What are the qualities that make people extremely successful? Sarah Robb O’Hagan would know; she has been named one of Forbes’ “Most Powerful Women In Sports” and was formerly global president of Gatorade. Her new book, Extreme YOU: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat, wants to make you an Extremer, too. Discover the five essential qualities of an Extremer, how to tell if you’ve found the career you’re best suited for, and a practice to overcome your fear of failure.
- Success comes at a cost – you have to be willing to take the risks and make the sacrifices @ExtremeSRO #podcast
- Is being the best you can be actually important? @ExtremeSRO and I discuss
Book: Extreme YOU: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat.
Bio: Executive, activist and entrepreneur, Sarah Robb O’Hagan has been described by the media as everything from “Superwoman undercover” to the “Pied Piper of Potential.” She is a high-energy combination of disruptive business leader, fitness fanatic, and cheerleading mom, and has been named one of Forbes‘ “Most Powerful Women in Sports” and one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business.”
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. Sarah Robb O’Hagan is with us today. She’s an executive, an activist, an entrepreneur, and the founder of Extreme You. That is the name of her new book, Extreme You: Step Up, Stand Out, Kick Ass, Repeat. Sarah led the reinvention and turnaround of Gatorade, as its global president. She was also most recently president of Equinox Fitness, so she’s had a tremendous amount of experience as a leader in several organizations and leading turnarounds, and Extreme You is both a personal and professional book. It’s about how to show up being the best that you can be. Sarah, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Sarah: Thank you for having me. It’s awesome to be here.
Peter: Sarah, what is an extremer? What are some good examples of extremers?
Sarah: I basically took about three years to research and write the book. In that time, I interviewed some people that I would call extremers that are some of the most successful people in the world from all walks of life. From business, like Angela Ahrendts from Apple, to Condoleezza Rice, our former Secretary of State, to Bode Miller, the downhill skier. I’m talking all sorts of different expertises, if you will. What I’ve learned from all of them, and why I call them extremers, is because they are people that are relentlessly living to the best of their own potential. What that means is that they’ve really deeply understood what their unique sort of skills and passions are, and how to keep developing those to make yourself be the best that you can be, instead of getting distracted by comparing yourself to others, and all those sorts of things.
Peter: You start the book by talking about the importance of not being perfect. On the other hand, you look at these Condoleezza Rice and Bode Millers, who have certainly reached a level of perfection and extreme success that most of us will never be able to achieve. How do you balance those two things?
Sarah: Yeah, it’s a great question. What’s interesting is I loved when I did the interview with Condoleezza Rice. I said to her, “How does one become the Secretary of State?” She goes, “Well, I was a failed piano major.”
Right there is the answer, right, to, “What is perfection?” I think, often from the outside, we can perceive these people to be very perfect, and to have these flawless career journeys, but in every instance, the people that I interviewed, and certainly on a more broader scale, a trend that we’re seeing is that to get to the best of your own capability, there’s undoubtedly been things that have gone wrong, on the way, mistakes you’ve made, failures you’ve overcome, and ultimately, resilience that you’ve built, as a result of it.
I think every one of the people I spoke to would have said they don’t really consider themselves perfect. It’s the rest of the world that makes it look that way.
Peter: It’s interesting, because to be that successful at something has got to come at a cost, I would imagine. Right?
Sarah: Yeah, yeah.
Peter: I’m curious … Before we even go into the conversation about what are the qualities of these extremers, and how do we integrate them into our possibly more mundane lives, what’s the cost of that kind of success that you saw in the people that you interviewed?
Sarah: I would say the biggest cost, honestly, was having to accept the consequences, both good and bad, of decisions made. What I mean by that is that I think, in general, the people that don’t reach their same level of their own potential and breakthrough, in the same way, are generally people that didn’t want to take the same risks and had a more comfortable path. Whereas those who really break through and reach their extreme levels of potential have generally had heartache, along the way. They have made sacrifices. They’ve had to give up everyday things to really focus on their own passion, or mission, or whatever it may be. But most importantly, I think they have suffered failures, and difficulties, along the way, and pushed through. That’s a very lonely journey, when you’re doing that. It’s not something you can necessarily share, when it’s your own dream, and your own purpose, that you’re chasing.
Peter: Bode Miller, certainly famously, has also gotten himself into some trouble with, I believe, drugs and alcohol … Maybe I’m just picking out specific people, but you look at a Britney Spears. This kind of success, and this sort of extreme focus can be a little overwhelming. Now, even as I say that, we all know plenty of people who are not extremers who have problems with drug and alcohol. It’s certainly not a stressor that is reserved to the most highly successful, but it does seem like the weight of that kind of a focus can be overwhelming.
Sarah: Yes and no … One thing I think that is very important to state is that being an extremer doesn’t necessarily mean that you are on a world stage, like driving progress in the media spotlight. Some of my favorite extremers are actually people that are doing things very quietly behind the scenes, in their own way, but actually really pushing their own potential, and pushing themselves to achieve their own personal greatness, if you will. I want to make sure I was clear. Being an extremer isn’t “being successful.” It’s more living at the best potential of what you, personally, can be. To the point you just made, I do think in life, people can get into trouble. They can come across problems like drugs and alcohol. But I would say the people that I have studied and observed who have gone on to reach their potential have overcome those, and figured out how to get back on track with their own life, and their own career. Issues like that, are those problems to overcome, or are they part of your journey that helped develop you that you learned from?
Peter: You talk about five essential qualities of Extreme You. Right? These are the things that all of us can, I think, nurture in ourselves in a sense, in order to become the best version of ourselves. Could you give just a sentence or two about each one, so that people have a sense?
Sarah: Yeah. It starts with what I call openness to experience. That is a willingness to try new things, and not be afraid to try new things. I think that’s something that I really saw that all of these people had in common, is when there’s a fork in the road, and it’s an opportunity that takes you to a scary place, they would say yes, whereas many people would say no. Also, maybe, being willing to try things that don’t even necessarily seem like they’re on the straight and linear path to a “successful place,” but you’re willing to just try it to get out of your comfort zone. That was definitely one.
Internal drive is another. The sort of get up and go that these people have. They’re not really needing other people to necessarily push them, but they have it themselves, and they cultivate it in themselves. I don’t think drive is something that you’re necessarily just born with. I think you can really cultivate it, and one of the things I studied and learned from these people is how to do that. By making sure you’re sort of setting goals that are achievable, but pushing yourself to get that sense of fulfillment and excitement that comes with “the win.”
Then, I would say there was a big one around grit and resilience, in terms of the willingness, or at least the capability, to push through the tough times. That probably trumps talent, I would say, any day, and all of them would have agreed with that. When things go wrong, you’re able to keep pushing yourself through, to get to your desired end state, and you’re able to pivot, and not get knocked over by failures, if you will.
A personal favorite of mine was the quality, I call, getting over yourself, of humility. This stubbornly humble ability to just go through life, no matter how successful you are, still recognizing that you can be better. That there are other people in the room that are just as smart, if not smarter, than you, and the curiosity, quite honestly, to keep learning, and keep growing, coming from that perspective.
Then, the last one is around risk taking, and I think all of these people definitely had a willingness to take bigger risks. To accept the consequences. To not look for the safety net that, “What if it goes wrong? I need to have an out clause,” but instead, “I’m going to take this risk. I’m going to go for it. I recognize that it might fail, and I’m going to take that failure, and drive on, as opposed to being scared of trying, at all.”
Peter: You also talk, in this chapter, of check yourself out. Understanding yourself, and what your strengths are, and what your capabilities are. When you talk about Condoleezza Rice being a failed pianist, and yet, becoming a very successful Secretary of State, that it’s understanding what you’re particularly suited for that might be different than what your expectations are, or what other people’s expectations are, of you.
Sarah: Yeah. Definitely. No, I think that’s one of the things that I’ve really discovered, in this journey. I think today, particularly young kids coming out college, there’s such an expectation A, that you’re going to have a perfect resume. That everything’s gone right, and there’s no screw ups, and B, that you’re going to follow this very linear path to a sort of end goal place. What I really learned, from this process, is that is not how the most successful people get to where they’re going. In actual fact, they have many forks in the road, where they might go to the side, for a little while, before they progress forward, because this process of checking themselves out, of trying multiple different things, is ultimately adding out to something much more complete.
I give my own personal example. I started my career in the airline industry. I remember spending a year or so in the revenue management, which was so boring I wanted to jump out of a building. Yet, who would have thought that that exact experience would be so useful 25 years later, when I’m running an indoor cycling business. Bums on the seats, but just on a different kind of seat. I think you don’t realize that some of the experiences that may feel boring, they may feel like they’re not in service of the original goal where you want to go to actually are adding up to something. You’ve got to be willing to get in there and try them.
Peter: Yeah. It’s interesting, ’cause a lot of people will say, “Take a career test, or a personality assessment,” or, “Have some external advisor tell you what to do.” But you’re saying, actually, to stay curious. I think that’s really hard for people. I think it’s hard for people, one, because we have blind spots. We don’t know what we don’t see. I’m not a huge fan of personality tests. On the other had, I think one gift of them is that they may show you something that you don’t necessarily see about yourself. But also, people struggle with it because I think staying curious and examining your life is very hard for people. Why? Actually, probably more important than why, what have you seen that helps people get to that place of refining their path, based on their own curiosity of themselves?
Sarah: That’s a good question. I think it’s not necessarily a kind of, “I’m going to make a mark on my calendar, to sit down and reflect, and make decisions,” but I think it was generally as they were making significant life decisions they were purposefully looking back on decisions that came before it, to understand how to move forward. If you have experienced a lot of things, and I talk, in my book, about experiencing the extremes of incredible success, and incredible failure, you are, by definition, honing your intuition to where you thrive, and I think, again, I’ve shared my personal experience … I got fired twice, in my 20s, before I went on to work for Nike, which was an environment I absolutely thrived in.
Had I not had both experiences, of being in environments that were very tough for me, being in good environments, I wouldn’t have had such a strong intuition when assessing job opportunities later, in my career. I think sometimes, that’s what people miss. In this desire to progress as fast as they can, they’re not recognizing that actually, sometimes, the not so good experiences are helping to hone your intuition, and your decision making, for the future.
Peter: As I listen to you, it occurs to me that you need a tremendous amount of confidence to do what you’re talking about. You need the confidence to be fired, a couple of times, and then get up and keep going. What you’re calling resilience and grit. You need the confidence to say, “I’m actually going to think about myself, and how I can bring myself closer.” Almost an entitlement, to say that I deserve to be in a position that really leverages the best of my skills. The idea of the drive, and even the confidence to get over yourself, there feels there’s this underlying confidence that’s really critical. I’m curious about, for people who might struggle with that kind of self confidence, what advice can you give for people to develop, or grow, that underlying foundational skill to being an extremer?
Sarah: Yeah, it’s a great question. I quite passionately believe that it actually starts with great parenting. I feel really lucky that I was raised by parents that did not helicopter parent me. They did not give me trophies for showing up for school. I am 45 years old. I have still never won a trophy in my life. I’m still trying. My point is, how that plays into confidence is that when you are left to your own devices, to basically deal with your own failures, and your successes, on your own terms, you get the feeling of self belief that comes with surviving a difficult situation. Everyone often says that to me now. “Gosh, you’re staying so confident.” I’m like, “Well, yeah, when you’ve been through really difficult situations like being fired, and survived it without someone else backing you up, and getting you out of the ditch, of course, you’re going to be more confident.”
How do you do it? It only starts with baby steps. I’m not suggesting that everyone who lacks confidence should throw themselves into a really difficult career situation, and see what happens, but baby steps can be, in any place in your life, you can choose something that puts you out of your comfort zone that you can push through. I’ll give you an example. A year ago, after I had chosen to quit my job, which was one of the most scary things I’d ever done in my life, I was like, “Well, what am I going to do to develop a new side of myself?” I went and took music lessons, piano lessons, with one of my kids. Unbelievably terrifying, to be playing piano in front of an instructor. My fingers were shaking, et cetera. But getting through it, by the end, you just get this little burst of, “Wow, I did that.” That, then, applies to how you feel about other aspects of your life. Confidence building is like going to the gym and building muscles. It has to be done every single day.
It’s not something that you just sort of develop, and it’s there forever. I truly believe you have to keep working on it, because things come along, in your life, that make you feel confident or unconfident. You have to learn to develop the tools to overcome the tough times.
Peter: I’m going to ask you a strange question, here, as I’m listening to you. It’s coming to mind. It goes a little bit to the core of all of this, and it also goes to the core of our society, and the way in which we tend to focus ourselves, or we tend to be focused, with all the media, and the self-help, et cetera. Is it actually really important to be the best that you can be? It goes back to the cost of it. But there’s so much emphasis on being the best that you can be, and it occurs to me that maybe that’s not such an important thing. It may be, but maybe, it’s worthwhile to be good enough, and balanced, and not extremely amazing at any particular thing, but having a strong foundation of a happy life, in whatever way that means, in relaxing, and taking vacations, and working. But not necessarily being the best that you can be. I’m curious to get your perspective on that.
Sarah: Yeah. I think that’s a really valid, cautional concern. I definitely think that the world, the cultural landscape we live in today, puts such an emphasis on success. That’s actually why I shy away from the word success, ’cause I think that it’s just a dumb word. In whose mind? I have people telling me all the time, “You’re so ‘successful.'” I’m like, “Well, that’s what you might think, but to me, I’m learning and growing. I’m still working on things.” I think, ultimately, being incredibly fulfilled is what we should all pursue. That’s the most important thing of all. That’s, to me, what I equate to living to your own potential. That’s up to you to define what that looks like, right? But I definitely agree with you, that when we get into a world where everyone’s feeling like they just have to be a leader, run things, be better off than the next person, if that’s not what makes you happy, then why would you do it?
Peter: Right. Right. Maybe being the best you can be, it seems so counter intuitive, especially culturally, but maybe being the best that you can be, for some people, and maybe for many people, isn’t actually the right frame. It’s interesting. It’s just something to think about, and for listeners to think about. There’s a gut response that we should all be the best. We should all reach our potential. I guess I’m at least asking the question, or suggesting, that at least in this check yourself out phase … One of the qualities of Extreme You is check yourself out, to check yourself out with that question. To say, “What is important to me? Maybe, in some ways, reaching my potential isn’t.” Which seems so certainly countercultural, but it’s an important question to ask.
Sarah: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Peter: In the book, you say that the worst thing is not failure. It’s fear. I think that feels really important, and I just wanted you to expand on that a little bit.
Sarah: Yeah. I’m quite passionate about this topic, ’cause I do spend a fair bit of time speaking to and mentoring young people coming into the workforce. It’s alarming to me how much of an issue fear has become for the current generation. I hold my generation accountable for creating it, because I think that if you go and speak to a room full of college students, and say, “Hands up, who has a fear of failure?” Every single hand will go up in the room. It’s this mortifying fear, and I think it is because they have been raised with this expectation of perfection. This expectation of perfect grades, perfect extracurriculars, perfect everything. There’s this fear that, “If I screw up, I’m going to fall down the rung on the ladder, and I won’t get a job, and I won’t get this, and I won’t get that.” It’s just so important for me to try and get the word out to younger people, starting their careers. That’s why I interviewed 25 incredibly high potential people, in the world, to prove out my theory, which is that you have to fail to … Really know who you are, at your best.
You have to fail. Therefore, getting sort of stuck in the middle of the road with fear, and just not trying anything at all, means that you’re, by definition, not developing yourself. Whereas if you take a risk, and you fail, even when you fail, as painful as it is in that moment, you’re growing so much more, and learning so much more, than if you didn’t … Young leaders, you don’t really get told, in your 20s, what it’s going to feel like, in your 40s, when you have hundreds, if not thousands of people, who are reporting to you, and you are trying to make giant decisions, in tough economic times.
It is hard. It takes incredible resilience to do that. If you haven’t been what I call battle tested, in terms of knowing how you react to failure, and how to process it and move on, it’s going to be tough for you, when you get into those more high pressure situations.
Peter: That makes total sense. It’s completely rational. It’s true, and yet people still feel that fear, and that fear still blocks. I guess my question is what you’ve seen in the extremers, or what you’ve seen that helps people develop their resilience to fear. Or, have the people you interviewed just naturally, either because of parenting, or because that’s their personality and constitution, have a higher threshold for failure? Or, is there something aside from what we talked about earlier, which is take little risks and fail in little ways, and then see that you’ve survived it, and then go to bigger ones. Is there something else that can help people who are listening develop their strength and grit, in the face of their fear?
Sarah: Yeah. I do think, without question, it comes with experience. For sure, at least all the research I’ve done, is you can’t go to college and take a paper on how to overcome fear, or how to deal with failure. You actually just have to do it. I do think it starts with taking small risks, and seeing how they go, and dealing with them. But one technique that I, personally, have used a lot that I talk about, in my book, is playing this game that I call what’s the worst that can happen? When you’re making giant decisions, and you’re really scared of them, and it’s going to hold you back from making them, really think through what’s the worst that can possibly happen?
More often than not, you’re going to get to realizing that you can recover from it. I can think of countless times when, in my case, it’s like what’s the worst that could happen? I could lose my job. I could be deported. I could go way down the list of how bad this could be. But actually, you get to the end point, and you’re like, “Well, if all that happens, I still have my health. I have my family. I have all these great things. By the way, I have a bunch of capabilities that are immediately hire-able, and I’m going to be able to get on with it, and find another job” … If you play that out, you almost can get control of the fears that are often stories you’re telling yourself, as opposed to realities.
Peter: I love it. Final question. How has your life been impacted by this book? How has it changed how you approach your life, based on all these interviews, and everything that you discovered in the three years of writing the book?
Sarah: Yeah. Hugely. More than I expected, actually. I feel like what it has helped me to do is understand a methodology that I can sort of guide myself back to, when I’m making decisions, and when I’m trying to understand how I want to go about being a leader. If I think a lot of things that I had experienced in my life, or techniques I was using, I’d learned from other people, but I’d never taken the time to really do the research to understand why something works. Now that I have, I think I just feel so much more, what’s the word? I feel like I want to hold myself more accountable to a higher standard of helping to develop others, with these amazing insights that I have learned, because I feel like it was an amazing gift, to get to interview these incredible people, and hear their stories. It’s definitely great wisdom that I want to share.
Peter: Well, thank you for sharing it. Sarah Robb O’Hagan. Her book is Extreme You: Step Up, Stand Out, Kick Ass, Repeat. It’s been a pleasure having you on the Bregman Leadership Podcast. Thanks so much for being on, Sarah.
Sarah: My pleasure.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes, and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of business. A lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, Visit PeterBregman.com. Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.
Are you afraid telling your employees the hard truth will make you seem like a jerk? Both praise and criticism should show you care, says Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. On this week’s podcast, learn how to make your critical feedback land, navigate the perilous boundary between honesty and obnoxious aggression, and embrace the power of radical candor.
- Are you too nice? It might be a problem, according to @kimballscott #podcast
- Why feedback sandwiches can be harmful with @kimballscott
Book: Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
Bio: Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity, published by St Martin’s Press. Kim is also the co-founder and CEO of Candor, Inc., which builds tools to make it easier to follow the advice she offers in the book. She is also the author of three novels.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Kim Scott. Kim is the author most recently of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity. It’s been reviewed already by Sheryl Sandberg who Kim has worked for and knows. Kim is the co-founder and CEO of Candor Inc. She’s been an advisor at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter and many other companies. She worked at Apple University, she worked at Google, she has a really great perspective on communication and saying the hard stuff when you want it to be heard in a way that can have an impact on results and outcome and that represents your caring for people enough to tell them the truth and some ways of doing that.
I want to just say that for me, it was such a great time to read this book, because to me, for me and my own work, this is my year to really commit to saying what I feel like needs to be said, and I’m already pretty good at it, but what reading the book reminded me of is how much better I could become at it. I’m really not good enough. The reasons I don’t share things are as a recent guest of ours, Bernie was his first name, for some reason, I’m forgetting his last name. But he wrote a really great book called The Achievement Habit, and if you heard that podcast, what you’ll hear is the refrain which is reasons are bullshit.
So my reasons for not doing that are because I want to protect them or I want to make sure they can hear and really those reasons are bullshit. The reason I don’t share things when they’re hard to share is because I’m protecting myself because I want to come off looking good because I want them to like me because I don’t want them to reject me or what I have to say. Kim has written something here that can help us all show up more fully, more powerfully in the way that we need to to help people and to help outcomes.
Kim, that’s the longest introduction I’ve done on any podcast. I apologize for that.
But welcome. Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Kim: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I think you’re being hard on yourself. It’s not only bullshit. There’s a perilous boundary between ruinous empathy, which is what happens when we really are genuinely so worried about the other person’s feelings that we don’t say what we mean and manipulative insincerity, which is what we all want to be like. We’re social animals. It’s natural in humans, so don’t be so hard on yourself.
Peter: Well thank you. Thank you. I want to get better, but I’m going to try to get better without being hard on myself. Sometimes I feel like the two have to go hand in hand, but maybe not. You’re already … your process is already helping me. You start the book with a great story about your management of Bob. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, because we’ve all been there?
Kim: Yeah, it was the most painful moment in my career. So we had hired this guy, we’ll call him Bob, Bob wasn’t actually his name. I really liked Bob a lot. He was smart. He was charming. He was funny. He would do stuff, like we were one time at a manager off site, and we were playing one of those get to know you games, that everybody hates, but nobody there is saying this is a giant waste of time, and Bob was the one who was brave enough to say hey listen, I know we’re all in a hurry, and I’ve got a great idea that’s going to be really fast, so everybody’s down with fast. He said let’s just go around the table and confess what candy our parents used when potty training us. Weird, but fast.
Then for the next 10 months, every time there’s a tense moment in a meeting, Bob would whip out the right piece of candy for the right person at the right moment.
Peter: That’s classic.
Kim: I think it’s endearing. I loved Bob. Just one problem with Bob. He was doing terrible work, absolutely terrible work. He would hand stuff in to me, and there was shame in his eyes. He knew it wasn’t good. I was bewildered by this because he had this amazing resume. I learned later the problem was that Bob was smoking pot in the bathroom every day, but I didn’t know that, maybe that explained all that candy. I didn’t know any of that at the time. I was just perplexed, what was going on with Bob.
So I would say to him, when he would hand something in to me, I would say to him, Bob, you’re so smart, you’re so awesome, we all love working with you, maybe you could make it a little better. And of course, he never did. It’s worth understanding what was going on. Partly, I really did like Bob, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but also partly I was afraid … Bob was kind of a sensitive emotional guy. I was afraid that if I really let Bob know what I actually thought, he would start to cry or something in the office. Am I allowed to curse on your podcast?
Peter: I guess I already did, so you can too.
Kim: So everybody would think I was a big bitch. Nobody wants to feel that way. For those two reasons, in part because I genuinely cared about Bob, but also in part because …
Peter: How you wanted to be seen.
Kim: Yeah, I wanted to be a popular leader. I didn’t tell Bob when his work wasn’t nearly good enough, and as a result, after 10 months of this, the inevitable happened, and because the whole team was having to pick up for Bob’s slack and redo his work, which takes longer than just doing it themselves, I realized that if I didn’t fire Bob, I was going to lose half my team.
So I sat down to have the conversation with Bob that I frankly should have begun 10 months previously, and when I was finished, Bob, pushed his chair back from the table, and he looked at me right in the eye, and he said why didn’t you tell me? As that question is going around in my head with no good answer, he looked at me again, and he said why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought you all cared about me. I realized in that moment that I had failed Bob in six really important ways.
I had failed to solicit feedback from him. Maybe I was doing something that was driving him so crazy that he was forced to get high in the bathroom. I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I didn’t solicit feedback. I also failed to give him real feedback, both praise and criticism. The praise I gave him was really just a head fake, and the criticism, I just failed. I totally didn’t tell him that his work wasn’t nearly good enough. Probably worst of all, I had failed to create an environment in which everyone would tell Bob what was genuinely good, and what they really appreciated, and when he was going off the rails. Because I had failed in all these different ways, Bob has now taken the fall. Bob is now getting fired.
I just wanted to be so nice to Bob all along, not so nice after all firing him. All I could do, at this point, even Bob realized it was too late, he should go. It was too late to save Bob. All I could do was make myself a really solemn promise that I would never make that mistake again. That was what prompted me frankly to write this book and come up with the framework and all the rest of it.
Peter: Yeah, you make this great critical point, I think, that the surprising thing or one of the surprising things about Radical Candor is that the results are often the opposite of what we fear. We’re worried someone’s going to become angry, but instead they end up being grateful. We’re worried we might end up disconnected from them, but that truth is actually leads us to be more connected. What guidance can you give people about how to take that leap? We’re going to talk about techniques in a second, but the hardest leap is to say I’m going to take that risk to say something that I think is true here that this person needs to hear. I’m worried about all this stuff.
Kim: So I think the most important advice that I ever heard any leader give around feedback was when I was at Apple, I was doing a class for a big chunk of the IOS team, and we were doing a role play, and it was just a role play. There was not any real consequences. People had just gone through this class about how to give feedback. We wrote this scenario in which participants had to play the role of the manager, and they had to tell an employee they were being really rude. We hired an actor to do this, and this actor was unbelievably rude to people, and still people couldn’t say your rudeness is getting in the way of being effective here.
Finally, Kim jumped up, she clutched her head, and she said just say it, and for most people, for most people, that’s the best advice I can give you is just say it. Don’t worry so much. I think so much of training around feedback and so many of the books we read tie us into knots, they’re really aimed at people who are genuine jerks. Most of us are not jerks. Most of us are too nice. Most of us make the too nice problem.
If you feel like your problem may be the too nice problem, just say it. Just say it.
Peter: You also used the story, you mentioned several times in the book around Steve Jobs who says your work is shit. For some reason this is the podcast of cursing, but Steve Jobs said it. One line that I really like in the book is to remind people you are not Steve Jobs, to just recognize let’s not just take somebody and try to model. If you’re going to model everything, if you are Steve Jobs, then great, you can say that, but otherwise, be careful. But also, that he wasn’t talking about someone personally. He was talking about their work. Say a word or two about that.
Kim: So one of the things that’s really important to remember when talking about radical candor is to understand, what I call in the book, the perilous boundary between radical candor and obnoxious aggression. One of the biggest mistakes that people make with radical candor is to think you can just be a garden variety jerk, I’m going to be radically candid with you, and then you proceed to just behave like a jerk. That’s not radical candor. That’s obnoxious aggression.
Now radical candor gets measured not in my mouth, but at your ear. I think the important thing about the example of Steve Jobs saying your work is shit is to understand the context in which he was saying that. First of all, he was saying it to people who were incredibly confident that their work was great. This comes from an interview, in the lost interview, and the interviewer says, what did you mean when you would say such a thing, and Steve laughs, and he said, well usually, I mean your work is shit, what do you think I mean? The interviewer says, well, one of your employees thinks it means, I didn’t quite understand that, would you explain that again, and Steve laughs, and he goes no, that’s not usually what I mean.
So he’s like making himself look like a jerk. But then he gets thoughtful, and he kind of leans back. He says when you are a leader, it is your job to let people know when their work isn’t nearly good enough, and you have to do it in a way that reassures them that you have confidence in their abilities, but leaves no room for ambiguity that the work isn’t nearly good enough, and that’s a hard thing to do, he says. Amen to that. It is really hard. I think that Steve probably gets a lot of flack for being a jerk, but he probably had to say things in an extremely harsh way in order to get through to some of his employees.
I also tell a story in a book about a time that my boss told me that I sounded stupid, and some people would say that was mean, but if she hadn’t said it to me just that way, then I wouldn’t have heard her. So it was actually the kindest thing she could possibly have done for me in that moment.
Peter: I also think both of these people or certainly the way you described in the book, the story of your boss saying that you’re stupid, is solidly in the quadrant, and we could talk about these quadrants, of caring personally and challenging directly that you … Well why don’t you actually describe those two? Because I think you’ve mentioned a few of the other terms outside of Radical Candor, and I think they play around with this two by two model.
Kim: Sure. One of the most important lessons I ever learned in my career about how to give feedback came at a time when my boss criticized me. I had just started at Google, and I had to give a presentation to the founders and the CEO of Google, and I walked into the room, and there is Sergey Brin on a treadmill in the corner in toe shoes, and there is Eric Schmidt the CEO of the time, with his so deep in his email, it’s like his brain has been attached to the machine. It’s impossible to get anybody’s attention.
So like anybody in this situation, I felt a little bit nervous. Happily, though, the business that I was leading was on fire. When I said how many new customers we had added in the last two months, Eric’s head snaps up out of his computer, he says what did you say, and then he said do you need more engineers, do you need more marketing dollars, what do you need.
So I thought the meeting went pretty well. As I’m leaving, I pass by my boss who was Sheryl Sandberg. She said, why don’t you walk back to my office with me, so I go from feeling like a genius to thinking oh boy, I screwed something up. I’m sure I’m about to hear about it. Cheryl said, you said um a lot in there, were you are of it, and I made this brush off gesture with my hands, and I said you know, it’s a verbal tic, it’s no big deal really. And she said I know a really good speech coach, Google would pay for it, do you want an introduction. Again, I make this brush off gesture with my hands, and I said it’s no big deal. Didn’t you hear about all these customers, I’m busy. I don’t have time to go to a speech coach.
Now she stops, she looks right at me, and she says, when you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid. Now she has my full attention. Again, if she hadn’t said it to me just that way, I wouldn’t have gone to see the speech coach, and when I did, I realized she really wasn’t exaggerating. I literally said um every third word. The thing that was interesting about this to me was that I have been giving presentations my entire career. I had raised millions of dollars for a startup giving presentations. I thought I was pretty good at it. Nobody had ever told me that I had this problem. It was as though I had been walking through my entire career with my fly down and nobody had had the courtesy to tell me.
So this was interesting to me, two things were interesting. One was what was it about Cheryl that made it easy for her or seemingly easy for her to tell me, but also very interestingly why had nobody else ever told me, and I realized it came down to two things as you mentioned, caring personally and challenging directly. I knew that Cheryl cared about me not just as an employee, but as a human being, and not just me, but all the people who worked directly for her. But she also never let her concern for our short term feelings get in the way of telling us something we needed to hear. Those are the dimensions of radical candor. That is with made it easy or seemingly easy for Cheryl to tell me what I needed to hear in a way that I could in fact hear it.
So I spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to define what happened when you fail on one dimension or another because nobody starts their career out thinking I don’t care about other people, so I’m going to be a great boss. That’s not what moves us down on the care personally dimension. Of course, part of it is we get busy, we get preoccupied, but I think on a more fundamental level what moves us down on that care personally dimension of radical candor is getting told when we’re 18, 19, 20 years old, we have our first job, we’re right at that moment in our careers when our egos are quite fragile, but our personas are beginning to solidify. Right at that moment, somebody comes along and says be professional. For an awful lot of us, that gets translated to mean leave your emotions, leave who you really are, leave your humanity, leave your very best part of yourself at home, and come to work like some kind of robot.
You can’t care about other people at a personal level as a robot. So that’s the care personally dimension. Then challenge directly. What is it that makes it so hard for us as you said in the beginning to say what we really think needs saying? I think this begins not when we’re 18 years old, but when we’re 18 months old. It begins when a parent or somebody says to us if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. And now all of a sudden, you’ve had this training since you learned to speak, and now it’s your job to say it. That’s hard. It’s really hard.
Peter: Right. I want to in some ways give the reverse case that you just gave because I know a number of people where they actually get the feedback in a sense. They’ve heard other people say it, but it’s a total blind spot. What they’ll say is I don’t have that problem, I’m not a micromanager. Like you say I’m a micromanager, but I’m not a micromanager. Do you have any advice to, with staying strong on the scale of both caring personally and challenging, what’s your advice for helping someone get past that blind spot place where you can say something and they’re just not really believing you?
Kim: I think often feedback fails when it’s too abstract. So if you say you’re a micromanager, I may be thinking about all these examples when I’m not a micromanager and also my intentions. Meanwhile, if you say Kim, when you told me that I had to move the picture in my room before we started the podcast, like you didn’t need to get into that level of detail. So the more specific you can make and the smaller example you can make the feedback, the easier for people it is to hear it.
Sometimes people also are … They have a blind spot, not because they’re in denial about the problem, but because they feel like it’s impossible to solve. So for example, there was somebody who I worked with, who people perceived as negative. He wasn’t a negative person actually. He was a lovely human being. But people were intimidated by him and often were discouraged after a conversation with him. At first, I started giving him all these specific examples of when he had been negative. Eventually, he looked at me, he clutched his head, he rocked back and forth, and he said ugh, my wife has been telling me this my whole life, it’s not something I can fix. I realized that I had myself, been negative. I had been acting the exact way I was telling him not to act.
So I said okay, we’re going to change this conversation. We’re going to talk about positive target identification. So if you’re skiing through the trees, you want to look at your path through the trees, you don’t want to look at the tree. You’re more likely to hit the tree if you focus too much on the tree. So I said I’m going to tell you very specifically about all the times you’ve got it right, and I’m going to do that for the next month when you aren’t negative. I’m going to point out all the times that you were positive, so that we can begin to understand when you are and how you can build on that. That was really helpful.
That’s an example of how praise can actually help somebody change their performance more than criticism.
Peter: And appreciative inquiry approach, looking for the times where you’ve done things right and reinforcing those, letting the other things take care of themselves.
Kim: Yeah, just so he could see what success felt like because he felt like a failure, and that wasn’t going to help him.
Peter: As I was thinking about this approach, and I was thinking about people’s resistance or hesitance or concerns, one of the things that came up for me I realized is we’ve all had habits of how we acted. This for many of us will represent a change in the habit. You made this great point about it’s not what comes out of your mouth, it’s about what comes into their ears. I think about that as the distinction between intention and impact. I have a certain intention, it’s going to impact you in a certain way, and that the most skillful people when we are being skillful, we close the gap between intention and impact. So what I intend has that impact on you. But a lot of times, we say something with a certain intention, and it has a completely different impact.
Peter: When you’re expecting me to be nice, because for the last 30 conversations that we’ve had, I’ve only had praise for you, and then I turn around and I go you’re really great, but every time you say um, you sound really stupid, that’s a change in our dance, right? I’m shifting our relationship in a way where I haven’t necessarily signaled that, and it may land particularly harshly on you because that is so counter to the way we have interacted before, and not only that but because I’ve never done it before, I risk either doing it so softly that you don’t even know I’ve done it or so harshly that you lose the sense of caring and you think the last 30 conversations we’ve had have been inauthentic.
So there’s a lot of question in there, but I’d love for you to help us parse that out because I think that’s one of the challenges.
Kim: It’s a really great question. I think one of the things to reframe in your mind, we often think that praise is nice and criticism is mean and that’s just not the right way to think about it. Let’s go back to that Bob story. It was not nice of me not to tell Bob. It wasn’t nice at all. So I think that recognizing that you’re trying to be helpful with both your praise and your criticism because you care about the person and you care about the person’s growth. You don’t want to pretend that there’s not going to be a negative emotion when you give criticism because there will be. I think any time that people try to pretend there’s not a negative emotion, they’re making a mistake.
So you’ve got to be prepared to experience that negative emotion, but you’ve also got to realize that it’s an act of kindness to tell the person this thing despite the short term negative emotions. It wouldn’t be very nice of a surgeon who needs to mend something in your body to refuse to cut you. That would not be nice of the surgeon. It wouldn’t be nice of your dentist to refuse to drill a cavity out of your tooth. That’s not nice.
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as emotional novacane. You have to be present for the other person’s emotions.
Peter: The interesting thing about those two examples is when you walk into the surgeon’s office and the dentist’s office, you have given them explicit permission to drill and cut, and so it seems like there’s usefulness in getting permission in some way, even if it’s as simple as I’ve seen something I think can help you, can I share some feedback with you or asking for permission so that you have their permission to say go ahead and cut or go ahead and drill.
Kim: Yes. I think that is really important. One of the things that I have found at a lot of companies who are rolling out radical candor to be very helpful is when people just put a copy of the framework in their office, tape it to the wall, tape it to your cube, whatever. You ask for permission, I have something I want to tell you, I want to tell you because in your shoes, I’d want to know, or I want to tell you this thing because I know you can fix it and I want to help you fix it, just somehow state your intention to be helpful, ask permission. Then ask how it landed.
Say how did that land for you, was I being radically candid, was I being obnoxiously aggressive, was I being manipulatively insincere, was I being ruinously empathetic. One of the things I found over and over again is that often when you have a shared vocabulary between people and the person you’re giving feedback to says I think you’re being ruinously empathetic here, it really helps you move out over on the challenge directly dimension of radical candor, maybe more than you’re entirely comfortable doing.
Peter: It’s great. It makes me think I should actually use this format when we run coach trainings, and it would be useful to use this because coaches absolutely need this skill. We have no value as coaches if we’re not able to be in that place of caring personally and also really powerfully challenging. So to challenge directly that that’s our strength and that’s our power. I almost imagine having people post that up in their offices with one of those little you are here arrow pointing in that place, just so that it becomes very clear. This is what we’re going for, we’re going for this box here and if I’m off a little bit, let me know, and I can give you a little more praise, or I can give you a little more direct criticism.
But we’re going here. I also, by the way, Kim, love what you say, and it’s just a small part of the book, but giving feedback in two to three minutes between meetings. I think the bigger deal we make of it, the harder it becomes. If every time I give you feedback I have to buy you dinner and then make a long conversation about it, etc, then I’m increasing the pressure that makes someone feel like oh there’s some really big problem as opposed to going no, you do this well, this is what you don’t do well. Let’s be really clear about it.
One last thing, and we’re running out of time, but I really wanted to ask you this question, because I’ve always been a proponent of separating out the positive from the negative feedback. It’s like an old style Ken Blanchard one minute manager, which says if you’re giving someone some critical feedback, you want them to feel it, and you want it to sink in, and you want them to really know it. When people give these feedback sandwiches, like you did this really well, here’s something you can improve, you did this really well, I think it’s more likely that someone leaves the conversation unclear about what the message was. I want them really clear about the message. So any quick advice for how people can avoid mixing messages when they are both caring and maybe sharing some things that you’re doing well or that’s supporting your success while also driving home the message that’s most important for you to hear around the thing you need to do better.
Kim: This is another reason why the frequent two minute conversations are so powerful because you’re probably not going to get three different pieces of feedback in two minutes. You’re going to talk about one thing, and it’s either going to be praise or criticism. I think as you say separating it out for most of us is really helpful, and I also think it’s so important to remember that both praise and criticism show that you care. They both show you care. It’s very tempting to think that praise is the way you show you care, and criticism is the way you challenge directly. But both praise and criticism should both show you care and also challenge people in the case of praise to do more of what’s good and in the case of criticism to fix a problem.
Peter: I love it. What I appreciate is I’ve now heard you say this on the podcast maybe two or three times in the 30 minutes that we’ve been talking, and I think you have to keep saying it because I think there is such a strong habitual muscle that says praise shows I care, criticism shows I don’t like. I really appreciate that you’re willing to keep saying it, and I’m glad you said it this third time because it’s so easy to slip away from that feeling and to say I’m not being nice to somebody when I share with them some criticism, and in reality, that’s the most caring thing I could possibly do.
Kim: It’s really hard to tease that out in your brain. When I was editing the book, I myself kept finding times when I had to do that. It’s hard to break that habit.
Peter: Kim Scott is with us. Her book is Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity. Kim, I really adored the book. I adored this conversation. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Kim: Thank you. It’s my pleasure. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move that organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you, Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.
Are you sucking the intelligence out of your team? According to Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, there are two kinds of leaders, multipliers and diminishers–and the latter only get about half of their team’s intelligence. Discover the one question that can make you a multiplier, a workaround for micromanaging, and the five disciplines of the multiplier leader.
- How to move from discussion to decision @LizWiseman
- What does your “done” look like? @LizWiseman discusses this and more on the #podcast
Book: Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter
Bio: Liz Wiseman teaches leadership to executives and emerging leaders around the world. She is the President of The Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley. Some of her recent clients include: Apple, Disney, eBay/PayPal, Facebook, GAP, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Roche, Salesforce.com, and Twitter. Liz has been listed on the Thinkers50 ranking and named as one of the top 10 leadership thinkers in the world and recipient of the 2016 ATD Champion of Talent Award.
Peter: Before I start the podcast, I have a quick message for all the coaches who are listening. This November, I’m running a master level coach training, and we’re looking for great coaches to join us. The training is where I share with a small group of coaches my most successful coaching techniques and strategies. It’s also where Bregman Partners looks to recruit new coaches for our coaching team.
Every time we run this training, it is such a powerful reminder to me of how meaningful a chance to learn, practice, and build a coaching community can be. I would love to meet you there. To register, visit peterbregman.com/leadership-coach-training.
Welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
With us on the podcast today is Liz Wiseman. She is a researcher and executive advisor who teachers leaders around the world. She’s president of the Wiseman Group, a leadership, research, and development center headquartered in Silicon Valley. She’s a former executive at Oracle, and she’s written an awesome book that I really enjoyed reading, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. She is now becoming a friend of mine as we met at the MG 100, the Marshall Goldsmith group that Marshall has pulled together, and it has been a delight to know you as much as I do, and I’m looking forward to getting to know you even better. Liz, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Liz: Peter, it is good to be with you. This is going to be fun.
Peter: I’m looking forward to it also. Let’s just jump in. I love the idea of multipliers. Could you explain the multiplier effect?
Liz: The multiplier effect is about a leader who brings out the best in people around them, and so essentially what I studied is why is it that some leaders seem to … You know, really smart people seem to suck intelligence out of a group. And they’re leaders I call diminishers. They may be smart, but people around them aren’t really allowed to or invited to be smart, whereas other leaders, equally intelligent themselves, seem to use their intelligence in a way that provokes and invites and even demands intelligence in the people around them. It’s about a leader who sees and uses and grows intelligence in others. They become, as a leader, the multiplier to the intelligence of their team. Or even maybe more simply put, it’s about a leader who other people are really smart around.
Peter: That’s great. And I assume that if other people are smart around them, you’ve correlated that in part to their productivity to what they’re able to achieve, that bringing out the smartness of others leads to better results for the organization, for the team, et cetera?
Liz: Yeah. The essence of the research that I did is asking people how much of your intelligence is this leader getting from you, based on the way he or she leads? And what I found was that under diminishing leaders, these leaders were getting less than half of people’s intelligence.
Peter: So people were basically saying to you, “I feel like I’ve got a lot of good ideas, and they’re either shut down or I choose not to share them because of the way this leader approaches me.”
Liz: Yeah. And sometimes … Exactly, Peter. Sometimes, these leaders do literally shut it down. Sort of like hand up, no thank you. I’ve got this. Or sometimes, you get this diminished effect because the leader is just really smart and capable, and so people hold back because they don’t need to contribute. They defer upward for ideas, for accountability, and … And so, we found these diminishing leaders get less than half of people’s intelligence, and when we asked that same question to people around leaders they deemed to be multipliers, the average was 95% of people’s capability and intelligence.
You know, what struck me first is it’s a 2X difference. And I can’t suggest that it’s twice the productivity, but what I can tell you is that when you lead this way, you get all of people’s ideas and capability, and you can imagine what happens when people go into work, working for diminishing leaders, be they tyrannical, narcissistical kind of diminishers, or maybe even just accidental diminishers. People come to work wanting to give 100%. 100% of their intelligence badges in every morning, but what happens when less than half of it gets used in a given day or a week or a month? What does it do to the environment when people resign themselves to only being able to half contribute? It creates these toxic environments around them.
Peter: Right, and we’ve seen … I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen. I’ve certainly seen these environments, where people come into work and feel like they have a lot to offer and it’s not so welcome and there’s not really an opportunity, so they begin to shut down more parts of them than they would even otherwise, because they just kind of give up and then eventually, they find another job if they’re smart.
I do want to speak the voice of the diminisher for a second, because I know leaders who will say, “You know, it’s true, there are a lot of great ideas on this team. But the fact is, we’ve got to execute on just a couple of things, so I don’t need everybody’s great ideas. I know where we need to act with urgency, we need to move forward incredibly fast. I appreciate that lots of people have ideas, but I don’t want to hear them because I need us to just take action in this direction, move forward. Don’t complicate things. I don’t want to do everything by consensus.” Et cetera. And I’m wondering whether there’s an upside to that, or whether that’s always destructive.
Liz: Yeah. Yeah, no, there’s probably not an upside to diminishing, but there’s an upside to clarity, and there’s a upside to conviction. What we find is that these multiplier leaders are not soft leaders. They’re not consensus driven leaders. In many ways, they’re decisive and they’re hard edge. In fact, when I submitted … And, Peter, I know you’ve written several books and you know that feeling of sending the book off to the publisher, the manuscript.
Liz: And waiting to hear back. When I sent the manuscript off to Harper Collins and I’m waiting to hear back, one of the things that struck me is when my publisher, responded back and she was like, “Wow, these are not cupcakes and kisses kinds of leaders.”
Liz: And she could see what I had come to see; that this wasn’t about nice guys versus mean guys as leaders. It’s about a type of leader who sees a need, has a mission, has … Whether it’s a vision, a goal, a mission, they have something they need to accomplish. But they need all of the intelligence of the team. They’re demanding that people contribute. But when it comes to making important decisions, they don’t just jump in and make the decisions like, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do, I don’t need anyone else.” They play the role of debate maker. And the role of debate maker is to decide what’s the question we’re trying to answer, and to frame it, explain why it’s important, and then to invite people to weigh in. Not in a protracted debate, but more surgical. More like here’s a thing we’ve got to figure out. I need you, I need you, and I need you to give me your opinion. I’ve heard it. We’re going to stir it up and create a rigorous debate, even for only a few minutes, but then we’re going to make a decision and move forward.
And it’s amazing what happens when a leader allows other people to weigh in. They end up getting the buy-in, so they don’t need a command and control. By asking people to contribute, they’ve gotten the commitment behind it.
Peter: It seems like the framing is an incredibly important piece, right? Which is to say, we’re not just going to have an open conversation. We have a decision to make. These are the issues related to the decision. I want to hear people’s perspective before we make that decision. It’s framing it in a direction that moves forward, and you’re not stuck in discussion, but you’re moving from discussion to decision.
Liz: Yeah. You know, sometimes, Peter, when I put all of my research and the models and the book and all of that aside and just think, how would I lead like a multiplier? How would I lead in a way that invited people to be smart? I just simply stop and ask myself, what information would people need to make an intelligent decision? And then, it puts me in a mode of saying, oh, my job is to frame things for my team, to explain here’s what’s going on. Here’s why this is urgent.
Or sometimes, at minimum, like when I’m about to have a little diminishing moment, and we all are going to have a micromanaging kind of moment. Sometimes, the framing is simply, “Here’s why I don’t have time for debate on this. Here’s why I need to micro-manage this and be all over it”. And just explaining the rationale allows people to act intelligently and respond intelligently.
Peter: That feels very important, that the leader’s role is to shape the discussion, the direction, and the boundaries around it, and then to let people be free within that to move forward in the way that they can best use their top resources.
Liz: Right. And we all know that there’s cases where people create boundaries about this big, right?
Liz: And then there are times when those walls and the boundaries are really wide. And as your team grows around you and you grow talent around you, I think you find people can get … Think you can let your team off leash.
Peter: Talk to me about diminishers and what you call accidental diminishers, right? Those people that we all know who probably don’t intend to be diminishers. I don’t know very many people who intend to be diminishers, but that’s ultimately the impact they end up having.
Liz: You know, it’s interesting. In some ways, this was the big surprise and the great disappointment of my research, actually, because when I started doing this research, it was so clear to me. I could see these leaders around whom everyone was brilliant, and then I could see the diminishers, the vampires, and they looked to me like bullies and tyrants and sometimes hot-headed leaders.
Peter: Can you give some examples of things they do or say that represent them, so that everyone has an image in their minds?
Liz: Oh, the true diminisher? Okay, so the classic true diminisher, when it comes to managing talent, they tend to be empire builders. They love to hire smart people, but they’re acquiring resource. In terms of the work environment, they’re tyrants. They create stress all around them. When it comes to setting direction, they tend to be know-it-alls. They’re quick with an answer, they know how to do everything. Meetings with them are going to end up looking like they’re the smartest person in the room. They’re decision-makers. And they’re micro-managers. Those are some of the classic traits of these …
Peter: It’s funny because some of those are the traits of classic, older style command and control leadership. It’s the way we thought leadership should be maybe 30 years ago.
Liz: Yeah. It’s what we have historically deemed as strong leaders. So this is what I studied. I studied these multiplier leaders, these diminishing leaders, and it was this nice contrast, and the world was easy. But then when I really dug into this, Peter, what I discovered is that most of the diminishing that’s happening in our workplaces, in our non profit organizations, in our schools, is coming from the accidental diminisher, which doesn’t look a lot like that. These are well intended people. These are people who are the first to sign up for management training. These are people who read management books, who listen to management podcasts. These are people who host management podcasts, and write management books. People like us, who really want to be great leaders, but are doing things that are actually sucking the life out of the people who work around us. And it’s done with the best of intent.
So it was more complicated and more interesting. And I actually find this is the key to creating really intelligent cultures and places where people can be brilliant and whole at work, is learning to spot the triggers for accidental diminishing.
Peter: Right. And it feels like the way you’ve described it, too, at least for a lot of accidental diminishers that I know, it comes out of this place of insecurity. It actually takes courage to say “I don’t know” in an organization. It takes courage to say, “I need other people’s input to figure out how to make this decision.” And so I think the more confident leaders are probably a little more willing to frame and have conversation than the leaders who are a little more insecure, and that insecurity leads to arrogance versus confidence. Security leads to confidence, in a sense. I wonder whether you’re seeing that happen in organizations and people.
Liz: We do. When I’m with groups and we’re talking about their diminishing leaders, once of the words that comes up over and over is they were insecure. And it’s caused me to really double down on a point of view that I’ve always had, is I want to work around brilliant people. But I also want to work around people who are really confident of their intelligence. I actually want to work for the person who thinks he or she is smart, brilliant, has genius, and they’re so confident in their own intelligence that they’re over it. You know? It’s like, hey, I’m brilliant. Okay. That felt good. Now I’m over it, and I can come into work every day not trying to prove I’m the smartest person in the world or in the room. I can use my own intelligence in a way that invites intelligence in others to see the right challenge, to ask the right question, to know how to frame the right debate. So I actually want to work with people who are supremely confident in their own intellect. And over it.
Peter: Give us a brief run-through of the five disciplines of the multiplier.
Liz: Here’s what we noticed that these multiplier leaders do that causes other people to step up around them, and to be fully accountable and at their best. The first is how they manage talent. Whereas that diminisher tends to be the empire builder, the multiplier tends to be a talent magnet. Not only do they see and scout talent, but talent tends to find them, and it’s because they use people for their native genius, the thing they do easily and freely. It would be like, okay, how does Peter’s mind built? What is he going to do that he just actually can’t help but do, and how do I channel that and use that against our biggest challenges?
Peter: It’s a point that you make in the book that I really liked, which is that one of the things that talent magnets do is they help people grow and move on to new things. Sid Finkelstein in his book, Superbosses, talked a lot about that.
Liz: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Peter: And the concern always is, but then I’m going to lose all my good people, and the point that you make is reputation precedes you and that there’s a steady stream of great talent. There’s a line of people that want to keep working for you. And so that you don’t have to worry about am I going to give away my best talent, because new talent is coming all the time.
Liz: Yeah, there’s always this moment where when people are talking about multipliers and diminishers and someone usually will assert that, “Multipliers have better retention rates, right, Liz?” And my answer is no. Actually, not necessarily. Not typically, even, as they do tend to have a flow of talent. They do become like superbosses, and I had the good fortune of working for one of these superbosses that Sydney Finkelstein mentions in Superbosses.
And, you know, I heard so many people say that about their multiplier leaders. They’re like, man, I would work for him anytime, anywhere. These are people we want to go and work for because they see our talent, they use it, they shine a spotlight on it, and just at the point where we’re at an apex, maybe in our productivity and our career, they say, “Hey, Liz? You’re ready to go do the next hard thing.” Like, move along, sister. They’re kind of actually keeping people not in their zone of productivity as much as their zone of learning and contribution, which is uncomfortable for everyone in some ways.
Peter: Creating intensity is another one.
Liz: Yeah. Yeah, so this is about the work environment they create. Whereas that diminisher creates stress around her, the multiplier creates safety. It’s intellectual safety where people can do their best work. It’s the difference between working in a tense environment and an intense environment. One of my favorite examples of this is K.R. Sridhar at Bloom Energy. They’re a cleantech startup, and he says, “I try to create an intense environment.” And one of his distinctions was, I require my scientists, the people who work for him, I absolutely demand that they run the experiments, but I don’t hold them accountable for the results of the experiments.
Peter: So it’s about process as opposed to outcome, necessarily.
Liz: Right. Because he’s asking people to take accountable for what’s in their control. And if you’re going to innovate and push the envelope with science, you can’t hold people accountable for the outcome of that. But you can absolutely hold them accountable for asking the questions, preparing the … running good experiments, learning.
Peter: Does that hold true for sales as well? Science, it makes sense, in terms of the point of research. Sales, you could argue the same thing, which is that it can hold you accountable for making X numbers of sales calls and X numbers of reach-outs. But ultimately, what you’ll hear in terms of sales is ultimately, the outcome is what ends up mattering. What do you see in sales organizations?
Liz: You know, one of my favorite examples of an intense leader, this liberator kind of discipline for the multipliers is Rob Enslin at SAP, who is this phenomenal sales leader. We know the world of the sales leader, and this is a sales executive who has a quota in the billions of dollars, and when the economy would go bad, and very times so many other leaders would just push and drag in numbers, this is when he would step back, ask the right questions, demand that his team thought through the issues, but create a safe environment where it was okay to say, “You know that deal? That’s just popped out of our pipeline. We’ve lost that one.” And one of the things about him that his people said is he’s a sales leader who never gets surprised. Because people are willing to tell him the truth. He’s created a safe place for people to say, “Here’s what’s really going on in the market.”
Liz: I don’t think they miss their numbers very often.
Peter: Right. You talked a little bit already about debating decisions, extending challenges, instilling ownership and accountability. Those are the other three. I’m kind of curious about … because we talked a little bit about the idea of challenges and debating. The strongest way to instill ownership and accountability, is it by getting other people’s ideas? Are there other elements to that that you can share?
Liz: You know, I think it’s about putting other people in charge. I think there’s so many leaders who are stuck in this conundrum where they want their people to step up, but they haven’t let go themselves. It’s almost like … Let me see if I can find a pen here at my desk. It’s like the pen represents accountability, and if I were saying, “Okay, Peter, I want you to take ownership of it.” And I hand you this pen and say, “Okay, go ahead and take ownership. It’s yours. Run with it. You’re in charge.” And then I’m wondering why you haven’t grabbed onto the pen, and I’m home talking to my husband, going, “Yeah, I put Peter in charge, but he’s just not running with it.” See, the problem is, most leaders never let go.
Liz: Yeah. For someone else to take charge, I have to let go. There has to be this hand-off. Imagine a baton race where the lead runner hasn’t let go of the baton and let the next person go. I heard people say this over and over about these multiplier leaders; “Oh, they’re really empowering. They empower others.” As an author, Peter, you can appreciate this. I made sure that I never included the word empowerment in the manuscript. It was one of the final things I did before I sent it off to the publisher is make sure the word empowerment never showed up, because I just wasn’t sure what the word meant, you know? It seemed vague. But when you really click on empowerment, what empowerment means is to give power.
Liz: And so if you want other people to step up and take ownership, you have to say, “Okay, it’s yours, which means it’s not mine.”
Peter: Great. So this is great, because I’m thinking of a leader who’s an accidental diminisher. Or from everyone else’s perspective, a diminisher, and I think from his, an accidental diminisher. And I think that’s absolutely not his intention. He does exactly that, right? Which is to give the pen but not let go. And one of the challenges is he’ll say, “Look, I’m happy to let go if they actually follow through and do it, but two months down the road, they still haven’t done it, and at a certain point, I have to jump in and do it. Because I have a standard, and they’re not meeting the standard, and I’ve been very, very clear, but they’re not prioritizing it or they’re not doing it, or et cetera, and I’ve got to take it back or I’ve got to hold onto its tail, and et cetera.” What do you say to that person?
Liz: I’m going to give you my favorite, very practical ways to put other people in charge, and then a caveat to that. The first would be to remember the pen. That people can’t take it unless you have let go of it. One of my favorite examples was John Chambers, when he was CEO of Cisco. He’s fairly new in the CEO role. He is hiring his very first vice president into the company, a guy named Doug, and Doug’s going to run customer support, and he says to Doug, “Doug, when it comes to this part of the business, you get 51% of the vote and 100% of the accountability.” I just don’t know a faster way to tell someone else that they’re in charge than to say, “You get 51% of the vote.”
Peter: So who is holding him accountable? Who is-
Peter: When you say the 100% of accountability. So he’s still there, kind of saying, “You’re getting the vote, and you’re making the decision, but I’m going to hold you accountable, but let me be clear on the measures in which I’m going to use to hold you accountable, and they’re going to be public enough between us, and it’s going to be very, very clear objectively whether you’re meeting them or not,” so that he’s not having to sit there constantly and say, “You’re not meeting my measure. Let me tell you what my measure is; it just changed.”
Liz: Yes. And I think the 51% of the vote is really important. If someone tells me I have 51% of the vote, and 100% of the accountability, it reminds me, I don’t have 100% of the vote. 51 means there’s someone else who has 49, so what Chambers is saying is, hey, you know what? This is your part of the business. You run support. I run the company. I’m 49% of the vote, meaning I want to give you direction. I want to be informed. I want to be consulted. I want to offer ideas that I have, but in the end, if you and I disagree or you don’t have time to loop me or whatever, I back you. I just think it’s a really, really clear way to put somebody else in charge.
Another one of my favorite … In fact, it’s so empowering. Just on Saturday, my husband and I were working on a little house remodel project, which was really … I was leading it, and he kind of walked in, he goes, “Liz, you got this. You’ve got 51% of the vote.” And I’m like, “Dang, I do! I do! I like that!” But I also remembered, 49. I need to consult him with a little of this.
Here’s one of my favorite sassiest ways to do this is … Because I think in some ways, collaboration has been an enemy of good leadership. I think so many of us want to collaborate, but don’t we really all want to know who’s really fundamentally in charge?
Liz: I think it’s like we can work together, but you got to know who’s in charge. I often use the 51-49% when I’m collaborating with someone. We’ll say, okay, let’s work together on this, but who’s 51%? Okay, you got this, you got that. Sometimes I’ll tell people, “Okay, this is yours. You have 51% of the vote.” And then here’s what I say, just to make it absolutely clear. I say, “I’m now going to cross this off my to-do list.” And I remember there’s this one guy I used to work with, Ben Putterman. I love him, he works at Tesla now. And he would stop and he would say, “Are you saying that I should have that on my to-do list?” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.” And he goes, “So I’m in charge. I should be doing something about this?” I’m like, “Yeah, exactly. Good interpretive skills.”
Or some days, I would say to him, “Ben, you know what? I want you to run with this. You’re in charge.” And then I would say, “I’m going to stop worrying about this.” Or, “I’m not going to wake up tomorrow thinking about this.” And then he would pause again and go, “So are you trying to tell me I should wake up thinking about this?” Yes! Exactly.
Peter: It’s a great example. It’s such a great example, because that level of clarity is what’s necessary, because people, in crazy ways, misunderstand all the time and that’s just human nature.
Liz: It is. And we want to work together, and so we’re like, okay, well, we’ll do it together. Well, if we’re doing it together …
Peter: Then no one’s personally accountable.
Liz: Our rule is in our house, if nobody’s in charge of feeding the cats, the cats will starve. You know? We got to know who’s in charge of this-
Peter: Yeah, that’s great. Having that conversation, deciding who has the 51%, deciding who has the 100% of accountability.
Liz: Right, and who’s got it on their to-do list and who’s going to wake up in the morning thinking about it. And then here’s another one. If you’re having trouble with ownership and delivering to people’s facts, one of the techniques I’ve seen people use really well is for the leader to describe what done looks like. You will know you’re done when this happens. Yeah, sometimes I do things as simple as when I’m asking someone to prepare a document or some preparation, I’ll say, “What I’m expecting is a document with a staple in it,” which is my way of saying, “It’s not a paragraph. It’s not a one pager. It has a staple.” Or, “You’ll know you’re done when you can boil this down to a single piece of paper.”
Peter: I love it.
Liz: So the more you can tell people what done looks like in your mind … I think most leaders fall short because they just are moving too fast, and there’s the lazy thing that kicks in, and we don’t stop to take here’s what my expectation is and let me share it. And in absence of that, how would I know? How would I know?
Peter: In the last minute or so that we have, I love the idea of your 30 day challenge. I’m sort of running an experiment, trying to shift to more of a multiplier capability. Can you throw that challenge out to listeners?
Liz: The challenge is, what is a small thing that you can do to be more of a multiplier? And I’ll just toss out a few you might consider. One is instead of telling, ask people. I would encourage you to take the extreme question challenge, and the challenge is this. Go into a meeting, a one on one, a touch base with someone, a staff meeting, and say, “My job is only to ask questions.” My promise to you if you take this challenge is that it will be hard. It might be brutally hard. But, it will reshape the way you see your role as a leader. So maybe you take the extreme question challenge.
Maybe if you tend to over-contribute, you’re bringing too much of the energy, too much of the ideas, you’re accidentally diminishing that way, maybe you take the poker chip challenge and you come into a meeting and you bring a set of four chips with you, in your head. And each one represents something you say or contribute. We find that the best leaders know when it’s time to be big, and they play a chip with a big idea, a big ask, a statement, a clarification. And then they also know when it’s time to be small. And not disengage, but intellectually retreat and create space for other people to contribute, or maybe you identify the native genius of the people on your team, or maybe even more important than that, the native genius of someone on your team that you’re having trouble with. The person you don’t see value in. And instead of asking, “Is this person smart? Really, is this person smart?” Ask instead, “In what way is this person smart?”
Or maybe you take the rubber band challenge and … oh goodness, maybe … Let’s see if I have an even rubber band here with me. Is you take a rubber band challenge and instead of giving people things to do, you think of work as a rubber band, and this is delegating work, and you think about it more like this; what can I give someone to do that’s the max stretch?
Peter: Stretching out the rubber band.
Liz: The thing that’s going to stretch them to the point where they’re uncomfortable and almost feel like they’re going to break, and then my job as a leader in that uncomfortable stretch where Liz is struggling and I’m asking her to do something hard, is simply to just hold the position and let her come to me and have the satisfaction of figuring out the hard thing. My job is to learn how to set stretch right.
Peter: Sit in the discomfort of someone else’s discomfort without alleviating it.
Liz: You know, I think that’s exactly right. Too many leaders haven’t become comfortable watching other people being uncomfortable. Yeah, and I think that’s the genesis of accidental diminishing is that often, it’s not our disbeliefs in people. It’s that sometimes we care too much, and we’re too quick to save, and too quick to offer an idea rather than sit in silence for a few minutes.
Peter: We have been talking with Liz Wiseman. We’re talking about one of her books: Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. Liz, you’ve certainly made me smarter in this conversation. I thoroughly appreciate your perspective. I think the book is excellent. I think people should run out and buy it, and it’s already helped me lead more effectively, and it will have the same impact on whoever reads it. So, Liz, thank you. Thank you for sharing your ideas, and thank you for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.
Liz: Thank you. Thank you for your leadership and for teaching all of us.
Peter: Before we go into the closing music, I want to remind you again that my master level coach training is happening in a few short weeks. I’d love to see you there. To register, visit peterbregman.com/leadership-coach-training, or check out the URL in iTunes.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman leadership podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you, Clare Marshall, for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.
Are you confusing comfort with happiness? Emily Esfahani Smith furthers our discussion on happiness with her book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. Discover the four pillars of meaning, why our culture has an obsession with happiness, and why happiness can’t be pursued.
Book: The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters
Bio: Emily Esfahani Smith is a journalist and the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness (Crown). In this book, Smith argues that the unending pursuit of happiness has distracted us from what really matters—the search for meaning in life. Smith draws on psychology, philosophy and literature—as well as her own reporting—to write about the human experience. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Criterion, and other publications.
- Discover the four pillars of meaning with @EmEsfahaniSmith #podcast
- Happiness can’t be pursued, it must ensue @EmEsfahaniSmith We talk meaning and more on the #podcast
Peter: Before I start the podcast, I have a quick message for all the coaches who are listening. This November, I’m running a master level coach training. And, we’re looking for great coaches to join us. The training is where I share with a small group of coaches my most successful coaching techniques and strategies. It’s also where Bregman Partners looks to recruit new coaches for our coaching team. Every time we run this training it is such a powerful reminder to me of how meaningful a chance to learn, practice, and build a coaching community can be. I would love to meet you there. To register, visit http://peterbregman.com/leadership-coach-training/ or check out the URL in the iTunes store.
Okay, now on to the podcast.
Welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast, I’m Peter Bregman; your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
Emily Esfahani Smith is with us today and she has recently written the book “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters”. Emily is an excellent writer. She writes about culture, relationships, and psychology for The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She holds an MA in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Washington DC. She’s got this understanding of the psychology of what gives us joy and pleasure and positivity in our lives. She’s also a scholar of writing. If you’re going to read a book, both of those things are really useful, especially if it’s a book about meaning and purpose and what’s going to make us happy.
Emily, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Emily: Oh, thanks for having me, and thanks for all the kind words.
Peter: It’s my pleasure. It’s well deserved.
Emily, let’s start with this critical distinction that you make between happiness and meaning.
Emily: Right, so I think this distinction is a big reason why I ended … why I was inspired to write this book. Our culture is obsessed with happiness. It’s hard to go to a bookstore or navigate to your favorite website online without seeing articles about how to be happier, 10 steps to a happy life. There is this assumption that a good life is a happy life. We’re constantly getting the message that happiness is the most valuable thing that we should aspire to. But, I grew up surrounded by people, and maybe we can talk about this later, who were leading meaningful lives and weren’t necessarily devoted to the pursuit of their own happiness.
When I got to graduate school for positive psychology, I saw that there was this new research growing up around this distinction between happiness and meaning. It was really interesting to me because it suggested that there are some downfalls to pursuing happiness and that we should be aspiring to lead a meaningful life. The way this research distinguishes between the two is happiness, and this also I should say is kind of there is philosophy that supports these distinctions and this separation between the two as well.
Happiness, psychologists and philosophers say, is a state of feeling good. It’s a positive mental and emotional state. If you feel good, you’re happy. If you feel positive emotions, you’re happy. And when you feel bad, you’re unhappy.
Meaning, though, is bigger. It’s about connecting and contributing to something beyond yourself. When people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because they’re in three conditions to that entire side. The first one is that they think that their lives have significance, which means that they think their lives have value and worth. The second one is they think their lives are driven by a sense of purpose. So, some kind of valued goal or aim that motivates you and that makes a contribution to the world, and gives you a role to play in society. The final thing is coherence. People don’t think that their lives are just a series of disconnected events, they don’t think the world is senseless. But, they see their lives as a coherent whole and the world makes sense to them.
Peter: So, these are ultimately things that lead to happiness that we don’t pursue. This is what I wanted to clarify. We don’t pursue happiness for happiness’ sake because the pursuit of happiness often leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. But, the pursuit of these things and you talk about four areas; belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence, is really a path to meaning, and that path to meaning ultimately brings on happiness. Am I thinking about this correctly?
Emily: Yes. I think that that’s fair to say. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor is … he’s a giant in psychology when it comes to meaning. He said that happiness can’t be pursued, it must ensue, it’s the byproduct of leading a meaningful life. There is research that shows that when we chase happiness and value it in this obsessive way as our culture encourages us to do, that we actually end up feeling unhappier, it makes us feel lonelier. Whereas if we do things that we think are meaningful, we’re left with this deeper sense of well being and contentment.
Peter: I’m wondering if you’ve been in … and I don’t want to put you on the spot here and that, of course, you always say that right before you put someone on the spot. But, you don’t have to commit any personal stories or anything. But, I’m curious if you’ve been in debates or conversations with Gretchen Rubin and with all these people who have been really focused on happiness and Harvard researchers and people who have been on this podcast who talk about happiness and what it takes to be happier; and whether that because they’re also based on research and whether that false pursuit, whether they’re trying to get at the same thing you’re trying to get at, but they’re just using the label of happy because people are attracted to that? Or are they really trying to get to something different?
Emily: Right. I think that … and I haven’t … I’ve had a conversation with Gretchen Rubin. I think she is a wonderful writer and I’ve read her book and it seems to me like its … there is all this psychology research showing that if you do certain things, it will make you happier. What’s interesting to me is that those things are really, they’re kind of the pursuit of meaning. It’s like writing a gratitude letter. It’s practicing … counting your blessings every day. It’s doing good for others. Being kind to others. These are all meaningful things that we do.
I think that … I’ll say two things. One is that there is a debate within psychology; an academic debate about whether meaning and happiness are really different because they, when you try to look at people who say that their lives are happy and meaningful and things like that, they correlate very closely. People who have meaningful lives tend to be happy and vice versa. But, there are also … So, it’s a lot of people saying you can’t pull these two apart. But, I follow the philosophical tradition that goes back to Aristotle that says that actually these two are different pursuits. It brings me to the second point I want to make, which is that it has to do with what motivates you and what your orientation is. Some people I think are really motivated by the pursuit of happiness and so they think, “Oh, if I do this, it’ll make me happy.” That’s great.
Other people are motivated by the pursuit of meaning. I think that what the research shows is that the people who are motivated by the pursuit of happiness it’s a little bit more of a self-involved endeavor because you’re worried about your happiness. That happiness is literally how I feel in the moment. But, meaning is about there is this service element. It’s giving to others. I think that the orientation changes your behavior. There is studies showing that when you tell people to go out and pursue happiness, they do things like sleep in, go to the spa; whereas if they pursue meaning, they’re like they volunteer, they go visit a sick relative. I think that it changes our mindset, and I think that the distinction is real.
Peter: I think it’s a great point. The example of the spa and the sleeping in, it’s almost like a confusion of comfort with happiness or the pursuit of positive emotions. I have to say that when you were saying being happy is all about having nice emotions and not negative emotions. We have a lot of coach training, and we run leadership work, and we bring people to really heightened emotional states because that’s part of the process. When I’ve seen someone get super angry, and there is tons of energy coursing through their body, and I’ll pause, and I’ll say,”How do you feel right now?” They’ll say,”I actually feel really great.” That anger is a very empowering feeling. There are some of these emotions that we might try to stay away from in order to be “happy” and yet those are emotions that actually give us a sense of energy in our lives.
Let’s talk about belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. I have some questions related to each. But, in terms of belonging … I think they’re relatively self explanatory in terms of each categories. But, explain whatever you feel like you need to in order to answer the questions.
Peter: In terms of belonging, I often feel a push and pull. Like, I definitely have a sense of belonging with various groups. But, I also have a feeling of difference, of not quite fitting in. I mean, I’m Jewish and there is a tremendous amount of sense of community and belonging in Judaism and I’m married to a Christian minister. In there, there is an immense amount of ostracizing from that. How do we belong while also living in this in-between place?
Emily: If I can just step back for a second and say these four pillars, when I was trying to figure out … So, the first step in this journey that let me to write this book was just figuring out this distinction between happiness and meaning and trying to understand what the definition of meaning was. Next thing was how can we actually lead meaningful lives? Like people who say that their lives are meaningful, what do they have in their lives that makes them so. So, I did all these research, interviewed people, and these themes came up that I call the four pillars of meaning. When people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because they have these four pillars or some of the four pillars, and belonging is one of them.
To your question, I think that it’s … I would define belonging in the following way; you feel a sense of belonging in your relationships or in your community when you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you, in turn, value the other person or the people in the community for who they are intrinsically. You gave the example of you’re Jewish, your wife is Christian, there is a lot of community within Judaism. I think that a lot of times, people think that belonging is a form. It’s like a form of groupishness or group identity. I think that groups can certainly provide belonging, but that a lot of times, we can think of a group like if you think of gangs or if you think of a group like ISIS, that it’s a false belonging that they provide because you’re not being valued for who you are intrinsically, you’re being valued for what you’re willing to do, what you believe, who you hate, and not for who you are.
So, I think that as you try to navigate that in between, it’s recognizing that it’s really about connecting to someone as a human being regardless of what these group identities and labels that we adopt.
Peter: This is so interesting, Emily, because it’s, I think it’s one of the hardest things. I love your description of it and I would say I don’t know if I can come up with examples where I think it’s done well. Organizations, they value us and we’re valued in them; but for what we’re able to produce and how we’re able to perform. Families should be an area where you totally belong no matter what, and yet if you make a choice that is out of sync with the family, then ultimately maybe it ends up in belonging. But, there is a lot of stress in families because they make choices that their parents or their siblings don’t like. It’s very hard for me to come up with an example of a group where really who you are is what I care most about.
We care so much about our own happiness that when what you do affects my happiness I would rather just strong arm you into making a choice that makes me happy, versus saying,”I fully want you to completely be yourself.” I mean, you see that in examples of people who come out as gay or transgender and the challenges that they face in their communities or in their families often. Not always. I’m just wondering how we manage that; how we belong without giving up a part of ourselves and really find those kinds of communities.
Emily: I think that it’s … they’re … I’ll say two things. The first one is I think, I mean, you’re absolutely right that there is this tension between the individual trying to express who they are and hopefully they’re trying to express the best within them and not the worse and have that be accepted and there is not always acceptance from the group. I think that, though, the group … So, if you’re in an organization, yes, as an employee you’re valued for what you produce, the quality of your work, your talent. But, that’s, I think a separate matter from this, I guess I would say moral question of how you’re treating one another as individuals. So, if somebody messes up, that might take a hit to their professional status. But, it shouldn’t lead them to be treated with contempt and spite. I think that this recognition that the individual is the unit that we should value might lead to a more compassionate, empathetic response even if something happens and it’s not good for the organization as a whole.
That’s one thing I would say. The other thing I would say is I don’t think what I’m necessarily saying is that belonging needs to be a case where like,”I want to be who I am. I want to be free to be who I am, and you have to accept me.” I think that it’s a two way street because the two way street because it’s not just about your sense of belonging, it’s about the other person’s sense of belonging as well. I think we need to contain our own behavior in a way that’s respectful to others too. I’ll just say I know that in families, this is a lot … there is a lot of tension with these kind of stuff.
But, one of the things I remember so powerfully is my childhood. My parents were Sufis, which is this form of mysticism that’s associated with Islam. It’s a spiritual hat. My dad told me once that … I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, but he said whatever religious path you choose to pursue, we will be 100% okay with that. I felt like this freedom that led me to go off and explore. Interestingly, I never rejected my parents’ spirituality the way so many people do. Maybe it was because I had that freedom and that sense of belonging that was this secure base for me.
Peter: You’re saying something profound that I’m just putting together now also, which is that when I’m asking you this question about belonging, it’s actually a very self referential question. It’s a question that says,”Do I feel belonging?” What you’re also saying, and this is important in relation to the conversation around meaning, is “how am I helping others feel their belonging?”
Peter: That actually gives me a sense of purpose in a sense, which is to say it may be hard for me to do that with my children, with my employees, with clients even and yet what parenting, and leadership, and connection calls us to do is to connect with people on that human level and to help them feel their belonging and in a way that that ends up creating meaning for us, and that belonging may threaten us in some ways. But, it shouldn’t in any way detract from our sense of respect and connection to them as human beings. It’s profound.
Emily: No, well, thank you. I think that’s exactly right. I’ll just add an addendum, which is that when the researchers that when you do reject someone, or when you ostracize them, or when this connection of belonging is frayed in some way, it’s not just them that literally feel like their lives are less meaningful. In studies, rejection leads people to think that. But, it’s also you that thinks your life is less meaningful. It is this dynamic connection.
Peter: A friend of mine who’s depressed was recently given advice to pursue purpose. I’m talking about purpose now. To look for ways in which he could be of service to others. He hasn’t done it yet. He’s stuck. I realized that part of why he is stuck is that when you don’t have purpose, it’s hard to well up the energy to pursue purpose. That pursuing purpose in and of itself is driven by purpose. What advice do you have for him? What advice do have for someone who’s not necessarily focused on purpose and can’t quite figure that out?
Emily: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I had a professor in graduate school, Martin Seligman who said that one of the best cures for depression is going out and volunteering in our community. I think there is really something to that because depression is so much. You’re ruminating so much about I’m not good enough, my life is awful, or the world is awful. It’s all these … You’re very much in your own head. The ability to get outside the bed, I think, really helps heal the pain. For somebody who is having trouble taking that first step, though, I would recommend reframing purpose as lower p purpose and capital P purpose because I think that they’re … we put so much weight on this idea of purpose, that you have to go find your purpose, or find a purpose or your calling and if you’re not doing that, then you’re failing at the whole purpose thing.
But, actually purpose can come in really small ways too. There is a study that I talk about my book, which I love, which shows that adolescents who do chores around the house actually end up feeling a stronger sense of purpose. The reason is because they’re serving and they also have these role to play and are contributing to something bigger, which is their family. I think that maybe as a first step, recognizing could be really small. If you’re at home doing the dishes or making breakfast or something like that.
Peter: It’s the idea of little ways in which you can do something that helps you feel accomplished in a certain way or you’ve added value or you’ve created that. That could be small or it could be big.
Peter: One of the things that I found so interesting about your storytelling focus is that it’s not just about finding meaning or highlighting meaning, it’s about creating meaning. That choosing to tell a story is an act of creating meaning. Can you just talk for a minute or so about that?
Emily: Right, so we have belonging, purpose, and a third pillar; storytelling. This is an interesting one because it’s like when we think about stories, we think about the stories we tell each other or the stories we read in novels or see on TV or at the movies. But, this is really about the story you’re telling yourself about yourself. I think that we not always realize that we’re the authors of our own stories and can change the way that we’re telling them. If I tell you to tell me a story from your childhood, that really encapsulates who you are, the choice of story is a narrative choice. You’re choosing a particular story and you’re choosing to tell it in a particular way.
These all have really profound consequences for how meaningful you think your life is. The first thing is that, I had mentioned earlier that part of meaning is believing that your life is coherent. The act of weaving the story and bringing your experiences together in this bigger narrative makes meaning for you because you come to a deeper level of understanding about who you are, why the things happened, how you grew from these experiences, how they changed you, so on and so forth. The other thing is that certain types of stories that we tell, they lead us to having more meaning and to leading more meaningful lives. Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern has found that people who tell redemptive stories, stories that move from bad things happening to good things happening are more generative, which means that they are more likely to contribute to society, mentor the young, things like that.
Another study, which I love by Adam Grant at Wharton and Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan shows that when you tell a story, when you break people … break a group into two and tell half of them to tell a story about themselves as somebody who is a giving person and you tell the other half to tell a story about themselves as somebody who receives a lot of generosity from others; the people who tell the story of themselves as givers later on end up behaving in a more generous way. These stories can actually change our behavior to be more consistent with living a meaningful life.
Peter: Because I see myself as someone who …
Emily: Exactly, yeah. It’s an identity thing. Exactly.
Peter: It’s great. Transcendence is your fourth. I love what you write about it. It does seem to be a critical element of meaning. Here is the challenge that I thought of as I was reading it; which is in some ways the exact opposite challenge of purpose. That pursuing transcendence may naturally block it, and that in some ways when you talk about that we don’t have to fully change our lives in order to find meaning, we find these little ways. A lot of the examples that you give are people who spend 14 hours a day meditating or who are on a spaceship overlooking the earth. How do mundane people like you and I reach transcendence without the pursuit of transcendence getting in the way of the feeling of transcendence.
I just mentioned this on a previous podcast. I think of Martin Buber who talked about I-thou moments versus I-it moments in the sense of when you’re really deeply connected, the connection takes on this transcendent experience versus an I-it moment where the relationship is one, which is mediated by your thoughts. By your analysis, transcendence is about really being in that moment. How do we get there without pursuing it?
Emily: I give examples of people doing it in nature, which I think is one way that is accessible to everyone. Emerson, the American transcend analyzed walking in the woods, he felt his sense of self dissolve and he got this connection that was something beyond himself, which he might have referred to as the divine or something like that. That’s what transcendence is as you define it. It’s these moments when you are lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life and you feel connected to something bigger. I love the Martin Buber example because it shows that you can achieve it in relationships as well.
I’m sure, most scenarios have had these conversations where you’re just so connected to the other person that you’re in flow. You lose off that sense of time, where you’re not checking your phone, you’re not worried about anything and there is that … it’s like a transcendent moment. It’s a beautiful example. I think one … and I’ll say this to you, I think transcendence can exist on a spectrum. You have those moments where the person who is meditating 14 hours a day has a major transcendent experience, where his sense of self completely washes away and you realize this, that it’s an illusion. Same with the astronauts who go into space and experience what’s called the overview effect where seeing the earth from space is just so … it just shifts their mind completely and changes the way they think about the world. That’s one extreme.
I think on the other extreme it can be, again, these small moments. You watch your child learning to do something new and it’s just like,”Wow, the wonder of life. The miracle of life.” For me, I live in Washington and I live very close to Rock Creek Park and just being in the woods is an experience that just helps me clear my head. I think meditating, praying, going to church or a service or whatever it is that engages you spiritually, these are other ways. They might not be here in this spectrum, but they’re over here and over here, and they get you there.
Peter: Right. We’re running out of time, but I would love … this is an absurd request, a couple of moments or sentences about love where you end the book.
Emily: Oh, love. Love is my other favorite topic aside from meaning. When I was looking back at what I had written about these four pillars and trying to figure out what it was that united a meaningful life? Was there something bigger that really defined a meaningful life? It seemed to me that it was love. Time and time again the stories that I told were of people serving others. These small acts of love. I told a story about a guy who was a drug dealer, who put that aside to start a fitness company in his community because he wanted to go back and make his community better with this work and not worse through drug dealing. That was one of it.
I talk about a zoo keeper who cares for her animals, who is willing to clean up poop for 80% of her time each day, because she loves her animals and that’s what her calling is. I think that at the bottom of a meaningful life, it’s these small acts of love that we put into the world and we might not ever know how they affect others, but they end up spiraling out and affecting others in ways that are profound even if you don’t know it.
Peter: Is love underlying the drive for meaning? Or is love the outcome of a life lived with meaning through these four pillars?
Emily: I think that what I was saying is certainly the latter, which is that when you live with meaning, your kind of putting this love in the world. I think that you can also say the former, which is that our yearning for love and our yearning for meaning. Some might say that those are the same thing. Think of a spiritual seeker who in Sufi poetry and I wonder if it’s like this in Jewish mystical poetry. I know it’s like basing Christian mystical poetry that the God is always talked about as the beloved. So, the seeker is trying to devote himself to the beloved and his life is made meaningful in that pursuit of trying to go closer to God. I think that it works both ways.
Peter: Yeah. That is true in Jewish mystical poetry. What I want to say also is that a lot of Jews that I know actually rely on Sufi mystical poetry. Rumi is very, very present in a lot of our traditions. We share a tradition in that way. I think that when you get to all these traditions, you end up pointing probably in a very similar direction. Not just similar from your book and the idea of belonging and purpose and story telling and transcendence. I mean, that’s the kindling that makes the religious fire in many ways.
Emily: No, I think that’s so true. I think that if you look at what makes religion such a powerful source of meaning for people is because these pillars are there. One thing that all these religions share is this ideal of love that they hold up.
Peter: Emily Esfahani Smith. Her book is The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. It was a delight to read. It’s terrific to be in conversation with you, Emily. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Emily: Thanks for having me, Peter. It’s great talking to you.
Peter: I want to remind you again that my master level coach training is happening in a few short weeks. I’d love to see you there. To register, visit http://peterbregman.com/leadership-coach-training/ or check out the URL in iTunes.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.
A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.
“Which Way to Change” published in Talent Quarterly, 2017. To read the article in PDF format, click here.
Should you have a warm-up routine for work? According to Dan McGinn, author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed, what you do before a performance makes all the difference to that performance. Find out how you can manipulate your environment to reduce anxiety, use mental visualizations to increase your confidence, and choose songs that get you in “the zone.”
- Learn how Carly Simon manipulated her environment to improve performance on the #podcast @danmcginn
- Why @danmcginn uses @Gladwell’s “lucky” keyboard to improve performance #Podcast
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
Daniel McGinn is on the podcast today. He is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. His writing has appeared in Wire, The Boston Globe, Newsweek. He lives in Boston and the book that we are here to talk about is “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.” Dan, welcome to the podcast.
Daniel: Hi, Peter.
Peter: The premise of this is that what you do immediately before a performance makes all the difference to performance. Am I thinking about this right?
Daniel: Yes. You are. If you watch sports on the weekends, whether it’s a professional football game or if you watch the Olympics every few summers, you’ll see the athletes in the moments before they take the field or jump into the pool or get onto the track involved in a routine. You’ll see that “locked-in” their eyes. They often will have headphones on. They’re listening to a certain playlist. They’ve been taught what to do in those final few moments in order to try to optimize and perform their best. The argument in the book is that you and I are not Tom Brady or Michael Phelps, but we would do our jobs better if we learn to develop the same kind of routine for those final few minutes before we do the activities where we’re adding the most value in our lives.
Peter: I definitely have that image of Michael Phelps walking out to swim with his earphones on, his iPod on. I resonate with that. There was an underlying question I had as I was reading through the book, which is can being so deliberate about a pregame ritual also stress us out?
Daniel: It can if you’re so inflexible and the routine calls for a lot of rigid things and it goes wrong, that could be a downside. Here’s an example of that. There was a famous baseball player for the Red Sox years ago named Wade Boggs and he was unbelievably ritualistic. He wanted to do all these things before a game in order to feel like he was getting in the groove and one of those routines was he wanted to do sprints across the outfield every night at exactly 17 minutes before the first pitch. The opposing teams caught onto this and they would actually manipulate the clocks in the stadium so that they would skip the 17th minute. They would actually adjust the clocks forward and backwards just to mess with him. That’s an example of yeah, if you get too rigid about it, you can set yourself up for a problem, but in general, if your choice is to do nothing, but just sit there and be nervous. Or have something that boosts your confidence, reduces your anxiety and gets your energy at the right level, you’re probably better off doing the something.
Peter: That’s interesting. Talk to us about adrenaline because that’s what you’re talking about, which is you got some energy flowing through you and what’s the best way to handle it or manage it. I know you wrote about this in the book, but I only really just got it now that you said that, which is something’s gonna happen pregame. This is a matter of how you manage it and how you master it and what you do with it. I think that all flows back to adrenaline, right?
Daniel: Yeah. It does. People ask me where I came up with idea for this book and I come from a variety of places, but one of them was way back in high school. I played high school football and high school basketball. I wasn’t very good at either of them, but I became fascinated by the things that the coaches would do and the things the players would do to get ready in those final few moments. Back then, I thought getting psyched up was all about adrenaline. I thought it was like a light switch. You would switch it on and your body would suddenly get this nervous energy and you’d be jumping around and up.
Once I started looking into the research and talking to psychologist, talking to high-performers, adrenaline is definitely part of it, but I think it’s more about emotions than it is about hormones. I think it’s about dealing with that rush of adrenaline so it becomes additive and not subtractive. It’s really about anxiety, confidence and energy. Those are the three things that I think about are more important than adrenaline.
Peter: You talk about in terms of emotion regulation: situation selection, situation modification, and attentional deployment. Do you want to give us a sentence on each?
Daniel: Yeah. I think you can do things to manipulate your environment to try to reduce that sense of anxiety. One of the examples in the book … Carly Simon is a performer who’s had a lot of problems with stage fright. She actually stopped performing for eight years because she would get so nervous on the stage. She’s tried all sorts of things to prevent that from happening. One of the things she experimented with was changing the lighting at her shows so that instead of the crowd being in the dark and she being the focal point on the stage in a spotlight, she would actually light the house. People could still see her on the stage, but this made her feel like a little bit less the center of attention. It made her a little bit less stressed, a little bit more comfortable. That’s a great example of how to try to manipulate your environment and the situation to help the odds that you’re gonna give a good performance.
Peter: I think it is a great example. When I think about leaders who listen to this podcast and people who are in all sorts of situations, we often walk into a room and just do what is expected of us without a sense that actually we can manipulate this environment a little bit to suit us better. It’s a great lesson that says you have some power in this situation. I mean we’re not all Carly Simon, but you can choose to use PowerPoint or not, depending on whether it works for you. You can choose to ask questions or involve people in a conversation that makes you less the focal point. There’s a number of things that we could do like Carly that allows us to take control of the environment.
Daniel: Yeah. While most of the use cases that naturally come to mind when you think about a book like this are those big public presentations. You’re giving a TED Talk or you’re talking to your board of directors. There’s a lot of quieter environments where some of us are performing that we can do the same sort of things. I’m an example of that. I do have to talk about my work in settings like this or in a public setting, but a lot of the most highly important moments for me are when I’m writing by myself in my office. I try to manipulate that environment. It’s not very nerve-wracking to be sitting in an office alone writing, but if you look around my desk, you’ll see framed photos of things I wrote in years past.
Sometimes before I sit down to write, I’ll take two minutes and read something I wrote five or 10 years ago that I thought was really good because I wanna have that success in my mind before I sit down to do it again. You can manipulate even your office environment to put those reminders of your best self in front of you so that when you look up from your desk, you’ll just be reminded, hey, I’m a pretty accomplished performer here. I’m gonna sit down and do it again.
Peter: Well, I can’t let you say that without throwing in this quirky little detail that you emailed Malcolm Gladwell and used his keyboard for some period of time to see if that impacted your writing.
Daniel: I did. Yeah. There’s research. I actually wrote about it in Harvard Business Review a bunch of years ago. There’s research studies that have been done that look at how people perform if they’re using just an ordinary object or tool versus if they’re using an object or tool that they think was used by a celebrity or a high performer. One study involved golf clubs. Another study involved study guides for exams.
I tried to harness this power of a physical lucky object. I emailed Malcolm. I told him what I was doing. I showed him the study. I mailed him off a brand new keyboard in the box. He typed on it for three months. He shipped it back to me. I wrote the book on it. I have it. I don’t use it every day. I try to like not overuse its magic powers. I try to only pull it out for assignments that feel particularly high-stakes or that have some … that I’m feeling a little bit anxious about. I don’t overuse it, but it’s my lucky keyboard. I pull it out when I need to.
Peter: You talk about rituals and superstition, which maybe this is one. Maybe this isn’t, but you describe Colbert’s pre-show ritual in a lot of detail. I have to admit, it’s kind of strange. It sounds kind of OCD and there’s a lot of recommendations in the book that feel a little bit like they might be OCD. You’re talking about the player who was out at exactly 17 minutes before the hour isn’t so different then flipping the light switch on five times before you leave the room. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the distinction from OCD or whether OCD is actually just another version of rituals and superstitions that allow us to perform.
Daniel: Yeah. I think you’re right that OCD exists on a continuum. When does a habit go from being a productive and useful thing to being a neurotic behavior that is detrimental to your happiness? In Colbert’s case, Colbert does have a very complex backstage routine. It involves … he rings a hotel bell. He’s doing hand gestures with various backstage crew members. He’s chewing on a Bic pen and putting it back into the box. He’s staring at a spot on the wall; super elaborate and complicated. The question is okay, why does he think this works?
The origins of it are hard to say, but when they’ve done studies on this stuff the conclusions they reach are that number one, there’s something about these rituals that function like the on switch. It sort of reminds your body of the practice you’ve done. It can help get you into the groove. It’s like the starting sequence in any kind of activity.
Number two, there’s a distractive element to it. Even if you’re Stephen Colbert and you’ve done a zillion shows, you’re probably gonna be a little bit nervous before the show and if your choice is to sit there being nervous and that can be a negative thing, having something to keep yourself busy and occupied, that can be one of the things that rituals serve.
Peter: On the one hand, all of these rituals might be good for any of us and I know that some of them are, and we’re going to talk through each of them in a minute, and I think a lot of performers and people who are in high-stake, high-performance environments might be a little OCD. In order to be the best swimmer in the world, maybe you need to be a little OCD. In order to be Colbert, maybe you need to be a little OCD. I wonder the extent to which some of these rituals are particularly powerful for people who have a little bit of that characteristic.
Daniel: That’s an interesting observation. That’s one I haven’t heard, but it does make sense to me. I draw a distinction between what I would consider practice, which is the 10,000 hours of substantive preparation for whatever the activity it is you’re about to do, whether it’s making a sales call. If you’re gonna give a TED Talk, you better have written and practiced the heck out of a really good speech. The things I’m talking about in the book are more like psychological hacks.
They don’t substitute for that preparation. I think the point you’re making to that some of the best performers are really, really disciplined about having done that practice over and over and over and over and over the same way. There’s an OCD’ish like characteristic to that. It makes sense that warming up the same way mentally might make sense, too. It’s an interesting observation.
Peter: It reminds me also of this story. This is less OCD and more ritualistic of the story that I heard a long time ago. A friend was visiting the Nobel Prize Winner, Niels Bohr. He was a famous atoms scientist. He was visiting his home. As they we’re talking, this guy kept glancing at the horseshoe that was hanging over the door. Finally, he asks Niels, “It can’t possibly be that you, a brilliant scientist, believe this foolish horseshoe superstition?” Niels, the scientist, responded, “Of course not, but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”
It’s this sense of I don’t know if I believe in it, but I’m not necessarily willing to take it down. It might still be working.
Daniel: Yeah, that’s interesting. One of the people I interviewed for the book was Jimmy Johnson, the NASCAR driver. He said, more or less, the same thing. He’s the star driver, but he’s got a hundred people on his crew behind him building the cars and tweaking the engines and doing all that. He said, “We try not to get too hung up on these superstitions. We’re not really sure. We don’t really believe, but we don’t wanna chance it so we’re gonna partake in some of this stuff anyway.”
Peter: That’s funny. Let’s talk about a couple of the other ones beside ritual and superstition. You talk about pep talks and you say something interesting that it’s not the typical pregame motivational speech. It’s not about excitement as much as it is about focus. You give this great example of Stanley McChrystal’s five part formula, right? One, here’s what I’m asking you to do. Two, here’s why it’s important. Three, here’s why I know you can do it. Four, think about what you’ve done together before and now let’s go do it and-
Daniel: You know-
Peter: Yeah. Go ahead.
Daniel: Go ahead. I’m sorry.
Peter: No. Please go ahead.
Daniel: Well, I loved the reporting in that chapter in particular because it was a great example of the very side-load nature of academic research. I found people who had looked at military pep talks. I found people who had done research on sports pep talks. I found people who done research on business pep talks. The three groups had never heard of each other, had never looked at each other’s research. They thought that these were totally separate things, but when you actually combine them all and look at them all, they all have the same kind of elements. Somebody like McChrystal has never looked at this research himself, but the pattern he uses fits the [inaudible 00:14:34].
Part of a pep talk is giving specific instruction about you; what you wanna do. Part of it is about explaining why it’s important, making meaning around it and part of it is empathy, trying to draw a personal connection between the leader and the followers and between the team members themselves. I talked to a bunch of people like McChrystal and they all had their own formula and the formulas are all the unique, but they all were kinda the same, too. They all really had those three elements to them and it was neat that … It’s a great example of the real life practice matching the research even if people have never read the research.
Peter: Yeah. I love it. I’m gonna start to use it because I think it’s a formula that could be applied to so many different conversations that show empathy, that show confidence, that show direction that I think it was really valuable for me. What kind of music is motivational and how does it drive performance?
Daniel: Well, it’s very personal. The song that motivates you probably will be different than the song that motivates me. What they probably have in common are two things. Songs are motivational partly because of what they call the inherent musicality. The actual how it sounds; the rhythm, the beat, the tempo, the words. Here’s a good test. If the first time you ever hear a song, it instantly put some pep in your step and makes you feel a little bit more energized, you’re reacting to the inherent musicality.
The second thing that makes a song motivational is your emotional recollections, the context in which it exists. If you hear the song from your senior prom or from some other pivotal moment in your life, even a movie that you recall very vividly, you’re not reacting just to the music, you’re reacting to your memory of it and that can be energizing and motivational the same way. If you find songs that hit on both those boxes, it’s probably gonna be a very motivational song for you.
Peter: You talk about it as a legal performance enhancing drug. When I think about, when I’m going on a run, and I hear a song that boosts me up a little bit, it does feel in that way like it might be a legal performance enhancing drug.
Daniel: Yeah. They’ve actually done tests, done research studies, A/B testing, where they’ll have two groups of runners who have posted similar times and tend to run at a similar pace. They’ll have one group of them listen to say the Rocky soundtrack and they’ll have another group not listen to anything. In general, listening to some sort of motivational music before you perform an activity like that, it does increase your performance.
In talking about the book, most runners, if they’re doing a lot of serious training, they probably have a playlist. They probably spend some amount of time adding songs, subtracting songs because we’ve all experienced that being tired and suddenly the right song comes on and it does really lift you up in a way.
Peter: Dan, you talk about self-talk mental rehearsal visualization. In this category of Keys to Confidence, I’m wondering if you’ve tried that., You also bring in Daniel Kahneman, who talks about System 1 and System 2. It’s this immediate responsive behavior versus the slower thoughtful focus, effortful attention. I’m wondering whether self-talk mental rehearsal visualization can work against us, meaning that as you begin to visualize something, as you begin to mentally rehearse it, it actually makes you more stressed. Rather than get you in the zone, it gets you out of the zone.
I remember reading Martin Buber, “I and thou,” Jewish philosopher, who talked about these “I-it” moments versus “I-thou” moments. An “I-thou” moment is when you’re completely lost in connection with the object that you’re relating to and an “I-it” moment is when you have an internal dialogue. You’re looking at it, but you’re not analytical about it or thoughtful about it, you’re not necessarily in that zone.
I related it to the Kahneman Zones, right? Which is that if you’re in a “I-thou” moment, you’re really just one with whatever you’re doing. That’s a long question, but I’m wondering whether self-talk mental rehearsal visualization takes us out of the zone and out of the “I-thou” connected one moment and brings us into a little bit of distance that might actually increase our stress.
Daniel: That’s an interesting question, and I understand. Basically, the concern is that in many context we’ll perform our best, if we’re really present, and we’re adapting, and we’re maybe even a little bit improvisational to the circumstances. If we overly mentally rehearse can that create a rigidness, and a lack of improvisational adaptability that detracts from our performance? I can certainly think of situations where that might be true, but I think you have to look at the upside risk, and the downside risk.
For me, I tend to focus more on the downside risk, and I’d rather do some degree of mental visualization, mental rehearsal and try to picture myself in the setting doing really well ahead of time. Maybe not obsessing too much about specifically what the circumstances are gonna be. Try to remain some flexibility in there.
For me, I think it’s probably better to over-prepare then under-prepare. In terms of how much I do this stuff myself. I do find myself like if I’m driving my car on the way to an important meeting, I will spend a little bit of time thinking pretty directly about how I want that meeting to go, but I also tend to do retrospective stuff more. I’m much more likely to think back to the last time I had a meeting where I crushed it and reflect on how that went.
For me, it’s as much about reflecting on past success to prime myself as it is sort of obsessing about the detail of what the next meeting’s gonna be.
Peter: I love this next chapter and this focus on getting angry because it’s so unusual and it makes so much sense, but I can understand why it might also be disturbing or challenging. This idea that if you trash talk, if you get angry, it actually might help performance. Can you talk a little bit about that? Obviously, throw in a disclaimer of the danger.
Daniel: Yeah. I think, for me, reporting that chapter was particularly interesting. The broader point here is that there are a lot of techniques in the book and you’ve touched on a lot of them. Everybody’s different and music may not work for you, but it works for me. A pep talk for an ironic, unengaged crowd, that might not work so well for you. It might work well for me.
I wrote a whole chapter on hostility, anger and trash talk. I looked into the research in it. It’s not a technique that is very effective for me. Anger’s very rarely a productive emotion for me. I’m not focused on rivalry so for me, it doesn’t work very well at all. There are people and there are context. If you’re in sales, they use leaderboards. There’s a lot of measurement. There’s a lot of forced curve compensation things.
People in certain kind … Athletics, obviously, thrives on rivalry. People in certain contexts are gonna encounter anger and hostility and trash talk as a device that may motivate them, but definitely handle with care. For me, it doesn’t really work very well.
Peter: Right. One of the themes that I’m hearing in our conversation, which I’m really loving is this theme of, I think it’s affectionately called me-search, but this idea that here’s a bunch of things that people do that are really successful for people and consider and think for yourself about what’s gonna work. Music, if you really wanna use it as a legal performance enhancing drug, you’re gonna have to listen to a bunch of music and figure out what it is that excites you and what it is that psychs you up.
I had a recent podcast with Bill Burnett and Dave Evans … “Designing Your Life,” out of Stanford. A bunch of our conversation was just that, which is that if you’re gonna do design thinking, it’s a lot about a bias towards action and experimenting and reflection and seeing what works and seeing what doesn’t work. What you’ve provided us in “Psyched Up” is a number of tools that have worked for a number of people and that in there are the ingredients to help us improve our performance in the moment. The question is, which ones are gonna work best for us. That’s the work the reader has to do. Am I thinking about this correctly?
Daniel: Yeah. Definitely. I consider it a menu of choices and it definitely makes sense to try a few of them. I think, again, if you go back to the emotions that you’re trying to tweak. In general, what should you be doing emotionally before you enter a performance atmosphere? Well, you should generally be trying to turn down your anxiety. Turn up your confidence and make sure your energy level is right.
For each of us, one of those three things is likely to be more problematic than another. If you’re someone that anxiety’s a problem for, your set of techniques will probably look better or different than somebody who tends not to be very anxious, but needs to boost their confidence. Trying to understand what the underlying emotional regulation you’re trying to do and then the techniques you choose, will be somewhat dependent on that.
Peter: It occurs to me also, related to what you just said, that you have to think about the event that you’re about to perform in and what’s gonna help you maximize your performance. What I’m thinking about is I ran a race with my daughter. It was the first race that she ever ran, and she was anxious, and she was doing all this stuff to psych herself up. She sprinted out of the gate. Within half a mile, she was done.
In some ways, you have to say, okay, I’m gonna get psyched up, but I’m getting psyched up for a sprint. Am I psyched up for a marathon? What is it that I’m getting psyched up about? What’s the kind of energy I need to nurture because in that situation, I might really try to get her to nurture an energy of sustaining and persistence and measured performance as opposed to excitable performance.
Daniel: Yeah. That’s a great example of how often our natural instincts in terms of what we should do in these anxious making situations are the wrong ones. I have a story with my daughter from the same thing. My daughter is an older teenager. I took her for her driver’s test a few years ago and she was very nervous. It’s kind of a high-stakes ritual of your teen years going to take that driver’s test. I fell into this natural pattern where I was saying, there’s nothing to be nervous about because if you fail, we can just come back in two weeks and take it again. Nobody has to know you failed. It’s not a big deal at all. They call that defensive pessimism, which is focusing on the worst case scenario and then trying to argue for why it’s not gonna be so bad.
Once you actually look at the research, generally speaking, that’s a terrible way to approach these things. It’s priming the person for failure. It’s planting the seed of that they’re gonna fail in their mind, but it’s really the way I … I have a downside bias. I try to protect the downside. It’s how I used to approach these high-stakes situations with my kids. One of the results of reporting this book was I don’t do that anymore. I tend to focus on the upside, the positive. I build confidence to reduce anxiety.
Peter: Did she pass?
Daniel: She did pass.
Peter: All right, ’cause otherwise, now everybody would know.
Daniel: She passed. My second child has passed now just more recently. We’re two for two in the driver’s tests in the McGinn family.
Peter: All right, give me 30 seconds on what you did to prep for this conversation.
Daniel: I’m sitting in an office where I am surrounded by great examples of my previous writing work. I listened to a radio interview I did prior to this that was just heavily edited and cut down and burnished. It’s a three minute clip. I Google it before I go on shows like this. They just polished me to make me sound so smart and articulate. Much more than I am in real life so I listen to that before I come on a show like this. It reminds me that when I’m having a good day, I can do a good job at situations like this. I just thought about what a wonderful opportunity is. I try to think about the glass half-full. I don’t think about what could go wrong. I think about the upside of the opportunity presented me today … to talk about my work.
Peter: Well, it worked really well, Dan. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.
The book is “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.” Daniel McGinn is the author and who’s been with us on this podcast. Dan, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Daniel: Thank you. This was great.
Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as, access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com.
Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.
Are you stuck in a rut? You can’t just think your way to a better future, say Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, you have to design it. They’re the authors of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, which applies design thinking to life’s most pernicious problems. Discover the five design mindsets, how to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, and whether you should work through or around your problems.
- You’re not defined by earlier choices. Find out more from @DYourLife authors
- Reframe your problems so they’re actionable @DYourLife #podcast
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
We have a fun podcast for you today, we’ve got two people on, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. They have recently written together the book, Designing Your Life. It’s a number one New York Times bestseller for a good reason, I really loved it. The subtitle: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.
It’s coming out of the school of Designing Your Life, of thinking carefully about where you are, what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and making choices that will lead you to a life that is more in line or aligned with who you are and what you want to accomplish in the world.
Bill is the executive director of the Stanford design program and co-founder of the Life Design Lab, as well as the former leader of Apple’s PowerBook product line and CEO of a design consultancy. Bill, thank you for the PowerBook.
Dave Evans is co-founder of the Life Design Lab, a lecturer in Stanford design program, a management consultant, and formerly a co-founder of Electronic Arts. I’m delighted to have you both here, I’m delighted that you wrote the book.
Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Dave: Thanks, Peter. Good to be here.
Bill: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Peter: You start with a few basic premises that seem so straightforward and yet are difficult for people to live their lives by. One is, you’re not defined by your earlier choices, the other is that, problems can actually be a good thing, because they indicate an opportunity to close a gap between something unsatisfactory and something super cool.
The closing the gap is less about thought experiments and more about action experiments and playful failure, and step by step movements towards super cool and the process never ends. You’re never at a point where you say, “Great, I’ve designed my life and now we’re done and I can live it for the next 40 years.”
I love these premises and this is a little weird, I don’t exactly know what my question is here, but I would love your thoughts on them, or how people perceive them or how difficult it is for people to understand them, or anything you want to talk about around these design premises.
Dave: I’ll say one thing to kick off with, one of the, because you know, we’re literally having the first year anniversary of the book this week, so this has been the year of the book and we’ve been very humbled and honored and astonished by the response to it, which has been huge, and so we’ve been out on the road.
I think between us, together, Bill and I, probably done about 100 gigs this last year. We’ve talked to thousands of people face to face and, many, many, many people are being helped and a lot of them were really stuck behind one of this, what I called, Dysfunctional Beliefs and then can fairly quickly get freed, “Gee! Now that I think about it, it doesn’t really make any sense, what else would I do?” “Hey, try this approach.” “Okay, great.”
I think the most astonishing thing to me has been, how powerfully pernicious a popular but ungenerative and unhelpful idea can be, when the metanarrative of culture all agree is that well, whatever you majored in college, that’s what you got to do, which is completely stupid, then we fall for it and it’s not that hard to break out.
The first observation is, it’s a lot easier to break out of these problems than you think.
Peter: You know, it’s interesting because when you say that, I think of sum-costs and the challenge that we have of acknowledging that, you know what, maybe I’ve spent the last 14, 20 years being a doctor, but it’s not really what I want to do. That’s hard, I imagine for people to let that go, how do you help them?
Bill: Well, I love the idea of sum-cost, that’s exactly what’s been-
Dave: We’re still there right now, yeah.
Bill: … yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on, right, is that people get over invested in something that doesn’t work for them and for whatever reason they found themselves doing that. We’ve been on this book tour and I meet a lot of people who are doctors or lawyers or partners at the firm of some sort, very successful people and feeling really miserable because it’s not what they wanted, they just kind of chased the brass ring, they kept getting it. They are now in a position of power and some money and it’s just not working for them.
You mentioned our core idea of, “Hey, let’s,” … you can’t think your way to the future, you’re going to have to design your way and to build stuff, so we call them, Life Design Prototypes. You’re going to go out in the world and you’re going to make these little experiments, these little prototypes in the world to see, “Hey, what’s available to me right now and this interesting, is this interesting?” You’re going to follow your curiosity, so two mindsets of the design of curiosity, follow your curiosity, biased action. Get out and do something because it isn’t a thought experiment, it’s your life and it’s going to unfold in the world with other people, that’s radical collaboration, third mindset, so it’s …
Then I like to say, set the bar low, prototype something, learn something. This idea of lots and lots of experiments to learn things, and then listen both to your head and so much to your heart about what’s working for you and you can get unstuck from any situation.
Peter: I’m curious about the uncertainty and how uncertainty plays into this, right? I’m going to give you a crystal example that’s all about uncertainty and then maybe it’s not really applicable, but I’m faced with this decision about disability insurance and I pay a lot of money for it, it seems ridiculously high and my insurance guy is saying, “Hey, you know what, I’ve got a client who has Parkinson’s, I’ve got a client who has cancer, you never know what can happen to you.”The sense of, you know, how do I make a decision where, when the future is so uncertain and I’m thinking about this disability one, but the doctor who’s saying, “I might flow this path and there’s so much uncertainty, I want to be an artist but then I won’t be able to pay for school.” There’s so much uncertainty to that future, it freezes us in making decision.
How do you help people with that uncertainty and two, if you have an answer to my disability question, I’d love to hear it because I’m still trying to figure that one out?
Dave: Yeah, on your disability, it’s actually, your disability metaphor is a really good example of a lousy situation to apply design thinking. This is … you can know everything there is to know about the probability of Parkinson’s and the cost of the various suppliers of this form of insurance.
Dave: Now you know everything there is to know, there’s nothing to prototype, there’s nothing to think about, you simply have to make a decision and accept the ambiguity, like, I’m spending a lot of money and I think it may not happen, so that’s actually-
Peter: Dave, I love that.
Dave: … it’s actually acceptance, yeah.
Peter: I love it because, there’s some decisions where the universe will figure it out in the next 20 years, you’re never going to know, you just make a choice.
Dave: Well, I mean the number one reframe with different people is, there is no one right answer to your life. There are lots of great yous, there’s no one single best you and by the way, you never actually know about the ones you didn’t get a chance to try. We’re all getting partial credit on easy questions, not right, wrong on true or false, on all the big issues of life.
That’s the same, once you accept that, that’s the nature of being a human being, then how’s it going to day, you know, it’s going reasonably well, which is fabulous because that’s as good as it gets.
Bill: By the way, you can make that, although it’s not necessarily a design decision, you can make the decision about disability insurance or any of these other uncertainties, you can make that good decision well. If you look at the work of Dan Gilbert of Harvard and some other guys, the way you make this decision, is you decide, I’m going to buy it, I’m not going to buy it, whatever you decide, you picked a thing and then you burn the bridges and you move forward, you just simply say, “Decisions done, I love it, I made a good decision,” and you move on.
If you continue to reevaluate the decision, if leave the decision revocable, like I might change my … or open, you will destroy, one, your happiness with the decision and two, your ability to kind of just let go and move on. That we have a decision making model in the book, it becomes right out of the positive psychology guys. If you want to make a good decision well, make it irrevocable.
Peter: Great, so you mentioned five mindsets, be curious, bias for action, you’ve already talked about those, radical collaboration, you talked about that although you may want a sentence or two about what makes it radical and two others, reframing problems and awareness, knowing that it’s a process. Can you give us a sentence or two on each of those?
Bill: Oh! Sure, yeah, curiosity is the thing I think that drives all human beings, we’re naturally curious creatures and we just have to kind of, in some cases, when we’ve been doing something for a long, long time, we have to sort of just reawaken our curiosity and get curious about either the thing we’re doing or the thing we might want to do next.
Curiosity is just a natural … we all had it as kids, school and life beat it out of us, so we have to kind of go find it sometimes. Biased action is just like we said, go out and do , run the little experiments, we call them prototypes, run lots and lots of experiments to discover, because the answer is in the world, it’s not in your head. If you knew the answer, you’d be doing it, so you have to go get some data, the data is out in the world.
Radical collaboration is simply, get out of your bubble, stop talking to all of your friends and people who are just like you, because they probably have the same concerns and questions you have and they don’t have any new data. You’ve got to go meet people, you’ve got to meet people who are different than you, in order to find out where in the world is your next adventure. The mind full of process steps, you just knowing it’s a process.
There’s times in design when you diverge, you’re looking for lots and lots of new ideas and there’s times in design process where you converge, you pick a thing and you test it. If you’re on a team of people and half the people are diverging and half the people are trying to converge, it’s very confusing, so just stay mindful of where you are in the process.
What was the one I missed?
Dave: Oh! Reframe.
Bill: Yeah, good Dave, reframe is the big one-
Dave: Reframe pops out of, you know, I mean the first thing we do is acceptance, of the first thing we do. Out of that radical collaboration, the radical part by the way is not radical ideas or radical people, it’s radically inclusive. Go listen in from everywhere, have heard everything, problem find before you problem solve. Then once you’ve listened deeply into a situation and listen deeply into a decision or an idea, what can happen is you’re going to have a new point of view form. Now you’re coming from that new point of view, you’re reframing.
“Gosh! I noticed I really can’t … companies are flattening now, they are beginning to stabilize, there’s no way to go up, I can’t get promoted, I’m done now.” No, let’s look at what’s really going on in the company? “Oh! We’re diversifying,” okay, I’m going to reframe. “Gee! What else laterally is going on that’s interesting horizontally with high growth curves for me intellectually,” that’s a different framing than,”How do I become a manager and get more money that way?”
I reframe into information that tells me there’s a different story going on.
Peter: I like that idea, which is that, your mind is viewing something in a certain way and if you shift the way your mind is viewing it, then you’ll appreciate it, or approach it in a completely different way.
I also really love this bias for action. For those of you that are just listening in we’re speaking with Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life, is their most recent book. We’re at the one year anniversary of the book, so I’m happy to be celebrating that with you guys.
If you’re a coach listening to this, I really urge you to buy this book and read this book because when I think about these five mindsets, the be curious, the bias for action, reframing problems, understanding the idea of a process and radical collaboration, that’s what coaches do with people. If you’re going to be an effective coach, you’re going to be working to help people increase their curiosity and actually take actions, not try to figure out everything in their heads and understand the idea of a process. I think it’s really a fantastic book.
You have lots of examples, guys, in this book of people who are in the wrong jobs, the wrong majors, they’re truly miserable, right? It’s a very clearly defined problem, but what about malaise, what about a nagging soft sense of dissatisfaction? It’s not as clear of a problem as being a biology major but hating biology, it’s the sense that, I can be happier but … something’s bugging the …
How do you help people address that sense?
Dave: Most of our clients and readers and students, don’t do the big radical shift. I mean the college students come out and they’re doing something for the first time, so by definition it’s dramatic for the most part, but most people don’t jump out of the airplane or sign up to become a French clown. That’s not the move they’re mostly making. They’re mostly making things a little bit better where they are and so to make things a little better where you are, you really got to get underneath what’s bugging you, what is working for you.
There’s this exercise that we call the Good-Time Journal that help you find out where are the points of engagement in your life that working, where are the points of engagement that are not and start understanding that, which can then lead you to taking a couple of steps and I’ll throw it back to Bill and say, “Did you hear … Bill after I do my Good-Time Journal now, what do I do?”
Bill: Well, you know again, you probably start doing some prototypes and there’s one, I was going to mention one other is a tool we have. The book is just full of these tools and ideas and things you can try and you can do then in any order you want, but if malaise is the issue and I actually was going through this a little bit when we were doing the book and we have this thing we call the Balance Dashboard.
A lot of people are talking about work-life balance, but the problem with work-life balance as a duality is that, your brain likes to take this dualities and make it a zero sum game. If I have more of one, I have less of the other and that’s really not the way life is, so we did, health, work, love and play is our little four things on our dashboard, so access … and you can have a 100% of all of them. It’s just like a dashboard on your car.
Dave: You can move one dial, without the others moving, yeah.
Bill: Yeah, so if something’s out of work, and for me what was out of … and when I did that dashboard, I went, “Oh! You know, my health is pretty good, I could probably workout some more, but my health is good, my work is fantastic. I love the teaching and the writing and stuff that I do.”
Play was almost at zero, I wasn’t doing anything playful in my life and that’s where the sense of, ‘Wow! Something isn’t right,’ come from. Do the work, love, health, play dashboard and see if you can … that’s an instant assessment. Then if you came up, if you journal for a while, if you practice just writing down, how I’m feeling and looking for moments of high engagement or high energy, then we can double down our notes.
This concept of ‘Flow’ that comes up a bunch of times in positive psychology-
Peter: God! Try to pronounce his name.
Bill: Yeah, impossible name to pronounce and we probably do it wrong every other time, but it’s this notion of looking for places where you’re fully engaged. When we started the book, we’re designers and when we started the book we did just start writing, we did a bunch of need finding, went out and did empathy with people.
Number one thing is people say, I want my life to … At the end of the day, I want someone to say that life was purposeful, it had meaning and I did something bigger than myself. I don’t want to just … at my eulogy I don’t want people to say, “Wow! He did really good PowerPoint X.” I want something bigger than that.
Meaning comes from engagement and engagement is where you spend your energy. What you actually do, what you actually work on, so if you can take either the work, love, play, health dashboard or something like the Good-Time Journal and just start noticing where are my points of high engagement. “Oh! Those are probably things I either want to add into my vocation, the thing I’m doing for work or my avocation, the thing I’m doing for love,” and there’s also, just split those two out, they aren’t the same.
Peter: Great, so I’m going to give you a concrete example and I love the dashboard, and when I look at myself for the example, for the dashboard, work, play, love, health, I’m actually pretty happy with where I am in each of those. The play category, I fall short in, and here’s the dynamic, I begin to play, like I want to play with writing, I think writing is kind of fun, so I begin to play with writing but then I start a column and now I have to do something every week and now, suddenly play becomes work.
I love skiing, and I was a ski racer as a kid, so now I teach it on the weekends. I enjoy being physical and now I’m really pushing myself to optimize my health and so … there’s someone, a girlfriend many, many, many years ago, I’ve been married for a long time, but so this is probably 30 years ago or something said, “Is there anything you do that’s not for a purpose?” My answer is always, “I really love everything that I do, like there’s nothing I don’t love, but there is always something that I’m trying to get out of it in the end, or that I use it to be efficient or et cetera.” I think underlying that, is some nagging insecurity of like not having enough or not needing more money or … whatever that is.
My question is, how do you, you know, when you look at each of these four things, and it goes, okay, play is kind of an interesting one, everything I do for play becomes work, so what are your thoughts?
Dave: This simple Peter and by the way, we don’t do therapy, so if you want to go down to the nagging, you know your mother took the teddy bear away too soon, you know and give you something about –
Peter: Right, and I hear you saying that probably therapy would be helpful for me, but if we go beyond that-
Dave: No, actually I’m not, what I’m saying is, we agree with the trend in therapy, which is figuring it out is kind of helpful but actually behaving differently is hugely helpful.
Dave: Again, biased to action, actually creeping into phycology, finally where it deserves to be too, we would say, “Look, paying attention.” In the latter part of the book we talked about personal practices and paying attention and so if you’re paying attention you go,”Oh! I notice that Peter has an incredibly strong habit of instrumentalizing everything.”
You are a business guy, we talk about business thinking is organized around optimizing and systematizing and that’s what you will do. Given a chance to optimize and systematize to an instrumental outcome, you will go there every single time. Now, you have a new design goal.
I have a design goal to create an activity or even a habit in my life, which has no instrumental outcome and cannot be systematized. Now either I’m going to be a discard against it like, “No, I will not be the ski teacher, I’ll just can be your demo bunny once a month every …” or I pick things that really can’t be instrumentalized, right, I mean, Bill’s working on his art and he’s a little ways away from being a fabulously successful artist who has to spend all his time at the gallery, eventually he may have that problem, but what you just do, you design for what you want.
All you have to do is go, “Oh! I’ve learnt something, I’m noticing an increment forward and I’m going to try to, for just once, I’m going to pick one fun thing I do, that could be instrumentalized, I’m going to do it six times without structuring it, grading it, scoring it and my goal, I have my goal, my goal is to be a score free person,” six times, so you game it, you just game yourself.
Peter: Right, I love your limitation of six times, because it feels like the combination of curiosity and awareness and a bias for action that says, you need a point at which you try something and stop and reflect back on say, how’s it going.
Dave: Finite is your friend, I lead a small discussion group of young professionals on these kinds of issues for six weeks and they weren’t quite done and we renewed another six week. We did that, some 20 odd times over two and a half year period and a year and a half into it I said, “Guys, can we disagree we meet on Wednesdays?” and everybody goes, “No, I just can’t deal with that,” so we just did six weeks at a time for two and a half years.
Peter: That’s great.
In your experience in helping people design their lives, and a lot of my questions might lean towards the psychology because I feel like the challenges we often face is kind of, bridges that gap between psychology and action and I imagine that people are trying to solve problems but there’s underlying problems, you know that adage that wherever you go, there you are, right?
Peter: In other words if we’re unsettled, there maybe elements of ourselves versus what we’re doing, that we’re unsettled about and I could fantasize about leaving New York and living in the Berkshires and having a garden and living that life, but then I actually get to the Berkshires and I’m just exchanging one set of problems for another and that ultimately, the issue might be my sort of dissatisfaction with something, I don’t know what. How do you see that play out with people whose lives you helped to redesign and when you watch them redesign their lives?
Bill: Well, my guess is Peter you get to the Berkshires and you start growing tomatoes and then you decide, I’m going to enter the tomato growing competition and I’m going to grow the biggest tomato. You know when-
Dave: [crosstalk 00:21:44] Incorporated, yeah.
Bill: Yeah, in our model-
Peter: You’re on to me.
Bill: … the standard design thinking model, we say you start with empathy, then you redefine the problem, but in our model we say, you start with accept because as Dave was just famous for saying, “You can’t solve a problem you’re not willing to have.”
First of all you got to say, okay, “I really do want to … I want something to change, I need something to change in my life.” I’ve got this malaise, or I’ve got this problem, I’ve got this thing, or I’m just curious and I just, wondering if there’s something that could be better.
You start with accept and then you look out for two really nasty kinds of problems. One is called a Gravity problem and one is called an Anchor problem, I’ll describe anchor and Dave can do gravity because he does it better.
The anchor problem is, “Oh! Gee! You know, what I’d really like to do is have a garden but we can’t afford the move to the Berkshires, so I can’t have a garden,” right?
What I’ve done, is I’ve said, the solution-
Dave: I must be unhappy.
Bill: Yeah, so the solution to my problem is, the presenting idea is, “Gee! I’d like to do be a gardener or do something in the garden,” but I’ve decided the only solution, are anchored on the solution of moving to the Berkshires. Since we cannot move to the Berkshires, I can’t have a garden, therefore I can’t be happy. You see what you’ve done, is you’ve baked the solution into the problem.
The solution has been defined as the problem, can’t move to the Berkshires. Look, I’m sure there’s community gardens in the Upper West side of Manhattan. I’m sure there’s ways you can put a container on the porch, there’s a million different ways you can do it, but we notice people all the time pick a solution, pretend it’s the problem and then say, “Oh! Gosh! Since I can’t have the thing I want, I can’t, quite, solve this problem.” They’ve mistaken solution for a problem, they’ve anchored on it and now they can’t move forward.
Once we explain it to them, it’s almost laughable, they go, “Oh! You’re right, I could reframe this and there’s hundreds of ways to be a gardener in Manhattan.” That’s an anchor problem.
Peter: Maybe it’s not even an anchor problem because the reality is maybe it’s about not spending time outdoors in Central Park. Maybe it’s about growing something, and what you’re saying is very consistent and really helpful to what you said at the very beginning, which is, redesigning your life doesn’t mean picking up, learning surfing and moving Malibu, although it might for somebody, but there’s often these little shifts that we can make in our lives that bring us closer to the sort of deeper connection of who we are and the way we want to live our lives.
Bill: The ability to reframe these problems is really critical. You know there’s a … Your Business Guide, there’s a Peter quote that, there’s nothing, so and absolutely nothing so useful as solving something very well that never needed to be solved in the first place, right?
I mean, so many people are working on problems that really don’t exist and the gravity is an example, Dave.
Dave: Well the gravity , I was like the question you were really asking Peter is, I’m I really working on the right thing, or once I put the solution in place I’m I going to get the benefit out of it, or is this masking some other underlying thing, whether it’s personal or what have you. I mean, I always get to that too because that’s the subtlety of problem selection.
A classic, in fact this has probably been the number one surprise for us, I mean what are the things we hear back from people on the book all the time about? We hear this one a lot, which is gravity problems and gravity problems are like, “I’m a cyclist and I’m aging, so I didn’t get the freshman 15 in college but I am getting the 64 year old guys 12 pound edition, so my gears are working less well going up hills and, hey, Bill you know I got this problem, it’s gravity, it’s making me crazy. It’s just ruining my cycling experience, can you help me with gravity?” Off course the answer is, no, gravity is not a problem, it’s a force of nature. You can’t fix gravity.
A lot of people have a problem, which isn’t actionable at all, I mean it’s actually an actual issue, right, but the problem is unactionable. As the designer say, If you can’t act on it, biased to action, then it’s not a problem, it’s a circumstance, so the reframe is, you’re just heavier Dave, so if you accept that you now weigh 220 not 210, then what are you going to do? I kind of go, “Okay, well, I could look into lighter biking materials, I could look into flatter routes, I could into just more gears. I could look into like, get over it.”
There a whole bunch of ways that free me to move into solving the problem I actually have that’s actionable but I don’t like. When you notice that you really are having a problem with your problem, that’s a problem. When your problem isn’t your problem, but it’s your problem with your problem, you probably have a gravity problem and that’s a problem.
That’s what you got to watch out for and a lot of people … and as soon as you realize your problem, is a gravity, it’s an un-actionable the way it’s currently framed. People often hate that like you mean, I’ll never … well, I’ll probably never get rich being a poet, well okay, but can I live and do poetry? Sure you could in a variety of ways.
You could grow something Peter even if you’re not tracking the train in from the Berkshire.
Peter: Let’s actually take this gravity problem and apply it, certainly to something that you wrote in the book. Dave, you’re now from this podcast a famous procrastinator-
Dave: Yes, right.
Peter: … right and so you also said in the book that there’s not much for you left to learn there, like it’s a weakness and it’s something you do, so how do we tell that a weakness … I’m going to make a link now to what you were just saying, to what extent does a weakness become a gravity problem, which is, I’m just not going to change that about me, that’s just the reality … or to what extent can we change anything about ourselves because we can?
I’m kind of curious to know how we know when a weakness is something that we still try to get better at or something we give up on?
Dave: Yeah, Oh! Boy this is a … I think this is a really, really tough growing up call. I can hear Carol Dweck’s voice screaming in the background even now on persistence and grit.
Dave: The way we frame this, is all of us, many times in life have to decided when is it time to work through something and when is it time to work around something and that’s a judgment call, that’s really a judgment call.
Well and it’s interesting because you’ve got Carol Dweck for example, who’s been on this podcast, who will say and who I love, you know, he’ll say, you have a growth mindset, you can improve on anything et cetera-
Dave: Yeah, go for it –
Peter: … you’ve got Marcus Buckingham and Gallup who we’re going to say, you know leverage your strengths and you can’t fix a weakness and don’t bother doing it and just-
Peter: … and I think this is what people are often faced with, which is these differing perspectives and it’s like, “Aha! What do I do now? Lots of experts are telling me different things.”
Dave: What we’re going to tell you is, think about it, frame the problems accurately as you can. Recognize your probably not going to, quote, ‘solve it,’ but you’re going to put a design solution in place for a while, evaluate it and then try again.
So first of all, I think you probably want a bias towards over-comer to some degree, I mean we would certainly agree with Carol in that regard but after a couple of tries, you have to decide, I’m hitting the point of diminishing return, is this really worth it anymore.
In my early career, I was trying to be a really effective executive in start-ups and being a great father, my father he died when I was very, very young and I didn’t have a dad, I thought being one was really, really important. I kept working at it and working at it, and working at it and I finally realized at the pace I’m going, being the really efficient smarter not harder executive, by the time I pull that off and I’m still an awesome dad … so I’m killing it in business and I’m coaching little, and I’m teaching Sunday school and I’m showing up for dinner on time and I’m amazing. You know, the kids will be about 25 and I finally said, you know, I think I’d rather get a B on time than an A, too late.
You just make judgment calling and then you put some support around you, we haven’t talked about teams and support yet by the way. I think you need some feedback from some people and this is about return, back to ROI, what it is my life working for me or not.
Peter: If it is not working for me in any particular way, it doesn’t have to be huge, then making slight changes that you reflect on and experience and play with, in a way that allows you to see if there’s an impact. It’s like a food journal and you’re right, tofu didn’t feel so good afterwards, great I should probably stop eating tofu.
Dave: Yeah, I mean to what degree, I know an artistic gentleman, we’ll call him John who lives in a big city in this country and John can’t do left turns, just can’t do them but three rights is a left. Now, in his city there’re a lot of one-way streets, so frankly it’s a little bit, he just has to leave early, but he can get there.
Now, we could hire a psychiatrist and a psychologist and a super coach and have John have the left turn break through. We could break the barrier and probably break his back doing it but I mean life’s too … I mean look, I’ll just leave five minutes earlier, okay, I’m just making three right turns, so there are tradeoffs here. Give yourself a little break.
Peter: I wish we could go on forever, we’re running out of time but I so appreciate both the book and your comments on the podcast.
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, their book is, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. It’s as enjoyable to read, as these guys are to talk with and listen to. Thank you so much Bill and Dave for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Bill: You’re welcome.
Dave: Peter, been great to be here, thanks so much.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward, that’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process.
For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.
What is the secret to building a world-class team? Sam Walker, Wall Street Journal editor and author of The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, boiled down the success of the world’s greatest sports teams to a single factor: a great captain. Learn how to spot and develop potential captains on your team, why real leaders aren’t always the ones giving locker room speeches, and the benefits of a strong middle-management team.
- How to spot the #Captains on your team — and develop them into true #leaders @SamWalkers #HR
- Great leaders don’t always give speeches @SamWalkers #podcast #leadership
Book: The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams
Bio: Sam Walker is The Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor for enterprise, the unit that directs the paper’s in-depth page-one features and investigative reporting projects. A former reporter, sports columnist, and sports editor, Walker founded the Journal’s prizewinning daily sports coverage in 2009. In addition to The Captain Class, he is the author of Fantasyland, a bestselling account of his attempt to win America’s top fantasy baseball expert competition (of which he is a two-time champion). Walker attended the University of Michigan. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
With us today is Sam Walker and the book that he has most recently written is The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. Sam is Wall Street Journal deputy editor for Enterprise, the unit that oversees the paper’s in-depth page one features and investigative reporting projects. He’s done a lot of work on the sports pages as well. He founded the Journal’s prize-winning daily sports coverage in 2009.
This book and our conversation will really cover both in a sense. We’re going to be talking about sports, and we’re going to be talking about business and leadership, which is what this book does. It was a really fun and interesting read for me. It scares me a little because it says, “Coaches are much less important than captains,” and being a coach myself, I worry about that. We’ll talk a little bit about that, but it’s based on some really interesting research, and I’m really happy to have Sam on the Bregman Leadership Podcast with us.
Sam: Thanks, Peter. It’s great to be here. Really appreciate it.
Peter: Let’s create some credibility here. Let’s start with the research process that went into the book. If you could just briefly describe how you got to the selection of teams that you began to look at to say what really makes these teams different.
Sam: Right, well, it started innocently enough. I started in 2004 after I covered the Boston Red Sox for the season, and that team was really a mystery to me because I thought I knew a lot about great teams. I thought I understood what made them great and what characteristics they shared, but that team was really weird. They started off the season, they seemed undisciplined and unfocused. They fell way behind the Yankees nine and a half games in July, but then something clicked, and they completely turned it around and they became this juggernaut, and they went on to win the world series, and people are talking about them being one of the great baseball teams of the 20th century.
I realized that what I didn’t understand about great teams was how they got that way. What was the spark? What provided that moment when they made the transition? I started off, I thought, I’m going to knock this out. I’m going to do a column for the Wall Street Journal. It’s going to be the 10 greatest teams of all time and what do they have in common. How easy is that? Two weeks, tops, but then it turned into just the biggest rabbit hole I’ve ever been down.
Here we are, 11 years later, and now it’s not an article, it’s a book, and not only is it a book about great teams, but it became a book about leadership, which is something I never imagined it would be. What I did was I realized I had to do everything. I went back and looked at every single winning team in the history of sports all over the world since the 1880s, and this was the mother of all spreadsheets, as you can imagine. Then I had to figure out how to whittle down the list, and that was another process that just consumed years.
Peter: You whittled down to 16 standout teams that you call freak teams, and you whittled down the list. What was some of the key criteria you used in whittling down the list?
Sam: Well, the first thing I had to start with was what is a team? How do you define a team? I realized that there were a lot of teams where the athletes themselves don’t interact during competition like a boxing team, so I ruled those out.
Peter: I grew up as a ski racer, and we were a ski team, but our results never depended on each other. They were always individual results, so that wouldn’t characterize as a team.
Sam: Right, no. What I thought was that a team, in the truest sense, the athletes work together, but they also have to deal with an opponent in real-time and adjust to their moves. I ruled out other teams because you might take a rowing team, they don’t actually interact with the opponent, so I had to eliminate that, so I came up with 37 categories of sports of which I really believed that teams were teams.
Starting with that, then I was like, well, what defines excellence? I had to decide, I decided that they had to have played against the top competition in the world, they had to have maintain their dominance. What I wanted to study, really, was sustained success, how teams that actually build a culture of winning. I set a floor of four years. They had to be dominant for at least four years. That ruled out a lot of these dynasties that we think about.
Also, there were a couple of other things. One, they had to have had a perfect opportunity to display their excellence, they had to have played the best teams in the world, but the big league or the one that orally knocked it down for about 122 teams to 16 was that, their teams had to be completely unique to their sport.
What they did in terms of the number of championships and number of games won had to be something that no other team has done, and that really was the weeder that got me down to the 16. After years of going through all these parameters and filtering, I finally got what I believe to be, not the greatest teams of all time, necessarily, but these teams have no blemishes, they’re absolute dynasties, they are a perfect sample to study to see what the DNA of greatness is.
Peter: What you found is that the typical things that you often see or you often think about, the qualities that are often cited as the qualities of superior teams like an amazing superstar, incredible amount of talent, deep financial resources, a winning culture that is led by really effective management, amazing coaching, that those things are not the things that distinguished the freak, great teams from the rest.
Sam: That was the most amazing thing. There were so many revelations that started coming once I’d done this research that I never imagined. Like you said, I thought talent, I thought these teams must’ve been superstars or an abundance of talent overall, and then I thought coaching. I really thought coaching would be the thing that would distinguish them, but if not that, then strategy or financial resources.
Those were all things I started out with and one by one, as I went through these 16 teams, I realized in most causes, those things did not apply even to a majority of the teams that I looked at, so it was clearly something else, and the only thing, the only thing that bound them together through different countries, different sports was one thing, and that was that their streak of dominance, tip to tail, always corresponded perfectly with the presence of one player, and that player was inevitably the captain of the team or the leader of the team, and it was plain as day, not just for those 16, but even farther down the list with the other 122 elite teams, they all had that same characteristic. I realized that it was internal leadership. That was the thing that built that winning culture.
Peter: You make this distinction, this very clear distinction between the captain and the coach, and we’ve defined team. I think it would be great to also define, maybe it’s obvious to people, but the difference between the coach and the captain. I’m thinking also about organizations because most of the listeners are leaders in organizations, which is there’s the CEO, is that the captain? Is it … Who is the captain? Who is the coach? How do you distinguish them?
Sam: I would say in a business context, the CEO is really more of the general manager or the team president, and the coach, they can be a coach, I think, in a smaller organization, but what we’re really talking about here is say, you’re talking about division head or someone who’s really a middle manager. That’s the classic definition of these captains, and the thing that was fascinating about these captains is they weren’t superstars, they were really role players. They were people who did the grunt work behind the scenes on behalf of the team, so they really stood between management and the players or the employees, and they were that buffer, and they had this independence and autotomy that allowed them to make decisions and make adjustments on the fly.
Peter: Did they have an official title and role as captain on the team or no?
Sam: All of them but one. The only one was Yogi Berra of the Yankees from ’49 to ’53. Now, the Yankees didn’t have a captain famously because they stopped having captains after Lou Gehrig, but he was the leader of that team. He was playing the same sort of role in that team, but yeah, no, the designation was important, I think.
Peter: Right, so they were designated as captain, but they didn’t wear a crown. They weren’t the person who was hailed as like, here is the superior. They weren’t the superior talent. How were they selected as captains?
Sam: See, this is funny because a lot of them were captains by accident or they came from cultures like the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, very specific culture where there’s this idea that everyone sweeps the sheds, everyone does the grunt work, and the more you are a leader, the more you serve the team.
That was fascinating because they were not at all what I imagined. I mean, not at all. If I had to build a captain in a laboratory, I would have taken talent, charisma, that aura, and none of these people had that. They didn’t give speeches. They were role players. They didn’t like attention. They shunned individual attention, and they often created conflict and dissent. They brought it into the team. Whenever something was going some way they didn’t think was helping the team, they would push back, so they could be difficult to manage, and they pushed the rules to the outside, to the edges. I mean, in competition, they would play to the absolute edges of the rules and sometimes break them, so they were not the people that I imagined at all. You mentioned earlier the relationship with the coach. I thought that was fascinating.
Peter: Yeah, tell me a little more about the relationship with the coach.
Sam: When I found this pattern, it was so obvious to me that I didn’t believe it. I thought, it can’t be this simple. The number thing standing in the way was coaching, and we all think of coaches as big authority figures, and we put so much of the blame of the success on the shoulders of the coach and the organization.
The first thing I did I was I flew out to Los Angeles to meet Willie Davis who was the captain of the Green Bay Packers under Vince Lombardi. Vince Lombardi, to me, is probably the greatest American coach. I mean, we all agree he’s an elite coach, and I wanted to really try to get a sense of what it was, that relationship and where Lombardi began and where team leadership ended.
What I discovered, first of all, was Willie Davis fit this profile, this unusual profile of captains perfectly, but also in talking to him, I understood that Vince Lombardi was a freakishly talented coach and a motivator of men, and that was something that really helps. As I looked at all the other teams, I realized something that I think is really important, not just in sports but in all organizations, which is that the relationship between the internal leader of the team, the captain and the coach, so if you’re talking about the middle manager and their best subordinate, that relationship is crucial because what I found was that all the great teams, even the great coaches like Lombardi, Alex Ferguson, Bill Belichick, they achieved their greatest results in partnership with a captain who had exactly these qualities.
What I realized was that it’s that partnership that really matters, and the coach has to be able to pick someone as a captain who they trust and who they can have a, not a hierarchical relationship with but a real partnership where they exchange ideas. All of these great captain-coach pairs, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, they have very contentious relationships where they really get into the weeds on how to do things, but in the end, the captain, as that middle manager, has that autonomy and the independence to make adjustments and to look at what the players can do in and the situation they’re in and look at what the coach wants and to try to come up with a fusion that works in the moment.
That’s the formula that really works. I think the message for coaches is, the most important decision you make, really, and we often overlook this, is who’s my leader, who’s my team leader, who’s my proxy on the field, and can I actually have a partnership and a working relationship with that person, do I have the confidence to give them the autonomy they need to make adjustments and to alter the game plan, can I sit by and watch while they do something I might, I want them to do? That seems to be the key in all these cases.
Peter: It’s interesting. In a sports team, you don’t necessarily need general management buy-in to who that person is and how to leverage them. In an organization, you probably do, meaning that there’s some complexity to this in an organization where the coach or even someone who’s a little outside the organization, maybe the CEO’s playing that coach well, but if there’s someone outside the organization who’s supporting it, it’s identifying that person, and then getting some autonomy and freedom for that person to do what they need to do. Even if you’re in a push and pull kind of a conflict around what should be done or how it should be done, that person needs to be able to have some freedom to take actions and to connect with other people on the time.
Sam: Right. No, that’s exactly right. The thing I think is important to remember is that that autonomy is not … When you’re on an upward growth curve, there’s so many companies now that talk about flat hierarchies and doing away with middle management, trying to have more direct communication between the top management and the star employees. That’s very good, I think, when you’re on an upward growth trajectory, but what I’ve found is that it’s those middle managers, it’s those people with that institutional loyalty who care more about the goals of the organization, not their own advancement. When you hit tough times, when things get rough and you need someone to step up and hold the institution or hold the team together, that’s when those people are really important, and that’s when they use these traits that I outline in the book to hold the team together.
In a lot of ways, that leadership is almost invisible. You don’t see it when things are going well. It’s when things start to go badly that you start to really need it. I think that decision, that type of person, if you have someone in that role, you’re going to see the benefits because you’re going to not only weather tough times, but you’re also going to create an environment in which the superstar employees and the people who are at the top of their game feel comfortable being stars, and they don’t feel the burdens of leadership or the pressures of leadership or having to deal with management. There’s a buffer that person provides, and it’s an absolutely crucial role. I think we need to start looking for people who have these qualities because they’re not obvious. They’re not easy to spot.
Peter: We’re talking with Sam Walker. He’s the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor for Enterprise. He wrote The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, and we’re talking right now about how to find these people. What you just said is it’s really important to select them and find them, and they’re not obvious. They’re not the star player.
You list seven core qualities. Help us figure out for people who are on teams who are coaches or general management because it’s a little fungible when you’re looking at organizations or enterprises. What are the core qualities, if you could briefly go through them, of this captain class?
Sam: The first thing you have to know is they’re not obvious. They don’t stand out in a job interview. These are not qualities that you can see about somebody. It’s not about talent. It’s not about charisma. It’s not about the obvious things. You really have to look a lot more deeply, and what you have to look at is how that person deals with other people and how they operate inside a team context.
The qualities are these. First of all, it’s relentlessness. These people, these captains where-
Peter: Let me pause you for one second because you said something really interesting that I want to highlight, which is what you’re kind of saying is, you can’t, or it would be very difficult to hire for the captain class, but the goal is to hire really great people, and then look at who’s there and how they operate within the organization, and find the captain class amongst your cohort of current employees and team members. It’s a really interesting observation.
Sam: Yeah, no, what I found with this book is that there are people like this were hiding. I mean, they’re in our midst already. There are a lot more of them than we realize. We’re just not looking at the right thing.
One of Tim Duncan’s teammates, Tim Duncan is one of the people that I profile in the book, said to him once something fascinating, he said, “If you walked into that team environment, and you didn’t know who the captain was, you would never suspect that he was the leader of the team because of the way he behaved. There was nothing leader-like about the way he behaved in the traditional sense,” but that’s an interesting thing, but if you watch the way Tim Duncan operates inside the team, it’s very different. There’s a relentlessness there. I mean, he never stopped. He plays hard no matter what, win or lose, it doesn’t matter the score. That’s really important to find that kind of work ethic.
The other thing is the way they communicate is vital. Great leaders don’t give speeches. These captains never gave speeches. There were no locker-room speeches. What they did was they would circulate democratically, and they would talk to everybody individually and very intensely with eye contact and gestures and in a very intense way. They would do this democratically. They would listen as much as they spoke, so they were comfortable approaching everyone, and that’s how they communicated in the moment about the problems at hand, so if you can see your people working together … It’s not the loudest voice in the room, it’s not the person who sets the tone that we expect. It’s the person who is moving around and making sure they’re dealing with problems of the individuals in the moment. That’s very important.
Also, dissent. You have to be able to accept that, that these leaders, these great leaders, they’re incredibly principle, and if something happens that they think is working against the team’s goals, they’re going to tell you about it, and they’re going to create problems for you as the manager sometimes. They’re not going to sit back and try to implement everything you say automatically. That’s another thing.
One other quality I’ll slip in there, there’s some others, but it’s emotional control. There’s an emotional maturity that comes with that and an emotional intelligence, but it’s really control. It’s the ability to set aside whatever personal problems you’re having, whatever your stresses and strains of your personal life and be able to set those aside for the good of the goals of the team.
These people in sports did incredible things. They played well under incredible types of personal pain and pressure. As other people see that, it’s contagious, that hard work, that emotional control, setting aside everything for the goals of the team, it’s contagious and everyone feeds off it, and it makes the entire group better.
Again, hard to see, but there are questions I think you can ask in an interview setting where you can get at some of these things.
Peter: Maybe also when you do a behavioral event interview where you’re asking people about past situations, you can look for whether they demonstrate these things in a past situation, and it can give you a sense.
One of the characteristics you didn’t mention that I was particularly interested in is this aggressive play to test the limits of the rules, and I think it’s very true, and I’m curious about how that plays out organizationally when you’ve seen a lot of people in financial services go to jail for aggressively testing the limits of the rules. I’m curious in what way you see it that test the limits of the rules, but also what the dynamic is.
Sam: This is baffling to me because as I looked at these captains, I found this incidence where they did things that were really ugly or really beyond what anyone’s definition of sportsmanship is. I could not figure it out because there’s so many athletes that really have aggression problems, not just any competition but outside of competition, but as I looked closely, I realized there’s real difference, and I found a lot in behavioral psychology that explains this, which is that when you’re talking about sports, you’re talking about the rules of sport. The rules of sport are different from the rules of polite society. I mean, you can punch someone in the face in a hockey game and three feet away in the stand, you’d go to jail for doing that. It’s a different environment.
What I realized that this captains understood that, and they understood that within the rules of sport, they had to do whatever they could they thought they could away with in order to win, and oftentimes, they would push the rules or bend them even and break them, and sometimes it would blow up in their faces.
Usually, they got away with it though, but what I had noticed was that the difference with these great leaders was that the minute the game was over and the light switched off, they were boring. I mean, they never got in trouble off the field. They weren’t aggressive people. They didn’t think of aggression as some skill they’ll apply to everything. They would shut down. They were homebodies, introverts. They went home. They regarded their privacy. They never did anything. They were very quiet.
The idea is that there’s a game frame, and in business, I think it’s the field of playing business. Some great leaders, Steve Jobs was known to push people to the point of tears inside, but outside, he was not like that. He wasn’t a bully. He wasn’t getting in trouble outside or applying that to his personal life, so I think you have to understand that you have to work within the context of the rules you’re in.
I don’t advocate bad sportsmanship, I don’t advocate cheating in business, but I think you have to understand that if someone does this and they push things to the absolute maximum, you have to think about what their motive is, and there is a good motive for that. You don’t just qualify them for leadership because you think they don’t have the ethical makeup. Think about why they’re doing it and then what they’re like away from the office and whether that’s something part of their personality or whether it’s part of this grand desire to do whatever you can to help the team win.
Peter: Yeah, whether they’re unethical or they’re hard players.
Sam: Right. Exactly. For all I know, throwing elbows is important sometimes. You have to do it, right?
Peter: I play some weekend basketball, and it’s only recently because I haven’t played a lot, when someone was telling me, “You gotta foul more.” I said, “What do you mean? The whole point was to not foul. If you foul, that’s bad. You get punished for fouling. You can get thrown out of the … ” and they’re like, “No, that’s not how it works. The only way to shut that guy down is by fouling him, and that’s okay. We’ll take it.”
It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around that, but that’s some of what you’re describing, which is a foul is part of the rules, and it’s part of this strategy for how you play the game, and so pushing the limits of those rules, there are costs, and you make that equation of, is the benefit worth the cost? It’s worth fouling this person in order to shut them down.
Sam: That’s right. Didier Deschamps who’s the great French captain, the other captain of the French national soccer team called them intelligent fouls, and I thought that was the best way of putting it. It’s like he knew when he was too far up the referees knows to get away with it, and he knew when he wasn’t, and he sometimes said, “I would foul so that we didn’t suffer worse consequences.” There’s definitely a way to do it, and I think we just qualify people because we think they’re not in control, but it’s a tactical thing, it’s another tool that you can use as a leader.
Peter: What you’re saying is, if you can see that they don’t act that way when they leave the field, then it’s incredibly in control. That demonstrates a tremendous amount of what you’re calling the ironclad emotional control because they’re not sloppy drunks beating people up in bars. They’re being very thoughtful and strategic and intentional about how hard they’re playing on the field.
Sam: Right, no, it’s a tool, and that’s really important to see, I think.
Peter: Can you develop these qualities? I mean, are they inborn? Can you train them? Can you teach people to do aggressive play that limits the rules or test the limits of the rules or the doggedness that you talk about or the emotional control? Do you find that this is something you just have to find the people that are great at it, or is this something that you could, if you’ve seen people in all of your research develop these kinds of qualities?
Sam: It can absolutely be developed. I mean, the thing that I thought was interesting was there was a study done in the Israeli military, which I used a lot. Their theory of leadership, based on their study of soldiers, was that there’s a lot of people who have the potential to be leaders, many more than we think, but if you have the potential, you also need the motivation, and not everyone who has potential has the motivation to lead, but then there’s development, and that’s the biggest part.
The thing about these traits, as I said, it wasn’t talent, it wasn’t charisma, there was not God-given ability here. I think these captains, when you read about them, I mean, we’re not all made of the same material, but in the end, all of these seven traits are all behavior. It’s behavior. It’s the choices we make day in and day out as we’re leading a team, and anyone can modify their behavior. Anyone can understand the principles of team-building and get better at it.
We can develop, you have to develop these people. They’re not born. I think you have identify the people with the right characteristics and then find ways to develop them into the leaders that they will eventually be because once you have a leader like this, you create a culture around your team that others can emulate, and you start to, it starts to feed itself, and you start to have this culture, this chemistry where everything, everyone’s priority is in the right direction, and everyone realizes toxic behavior when they see it. That’s the key. Yeah, identify and then develop.
Peter: Sam, how has, and this is a final question, I’m curious how this research and this book and all of your 11-year process of learning has impacted your leadership. You’re a leader on the newsroom floor. How has that, if it has, changed the way you show up?
Sam: Massively. I mean, I realize when you start to see these qualities, you kind of do a self-assessment, and I actually was doing that on Twitter with some people who were sending in their own assessments. I know what my weaknesses are. I don’t know about the emotional control. Sometimes it’s hard for me, but no, it really informed, and I realized some of the small things, it’s really in the daily decisions you make.
It’s not saying that thing that you want to say or rolling up your sleeves and diving in on a tough problem next to everyone and not playing favorites, not letting your personal feelings get involved, and the kind of conflict you create inside your team is task-oriented. It’s about making the team better, and it’s about the goals. It’s never personal. So many of those things, I’ve been able to use.
It’s really amazing the impact it has. I mean, just since I started writing the book and trying to moderate my behavior, I’ve definitely seen there’s a weird esprit de corps people feel comfortable not only talking freely about problems and solutions, but also, people who are really talented feel this liberation to just do their thing and to not have to worry about the way the team is conforming and the way the team is being impacted by it, and that’s been really helpful too. It’s really helpful when you have talented people around you who are more talented than you. It helps them really reach their best, so it’s been a massive impact.
Peter: The guest we have with us today is Sam Walker. His book is The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.
Sam, it’s been a fascinating conversation in terms of really thinking through for myself, my own leadership in my own organization and how I show up in this particular way and also to find the people.I have someone I know specifically who I think shows up in this way incredibly. It was fun to read the book. It was fun to look at the research. It was super fun to talk to you. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Sam: Thanks, Peter. It’s a real pleasure. I appreciate it.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.
A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com.
Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.
Can you live happier and be a better leader? According to Tal Ben-Shahar, co-author of The Joy of Leadership: How Positive Psychology Can Maximize Your Impact (and Make You Happier) in a Challenging World, happiness is the key to successful leadership–but just pursuing it isn’t going to get you there. Discover the SHARP model for a happier life, an easy way to beat procrastination, and the number one factor in predicting well-being.
- Here’s how you can beat #procrastination with just 30 seconds of #motivation
- What philosophy got wrong and religion got right on this week’s #leadership #podcast
Website: The Joy of Leadership: How Positive Psychology Can Maximize Your Impact
Bio: Tal Ben-Shahar is an author and lecturer. He taught two of the largest classes in Harvard University’s history, Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership. Today, Tal consults and lectures around the world to executives in multi-national corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations. The topics he lectures on include leadership, happiness, education, innovation, ethics, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, and mindfulness. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and have appeared on best-sellers lists around the world.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host, and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
We have the good fortune today, to have with us Tal Ben-Shahar. He’s a sort of giant in the positive psychology world. He’s a speaker and an author. He wrote Happier. He wrote Choose the Life You Want. He’s recently gotten together with Angus Ridgeway, and together they’ve formed the company, Potential Life. It’s a leadership development organization.
The book that Tal and I are talking about today is The Joy of Leadership, which he wrote with Angus. How positive psychology can maximize your impact, and make you happier in a challenging world. I’m really excited to have Tal with us, and I’m sure you will be too.
Tal, thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Tal: Thank you for having me here.
Peter: My pleasure. I want to go through the elements of the book. One of the foundations of this book,is when Angus, who used to lead the strategy practice for McKenzie in Europe, the Middle East and Africa saw that there were great strategies, from his perspective, and that some got implemented by executives, and some didn’t. In his view, the difference between those leaders and organizations who were effective at implementing and executing strategy, and those that weren’t, was their leadership ability. Their ability to influence the thinking and activities of other people in order to achieve shared goals.
You weren’t necessarily involved in that research, but you’re obviously intimately aware of it. I’m wondering what it is that you saw in them, and this may just funnel into the conversation about the book, that really made the difference between them saying “Hey, here’s a great strategy, but somehow I’m not getting it accomplished” versus “this is what we’re executing and implementing.”
Tal: It’s very much about the mindset. What do we see our role as a leader. Jack Welch once said that he sees his role as being the secretary in his organization, reminding people to do things, and many people, many of us, or lay leaders, have a misconception of what leadership is about.
It’s about standing on Mount Sinai, or Mount Rushmore, and, basically, talking about the grand vision that you have, and then living happily ever after, or at least famously ever after. Whereas, leadership is in the details, leadership is about executing. It’s about doing. It’s about having the mindset, and the humbleness to get your hands dirty, and to remind yourself, and others, what needs to be done.
Peter: It’s interesting because I think this might be a little departure, and then we’ll get back to it, the humbleness that you talk about. I know a lot of leaders who have it, but they also have along with that this very healthy dose of confidence. This paired combination of saying “I might have humility, but I also believe in myself, and I believe I can get stuff done, and I believe I can drive things.”
I’m wondering what you’ve seen in your research that allows people to have both of those because we all know humble people who don’t get anything done because they don’t believe in their own capacity to act. And we all know confident people who step over the line and go into arrogance, as opposed to just confidence. What’s that balance that you’ve seen?
Tal: It’s a balance that has to exist, and it’s a very hard act to actually implement. One of the things that Collins and Porras, in their book Built to Last, talk about is the importance of not succumbing to the tyranny of the or, but rather embracing the genius of the and, and I can think of no better example of where this genius of the and is necessarily, than in being confident and humble at the same time.
Again, it’s very hard. In my upbringing, one of the stories that always captured my imagination, from a very young age, was the story talking about how important it is for us to walk around with two pieces of paper in our pockets. In one pocket we need a piece of paper that says “For me, the world was created.”, and in the second pocket there has to be a piece of paper that says “I came from dust, and I shall return to dust.”
Peter: I love that.
Tal: Having these two pieces of paper is so important, because when you’re over confident, you need to go that pocket that says “I came from dust, and return from dust.” When you’re not confident enough, “For me, the world was created.”, and having that balance, and being able to simultaneously hold these two, seemingly, opposite extremes, is extremely important.
Peter: I love that. You say that at the core of the essence of leadership is personal flourishing, and that’s very much a foundation of the book and your belief. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Tal: Sure, there’s a lot of research, obviously, on the relationship between success and happiness, success and flourishing, and the research, basically, points to a very simple truth, that success does not contribute to happiness. You see many successful people who are not doing very well, psychologically speaking, and you see people who are not well of, financially, who are very happy, but there is a relationship between these two variables, and a very important one.
It’s not that success leads to happiness, it’s rather that happiness leads to more success. What we see, is that if we arrange levels of wellbeing, even by a little bit, and we’re talking 3, 4, 5%, what you see, immediately, is that creativity innovation levels go up significantly. What you see is the teamwork in an organization improves. Relationships, in general, get better. What you see is that motivation levels go up, resilience levels. Being able to overcome difficulties. Physical health is actually enhanced. You see, all these factors that are improved, enhanced, when you increase levels of happiness.
Now, all these factors that I mentioned, whether it’s better relationships, better teamwork, whether it’s higher levels of innovation, creativity, being able to think outside the box, whether it’s higher levels of motivation, all these factors go hand-in-hand with great leadership, certainly today, in the 21st century.
When we increase flourishing, we also improve people’s performance as leaders.
Peter: It’s interesting, because on the one hand what you’re saying, which we know because you wrote the book on happiness so I’m going to believe you here, is that happiness leads to success. I’ve also heard, and I’m curious to get your perspective on this idea, is that the pursuit of happiness doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness.
Peter: Can you talk about that?
Tal: Yes, there’s a real paradox in this whole happiness field. On the one hand, as I mentioned, it’s good for us to increase levels of happiness, beyond the fact that it feels good to feel good, it also contributes to all these wonderful factors that we all want and crave.
At the same time, there’s research showing that people who directly pursue happiness are actually less happy, that it actually is associated with loneliness, with anxiety. What do we do with that? Do we fool ourselves and said “Well, I’m pursuing happiness, but not really.” That’s probably a difficult to do.
The answer, or the resolution to this paradox is that we need to pursue happiness indirectly. Meaning, we know what contributes to happiness, so if I experience a more meaningful life, if I experience a sense of purpose at work, or in the context of my family, I’m happier.
If I exercise regularly, and take care of my body, i will be happier. If I cultivate my relationships, spend quality time with people I care about, and who care about me, that will contribute to happiness. If I engage my curiosity, if I’m open to experiences that will contribute to happiness, so if I pursued these things, they will indirectly lead me to happiness.
Just saying “I’m going to go for happiness.”, that really doesn’t help. The metaphor I like to use here is of sunshine. If I look directly at the sun, then it’s going to hurt my eyes. However, if I look indirectly at the rays of light, perhaps through a prism, then I’ll see and experience a beautiful rainbow.
Indirectly pursuing happiness is like observing, enjoying the rainbow.
Peter: I share this with you because I know a little bit about your background, but in Judaism this idea of Na’aseh V’Nishma, which is you just do first. You act first and then you notice the impact of that action later. I’ve always thought that to bean essence of Jewish practice which is here’s a whole bunch of practices that will lead to connection and religious engagement, but it’s the practice that gets it. It’s not just the intention.
Tal: This is, perhaps, the most important lesson when it comes to bringing about change. You see, when it comes to change, western philosophy had it wrong, and religion had it right. Socrates, the father of western philosophy 25 hundred years ago said “To know the good is to do the good.” “To know the good is to do the good.”
Now, Socrates was a smart person, but in this instance, he was wrong, very wrong in fact, because we all know, for instance, what we should eat, what is good for us, and yet we all sin, and eat things that we shouldn’t. We all know that we should always maintain our calm and composure, even when all around us have lost theirs, and yet we lose composure at times, later regretting it.
To know the good, is not necessarily to do the good. Now, religion had it right. Why? Because religion understood that you first have to do the good, and then you learn the good, and then you know the good. They turned this equation upside down, and today research is showing just how right this approach is.
We know that if we want to change neuro pathways in our brain that leads to lasting change, that we need rituals, just like in religion, to do something over, and over, and over again, and that’s how we change. That’s how we also, change, literally, not metaphorically, that’s how we also change our mind.
Peter: It reminds me of the story that Sylvia Boorstein, who’s a Buddhist teacher and writer, shared with me where she was with her, I think, four year old grandson, and they’d walked up to this temple. There were a number of big stairs to go up to these big, huge, wooden doors, and her grandson held her back, and she said “What’s the matter?” He says “I don’t like those stairs” And her response was “Oh honey, you don’t have to like the stairs, you just have to climb them.”
I think this is actually profound for leaders who often spend a tremendous amount of time trying to convince people of what they should do, when instead, maybe the winning formula is to just say “Here’s what we’re doing. We could talk about why afterwards. You may need to know enough about why so that you feel like you’re willing to do it, but you just have to do it, even if you don’t like it, and we’ll see the impact of it afterwards.”
It’s a little hard to get away with that as a leader because everybody has free will and they might just cross their arms and say “I’m not doing it.” But in a sense, the motivation and the drive comes after the action and not before, which is another one of those ironic conundrums.
Tal: As you were telling that story, I was thinking of research on procrastination. Over 80% of the people see themselves as procrastinators. It hurts our well being, obviously, pushing things off, and one of the main characteristics of procrastinators is their belief that in order to do something, you really need to want to do something.
Whereas, those who don’t procrastinate say “Okay, you know, I want to, I don’t want to. I’m going to do it anyway.”, and very often, with the doing, also comes the motivation. It’s not motivation leads to doing. It’s rather doing leads to motivation.
Peter: Actually, at the moment of motivation, you don’t actually need that much motivation. I went on this bike ride that was in the rain and it was cold. It was an amazing ride for about 20 miles, and when I came back, someone in our apartment building looked at me, and I was muddy and wet and he said “Wow, you’re really motivated to go out in this stuff.” And I thought “You know, I only needed 30 seconds of motivation. I needed to walk out into the rain and start pedaling.”
10 miles in I wasn’t thinking “Oh, this is dumb. I should go back.” I mean, I was 10 miles in. I had to go back 10 miles. You don’t need motivation every second. When you sit down to write, once you’re writing, you’re writing. You don’t need to be continually motivated, but you might need motivation for those three minutes when you open the computer, sit down in your chair and write the first few sentences.
Tal: That’s exactly right, and you know, in procrastination researchers talk about the five minute take off technique, which is exactly that. Just sit down for those first five minutes, or go on that ride for five minutes, and usually, more often than not, it then becomes self perpetuating.
Peter: Right, it’s great. You have a SHARP model in this book which is strengths, health, absorption, relationships, and purpose. It all leads to this profound, flourishing, leadership. Can you give us a sentence or two about each, and then we can explore a little bit more in depth?
Tal: Sure, what Angus Ridgeway and I wanted to do was identify the areas, or the unique characteristics of great leaders in today’s world, and we identified these five elements as not the only ones, but the ones that account for most of the variance. The ones that explain most of what distinguishes the best from the rest.
The first one is strength, and that is about focusing primarily, not only but primarily, on the things that we’re good at, and the things that we’re passionate about. There’s much more return on investment, return on effort when we focus on strength.
Second, it’s about health. It’s about learning to manage our energy. Learning to deal with stress. Eating more healthfully, exercising, of course, on a regular basis. Then we have absorption. Absorption is about being mindful, being engaged, being present. This is so critical in today’s world, where we’re disengaged. We’re a distracted society with so many distractions all around us, so absorption is important.
The R of SHARP is for relationships. Your relationships is the number one predictor of well being. No surprise, it’s also one of the best predictors of leadership, our ability to engage in both positive and authentic relationships, and finally it’s about a sense of purpose. Having a sense of meaning in work, at work, being connected to what it is that we’re doing.
Peter: I have a question for you around this. As I’m listening to it, and it’s not a question I’ve got written down, but it got triggered when you said “We found these five things.” I’ve at this point, for the podcast, probably interviewed a hundred and something people, and so many different people have these research based”Here’s the six things. Here’s the 10 things. This is what we know. This is the difference between star performers and average performers.”I’m asking you this, not as a challenge but as a colleague in this space.
I don’t even know exactly what the question is, except that there are so many different views, research based views, on “Here’s what I have seen distinguishes”, and I’m just wondering what your perspective is on that, because I imagine you would have a good one, and you’re very research based as well?
Tal: If you look at a lot of research that finds, you know, the three things, the five things, the ten things, there is a lot of overlap in that field, and this is one of the things that we talk about in the book. We’re not about reinventing the wheel.
We’re simply about taking what’s out there and synthesizing it in an accessible way, because the real challenge of change is not the knowing, it’s the doing, and what will contribute to doing is having something that is accessible, and can be implemented with relative ease.
A lot of these models, you know, the five things, ten things, you will find there are overlaps there. Yes, once in awhile someone pushes the boundary, and introduces a new concept, a new idea, that hasn’t been introduced before, but that’s quite rare. Our book synthesizes rather than invents.
Peter: Great, so let’s go through each of these. Again, just for a few minutes, with the focus on the implementation and the execution, because I think that’s a theme throughout the book. It’s a theme in this conversation. It’s a theme in my work.
Starting with strengths, we all know it. I will stand up in front of an audience of a thousand people and say “How many of you have a performance review?” and everyone would raise their hand and I’ll say “How many of you have we don’t even call them weaknesses, we call them areas for development. It’s not a weakness, it’s almost a strength. It’s about to be a strength, don’t worry. Give me a couple of minutes, it’ll be a strength.
Then I’ll say “Raise your hand if that thing, in some language or other, has been there for the past 10 years?” And everybody raises their hand, so there’s an acknowledgement that I’ve got these weaknesses, and I’m probably not, maybe I’ll go from a C to a C plus, but I’m not going to go from a C to an A. I’m not going to be widely successful because I have gotten so good in my weakness.
And yet it is almost impossible to get away from trying to develop the thing that we’re not strong in, and the messages that people give us in performance reviews or in feedback, where everything focuses on not what can I do better than I’m already really great at. It’s how do you fix those things that you’re kinda miserable at.
I’m wondering what it takes to change that philosophy, or that mindset, or our own internal compass that says “I want to get better”?
Tal: First of all, it’s something that’s really embedded in us from a very young age. In school, you have a kid who’s, say, very good at mathematics, and not so good when it comes to language skills, and what was the focus? It was language skills, because mathematics, he’ll be fine. He won’t need to worry about that.
Peter: By the way you speak English very, very well.
Tal: Thank you, took me years to master. The challenge is, how do we get out of that mindset that we’ve inherited from our past? Easier said than done. The way to do it is also to think about sports.
I was recruited for squash when I went to college. The football coach didn’t even see me. Why? Because I’m 5’7″, and scrawny, and in sports, it wouldn’t even cross your mind to come to someone and said “Well, you should really bulk up so that you can become …” No, play squash. Play to your strength.
The thing though is, and this is important, when we’re talking about focusing on strength, we’re not talking about ignoring weaknesses, and that is why many people are afraid of going in the strength based approach, in that direction, because they are thinking “But, you know, I’m not good with people. I need to work on that. How can I become a manager, and only focus on my strategic thinking abilities?”
Well, Peter Drucker said it best, as he often did. He said “You need to focus on your strength, while managing your weaknesses.”, and that’s important. It’s not about ignoring. Again, we get to the genius of the and. You need to learn to manage your strength, and then focus, sorry, manage your weaknesses, and then focus on your strength.
Peter: I often think of it as mitigating the negative impact of your weaknesses and so it might be not even getting better at it, it might be delegating, but there’s some negative impact, and you gotta avoid that negative impact in whatever way you’re going to.
I might be too quick in saying this, but I think health explains itself, which is if you’re not healthy, if you’re not getting enough sleep, if you’re not eating right, if you’re not coming with your full energy to the work that you do, you’re going to falter as a leader.
Tal: Absolutely, and I’d just like to point out one thing that is important to emphasize, and that is our relationship with stress. Historically, a relationship with stress has been a negative one. You know, stress is bad. Stress leads to chronic disease, it leads to death, it leads to suboptimal performance, and so on. Well today, more and more we’re seeing through research is that stress, properly managed, is actually good for us.
I always give the analogy of going to the gym, and lifting weights. You know, when we’re lifting weights, we’re stressing the muscles. Not a bad thing, that’s how they develop. The problem is when we don’t provide time for recovery, that’s when we get hurt.
It’s not the stress, it’s the absence of recovery. This is something that Jim, Laura, and Tony Schwartz talk about in The Power of Full Engagement, so this is something that we emphasize. Stress is great, it’s important. Learn to manage it with recovery, and that’s when you maximize, that’s when you improve your performance.
Peter: Right, you talk about this distinction, which I know Jim and Tony do too, that we’re not in a marathon, we’re in a series of sprints. What I’m seeing increasingly,is people are running their sprints without an interval. Interval training is run as fast as you can and then recover, even if it’s for 10 seconds, and I don’t see us stopping for 10 seconds. We’re just running sprint after sprint after sprint.
Tal: And we’re paying the price. Just like physically, you would get injured, you would get exhausted, psychologically, mentally. That is what we see all around us.
Peter: So here’s my question about absorption. What I find often is that absorption is like happiness, which is it’s great when you’re there, but the pursuit of absorption is precisely the thing that can get in the way of absorption because you’re never really fully in that space. How do you get around that conundrum?
Tal: The nice thing about absorption is that it’s accessible, literally, at every moment in our life. It’s simply about returning to present. I love this, there’s a wonderful book by a Vietnamese, Tibetan monk called The Joy of Living, I believe, and what he talks about there are oops moments, where he says, you know, “Meditation is not about focusing all the time. It’s about returning to focus, and the oops moments are oops I just lost my concentration. Let me return to it. Oops I lost it again.”
This is the essence of meditation, and therefore, the more oops moments we have the better it is. Once again, it’s like exercising a muscle, returning to presence.
Peter: I’ve heard that with meditation. And the beautiful thing about that moment is, you may be in the past, or in the future, or you may be worrying, or you may be any number of things in your head, but the moment you recognize it, that’s the moment that you’re completely present. Meaning, you can’t recognize it unless you’re in the now. That moment, in my meditation, has always been very special for me, like when you discover the oops.
Tal: That’s right, and what’s important to understand also, about that moment, is that it’s accessible when you’re sitting down and meditating. It’s also accessible when you’re sitting down and listening to a conversation, or you’re participating in a meeting, so it’s accessible anywhere and anytime.
Peter: Let me ask listeners in this moment,what are you doing right now? Are you just listening to Tal and I have this conversation or are you doing something else at the same time?Is that something else distracting you from being fully present to what you’re listening to and the charm that exists between Tal and I? Are you really fully present to this conversation or doing something else? Just an oops check in, let’s say.
Relationships. You talk about authenticity and positivity, and I love that, and I think that’s so true in my moments of freedom, connection and relationships. What I also notice is the exact opposite, fear and vulnerability, that often prevents us from getting to that place. That we’re worried about fear and vulnerability and the risks, the lack of safety, and the fear of our history that we read as current.
We mistake history for reality. It’s very hard for people to get close in relationships and be committed and connected in those relationships for fear of vulnerability, which is specifically what would get in the way of that authenticity and positivity.
Tal: Correct, and being vulnerable, again, there’s wonderful work on this by Brené Brown. We pay a price for being vulnerable. We get hurt. At the same time, the price that we pay when we’re not authentic is a great deal higher, and it’s inevitable.
So many relationships, and here I’m talking about relationships at work, or a romantic relationships, or relationships with our kids. The number one predictor of long term success of relationships is our ability to be real, to be genuine within them, with all the costs thereof, and again, being authentic doesn’t mean being thoughtless, or it doesn’t mean having zero guards on.
You know, on a first date, you wouldn’t be able to be as vulnerable. You shouldn’t be as vulnerable and open as you are after 20 years of a relationship, but the aim should always be how can we reach higher and higher levels of authenticity, and in order to do that we need to open ourselves up gradually.
Peter: What it does is gives confidence to taking that risk. To say “You know, if I’m going to really say what I’m feeling in this situation then it feels important.” Meaning if I don’t say it I’m going to be walked over. If I don’t say it, we’re going to lose an opportunity here. Not being heartless or mean, but saying something that feels important to me. If I don’t say it for fear of the risk that I might lose the relationship for not saying it then that is already an indication that it probably needs to be said because it means you’re not showing up in the relationship in a way in which both of you will reap the benefits of really being in a relationship. It’s worth risking whatever that loss is in order to take a stab at having something real and authentic.
Tal: Yes, because not taking that risk is an inevitable loss.
Peter: Right, your final point, the key point in terms of living a purposeful life, and there’s something I really loved about how you framed this, which is that the focus of goals is to think of them as means and not as ends. That a lot of people can misinterpret the idea of purpose, life, in terms of just focusing 100% on the goals. Can you just talk a minute or two on that?
Tal: Sure, we go back to the beginning of our conversation when we talk about the relationship between success and happiness. Many people believe that becoming happier is about achieving that goal, achieving that milestone, getting that raise, getting into that school, or getting that job. Whereas, what we know is that, at best, achieving a goal leads to temporary well being, to a spike in our levels of well being, and then we go back to where we were before.
The path to happiness is not through the achievement of goals. However, at the same time, this is not to say that goals are not important, because if we do not have goals, then we are at the risk of being all over the place, being distracted, and not being able to be engaged, and present, so we need goals in order to liberate us to enjoy the here and now.
For example, if I know that I’m heading in this direction, and I want to reach the peak of that mountain. Once I know where I’m going, I can let go, and I can enjoy the process. If I know that I’m working on a book, I have that in mind. I want this book out. Now I can let go, and just focus on the present, which is writing.
Whereas, if I didn’t have a goal, I would, very often, wake up not having a sense of direction, not having a sense of purpose, and that would lead to unhappiness.
Peter: In a sense the goal of writing the book is what gets you to then say “Okay, even if I’m not particularly feeling it right now, or if I’m not particularly in the moment, I’m going to sit down, and I’m going to write for my five minutes to get myself motivated, and hopefully, I’ll stay for an hour and a half and get some good writing done.” Without that goal, you probably would never have to take the seat but the goal itself can help us move out of the “I’m just going to do what feels good in this moment” to “I’m going to do what moves me with a sense of purpose to achieve things that I want to achieve.”
Hopefully, in a way that leverages my strengths. That helps me to stay healthy and uses my energy in the way that will be strongest for me. That allows me to be absorbed and I’m not entirely sure how to intertwine relationships in there, but it’s gotta be in there somewhere.
Tal: Well, it’s in there if a relationship is important for you. It’s a goal. It’s an objective for us, and therefore, even through difficult times, we go through it. Nietzsche once said “If you have a what for, every how becomes possible.” If you have a what for, an important goal, an objective, you’re more resilient.
Peter: And there’s very, very little that I can think of that one can actually achieve with purpose that doesn’t involve relationships in some way in order to achieve it. We just don’t live in an isolated world in that particular way.
The book is The Joy of Leadership: How Positive Psychology Can Maximize Your Impact, and it make you happier in a changing world. Tal Ben-Shahar, it has been such a pleasure. It has been my joy to have you on this podcast and a joy to be in this conversation.
Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Tal: Thank you very much, Peter. Thank you.
Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for the next great conversation.
How can you develop employees who care? That’s the subject of bestselling author Subir Chowdhury’s newest book, The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough. Discover how much your company stands to gain by developing caring mindsets, the four elements in Subir’s STAR formula, and the one question you should ask yourself every morning.
- “Making a difference can be ANYBODY’S business.” @subirchowdhury #leadership
- Don’t wait for leaders – be the change you want to see in the world. @subirchowdhury #change
Book: The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough
Bio: Subir Chowdhury is chairman and CEO of ASI Consulting Group, LLC, a global leader on strategic initiatives, quality consulting, and training. Under Subir’s leadership, ASI Consulting Group has helped hundreds of clients around the world save billions of dollars and increase revenues. Subir has worked with many organizations, large and small, across diverse industries including manufacturing, healthcare, food, government, and nonprofit organizations.
We have with us on the podcast Subir Chowdhury. He is a leading management consultant. He’s written several books, and the book that we’re going to be talking with him about is the one he’s written most recently. It’s called “The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough.”
Subir and I know each other from a group that we’re in together, the MG100 Group. You’ve heard Marshall Goldsmith on the podcast. Subir and I are both in the group together. He’s a delightful guy. It’s always great to interview for the podcast people who you meet who you know live up to their advice, that they preach certain things, that they also walked the path that they suggest people walk.
Subir is one of those people. I really enjoyed the book. It’s a short book that packs a punch, is fun to read, and leaves you with a real sense of some things that are important that we’ll talk about today. Subir, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Subir: Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m looking forward to it.
Peter: You open the book with a few different stories that seem to point to a common principle, which is that we aren’t different people when we walk into the office versus when we’re home, that what we do with the toothpick after we used it is the same as what we do with a quality process organizationally, that how we treat people in the office should not be any different from how we treat them at home, or in synagogue, or in church, or in a mosque. Can you talk about that a little bit and explain why it’s so important?
Subir: Yeah. As you know, and I want to do a little bit backup. As you know, last 14 books I’ve written and all the management consulting I’ve done for last 20 years using the idea of process improvement, right? I literally save organization billions of dollars, right? Basically, as you know, the Six Sigma became very popular, and I was one of the leading authority on that field. By doing all this process improvement, what I found out that some companies … suppose for the sake of discussion, we have two same industry, two similar-sized client, and for the sake of discussion, I’m just giving an example of G.M. Ford, or maybe automotive industry, or maybe Airbus and Boeing in aerospace industry.
Suppose both the companies hired me as a consultant and used my processes, and what I found out, one company is getting 10X return, another company is getting 100X return, and I was puzzled by that. I said, “What the heck I’m doing? Maybe my process are flawed,” so I went, brought all my consultants, and literally screaming at them, saying that maybe our process is flawed. Maybe we are not doing certain things correctly.
So then, after a lot of discussions, my colleague said, “No, Subir. Maybe we should … If somebody is getting 100X return, maybe we should start at those organizations.” Last six, seven years, I’ve been starting all types of organizations to understand why one is getting 100X return and the companies which are not getting 100X, which is only getting 5X or 10X return, and then what really immersed is nothing to do with process. Nothing to do with process. It’s about the people, right?
The argument I’m making is, is we really wanted to improve quality, or if you wanted to improve your organization, you have to think of how is your all the people’s mindsets are, right? If they don’t have the good mindset or I call it as a caring mindset, then you may not get the best out of that organization, right? Then, the question comes to, can the caring mindset can be taught? Can anybody become and demonstrate the caring mindset? The answer is yes. Ideally, what I try to do with this book is about how to teach common people from a janitor all the way to the CEO level and in between anyone of them to truly can practice the caring mindset and develop the caring mindset.
Peter: Have you reduced it to that distinction of the caring mindset that the difference between a 10X return on an effective process versus 100X return is that people care, and if you’ve got an organization of people who care, then you’re going to maximize the returns?
Subir: Yes, yes. Yes. Right. Right. You’re absolutely right. The other thing is that what is really even puzzling like recent incident in Google. You know about the … that Google wanting … Somebody wrote an email, and he got immediately fired, and all this stuff.
Now, if you truly understand what he wrote on that email, and I’m not suggesting anyone of the side I’m not taking, but the question is that some of the issues he raised is a core issue like if 90% of the Google employees have a one party viewpoint, another 10% have another party viewpoint, you cannot left out the other 10%. You can’t. You have to have, realistically, a good dialogue and having the caring mindset demonstration for both sides, and that’s what is missing right now.
In fact, America is paying a big price of literally not … You and I may not agree to certain things, but that doesn’t mean that I have to be hateful to you, right? I have to be not sharing my caring for you. We can have a different viewpoint. That’s okay.
Peter: I don’t want to necessarily go down this road, but I’ll just ask a follow-up question about it because what if that 1% perspective is a non-caring mindset? Meaning, so what if that 1% perspective is hate talk, or is a destructive voice, or the pointing the fingers and the blame? If that’s that 1% voice, is it still important to have that 1% voice included? I’m not saying yes or no. I’m just asking you the question.
Subir: Yes. I think we have to include them, and maybe over time, the 99% can turn that around, right? Think about in any organization, so I talked about the caring mindset. The other perspective is a lot of the time, these people, this human being do not understand. They can develop the caring mindset. They can really do it. See, that is one of the reasons that in the book, I talked about making a difference can be anybody’s business, any human being’s business, right?
You don’t need a big financial bet or you do not need any kind of a societal elite status to make a difference. You know like Mother Theresa was not rich, financially rich person when she started. Think about it, and then the money poured in, and people supported her cause, right? I think anybody can make a difference. The question is that it is the mindset. In the book, I define about what is the caring mindset, and I talk about the four element, and it’s very easy to remember. It’s called the “STAR,” right?
Peter: Great. Let’s go into each of those. I have a question for each one that’s a little deeper, but why don’t you give us an overview of the four elements of STAR?
Subir: Right. STAR basically stand for Straightforward, Thoughtful, Accountable, and Resolve, so it’s very, very simple. Straightforward. Straightforward means you talk from your heart. You just don’t do any politics or any of that and talk from your heart, and give your opinion, and be respectful to the other person, and listen to what the other person is saying, and then you still make your point in a straightforward way.
Now, if you don’t have the straightforward culture in an organization, then what will happen, the Volkswagen type of incident will happen because they are hiding the information. A lot of the time, in straightforward stuff, I talk about the reason people are not straightforward is two reason. Number one is that they are fearful or afraid, and number two is that a lot of the time, they have grandiose amount of ego or pride, right? These are the two things, right? If you can control those two things, you can become a straightforward.
Peter: Let’s talk about that for a second – about the fear, because most people I know who aren’t straightforward, it comes from a lack of courage. It comes from a sense of vulnerability, and sometimes, by the way, that vulnerability is well-placed. The fear is well-placed that ultimately, they might be punished for being straightforward or saying what they think.
Subir: Right, and that is the key question that you say that we’re punished, right? The question is that it is the leader’s job. When I dealt with Jack Welch, right? When he asked a question to the … even the low level in an organization, and if they don’t have an answer, they’re not afraid to telling it straight, and why is that? Because Jack never punish them, right? He never punish them. He basically, “Okay, you don’t know. Next time I come in, you fix it. Figure it out. Two months later or six months later, I’ll visit again. I wanted to see this fixed.” There’s no punishment, right?
I think that whole culture of the fear and punishment culture is the leader’s responsibility, is the top of the house. They are the one who clean that culture, right? Unless they demonstrate themselves and make sure that people within the middle management or the next level management, everybody is not punished for their openness. Then, it will be … Like for an example, in my viewpoint, I think in Google, they’re firing the employee. I strongly feel that the Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, made a mistake.
I really felt bad. He should not have been … instantly made that decision. Rather than give him a little bit of a chance, have a dialogue about that, try to find out what really motivated him to write that article or whatever, and then dig in too little bit, but he did it too quickly, too fast because he thought about that 90% of their employees are alienating so he doesn’t want to go into that problem.
You cannot avoid that problem like that way. Rather than you try to discuss, and so that’s what I think. Without that problem, I think the more problem will come. Think about this way. White-collar crime in America in organizations costs $300 billion annually by a Cornell University study. $300 billion, white-collar crime. Now, that is sickening. Think about that. These are highly educated people are doing this crime, right?
Why they are doing that. In fact, one of the thing in the story I talked about, a gentleman about, Nick, he wants to get his next level promotion at any cost, anyone cost. Ultimately, when he diagnosed with cancer and he only survives six more months, and that is the six more months he wants to fix himself, and he wants to go to these next level people and try to apologize to them, try to earn their forgiveness. It’s a very profound story. Think about that, right? I think I always discuss about that if the leaders, true leaders come in and create a culture based on data, not based on their opinion or their emotion, they can develop a good organization, a good culture organization.
Peter: What you’re saying to my question of, “How do you help people have the courage to speak with straightforwardness?” your answer in part is, “Yeah, maybe you can help them have the courage, but really, it’s the leader’s job to create a culture in which every voice is heard, and important, and not punished.”
Subir: Yes. Absolutely. Yes.
Peter: Great. Okay, so straightforward is the S. Let’s talk about being thoughtful, the T of STAR.
Subir: Being thoughtful is basically about the attentive to the others, considerate, unselfish, helpful. Think about this way like every single day, when I wake up, my number one goal, when I was brushing my teeth, I ask myself, “What is the one thing I can do to another human being and give pleasure?” That’s it. What is the one thing I can do for another human being to bring pleasure? Right? That’s it, so that’s what thoughtfulness is all about.
I talk about a lot of the time especially the internet era with the social media era, even during the lunch break, we are looking at our iPhone and checking that out, and even in front of meal where other people are sitting and we are not talking to each other. How to avoid that? How to take that? Put your device out and to have some dialogue with your colleague. Try to look at them and even if you find another colleague that is stressed or whatever, try to ask them. Try to ask them, “Hey, what can I do for you?” Right?
I talk about being thoughtful is a two-step process. Step number one is listening. I think 99.9% of the people, we are very good in hearing, but we are not listening. What is the difference between hearing and listening? Hearing means you are talking to me and I’m just hearing, but I’m not internalizing. I’m not understanding what you are saying. It’s going in one ear, another ear is passing out. That’s it. That is the hearing.
Listening means not only I’m hearing what you’re saying, I’m having the eye contact, I’m internalizing it, and then I’m putting myself in your shoes. When you do that, that was the time the second step comes in. Then, the empathy kicks in. If you and I are not having a dialogue, when you’re having an argument, the reason the argument happen is because we are not listening to each other, right? Then, the argument comes in, but if we truly listen instead of hearing, argument will not happen. Then, we’ll empathize, and then once the empathy kicks in, you will be much more inclining with my viewpoint and I’ll be inclining with your viewpoint, and that’s what is missing in organizations.
Peter: The challenge I see most people having around that is how busy we all are.
Peter: There’s a part of us that looks at our iPhones instead of talking to people because we’re shy or because we’re a little uncomfortable, but there’s also a part where everyone is working so fast and so hard that to actually listen, or to be thoughtful, or to do what you suggested, which is to take even a moment to say, “What can I do that would express care for somebody else?” that is a difficult thing for people to do because they’re so overwhelmed with business.
Subir: Okay, so think about this way. Very simple. First of all is the mindset, right? Unless you have the mindset, you cannot do it. First question to yourself is that, “Am I going to fix myself? Am I going to improve myself?” Every day, when I wake up, I feel I’m a number one failure in the world, right? I wanted to say that I have so many flaws and how I can fix my flaws. Every single day, I feel that I have lots of flaws and how I can fix myself.
As soon as I have that mindset, first thing I do is that, “Okay. What can I do?” You are absolutely right. We are too busy. We are not taking the time. Think about this way. Five minutes. Nothing else. Five minutes. You just sit yourself. Either you can meditate, or you can walk, or you can not looking at the iPhone, or whatever, and just try to find your own self inside of you, the person you have, and ask that very simplistic question, “Why I’m here? Why I’m in this earth? Can I make a difference for another human being? What can I do to my next-door neighbor?”
As soon as you have that mindset, then you can become thoughtful, right? Then, you will be more listening. Then, you will create more empathy. Remember, that I was … I gave an example about in my … I was taking a flight from Los Angeles to Detroit. Normally, I get the business class ticket during my business travel time. All is paid for. I’m sitting in the first-class cabin, and there is an older gentleman came in and sit on the first row of the economy class cabin, and the flight attendant served the drinks on the first-class cabin before the flight takes off, and this older gentleman asked a simple glass of water. Just a glass of water. The flight attendant responded, “Hey, we don’t serve any drink to anybody like in economy class until the flight takes off.”
Now, the older gentleman again requested, “I’m very thirsty. I have to walk so many blocks to come over here. Can I get a class of water?” She again didn’t even respond, right? Guess what happened, these are very profound lesson learned for me too because I was sitting on the window like on the aisle seat, but there’s another guy who’s also sitting on the aisle seat. That young man didn’t say anything. He went in the flight cabin area and then poured a glass of water, gave it, served to the older gentleman, and then everybody over there clapped.
Now, the real question is that I asked myself a question why I did not act where that other young gentleman acted, and I was continuously puzzled by that. Why not? See, a lot of the time, we see certain things. If we know that you can make a small difference, very small difference, just do it. That is a big lesson learned for me. Later on, any time I see some problem that I can make a difference or I can make some contribution, I try to act on it. A lot of the time, we hesitate to take an act on it.
Peter: You’re also saying something that is important and I think profound, which is you’re describing a situation in which someone has privilege and which someone else doesn’t have privilege. You have someone who’s in first-class who has privilege and you have someone who’s in the economy class who doesn’t have that privilege, and that there’s a responsibility, especially for those of us who are in positions of rank and privilege to be thoughtful about what’s around us, beyond us for people who don’t have privilege and do what we can that represents care and thoughtfulness.
Subir: Exactly, you’re right. Yes. That is so critical, and a lot of the time, we forget about it. Recently, she ultimately apologized. Even the treasury secretary’s wife, she tweeted something bragging about her expensive clothes and all these stuff, and then ultimately, Twitter is all over her. Then ultimately, she apologized. Right? It’s shade. You should not act like that. We are very lucky. Every day, when I feel … one point of time like the majority of the people in America is self-made. Majority of them, right? Think about it. One point of time, we are doubted that privileged position. We work hard, and on the process, we also got lucky.
Anyway, so the next point comes too after the thoughtfulness is the accountable, right, which is much more about taking an action, taking the personal responsibility, right? One of the quote, I talk about Mother Theresa quote, and she used to say, “Don’t wait for leaders. Do it alone.” “Don’t wait for leaders. Do it alone.”
The point she was making is, believe it or not, irrespective of our position, God gave us some kind of inner power to each human being, right? I was listening to a talk by Nelson Mandela, right, that after living in the jail for almost 30 years, that when he came out, still, he’s dreaming to make a difference for his nation, his country. He wants to rebuild. Think about in 30 years. Somebody took the 30 years of his life and the whole nation took the 30 years of his life. After he came out, first thing he was thinking about, how he could make a difference for his nation. Think about that. Right?
That is the part we have to think about that any time we see something, how can we take personal responsibility? If we are not making accountable our self, anything we see, either at home, or in the community, or in the workplace, right? If we don’t like whenever I … A lot of the time, when I talk with some of the leaders, they said, “Well, Subir. That is not my job.” I said, “Why not? Why not? Why you are not raising that issue because your paycheck is coming from this organization? If you don’t take that action now, then something … maybe over time, everybody else who works for you, they’re following that you are not a true leader. Then ultimately, they will do the similar thing, and ultimately, you will create a mess without even knowing for it, and then you will call a council like me to come in to help you to fix it.”
I give some example of a 13-year-old Chicago girl. Her name is Trisha Prabhu. She was one day coming from the school and she read a 11-year-old Florida girl committed suicide because of the cyberbullying, so she … It hit her so much. She thought the whole system, her school system, her parents, and her teachers, everybody failed her, so she felt, “What can I do? Enough is enough. I’m going to change myself.” She take that as a personal responsibility. A 13-year-old girl.
Then, she started digging to the research how to solve the cyberbullying issue. She came up with an app called “ReThink.” The app name is called “ReThink.” What that app does is that what she found out that adolescents, when they write some nasty email or text without even thinking about it, so what she does is that at that time, if you can stop them, so this ReThink app, what they do, if you have that app in your phone, or iPad, or anything, then what you do is that as you type a message, nasty message, immediately, that ReThink will automatically … Artificial intelligence. It will automatically kick in and ask the question, “Are you sure? Your message is going to harm somebody. Are you sure you wanted to send this message?” Guess what happened. 93% of the adolescent decided stop, not to send.
Peter: Wow, not to send it.
Subir: Think about that. Now, ReThink. ReThink. You can check that app. Now, the ReThink is adopted by Facebook, Google, and everybody is promoting. A 13-year-old girl did that. Think about that, right? If a 13-year-old girl can take the personal responsibility, and make something, and feel herself as an accountable on her action and she can make a difference, why not you? Why not all of us? Right?
Peter: Let’s talk briefly about having resolve, which is the fourth piece of the STAR model.
Subir: Having resolve is all about having the passion, having determination, having the perseverance, and I talk about always the story about when I came to the United States in 1991, and I was short of $200, right, because I suppose to given a scholarship, and I didn’t … My professor said no. He will not give it to me, and I got the message after coming to the US on the first day after landing in US, and I don’t have any money. I have $200 sorted. I went to a bank. Bank rejected $200, so I cannot even register.
What I’ve done, I went to … so all my other … people I met. Indians, Bangladesh, all these different people. We met. They said, “Subir, don’t worry about it. You can work illegally.” I said, “No, I’m not going to do that.” Guess what I did. I personally felt that I need to resolve. I have resolve that I came to America. I had a big dream to make a difference in America. This cannot be the country. One person denied me doesn’t mean that America is bad, so I did not believe in that system. I believed in the American system.
Guess what I did. Next two weeks, I went to every single department, 23 department … 22 department rejected me. 23rd department opened the door for me, and the rest is history. I literally got the complete scholarship from Dow Chemical in that week for my graduate degree. Think about that. Coming to America for the first time with the culture shock. Everything. No family member, nobody, right? The first person on the first generation coming in from both my parents side, and I went to the 22 … knocked 22 doors, and the 23rd door opened.
Peter: You hear those stories … You hear about Harry Potter being given to 25, 26 publishers before it was accepted.
Subir: Rejected, right. Absolutely.
Peter: In order to have that resolve, you have to have the belief in yourself.
Peter: These pieces of the model fit together, being straightforward, being thoughtful, being accountable, having resolve. The example you gave about being thoughtful and having the man in first-class bring water to the older man in economy, that required thoughtfulness. It required accountability. It required some element of resolve. It required all of them, and these are the four things that seem to make the difference. You’ve reduced it to these four things, straightforward, thoughtful, accountable, and having resolve, that makes the difference between taking a process that you have in an organization that’s perfectly fine and having it have the 10 times impact versus a hundred times impact.
Subir: Exactly. Yes.
Peter: Those are the four things that really represent the kind of caring that you’re talking about.
Subir: Right. Ideally, if you ask me the question that, “Subir, why the hell you didn’t do this 20 years ago?” Very honestly, I wish my first book is on this area because then, I should have been … delivered better results in the process of improvement. You know what I’m saying? You know what I’m saying?
Peter: Every time. Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s great.
Subir: That’s what I was trying to do now.
Peter: Thank you. We’re with Subir Chowdhury. The book is The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough. Subir, it’s such a delight to have you on the Bregman Leadership Podcast. Thank you for coming on.
Subir: Thank you so much for featuring me.
Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Bryan Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.