Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Archive for December, 2012

The Four Revolutions of a Leader:

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Don’t make resolutions. Make revolutions.

As you head into a bright shining New Year, you could do well to spend some time making resolutions. You could write a list of things you feel you ought to change about yourself or you could pull out last year’s list. Because chances are, the list hasn’t changed. The list hasn’t changed because you haven’t changed.

So this year, instead of making resolutions, why not make revolutions? Here are the four revolutions of a leader, the guaranteed way to lead real change in yourself, in your productivity and in the world around you.

1. The Revolution Inside.

You can’t lead others until you can lead yourself and you can’t lead yourself until you make some fundamental changes in your inner life. Leaders have a profound ability to quiet their minds. While others are engaged in out-of-control inner dialogues and even arguments with themselves, leaders have the ability to shut the dialogue down for a few moments and concentrate. It’s not for nothing that Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem starts with this line: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” Whether you develop that skill through meditation, prayer, breathing or exercise, you have to develop it.

A leader masters the ability to recall his or her self to presence at any time. Watch Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer, on TV sometime and see the way he can get the attention of an unruly dog with just his body language and the snap of his fingers. What was, a moment before, a bouncing ball of bonkers energy suddenly is an intensely focused and powerful entity waiting for instructions. If Cesar Millan can train a dog to do that, you can train your mind to do it, too.

But the practice has to start early in your day and continue all day long. If you wait until you’re losing it, you’re too late.

Try this: tomorrow morning when you wake up, before you even get out of bed, recall your mind to presence. Notice everything in the room around you and everything outside those four walls. Remind yourself that you are the leader of your mind and then silence that mind. Enjoy the silence for a moment or two and then, throughout the day, keep recalling your mind back to that presence.

2. The Revolution in Sight.

On the last day of the year as I was pouring my first cup of coffee in the pre-dawn gloom of a rainy morning, I had the thought that I’d really wasted this past year. I mean, really, there were so many lost opportunities and setback. The thought was driven by some recent projects that had to be postponed and by some late learnings that I could have used to create progress, had I but known them last year. And then I realized that I had lost sight of the important things that had been accomplished in the last twelve months: breakthroughs in personal development and physical fitness; one book selling well and a second book heading for publication; transformational advances in my coaching work and in my writing; thrilling new relationships; increased leadership presence. But, off my radar, they were out of sight.

Sight is not the same as “vision.” Vision is an overused word in leadership circles; yes, you should have a vision of a better career, better company or better world, but if you can’t see the way to get there, a vision isn’t much help. You’ve heard the saying, you can’t manage what you can’t see? It’s time for you to create a breakthrough by creating sightlines to everything you need to follow.

Next time you board a plane, look left at the display of information in front of the pilots. In the early days of flight, pilots set off across the ocean literally flying blind. They had no more than a compass and maybe a sextant to help them find their way. And often they were never seen again.

How many projects of yours have been lost at sea because you were unable to keep them in your line of sight throughout the year? How many of your attempts to improve yourself failed because you lost sight of your objective whenever things got busy? Like a pilot, you need a display that constantly lets you know where you are in relation to your objectives, what’s lacking and what storms are on the horizon that you need to consider.

Whether it’s on a whiteboard above your desk, a mind-map or any one of the amazingly useful mobile apps like Evernote, create a visual display that reminds you of the revolution you want to create, shows you your progress and reminds you of where you need to go. Refer to it daily and update it weekly. In between dodging bullets and putting out fires, it’s worth a concentrated 30 minutes or so to get sight of what your objectives are.

3. The Revolution in Time

Let’s face it: you aren’t as good at multitasking as you wish you were. And you never will be because your mind is not cognitively constructed to focus on more than one task at a time. Multitasking creates neural bottlenecks in the frontal cortex that actually limit your ability to get things done. So multitasking actually slows you down and, just as damaging, it also degrades your output. So stop tweeting while you’re reading this as you’re sitting on a conference call and trying to finish your expense report.

Now take a moment to snap your mind back to attention.

Instead of arranging your life as a raging flow of concurrent tasks, think instead of a series of discrete and highly focused moments that you can invest to your leadership purpose. The more fully you are invested in each of those moments—the more fully present you are in the moment and in what you are doing within it—the more productive moments you will have. You can invest several of those moments in a focused conversation with one of your team members or you can invest a single moment in recalling yourself to presence. You can hold off e-mail for half an hour while you focus intently on a project and then clear your mind and spend five focused moments on responding to mail. Your responses will be smarter and more concise and your project will proceed faster.

And here’s a secret: moments are flexible. If you’ve ever had the experience of time seeming to slow down, you know what I mean. You can use that phenomenon to your advantage. Learning to be intensely present in a moment gives the moment intense depth. Intense depth creates a sensation of “flow” that artists and musicians describe when talking about getting lost in their work and not noticing the passage of time. You’ve heard the saying, from Parkinson’s Law, that “Work expands to fill the time allotted to it.” What if the opposite were true? What if you could make time expand to fit the work allotted to it?

Try this: next time you have a task that would normally take you a couple of hours, tell yourself you’ll get it done and sent out in less than one hour. Stop all other distractions, get set and go. You’ll be amazed at what your mind can make happen when you’re fully engaged in the work of the moment.

4. The Revolution in Touch.

Here’s a groundbreaking idea: what if we measure success not just on the goals we reach but on the people we touch? Managers reach objectives and goals, but leaders do something more. Leaders draw people forward. They do it by creating a story, by revealing a context for action. They do it through clarity and presence and by standing for something a few degrees higher than maximizing profits or expanding regional market share. They do it by creating a leadership presence that touches the hearts and minds and lives of their team members, their customers, the public around them.

The revolution in touch is a revolution in understanding the far-reaching and long-term results of your actions. It’s a revolution in understanding that if you’re doing something that is good for your short-term goals but bad for your employees, bad for your community or bad for the world, then it’s not good for your company either. Not in the long run and probably not really in the short run either. What you touch by your actions becomes your responsibility.

And here’s a clue: in a globally interconnected world, you touch everything.

In case you think this sounds a little soft, let me go kung-fu on you: this idea is at the heart of the great martial arts traditions. Aikido is a school of Japanese martial arts that’s based entirely on using an opponent’s energy and momentum to slap him flat on his back. No hitting, no flying kicks. One moment the opponent is throwing a punch, the next he’s lying on the floor. And, because the essence of Aikido is the loving protection of all living things, the Master is reaching down to offer him a hand.

An Aikido master uses his own balance against imbalance to restore equilibrium. In leadership terms, it is the art of managing the tension between imbalance (innovation and growth; technological shifts and economic cycles) and balance (culture and processes; cash flow and investment) to create an organization that provides a lasting good.

From Resolution to Revolution. From Revolution to Revelation.

Most people want to be part of building something great. They want to be inspired. They want to see a better world. They want to be better, themselves. But for all our resolutions, we don’t make much progress.

That’s why great leaders make revolutions; earth-shaking, game-changing, no-turning-back revolutions that create a complete turn of the wheel. But it doesn’t come from talking and it doesn’t come from telling. It comes from the four revolutions of a leader.

Maybe this is your time to take leadership on. Or maybe it’s not. But let me leave you with a revelation: you can change the world, if only you change yourself.

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Jogging Your Memory: Can Exercise Make You Smarter?

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Gretchen Reynolds in The New York Times offers a compelling look at the science behind the theory that exercise makes us smarter and finds that it’s not only true today but may be part of what caused human intelligence to develop in the first place. She quotes a 2004 article by the evolutionary biologists Daniel Lieberman of Harvard and Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah in which they suggested early humans developed as endurance athletes who could simply jog behind their prey until the animal, less suited for endurance, simply dropped in its tracks.

“Endurance produced meals, which provided energy for mating, which meant that adept early joggers passed along their genes. In this way, natural selection drove early humans to become even more athletic, Dr. Lieberman and other scientists have written, their bodies developing longer legs, shorter toes, less hair and complicated inner-ear mechanisms to maintain balance and stability during upright ambulation. Movement shaped the human body.

“But simultaneously, in a development that until recently many scientists viewed as unrelated, humans were becoming smarter. Their brains were increasing rapidly in size.

“Today, humans have a brain that is about three times larger than would be expected, anthropologists say, given our species’ body size in comparison with that of other mammals.”

How do we explain these brains? Or, put another way, how come we have the ability to explain brains in the first place? Scientists working to understand this have discovered that if you breed lab rats to become endurance runners, after a few generations their bodies begin to produce high levels of substances linked to tissue growth and health. One of these is BDNF, or brain-derived neurotronic factor, which is not only important for physical endurance, but also causes the brain to grow. In short, all that endurance running may have made early humans smarter.

She quotes David Raichlen from the University of Arizona, who recently published a paper on the topic.

“’We think that what happened’ in our early hunter-gatherer ancestors, he says, is that the more athletic and active survived and, as with the lab mice, passed along physiological characteristics that improved their endurance, including elevated levels of BDNF. Eventually, these early athletes had enough BDNF coursing through their bodies that some could migrate from the muscles to the brain, where it nudged the growth of brain tissue.

“Those particular early humans then applied their growing ability to think and reason toward better tracking prey, becoming the best-fed and most successful from an evolutionary standpoint. Being in motion made them smarter, and being smarter now allowed them to move more efficiently.

“And out of all of this came, eventually, an ability to understand higher math and invent iPads. But that was some time later.”

If you needed a reason to support your resolution to exercise more in the coming year, here it is: regular aerobic exercise strengthens your brain and makes you a better thinker.

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The Prepared Mind and the Hooligan Mind

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One day in the 1990’s, a group of psychologists from a Dutch university decided to go to a soccer match. The match attracted quite a crowd and they were forced to park a mile away and walk to the stadium surrounded by hundreds of Europe’s famous soccer hooligans. As the crowd jostled, shouted and acted generally rowdy, the professors tried to keep their cool.

And then, one of them did a surprising thing. Coming upon an empty beer can, he took a hop and kicked it as far down the road as he could. Turning to see his astonished colleagues staring at him, the question that came up was, “What was that about?”

It was an awesome question. Why does our behavior change when we’re exposed to the behavior of others? Why would being surrounded by louts and hooligans cause an otherwise well-mannered person to act rude? And could the opposite be true? Those questions caused Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg of the University of Nijmegen to create a study of what they called “priming,” a study that was popularly reported in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.

Priming is the mechanism of triggering unconscious behavior changes through the power of association. Priming someone with a trait like kindness or rudeness has been proven to be quite easy. And several studies have shown that priming someone with a stereotype – a picture of a class of person or behavior – can make that person display that same behavior or act like the stereotype. When participants in a study at Yale were primed with traits that led them to think of elderly people, they were shown to walk more slowly and carefully as if they, too, were old.

William James called this the principle of ideomotor action, saying, “every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object. James realized that just the act of thinking about a behavioral response – even unconsciously – increase the likelihood of our displaying that same behavior.

To test this, the Dutch psychologists created a series of experiments in which students at the University were primed with stereotypes of college professors, representing intelligence and knowledge. Other students were primed with stereotypes that were neutral, such as secretaries, or negative—even stupid—such as the same soccer hooligans that initiated their interest. A third control group was given no priming at all. Then they were asked to answer 42 Trivial Pursuit questions.

The results were significant. Those primed with a positive stereotype of a professor got 59.5% of the questions right, compared with 46.4% right when primed with the supposedly neutral stereotype of a secretary. Those with no priming at all got just under half the questions right. The same thing happened when students were primed with the stereotypes of professors and soccer hooligans.

The difference between being right 60% of the time versus just 46% is huge. It’s the difference between passing and failing, between acceptance at a great college and a mediocre one, between middle management and the C-Suite. It’s the difference between success and failure.

In 1847, the French chemist Louis Pasteur presented his doctoral thesis to the Faculty of Science in Paris and began a long career as a scientific researcher, the success of which he attributed less to theory and more to observation. Pasteur believed careful observation, observation primed by years of preparation and a clear view of both what he was looking to see and what unexpected insights he might happen upon. And in 1854, he put this into a maxim: “In the field of observation, chance only prepares the prepared mind.”

I always heard that quote as meaning we should pursue education, stay current in our field, read the paper more often. I heard it as a reference to the importance of on-going learning throughout life. But there’s another, more direct way of looking at that. If your mind is primed—that is, prepared—to be able to answer questions, make observations and see connections that were previously unseen, then you are that much more likely to answers questions right in Trivial Pursuit. And, more important, in the game of life.

In 1994, Alfred Gilman and Martin Rodbell won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery of G-proteins and the role of these proteins in signal transduction in cells. A reporter, working on the story, went to Southwestern Medical School, in Dallas, and tracked down one of Dr. Gilman’s former teachers. He asked him if he ever thought Gilman would win the Nobel Prize.

The teacher said he had thought that Gilman, of all his students, would win the Nobel Prize because Gilman had a prepared mind, a mind that was prepared to see opportunity, prepared to see new ideas and deal with them. Like the students in Holland, he was primed to see the connections that other people missed.

On the other hand, there was a record company executive in England who didn’t have a prepared mind when he didn’t bother to return a phone call from a guy who wanted him listen to a new band called “The Beatles.” He kept the “While You Were Out” slip in his desk for the rest of his career, to remind himself never to make that mistake again.

Unfortunately, life never gave him the chance to make that mistake again. Some chances come only once and you better be prepared.

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What’s a Dog For? Maria Popova on John Homans

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(Photo from the book)

If you don’t know about Maria Popova, you should. Her site, Brain Pickings, is filled with great writing on art, literature, design and ideas, a great place to go to make yourself feel instantly more intelligent and brilliant.

Here’s her review of John Homans’ lovely book, What’s A Dog For?

Great quote:

This state of being-in-the-moment is what’s so compelling about dogs. It’s hard for a human to get to it. Even in the most difficult times, dogs are cheerful and ready for experience. A dog can’t figure out that it’s being measured for its grave. The three-legged chow that walks on my street every day doesn’t know the number three or have any sense that anything is wrong with her at all (and as I write, the dog is sixteen and still fit). It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition ‘the Dog Wish,’ the ‘strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.’ This is a dog’s blessing, a dim-wittedness one can envy.

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Building a Culture of Transparency

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When I talk about companies that are “branded to the bone” I mean companies that are true at every touchpoint, where the things leadership says are as true at the front door of the building as they are at the back door. Where promises to customers are consistent with the promises to employees and suppliers.

Annette Franz Gleneicki has a great post on Transparency as the key to a geniune customer experience.

We talk a lot about an “outside in” approach when it comes to customer experience, but this is an “inside out” approach in a couple of ways. Yea, inside out, as in turning what’s happening inside the organization to the outside. Let me explain.

First, I’m talking about creating a culture of transparency – transparency with employees first. When employees become accustomed to this approach to leadership (leaders must model the behavior they desire) and to doing business, then they can work with customers in the same vein. As I mentioned in a post a couple weeks ago, it’s important for employees to have clarity around the company’s purpose, the brand promise, and around how you do business, in general.

Either you genuinely are what you say you are — as a leader, as a company, as a brand — or you’re not. But since few of us can be in a state of perfect integrity at all times, transparency is our honest admission that we’re muddling through as best we can. It’s sharing what you stand for and sharing when you fail to stand. It’s knowing that it’s OK to fail as long as you get back on your feet and make it right.


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The Super Relaxed and Happy Zen of Bill Murray

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I’m starting to collect Bill Murray interviews the way some people collect baseball memorabilia or polished gemstones. In a great interview with Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times, Murray was running late so he dragged the interviewer with him into the limo and then onto the stage where he was set to speak, completing their talk in front of hundreds of people.

Some nuggets:

The more relaxed you are, the better you are at everything: the better you are with your loved ones, the better you are with your enemies, the better you are at your job, the better you are with yourself.

When I was 7 years old, I was taken to my first Cubs games, and my brother Brian said, “Wait, Billy,” and he put his hands over my eyes, and he walked me up the stairs. And then he took his hands away. [He begins to get choked up.] And there was Wrigley Field, in green. There was this beautiful grass and this beautiful ivy. I’d only seen it in black and white. It was like I was a blind man made to see.

You have to hope that (good things) happen to you. That’s Pandora’s box, right? She opens up the box, and all the nightmares fly out. And slams the lid shut, like, “Oops,” and opens it one more time, and hope pops out of the box. That’s the only thing we really, surely have, is hope. You hope that you can be alive, that things will happen to you that you’ll actually witness, that you’ll participate in. Rather than life just rolling over you, and you wake up and it’s Thursday, and what happened to Monday? Whatever the best part of my life has been, has been as a result of that remembering.

Who hasn’t woken up thinking, “God, nothing good has come to me in a while,” right? When I feel like I’m stuck, I do something — not like I’m Mother Teresa or anything, but there’s someone that’s forgotten about in your life, all the time. Someone that could use an “Attaboy” or a “How you doin’ out there.” It’s that sort of scene, that remembering that we die alone. We’re born alone. We do need each other. It’s lonely to really effectively live your life, and anyone you can get help from or give help to, that’s part of your obligation.

It (improv training) pays off in your life when you’re in an elevator and people are uncomfortable. You can just say, “That’s a beautiful scarf.” It’s just thinking about making someone else feel comfortable. You don’t worry about yourself, because we’re vibrating together. If I can make yours just a little bit groovier, it’ll affect me. It comes back, somehow.

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