“Erika’s new book is a powerful tool for insight into how others perceive you as a leader. Getting that clear view of yourself is essential to becoming the kind of leader that people will want to follow.” –Andrea Wong (International President of Sony Pictures Entertainment)

erika Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.


About Erika Andersen

erika Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.
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Leading So People Will Follow

Proven leadership framework that creates loyalty, commitment and results.
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Being Strategic

Plan for Success; Out-think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change
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Growing Great Employees

Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers
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Aug
14

Unleash The Genius In You

A friend once told me I was a genius. When I demurred, he added, “Genius is about seeing patterns where others see only chaos – and you’re really good at that.”

In the years since, I’ve seen similar definitions.  My favorite is by the literary critic and author Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

Genius is vision, often involving the gift of finding patterns where others see nothing but a chance collection of objects.

So: if a core element of genius is an unusual capability for pattern recognition — can we cultivate that?

First, let’s talk about why it’s so useful. Even before we talk about genius, it’s important to recognize that being able to see the patterns in our experience is the key catalyst for learning. My almost-three-year-old granddaughter is relentless in finding and using patterns.  For instance, after trying a variety of approaches (including demanding and fake crying) she’s learned that saying “please” will almost always get her what she wants. So “please” is quickly becoming a standard item in her vocabulary.

Take that basic human learning tool and ramp it up to “seeing patterns where others see nothing but a chance collection of objects,” and you have the core of all innovation and new understanding – what people call genius. It’s also an essential quality of good leaders.

And yes, we can get better at it. Here are three simple tools for stretching those muscles:

Get curious: Curiosity is that deep internal impulse to investigate. We all have it in abundance as children: it’s the source of their endless “why?” and “then what?” questions. Unfortunately, by the time we get to be adults, it’s been largely socialized out of us; we think we’re supposed to know everything and it’s seen as either rude or naïve to be too curious.  But if you want to access and develop your innate ability to see patterns, you have to first re-ignite your curiosity.  One great way to do it is to consciously ask “Why is that happening?” or “How does that work?” in day-to-day situations that you’ve come to take for granted.  For instance, I recently encouraged a client to reflect on why her relationship with an employee had gotten strained.  She came back to me a couple of weeks later, saying that once she started looking at what had changed, she realized that she had fallen into the habit of disagreeing with his ideas in meetings because his way of presenting those ideas was irritating to her – and that she was both ignoring some potentially useful ideas and hurting their relationship as a result.  Voila – pattern recognition! 

Be objective.  My client’s recognition of that unhelpful pattern – and her part in it – required not only curiosity but also objectivity, which is the ability to look at all sides of a situation with openness and dispassion. If you go into a situation with deeply held pre-conceived ideas about what you’ll find, it’s unlikely that you’ll see anything new.  The key to being objective is to cultivate the skill of being a Fair Witness, which I’ve blogged about regularly. The essence of being a fair witness is to observe your own self-talk (your internal monologue) to see whether what you’re saying to yourself about a situation is neutral and accurate.  And if it’s not, to change it.  For example, if my client had gotten curious but not objective about the situation – with slanted self-talk that supported her pre-existing beliefs, she might have come to the conclusion that her employee was simply an irritating guy, and that there was nothing she could do to improve the relationship. Being a fair witness quite often allows you to see things in new and unexpected ways, as my client experienced, to her benefit.

Pull back the camera.  Once you’ve gotten curious and put yourself into an objective, fair witness mindset, it’s critical to step back mentally from the situation so that you can see the whole: that’s when patterns emerge. Years ago, I was at MOMA in New York.  When I walked into the room where Monet’s single-panel Water Lilies hangs, I was first struck by its size:  it’s over six feet high and almost twenty feet long.  You have to stand across the room to take it all in at once; from a distance, you can see how wonderfully Monet captured the tranquility of light-suffused water, floating Japanese lilies, clouds overhead.  But when you move in close to the painting, the pattern dissolves, and all you see is a collection of seemingly random brush strokes, in a variety of colors: your ‘camera’ is pulled in too close to make sense of it.

If you ‘get caught in the brush strokes’ it’s nearly impossible to access your own genius. For instance, let’s say that sales are down at a particular company, and the head of sales is desperate to figure out why.  If she ‘pulls in the camera too close,’ she might focus, for instance, only on one or two formerly high-performing salespeople who are missing their targets. Just looking at that one part of the situation, she could assume any number of things: that they’ve somehow lost their edge or are slacking off; that firing them will solve the problem; or, conversely, that if she really leans on them, they’ll get better.  Based on those assumptions, she might let them go, offer them training, read them the riot act, etc. – but never see the whole picture and the real patterns inherent in it.

If, instead, she “pulls back the camera,” she might (for instance) find that an important new product line isn’t performing as promised because there’s a slight manufacturing glitch. The high return level is affecting both current sales numbers and customers’ willingness to reorder. The broader view gives a very different perspective, and will almost definitely lead her to a different, more effective, more genius-like response.

The beauty of these approaches – getting curious, being more objective, pulling back the camera – is that they’re all practical, developable skills.  In other words, you have genius in you…it’s time to let it out.


Jul
31

Why We Hate Strategy

I have to admit, the general attitude toward strategy – as boring, soulless and impractical – is a puzzle to me.  In my work and in my life, I see the real power of operating with a strategic mindset every single day.  And when we teach our framework for thinking and acting strategically, participants report that it provides a great way for them to bring their focus up out of the weeds, and helps them and their teams stay focused on their vision for success, and on how to address the most critical issues confronting them.

But I digress.  Most people would rather do their taxes than think about strategy.  In fact, when I wrote my second book, Being Strategic, a dear friend of mine in the business book world, for whom I have a great deal of respect, told me he thought it wasn’t the right book for me to write. “You’re so warm and personal,” he said, “and you have such a great way of connecting with your readers.  Strategy just doesn’t seem like you: so heady and cold.”  It turned out he hadn’t actually read the book yet.

I believe his assumptions are widespread. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 reasons why people think strategy is boring:

5) No agreement about what strategy is. I have a google alert on the phrase “being strategic.”  It’s astonishing to me how little overlap there is among the various meanings people ascribe to this phrase.  For instance, some people use it to mean “acting only for your own benefit,” while others think it means “staying mono-focused on destroying the competition,” and still others use it as high-falutin’ way of saying “thinking like I do.”  In this welter of conflicting definition, I believe people just think, I don’t know what it means – and I don’t care.

4) As practiced in most organizations, strategy IS boring.  Have you ever sat in a ‘strategy’ meeting at your company?  I bet you have.  Complicated charts, Ben Stein clones droning on about some obscure algorithm having to do with market share as a function of cycle time, blah blah blah.  And then fat binders get created, and sit on shelves, and get pulled out and referenced (maybe) in excruciating detail once a year.  Oh my god, let’s all just shoot ourselves right now.

3) Mind-numbing language. As above.  Somehow, most people think they’re “being strategic,” if they’re saying obscure, intellectual-sounding stuff.  Here’s a quote from Michael Porter, probably the world’s best-known strategy guru: “Strategic positions emerge from three distinct sources, which are not mutually exclusive and often overlap. First, positioning can be based on producing a subset of an industry’s products or services. I call this variety-based positioning because it is based on the choice of product or service varieties rather than customer segments. Variety-based positioning makes economic sense when a company can best produce particular products or services using distinctive sets of activities.” What, now? Oh, wait, I don’t care.

2) Practitioners who want to seem smarter than you.  See the above. The charts and graphs, the language, the lack of clear definition – all support the strategy consultant’s implied contention that strategy is an arcane and complex body of ancient wisdom, able to be understood and practiced only by the anointed few.  Many CEOs are taken in by this and pay kajillions of dollars to be told what to do and why.  Most of us, again, are thinking, Whatever, dude. Can I just do my job now?

And the number 1 reason people think strategy is boring (drum roll):

1) They don’t see the connection to real life.  Because of the way “strategy” is thought of, talked about and practiced in most organizations, it seem entirely disconnected from people’s day-to-day concerns: how to do a good job; how to build positive relationships with those around them; how to get good results; how to have a reasonably good time doing it.  Even those who are passionate about their jobs or about the success of the company simply don’t see how “strategy” – again as generally practiced – is going to help.

It’s a shame really, because there’s actually something extremely valuable hidden in the midst of all this.  And even Michael Porter (who I love to diss) has said wonderfully clear and accurate things about the value of strategy on occasion. My very favorite quote of his is “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Because that’s it: strategy is thinking in a focused way about what’s most important and how to get there, and it can give you critical insights as to the things you shouldn’t be doing that won’t get you where you’re trying to go. How about if we define being strategic simply as consistently making the core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. In other words, thinking and acting strategically means figuring out the future you want to create for your enterprise; then getting clear about where you are now; then building a path with your colleagues – making core directional choices – for getting there.  And finally, being consistent about walking down that path together.

That doesn’t sound so boring.  That actually sounds reasonable and very useful.  Let’s do that.


Jul
17

Entrepreneurs Come In Two Flavors

I read a great many posts and articles by and about entrepreneurs. Lately it has seemed to me that there are two basic entrepreneurial mindsets. There may well be more, and there may be variations on these themes, but these two entrepreneurial types seem to cover most of the territory I’ve observed.

Flavor #1 is the “make a killing” (MAK) entrepreneur.  His or her core motivation is to crack the code on becoming wealthy.  This kind of entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap not primarily to rid the world of disease-creating vermin, or give people a more humane mouse-removal option, but to exit the mousetrap business altogether with a very fat check in hand, and retire to the South of France. Now, these folks quite often create wonderful new things – but what they really want to do is figure out how to build something that can be scaled up and sold.

Flavor #2 is the “richard branson” (RB) entrepreneur.  He or she is passionately committed to bringing a product or service to the world that’s better, faster, sleeker, simpler, more sustainable, more delightful, easier, etc.  This entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap because he or she can see so clearly how much cooler it would be than anything that currently exists.  And this person can’t wait to see how it’s going to happen. Now, this kind of entrepreneur quite often also gets rich (as witness the actual Richard Branson) and sometimes even buys a house in in the south of France – but he or she probably keeps working on the next, even cooler version of the thing while sitting on his or her terasse. Getting rich is not the point – or not the main point.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I’ve been realizing that I’m about shutterstock_9668418795% RB, and my business partner is about 65% RB and about 35% MAK (I haven’t run this by him yet – he might assess himself differently).  And I see that his infusion of MAK-ness is very good for me and for the business.  Without him, the business wouldn’t be growing as quickly, and we wouldn’t be thinking as much (or as practically) about creating new revenue streams that are more self- sustaining and scalable.

But I’m also watching my son – who is heavily weighted toward the RB side – having lots of difficulty finding an operating rhythm with his business partner, who is a pure, unadulterated, 100% MAK. They have these frustrating conversations where Ian focuses (passionately) on brand and how they can build a business and a reputation by giving their customers an experience and food that are uniquely attractive in a very specific way. And his partner just wants to focus on reducing food and liquor costs, increasing operational efficiencies and getting people in and out quickly, so their restaurant will blow up and turn a big profit. They’re speaking two different languages entirely, with almost no overlap, and I know that each thinks the other is…not wrong, exactly, but just not that appealing.

And it seems to me that if you’re an entrepreneur, it’s important to become aware of your primary flavor. It will help you get clear about what success looks like for you, and it will also help you make sure that your partners share enough of your mindset to speak the same language and be excited about the same future.

Which may very well include that house in the South of France, whatever your flavor.


Jun
14

Bundles of Pure Potential

Charlie & GrameeMy second grandchild was born last week – Charlotte Autumn Van Carpels.  And when I met her, I was stunned (as I always am by babies, but it’s even more stunning when they’re somehow related to you) by her unsullied beauty and sweetness.  As I held her in my arms, I thought about all the possibilities ahead of her: a hundred years of learning, love, accomplishment, joy and insight.  The future world she’ll both be a citizen of and help to create.

It’s made me reflect on the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘original sin,’ the idea that all humans are born in a state of sinfulness, based on Adam’s fall from grace in Eden. I’ve never been able to understand this; it just doesn’t resonate with my experience of babies and young children. Looking into Charlotte’s gorgeous little face, I could only think: this is innocence and purity. In fact, my main impulse toward her is to do whatever I can to help her maintain some portion of that marvelous simplicity and light intact as she grows.

She seems to me to be a bundle of purest potential: full to bursting with life; her curiosity ready to be engaged; surrounded by a thousand thousand circumstances, objects and people that can ignite the process of her personal evolution.

And I like to think that we are all still that, 10 or 30 or 70 years later: bundles of potential, able to keep reaching new levels of understanding throughout our lives.  I believe we stop ourselves, assuming that we’re too old, too big, too stuck, too tired.

But what if those 2nd century Christians had it exactly backwards: that instead of coming into this world tainted with sin, having to work our way painfully to some state of grace, we arrive in the most complete and lovely state of grace, and have the possibility of staying at least partly in that state while we figure out how to acquire the knowledge, insight, skills, experience and capability to live our best and most satisfying life.

Looking at Charlotte, I believe that’s true.


May
28

Let’s Create An Actual ‘Brave New World’

“O Wonder, How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!”

-   William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act. V, Sc. I

courtesy of Wikipedia

courtesy of Wikipedia

People have been using this quote for 400 years, mostly ironically (in line with Shakespeare’s original use):  the utterance of a protagonist who misunderstands a new world, thinking it wonderful, when it is in fact dystopic (probably the best-known example being Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel, Brave New World).

However, I’m proposing today that we can also use it in a completely positive way.  Just last week I had great time doing a podcast with a wonderful guy named Tanveer Naseer.  Tanveer and I started following each other last summer on Twitter. Then he responded to a query from our publicist Kaila (all via email) and indicated that he’d like to interview me for his podcast show, Leadership Biz Cafe. Tanveer and I did our interview on Skype, and now it’s available on his site.

OK, so think about this.  Tanveer  lives in Montreal, and I live primarily in New York City. We have (as far as I know) no intersections of school, family or friends. Without current digital technology, we never would have run into each other. And now (I’m sure) we’re permanently connected, and will support each other’s work and success in whatever ways we can.

And you – who may never have met either Tanveer or me, and perhaps never will – can benefit from our interaction as well, where ever you are. If you hear something that resonates for you in our conversation, you can use it for your own benefit, and pass it along to whomever you wish. A truly brave new world, indeed.

I know technology can do all kinds of bad stuff, and that Huxley-esque aspects exist in this “brave new world” of ours.  But we can also use all of these new capabilities that exist to learn, to create connections, to innovate, to grow.

Let’s do that.


May
8

Words Are Weird – You Need a Compass

Some of you may not know that I write a bi-monthly email called the “Insider List,” and send it to everyone who has opted to receive it (you can do that here on the site, if you’re interested). Last time I wrote about the slipperiness of language – and how that slipperiness makes listening even more important. The example I used was the word/phrase “mayday” or “May Day,” which can either mean a happy spring holiday or a call for help.

In response, one of my “Insiders,” a friend and colleague named Todd Sattersten, sent me an email letting me know that there’s a word for words that have two opposite meanings: they’re called contronyms. Here are a few great examples (some of them from Todd):

sanction - ‘a penalty’ or ‘official permission or approval’

fine – ‘the state of being good’ or ‘a penalty for doing something bad’

shop – ‘buy’ or ‘attempt to sell’

custom – ‘special’ or ‘usual’

bolt – ‘secure’ or ‘run away’

dust – ‘add fine particles’ or ‘remove fine particles’

strike – ‘hit’ or ‘miss (a ball)’

buckle – ‘fasten together’ or ‘break under stress’

I love such quirky, illogical, counter-intuitive, imprecise aspects of language: I get a big kick out of the fact that such words exist, and that we’ve created a word for them.

And the fact that language is often like this is one of the main reasons listening well is so important. Contronyms are simply an extreme example of the potential for misunderstanding inherent in any conversation. It’s so easy to assume you understand what someone is saying…and miss what they’re actually saying.

If, instead, we were to approach every conversation assuming we really don’t know what the person is thinking or what they intend, and then get very curious about finding that out – I’m convinced about 90% of our misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and mis-matched expectations would simply evaporate.

Contronyms (and other slippery words) would lose their power to confuse – and speaking would become a bridge to understanding rather than a barrier.

What do you think?


Apr
29

Being Your Own Support System

Last week I had the pleasure of spending a little bit of time with a lot of wonderful women.  As a part of the Rising Leaders leadership intensive we teach for WICT (Women in Cable Telecommunications) twice a year, I conduct 30-minute “mini” coaching sessions with 50+ women, all of whom are high-potential midlevel cable executives.

In more than half of these individual sessions, we end up focusing on self-talk – that little voice that runs in your head non-stop.  I’ve discovered, over the years, that many (perhaps most) of the problems we run into in our lives have something to do with how we talk to ourselves about situations.  Learning to manage your own self-talk is one of the most useful tools you can have in your self-development toolbox.

Let me give you a poignant and powerful real-life example.  Three of the women I spoke with – very bright, accomplished women – were convinced that they were doing badly at work, that no one was supporting them, and that they were sure to fail.

For all three, the facts contradicted their fears: all had been recently promoted; had been nominated and sent to the program by their boss and HR (a big investment for their company); had gotten great performance reviews; and had scored well on the interpersonal and leadership assessments we provide as part of the class.

So, what was the deal?

All three women had awful self-talk.  That voice in their head was using them as a chew toy.  “You’re doing a terrible job” that voice was saying, or “No one wants you on the team,” or “There’s no way you can succeed.” And, because they were largely unaware of what they were saying to themselves, it was affecting them on a daily basis like pollution leaking into a water system..invisible and deadly.

We taught these women our model for bringing your self-talk to your conscious awareness and revising it. It’s dramatically powerful: whenever you feel hopeless, helpless, defeated, incompetent, or overwhelmed, managing your self-talk about the situation you’re in is almost sure to help.  Here’s how it works:

  • Recognize: The first step in managing your self-talk is to “hear” it.  Unless you’re aware of this internal monologue, it’s impossible to change it.  Start by simply recognizing what you’re saying to yourself.  For instance, let’s say you’ve just gotten a promotion. Rather than being thrilled, you realize you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed. When you focus on your thoughts about the promotion, you might hear something like, “There’s no way I’m qualified for this – it will be a disaster.” As soon as you “hear” what you’re saying to yourself, that sense of hopelessness or overwhelm makes sense – you’re believing that negative voice in your head.
  • Record:  Writing down your self-talk creates a useful separation; when you see it written down, it feels less like an intrinsic part of you.  If you write down that self-talk statement, above: “There’s no way I’m qualified for this – it will be a disaster,”  you’ll be better able to look objectively at how this negative self-talk affects you: perhaps making you more likely to abandon the project, or to feel cynical or hopeless about the possibility of accomplishing it.
  • Revise: After you’ve recorded any inaccurate, unhelpful self-talk, you can decide how to “rethink” it.   This step is the core of the process. Your goal is to create alternative self-talk that you’ll believe and that will lead to a more useful response.  For instance, if you try to substitute self-talk that’s falsely positive, like, “This will be a piece of cake,” you simply won’t believe it, and therefore it will have no impact on you: you’ll just revert back to your original negative self-talk.  What could you say to yourself instead, that’s believable and that would create a more useful response?  How about something like: “I know this will be a challenge.  But I’m good at learning new things, and I’m really motivated.”
  • Repeat: Like any habit, managing your self-talk requires repetition. Substituting more hopeful and accurate self-talk for your negative self-talk will be helpful the very first time you do it.  And you’ll need to consciously do it again the next time the voice in your head comes up with a similarly unhelpful statement.  And again. This is a process for creating new habits of thought. Whenever you find yourself falling into a pattern of unhelpful self-talk – either overly negative or overly positive –  consciously substitute your revised, more realistic and accurate self-talk.

So that’s it.  Until you try it, you may not see see how powerfully helpful it can be.  Think of it this way: imagine if you had a ‘friend’ who was saying the kinds of unsupportive, unhelpful, negative things you sometimes say to yourself, would you just nod and accept it?  I hope not.  By learning to manage your self-talk, you can make sure you’re not getting in the way of your own success and happiness.

Posted in learning, Thinking, Work

Apr
15

Invite Inspiration…

Last week my “co-mom” Becky  Fall put this marvelous video on her facebook page. [BTW, Becky is my daughter Rachel's mother-in-law, and when Rachel and Becky's son Will got married 5 years ago, we realized there was no word (at least in English) for our relationship to each other, so we coined one: "co-mom."]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n1GtOaL7XU

I found it hugely inspiring; I fully intend – barring illness or death – to be as active, loving and full of interest and joy in my nineties as Ms. Porchon-Lynch.  It’s wonderful to see it in action; it makes my intention seem more grounded in reality, more achievable.

And it made me realize how helpful it is, when you’re trying to do something that defies common wisdom, to know that others have done it.  It’s much easier for us to break through to a new possibility if we have even a single example of it being possible.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my son-in-law to be (my other daughter’s fiance) about this – he was saying that he felt most people were stuck in old ways of living and thinking, and that even if there were a few innovators here and there, it didn’t really matter.  I disagreed, saying that I see each of those “few innovators” as having a huge ripple effect of positive influence on society.  I gave him the example of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile. Before Bannister’s achievement, in 1954, it was widely believed that running a mile in less than 4 minutes was physiologically impossible.  The record for the fastest running of the mile had been stuck at just over 4 minutes for 9 years.

Once Bannister broke that record (on May 6, 1954, running a mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds), it was only 46 days till someone else broke that record – the psychological barrier was down.

So if you want to do something that most people think is unlikely, or even impossible – be vital and active in your 90s; become a great leader if you’re not a “born” leader; start a successful business without much (or any) business experience…find all the examples you can of others who are actually doing it.

And break through.


Mar
26

Leading – Now and Always

I originally wrote this post at the end of 2009, when I was just starting to work on writing Leading So People Will Follow.  It’s still a good summary and explanation of the concepts in the book – I thought you might find it useful:

I’ve been thinking about leaders lately, and how good leaders are going to become increasingly important as everything in business gets flatter, faster, more disrupted. I’m noticing more than ever before how essential it is for organizations to have strong and flexible leaders in order to succeed.  I watch as those organizations whose leaders are too inflexible, too cautious, too short-sighted or too fear-based continue to founder, while those whose leaders are far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy seem to be finding their way much more quickly and easily.

And it just so happens that we at Proteus have and use a leadership model based on those six qualities, so it’s reinforcing our sense that these truly are the essential characteristics of good and effective leaders. We evolved our model based on “leader stories” from all over the world, going on the premise that folk and fairy tales tend to carry the “DNA” of our cultural expectations about what good leadership looks and feels like. If you’re interested, here is a little more explanation about the six qualities as they show up in these leader stories:

Ce5ddb9ef421e01251d8b7ba8186eca5 In these stories, the young leader-to-be can see beyond his current situation to his ultimate goal (save his father, win the princess, kill the monster), and can express it clearly and in a compelling and inclusive way – especially those whose help he needs – even when others lose sight of it, believe it’s impossible, or ridicule him for trying.  He is Far-sighted.

Moreover, the leader-in-training doesn’t just go through the motions.  He is deeply committed to his quest.  His every action is directed toward achieving it.  Nothing dissuades him, even the inevitable setbacks and disappointments attendant on any quest.  He may not be loud about it, but he is relentless. He is Passionate.

Throughout the story, he is confronted with difficult situations.  He may be afraid and lonely; he may feel like running away, longing for the comfort and safety of home.  He often faces situations that are particularly trying for him personally. But he doesn’t turn aside; he doesn’t (unlike his brothers or others who attempt the same journey) make the safe and easy choices.  He doesn’t wimp out.  He is Courageous.

He’s not a cardboard action hero, though.  His brain is tested, and he must be able to learn from his mistakes.  In many versions of the story, he doesn’t initially follow the advice given him, and his mistakes create complexity and danger.  The next time a similar situation arises, he behaves differently and succeeds at his task.  He doesn’t deny or whine or blame; he improves.  Finally, he uses his powers of discrimination to think through difficult choices and arrive at the best and most moral solution. He is thoughtful, appropriately humble, clear-headed and curious.  He is Wise.

Along the way, the future leader meets people or creatures in need, and he helps them or shares with them even though his own supplies are low; even if helping them takes him out of his way or slows him down.  In some versions of the story, he actually has to seem to sacrifice his life for those he loves or to whom he owes his loyalty (this always turns out OK in the end).  And later on, when he is king, his people are prosperous and happy because he rules with an open hand — the leader is not stingy, miserly or selfish.  He is Generous.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his word is his bond.  If he tells his dying father that he will find the magic potion to cure him, you know that he will.  If he tells the princess that he will come back to marry her, she can send out the invitations. The hero does not equivocate or exaggerate.  He is Trustworthy.

When leaders demonstrate these attributes consistently, they become a strong, safe point around which teams and organizations can coalesce.  Their people turn to them and say, We’re with you – let’s go. And great things happen.


Mar
20

The Healing Power of Story

A colleague of mine sent me a really interesting article from the NYT other other day, about the importance of ‘shared narrative’ in making people emotionally healthy. About 20 years ago, some researchers noted that kids who knew a lot about their own families tended to do better in challenging situations.  They then created something they called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children 20 questions, such as, ”Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know the story of your birth?”

It turned out that the “Do You Know?” questionnaire was an astonishingly accurate predictor.  The article goes on to say, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

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This reinforced a deep personal intuition I’ve always had as a parent: when my kids were small, we spent time talking about my parents and siblings; the experiences I’d had growing up; how their dad and I met; what we did in the world of work.  We also talked about what they had been like as babies and small children, how they were alike and different from other members of the family.  Finally, we told them about difficult things that had happened, and trials and tribulations overcome.  Somehow I knew this was an important conversation for them to be a part of – and I was often surprised and saddened by how little the kids’ friends knew about their  families: they often didn’t even know what their parents did for a living.  We’re continuing that into the next generation, telling our granddaughter stories about ourselves and those who came before.

But it also reinforces something I’ve observed as a business consultant for the last thirty years: companies and teams that have a strong, mainly positive shared narrative about themselves also tend to be healthier, more flexible and more resilient in response to difficulty. For example, we worked with someone last year to help us further clarify our Proteus brand.  She interviewed a number of staff members and consultants to find out about our current understanding of our own brand.  And one thing she found is that each of us said very much thing same thing about what it was like working as part of our team, how we treat each other and our clients, what’s important to us.  In other words, even though we needed to get crisper about our brand communication (we did), we had a really strong, consistent shared narrative about Proteus and ourselves as “Proteans.”  I feel the power of that every day: it draws us together and helps us overcome the challenges of distance, the inevitable misunderstandings and disappointments of human interaction, and the ups and downs of growing a business.

We’ve been gathering around the campfire to share our stories since time immemorial…and it sounds like we need to keep doing it.