The Gift of Trust

There comes a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction …. that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, (“Self-Reliance,” 1839-40)

My dear friend,

My fervent prayer is that your recollections of the year now passing are well-supplied with joyous remembrances.  With tales of grace and benevolence that rightfully leave you humble and contrite for the blessings that have come to you and your loved ones.

That said, many of us have had pain visit our lives this past year as well. I hope that your faith allowed you to forego the suffering that we often layer upon pain caused by circumstances beyond our control.  I hope that you felt and expressed sympathy and love for yourself, not the unforgiving and circular feeling of self-pity. But as a member of humankind, I know that wise self-sympathy is not always the first stop along the journey of pain.

HiltonAt this time of year, we find that introspection goes hand in hand with holiday festivities. Perhaps as you see the world unfold, you ask yourself How can I be more humane? Recognizing that humanity is a manifestation of natural laws, James Hilton writes that even in his magical Shangri-La, our humanity is, “forever in the process of growing, it will by necessity always be imperfect.” True, but in this time we live, our imperfections seem to be magnified by a lack of trust so prevalent in our new century. Sadly, distrust seems to be growing more entrenched each year in the behavior of individuals and, thus, in the institutions they have built, institutions we have historically looked to as beacons of this revered quality of reason–trust.

What sadder example of trust forfeited is there than that displayed by our political class? Our elected officials practice with singular intent the distrust defined by the incomparable journalist and philosopher Jimmy Breslin: lawmakers seem “to go through life with the view that no slight, no difference is so small that it cannot be converted into a feud.” They act less the elected servants of the people and their laws and more the self-absorbed, anointed patrician.

Through word and deed, we find that we lack trust in many celebrities, sports stars, some business leaders, even religious leaders.  The reason trust is waning is relatively easy to diagnose: Lots of people act in untrustworthy ways. As a result, my message this year is about how we develop an intuitive bias toward being trustworthy. The transformational capabilities given us at our creation equip us to be an individual who can be revered for the substance of our character.

trustThe good news is that we never lose our instinctive sense of right from wrong. Common-sense morality is hardly ever erased from our consciousness, but norms of moral conduct get hijacked by the rational mind, as it comes up with all sorts of rationalizations, excuses spawned from witnessing the faithless conduct of others: we tell ourselves “Oh, it’s OK—everyone’s doing it.” Situational ethics is tolerated widely now. Our actions are measured by the lowest common denominator. We forget that our character is the canvas upon which others paint a picture of who we really are.

So my definition of a trusting relationship is “a safe place.” Is it not a leap of faith to trust another? Yes.  But we either trust someone or we don’t… it’s a binary matter, a placing of faith or a breach of faith. A breach of faith is seldom mended, either.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Adam Smith wrote that success depends on “the good opinion of our neighbors.” Yet our culture today values success in different terms: wealth, notoriety, prestige, power and influence.  But in my estimation, a far more compelling sign of a life well lived is to be a person of steadfast character, one who can be trusted and, thus, IS trusted. As my friend Howard Rockett recently told me, “Today too many lives lack a sense of proportionality.” A sense of what is truly important in the long run.  How did that gap in values come about?  David Brooks identifies one cause:

Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of hard skills, while failing to develop moral and emotional facilities . . . . Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops.  Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and when to befriend.  What to love and what to despise and how to control impulses.  On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own (The Social Animal, Random House, 2012).

Brooks tells us that too much is taught by “wonks,” and by implication, too little instruction comes from parents, civic officials and spiritual leaders.  “Children,” James Baldwin writes, “have never been good at listening to their elders, but they never fail to imitate them.

mother_teresaWhen I speak around the country on the subject of trust, I often ask my audience, “When was the last time someone asked you to trust them and you did?”  The collective responses are typically chuckles and sardonic laughs.  I then ask the same question as I display a picture of Mother Teresa.  Naturally, affirmative nods follow.  Who would not trust a saint-in-waiting?  When asked why, the responses join around the same traits – unconditional love, compassion, humility, charity and a non-judgmental heart.  Does not her example suggest a path to assuring that this coming generation can be trustworthy? The moral effervescence of a Mother Teresa comes not from a genetic predisposition but from a lifetime spent nurturing traits of honesty and self-reliance and by example teaching them to others. Her actions have validated who she is, a merciful, trusted child of God. Why is it difficult for some of us to embrace the other-directed hallmarks of trustworthiness, and how, despite that difficulty, do we start down this road?

Here is what the author George Saunders says. When asked recently to speak to a graduating class at Syracuse University, Saunders reminded the graduates that commencement addressees are expected to provide advice, including goals to pursue.  In fulfilling that obligation, his heartfelt advice was–“Try to be kinder.”  Why aren’t we kinder, (and more humble, caring, loving)?  Here’s his thinking:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are:  (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s me and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people); and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, OK, sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

The last time I took a poll, genuinely kind people are universally trusted.

How do we reach that goal? Clayton Christensen advises us to ask ourselves, “What is the trajectory of your life?”  He explains that the trajectory of our lives comes about from the “the beliefs that inform our lives.”

What beliefs should inform your life?  I myself would start with being more loving, less selfish, more non-judgmental, more humble and more compassionate!  And that includes how I consider and treat myself: have sympathy for what you have had to face, not the more extreme emotion of self-pity—that emotion is too extreme, taking you in circles, but sympathy is kind and in proportion to human challenges. People have a lot of time for individuals who live those traits because they are reassured in their presence. They have faith in such folks. Don’t be frightened of taking the first step–our souls are well versed in being such a person.  Besides, the best measure of our lives lies not in our fears, but in our aspirations!

tutuDesmond Tutu writes that, “All hatred is based on fear. But love is stronger than hatred.”  In the real world love is not intended to be some Pollyanna-ish “flower-child” notion.  Through the primacy of our hearts we long for love. It is the underpinning, the essential prerequisite for living the life that Christ envisaged for each of us. When we express our love for another is it not a prayer that the Lord’s blessings will come upon them? When we approach people we meet and work with in the wonder of love’s radiance, no life is ordinary.

Once we approach others with love in our hearts and attitudes, we can have a non-judgmental view of each of them. However, that’s not easy, as we most often judge others on incomplete information. And for reasons we can’t explain, that morphs into envy! Have you ever noticed how easy it is to be envious of strangers? Rather than hardening our views in envy, we should soften our hearts. We all have fits of jealousy – does it ever feel good?  Jealousy is not worthy of the Lord’s plan for us. When someone does something remarkable, he or she would want us to revel in the knowledge that we are of the same species, meaning that you are remarkable, too!  He or she would want us to bathe as well in the wonder of it all.   Remember, when we come to “know” how others differ from us it will evoke curiosity, not distrust—that’s a good sign that our transformation to trustworthiness is coming along nicely. The start of a resurrection to a higher self.

Continually inquire whether your soul has been nurtured by good and decent deeds, and ask yourself whether you have cherished relationships.  In other words, Does your life have meaning?   Center on that question and you will come to realize that your soul is a divinely granted birthright–the spiritual reminder that at its depth we are all beautiful.  If you don’t see your life as meaningful right now, rejoice at your candid self-reflection. Recognizing our shortfalls is not meant to beat us down. As St. John professed, the truth will indeed set you free… free to dream. Free to take on the new direction of changing, transforming ourselves. Then when we place a foundation under our dreams, one based on “our actions past,” meaning memories of those times we have been trustworthy and thus trusted by others, we experience yet another resurrection.

Several weeks ago, Jean and I celebrated a mass in the mountains of North Carolina.  I really like that intention–a celebration! That day, the priest, a man we did now know, began walking up the aisle and you could at once see that his face was suffused with the most glorious, intoxicating smile I had seen in a while.  At that moment, as joy radiated from his being, I truly believed and felt that we were going to partake in a celebration, and what a glorious feeling it was!

That holy priest’s behavior reminded me vividly that celebrations are an outward manifestation, a demonstrable act of gratitude for the blessings we so thankfully receive.  My friends, regardless of the difficulties that beset us as well, and even as we search for trustworthy souls to join us as we walk the corridors of society, never miss an opportunity to celebrate all that is good in our lives and the lives of those we love. Celebrations ignited by trusting relationships are odes to character, self-sympathy, humility, and compassion! Celebrations proclaiming that much unexpected but remarkable grace yet abounds in the world.  Watch for transforming moments of grace–but also help bring it into being.

May God continue to bless you.

Your friend,


As in years past, I want to thank my dear friend and editor Linda W. Hobson, Ph. D., for her contributions to this message.

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Are we running short on adult supervision?

I am by nature an optimist. I see that almost all problems are manageable—few are, in truth, more than a bump in the road. Provided we get ourselves together and focus on the characteristics of the problem not on self-aggrandizement or “style” getting credit for solving the problem.  It’s not about adding flashy, new line-items to one’s résumé.

leaders-nkjxisRight now, however, I’m more than a little concerned that we are seeing a dearth of leadership in many areas of society. Consider the pedigree of several individuals running in several high visibility races. What value system tells them that they would be fine leaders? For present leaders and potential leaders, there is no escaping the excessively interested public eye. Of course, it is a fond eye, for the most part, but it is always a judging eye—always!  And it turns especially dark and draconian when its perceived leaders disappoint; that aggregate disappointment seems more loose in the land these days than, even, ten years ago.

Watching every word, every act, and every aspect of a leader’s conduct is a constant in companies, too.  When things are going well, leadership by example is still the most tangible proof of an individual’s beliefs and values! Aristotle writes that “Virtue is learned by imitation.” So true, but what a responsibility for the company’s leaders, because lessons are learned by watching conduct both becoming and unbecoming!

ALL-VIRTUE-IS-SUMMED-UP-IN-DEALING-JUSTLY---ARISTOTLE-quoteAnd, unfortunately, some leaders do not discern that lessons the watchers learn from conduct that does not align with our highest ideals and aspirations is a teaching, as well. Often a more powerful, lasting lesson. One such remarkable lesson is that our elected officials can rationalize passing legislation that does not apply to them!   When people begin to acquit themselves in ways that reflect the lowest common denominator of communal behavior standards, they fail as leaders.

In my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press, 2008), I explain why we all need effective leadership. “… [T]he populace must . . . have leaders of divinely inspired character. Two individuals so possessed and so providentially placed at critical historical junctures were Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.”

HumanityatWork_thumb“These two are among the greatest leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Arguably, no two mortals have been the subjects of more biographical inquiries. Read their lives and you will come to understand the moral and ethical fabric that binds together a person of strong convictions. In their actions and behavior we see how an entire nation can be held together—to suffer and to persevere together, then to triumph–through the principled leadership, the unwavering character of a single soul.”

Neither Lincoln nor Churchill based their leadership behavior on the most recent popular precedent of how to rev up a crowd, entertain by means of extreme antics, or embody “shock and awe” in the leader’s own comportment. Rather, these leaders’ actions were consistent with historically honored norms and “best practices.”

leadership2We need to learn leadership deeply, integrating saying and doing the right things into our selves so that they become intuitive, habitual. Leadership is not about techniques that we take away from a week-long leadership program. It’s also not a “style”.  You can’t simply memorize leadership “tips.” It’s much more personal than that. We need, instead, to internalize our leadership skills to the point that they become instinctive. Leadership is a lifelong practice, akin to the way some people make spiritual practices lifelong habits of conduct.

None of these habits is permanent without a foundation. The foundation is a lifelong commitment, the application of time and days. A key deliverable of doing this is predictability. Because, in addition to being genuine in expressing a oneness with our employees, and in espousing group strength and perseverance in order to triumph, the true leader is predictable-all who need him or her as a good example for their own conduct need to feel that they can count on the leader. Employees, clients, and customers will never trust someone who lacks predictability.

leader-and-team2With unpredictable people our psyche is constantly off balance. It lacks the peace of mind and confidence back behind the day-to-day mendacities that are needed by everyone in the company in order to do good work, to work with a clear focus on problem-solving.  In a difficult situation nothing is worse than waiting for the leader to show the way forward while everyone is sitting around saying to themselves “What is Mr. Dithers going to say this time?” The leader’s news needs to be predictable in every office in the company.  Impulsiveness, like playing to the lowest common denominator, and like affecting a leadership “style,” has no place in great leadership.

We are dreadfully in need of some adult supervision. It’s way past time to bring out the grownups.

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Phil Mickelson – A Risk-Taker Who Inspires!

As you may know, this past Sunday, July 21st, Phil Mickelson became this year’s “Champion Golfer” by winning the 2013 Open Championship in Scotland.  He was the only golfer who finished the tournament with a sub-par total on the Muirfield course, and Mickelson’s final-round score of 66 tied the lowest score in the tournament.  Upon consideration, his will be viewed by golf historians as one of the greatest closing rounds ever played in a major golf championship.


Jason Gay writes perceptively in The Wall Street Journal on what we can take from Phil’s performance.  Mickelson, regarded as one of the most aggressive players in the game, “did not become famous for being careful.  He’s famous for running after risk. . . . [T]he precarious, why-the-hell-notness of the Mickelson game [demonstrates his] audacity of playing dangerously in a sport that often rewards restraint.”

Defining Mickelson as a risk-taker is not a something new; he has played that way for his entire 20 plus-year career.  And there can be no question that his playing style has, on more than one occasion, cost him dearly.  Phil has finished second in the U.S. Open a record six times, though some of those losses can be attributed to heroic deeds by a competitor–like the 15-foot putt that Payne Steward sank on the last hole of the 1999 Open. But Phil’s other near-misses might have been avoided by more conservative play.  However, as in deconstructing the stages and phases, causes and effects of any other human event, we’ll probably never know.

Like Jason Gay, I prefer instead to celebrate his risk-taking, agreeing that what Phil has taught us is that we cannot “wait for good things to wander into the kitchen through the cat door.”  History is replete with similar teachings. Surely Abraham Lincoln–possibly the most remarkable individual born within the bounds of our nation, was indeed a risk-taker.  He spent the Civil War years steadfastly holding to the goal of preserving the Union—against myriad wrenching challenges to it.


Lesser individuals, you know the type–the Chicken-Littles whose entrenched risk aversion fuels a psyche perpetually in a state of intellectual and emotional morbidity–never rise to great moments.  Rather than accepting the risks and hardships, the near-countless losses, month upon month, of many mothers’ sons on both sides that forged Lincoln’s high-stakes, steadfast aggression, the average leader would have capitulated, settling the matter in a way that would possibly have fractured the country, leaving the U.S. vulnerable once more to re-colonization by European powers.  Preserving the Union was key to building the future that is our present today—and tomorrow.

When the opportunity arises to make a fraught but transformational decision, be it in our lives or in the life of an organization or a nation–a decision that hinges upon moments when all can be won or lost, we should hope the decision lies with a risk-taker. Not someone who leans towards recklessness, but someone who can steadfastly bear the scars that sometimes befall courageous leaders taking courageous action.  The kinds of scars that paradoxically motivate him or her to try again to win.


Smaller minds, those pathologically averse to risk, when faced with a decision great in consequence, generally take one of two roads:  they practice nonfeasance–pretending to decide on a way forward which, when examined by inquiring minds, is revealed to be nothing more than a reinforcement of the status quo; or they are guilty of malfeasance, addressing the problem through peripheral, small-scope decisions that they know do not address the heart of the problem. Their decisions are merely a window dressing styled smartly by a good PR department that touts them to the media.  And thus the old, dented tin can gets one more half-hearted kick down the road—that being perhaps the greatest, most dangerous risk-taking of all.

You need look no farther than the state of politics in this country to see the inability of elected officials to address the deep, dry-rot issues of our day and our children’s.

thomas_sowellThis illusory form of governance is what may have prompted Thomas Sowell, to observe that, “[M]uch of the social history of the western world over the past three decades has been a history of replacing what has worked with what has sounded good.”


So when you are next faced with an important decision, remember that an action calculated to leave the problem in a state of repose is never the correct action.  Have the courage to be a steadfast risk taker; right or wrong, risk-taking of just the right degree, not too much and not too little, shows a person bent on greatness. That ability and cast of mind and heart are what have made Phil Mickelson one of the greatest golfers ever!

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Why We Love Superman Over and Over Again!

As you probably know, a new Superman movie opened last week. So familiar is the legendary–and, by now, nearly mythical–hero that entitling the movie simply Man of Steel makes its subject matter and main character recognizable for audiences virtually anywhere in the world.

Man of SteelI am old enough to remember the original Superman TV show that aired from 1953 through 1958. Every kid in my neighborhood could hardly wait to get home on the weekday when George Reeves flew once more across our 14-inch black-and-white screen. Well, sort of flew. When Superman returned again in 1978 in the wide-screen, high-budget film starring Christopher Reeves, the treatment was so exhilarating and imaginative that few thought of the fact that the original super-man, “faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings,” had already been among us for over 40 years.

superman georgeWhy is Superman’s appeal so “grounded” in our culture now, so transcendent of time’s constraints? There is no question that we are all fascinated by the notion of a human-like figure having a full arsenal of the wondrous gifts we’ve been capable of imagining for ourselves at least since the ancient Greeks gave us those gods who took to the ether without a thought.   And today, “parked” in oppressive  rush-hour traffic, have you imagined yourself flying 50 feet above the interstate traffic, commuting like a great red hawk each day, your Jet-Pack strapped soundly to your back  Yes, we want to fly!

super holderBut the real appeal of Superman’s story comes from the character’s narrative arc—the growth and development of his character across the sweep of the story as he meets  global-sized threats and potential disasters.  First, it inspires each of us to think of a person springing from a modest upbringing yet possessing astounding powers: genius can “spring up” anywhere, we think, even in my neighborhood.  In addition, we like to follow the actions of a man who, above all else, is a morally centered individual; one who, after retiring into brooding doubt for a time, ultimately finds the emotional resources to save himself and decide to use his powers for the good of mankind.  Is that not in many ways a description of the life-pattern of a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or an Albert Schweitzer?

Does not the timeless appeal of this Man-who-is-Super also arise from our societal exhaustion at Hollywood’s parading before us an endless stream of powerful monsters-often held out to be members of humankind. Surely I understand that every superhero needs a villain to give some conflict and thus forward movement to the storyline. But Superman transcends that typical Hollywood formulation.  He seamlessly and convincingly embodies human awkwardness and doubts, human charm and kindnesses, and superhuman gifts in one credible character.  The result is that the immensely creative Hollywood film industry can continue to roll out incredibly successful films about a credible guy who is now more than 75 years old!

clark's fatherAt one point in Man of Steel, Clark Kent’s earthly father is trying to help his son awaken to the rare responsibilities imbued in a person possessed of super powers: much is expected, in a hundred ways, of him to whom much is given. His father says in essence, that Clark’s gifts are so extraordinary that whether they are used for good or evil, he would surely be famous. But the pivotal question is whether he would be viewed as a success? History is resplendent with talented individuals who, each in their own time, has been required to make a similar choice–to choose the grasping dark side- trashing the lives around them or choosing a life dedicated to helping others. We don’t consider a Hitler or a Darth Vader to be a success. Being “good” at something wicked and destructive is not good at all.

coworkerIs it any different in a company? Folks who climb over colleagues to reach an ever higher status in a company are never respected. If you study companies that die a slow death, you will almost always find that they are infected with a culture where employees are promoted because they are really good at besting fellow employees. But they ultimately fail, having spent so much time and potentially creative energy at this misguided intramural practice that they never learn how to best their real competitors–the other companies out there competing for the business that drives revenues.

In some tangled way we may acknowledge the intelligence and cunning of someone up to no good, but we always reserve our respect for persons who are real-life Supermen and Superwomen. You’ll never, never respect someone you don’t trust!

superman creatorsWhen Superman was created in 1933 by two high-school students, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster, I doubt the boys considered the substantial life lessons their creation would inspire and model for us over all these years into the future. However, I have little doubt that that is why we love and look to The Man of Steel for our flying lessons, taking the high road over and over again!

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Servant Leadership Produces Legitimate Power—and Thereby Greatness

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.

–Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, musician, Nobel laureate (1875-1965)

servant-leadershi21Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990), founder in 1964 of the Center for Applied Ethics, first introduced leaders to the concept of “servant” leadership in a 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader,” which launched the servant-leadership movement in the United States. The title of his 1977 landmark book not only defines that subject matter but the status each of us can reach by following his teachings:  Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.

Greenleaf was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and spent most of his organizational life in the field of management, research, development, and education at AT&T. When he retired from AT&T in 1964, he launched a new career as speaker, writer, and consultant, coining the term “Servant Leadership.”  In the following years Robert Greenleaf wrote and spoke extensively on the subject.

“Legitimate Power” – I really like that term.  Servant leaders have “legitimate power” because they embody it, yes, but more important, they demonstrate in their actions the moral authority to lead, meaning they understand and value mankind as individual beings.  This particular understanding of how leaders and employees really are related, one to another, means that leaders’ actions and use of power liberate workers to be more autonomous and thus to find their work environment nurturing.  The workplace becomes for each of them a healthful and natural place to go each weekday—each one feels glad to be there and to be contributing to the whole!

That was the type of power my dad possessed.  Long before Greenleaf coined the term, my dad, Joe Costa, was a servant leader.  I often witnessed how he lifted many and varied burdens from his workers.  How he continually spoke about his people, his employees, rather than about his company.  He understood that his autonomously motivated employees were the company.

1909-garmet-workers-strike-1Most of my dad’s employees were members of The Ladies Garment Workers Union.  Periodically, they were called to strike, the predominantly female workforce picketing the building in which my father had his dress factory.  My father was often furious because of it.  Not because his workers were picketing his business, but because the time the action was called was often winter, and it could be dreadfully cold in New York City.  So Dad took his workers hot coffee as he tried to get them to come into the heated building.  Truly, my Dad had “Legitimate Power” in the eyes of his employees because he valued their well-being first and foremost.

These are notions that many leaders don’t seem to comprehend.  In their opinion, their people are simply gears in the workings of a great corporate machine.  Actually, any company’s employees are the gearbox, the motor, and the wheels rolled into one.  It would go nowhere without them!

As Greenleaf explains – business leaders are properly servants first, and that gives us the perspective to go on to make the big decisions that are a large part of leading. The problem some leaders have in understanding servant leadership is that they find the concept to be counter to the hard and fast notion they hold about how best to lead.  They believe, like many others, that as they ascend in an organization the folks around them are charged with assuring the leader’s continued success: the implication is “You work for ME, and you need get busy—time is money!”

Nope, it’s just the opposite.  Since servant leaders bring an ethical perspective to leadership, meaning that they value their employees as individual human beings with worthy, strong, but also fragile souls, their gaining of responsibility requires that they more and more assure the well-being and prosperity of those in their charge. Servant leaders are keenly aware of their own place within the “giant machine” of the company, not above it, like the humbug Great Oz in his Emerald City.

johnny-unitasSeveral years ago I had the opportunity to play golf with Johnny Unitas. I am old enough to have seen the iconic quarterback play in his prime. When he passed over, I decided to read a biography of his life. The author tells us that when Unitas went into the huddle and before he called the play, he would often ask his teammates which play they thought they could best run in the situation given at that moment. He wanted to run a play they thought they could succeed at! Johnny Unitas, voted the NFL player of the 20th century, was surely a servant leader!

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Kernels on Healthful Goal-Setting from a Kentucky Colonel

I am proud to tell you that since 1980 I have been a “Kentucky Colonel.” The certificate signed by then-Governor John Y. Brown still hangs in my office. Despite this great honor, though, I have never been to the Kentucky Derby. I rarely miss watching that most famous of all horse races on the first weekend of May, however. It is billed as the most exciting two minutes a year in horseracing over the last 138 years, and last weekend’s race was no exception!kentucky_derby-winning_jockey_joel_rosario-may_4_2013

Besides being exciting, the outcome of this year’s race run in the mud and rain gives us a wonderful lesson–perhaps an oft-overlooked one–that we can apply in our business and personal lives: when and how to set goals.

As you probably know, Orb, ridden by the red-hot Joel Rosario, won the race. But the real story centers on Orb’s trainer, Shug McGaughey. In 2004 McGaughey was inducted to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. But in his 40-year career he had never trained a Kentucky Derby winner.

When interviewed before the race, McGaughey was asked, “What would it feel like to win the Derby?” He replied, “I wouldn’t know until I won it.” Wow, I thought, this man is really squared away. He’s exactly right! I need to know that.Shug2

Then I back-pedaled a little. He’s been in the horse-racing world all his life, so how could the legendary trainer not really have had as his life goal, deep-down, the winning of the Derby? How could he not?

After considerable thought, I came back to my original response to Shug’s words. From his comments, I do believe that he sets goals more within his control. Moving slow and steady from one manageable accomplishment to the next, not casting ahead and stressing himself out. It’s a key life lesson, one I learned only later in life.

Sandy Speaking2I first started practicing law in the pharmaceutical industry at age 26. I never told my friends that I held as my primary professional goal becoming the general counsel of a major pharmaceutical company by age 40, yet I did so at 42. Now there was much I did to achieve my goal, including becoming a frequent speaker at conferences on various aspects of regulatory law. This consistent work made me fairly well known in the industry’s legal community. But the fact is that reaching my goal, even two years late, was a matter of great luck. It was akin to multiple solar objects aligning at just the right time. I also had great mentors wishing me well, liking my work, and recommending me for key positions and projects in my field.

In retrospect, a far more level-headed approach might have been to have the primary objective of becoming the best lawyer I could be. I did realize that that was a condition precedent to reaching my ultimate goal. But simply working to becoming a great lawyer is more of a quiet, benchmark activity. And, too, becoming highly competent at any calling is more of a continuum than a target. It is much like some folks’ life goal of being “happy.”

797512_Happier_CDBut as Tal Ben-Shahar explains in his landmark book Happier (McGraw Hill, 2007), trying to be happy is an unattainable binary event. Rather, Dr. Ben-Shahar observes that we should live our lives trying to be happier because “its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point.” We simply do the best we can day in and day out and soon, with some years upon our shoulders, we see that looking forward to being happy WAS actually the thing itself: “I was happy every day as I worked for the illusive day I would arrive at Happiness! Wow—the joke’s on me—but it’s a good joke and I don’t mind it a bit!”

Another positive by-product of choosing a performance benchmark—working at what you can control and enjoy day by day, rather than measuring your worth by having material, stated, factual goals on paper and hundreds of business cards on the ready in your desk drawer–is that you won’t find yourself reaching a goal only to find you regard your accomplishment simply as a stepping stone to the next defined goal. In that way, the “next” ineffable goal becomes more powerful in your mind than enjoyment of completing a contributory task well today. Always casting ahead, rarely appreciating your accomplishment in the here and now? Hardly a nurturing exercise. Hardly stressless.

BenchmarkingSo how to prioritize what steps we follow in becoming successful? There’s a hazard in this, though. Will we fall into another binary dilemma? Do we choose stressful, stair-step goal-setting, with “everybody” measuring our results monthly or quarterly? OR do we choose benchmark qualities to follow in enacting everything we do in life and work? Hmm. The concept of picking benchmarks, performance standards that form a continuum day-to-day is important. But some say quite correctly that goal-setting has a place in companies and in our lives. For example, most all compensation plans pay out on measurable goals achieved, not on worthy personal benchmarks held inwardly. And reaching visible goals is also important for teams to function properly. Perhaps the distinction is this: It’s NOT an either/or, binary dilemma at all! Team goals and corporate goals are fine, but we want to judge ourselves by performance benchmarks.

From observing him and hearing him speak, I suspect Shug McGaughey persevered each day following benchmark values in the here and now. Moving along his continuum of accomplishment and enjoyment, he became so good at his chosen profession that he was a “natural” for the Hall of Fame. But then by persevering, doing more of the same, not giving up, look what happened last weekend at Churchill Downs! In the 138th outing, Orb came through for this fine trainer, and it meant all the world to him.Shug McGaughey

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Lessons in Management from a Cobbler’s Son

cobblers sonThis is the first in a series of blogs I plan to write about leadership qualities I learned from my dad, Joseph Costa–and that he learned from his father. My father’s father, Santi was a cobbler who passed away when my dad was in high school, leaving my father to care for his mother, two brothers and four sisters. Joseph left high school and went to work, becoming a skilled pattern-maker of women’s dresses. Eventually he opened his own dress manufacturing company. Later he went on to head production at a well-known dress company and he also taught pattern-making at The Fashion Institute in New York City. Dad always worked on Saturday during the1940s and 1950s. Sometimes my mother would dress my brother and me in our good clothes to ride the train into the New York garment district to visit him at work–always an exciting day for us. Later I worked summers at dad’s business. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the experience of watching my dad work taught me more about leadership than any book ever has.

Lesson 1 – Never let an org. chart go to your head!
org-chartFireman, Ballerina, Superhero, Doctor–most children know what they want to be when they grow up and I was no different. I wanted to be an elevator operator. The elevator operator working in my dad’s building had a job that couldn’t be beat! He always landed exactly at the level of the floor, he had a special maroon and gold-braid suit and he got to pull the magic lever. Most important, I saw that my father thought he was an important man. Whenever we got on the elevator, my dad would make a point of asking him about his son who was in college or his wife who had recently been ill. The truth is my father really did think the elevator operator was an important man. What I came to realize is that my father thought everyone who worked with him–or for him–was important.

He chose to have real, meaningful relationships with everyone in his life. Most important, the depth of his relationship with scores of people was translated by each recipient of his attention as, “Wow! I am someone who deserves respect because I am treated that way. It’s great to work here.” You could see it on the elevator operator’s face as it registered a calmly satisfied pleasure whenever he saw my dad.

The truth about most any business is that for most there is always someone “above” you on the organizational chart and often someone “below”. If you think of the org. chart as a pyramid, you see just how interconnected everyone is. It’s a question of who will be there to support you if your station on the pyramid should crumble. If you are treating your co-workers with friendly, sincere respect, the pyramid is less likely to crumble. We have all worked with the Eddie Haskels of the corporate world, people who only treat “important people” with respect and recognition. Usually, those calculating types are transparent and sadly that they miss the opportunity to build relationships with the people they work with. I’m not saying to invite everyone over for barbecue or help the guy in the next cubicle move his sofa come Saturday morning, but I am saying that no company has “unimportant people,” especially not in this economy.

The-EconosphereEveryone has a job to do: each job builds upon and relates to all the others to accomplish both the mission and the holistic goal of the company – whether that is to bring a product to market, to provide a service, or to cure a sick patient. The sad truth is that no matter what you do there may still be someone who acts like an ass—stubborn, prideful, self-involved–but at least it won’t be you. The lesson of treating everyone I work with as important is one I learned early on from my father—riding the elevator or interacting with employees no matter what their station within his company. I remember each day that everyone I work with wants to add value. If we set aside the image of the pyramid and think of a holographic sphere, 360 degrees in every direction, there is no one above me and no one below me within that sphere–everyone is contributing to that econosphere, trying to do the best they can. Consider the street sweeper Jimmy Buffett quotes in his song “It’s my Job”:

It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
and that’s enough reason to go for me.
It’s my job to be better than the rest
and that makes the day for me.

Remember, we all have a job to do, but the title of that job is simply an identifier—it’s not what makes the person important. What makes the person important is the fact that he or she senses that they are doing the very best they can, and that belief is aided, supported, and even increased by the respect that is rained upon them–whether they are the CEO, or the man who operates the elevator.

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How Most Subs Give Anything But a Sub-Par Performance

When you hear “substitute,” what comes to mind?

I think about substitute teachers. When I was a kid, a substitute teacher was not really asked to teach—he or she was more of a caretaker, someone called in to babysit a class during the regular teacher’s absence. That is not to say the subs weren’t competent, they just never got the chance to shine—the system didn’t expect much of them.

UCLA BenchIn sports we have contracted the concept of substitutes down to “subs.” But to many, their functions in a contest are well understood–give the “starters” a chance to rest, and try not to make a costly mistake. Subs are advised, “Don’t try to score–you’ll just muck things up. Get the picture?” Even a sub’s “place” has a sense of the subservient, the less-good. He or she goes into the game “coming off the bench.” That placement term paints a mental picture of someone released from a stay in purgatory—side-lined, benched. Now finally, if the coach wills it, such a sub-par player is offered a dispensation from inhabiting a place to which the lesser players are relegated or in which they’re stored.

The NCAA Basketball Tournament has just ended. AKA “March Madness,” it typically concludes in April, an April Fool’s joke on anyone in a one-TV family who’s not delightedly wrapped up in the Madness. This year, both the men’s and women’s tournaments were terrific to watch. Unlike most sporting events, the long season before and the structure of the tournament always seem to produce a cadre of teams that have peaked at tournament time. Like most sporting events, each separate game in the tournament writes its own intriguing story line that the press discerns and publicizes, and the country embraces, each armchair player seeing his or her own life story reflected in it to some extent.

KevinTim+Henderson+DePaul+v+Louisville+hdiz0V3_WzMlIn the men’s tournament one of the most powerful stories was the broken leg suffered by Louisville guard Kevin Ware. In the face of this horrific, unusual injury, Ware showed himself to have a remarkably resilient spirit—his was a model of courage. But to me the most remarkable story implicit in the Louisville-Michigan match-up was the role the subs on the Louisville and Michigan teams played in forging their respective successes. Louisville made it to the final game in part on the play of Tim Henderson who hit back-to-back three pointers against Wichita State. Consider this–the last time Tim had been called off the bench and inserted into a game, he took just one shot that did not even hit the rim, yet his teammates trusted him enough in the game against Wichita to throw him the ball! And look at what he did with it!

In the championship game the roles subs played were even more dramatic. When Michigan’s guard Trey Burke, the consensus National Player of the Year, had his second foul called early in the first half, he was replaced by Spike Albrecht. Spike then hit four shots in a row, scoring 15 points in 15 minutes. The announcers could not recall a more impressive performance under tournament conditions. Louisville, then down twelve points, was reeling until substitute Luke Hancock entered the game. Luke scored the game’s next twelve points and Michigan never fully recovered.

Trey BurkeWhat life and business lessons can we take from all of this? What are the story-lines in the actions of Tim Henderson and Spike Albrecht and Luke Hancock we can apply to our own lives off the court?

Luke HancockOrganizational, corporate, and familial teams do not have subs. Rather, the cultural objective of any company is that every employee is fully committed in every quarter and half as an integral part of the team. In great companies no part-time employees receive full pay! Yet, the structure of most all organizations is such that reporting relationships must exist—subordinates all report to managers, and on up the line. We often have “team leaders” and others in support.

However, unless employees lower down in the organization are afforded good and real opportunities to take on challenges that often fall to more senior players, they will never be practiced and ready to take on additional responsibilities later–to compete at a higher level. For example, when subs entered the games I described above, the starters had no discernible reservations about passing them the ball. No reservations in providing the subs an opportunity to score! In one interview, a star player said, “I knew the subs could perform because they showed us that in practice.”

bballTake that player’s comment to heart: Unless you seek out opportunities to slow down and show subordinates your ability, then offer them significant, outcome-critical chances to perform what you showed them and they practiced, how will you prepare them for key games? You’re paying them, so shouldn’t they be as ready to give you as sterling a performance at key times as your star players?

The other team dynamic to remember is how companies often define starters. In most organizations a cultural keynote of how folks are valued centers around the number of reports or departments an individual oversees. What I have found is that in the right positions, sole contributors can be every bit as valuable to an outcome as the leader of scores of people. A perfect example of this arises in research departments. When a person shows him- or herself to be a gifted researcher, he or she is given responsibility for a team of researchers. That is the expected reward. The problem is that a researcher’s gift–intuitive genius–is often best utilized in the lab, not playing on a team, trying to teach, lead, or in other ways share that gift with others.

Remember that in great organizations no one is viewed as a sub, and the culture there makes certain that individuals throughout the organization are prepared to succeed at critical times and in the best, most practiced way they can. Then the team succeeds as well, not just in March or April, but all around the year.

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Perseverance (Galileo had a Brooklyn accent?)

Sometimes in life we are asked to fill bigger shoes than we ever expected. Case in point, this week I was asked to be a stand in for Galileo for my grandson’s science presentation. I’m a “method actor” (ha!) by nature so I wanted to learn all I could about Galileo before I stepped into this epic role. So as would any true actor I researched my subject and came to realize that Galileo is an excellent example of the type of perseverance we’ve been discussing.

Galileo-9305220-1-402Despite the fact that Galileo was laughed at and threatened with torture and/or death, he continued his work and is now considered by many to be the “father of modern science”.

You can learn a little more about Galileo by watching our homemade video. You may surprised to learn Galileo had a very strong Brooklyn accent and that my grandson can time travel – but sometimes it is fun to suspend reality for a few minutes and get a good laugh while thinking a little more about perseverance.

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Bridge Burning in Professional Relationships

St Johns UniversityI recently escorted my wife to her high school reunion in New York City. That sentimental journey was fun and it reminded me of the lifelong friendships we both made at St. John’s University (Go, Red Storm!!), where we met. Relationships don’t adhere to Newton’s Law, though–once you put a relationship in motion it doesn’t necessarily stay in motion. You have to work on maintaining it. Maintaining a nurturing friendship requires effort. And while some relationships still fizzle out, the good ones–the important ones, will endure.

Professional relationships are similar but can be even more challenging. Often we find ourselves working with people we wouldn’t normally choose as friends. Or working with friends we don’t want as co-workers. Situations like these, however, offer us chances to grow in myriad ways as we test our leadership skills—and it’s invariably a test we need to pass!

glass-half-empty-glass-half-full-always-fullNegative individuals draw off our positive energy like magnets! And negativity is as infectious as laughter–it can spread and blight the entire workplace. But employees with practiced negativity can still be helped. Rather than focusing on the glass-half-empty segment of a fellow employee’s personality, focus on the positive. Sometimes you have to dig a deep well to discover a positive bit of consciousness, but it is there!

Once you find it, look for ways to make what is unique about them useful. Perhaps it’s their attention to detail and thoroughness. Perhaps it’s their unflagging “foresight” that resembles, on a rainy Monday morning, an incipient paranoia! Or utilize an employee’s creativity rather than criticizing their lack of structured planning. Someone may be too loud for your liking, but their positive attitude and strong personality can be used, if focused on a project, to raise morale.

Brooklyn BridgeWorking relationships can become strained for all kinds of reasons. However, remember that you never know when and under what circumstances you’ll come upon that person again, so treat them with dignity and respect. My daughter often tells her children “Never burn bridges.” That is extremely wise of her. In fact, one of the highlights of my professional career was hiring the man who inspired me to become a pharmaceutical attorney. He gave a speech to my college class that resonated with me, and I thought, “This is a man I want to know.” He and I worked diligently all those years to keep our bridge in good repair. In fact he came to work with me, so that I was blessed to call him friend until his passing.

When you choose this challenging yet nurturing path for yourself vis à vis your professional relationships, you are choosing to show true humanity at work. In addition, you are creating a better workplace for yourself and the people you work with. That positive energy flowing through the office space goes on, ultimately, to create a more productive and successful organization.

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