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Being Stronger Than Your Illness

Posted on 2011.08.28 at 11:08

Unpacking from yet another move, and with it, finally doing some long overdue filing, I stumbled across my old military journal. Flipping through, I landed rather fortuitously on this 1983 entry:



Soon afterward, the entries in the journal become increasingly sporadic, with longer and longer gaps in the log, culminating with a final entry in June of 1986. Many blank pages after this point sat nearly a decade waiting for ink, a thirst which was not, and never will be, satisfied.

Little did I know this would be the beginning of 28 years of Hell involving chronic sinusitis, chronic bronchitis, heavy use of antibiotics, development of numerous allergies, loss of sleep, loss of focus, loss of energy, and an ever-increasing dependence on pattern living.

In short, I let my sickness be stronger than me.

When the source of my chronic illness was discovered 26 years later, and thus defined it as, in fact, a chronic illness, I had long since become a wastrel, squandering the many gifts given me in this life, and instead living very nearly as lazy a lifestyle as I could manage within the barely-perceptible confines of my rather expansive good fortune.

Upon discovery of this illness, a year of attending to it, and a year of recovering from attending to it, I also discovered for the first time in my life just how much I'd permitted myself to get into a rut of existence. I had developed and accumulated an entire framework of oppressive patterns for 26 years in order to survive, and passed quite willingly, if unwittingly, into the that pit of slavery I'd built for myself.

No longer trapped in a mind working at partial capacity, I rebelled against the very patterns I myself had created. Confident that I was a thinker, a doer, a man of inestimable strength and aptitude, I tossed aside the yoke, stood tall, and proclaimed myself a free man.

Ah, such blindness is Arrogance. I really thought it was that simple.

My ego was to get a series of crushing blows as I discovered I was not actually as strong as I'd always thought myself to be. In my arrogance-induced blindness, I stumbled repeatedly, flailing about, trying to control everything, confident in my abilities to analyze, formulate, and adapt. But without the tools upon which I had allowed myself to become dependent, nothing I did reached conclusion. Not that I had previously been the poster child of accomplishment, but now even the simplest of tasks seemed incomprehensively beyond my reach.

Nearly everything I held dear was torn from me, because I lacked the strength to hold it. I was falling into an abyss, the likes of which I had, despite my arrogant assessment to the contrary, never actually previously faced. And I was quite earnestly shocked to discover I was not up to the challenge.

In this tailspin of failure, a new realization slowly forced itself into my obstinate sense of awareness: I am weak.

All my sense of high self esteem, high confidence, and perpetual sense of kingship were all built on the flimsy foundation of a heavily biased and poorly filtered set of observations about how the world worked. How my world worked.

And then, I committed the ultimate sin against kingship: I surrendered into thinking of myself as a victim. There are no bonds of slavery more firm than those which a victim mentality brings. For in that mode of thinking, you truly surrender all hope of anything but taking what is handed to you.

I'm not sure how or why, but I did finally pop out of that state. Since then, I've been looking around me at a world which exists much as it has always existed, but now I see it with new eyes. While I am no longer deluded that I am fit to rule any part of that world, neither am I surrendered to the idea than I cannot be made so ready.

There's a lot of work to do. I am disabused of the notion that I've mastered the basics. Honesty and integrity. Knowing yourself. It's time to rebuild Self.

Luckily, I am blessed with an abundance of honesty, so integrity is where I need to focus -- actually adhering to the ideals proposed by my honesty. And along the way, rebuilding my sense of who I am that I may more effectively Change into the person I'd like to be.

Where will this go? I do not know. But I now know this -- I am no victim. No more than any of you. We all face challenges in our lives. We all face crises. What defines us is how we handle them. And I won't even go into how most of my crises were, in one way or another, created by me. This is an important point, but a distinct one.

The point here is that comes down to this: Do I let my challenges be stronger than me, or do I stand up and overcome the challenges presented to me? Because this, and nothing else, defines me. To steal a line from Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do.

Thus far, I've pretty broadly defined myself as a weakling and a slave.

No useless words proclaimed now by me on this blog have any meaning. The only thing that matters is getting it done.

And so, on that note, I return now to unpacking. Because that's what I said I would do today.

Communication is a cooperative effort.

If every single time we attempted to communicate with someone else we were forced to ensure that every little tidbit of information was spelled out with mathematical precision, we would spend all our time talking and there wouldn't be any time left to actually get anything done.

We depend on a certain level of assumption in order to make our communications efficient.

Misunderstandings occur because of this level of imprecision in our communication. But two reasonable people can work out the miscommunication and move on with the real work.

This, of course, breaks down as soon as one member of the conversation refuses to be reasonable in this way. This is a form of pettiness.

There are times, of course, when people might not wish to engage in an earnest exchange of information for arguably valid reasons. Talking to a known enemy, for example, often demands guarding information. This, however, is outside the scope of this presentation.

Here, I am simply discussing the condition where one is engaging in what is expected to be a friendly and cooperative discussion, such as between colleagues or acquiantences. In such an environmnent, there is an implicit contract that the goal of the conversation is to exchange information.

Therefore, refusing to be reasonable and work toward understanding is a violation of the contract. Just because the words aren't correct, if the meaning is clear, communication has taken place. To pretend you don't understand simply because there is an outside chance that the words could mean something different than the obvious is being petty -- you are being unnecessarily concerned with the rules of definition and grammar to the point of interfering with genuine communication. And all it does is slow everything down.

Another form of pettiness involves demanding a complete set of information before making any effort toward the goal.

For example, I once worked at a place where we lost an employee who used to handle communications with an outside agency. The boss came back and assigned one of my teammates with the duty of picking up that recurring task.

Quite reasonably, he asked how he was supposed to take care of the issue with no training or previous exposure to the process. In response, the boss handed him a list of outside agent contact information, indicating "This should help".

My teammate then asked for further directions on what to do, complaining that all he got was a list of phone numbers and E-Mail addresses. He actually asked, "What am I supposed to do with this?". Any reasonable person would likely conclude that, given a list of contact information, perhaps one should make an effort to contact someone at the agency in question.

Someone else, on the other hand, overhearing the conversation, picked up the list, found the outside agency on it, and called the contact. Within about twenty minutes, we had a new liason to the outside agency and communication lines were restored.

Now, of course there are any number of possible explanations for the first person's behavior. But most likely, he just didn't want to do the extra work, so he pretended not to know what to do with a list of phone numbers and E-Mail addresses. Any reasonable person would have at least tried the number or address to see if that would yield some progress on the issue. But, playing the petty card, this person cited the absence of specific instructions in order to avoid doing the work.

The irony, of course, is that the real accomplishment was this person became labeled as lazy, incompetent, and a problem employee. From that day forward, he almost never got handed the interesting tasks, because nobody trusted he would complete them. Instead, he was forced to slog through boring, mindless, repetetive tasks.

Further, he earned himself a higher level of micromanagement from that day forward than anyone else on the team, since he couldn't be trusted to do the work on his own initiative. He chafed horribly under the managerial microscope, and he was miserable until the day he left the job.

This was a willful form of pettiness, and it earned him a willfully difficult situation. But even habitual pettiness still causes problems. Pettiness, intentional or otherwise, irritates people who want to honestly get something done, because it gets in the way and slows everything down.

Next Up: Perfection vs. Effectiveness


Happy Thanksgiving

Posted on 2010.11.25 at 13:02

Taking a break on Thanksgiving Day to focus on more positive things for a moment.

I am thankful for good friends and good family.

I am thankful for having been born into such a nation of privilege.

I am thankful for those who have risked -- and often given -- all, and those who continue to do so, that I might continue to enjoy this privilege.

I am thankful for the intensely good luck I continue to experience in this Life.

I am thankful for opportunites to Serve, and for the privlege of the company into which such Service has brought me.

The more I think about it, the more I find for which I am thankful. Such bounty is a blessing in every way.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.


Pettiness: Prelude

Posted on 2010.11.23 at 00:27

I've been getting double spoonfuls of late in lessons on the perils of pettiness. (I actually considered spelling it "Pettyness" in the title just to see if anyone would take the bait. But not today.)

I say I get a double helping of lessons on this particular issue because, here, I have two subjects in the grand experiment of Life, instead of the usual one. I of course observe, reflect, and no doubt also ruminate, on the effects of pettiness in my own life, but I have also been watching a friend repeatedly fling himself voraciously onto the spikes of the gates of Hell with a recurring theme of pettiness.

Under the guise of "being a perfectionist", "being detail-oriented", "being anal-retentive", and even joking about it as "being OCD*", I have until recently managed to dodge any sense that there might be a notable downside to being picky.

I don't actually know how or when I started realizing that being petty was getting in the way of getting things done. I'm an engineer; I look at things through an engineer's eyes. Chasing after perfection is part of what makes me good at what I do.

My mistake was trying to make the rest of the world fit into those rules of perfection I had presumed to exist around me. "If only everyone would follow the traffic rules, the trip to Denver would take 15 fewer minutes for everyone. Everybody wins!"

I have come to terms with the observation that the bulk of society doesn't live in an engineer's world. They don't, by and large, demand perfection. In fact, it's been my observation that most people scoff at attempts to achieve perfection; it's a waste of time in their eyes.

And they're the majority.

Now, that doesn't make them right. Leastwise, not in all areas. But when it comes to the subject of dealing with humans, it does actually bear serious consideration. It's one area where operable truth is often actually quite democratic.

Because, in the end, if we are to be social creatures, we have to work together sociably. And since we are all so very different, this working-together thing demands a set of tools with what engineers refer to as a "tolerant design". That way, fewer of the differences jam up the works, and we get a lot more stuff done because less is getting in our way.

Communication is an easy place to spot the breakdown.

PettyMan:    How are you today?
NormalPerson: I'm doing good.
PettyMan: Ah, well, I'd hate to think you're doing evil. But how are you?


Now, I use this particular tool with my daughter, to ensure she grows up understanding that "good" is either an adjective or a noun, and "well" is either an adverb or a noun. If she knows the difference, she can employ the tool in either direction; to sound more eloquent during a job interview where the interviewer might be a language snob; or to sound more casual, to place others more at ease. If she is ignorant of the difference, she can only proceed with what she thinks she knows, and she might unwittingly limit her own options.

But with a normal social encounter, the only thing Mr. PettyMan really accomplishes in the above conversation is waste time, interfere with efficiency of communication, risk irritating others in the conversation, and worse, risk causing the other speaker to lose their train of thought, exacerbating most of the other weaknesses already inherent in this jackassery.

When I was a young lad in the military, I once overheard a Master Sergeant chastising a younger chap. I've forgotten the actual objects of reference, so I am using "pitcher" and "carafe" in the exchange below. It gets the point across.

MasterSergeant:    Make sure you fill the pitcher on his table with water.
PettyMan: You mean the carafe?
MasterSergeant: How many items do you see on that table whose primary purpose is to serve a liquid?
PettyMan: Only one.
MasterSergeant: So when I said "the pitcher", how many possible meanings could I have had?
PettyMan: One.
MasterSergeant: So you understood what I meant. In fact, you understood me well enough to be able to correct me. Therefore, there was no failure to communicate. Therefore, there was no need to correct me.


The Master Sergeant had a lot to get done. And he was short-staffed, as always. So he didn't have time to deal with piss-ant, self-righteous pricks. And he made that perfectly clear. He wanted to give the directions, and he wanted to trust they would be followed. I found that when I actually needed clarification, he was always quick to give it, and without any condescending attitude. But I never forgot how he put Mr. PettyMan in his place that day, with a piece of logic I tried for 28 years to debunk.

I've finally given up. He's right. The goal of the order was to convey an instruction. If there was no actual ambiguity, he had succeeded, even if his words were not precise.

I still prefer to speak with precision, and it continues to stress me somewhat that the trend in the United States seems to be slipping toward imprecision. "Insure" and "ensure" are listed as synonyms; "momentarily" is listed as synonymous with "presently". "His", "hers", and "its" do not have apostrophes, but go ahead and try to explain that to half the population here.

But I've also learned that if you speak with mathematical precision, you risk boring your audience. Which is as good as getting up and saying, "blah, blah, blah....blah, blah" for twenty minutes. You actually FAIL at the primary mission -- to communicate -- if you try too hard to be too precise in most forms of conversation.

There are times and places -- yes. But for the most part, it is much more efficient, and much more effective, to get enough meat into the communique and count on the intelligence and cooperation of the other party to sort out your actual meaning.

More on that in the next installment.


*O.C.D. = Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder


Leadership: Wrapping It Up

Posted on 2010.11.19 at 23:29

I've reached the point in this series where the concepts I want to explain elude being put to words for me.  This is an indication that I don't have a full grasp of the concepts yet, and while they are very important, explaining them poorly will do little to no good.  A rambling and potentially incoherent diatribe would likely be the result, so I am going to end it now, mull on things a bit longer, and possibly pick this up another time.  This blog will continue, but it will move on to other subjects of interest, and this section of the series on leadership will be done.  For now.

So, a few random thoughts, and a ball of twine to tie up what's been said thus far.

One more cliché:  To lead, one must first learn to follow.  Decades ago, I thought I understood this.  Then, as time passed, I thought it was less wisdom than it initially seemed.  Now, I realize, I was closer to the truth in my youth, though I understood it not.

One of the traits of a good follower is that he or she takes the duties assigned by the leader seriously.  The goals of the group do rise above the goals of the individual, at least part of the time, and a sense of personal responsibility for tasks assigned and undertaken drives the follower to complete them, and do them well.

These traits are a bare minimum requirement for a good leader, since these are precisely the traits a leader wants to inspire in the crew.  So it all really starts with acting responsibly.  Keeping track of tasks.  Keeping track of deadlines.  Solid work ethic.  Getting it done.

The followers see, and emulate.  Not universally true, of course; but the tendency is real.  You do your stuff, they are motivated to do theirs.  More directly, however, if you don't do your stuff, the only thing motivating them to get their stuff done is their own personal set of motivations.  That's exactly what leadership *isn't*.

All these things really come under the heading of "Integrity".

Integrity, as it happens, is often misunderstood.  Anyone who knows me knows I am an honest person.  I mean what I say when I say it.  My motives are clean, and generally transparent.  As far as I can tell, anyone who says otherwise doesn't know me.  Hence, "Integrity" is a word that gets associated with me in a lot of places.

But it's inaccurate.

I have come to discover that Integrity is a trait assigned to people you can trust.  And since my motives are always clean, people trust me.  But if I say I will get you that report by next Wednesday, I daresay the odds of you getting that report by next Wednesday, if you're honest about it, are pretty slim.  I cannot be trusted to meet a deadline; almost all the legal trouble I have ever been in had to do with paperwork and deadlines.  I daresay all the trouble I was in with the one organization where I got fired as a leader was all about paperwork and deadlines.

So, in reality, I really don't have any integrity; or, at least, it would be inaccurate to claim it without qualifying the statement in some way. 

Trusting my motives; fine.  Trusting that I am telling you the truth when I give my word; again, fine.  Trusting that I will follow through on that word...sad to say, I come up awfully short there.  Always have.

Integrity is a key factor in respect -- and so those who only focused on my intentions were pretty loyal followers, even while I was screwing up.  But when it came to actually doing the work, I must have been a phenomenal disappointment to almost everyone I've ever encountered.

That was a pretty sombering realization.  And it took the crumbling of arguably the most important organization I was ever in charge of for the lesson to hit home.  The organization had been on the rocks a number of times, but had always previously recovered. 

And then it died on my watch.

So while this discussion of leadership is not complete, not far-reaching, not even necessarily completely accurate -- it is based on some pretty hard lessons I've had to learn, and which I am still enduring.

If anyone out there benefits from my meager words, the Universe will be a better place for it.  And if everything I've rambled on for six sessions now seem trite and obvious to you, then all I can say is I'm trying to catch up to the rest of the class.

The dictionary entry for "lead" listed two defintions pertinent to this discussion.  The first was "to guide on a way especially by going in advance" and the second was "to direct on a course or in a direction".

I noted early on that the order of these were important; I presume by now you have sussed my meaning.  While directing a group on a course or in a direction is leadership of a sort, it is more about leading the way than pointing it out.  The latter tends to happen naturally once the former has been well established.

Leadership is getting work done through others, notably by inspiring them to want to do the work, notably by showing enthusiasm and dedication -- and then demanding the same of them -- but all this is predicated on the single principle that in order to lead others, you must first be able to lead yourself.  Do what you say you're going to do.  Do it when you say you're going to do it.  Be visible.  Be enthused.  Enflame yourself with the project, the group, the people.  Take an earnest interest in all of this.  Live it.  Breathe it.  DO IT.

Until you can lead yourself, it is a fool's errand to think to lead others.

I am a Fool.


Leadership: Investment and Reward

Posted on 2010.11.17 at 00:00

We've covered that leadership is getting things done through other people, notably through inspiration.  We've covered inspiration and its dependence on responsibility.  Now it's time to examine the next layer in the psyche of the intended inspirand -- what motivates the individual in your group whom you intend to lead.

Everyone operates off an internal priority list.  Things that bubble to the top get worked on; things that settle to the bottom may not.  Different people manage their internal list differently, some more consciously than others, but there is one common trait -- movement on the list generally involves investment and reward.

I had a group I led once where each week we'd get together to do the tasks needed to get an event off the ground.  We organized the task list, everyone accepted tasks from the to do list, and each week most everyone would have done nothing to make progress on their tasks.  Week after week this went on, no notable progress on any front.

As leader of the group, it was my job to find a way to motivate these people.  Ultimately, I whined at them to the point where either irritation or guilt got them moving, and we got enough of the tasks done to get the event off the ground.

The investment was a little time, some phone calls, maybe a bit of Internet research on pricing and options.  For the most part, noone's tasks were particularly large.  The reward was credit for getting the task done and a better event for everything having been taken care of. 

It wasn't enough.

So I whined at them, cajoled, and guilted them into getting their tasks done.  I didn't adjust the investment, but I did adjust the reward.  I introduced an unpleasant item (me whining at them) and that upped the ante on the reward which now included not having to put up with me whining at them anymore if they got their tasks done.

It worked.  Sort of.  The event happened.  It was barely a shadow of what we had all envisioned in the beginning, but it did take place and some of the goals of the event were realized. 

In the aftermath of that incident, I vowed I would never again resort to whining as a motivator.  Unfortunately, I didn't put anything else in its place.  And worse, I already had a long streak of not getting things done when I said I would -- my credibility was already strained.

With me failing to lead by example, and having removed the last functioning external motivational tool, I failed from that day forward to inspire people to keep tasks bubbling up instead of settling down for the various organizations I was running.  We were down to counting on luck and their self-motivation.

With the band, the rewards included joy of producing great music, the performer's rush, money, publicity, and legacy in the form of CDs and memories.  The investment included showing up to weekly rehearsals, putting up with the stresses of creative egos interacting, and lugging equipment around from time to time.

Except I wasn't getting gigs for the band; and following my example, neither did anyone else.  No performer's rush, no money, no publicity, no legacy.  Week after week we kept showing up, rehearsing the same stuff, and went home tired with early work days ahead of us.

Almost all investment, almost no reward.

If I'd gotten us gigs, the rewards would have been there.  This would have encouraged more investment, which would have reaped greater rewards.  But I didn't.  I violated the implied contract, and worse, kept showing up late for rehearsals, what gigs we did get, and continually failed to memorize the new parts I was developing for our moderately complex arrangements.

It all unravelled eventually.  New creative projects entered into my bandmates' lives, and they latched on.  Things were exciting in those new projects, and they were not exciting in the band.  We died a slow death.  I failed again as a leader.

Investment and reward.  A leader's job is to find what the rewards are to each of the people in the group, and to facilitate or provide those rewards in order to inspire the members of the group to rise to any challenge and work toward the group goals.

Compared to failure to inspire, it doesn't really matter if the reward is positive or negative.  Positive rewards are better, but even a negative reward is better than failure.  The leader *must* inspire.  Which means getting in there and figuring out the investments, the rewards, and the motivators which keep those tasks bubbling up rather than settling down.

Next up:  Wrapping it up.


Leadership: Responsibility

Posted on 2010.11.13 at 12:41

On a purely mechanical level, leadership is, essentially, getting things done through other people.  But simply being bossy isn't enough; true leadership inspires the membership to rise to the occassion; to get involved; to invest themselves in the organization; to make it great.

As previously noted, in order to inspire others to a type of involvement, the leader has to set the example.  This is not just a simple footnote in leadership; it is one of its central tenets.

We've already covered the idea that others will tend to emulate the behaviors they find already in motion in a group, especially amongst its leaders.  But that's only part of it.

If the leader fails to responsibly ensure the organization's needs are met, everyone is inconvenienced.  Imagine showing up for a meeting but the door was locked because the leader neglected to pay the rent this month.  Or nobody could get ahold of the leader because the phone wasn't working and the web site was down.  Continued disappointments in logistics will demoralize the crew, and leadership will eventually disintegrate.

But the critical failing comes in a more subtle form.

When the leader engages in activities which earn the respect of the membership, the leader earns more "clout".  Their actions are even more likely to inspire emulation; their words are taken more to heart; their views are more readily adopted.  This leaves them in a position primed for interested, engaged support from the membership.

The converse is also true.  Since a leader is *expected* to engage in activities which earn respect, failure to do so invariably earns *disrespect*.  Their occassionally admirable actions, assuming there are any, go largely unnoticed; their words are ignored as trite and without substance; they lose credibility in the group.  This eventually becomes a nearly insurmountable obstacle to any kind of leadership, and, if allowed to continue, festers in the group and foments either disloyalty, abandonment, or outright rebellion.

Some people have natural talents in leadership, and make the right choices more often than not without having to have it explained to them.  Others need to learn it, and as such they will often get it wrong in the early days of their leadership.  Growing into an effective leader does, however, require the ability to adjust the things that are not finely tuned.  Someone failing to acknowledge the errors will not take steps to correct them, and eventually the leadership will fail.

As a side note, some people confuse "fault" with "responsibility".  If you task someone in the group with paying the rent, and they do not do so, it may not be your fault the rent didn't get paid, but it is still your responsibility.  It ultimately falls to you to ensure the tasks get done, whether or not you are the one to do them.  Failure to understand this as a reality is hallmark of someone who is not ready to lead.

By the same token, since leadership is, in one regard, getting things done through other people, it also means not doing them yourself.  A leader should be involved, and some tasks will naturally fall on the leader's shoulders -- how else can a leader engage in leadership by example?  But someone who takes on the bulk of the tasks themselves is, in a subtle but unmistakeable way, making it perfectly clear that they do not trust other people to do the job.  Demonstrating a lack of trust is not going to inspire people to do things for the organization, and to lead you *must* inspire.  Failure to delegate is, therefore, another hallmark trait of someone who is not ready to lead.

So, a good leader needs to be able to tie these various aspects of human behaviorial tendencies togther.  Leadership is, after all, getting things done through other people, notably by inspiring them to do the work needed.  And those people live off their internal priority list, working first on the things that bubble to the top.

What moves things upward on the list is, generally, the sense of reward the person feels will come from working and accomplishing that task.  This is commonly offset by the sense of what investment they will need to make in order to get that reward.

And so, in the next segment, we shall return to the subject of investment and reward.



Leadership: Inspiration

Posted on 2010.11.10 at 11:33

I was surprised to discover just how critical a role inspiration played in my leadership success and failure.  I also entered into most of these positions of leadership believing that I was not a particularly inspiring kind of person to others.  As a result, I shied away from those elements of leadership which were related to it.  "Not my style of leadership," I would say to myself.

Huge mistake.

I had it in my head that "Charismatic Leadership" was only one style of leadership (which is true), was driven largely by charismatic inspiration (arguably true), and therefore inspiration was not a required element for successful leadership (oops).

What I'd missed, somehow, are some of the incredibly non-flamboyant ways in which inspiration sets its roots.  Inspiration comes from a variety of sources, and it's not always about pep talks.

For example, showing up to every event put on by the group is inspirational; it shows how much you care about the events, the organization, and folks notice.  Consciously or not, they are inspired to emulate that kind of dedicated behavior.  It is, like it or not, the stuff that makes up a role model.  And it's part and parcel of being a leader.

Showing up on time is also inspirational.  Again, it says you care about the event and the group; that it is important to you.  Your actions speak louder than your words.  Count on it.

Putting your back into the work inspires others to do the same.

Making sacrifices for the group inspires others to do the same.

I presume by now you see the pattern I'm driving toward.  There's an old cliché:  Lead by example.

I picked up a corollary rule of thumb from someone along the way:  An organization tends to take on the traits of its leader.

I missed the boat, hugely, by failing to apply both of these related snippets of wisdom to my work in and on the organizations of which I was in charge.

Take my band, for example.  I talked a good job about wanting us to get gigs; but I never did the legwork to manifest them, and often failed to follow up on leads which were dropped in my lap.  What few gigs we got in the latter years were due to the work of other members of the band.  Even tasks they assigned me, as part of their already doing the bulk of the work, would fall to the wayside, left for someone else to pick up, or they would go until the last minute panic set in.

Idiotically, I took that as a sign that my bandmates needed to step up their involvement in the band.  What I failed to realize is that I was essentially stating, in the most universal terms possible, that I wasn't actually concerned about gigs or money or publicity.  This, slowly, over time, and probably subconsciously, demotivated my bandmates about all things related to the band.

Instead of inspiring the band to work harder at getting gigs, I was like a Demotivator poster child, sucking the life out of their enthusiasm.  If the leader can't be bothered to work for gigs, why should anyone else?

This effect trickles down to everything else if left unchecked.  Eventually, it eroded my bandmates' interest in new material.  Then rehearsal priority shrank.  Eventually there was very nearly nothing left.

Without the involvement of its members, a group dies.  And it starts with the leader failing to inspire them to work for the organization.

The pattern held in all organizations I ever tried to run.  And I was absolutely blind to it.

There's another layer to this inspirational aspect of leadership, however, which I hadn't learned until very recently.  Since I was pointedly ignoring anything to do with inspirational activity as a leader, I missed this critically important truth:  People are inspired by those they respect.  And another cliché enters the arena:  Respect isn't demanded -- it is earned.

How much respect can you have for someone who won't show up for meetings on time?  Won't show up for gigs on time?  Won't show up for rehearsals on time?  Won't memorize the parts he said last week, yet again, that he would memorize?

I should have seen it coming, too.  It had become a serious frustration to me that I would be interrupted in the middle of sentences almost all the time; it was like nobody even considered that anything I had to say was of sufficient value to let me get a turn in the conversation, and when I did, I was simply overrun as if I had not been speaking.

Had I earned the band's respect, that would have been less of an issue.  So it should have been a warning sign.  But I missed it.

And so, one inescapable conclusion entered into my reflections:  Part of being a leader is inspiring people; part of inspiring people is earning their respect; and part of earning respect comes from being responsible.

And the majority of problems I was having running these organizations came down to that simple concept:  I was not being a responsible person.  In every case, I built my house on an unstable foundation, and in every case, the house eventually collapsed.

Next up:  Responsibility and Why It Matters


Leadership: Definition

Posted on 2010.11.07 at 08:59

What is leadership?

We'll take a brief stop at a Merriam-Webster dictionary and then get on with the discussion.

Any student of English should understand that "leadership" is a thing that is or has the traits of being a leader, and further that a "leader" is something or someone who leads.  So let's cut to the chase here.

Amongst the definitions for "lead" we find "to guide on a way especially by going in advance" and "to direct on a course or in a direction". 

The order of these are significant.  I'll explain why throughout the course of this series.

So let's drop the formal, mathematically precise approach and get on with sharing my lessons here.

When we accomplish a goal for ourselves, we necessarily adopt all the roles.  We envision, we plan, we organize, we direct, we execute, and we complete the tasks.  Success or failure rides entirely on us, and either we stay focused on the goal, or we don't.

But when the goal involves many people, the work usually needs to be coordinated.  Making sure two people aren't working on two different versions of the same thing, making sure the pieces they work on fit together well, and overall ensuring the individual tasks result in accomplishing the group goal.

But that's not leadership.  That is coordinatorship.  And it's an important trait in most multi-person projects.  But thus far we have been assuming that all the folks who said they wanted to help out in working toward the goal will actually do so.  That's often a faulty assumption.

Everyone is driven by an internal priority list.  Things that bubble to the top of their list get worked on, things that settle downwardly often do not.  Some people do this more consciously than others.  But to assume that everyone does it consciously would be faulty; to further assume that your goals for the group will bubble up rather than settle down is more so.

Leadership, then, is the ability to *inspire* people to do the work toward a goal -- to keep those tasks bubbling up rather than settling down.  To keep the project moving forward by keeping individuals motivated to complete their portion of the work.

Leadership, at its heart, is being inspirational.

So, back to my band.  Seven musicians and singers, with what has been described as "an embarrassment of riches" for talent, all wanting to exercise their art and with goals to make some money doing so.  Everybody's already steered in the right direction.  All cohesive in goal; a leader's dream.

So what happened?

Well, a lot of things.  Anyone in my band will readily admit to a number of things that drew their attention away from the band.  Some have already done so in response to the introductory prelude to this series.  But the point I will continue to press toward is that despite those other issues, leadership would have prevailed under that duress.

I've had time to examine the failure of leadership in several different organizations I've attempted to run.  It took time to realize that almost every one of those lessons comes back to one basic principle of leadership where I succeeded and failed on the basis of one trait:  Inspiration.

Where I inspired others, my leadership succeeded.  Where I failed to inspire others, my leadership failed.

The problem with 7th Root was, essentially, that I did not inspire my bandmates to continue to drive toward the goals of the band.  Eventually, almost all of them were so uninspired to work on things for this band that, by comparison, new inspirational avenues which presented themselves in their lives became more attractive.  To be fair, these other avenues were more attractive because there were no rewards for the use of their creative talents in the band anymore.

Which goes back to that internal priority list.  When the return on investment for time spent working on 7th Root diminished to the point where a new project offered more return on investment there, invariably, the individuals chose the other venue.

Next thing you know, the band's on the back burner.

Therefore, upcoming installments in this series will discuss inspiration, investment, and reward.  What they are, how they work, how they effect people, and pre-requisites for adjusting these things in the real world.

These are not the only tools of the leader, but they are tools I did not employ, resulting in failed leadership.

Next up:  Inspiration


Leadership: Prelude

Posted on 2010.11.04 at 06:31

I thought I was living an intentional life.  Turns out, I was deluding myself.  Quite a lot, actually.

It is known to most of the two hundred or so people for whom it might matter, that my band, 7th Root, has gone inactive.  Technically, what we agreed to do was to reduce how frequently we get together to maybe once per month or so, and to continue to work on our new music together, and to finish the current album.  The agreement further noted that, should the interest level hold, we would consider picking one weekend per year to do one or two concerts.  As new material became voluminous enough to warrant, we'd of course consider recording another CD.

In my general tendency toward unbounded optimism, I envisioned us doing one album per year, and the annual concert set would, in part, serve as the CD release party.

But somewhere in the back of my head, I knew that wasn't what was going to happen. 

Creative people, of course, like to create.  But these artists were done being fired up about creating in 7th Root.  They had moved on, and had taken up other projects into which they were heartily infusing their creative energy.  What it would take to galvanize our band into this idyllic alternative was the same quality which had been lacking in the first place, causing the band to collapse into the state it was in.

That quality is Leadership.

Scoff if you like; a year ago I would have joined you.  But I submit to you now that an eggregious failing in leadership is precisely what allowed the once-fertile fields of 7th Root to go fallow.

Now, my band would chastise me if I did not admit there were also a host of other considerations that brought us to the stagnation point, and they are correct.  However, they have openly denied that leadership was ever the issue.  And, a year ago, I would have been as naive as they are about it, and agreed.

But I have seen the errors of my ways in this regard; due to my astounding lack of leadership, I managed to kill the most important organization of my adult life, and maim several others.  So when, shortly after that, the band went largely inert, there was no mistaking the pattern.

I've had a lot of time to think about this, since killing everything that was important to me outside of my family and my job has left me with an unprecedented amount of free time.  I've been keeping busy, mind you; being an irresponsible git for several decades does leave one with much that needs doing.  But, by and large, I have not been filling the time with activities of the intellectually-challenging sort.  So I've had a lot of time to process just what the *bleep* I've been doing wrong -- and more importantly, what to do about it.

Some things jump readily to the forefront; other, slightly more subtle issues, likewise did not take much time to unravel.  Many of them bring new light to old cliché statements I've been hearing since I was a tyke, and while I had accepted them, apparently I had not understood them the way I thought I'd had.

However, some of the problems were notably more subtle, and as I ran the archaeologist's brush over the remains of my would-be legacies repeatedly, I did eventually unlock some of those mysteries as well.  These deeper failings forced me into a sort of philosophically-driven outer silence. 

For once, the reason I had disappeared from notable social presence was not due to distraction of the whimsical sort typical for me, but rather because I had actually withdrawn.  I had committed crimes against myself of which I had not even been aware, and the realization of this struck me deeply.  So, like a wounded animal (a comparison I've been able to make far more often in my life than I'd prefer to admit), I withdrew into my cave.

I had been so genuinely convinced I was the Right Guy for Everything.  Sure, I would admit, other people had talents.  Of course, I would concede, some were even better than me in certain ways.  But, I would interject, they don't "get it" like I do.  It was only me, I would deduce, who really saw the big picture and was therefore the best choice for everything.


Ah, yes; now *that* is a familiar combination to nearly anyone who's taken even a passing interest in philosophy:  Ignorance and Arrogance.  Frequent bedmates, those two.  And what an eternally, boundlessly, toussled bed I'd been for them.  They'd made themselves quite at home here, and I'd been mindlessly aiding and abetting them for a very, very long time.

So I spent a lot of time working over those items, and, typical of me, was often distracted into other realms of thought.  But the loss being so grievious to me, I would eventually circle around and get back to dissecting the breadth and depth of these demons.  As each loop began, thanks to much guidance from the Initiatory lessons of my life's experience to date, I was very mindful of not getting locked into the same loops over and over again, analyzing without application.

And so I have been, slowly, painfully, awkwardly, and with limited success, applying to my life the principles I've found to be lacking in my day-to-day living to date.  I realize, as I walk through this desert, I am a very long way from that Oasis.  I am alone.  There is no god where I am.  And, ironically, that will cease to be true only when I actually succeed in this endeavor.

I also realize now that I am, essentially, attempting to once again be able to claim with a straight face that I am living an intentional life.

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