Hurricane Sandy reveals True Leadership

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy over this last week is nearly immeasurable. Having just seen some of the post-storm photos of areas throughout New York, Connecticut and New Jersey are not only beyond description, they represent only a small fraction of the challenge that faces the area now as the clean-up and rebuilding begins.

Leaders emerge in a crisis

While these are indescribable tragedies, these are also the times when true leaders emerge and stand out from those who are just filling a position.  I’m not just talking about the willingness to of people to engage in helping each other, but leaders that inspire others by their actions ofLeaders emerge in a crisis optimism, courage and engagement of others.

Take Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ. Regardless of where you stand on his politics or his prior statements, you have to admire his willingness to back up his statements with action. Mayor Booker himself was among those who went out into the streets of Newark to encourage residents to evacuate and for the homeless to come into the shelters.  He used the tools available to him, such as Twitter, to communicate actively with his public without all of the steps of hierarchy between him and his constituency.

In many cases, the heroes and leaders in a disaster like this will always go unknown due to the fact that they are focused more on the outcome than the recognition.  These are the individuals that not only take care of their neighbors, but inspire those neighbors with their actions to rise above their fear and loss long enough to come to the aid of those even in worse shape.

And this is where leadership and morality again come together. I am currently in a debate with some of my graduate students (God bless ’em) who chose to believe that leadership has no moral component. I can only hope that they are wrong, because in times like these, it’s the morality that will save lives and create an peace where there is only chaos

Thought for the Week: Dis-engaging Employees

Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work. Vince Lombardi

An interesting article in today’s Mckinsey Quarterly argues that “senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees…” Assuming that the senior executives don’t get up in the morning and ask themselves, “How can I destroy the inner work lives of my employees?” what is happening?

According to the authors of the McKinsey study, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, of everything that can deeply engage people in their jobs, “…the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” They go on to share results of their multi-year research study, published in their recent book The Progress Principle.

As unfortunate as it is, this makes a lot of sense. And the problem isn’t limited to senior executives. Managers at all levels have a tendency to set priorities in a way that the daily lives of their subordinates are much less visible and much less important than perhaps they should be. Granted, no manager of multiple employees (or multiple levels of employees) can be expected to know how every corporate decision affects every individual person. At the same time, it is possible to at least consider the consequences of a decision in terms of its impact on engagement.

For example, one of the traps menEmployee-engagementtioned in the McKinsey article is in “Strategic Attention Deficit Disorder.” While it is important for leaders to remain flexible to current challenges, often initiatives are started and then, once underway, stopped (or worse, simply abandoned) in order to start new initiatives. For those Type A leaders that are out there driving change, it is important to remember that these kinds of initiatives often take time and require patience that many of us simply don’t naturally have.

As it relates to engagement, the problem with Strategic ADD is that it undermines the ownership of the initiatives by the people who are charged with implementing them. This is the standard “flavor of the month” feeling. Sometimes the best and brightest of your employees will hold back on committing to the success of a particular initiative because they are unsure as to whether or not it is worthy of their personal investment. The more often that long-term initiatives are pitched by leaders, only to be abandoned down the road, the more cynical the employees become.

The overall lesson of the McKinsey study is one that we’ve known for a long time. While leaders may struggle with engaging their employees over a long period of time, it is possible to dis-engage them fairly quickly. Make a conscious effort to consider the consequences of your decision. If it contributes to a lack of engagement, the decision may be more costly than you think.

Thought for the Week: A Focus on the Future

Change behavior, not people. Change processes, not standards. Change results, not goals. Mike Ferretti, CEO, Great Harvest Bread

CEO Report CoverThe year 2011 is rapidly coming to a close and, while it’s somewhat artificial to consider January 1st, 2012 as a special day where we are allowed to change, it is still a milestone that causes us to reflect on the past and plan for the future.  New Year’s resolutions are a tradition where we reveal our intent. By itself, a resolution doesn’t change things, but it sets us up to go on record with our priorities for the coming months.

Northwood University has just published my newest “CEO New Year’s Resolutions:  A Focus on the Future” for 2012.  It’s a free report that you can read or download by clicking on the link above or by visiting and choosing the button at the top left corner on their homepage.

For this report, I contacted 50 CEOs of a diverse collection of organizations. These include franchise organizations like Great Harvest Bread listed above, large company CEOs like Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Jere Brown of Dimension Data Americas, non-profit CEOs like William Jones of Focus Hope and Viveka Rydell of PDI Surgery and leaders of tech companies like Andrew Schrage of and Sam Shank of HotelTonight. There are manufacturers represented like Ron Beebe from Euclid Industries and community organization leaders like Mike Woody from the Midland Tennis Center as well.

While this is not a statistically significant sample of all CEOs nationwide, it is still interesting and informative to see the consistency of the message in this report. As you read it, you get the impression that the leaders of many of our organizations are not cowed by current economic and political conditions but are instead focused on bringing growth and stability to their business in order to benefit their shareholders, their employees and their communities.  As I say in the introduction to the report, these business leaders also don’t represent the “1%” nor do they represent the “99%.” Instead, they represent the heart of American free enterprise.

I hope you find the time to check out the report. I would love to hear your feedback and comments.

Eleanor Josaitis: Vision, Courage and Commitment

 It is difficult to find positive examples of leadership vision, courage, and commitment because (a) the negative examples are so often in our face and (b) those leaders who follow this course are too busy doing what they do to worry about whether or not they are recognized as outstanding leaders. As a result, often this recognition is posthumous as a reflection on the life the leader has led and the contributions they have made to their constituency and to other leaders around them.

Such is the case with Eleanor Josaitis, co-founder of Detroit based Focus:HOPE who died on August 9, 2011 at the age of 79. There are many stories that can be found that chronicle the life and Eleanor Josaitis was a leadership role model contribution of Josaitis, but my purpose is to focus on her embodiment of the traits that we desperately need to find in leaders today.  The last 43 years of her life were dedicated unwaveringly to the mission of her organization. As the Focus:HOPE website says, she was a national advocate for the nutrition of children and seniors, a proponent of job training for women and minorities and a “passionate Detroiter who strove to revitalize the city and its neighborhoods.”

Vision: Most people credit the partner of Josaitis, Father William T. Cunningham, as the visionary behind Focus:HOPE. While that may be true for the organization itself, it is clear that to Josaitis, the organization was a means to fulfill her own view of what the future should hold.  Watching a 1963 television program about the Nuremberg trials, a bulletin flashed on the screen about the harsh police treatment of the civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama. She called this her “TV moment” as it began the development of a vision of peace that she followed from that point onward.

Courage: While many people wanted peace in Detroit after the 1967 riots, Josaitis took immediate and strong action by moving with her husband and children downtown in 1968. In that same year, Josaitis along with Cunningham, formed the “Focus: Summer Hope” organization for the purpose of advocating and maintaining peace a year after the infamous riots.  As that summer passed relatively quietly, the organization became Focus:HOPE and began a food distribution program. That beginning has turned into an organization that feeds nearly 45,000 people monthly and has expanded to include job training programs in the areas of information technology and machining. Through a fire bombing in the 1970s to a massively destructive tornado in the 1990s, Josaitis was never intimidated enough to waver from her goal.

Commitment: There are a lot of leaders with vision and perhaps the courage to start action toward achieving that vision. However, over time, the original focus is sometimes obscured by the fact that maintaining focus is hard. It’s very hard when faced with adversity and it’s not uncommon for leaders to start to backtrack or look for easier ways of doing things. This was not the case with Josaitis nor with Focus:HOPE.  The mission of the organization that was established in 1968 is still the mission today.

And Josaitis never allowed distractions to distract her from the vision that she and others held. I spoke with Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and driver behind the revitalization effort known as “Detroit 2.0” who noted, "A leader is someone who not only sees a problem, but one who has the strength and passion to become part of the solution. Eleanor was an example of one who jumps in with both feet and ignores the noise created by the naysayers to truly make a difference in others' lives."

Please note, Eleanor Josaitis wasn’t the CEO of a multi-national company, nor was she the head of a nation-wide civic service organization. She didn’t try to be everything to everybody and she did not try to succeed in her quest alone. She was simply a woman who chose to be a leader in a community where she felt she could make a difference and through that choice, touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.  She was the kind of leader we could all strive to be if we were able to define our vision and work unwaveringly to achieve it. Eleanor Josaitis will be greatly missed, not only as a pillar of strength in Detroit, but as a role model for the rest of us.

Thought for the Week: It Only Takes Once

"Not that you lied to me, but that I no longer believe you has shaken me."  Friederick Nietzche, "Beyond Good and Evil."


When Nietzche wrote these words, he was addressing the issue of the consequence of mistrust. Granted, Nietzche himself had a place for lying as a philosophical tactic, but it was a personal issue then and still has meaning in a big way for leaders today.

The perception of integrity is our own responsibility I've written on integrity in this blog before and often. In fact, I did an interview on Fox News a year or so ago about the backlash on the reputation of leaders due to the banking crisis and financial misdeeds revealed at the time. This is the unfortunate truth. Not only is trust violated when an individual lies, it is violated "as-a-class." This is why scandals like those surrounding Rep. Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, David Willetts (Oxford University) or Dirk Kettelwell (Radio Shack) have such a long lasting and sweeping impact. It's not just that we can't trust THEM…we end up questioning the integrity of all leaders.

The same is true of CEOs, midlevel managers, and front line supervisors. Once one of these people break our trust, we have a hard time trusting anybody with the same role. It is a broad brush, it is unfair, and it is part of our human survival instinct. Should you be under the spotlight because somebody else did something wrong? Probably not. But the perception of your personal integrity is your own responsibility regardless of whether it is fair.


Tough Times for Teams

If you have ever been the leader of a team, whether in a corporate setting, a non-profit or in even a sports setting, you know that the team seems to operate well in some cases whereas in others it either falls apart or defaults to more of an individual contribution rather than a team contribution. Heidi Gardner from the Harvard Business School states that performance pressure is a huge barrier to team effectiveness. The greater the pressure, the less effective the team. Tough news when the pressure seems to be greater in all arenas today.

  Teams Struggle with Stress Management The real problem is that, under pressure, teams do not seem to default to the individuals with the most experience or expertise. Instead, they default to the team members with the most status. That’s right. When under pressure, it seems that many teams go with seniority or position rather than with the leader that might be best suited to deal with the issue. Further, research has also shown that only when teams turn to those with the client or subject expertise do they become more successful in the eyes of their stakeholders.

 Granted, this is a working paper only and there are limitations to the methodology as always. From an anecdotal view, however, it seems to have face validity. I have worked with a number of teams where, under pressure, they become powerless (by choice) and turn to “the boss” for decisions or action. How can you make sure that you are not contributing to the issue?

Stick to your delegation. Many times leaders undermine the process of team development in an effort to provide comfort to fearful team members who may not want to take risks. “If you need me, I’ll step in” can be a great sign of support, but it can also provide an easy way out just as the team begins to deliver what it’s chartered to deliver. If you have delegated a project to a team, don’t let them abdicate responsibility. This doesn’t mean you avoid supporting them…just that you don’t allow them to hand the responsibility back to you.

Provide training and support. One of the problems with operating under pressure is that we begin to doubt our abilities to be successful. This is human nature in people who want to perform well. It is even more of a problem if it’s true. In other words, if you have not provided the team with the tools they need before they are under the gun, it will be difficult for them to succeed without you.

Make sure communication is open and free-flowing. When teams are working on crucial projects, formality and bureaucracy can kill their momentum and add to the frustration of the fires they are fighting. If you see that the pressure is mounting, make yourself more available for coaching and support. Give the team free rein to hold meetings and discussions with whomever they need to in order to solve their problems. Often, if you look closely at the situation, you will find that you are the bottleneck. This is an issue only you can solve.

I am not suggesting that these actions will take a dysfunctional team to high-impact, but I am suggesting that these are ways that can help. As leaders yourselves, I’m sure you have been in similar situations. What experiences have you had that would help leaders of teams that are buckling under pressure?