in a company, you are wise to consider the true significance of Henry Ford’s words today. A compromise on any one of these points will tear at the fabric of your team. Conversely, a breakthrough on any one of these points will introduce a unifying, harmonizing force into the team dynamic.

The choice is yours!

The Power of an Advocate

Advocates are a powerful, yet often overlooked part of a company’s customer base. They will often step in where company procedures and policies fall short, defending and presenting your brand to other consumers. Advocates are willing to overlook the company’s customer service shortcomings yet they’ll be the first to inform you of any areas that require refinement.

Advocates promote your business in ways that you as a company representative cannot. They offer third party credibility, boundless passion and belief in your products, personal examples and more. During tough economic times, advocates can provide much needed lift. What’s more is that their advocacy is a win-win situation, if it is handled correctly. They benefit when they recommend a good product that works (solutions!) to friends and associates and the company benefits from the new relationships that form as a result of the advocacy.

Identifying advocates can be a challenge. Advocates may not always be your highest volume purchasers or highest dollar purchasers, in fact, you may have advocates who have only used your products once or twice! Commerce is frequently an emotionally-driven process and the hard science taught in business courses does not always apply in real life. People will be people and the assumption of rationality made by economists is not always valid.

Advocates are your most vocal clients, supporting you in your store, online, on Facebook, at Starbucks, at family reunions and wherever others are willing to listen. They often know your company better than company representatives and what’s more interesting is that they are often better at talking about your company than your company representatives are, for whatever reason.

Listen to your advocates. Make it easy for them to speak about your company and its products. Solicit their product and service improvement ideas. Be a friend and by all means, be an advocate for your advocates!