January 2008

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How to profit by making better use of your mental “peripheral vision”

Regular readers will know that I’m a birder and sometimes draw analogies between what I’ve learned from watching birds and the topics I write about here.

This time it’s peripheral vision: literally seeing things out of the corner of your eye. At work, you can use your mental “peripheral vision” to be aware of things others will miss. To spot trends and unexpected movements in events. To notice developing patterns and links between items that don’t immediately appear connected.

What will this do for you? It will make you far sharper and quicker to home in on what really matters. It will help you to see what others miss; or see it earlier, before most people are even aware of it. Best of all, it will make you much more aware of the possibilities — especially the creative ones — in any situation.

All it takes is to slow down and be more aware of what you don’t see in an instant snapshot of the situation — which is all that most people have time for today.

Understanding how peripheral vision works

You may not have noticed this consciously, but your eyes can only hold a small area in sharp focus. Try looking now at a point about 10 or 15 feet away. Don’t move your eyes. How much is in sharp focus? Typically, it’s a circle maybe a yard in diameter. If you want to see a larger area clearly, you’ll have to move your eyes or your head.

When I’m out birding, I’m trying to be aware of birds that might be anywhere in a large area all around me. Listening helps enormously. Experienced birders use their ears as much as their eyes. By hearing a bird, you can begin to work out where it might be. Even so, you may only know the call is coming from somewhere on your left. That could include many large trees, deep thickets — or, where I live, a hillside covered in cactus and mesquite.

If you try to search the area visually (and everyone does that), that small circle of sharp focus must be moved back and forth all the time. The bird may move while you’re looking somewhere else. You may miss it even if it sits still (especially then). That’s where peripheral vision helps. You may not be able to focus clearly outside a small area at one time, but Nature has given you something just as useful: the ability to be aware of movement just about anywhere in your visual field.

Watch a group of birders in action and you’ll see people who are primarily looking for movement. Because you can register movement throughout your visual area, it gives you a much wider perspective. Birds, especially small and vulnerable ones, tend to move a great deal. They’re afraid they’ll make a good target for hawks if they stay still. The skillful birder spots the movement out of the corner of her eye and immediately swings her circle of sharp focus to that spot.

Inexperienced birders look in specific places for clearly recognizable birds and miss most of them as a result. Their more experienced colleagues look for anything that moves. They don’t just see more birds, they see butterflies, bugs, squirrels, lizards, deer and heaven knows what else.

Applying the same principle to work

At work, you can use your mental “peripheral vision” to be aware of things others will miss. The key is the same: to be aware of movement. For example, a change in sales figures, or production output, or customer returns can alert you to something you should investigate.

Never mind which direction the change takes, up or down. A change from what’s usual is always worth investigating. If customers change their buying behavior, focus in right away. If competitors seem to be shifting their positions, make sure you take notice. If a subordinate’s or colleague’s behavior changes, take a look. Good birders stay alert, focused, and notice as much as possible around them. Good managers do the same.

Today’s typical devotee of Hamburger Management has no time to wait and watch for movement or changes. He or she takes a quick look at a situation, mentally fits it into some pre-determined pigeon-hole or category of events, and jumps right into action.

Resisting the temptation to jump to conclusions

If what is there doesn’t fit into those preconceived categories, all it takes is to ignore the “awkward bits” and force a fit. See event, fit it into existing set of ideas, jump directly to stock response. Quick, simple, easy . . . and deadly. Perhaps someone should have pointed this out to the executives of Société 3.

As a way of operating, Hamburger Management makes everyone into a beginner. There’s no time to spot what isn’t immediately obvious. Looking for trends is left to computer algorithms (and you only have to be a user of Amazon.com to know what odd results even the most sophisticated software can throw up in predicting something relatively simple, like what books you might buy next). Creativity is so crippled as to become virtually useless.

All that’s left is “monkey see, monkey do” as a way of life.

As you walk through your working day, how much do you see . . . or miss?

(2 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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This post is part of the “Become a Slow Leader” series

  1. What every manager ought to know about communication
  2. Courage can build a leadership style to be proud of
  3. Beware of expansive (and expensive) egos (including your own)

Why egotism is fatal to good leadership — and why it is so common today

“To have without possessing,
do without claiming,
lead without controlling;
this is mysterious power.”

Tao Te Ching, Lau Tzu (tr. Ursula K. Le Guin)

Egotism causes blindness, selfishness, over-confidence, and arrogance.

It inflates people into domineering monsters focused on petty personal victories. It wrecks relationships. It encourages leaders to try to keep everything under their personal contro, in the erroneous belief they’re the only people sufficiently capable to handle important issues. It makes them deaf to concerns and blind to looming problems. Look at the executives of Citigroup, or Bear Stearns, or — most recently — Société Generale.

Buddhists and Taoists have long claimed that a false belief in the importance of the ego is a principle cause of human suffering. I’m inclined to agree with this. In the Buddhist view, there is no ego. It’s a mental concept without true substance, generated by incorrect thinking and a poor grasp of reality. Because it isn’t something that can exist on its own, it must be constantly fed with the three elements in the quotation at the head of this article: possession, belief in personal “ownership” of events and outcomes, and delusions of control.

“I’m the one in charge!”

Let’s look at what happens when a leader can’t have without possessing. Everything becomes his. It’s his team, his authority, his areas of responsibility and command, his decisions alone. No one must be allowed to share his power — or his rewards — so no one can share the burdens either. Any questioning of his decisions becomes a personal attack and proof of disloyalty. To take anything of his away threatens his existence.

This is a quick route to paranoia, dictatorship, and burnout. The leader who can’t let go of his ego-driven urge to possess everything can’t accept colleagues, only subordinates and servants. He can’t allow others to do whatever they can do as well — or better — than him, in case that makes him look insufficient. No one can help him, no one can support him, because he cannot share anything. In his crazed urge to possess it all, he sets himself up to lose it all instead.

“I’m the star!”

The leader who claims every success, every gain, every useful action as hers frustrates all those around her. She cannot do without claiming.

It’s all hers — except the failures, of course. She won the order (though she never met the customer); she had that great new idea (after someone else explained it to her); she’s the one solely responsible for exceeding the budget and cutting costs (though her team created the plan, implemented it, and bore the burdens of lost jobs, overwork, and excessive working hours).

What she’s truly responsible for (but never claims) is alienating her people, irritating her colleagues, and becoming so filled with inflated ideas of her own importance she’s a universal pain in the butt — and a danger to the business as a whole.

Why is there a need to claim anything? If it’s done — and done well — what more is required? If someone else did it, give them the praise they’re due. Only peoples’ needy, insecure egos demand constant reassurance it’s all down to them.

“I’m in control!”

True leaders don’t need to exercise control as they lead. People follow them because they want to; because they like, respect, admire, emulate — and sometimes even love — the leader.

There’s no call for books of rules, enforcement, punishment, and informers: all the paraphernalia of the typical command-and-control culture. Such organizations have to operate like police states because the leaders’ egos crave the false reassurance that they’re in control. The more any leader resorts to commands and enforcement, the less he or she leads. It’s their ego which is calling all the shots.

I’ve drawn these pictures in harsh outlines, but we’ve all suffered under leaders who show some — sometimes most — of these destructive behaviors, at least in less extreme forms. Egotism is a pervasive curse. The claim that all power corrupts is a direct consequence of the malignant ability of an inflated ego to turn a previously pleasant, competent manager into a monster.

Institutionalized egotism

The blame for so much egotism isn’t all down to the human flaws of leaders. Many organizations encourage it. They try to stimulate personal competition between people, falsely believing that this will encourage higher standards and productivity. They publicly sort people into winners and losers. They tie pay to results so tightly that co-operation becomes impossible without losing money on your next bonus or pay-check.

Many of these organizations have accepted the folk-myth that sport provides the best way of understanding motivation at work: that turning an organization into something like a tennis tournament or a football team will encourage employees to work harder, so that their “team” will win or they will ascend the winner’s rostrum themselves.

Yet sport is different from business in so many ways. Individual sports champions are driven by ego, sure, but also by love of the game, competing against themselves, and the search for records and perfection in their sport. Teams strive to win for money, in professional sports, but also because they are small, tightly knit groups, supporting one another against other, similar groups.

An organization isn’t like a football team; it’s like the whole league — or a league of leagues. It’s full of teams. If you encourage too much overt competition, those teams will compete against one another, instead of against outsiders. You don’t produce a 70,000 member team, because no team even a tenth of that size can mean anything personally to its members.

What you produce is what you see everywhere today: teams, departments, and divisions all struggling and competing against one another — and all denying co-operation and hoarding information — while the “competition” against otuside corporations is more or less ignored.

Leadership is a “mysterious power”

True leadership is a mysterious power because the leader doesn’t appear to do anything except be herself. It seems effortless; yet it’s powerful beyond expectation.

She gives away authority, power, position, and recognition as if she has no interest in such possessions — which is true. She hands out rewards, praise, respect, and support to all who merit them; then, mysteriously it seems, receives more in return than she gave away. She has everything, yet claims nothing for herself. She gets everything done, yet points to others as the ones who did it.

Ask them and they’ll tell you she was the one responsible. They did it for her, under her oversight, to meet her specifications. She never appears to control anything. There’s no need. Everyone rushes to accomplish what she asks. Better still, they strain to anticipate her wishes before she ever articulates them. They love working for her and they love her. Why? Because she makes them feel wanted, needed, and valued.

Let go of all that ego. It’s a burden you don’t need. Besides, it doesn’t really exist — unless you act as if it does. To achieve the power that enables, not corrupts, stop possessing, claiming, and controlling — and try leading instead.

(5 votes, average: 4.8 out of 5)
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“The Great Dictator” is distributed by, and copyright of, United Artists

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This post is part of the “Thoughts about time” series

  1. Stop pushing the river
  2. A simple way to save time: trust people
  3. Why some people and organizations almost always have time for everything
  4. The secret ingredient in actions that get outstanding results

What makes the difference between the work of a craftsman and the output of a hack?

Is it talent? That certainly has something to do with it. Is it application? Again, yes: though application won’t be enough on its own. Is it skill? Certainly, though skill again isn’t sufficient without the extra element that I am thinking of.

That Magic Ingredient Is . . . time.

Talent is a wonderful thing, but without the time to use it fully it will produce frustration and unhappiness. Hard work — application — is no substitute for time either. You may work long hours, but if those hours are filled with activities done in a rush, with no time to concentrate properly, all you will produce is a large total of mediocre work.

Skill too takes time: time to learn, time to develop through experience, time to apply.

Quantity is no substitute for quality

Today, conventional managers unthinkingly equate productivity with producing more in less time and at lower cost, pretty much ignoring what it is they produce that way. As quantitative productivity increases, qualitative output falls. You produce more and more of what’s less and less valuable.

What craftsman was ever concerned with simply producing more? What producer of basic commodities has time to be concerned about craftsmanship?

Cramming and cutting are the price we pay for speed and the search for our obsession with merely numerical, quantitative ideals of productivity. We cram more work into the same time (and yet more into those long, long hours); and we cut costs, resources, and time for thinking, creating, rest or enjoyment.

Time and quality are closely linked

Wine has to mature to become great. Cheese needs time to bring out the flavor. Gabble through the greatest poem at the speed of a sports commentator and you’ll be left with little but disappointment. In our attempts to do everything more quickly, merely for the sake of instant gratification, we too often destroy the very qualities that made us value the outcome in the first place.

Money isn’t a substitute for time either. However much you make, without time you can’t spend it and appreciate what you spent it on. Nor is wealth a substitute for love, happiness, or time to live a contented life. And making more money for the business is definitely no substitute for leadership.

What are you worth?

How much of other people’s time are you worth? A few minutes? An hour? A day? How long should they take to appreciate the full flavor of who you are as a colleague and a person? Would giving you less time mean they sold you short? If your boss spends almost no time with you, could he or she still appreciate your abilities and worth?

Fine, so that’s how much of their time you’re worth. Now, how much of your time should you give others to be able to see their worth properly?

“Slow” is the secret key

Strip away the time and the greatest vacation destination becomes a blurred image from the window of a speeding vehicle. The most wonderful music is turned into a ringtone on your cellphone; a breath-taking love affair is reduced to a quick fumble behind the filing cabinets. The most talented and skilled person is reduced to turning out only what can be done quickest, with most of their attention already elsewhere. If it can’t be done in five minutes or less, forget it. No time.

The stuff of greatness? I don’t think so.

Slow Leadership isn’t slow for the sake of it. It’s slow because that’s what it takes. Time is the magic ingredient. Take it away and what’s left is worthless.

Rushed, frantic leadership is no leadership at all. A life lived at top speed leaves no time to appreciate its joys and savor its experiences.

Why rush? It’s the only life you have. Do you want it to be over so soon?

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If you value theory over experience, you’re headed for problems

My wife found this snippet in Saturday’s New York Times, called “Same Office, Different Planets.” It refers to a survey from the magazine Workspan that asked both HR professionals and the employees themselves what were the most important factors in persuading people to stay with an organization.

You can read all the details via the link above. The bottom line is that what the HR professionals said would motivate employees to stay was 100% wrong, compared with actual responses from the employees themselves.

As the writer says:

Perhaps [the HR people chose the wrong factors] because they believe what is published and said so often . . .

Why this is a wider problem

I think this points to a wider issue, not one restricted to HR professionals. Many of today’[s leaders prefer to believe what they have been told is true over what they can actually see around them. Experience is reinterpreted — or ignored — in terms of internal assumptions, usually the ones endorsed by business schools, supposed experts, and media pundits.

I blame Sigmund Freud for starting this process. His theories — so long accepted — are pretty much based on the belief that human behavior is caused by hidden factors, not the obvious, commonsense reasons that appear on the surface. Instead of looking to current beliefs and assumptions to understand why people behave in self-destructive ways, he turned to hidden, subconscious urges, often derived from supposed childhood experiences — long buried and forgotten.

Despite being widely seen today as plain wrong, such theories have a subtle appeal: they suggest that only those “in the know” can understand the true reasons behind events.

Executives aren’t a “select breed”

We all like to be “in the know.” We all like to possess special knowledge denied to mere ordinary mortals; and no groups desire this more than professionals of every kind. It’s what marks them out from the rest: they possess know-how and access to levels of understanding denied to those outside their profession.

As management has become more “professional,” it has developed its own areas of special knowledge. To become a “professional manager” now demands earning specific qualifications, such as MBAs, from business schools; and such schools can only attract student by claiming to be able to teach them things they could not learn merely through experience and commonsense.

Management and leadership used to be a practical, commonsense processes, requiring people of a certain experience and proven ability. Now anyone can be a leader who has the appropriate piece of paper.

You’ll already see where all this is headed. To prove that you’re a professional, you have to show that what anyone can see, with some commonsense and application, is not the true cause of events. That can only be grasped by those who have studied the relevant theories and been anointed by gaining the required qualification. To prove this means giving a reason for events that would not be suggested by anyone who simply looked at what was in front of them.

Many are misled by preset assumptions and conventional thinking

Is it any wonder that we have situations like the current crisis in sub-prime mortgage finance — or the fiasco at Société Generale — despite all the managers and executives with fancy degrees from even fancier schools?

Instead of concentrating on what is right in front of them, they prefer to act as if their assumptions are reality. They ignore the here and now in favor of theories from the past and ideas they picked up years ago at business school.

Such leaders are the very ones who failed to consider that allowing huge bets on obscurely-complex financial instruments few, if any, understand is inherently foolish, since their expensive training told them it was “modern” and the act of the “cutting edge professional.”

They didn’t consider that relying on computer systems to keep an eye on what junior employees are doing is insufficient; even thought Nick Leeson at Barings, years ago, brought the bank down by making rogue trades while knowing how to feed the systems whatever they needed to see?


Because they have been taught to believe the computer more than their own observations and experience.

Worst of all, they still don’t grasp that reliance on “the numbers” each quarter as the only means to judge business success is both short-sighted and silly. It’s accepted knowledge amongst “professionals,” isn’t it? Only amateurs would stand back, look at the whole situation,and trust their commonsense, logic, and experience over the spreadsheets produced by all that expensive computer power.

Until we turn this around and accept that true professionals owe their understanding more to taking the time to think, watch, and consider than to any theories, we will remain at the mercy of the highly-qualified manager whose closed mind prevents him or her from seeing what is there in plain view.

That’s my opinion. So what’s yours?

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Photo credit: Michael Maggs

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Avoiding the down-side of today’s management platitudes about competition

This guest posting is by Karen Senteio, Business and Life Coach and President of VERVE. You can read more about her and her business here.

The corporate world has gone mad — and we have gone mad with it. A disease has penetrated too many organizations. In the cause of dealing with competition by “adding value,” we have become destructive and combative. In our quest to ensure we are at the top of the heap, we have forgotten teamwork, collaboration and organizational focus; abandoned the notion of organizational relevance for “me relevance”.

The root cause of this behavior is not arrogance — it is fear. It is the fear that we will not measure up; that we will not get a raise, not have a job, and, ultimately, not be able to support ourselves or our families.

Whew, that is pressure. The productivity spurt fear causes is real, but it is not sustainable — and is clearly unhealthy for companies and individuals.

Constant combat

The ”value add” era has created a combative environment where everything is a fight and folks come out with both barrels blazing to solve every issue. Everything is serious. Brainstorming sessions and meetings turn into WWIII; and sharing an opinion brings the wrath of ages down upon you. It is no longer coming up with the best idea that is the motivation; it is how I can make Mary or Bob look incompetent, so I can look better.

This is not the environment to fosters trust, creativity, or collaboration — all of which are necessary for long-term survival of an organization. I completely get it that a company must survive in an era of extreme competition, but is this way to do it? No, sir.

Bringing value in

How do we unwind this tightly wound ‘value add’ culture and flip the switch so that we can bring value in? Bringin value in is when turf is abandoned for the good of the organization and the free-flow of ideas is embedded in the culture.

When everyone concentrates on bringing value in, combat is replaced with high-spirited innovation. The mission of the company becomes being an incubator of new ideas that are discussed, added to, or abandoned when they don’t fit.

I am not saying abandon arguing. I like a good, productive argument or debate. It is the intention behind the debate that makes all the difference in the world.

Intent will determine if you are in an incubation discussion, where ideas percolate, or a destructive discussion where the motivation is to squelch others for a more sinister, myopically selfish reason. Only one of these fosters long-term gain.

Start with an effort to change the environment. Schedule an “incubator” meeting instead of a staff meeting. Demonstrate to employees that there is a new ‘value’ in town and it is ‘value in’. Let them see that their ideas are not crushed, but enhanced. Let them see the new behaviors rewarded and old destructive behaviors discouraged.

This single, small step may be the catalyst needed to repair what is now a gaping hole through which innovation and creativity are draining away.

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This post is part of the “Become a Slow Leader” series

  1. What every manager ought to know about communication
  2. Courage can build a leadership style to be proud of
  3. Beware of expansive (and expensive) egos (including your own)

When things get rough — as now — beware of cowards, mixed messages, and macho managers

Tough times sort out the true leaders from those who wear the clothes but have nothing beneath them. Leaders lead; mere administrators, whatever their job titles, panic. Worst of all, fair-weather bosses infected by Hamburger Management send people mixed messages. In today’s atmosphere of frantic competition and short-term focus, mixed messages caused by “macho” management can make bad situations far worse and leave a business wide open to crushing problems. It’s time we recognized that moral courage is often a truer test of leadership than mere quarterly results.

If nothing else has results from our boom and collapse economy, it ought surely to make everyone aware of how many supposed leaders are nothing of the kind; and the ease with which such executives, under pressure to “deliver the goods or else,” cross the line from tough business practice to dishonesty and fraud.

A few past offenders have been caught and punished, but that doesn’t mean the underlying problems have been cured.

That won’t happen until people stop using false measures to judge success, thus propelling wholly unsuitable people into jobs they cannot handle, for all their swagger and pride.

Pinker & Blacker: a case study in the dire effects of Hamburger Management in a crisis

Let’s imagine a corporation called, for the sake of a name, Pinker & Blacker, Inc. Their executives certainly aren’t criminals, nor even basically dishonest. For decades, they and their predecessors have conducted their business blamelessly, gradually growing into a major player in their industry. During the last round of corporate scandals, they took care to put their own house in order, establishing codes of practice and policies to govern their business and financial dealings.

Recently, however, competition has grown as fresh players entered their market from China and elsewhere. They could no longer keep up the pace of past profit growth or Wall Street’s expectations. Profits fell and the stockholders of Pinker & Blacker began to urge an all-out effort to rebuild their slipping share price. Targets were raised, jobs cut, and everyone re-focused on getting the desired quarterly results.

Away in a distant part of the business, a small number of people devised a plan to increase returns dramatically, if riskily. At first it went well and the players were praised. They felt secure and free from the apprehension their colleagues felt for their futures.

Then, without warning, things turned ugly. Their plan started to come apart.

A major loss of face was the least of their worries. Bonuses depended on keeping up the steady flow of results. So did jobs and the glittering prospects held out to them so recently. Getting together, they looked for something to give them a breathing space to get back on track. In finding it, they crossed the line into misrepresentation — they called it "a temporary adjustment" — and then concealment.

In a few months, they thought, everything could be quietly put back in place and no one would be hurt.

It wasn’t and they, plus the business, were hurt very badly. Faces at Pinker & Blacker got redder and redder. Profits — and the share price — went into free-fall ,and the business faced law suits and heavy fines.

So what went wrong?

Why did this happen? Why did a rational search for financial stability spill over into irrational risk-taking and corporate malfeasance?

It’s easy to write what ought to happen and do it far from the battle lines. But fine words are worthless without the resolution to back them up when doing so will be costly. In such circumstances, fine-sounding policies and codes can do more harm than good, producing a sense of complacency that causes executives to put such unpleasant problems out of their minds.

In this case — as in so many others — the executives gave mixed messages. The long-term, strategic message of "follow only sound business practices" was drowned out by the short-term, extremely loud and macho message of "deliver the results . . . or face the consequences."

Macho management is often no management at all

It’s too easy for managers to believe leadership lies in setting people tough objectives and weeding out any who fail. This looks and sounds strong, but it is fundamentally lazy and cowardly. Such people capitulate to Wall Street at the first whiff of trouble, and drop into the habit of giving it whatever it wants, even if it ruins the business for the longer-term. They are no friends to the shareholders, who typically bear the cost, or the employees, who are blamed. Instead of standing up for what is right, they shift responsibility onto others.

The real focus of the leader should be to stand apart from short-term pressures and concentrate on the wider picture. Sometimes, leadership demands accepting failure — even welcoming it — where the alternative is departing from integrity and sound business practices.

Leaders are constantly forced to decide on priorities under fire. The buck has to stop with them and they may well face many unpalatable choices. In such cases, moral courage is a truer test of leadership than material results; especially when that means accepting that some problems aren’t solvable by acceptable means . . . and none are ever resolved by putting the blame onto other people.

To be a Slow Leader means to face the test and stand firm. To borrow from Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .” you might become a true leader, not simply a hired administrator in macho clothing.

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Why the temptation to see individuals as key to organizational success is more dangerous that you think

It has once again been proved that we misunderstand the true causes of organizational success. Egged on by the media, who dote on simplistic answers to complex situations, we thoughtlessly treat the actions of CEOs and top teams as the primary — sometimes nearly the sole — causes of organizational performance. This belief is not true and never has been. The high-pressure, anxiety-ridden workplace culture thus created is both the root cause of today’s obsessive, “macho” management style and its catastrophic over-emphasis on short-term results. Our heroes aren’t seeking dragons; they’re attempting the impossible — and doing it with our money.

The worst aspect of this error is the other common assumption that providing huge financial incentives, typically share options, will encourage top executives to work harder, thus ensuring rising profit goals are met. This is often described as aligning the executives’ interests with those of the shareholders. They both want money, and, since the shareholders believe the executives’ actions are the key to producing it, almost no amount is too great if results seem to follow quickly.

After years of this nonsense, we find ourselves again in a sorry mess. Top salaries have never been higher, so — by the logic just explained — corporate performance ought to be stellar, especially in those parts of the business world where executive rewards have been greatest: the financial sector.

Instead, we have self-inflicted chaos, due largely to a potent combination of greed, short-termism, and incompetence in managing risk. The “brilliant” individual executives on whom the whole edifice rested have been found to have feet of clay. Meanwhile, the middle-class is becoming poorer and the poor have been ignored altogether. As a society, we have lavished money on a group who have shown themselves to be as helpless to avert disaster as they were greedy in bringing it about.

A mistaken faith

Conventional management ideas are based on the assumption that individual executives — especially CEOs — have a major influence on performance. It’s directly akin to the old-fashioned view of history as a chronicle of the acts of “great men” (plus a tiny handful of great women, only grudgingly admitted).

Of course leaders have some impact, but it’s far less than most people believe. There are far too many variables, complications, and sheer unknowns for any one person — or even a whole group of senior executives — to be able to impose what they want on the world at large. As recent events have proved yet again, the reality is that most of those at the top stared at the spreadsheets, sat through the presentations, and nodded to their “experts,” without having more than the sketchiest idea of what was happening in their name.

And that’s without the fact that for every Company A that wants the market to go in one direction, there will be a Company B (and probably Companies C, D, E, and F too) who wants more or less the opposite, and is working just as hard to bring that about. No one can be the winner in this fantasy game of changing reality; the truth is that none of them have much effect on the universe — yet when chance turns one into a temporary success, they gladly take the credit.

Let’s bring these two points together and see what we have. First, we have the basic assumption that the actions of leaders are the main determinant of corporate success. It’s false, but everyone seems to believe it — including most of the leaders themselves. Next, their remuneration is closely tied to short-term business outcomes. Can you can see why it is inevitable that leaders will do everything they can to bring about a series of short-term booms, virtually regardless of the longer-term busts that follow?

By then, they will have taken their money and moved on. Due to this system of rewards, executives imitate the actions of a high-stakes gambler and ignore the careful choices needed by a long-term builder of corporate and community growth. Like nearly everyone else, they do what pays them most.

Where individual leaders really do matter

When it comes to creating the culture of a company, the actions of people at the top have enormous influence. Ever since hierarchies came about, those below have studied — and copied — what those above them do. People emulate the boss’s behavior (after all, it worked for him or her, didn’t it?) and apply some subtly flattery at the same time. Besides, going against what the boss thinks isn’t a smart way to win favor. Subordinates study, analyze, and copy the boss all the time. No boss thinks of copying their subordinates.

The outcome of this erroneous belief in the superman-type leader is two-fold: it makes leaders devote all their waking hours to the impossible task of trying to force the future to turn out exactly as they want it to; and it causes subordinates to get the idea that doing the same themselves is the key to making it to the top.

Knowing they will be blamed for every short-term failure, and richly rewarded for every equally short-term success, leaders become extremely anxious. They strain every nerve to try to bring about favorable results, including hounding and harassing all those around and below them. Their subordinates copy their actions faithfully, assuming this will propel them upwards in their turn. Meanwhile, no one is watching the store. In a game of winner-takes-all, the most outrageous, blind risks are dressed up as courageous decisions, and short-term fluctuations in the market as clear signs of personal brilliance.

The resulting corporate culture is high-pressured, full of long hours and anxiety, and riddled with stress. It cannot be otherwise, since everyone is devoting themselves to doing the impossible: to making reality move according to their personal wishes by sheer willpower and effort.

It’s time to slow down and return to reality . . . before we make things even worse

The truth is that actual organizational results come in the main part from a shifting combination of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and favorable effects from a myriad of people you don’t even know about. All this anxious striving and worrying is mostly for nothing.

Copying the actions of successful leaders of the past, following the latest management panaceas, hiring expensive consultants — none of them have more than a marginal impact. The continual anxiety and stress at the top quickly gets replicated throughout the organization, until everyone, at every level, is straining and obsessing over how to impose their will on the immediate future. No one stops to ask the simple question: “Does any of this make any measurable difference to reality?” If they did, maybe they would notice that, once again, the emperor has no clothes.

Let’s all calm down. The future will be what it will be. We can, at best, only have some limited impact on the small part of it that directly surrounds us. The further away the thing we desire lies, the less we will be able to make it happen by force. In the long-term, we can try to work with events to encourage good outcomes. In the short-term, we can keep our nerve.

Business has always been more about commonsense and teamwork than the flashy actions of a few “stars.” Commonsense in lending would have prevented the sub-prime mortgage mess. Involving others and listening to a wide range of views might have allowed leaders to admit to their own ignorance, instead of jumping into risks they neither understood nor could measure.

The trouble with heroes is that, for every one who manages to slay the dragon and rescue the damsel, many more ended up as that dragon’s dinner first.

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If you want to look back on a satisfying and happy life, conventional rules for success are not the place to start

Most conventional ideas about success go wrong because they focus on outcomes and results instead of on the processes of living. Outcomes come around from time to time, but life itself — the process of living, acting, thinking, and being — happens all the time.

No outcome is going to make a lousy, miserable process feel worthwhile — especially chasing money, power, or status. If they come to you, that’s fine. But if you hate what you do, no amount of power or money is going to make up for that.

If your life is constantly stressful, boring, unhappy, or frustrating, how can achieving some high status once in a while make up for all the miserable days and weeks you spent getting there? If you live for the weekends, that means five sevenths of the week (that’s 71% of your life) is boring or wretched and only two sevenths (29%) offers you any chance of being happy. Cut off the weekend time you have to give to chores (maybe up to half of it) and you’re down to having only 14 or 15% of your life available to truly enjoy. I don’t call that much of a bargain.

It’s tempting to feel that the end will more than make up for the means; that you’ll forget the misery in the blaze of achievement. And you will — but only for a few moments. Then you’ll be back on the treadmill, with only the distant hope of some fresh achievement or monetary gain to console you. That’s like being a laboratory rat continually running a maze for occasional rewards of food. It may keep you nourished, but it’s not much of a life.

Here instead are the recipes for success that really do work long-term. You probably already know what they are, but you’ve overlooked them because they aren’t glamorous and they don’t offer instant gratification. They’re slow, but nearly always certain.

Take whatever time you need to discover what matters to you most

We’ve seen that success isn’t simply a matter of money, power, or prestige. You could gain all of those and still feel that you have fallen short of what you wanted; or you could gain none of them and be blissfully happy and fulfilled.

What constitutes personal success is mostly in your mind. It has much less to do with finding the best career in other peoples’ eyes, creating a killer business, or holding down a fancy job with a big salary, than with achieving what really matters to you. Many people find this out too late. They struggle for years to get where other people said they should go, only to find it does little or nothing for them. By then, they’ve lost the chance to do anything else.

Start from the right place: what means most to you, whatever that is. Find a way to build a career around that. If the answer really is money, power, and status, go for it. If it’s something else, follow that instead. Whatever it is, doing what you believe in and most enjoy is going to make the daily process of living a source of satisfaction, instead of having to wait for the occasional tidbit tossed to you by fate.

Don’t base your choices on others’ approval

We all want to please those we care about, so it’s natural to try to do what they approve. Natural, but rarely a good idea as the basis for life’s choices.

I don’t say that you should deliberately ignore sound advice — or reject a career path simply because other people suggest it — but even the most loving parent or friend can’t always see what is going to make your heart sing.

Listen to others. Value their input and their support. But go your own way. It’s better to be committed to doing what you truly love than accept something lesser for the sake of being approved by someone else.

Stay authentic

That means always doing what truly matters to you and is part of who you are. The simplest definition of a hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does another: like a person who says that he or she wants to work at something that benefits society, then forgets that at the first sight of a fistful of dollar bills.

Somewhere inside of you is a part that recalls what truly matters and will never quite let you forget it. Over the years, that inner voice is only going to get louder.

Go for meaning over money every time

It’s perfectly possible to do something meaningless to you and earn a great deal of cash while doing so. Some people do, especially in parts of the media world. It just requires a stronger stomach and more cynicism that most people possess — plus a huge tolerance for boredom.

Is it worth it? If money is truly all that matters to you — and you can make lots of it quickly and get out — it might be, but few areas of work will allow you to do that, aside from criminal ones.

Meaningless days corrode most peoples’ minds and destroy their happiness. Doing something that means a great deal to you almost always makes you feel energized and alive. It’s your choice.

Be endlessly greedy — for learning

You can never learn too much or overfill your mind with new ideas. Nothing is more useful in life than a well-developed, well-stocked mind, especially one that has been broadened and enlarged in the process.

It’s hard to name a single famously successful person who was narrow-minded, bigoted, or stupid. The list of notable successes who are recognized for the power of their minds is long. You don’t even have to have an expensive education to be able to develop a great mind. There have been plenty of near geniuses whose education was almost entirely self-produced.

Make a friend of failure

You are certain to fail sometimes, and the higher your aspirations, the more frequent and significant that failure will be. People who don’t strive for anything glorious rarely fail; they take no risks and never aim beyond what is easily attainable.

If you treat failure as an enemy, it’s going to lead only to discouragement and even the abandoning of your hopes and dreams. Failure can be a friend, pointing out what isn’t right yet and showing you the way to do better. The more proficient you become at accepting the lessons of failure, the quicker you will succeed.

Make sure that every time you make a mistake, it’s a new one

Making the same mistake several times shows that you haven’t learned what it can teach you. Making new mistakes proves that you’re trying something different.

The best definition of a loser is someone who makes the same mistakes over and over again, never managing to learn anything in the process. Such a person is doomed.

Choose to spend your time with the right people

I don’t mean that in the sense of the rich and the powerful, the movers and shakers of society. Whether they’re powerful or not, the best people to spend time with are those from whom you can learn most: the ones whose own lives have brought them joy and endless fulfillment.

That means people who do what they love and love what they do. People who have become experts in life, thinking people, people with wide-open minds and wide-open hearts.

Seek them out wherever you can. Listen to them. Never mind if they are no longer living. Read their books and emulate their largeness of spirit. Learn from them all, but don’t simply copy what they did in this world. What they did was right for them, but may not be right for you. What you need to use as models are their ways of thinking and responding to the challenges of the world; the process of their lives, not what it happened to contain.

Drop whatever is inconsistent with these principles

That means all activities that don’t move you forward towards what you value most; things that get in the way of learning; pursuits that waste time and dull your senses; and people who hold you back.

You may sometimes have to be ruthless. Each of us has only one life. If you waste it, you don’t get another chance. Besides, if you have chosen your dreams and aspirations wisely, what you must leave behind by dropping what’s inconsistent with those dreams will not be worth worrying about anyway.

Those who make bad choices find, too late, that they have abandoned things and people that meant more to them than whatever they gained in exchange. If that happens, you have truly reached one of life’s lowest points.

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This post is part of the “Thoughts about time” series

  1. Stop pushing the river
  2. A simple way to save time: trust people
  3. Why some people and organizations almost always have time for everything
  4. The secret ingredient in actions that get outstanding results

Another simple approach to saving untold amounts of time

Do you need to save time and money? Do you want to lower costs and increase productivity? Do you face problems of getting enough done, even though you work long hours on a regular basis?

Would you like to know how to do this within the normal working day — and with no budget cuts, no lay-offs, no outsourcing, no forced savings?

Cut out waiting time.

How do you do this?

Act like a true leader, stand aside, and let people to do what they’re paid for.

Even in our frantic, rushed and frenetic organizations, people spend an inordinate amount of time simply waiting.

  • Waiting for information from others.
  • Waiting for the paperwork.
  • Waiting for someone to make a decision.
  • Waiting for permission.
  • Waiting for agreement.
  • Waiting for certainty.

The old military wisecrack that the order of the day is “hurry up and wait” has rarely been nearer the truth.

While managers nag

Bosses wait for their people to “get it” and start doing what they want. They nit-pick and micro-manage, in a vain attempt to get things to happen as they want.

Wouldn’t it be quicker and easier to start a conversation and find the real cause of any problem? Wouldn’t it be simpler to trust people to get on with what needs to be done, instead of over-burdening yourself with details and forcing them to keep stopping and waiting until you have time to tell them to take the obvious next step?

Team members wait for others to take the lead, in case they do something the boss might not like. People wait to see what the boss will say or do, because today’s macho managers cultivate the impression that only they can make decisions correctly. Those with urgent needs are told to wait until the new budget (why let your accounting package run the business?). Everyone waits to see what will happen next (why not make something happen now?).

When times are uncertain, or when petty tyrants take charge, waiting increases dramatically. If you’re not sure, or fear the results of getting it wrong, what do you do? You wait. And you make others wait too. Maybe even customers, who may decide they won’t wait — and take their business elsewhere.

How much time is wasted around you by people who are forced to keep stopping and waiting? How much time and money could your organization save if it instituted just these changes?

  • Management trusted people and let them make more of their own decisions.
  • Management worked to make it less and less necessary to ask for permission before taking action.
  • Management made sure everyone everyone was clear about what to do — and knew they would be trusted to do it without waiting to check with someone else.
  • Management cut out all needless paperwork and meetings — which is probably 90% of both — and made needed information freely available to all. (Most paperwork .and even more meetings, are only there to cover someone’s ass .)

Stop wasting time with unnecessary meetings

Probably more time is wasted by meetings than anything else. Most have no point, other than to act as a means to covers someone’s butt and spread responsibility for decisions widely enough to make sure nobody has to take the rap if they go wrong.

Let’s stop pretending that consensus is needed before any and every action, merely because it’s fashionable (and politically correct). If it’s someone’s job to deal with a particular area, let them get on with it, without having to stop and check with everyone else in a meeting first. If they need to make others aware of what they intend to do, let them pick up the phone. If they want ideas, let them ask for them from those they believe might have something useful to contribute.

And if they are afraid to make a decision without asking Tom, Dick, Harriet, Mary Lou, Jose, Gertie, and Franz first — and covering their butts by claiming it was a team decision — maybe you should gently encourage them find employment elsewhere in a job that demands less courage and acceptance of responsibility.

Eradicate useless waiting wherever it exists

Waiting time is nearly always wasted time. If waiting is inevitable, at least encourage people to use it productively by reading, thinking or just noodling around with a creative idea. Put yourself in the forefront of the “eradicate waiting” movement.

People hurry too much today. Why? Because work is like a series of mad dashes, interspersed with long periods doing nothing. If it proceeded at a steadier pace, there would be no need for so much haste and more time to think constructively.

If all the wasted time were available for productive activity, there would be more than enough time for everything within a normal working day. Much of the reason for excessive hours comes from the amount of time that is wasted, or blocked off, by pointless activities.

If managers hound people to do it yesterday, then keep them waiting on something you should have done, how do you think they feel?

Quite right — only with several more expletives.

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You’re standing in a group, talking, and one of the members starts shooting verbal “zingers” at you. Everybody gets a hearty laugh at your expense. Everybody but you.

(This guest post has been contributed by Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, a founding partner of SpiritHeart, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counseling and facilitating.)

Light (and not-so-light) insult humor has become almost a national pastime. When you’re the butt of the jokes, you may try to shrug it off as harmless, but it stings. And if you’re the one getting laughs at others’ expense, you may not realize what you’re revealing about yourself. Let’s shed some light and insight to this common family and workplace experience.

Verbal abuse is not funny

For the past number of weeks, I’ve been engaged in coaching work, formally and informally, with groups and teams. Each of these groups had been intact for months; some, for years. Participants represented the spectrum of “types” that might be included in the myriad descriptions of the MBTI or DiSC-type assessments or profiles. So, nothing unusual in the participant makeup.

However, across teams and groups, I was struck by one behavior that stood out above all others, namely, the propensity for many of the members to consistently engage in making destructive, cutting, sarcastic remarks to and about others in their group or on their team.

Destructive comments — personal or professional — are those which are hurtful, demeaning, sarcastic and verbally abusive.

What you say matters

The comments I experienced were directed at folks’ physical characteristics (hair, clothes), perspectives or ideas, life choices (others’ choices of restaurants, movies, sports teams), folks’ current performance, and even where others had worked or attended school. These were not simply run-of-the-mill light comments. There was an underlying anger, resentment and destructive element wrapped inside.

On more than one occasion, I had to do a “double-take”, and ask myself, “Did I really hear that?” “Did he really say that?” “Did she really throw that zinger at him?”

What continually came to me was “Why? What is this all about?”

In Western culture today, the biting, sarcastic, demeaning put-down has become an art form, everywhere — TV, movies, talk radio, sports events, journals and magazines. It’s part of the fabric of everyday conversation. And more, many folks today see such behavior as “business as usual”, as “no big deal.” In fact, when I asked some of these folks if they were aware of what they said, most responded, “No.” or “So, what?” Like I had three heads or came from another planet. For many of these folks, their behavior is a true “blind spot.”

There’s always a reason

So, let’s return to the question, “Why?” In my experience in the realm of psychology and psychodynamics, we understand most folks engage in put-downs, sarcasm and barbs as a way to look smart, witty and cool. That’s the upside for them. The downside is that the person for whom the comment is directed is often harmed, hurt, demeaned, or otherwise made the point of ridicule.

When I ask other group participants, “bystanders”, why they often react with laughter, or “atta boy” comments, they generally say they don’t know, they just do. “It was funny.” Basically, a knee-jerk reaction. The truth is many react this way, in the “go along to get along” fashion as they don’t want to stand out as different, serious, politically correct, or not part of the in-group. They want and need to be “one of the boys” so speaking out, or pushing back against such comments and behavior will only serve to get them ostracized; so they laugh or jump into the banter. (It’s like a verbal gang rape.)

The deal is, no matter how sharp one is, how educated, how senior in the hierarchy one is, how wealthy one is… no one has the right to strive to look witty, sharp or cool at the expense of another human being, at the expense of being disrespectful to another human being. And, for those who have a need to do so, the underlying question is, “Why? What does it get you? Does it make any difference that you might be hurting someone else?”

So, some questions for self-reflection are:

  • Can you think of a time today, this week, this month when you made a sarcastic or demeaning remark to a teammate, colleague or co-worker “for the fun it?”
  • Can you remember a time today, this week or this month when you were the recipient of another’s sarcastic or demeaning comment “for the fun of it?”
  • If you have a reputation for being witty or sharp because you are a master of sarcasm, how does that make you feel?
  • If you have a reputation for being witty or sharp because you are a master of sarcasm, would you ever ask the objects of your sarcasm or witticism how they feel? How they really, really feel to be the target or brunt of your jabs?
  • What does sarcasm get you, personally?
  • Do you think others really respect you, or just go along to get along, when they respond in a laughing sense to you behavior?
  • Are you demeaning and sarcastic to your husband, wife, partner, children? How do they like that behavior? Do you ever ask them? Would you? If not, why not? Did you ever think about asking them?
  • Did you ever have to apologized, or think about apologizing, for a cutting remark you made? What was that like for you?
  • Did you ever tell a colleague or friend to stop using you as a target for their destructive words? Did you ever want to but not speak up? Why?
  • Who would you be if sarcasm were not part of your personality? Would you lose some or much of your identity? If so, what would that be like for you?
(7 votes, average: 4.71 out of 5)
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