Do You Want to Be a Great Leader? Ditch the Cape

What does it mean to be vulnerable as a leader?

At 32 years old, my company promoted me to plant manager even though I had never run a manufacturing operation in my life.

Upon arriving at this business, I realized there was a lot to do. There were quality problems that needed to be fixed, cost challenges that needed to be addressed, and morale issues to be confronted.

I was concerned I might be in over my head. I was the youngest manager in the history of this plant, and I didn’t want to fail.

At this point in my career, I had subscribed to the notion that the leader had to have the stereotypical leadership traits – self-confidence, assertiveness, action-orientation, and the ability to inspire others, take risks, solve problems, and take charge.

I had the mistaken belief that the boss had to have all the answers.

I had the mistaken belief that the boss had to have all the answers. Click To Tweet

What made it more intimidating was that the managers and workforce at this facility were all older and more experienced than I was. They knew far more than I did about how to run the plant.

My challenge was to figure out how to lead this operation effectively while not knowing as much as my team.

Many leaders find themselves in the same position. They are surrounded by people who are older and more experienced after a promotion or a job change. It’s easy to become intimidated.

Many leaders make the mistake of trying to appear knowledgeable, to fake it, but it doesn’t work with experienced employees. They can see right through fake leaders.

Instead, I became an effective leader at this plant by taking a step back from the leadership stereotypes. I led by learning, observing, listening, and engaging with my team. I took a more humble approach. I asked questions and listened to ideas. I treated the experienced employees with respect and sought them out for advice.

What I soon discovered is there was power in vulnerability and authenticity.

There is power in vulnerability and authenticity. Click To Tweet

Contrary to popular belief, being vulnerable does not mean being weak. It means letting your guard down, being genuine, and avoiding the pretense that you know everything.

Brené Brown, the best-selling author of Dare to Lead, says that vulnerability is simply “engaging in life, being all in, dedicating yourself to something.”

A vulnerable leader does not feel the need to have all the answers. Instead, being vulnerable enables you to see the organization through the eyes of the people you lead. You seek out their ideas and input, and, as a result, employees are more involved and invested.

A vulnerable leader does not feel the need to have all the answers. Click To Tweet

When you stop pretending to be a superhero, you become more interesting, relatable, and effective as a leader.

You might not know this, but even Superman had to learn the power of vulnerability.

One of the early complaints about the “Man of Steel” as a superhero character was that he was too perfect. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound meant that he was pretty much unbeatable.

It was always an overwhelming mismatch between Superman and any of his enemies. There was never any tension and no question who would win. As a result, Superman became boring and predictable. So dull that writers had to introduce the concept of Kryptonite to give Superman’s villains a fighting chance.

Introducing Kryptonite allowed Superman to become vulnerable. As a result, his stories became more exciting and relatable to the audience. The outcome was no longer a foregone conclusion.

When we decide to be more vulnerable as leaders, we become more attractive as well. Our employees see us as someone who is open, relatable, and willing to listen to feedback. We become real and approachable.

I discussed the idea of vulnerability and authenticity with business coach Andrew Ryder on this week’s episode of the Deep Leadership podcast. Andrew has excellent insight on this topic. You can check it out here.

If you are interested in learning more about how I turned this plant around, check out my new book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner.

 

Forget the New Year’s Resolution, Do This Instead to Make Lasting Change

The biggest problem with resolutions is that a vast majority of people never achieve them. Statistics show that 20% of Americans will drop out after just one week of trying. At best, only 8% ever reach their goal.

What’s the problem?

In general, we over-commit and under-perform. We try to do too much. We underestimate the time, effort and willpower it takes to meet our commitments. We don’t understand the power of our old habits. We give up too easily.

How can we end the resolution failure loop? The answer is to create new habits.

“The golden rule of habit change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” Charles Duhigg

The importance of habits – In the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Pulitzer Prize-winning business reporter Charles Duhigg provides a comprehensive analysis of why habits exist and how they can be changed. He explains the key to making lasting change is understanding how habits work.

Duhigg describes the habit process as automatic. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks. So, unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.” This is the reason why willpower alone is insufficient to keep us on track towards our goals. We need to create good habits to replace the bad habits.

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” Charles Duhigg

How small changes establish new habits – The secret to creating good habits is making small, incremental improvements every day. Another book by Dr. Robert Maurer, a psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, shows the solution to making great and lasting self-improvement is through small and steady steps.

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” Robert Collier

In the book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Maurer demonstrates how the Kaizen practice of small, continuous improvements can help people make significant and lasting life changes.

The concept is to get started with very small steps. For example, if you’re trying to get fit, just start by walking in place during the commercials of your favorite show. If you’re trying to drink more water, start with one glass before supper. Choosing a very small step is the key. Dr. Maurer says, “The criteria for the smallness is that the step is so ridiculously small that it requires no willpower, self-control or discipline. There’s not going to be any pushback. That’s how you know it’s going to be a small enough step.”

In essence, Dr. Maurer is showing us how to create new habits by taking small, incremental steps in a new direction. By doing this every day, we begin to develop a new habit.

The problem with perfectionism – If new habits are the superpower to gain long-lasting personal change, then perfectionism is the kryptonite. Perfectionism is the reason we quit. When we have a cheat meal, perfectionism tells us we are not good enough and we “might as well” eat whatever we want that day. When we miss a workout, perfectionism tells us we are failing and we “might as well” give up. Perfectionism tells us to quit if our performance isn’t completely perfect.

“The harder you try to be perfect, the less likely you’ll accomplish your goals.” Jon Acuff

Creating new habits while also defeating perfectionism is important if we want to make sustainable change in our lives.

If you are looking to defeat perfectionism, a good place to start is the book, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, by Jon Acuff. Here, Acuff provides humorous and practical advice on how to beat perfectionism and learn how to make long-lasting change. He stresses the secret to hitting our goals is to keep moving forward, especially the “day after perfect,” when our results underperform our aspirations.

Acuff tells us that we will be more successful if we simply relax and develop a tolerance for imperfection. If you skip a workout, no problem, just start again tomorrow. If you cheat on a meal, don’t cheat again that day. The key to finishing is to just keep moving.

If you want to be part of the 8% of people who achieve their annual goals, ditch the New Year’s Resolution.  Instead, focus on creating new habits to replace your bad habits, take daily incremental steps toward your goal, and develop a healthy tolerance for imperfection. These three actions will help you finally end the resolution failure loop.

How a Crappy Cup of Coffee Helped Me Find My Purpose in Life and How to Find Yours

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Winter in Northern Ohio is tough and the people who live through these winters are even tougher.  It was then and there where I realized my calling, when I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain.

As general manager of an industrial business, I was responsible for the manufacturing plant I was visiting in Ohio that winter. I was 35 years old and only 8 years out of the Navy. I was young and aggressive but still trying to figure out what I was going to do in my civilian life.

I had fulfilled my dream to serve as a submarine Naval Officer and now I was a civilian, working for a large multi-national company. I never really thought of life after the military. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next in my career.

In my first general manager role, three years earlier, I implemented monthly “all employee” meetings. I thought it was important to communicate how the business was doing and what the priorities were each month. I also loved interacting with the manufacturing plant personnel.

In my current role, I had responsibility for two manufacturing plants. I had come to the Ohio plant, in the middle of winter, to meet with employees.  It was 2AM and I was scheduled to talk to the 3rd shift team.

We had a room reserved right outside the production line on the second floor. The building was old, dark and drafty. It was cold and I was tired. I found a greasy old coffee pot with hot coffee right outside our meeting room. I poured myself a hot, black coffee into a small Styrofoam cup and went into the meeting.

Our QA manager was presenting the quality numbers first and I sat in the back of the room and listened. I was thinking about what I was going to say. This business was losing money. We had to turn it around. I wasn’t sure how I was going to create a sense of urgency without inciting panic.

As I sat, thought and listened, I looked down at my coffee. It was the worst cup of coffee I had ever seen in my life (worse than anything I had seen in the Navy). There were unknown things floating in it. There was a sheen of oil on the surface. I could see coffee grounds on the bottom of the cup. It was dreadful. But I drank it anyway.

It was then when I realized my purpose in life.

With an engineering degree, two master’s degrees, military service and years of leadership experience, I could be anywhere doing anything. I imagined I could be working at amazing companies doing incredible things anywhere in the world. I didn’t have to be in Ohio, in the winter, in an old drafty manufacturing plant, in the middle of the night, drinking the worst cup of coffee I had ever seen. I didn’t have to be in charge of a business losing money that needed a turnaround.

But I realized at that moment, there was nowhere else I would rather be.

Despite the challenges (or maybe because of them), I wanted to be with these employees. I wanted to share what I knew about the state of the business. I wanted to work with them to craft a plan to turn the business around and make a profit. I wanted to lead these people and this business. I wanted to be here and nowhere else in the world. I wanted to make a difference.

“The grand invitation is to embrace the reality of your life and to figure out what to do with it.” Chip Edens

That crappy cup of coffee told me that I had found my life’s purpose. I knew that, despite the tough circumstances, I was built for this. I wanted to be here.

Have you found your life’s purpose? Most people haven’t. If you have, fantastic! If not, here are some signs to look for.

You love it. When you’re doing what you were born to do, time goes by fast. You look up and hours have passed because you are so focused on your work. You are “in the zone” when you are doing purposeful work. You look forward to it. These are the activities you “can’t wait” to get started. It’s your passion.

 You are great at it. You are doing your life’s work when you discover you are really good at something. You are recognized, promoted or even awarded for your work. You are identified as an expert or an opinion leader in your field. You are great at something when people seek you out to understand how you are doing it.

You are paid for it. One of the greatest compliments you can receive is when people pay you to do something. If your skills are adding so much value to someone that they are willing to compensate you for it, you are doing something important. Passion without a paycheck is simply a hobby. Your life’s purpose should also pay the bills.

The world needs it. In some way, your work is making a difference. You are doing something that has meaning. It has impact. You are changing the world in some specific way that has meaning to you and others.

Find Your Purpose

15 years later, I’m still leading manufacturing businesses. I’m still working in manufacturing plants and drinking suspect coffee. And I couldn’t be happier. I found my calling. I found my life’s purpose. I love what I do.

How about you? Have you discovered what you were designed to do? Have you found your life’s purpose?