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Old and New . . . A leadership story of attribution errors.

John? Is that you? Photo by  Jenny Hill  on  Unsplash

John? Is that you? Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

Are leaders born or made?

Old Guard and New Vanguard

“Newbie,” John thought as he rounded the track and watched Tyler animatedly talk to one after another runner about his “love” of being a runner. He noted Tyler’s Salmon “Ultra Pro” blue and red shoes, neon-green Fitbit, Rockay running socks, Smart Wool running gloves, and matching headband.John looked down at his own clothes . . . dependable Nike shoes, almost five years old, a no-name line of shorts, tee-shirt, and stocking cap. He’d bet that his whole wardrobe, bought at a “big-box store,” maybe with the shoes excepted, cost less than the price Tyler forked over to Smart Wool.

Tyler barely gave John a thought. Oh, John was always there, this 50-somethingish road-ghoul, finishing his morning run with a few final laps and warm-down on the track. John looked, to Tyler, like a burned-out, uninviting, “road warrior” who wasn’t likely to be a source of encouragement or inspiration—simply someone doing what he did, for some unknown, but internally-motivated reason—without a sense of the great synergy of involvement in a broader running community.

Tyler, a 30-ish millennial, who came to running as a pastime last year, could draw a crowd. His animated excitement—whether talking about his observations on running shoes, the latest on Runblogger, or heart rate variability—was palpable and infectious. Other’s attempting to re-engage with a more active life-style or to develop a love of running loved to come along side and listen.

If pushed, John might admit that he held some distain for Tyler. He might have, in his less charitable moments, thought, “We’ll see how long he lasts.” Tyler conversely may also, if his psyche were plumbed, acknowledge that John, to him, was the embodiment of what he did not want his running to become—one more joyless chore he did because it was “good for him.”

Leaders—Old and New

Too often, this is the picture of leadership—where generational differences turn into “attribution errors;” ie; “John is burned out and no longer has a passion for running!” (Really? How will you look after decades of running?), or “Tyler is a flash in the pan, and not serious!” (Were you not excited when you first started?)

I got to watch this play out annually when I was growing up. As the son of the Academic Vice President of a small college (enrollment of 500) I watched wave after wave of new students come to college, young leaders emerge, and the annual tug-of-war—sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in a noisy visible crash—between the generations play out. I also saw, behind the scenes, the dedicated service of the staff, faculty, and leadership as they sought to guide, harness, and lead these energized and idealistic youth into success—with patience and understanding of the “youngster’s needs to find their own way.” At times it wasn’t pretty.

One student, whose passion at the time was an electric guitar—and today, is a retired grandpa—told me about how my Dad was called out of bed at 3 in the morning due to neighbors complaining about the loud rock music blaring from on campus. My father, all 6’3” probably bristling from head to toe—strode into a performance hall, unplugged the speakers, and announced, “Now, do want to clear out this equipment, or do you want me to confiscate it?” The student admits this led to a “dust up” with my Dad, (which he lost and eventually, decided it was prudent to dismantle the equipment himself). I remember the tears in this grandpa’s eyes when, upon my Dad’s death, he commented that it was my Dad, among others, who taught him, how to be a man of integrity. (BTW- Dad was the source of the greatest leadership act I ever witnessed--doing nothing!)

This week, I was back “home” where I grew up. A guy stopped me, introduced himself, and asked who I was. I told him. “Your father and your brother Kirk changed my life,” he told me. Your Dad’s class and your brother’s example as my Resident Assistant in the dorm showed me something I hadn’t experienced before—caring and strength.” I know. Both of them, my Dad and my brother, would not compromise on two things--caring for the person and following their principles. At least where young men were concerned, they knew how to see beyond the behavior and see the person, in context, and with an understanding of what was needed at that time . . . an encouraging word or a kick in the amp.

Lesson for Old or New (Don’t manage by fear or control!)

Maybe somebody has said what I am writing below, or something similar, somewhere . . . but I couldn’t find it on-line. So here is my shot at a “truism” about what happens too often between the old and new leaders (someone should make into a profound and pithy quote).

“We blame those we cannot understand, attributing to them motivations we create, and judging those motivations insufficient, incorrect, or morally deficient; thus, invalidating their right to choose and proclaiming our right to judge.” ~ Bryan Miller

It take great courage, strength, and wisdom to lead when others think you are headed in the wrong direction. It is when the “heat is on” or a crisis manifests itself that leaders are most severely judged—for good or bad. The disagreements may be the result of something as simple as a difference in age, philosophy, learning history, or other factors—like how loud music should be played at 3 am. Creating respect comes through the strength of presenting a caring and principled approach that will, in the long-run, garner the support and the following leaders need to “grow up” new leaders who can maximize their human systems to reach organizational or team goals.

Additional resources:

Lessons Learned Around the World: People-centered leadership. A. Keith Miller, Major, USAF (Ret.)

Engage Your Team: A framework for leading “difficult” people. Bryan G. Miller, Ph.D.

Contact us with questions. Thanks for sharing and commenting!

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I'm a fanatic . . . about culture . . . but it better be real!

Yep, I could be  that guy!  I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by  Martin Reisch  on  Unsplash

Yep, I could be that guy! I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

I admit it. I’m a fanatic. No not a ranting, in your face, zealot. I’m from the midwest after all. Our zeal is a little more tempered. Stoic. Nice. That reminds me, our state once thought the best tourism tag line for our state was to promote this . . . “Nebraska, nice.” Ugh. Doubt it helped much. Anyway, back to me, the fanatic. I bear all the hallmarks of being a “true believer,” I have the gear, I study carefully everything about my passion, I’m drawn to others who share a similar love for the object of my obsession, I’ve done it all . . . except the tattoo. But then again, I’m from a different generation and, again, midwestern.

So, what is it that I am fanatical about? Well . . ., before I tell you and some of you sign off—concluding that your passion is not mine, and thus irrelevant—let me say, this post is not about the object of my fan-dom (fan-dumb?) but about the power of culture You see, the entity upon which my interest is focus is, right now, not worthy of such devotion. Ouch. It hurts to even admit that, I’m such a homer when it comes to college football.

The truth is the truth however and it is undeniable that my beloved team—the Nebraska Cornhusker football team, or “the Huskers” for short—has been awful. Last year? 4-8. The year before? 4-8. Dismal. Yet, this team has a top 15 recruiting class this year. They have been projected to finish in the top 20 by a number of prognosticians. Enthusiasm is high among the fans. Hope is abundant. What gives? Well a change in leadership but perhaps even more importantly the establishment of a new culture.

You can feel it. In the way the players talk, in the way they play, in their belief in the team and coaches and their willingness to voluntarily commit their discretionary effort to the team’s goals. Just watch their body language. A few years ago, under a different coaching regime . . . we won’t name names, I saw players on the side lines with their heads down, looking away or even pushing past . . . and thus avoiding . . . coaches who were trying to talk to them. It was not surprising when, over time, they began to look like they weren’t united in trying to win and the results began to mirror that disconnect. My observations were confirmed when a friend, and former division I quarterback, made the same observation, “You can tell they don’t want to play for this coach,” he said, “Just look at how they act when they come off the field.” Finally, someone close to the program also stated it. “They lost faith in the coach.”

So what has given this new culture its legs? Not success . . . not yet. Unless it’s the reputation of past success which these leaders have or the progress being made. But, success in the present? No. The team started out 0-6. The first time in the history of the program. Amazingly, the team continued to fight. They appeared to improve over the course of the season. They fought no matter what the circumstances and even looked better when they lost. It was clear that they “had each other’s back” and the team was, in fact, a Team. Having played both for teams that were not united or had a successful culture as well as teams that were very high functioning (including a national coach of the year) here are a few observations (from an outsider’s view) of what has made this work.

  1. The leaders have a deep understanding of—and deep connection with —the broader context of the program and how to utilize the context to promote success. The Coach grew up in Nebraska. Population 1,325. The “Walk On Program” here at Nebraska—the recruiting of local kids—is at least as important as the getting the “blue-chippers”—highly ranked recruits— in the context of Nebraska football. He gets this. He praises the fans and the culture as being “like no other” and highlights its strengths—joking about how “blue-chippers” think they’ll see a football stadium in the “middle of a corn field.” Early cohorts talked about valuing the walk on program but in practice . . . they didn’t get it.

  2. The leaders demonstrate a commitment to one thing—success. I hear statements like, “We are going to be good.” or “ We’ll see if he can contribute.” Even doubts, “Some may not be with the program” It’s clear that the goal is the focus and they believe reaching for that goal will help everyone who buys in. You could call it the “while no one is an ‘expendable crewman’ . . . some are more expendable than others.” But the message is clear. This is about being successful as a team. You can “get on board” or not but it is the single clear focus of the program.

  3. Hard work is the route to success. How do you go from 4-8 two years in a row to the 13th ranked recruiting class? Hard work. Weight training. Husker Power. Strength Coach Zach Duvall. The coaches have not shied away from saying that players were not where they needed to be. In fact after the final game to our Iowa neighbors, the coach said it hurt to see that they were bigger and stronger than we were. How’s that for honest clarity? Yes, the coaches are careful to allow that there are many paths to success (that other coaches may have tried) and that previous coaches may have had a different focus and emphasis, but it’s clear that the team did not meet their criteria for strength, speed, and commitment. It’s also clear that anyone wanting to be a part will dedicate themselves to these attributes.

  4. Finally, over everything else, the emphasis is on people. The clear message—and one that resonates as not just being "coach-speak”—is that this is about the players. Helping them become better men. Developing their potential. Becoming a close-knit group and having fun together. Yes, fun. In fused in everything is this belief that hard work, dedication, team chemistry, and success is fun and worth the effort. The mission is not just winning on the field it’s being successful as a person.

In Coach Frost’s own words . . .

As I was writing this blog, an Omaha World Herald article by Sam McKewon came out where Coach Frost talked about the importance of culture. Here’s part of what Frost was quoted as saying . . . “Culture eats scheme for breakfast . . . I can put the guys in the best scheme, the best offensive plays, the best defensive plays we can come up with. But at the end of the day, if we don’t have . . . people holding each other accountable, and we don’t have our team making smart decisions and grinding and working hard, [i.e.; the right culture] I’m not sure the best scheme in the world matters.”

Frost boils it down to two factors, 1. players making decisions in the best interests of their teammates, and 2. a desire to excel and no fear of failure.

Will this, ultimately, lead to the success the coaches want? If we’re talking wins . . . it’s unknown. In fact, due to the variables at play in such an endeavor it could be argued that their is no way to determine what causal factors lead to success on the field. Fair enough. But if you just look at the players behavior, other on and off the field, you can already see a clear and vital difference. It’s clear that this focus on culture has brought a new energy, a willingness to commit voluntary effort to succeeding, and cleared aways a number of hurdles that were detrimental to success. A strong culture, at the very least, increases the likelihood that success is possible—in athletics and in business.

P.S. I was told by someone who worked with transportation for recent Husker teams would leave the bus “trashed” when they got done with a trip. Not anymore. The Coaches, from the first, made players clean up after themselves and appreciate the service they were being given. Coaches talk about representing the state, university, and each other. The message is clear—even in this minor detail, “We will treat people, including ourselves, with respect.” Sometimes it starts that small to build a great culture.

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The Eclipse . . . Understanding People . . . and New Babies!

The Eclipse . . .  Understanding People . . . and New Babies!

Of course, next week is the total eclipse. We are fortunate to live near "ground zero" only 40 miles from the point where it will have the longest duration. Facts about the eclipse are all over the internet, the news, even Bill Nye--the former "science" now political guy--is coming here to take in the phenomenon. The frenzy makes me think of the old shows, like Gilligan's Island, where some natural phenomenon was interpreted at some sort of sign. Now, as then, I think the most fascinating thing to watch will be the people.

How do you understand people?

It was 15 years ago, that my colleague and I sat reviewing the data of the international consulting firm. It was the first time we were going to get an inside look into what a "real" consulting firm--and a very powerful and well respected firm--was doing to understand the employees. 

What kind of statistical analysis would they be using? The goal had been to measure the employee satisfaction of the company's primary facility--about 3,000 employees--across many factors--supervision, company benefits, working conditions, training, etc. We wondered, as we opened the packet, what kind of statistical modeling would this leading company use to understand the data and compare this company to others in the industry and across the country? The answer was surprising.

We were already working with a manufacturing company when the head of HR suggested that our work be dove-tailed with the survey the company had completed recently. So, we had been given the raw data and were scheduled to meet with the primary consultants for the firm-a couple of Ph.D.s from Chicago. Our role was to conduct focus groups to turn the results into action plans. To do this we would be helping the company design a plan to get good "informants" from across the 9 plants and 3 shifts.  We would conduct focus groups on each of the areas in which the company was "below" the threshold of the comparibles--other U.S. manufacturing firms.

What kind of statistics did the consulting firm use for these comparisons? The most basic and simple tests available. As a graduate student I expected much more sophistication. The metrics they were using? T-tests and P-values. Humble little T-tests. The simplest and first statistical test learned by new students of statistics.

Yes, the qualitative analysis, had it's benefits. You could see exactly how much this company differed statistically from the average.  You could easily separate out the areas of strengths and weaknesses compared to a mythical average manufacturing firm. But, to explain the results, and to begin to formulate solutions they relied on talking to the employees themselves--thus the focus groups.


Speaking of numbers, this week we had some significant stats of our own. This week our family had 5.0 puppies born this week and 1.0 grandsons. A big week. But the stats hardly due it justice. It does not really explain "what it was like." Maybe it will help to have a little description . . . The pups are Dobie's--a Doberman/Collie mix and the grandson? Well, he's perfect. With dark hair, "monkey-toes," his mother's long fingers and his dad's forehead. Which tells you more about our week?

Here's our new momma, Scout, and the puppies!

Here's our new momma, Scout, and the puppies!

 

The experience with the international firm, taught me a couple of valuable lessons. One, there is no need to fear large, power-house consulting firms. Since I live in the shadow of one of the biggest in the country that is important.  Two, good tools are not always the most complex, or "showy" tools. In fact, when it comes to human systems I would trust the "gut" of a well-trained and experienced Psychologist over the technical prowess of most business consultants!

No statistics and quantitative analysis certainly have their place. But, if you really want to understand people, engage them in solutions, and get a deep understanding of the interactions of a work group or organizations, you'll need consultants with skills in qualitative methods.

After all, the results we care about, are the ones that impact people.  We love hearing comments from customers like these::

"The team just seems happier."

"I didn't even know there wasn't ventilation in our plant." (Follow up to action plans implemented 2 years earlier)

"We are communicating more."

"I don't dread coming to work anymore."

"The start-up has gone smoothly and the Director and Assistant Director seem to be working together."

"Mom and I are treating each other with more respect."

"The problem has gone away."

"We saw how well things went with the organization after the consult that's why we're asking you to work with this other team."

Going back the topic of understanding people. If you were stranded on an island with a number of other people. Would you want to consult with a "bean counter" who could tell you that the "likelihood of one of the team becoming superstitious--maybe even to the point of threatening your rescue--was 60% in the first 250 days." Or would you want the people-person to tell you if the newly arrived castaway, Ted, was in danger of "flipping out?" I want to know about Ted.

So, if you find yourself headed "our way" to watch the eclipse because you are mesmerized by the science of it all--very cool. If you can quote the numbers--how often this happens, the duration of the event, the percentage of people that will be able to view it, or others--again cool. For me, while the eclipse is of great interest, it's not the primary one. So, don't mind me, I'll just be enjoying the experience . . . and watching the people.

Have a "people question?"  Contact us and we'll see if we can help. We set aside time for free consults just for this purpose. There is no cost and no obligation. 

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