Category Archives: leadership

A Wicked Good Leader is Curious

Stop, look and listen.

Leadership is a combination of attitude, activities and actions. One important attitude is the attitude of curiosity. Curious people make the best leaders. Because when you’re curious, you’re always learning, seeking more information, and talking with people rather than to them.

It’s true that good managers may have the solutions to our problems. They have answers. Sometime they even have the right answers. And that’s helpful. We like to get answers. When we get the answer, when we get the solution, we can solve our problem and get on to the next thing. And that’s what good managers help us do. Good managers solve our problems and help us get to our next step.

Good leaders won’t have the answers though. Good leaders — great leaders — have questions. They have an underlying curious nature, and that nature drives them to ask questions. Lots of questions, and the right questions.

When we ask the right questions, we uncover truths. And we take our people along on the journey of discovery. When confronted with a problem, with a challenge, the great leader will ask questions. What — precisely — is going wrong? What is going right? Why is this happening? Are the right people involved? Do we need more help? Less help? What do you think should be done? What would you like to have done?

Questions and curiosity also build capacity. When we take our people along on the trouble-shooting journey, we show them how to figure out such solutions themselves. A manager who gives her people the answer, has helped them solve that one problem. They haven’t learned how to solve any other problems, they don’t know which similar problems could be solved in a similar manner. When great leaders take their people along for the ride, when they display and model curiosity, they teach others how to build their own solutions. Soon, more people are able to create new solutions when they encounter new problems. Through their curiosity, leaders build capacity.

Being curious is an attitude, and recently I forgot that. My daughter’s Girl Scout troop is a camping troop. One hot spring weekend, we were just hanging out at the camp site before dinner. One of our Scouts approached me. “Miss Diane,” she called, “my head hurts.” Well, seeing how it was a hot day, that we had just finished swimming and canoeing, I was sure I knew what her problem was. “That’s because you’re dehydrated. You need to drink more water. You see,” I patiently instructed, “when you’re out on the water, sometimes you forget to drink enough. Your headache will go away if you drink plenty of water.” “Yea,” she replied cautiously, “that could be it. Or it could be that pole that I just walked into.” “Yep,” I agreed, chagrined by my arrogance, “that could be it.”

I was so quick to diagnose her and so interested in showing off my knowledge that I forgot to be curious. Now, when the Scouts tell me, “My hand hurts,” I ask, “What were you doing, right before your hand started hurting?” Oh, you grabbed a cactus? Okay. Let’s fix that.

We can best lead people when we understand them, and when we understand their situations. We can best lead when we are curious.

Headlines, Marines, Airmen, Trains, Sheep and Bystanders

"Police-Dog-Belgian-Shepherd Police-Dog-Belgian-Shepherd" by Unknown - Carte Postale ancienne. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The headline could have been much different. The headlines have been much different. Gun attack kills 12, or  Horrified passengers witnessed brutal slaying, or — oh, no, you don’t need to see more. You know. Whether the motive is criminal or terrorist, the enemy is at the gates. Today, the headline is as scary and infinitely less tragic. Three Wounded, Shooting on Train Averted, and President thanks ‘heroes’ who overpowered gunman.

The short version of events is this: Americans (Marines?) overheard the gunman loading his weapon in the restroom. They confronted him when he emerged and subdued him.

Why did they attack him when the people on the train in DC, less than two months ago, did nothing? Examining the difference between the two incidents is important and instructs us in our values and our culture. The people on the DC cowered in a corner, afraid for themselves and their family. They felt powerless and therefore they were powerless.

“You either run away or fight.”

The young Americans in France felt powerful and therefore they were powerful. Reports say that they were childhood friends, who grew up together. This long, shared history implies a deep level of trust. When Alek Skarlatos turned to Spencer Stone and simply said, “Let’s go,” they both knew that he meant, “Let’s go get him,” and not “Let’s go save ourselves.” And they did. They charged the man and, “got lucky and didn’t die.”

Watching the video of these heroes, you will be struck by the casual way they describe what happened. No self-aggrandizing. No posturing. Simple descriptions. How they were lucky. How after beating the gunman unconscious, Mr. Skarlatos walked the train with the AK-47 in hand, securing the location. He doesn’t realize the presence of mind that his actions took.

The fact that they were traveling together, they trusted each other, they knew each other, is likely a key reason they were able to act together. The Bystander Effect makes it difficult for us to act when no one else is acting. This may be an impactful difference between the incident in France and the tragedy in DC. When you know that you will not be acting alone, you will be more willing to act. They all knew that someone had their back, that they were going in together.

You must be able to help.

In Scouting, we tell the girls that it isn’t enough to want to help. You must be capable of helping. The Americans on the train were capable. Skarlatos is a Guardsman and Stone is an airman. Skarlatos clearly has had weapons training, and Stone has had paramedics training. They had the skills needed in the moment.

More than the knowledge and physical skills, these heroes possessed the mental skills. The ability to move without over-thinking. The ability to put the lives and safety of others before their own. The ability to not be paralyzed by fear. The ability to run towards the sound of chaos.

Sheepdogs and wolves

The scene in American Sniper when Wayne Kyle describes the sheep, the wolves and the sheepdog was familiar to many who live lives of service. While it’s unlikely that Chris Kyle heard this from this father, LTC Grossman’s wonderful essay, On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs is widely read and shared among the warrior class.

LTC Grossman was sorely abused in the movie version of his speech though. He did not believe that sheepdogs were born that way. He stresses that human beings have the capacity to learn, grow, choose and change. He calls being a sheepdog,  “a conscious, moral decision.” He acknowledges that being a sheepdog is not a binary choice, that some will go to war, some will fight fires, some will police our streets, some will stand up to bullies, some will say, “Dude, that’s not cool,” when a friend engages in subtle forms of bullying.

Those people who stood by in horrified silence and watched a man stab another man to death were sheep. And they made a conscious choice to put their safety in front of others.

The men who said, “Let’s go,” and charged — unarmed — into a man with multiple weapons are sheepdogs. We honor them, as we should. We are grateful to them, as we should be. We should not revere them. We should recognize that their bravery, their skill, their actions are within the reach and capacity of all of us. You don’t know how to use a weapon? Easily fixed. You are out-of-shape? Not so easily fixed, and yet you can fix it.

Day by day, we each make choices about how we spend our time. Do we prepare ourselves for a potential encounter with evil? Are we working to be mentally, physically, emotionally prepared to do what needs to be done?

Sidenote: Soldiers and Airmen are not Marines

Initial reporting on the French train event said that the Americans were Marines. We get it. Marine is actually civilian-speak for “guy with short hair who is in the military”. These men are not Marines and would never tell you that they are. Skarlatos is a Guardsman. Members of the National Guard are citizen soldiers who trace their history back to the earliest militia. They go to boot camp like their active duty counterparts, and then go home to school, work, family. When their Nation or State needs them, they kit up and go into the fray. Stone is an Airman, a member of the US Air Force.

Most civilians don’t know or even care about these distinctions. Journalist clearly don’t. They regularly misreport the branch of service of persons of interest. Service members care deeply. The pain of being misunderstood is nearly physical.

That’s okay, though. While we may be different breeds of sheepdog, we know that sheep can’t tell the difference. Just don’t call us wolves.

Passionate Introductions and Ado


When you get up in front of a crowd, how do you introduce yourself?

For the last month, at various presentations, many of the people were introduced with the words, “And here’s someone who needs no introduction.” Some didn’t even get that. Most people stood up, addressed the crowd without any prelude to their comments. They jumped immediately into their content.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “without further ado,” which nearly always comes after much ado. And whether it’s much ado about nothing or ten minutes of biographical information, it’s usually not soon enough. No one goes to a presentation to listen to the introductions. No one reads the introductions of novels or short stories. (Unless the introductions are written by the great Asimov, but I digress.)

One presenter nailed his own introduction. He simply said, “I’m John and I’m passionate about…..” Wow. Not what he did. Not what his title was. Not where he lived, or what he studied, or what he hoped to do. He shared what his passion is.

Immediately, the audience sat up and took notice. Here was someone who was going to talk with us about his passion. Even if we didn’t immediately share his passion, at least he was excited. And someone who is excited about their topic is rarely boring.

How do you start? What passion do you share?



The Real World Cup

Boy playing soccer

As the mother of two young boys, I’m used to a fair amount of “icky girl” syndrome. My oldest son is not yet at an age when girls are interesting, while my younger son is only now figuring out that girls are different in ways he doesn’t understand.

You can imagine my pride then, when the oldest begged to watch the finals of this year’s World Cup. And that’s what he called it. The World Cup. Not the Women’s World Cup. Simply, the World’s Cup. He chanted “USA” and walked around quoting the I Believe mantra.

“We’ve done it!”, I silently congratulated myself. We’ve raised boys who simply see sports, who like soccer, who enjoy watching athletic prowess, in both men and women. They are second-generation Title 9 kids, who don’t recall not seeing girls play sports. My boys played soccer with girls on their team. They don’t recall a time when the boys got a whirlpool in their locker room while the girls didn’t.

In my hometown high school, this whirlpool disparity was a source of consternation. Not because anyone worried about the girls. The concern arose because the visiting teams – boys, obviously – used the girls’ locker room, and were denied this essential piece of recovery equipment. Unfair, they cried.

The finals game proceeded in that amazing, wonderful, winning way. The stunning, over-whelming victory that will now be part of American folklore unfolded in front of us all. This story is now part of our shared story, and more so than the 1999 victory. The victory in China  – at the time – was one that only a few soccer-fanatics cared about. Back then, 16 years ago, America cared less about the global sport of futbol than we do now. If possible, we cared even less about the game when women were the competitors. Not now, though. Now, the proof was in my own living room. Soccer. On the big screen. With little American boys cheering on their team, their team, as if they didn’t even realize that icky girls were the athletes.

And then it happened.

The older child complained that his younger brother was staying up past his bedtime. When we pointed out that at nearly same age, said older child was allowed to stay up and watch Germany play in the 2009 World Cup, he said it. “But, Mom, that was the REAL World Cup.”

We still have work to do.

Who’s behind you?

Going for a rideOn a recent bicycle ride to our local grocery store, my daughter and her friends and I formed a line. I took the rear — Tail End Charlie — following behind the youngest and therefore the slowest biker. The girl in the lead took off, enjoying the view, enjoying being in front, and she left the two of us in the dust. We caught up only when the others stopped before crossing a road.

For the return trip, I put the former leader behind the slowest girl, keeping Tail End Charlie for myself. Almost immediately, the girl in the lead took off, enjoying the view, enjoying being in front, leaving the three of us to shift for ourselves. Our former leader now hollered up, “Slow down! You’re going too fast!” She was watching the new leader behave exactly as she had. If she saw the irony, she didn’t show it. She felt the pain though of being left behind. The pain of being so far back that she didn’t even feel like part of the group any more.

When you’re in the lead, how often do you look back? Do you consider the slowest (perhaps the newest?) person on the team? Do you check their tires for proper inflation? Do you keep your team together?

Being a leader entails more than simply being in front. If you’re leading and no one is behind you, then you’re simply out for a ride.

Leaders consider everyone on their team. Leaders ensure that they have the tools to be successful, to keep up with the others. Leaders look out for those behind them.

And the first step to doing that is to pay attention.

Why We Read Fiction

An instructor once told my class that A Confederacy of Dunces is among the best leadership books ever written. Huh? Really? I raised my hand. “I’ve read Confederacy and that’s nuts.”

Have you read this tome? If you’re from New Orleans, or ever been in a book club with someone from New Orleans, then you have. Otherwise, this obscure, Joycian ramble may have escaped your notice. A work of fiction, through and through, I couldn’t see why anyone would consider it to be about leadership. Leadership books are most often found in the Business section of the book store, and in the Dewey Decimal system under General Management.

Can leadership be learned from fiction?

The Marine Corps clearly thinks so. Orson Scott Card’s wonderful Ender’s Game has been on their reading list for years. The Navy seems less sure. None of their Essential books are fiction, although the Recommended list includes the classic Starship Troopers and Master and Commander. Retired Admiral Stavridis is famous as a voracious reader, and recently cited Generation of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov as one of his favorite books.

Stepping back, we should consider why we read fiction at all. We can read it to entertain us, to unwind, to engage, to delight. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, author Azar Nafisi proclaims that, “what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth”. Truth can be illuminated in fiction more clearly than truth can be found in reality. A non-fiction biography of Admiral Lord Nelson might tell us of his battles with Spain, his affair with Lady Hamilton, his final words and Hardy’s kiss.

Only in his fictional alter-ego of Horatio Hornblower do we learn about the fear experienced on the eve of action, the embarrassment caused by the lack of fortune, the calculated statements designed to endear the crew to their captain, the sick dread of watching a man before the mast taking his punishment at the cat o’nine tails.

We learn from Hornblower that our fears are not unique, that our doubts can be overcome, and that we too can learn to lead. Other fiction reveals other truths. Other shades of truth are illuminated by the fancy of the author and by our reactions to the characters.  Perhaps we learn more about the human condition by imagining how we might feel if we were in their situation and by filling in the gaps of their own musings.

What leadership lessons have you learned from fiction?

Using Code to Create Conduct

“On my honor, I will try….”

So begins the Girl Scout Law. The Girl Scout Promise is similar. “I will do my best to be….” And then a litany of virtues from honesty through courage to sisterhood. Every Scout meeting begins with the Law and the Promise. You likely did the same as a child if you were a Scout. You likely also stood in your morning homeroom class and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Other organizations use songs, creeds, vision statements.

Do these Codes of Conduct actually improve conduct? The research says they do, as long as we remember them. Dan Ariely discusses the concept in his excellent book, “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty”. His team conducted experiments which showed that a simple reminder about good conduct and moral behavior reduced the incidents of cheating. And this weekend, I had the opportunity to try it out.

My daughter’s Girl Scout Troop loves to camp, so there we were; out in the woods without much to do. [My fault, and the wisdom of giving 10-year-old Scouts too much time on their hands should be duly questioned.] Before long, the in-fighting began, with the various cabins pitted against each other.

We called each cabin out to the unit shelter and had them recite the Girl Scout Law and Promise. They weren’t in trouble. Each Scout was asked to simply evaluate her behavior in the context of who she is, as a Scout who does her best. And it worked! They figured it out. The warring ended and the cooperation began.

Are your cabins — departments — distracted by internal disputes? Are they more focused on each other than they are on the mission, the vision and the values of the organization?

Try reminding your team, early and often, of their greater purpose.

Remind them of why they are there. Not to earn money, or be seen as better than their co-workers. Remind them that they are there to serve the customer and each other.

Remind them of who they are.