Leadership ➝ Part 3


I believe life is essentially about dealing with challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities that come from them. This is the third article on Leadership — how to create opportunity out of challenge. This is the most significant lesson I have learned in life.

In Leadership Part I, I offered observations on successful leadership highlighting the the goal of leadership is achievement, which is only measured by performance. In Leadership Part II, I observed the fuel for achievement is risk. Risk is unavoidable and must be managed so I offered the operational risk management model used by the military services as a good way to work through it. In this article, I want to offer what I believe is the secret to success in life—and that's creating opportunity out of challenge.

I have never been one who has to know the meaning of life. But I have always been intrigued about the struggles of people in life and certainly have experienced them myself. What I now know is that life is a fragile balance of many factors. In that balance comes tests that we take on knowingly or unconsciously. And it is through the trials of challenges where we actually experience growth. Said another way, we are all products and sometimes victims of our experiences.

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”
                                                                     —Julius Caesar 

Most of us tend to view challenges generally as positive or negative. When negative, we usually avoid or succumb to them. When positive, we usually embrace them or succeed. The realization I had was the compulsion to find positive outcomes in every challenge which became the hallmark of my success in life.

In reflection, my career as a football player and Naval Officer was a succession of challenges—obstacles to overcome and turn into opportunities. I actually looked forward to new challenges because they gave me new opportunities and with them, exhilaration, personal satisfaction and growth. For me, these define success. I discovered that I enjoyed challenging assignments because they offered variety and great sense of accomplishment when done well. This was the draw of being in the military besides the sheer excitement of flying premier jet fighters which was my office for more than twenty years from aircraft carriers around the world.

In time I came to appreciate that change was not good for its own sake but because change brought new challenges and I relished finding new opportunities in taking on a variety of different problems and finding solutions then moving on.

The What

In this struggle was the essence of being a leader—successfully getting things done. And in being a successful leader was the responsibility of having to deal with risk including taking it off the shoulders of those I was responsible for. But the secret of success was finding opportunities in new challenges. Most of it was admittedly mindset and having a positive emotional set point. If I dreaded the things that could and did go wrong I felt fear—fight or flight.

When I examined the issues and wondered where there was opportunity, not only did I enjoy the path to resolution but found that I grew as a professional and person and realized how much I gained, including happiness, as a result. Further, I used it as emotional contagion to get others to go along with me. I also learned it is important to acknowledge and learn to live with some fear of the uncertain which acts as a motivator. Some see it as is commonly noted in sports parlance—no pain, no gain. But I thought of it more from the perspective of worrying about those things I could control and not about those I couldn’t. As a result, I chose to think about things positively even when faced with incredible negativity, such as death, and I started to methodically inquire my way through challenge.

One of the methods that worked for me is found in the 21st Century Procter & Gamble selling model. I did not know it for what it was but it succinctly describes what I knew and works in any endeavor whether selling a solution, a product, yourself or an idea. In essence, it is:
  • 40% of selling is TRUST – you have to establish yourself because people will not buy from anyone they do not trust
  • 30% is understanding what your customers’ NEEDS are
  • 20% is PRESENTATION of matching your product to your customers’ needs
  • 10% is in NETWORKING for referrals to close; the most common way to expand business and success—ASK
A footnote to this is determination to close—the stick-to-it spirit and attitude that brings home opportunities.

The How

I learned how important trust is, especially in combat. So the first rule of thumb in turning challenge into opportunity is to trust in yourself. Turn self-doubt into inquiry and inquiry into confidence. As you exude confidence, being positive is infectious and draws others to view us as trustworthy.

The second important lesson for understanding needs is how to organize yourself to attain it. I found the best way for me to organize my day work was to think of it in thirds: that is, one-third of my day devoted to understanding what my boss(es) or clients needed from me by asking good questions; one-third understanding what my subordinates or colleagues needed to get the job done including guidance and/or resources, again, by asking good questions; and one-third for myself whether it was flying a combat mission, planning or doing critical thinking—you got it, by asking good questions of myself and examining alternatives. The simple question “what do you need” is a powerful and positive catalyst to understanding opportunity.

“Dialogue is the basic unit of work”
                                                           —Ram Charan 

Thirdly, plan how you are going to communicate. Matching what you have to the needs of others — and vice versa — drives your presentation and it usually takes more than one way and more than one offering. Positive ways with positive messages that are inclusive, minimizing the “I” and maximizing the “you” or “we”, are good ways to begin dialogue and setting conditions for opportunity.

Fourth, networking. It works for finding employment. It also is important in building a team to get things done including change management or tackling a difficult challenge. As humans, nothing is as integral to success as personal contact with others, regardless the venue, because others often have something we do not—including opportunity openings.

I like this image for what it conveys and use it often in working with executives. When I asked some what they saw in it one answered he saw people pulling together in teamwork. A second offered he saw blistered hands and sore arms. A third noted she saw the other team face down in the mud. None of these were wrong. They were insights of individual experiences but also telling of what they saw as opportunity—the first one turned out to be what he needed in his environment; the second was recollection of the failure he did not want to repeat from his experience; and the third saw potential victory over a competitor through valiant effort.

BOTTOM LINE: Opportunity always exists in every challenge but one has to look for it, recognize it, and to be successful, capitalize on it. Look for the good that can come from the bad. Be positive in your outlook and planning when facing difficulty. Have a system to deal with challenges. And NEVER give up.

What are we Questioning?


On May 1 we learned of the daring dispatch of Public Enemy #1, Osama bin Laden, that evoked a spontaneous and emotional public celebration across the US. Few Americans lament his death. But now that the euphoria has largely worn off, typically American introspection has set in. Self examination is not bad and public challenge of our government’s actions is always warranted. But some of the current questions are troubling, including was the killing of bin Laden legal—the inference being the appropriate authorities were not present. But they miss more important issues.

CNN’s Alan Silverleib posted an article on May 4 in CNN World titled “The killing of bin Laden: Was it Legal?” Then on May 5, venerate legal sage Alan Dershowitz wrote an opinion piece arguing the Administration should release the photos of bin Laden’s body, currently available only to those “who need to know,” to exact forensic photographic proof the Al Qaeda leader was lawfully shot, e.g. in self defense. The following day, May 6, David Axe wrote an article for Politico entitled “Bin Laden killing in legal gray zone”.

For sure these thoughtful men made their points well. In the larger context they expose a potential debate that should be raised on what is terrorism and how do the rules of national and international law need to adapt to the phenomenon? But John Q. Public may miss the context and focus only on the pointed questions and begin to wonder, why did our US Navy SEALS kill a presumed innocent man—in the eyes of Lady Justice—or violate law in killing him? These authors are running opinion questioning the action against current laws and challenging assertions this killing was legitimate and justly sanctioned by legal precedent.

For sure various legal experts are unsure and scattered regarding the legal authorities and precedents. From a political perspective that is not a bad thing. For an elected official the more wiggle room, the better. But from a US government view, including our military, this is difficult at best.

It is also different. The rules law enforcement operate under like minimum force, non-lethal first use, rules of evidence and others are not the same as those for the military where inherent right of self defense, strategic effects and overwhelming force are starting positions. There are also political, legal, and practical realities of this action taking bin Laden down the way it was done that may not be apparent.

The political reality depends on where one sits whether nationality, party or perspective and I leave it to pundits to focus those positions which are already pretty easy to see. In my opinion, the raid was justified as it was ordered and carried out and I believe the photos should be officially released by the Oval Office to lend authenticity to the action. They are going to leak out anyway given the nature of our character including FOIA, so I argue making it official and timely to stay ahead of the leaks and inevitable conspiracies that spring from them.

Then there is the pesky political ‘what if’ question of what to do with bin Laden if we had him alive. Where would we have taken him to? We could not hold him indefinitely onboard a US warship at sea. Not Guantanamo. Not New York City. All fifty governors previously turned down taking GITMO detainees as prisoners in their states. What country would take him that would not release him under their laws, torture him to death, or allow us the access to him we would need? What a political nightmare at least one leader would have to suffer had we taken bin Laden alive not to mention the considerable financial burden of any living scenario. And economies of scale (costs) do matter to our citizens.

The legal reality is most certainly difficult. One of the argument posed is that of US Code and the separation of authorities among departments and agencies. What I would counsel readers is not to fall into the trap of believing Title 50 and Title 10 authorities, responsibilities and forces are always and necessarily separate and distinct. The Central Intelligence Agency does not operate on Title 50 alone just as the Department of Defense does not execute on Title 10 alone.

As a practical and illustrative postulated example, which should also be raised in the public’s consciousness, involves cyber security that we are becoming increasingly dependent on. As Joseph Nye of Harvard noted in his recent book “The Future of Power”, cyber is a new frontier for the devolution of power globally. Though a controversial topic, many argue that we are woefully unprepared for a concerted cyber attack that could be as devastating as a weapon of (kinetic) mass destruction. So, does it not make sense that forces trained to protect our cyberspace should know and understand the nature of attacks against us? That would mean a deep enough understanding only gained from examining and exploiting those attacks that are happening today in great volume and intensity and increasing sophistication. And, in exploiting these attacks does that not inform the best ways and means to defend and counter the attacks and attackers? In this example, Title 50 and Title 10 authorities are effectively meshed.

This logic also applies in the bin Laden take-down team, whatever its make-up of military and other government agencies, that entered the compound at Abbottabad, Pakistan with authorities to find, fix and finish a threat as well as conduct sensitive site exploitation—military action and intelligence collection to prevent further attacks.

But the most practical rationale for the actions taken by the team on the ground are ones of safety and intent. Regardless of where the bullets entered the body of bin Laden, as alluded to by Mr. Dershowitz, or whether his hands were up are secondary to two important questions: 1) what was the safety of the team members and 2) what was bin Laden’s intent? Given bin Laden’s history in many accounts including one of his sons who in interview noted bin Laden hated us more than he loved his own sons, his professed use of death for governments, militaries and innocent civilians, his reported orders to bodyguards to ensure he was not taken alive, and his garb, how could anyone take this as a traditional law enforcement action as juxtaposed in the recent articles?

Before I lose readers in citing bin Laden’s loose-fitting and highly concealing clothing, consider being behind the sights of a team member’s weapon in that compound. Then think of being in bin Laden’s robes with his demonstrated mindset of wanting to be a martyr. We know from his own writings and videotaped speeches he advocated “killing as many Americans as possible in every attack.” As a shooter I would fail my team’s safety to see a bin Laden with raised hands claiming to surrender as I noted a grenade pin around one of his fingers. If on the other end I knew I was going to be taken down, I would want as many responders as close as possible to take with me, not unlike what any suicide bomber strives to accomplish.

These introspective questions and arguments are interesting but of little value as they are currently posed to examine the “what happened” instead of forcing the “what could happen” debate. Arguments will be sustained we cannot determine the future without examining the past but our unfortunate nature is to focus on the ‘who’ over the ‘what’, or even more important, ‘so what’ question. Regardless, this introspection is going to go on and I will not be surprised by the American Civil Liberties Union to file a wrongful death grievance against the Administration. In any case, the public needs to understand the context of these challenges and consider how they make our national security better.

From my perspective as a former military officer, I would urge citizens to consider that US forces had orders and carried them out to the best of their abilities. That they were boldly put into action is laudable. That they were successful should be celebrated. That they should be second-guessed is folly. If the examination is to go forward and deeper, it should focus on the laws necessary to deal more effectively with terrorism as a tactic and terrorists as non-state actors instead of mere criminals. 

It is not enough to believe this can only be left to the domain of law enforcement. It should also be inclusive of the mass effect that can be levied on our cyberspace as well as lethal kinetic action taken against our citizens. I have no doubt we will get there

But because we are a nation of have-to-do instead of should-do, I just hope it will not be too late to prevent extreme consequences brought on us with the likes of large-scale terror attacks or even a series of coordinated small-scale attacks, our financial system disrupted, the electrical girds including nuclear power plant cooling systems brought down, transportation halted, or the internet denied.

BOTTOM LINE: We should question the basis of the Administration’s decision to go in after bin Laden but from the perspective of what we need to make our national security better protected in the future.

Leadership ➝ Part 2


In Leadership Part 1, I offered my thoughts on successful leadership noting the goal of leadership is achievement, which is the only measure of performance of leadership. In this article, I observe that the fuel for achievement is risk.

Too many believe the best path in any endeavor is to eliminate or avoid risk. Zero risk, it is argued, is the best way to protect against loss. True enough but it is just not realistic. As Barry Farber, American conservative radio talk show host, author and language-learning enthusiast noted, “there is no reward in life without risk.” In my experience, I have seen this to be true.

More than that, my life has taught me that the greater the risk, usually the greater the reward. However, in this regard one has to have little fear of failure. So there must be a good working compromise between some and too much that works in business. There is. And it’s one that is elemental to good leadership.

World War II general and 34th US president Dwight Eisenhower — a great American leader — was fond of saying “the ideal leader is one who invariably acts kindly and with consideration and is still decisive and instinctively bold.” He knew that risk is the fuel of achievement.

One of the realities of being in any position of leadership is that you have to deal with risk—you cannot avoid it. Most of the time people try to avoid risk due to fear. Fear is usually manifested in our psyche as fight or flight reactions for self-protection which is totally natural. In business, it is usually the fear of failure or loss where the margins are tight and the differences between achievement and failure can be very close calls but the option to fight or flee is not available. So doing what is not natural is difficult but necessary and the best way I have found to deal with these fears is to face them and learn how to overcome them to be successful over the long haul. This gives weight to the notion one must have a way, a process, to deal with risk and use it to gain advantage.

One way I learned to manage risk successfully in the military that I find still works today is through a process known as Operational Risk Management, or ORM. We first used it to reduce our aircraft mishaps which were more prevalent than combat losses and extraordinarily expensive. We found it also worked in every other facet of military life including our off-duty hours such as recreation and even everyday driving.

There is a lot of information about ORM. Organizations have been using it for years and adapted four, five and even six-steps to process risk management. The one I found effective through my crisis management experiences is a four-step process with an ABCD mnemonic for easy use in a deliberate (preventive) or time-critical (crisis) way.

It is a cyclical procedure that begins with identifying hazards, then assessing them for risk to you or your project, developing controls and making decisions about how to deal with these risk hazards, implementing the controls to minimize the potential damage from risk, then evaluating the controls and watching for changes, e.g. supervising. The process then repeats for as long as the risks are present or you are in the endeavor. It goes like this:

AASSESS the situation — your potential for error could cause loss or failure — by identifying hazards and assessing their impact, you instinctively think how to mitigate them using your good judgment and experience;

BBALANCE your resources — to prevent and trap errors — by assessing the hazards and making risk decisions to preserve what you can and cannot lose and bring assets to bear to limit their negative and/or maximize their positive impacts on you;

CCOMMUNICATE (risks and intentions) by making risk decisions and implementing controls to mitigate the hazards to you including ensuring that others know what they are;

DDO AND DEBRIEF (take action and monitor for changes) by implementing controls and supervising, e.g. watching for changes, reinforcing what works and what does not then repeating the process to modify what does not.

Arguably the two hardest truths about being a leader are persuading those above you to let you do your job and allowing those below you do theirs. Sometimes these become showstoppers by themselves much less when added to the unanticipated events that come to you as a manager. It is really a matter of trust and it becomes one of the most common risks in business. For the manager, it is like walking a tightrope. Using ORM, let’s review a practical, simple scenario of a subordinate working on a critical project.

AASSESS. Your subordinate is not known to have experience in a particular project that is time sensitive. You know what to do, you have done it before. Identify the hazards:

1 – The project could fail or not be ready on time
2 – Your subordinate appears not to be equipped to do the project
3 – Inordinate amount of resources could be expended on this project
4 – You have to do it yourself which will distract you from other important work you are responsible for which ultimately also undermines your subordinate, de-motivates him or her, and fails to prepare that subordinate for more to follow

BBALANCE. Ensure that your subordinate has the right resources to see to it that the project stays on track:

1 – Mentor your subordinate through the project until he or she shows the competence to complete it unaided—make sure there is enough guidance, unfettered access to you for questions, materials, etc. to complete the project
2 – The key to your leadership is persuasion—asking the right questions and offering judicious guidance preserves your valuable time; focus on the ‘what’ and delegate the ‘how’ to complete the project and develop your subordinate
3 – Ensure your subordinate knows what your views are regarding the the critical show-stoppers — the redlines — and to come to you when they pop
4 – Be willing to take responsibility for their actions with the limits you impose on how far they can go without more resources

CCOMMUNICATE. Make the risk decisions and implement controls:

1 – Be clear in your direction; don’t leave things to assumption or chance—tell the subordinate what not is to be assumed or crossed, e.g. when to come back for more guidance
2 – The difference between brilliant management and micro-management is not about the details—it is about the right details you know from your experience
3 – Play the “what if's” for what could go wrong and what you expect to be done about them
4 – Make the tough decisions on risk or take them above your level if they are that significant but don’t leave them for your subordinate

DDO and DEBRIEF. Put orders in place and review steps with situational or time-driven decision points:

1 – Once you have communicated the controls for implementation, monitor the progress in stages with feedback to see how they are working
2 – Review the hazards to put them into context for their significance as conditions change, thread them together to find trends, use them as teaching points once they are mitigated or worked around
3 – Ensure others see how the hazards were navigated to develop skills, e.g. go back and review what did work and what did not
4 – Go back to assessing because the process follows the changes which can pop unanticipated new hazards or may have only temporarily suppressed them

The greatest benefits in teaming risk management are in achievement and your people. Risk is a part of everyday life. It is fuel for achievement and should be viewed as producing opportunities rather than just challenges, the topic we will address in the next article.

Awareness of risk is often enough to help create success but when more substantial thought must be applied, a process such as ORM can be very helpful in assuring achievement. Building trust in your people to do their jobs builds competency for future projects as well as protecting and preserving your time for your other responsibilities, i.e. balancing resources. As an additional benefit, this develops your subordinates’ trust in you as a manager.

BOTTOM LINE: Get things done and develop your team to be better prepared for dealing with risk.

Leadership ➝ Part 1


Over my thirty-three year military career, I had to do three main things in the course of being a fighter pilot and head of organizations: (1) I had to provide leadership to get things done, (2) I had to manage risk in order to preserve lives and assets, and (3) I had to find opportunities when I was faced with challenges.  I have since found it is the same in nearly every endeavor of life and certainly in business.

The difference for me as I look back was that in the military I was given comparatively more responsibility to get things done much earlier in life than many civilian counterparts experienced. As a result, I learned much about leadership early and built on it over time. In some cases, the risk was also much greater when considering lives were at stake as in going to war. Turning challenges into opportunities was probably the most difficult of the three but equally as important and became a skill I found most useful to this day.

This article is the first of three to go into some insights on leadership, risk and opportunity. In this first one, I will review some lessons I learned in leadership that may be helpful to others. In the second, I will describe how I learned not to avoid risk but to manage it to minimize loss and maximize results. And in the third, I will provide insights into the skill necessary to turn challenges into opportunities.

I experienced just about every aspect of leadership over my military career which ran from being a junior team member and subordinate follower as a teenager beginning as a Navy enlisted Sailor to being a pinnacle leader as a three star admiral in my fifties. Along the way I saw the good, the bad and the ugly in leaders and they were all useful in learning important lessons. Contrary to what can be read in some books, leadership must be taught. One must have instruction, guidance and inspiration. There are a rare few natural born leaders but in my experience they are exceptions.

For most of us, we have to learn how to lead. Much of learning about leadership in the military is taught formally and reinforced through mentors. The best way to learn is from a good leader who also mentors particularly when he or she remains available to you as a confidante as you work through your challenges. The next best way is to learn by observation particularly from the examples of others with both good and bad lessons to take to heart.

I have often been asked what is the most important thing about leadership. While there are many ways to describe what it is and its attributes the main thing about leadership is getting things done, e.g. achievement. Performance is the only measure of leadership while the key to it is persuasion. A leader is one who is responsible for making it happen. It applies to everything from leading development of a new product or service to responding to a world-class catastrophe like what was experienced in the Gulf of Mexico recently. Or, as was my experience, from leading a flight of two F-14 Tomcats from an aircraft carrier as a young pilot to a 25,000 man task force into war in Iraq as an admiral. Leadership is about accomplishing the mission or success of the enterprise and the leader is the one most responsible and held most accountable for delivering results.

I am sometimes asked to differentiate leadership from management. In the simplest forms, they are essentially the same. To some it is only terms or lexicon describing what is done in the military⎯leadership⎯and what is done in business⎯management. For sure the military places a premium on leadership skills principally because, I believe, service is the goal and peoples' lives are the price. In business, I observe profit is the goal and people are assets to help achieve it.

My experience causes me to differentiate it this way: leadership is about people and management is about tasks or projects with attendant resources. The goal of leadership is to get things done through and/or with people. The goal of management is to maximize value or return on investments.

It is important to learn from leaders by the examples they set. It is equally important to teach or develop it by example when in charge. So, what defines a good leader? 

Sometimes the bad examples can be more instructive in defining what is good. For sure someone who gets things done is viewed as a good leader particularly by their seniors. But there are many ways to get things done. For example, one can be a tyrant who leads by fear and intimidation. I saw plenty of those in the military⎯they exist today. They are easy to spot. When things get tough or tougher, they become louder and meaner. For me, those kind became examples I learned from in how NOT to do things because in the process they often demoralize people around them and certainly do not contribute to others' development or long term success of an organization. 

Others lead more by positive example and work to empower others to get the job done and are more widely successful. Former president, US Army general and extraordinary leader Dwight Eisenhower said "the ideal leader is one who invariably acts kindly and with consideration and is still decisive and instinctively bold."  

I found the ones I admired most in getting things done were ones who exhibited more trust than others. I could tell that those who had little trust were often micro-managers and volatile. I observed that what we did ⎯ practicing the art of war from flying on and off aircraft carriers at sea, at night and under bad weather ⎯ was tough enough and did not need to be made more difficult by leaders who I came to believe were dishonest and could not be trusted. They were poor leaders and eventually most failed but sometimes not until later in life which is the unfair reality of it--some poor leaders do succeed in their careers.  

I believe trust is the most important attribute that defines the best leaders. They are trusted by those who they work for, work with, and who work for them. They trust those around them which requires taking risk ⎯ a topic we will discuss in the next article. A common mistake leaders often make, I did once, is believing that with appointment to a position comes trust. I found that trust has to be earned and the best way to do that is to set and be a good example. The first lesson I learned in this aspect was to ensure my words were matched by my actions. The worst examples I saw [and catalogued] were those who lived by "do as I say not as I do", or, 'talk the talk but not walk the walk', or, believed that because they were higher in the organization they had different rules to live by than I did.

Another important lesson I learned was how to provide good leadership. The first thing in doing this was self-acknowledgment that I did not know it all. All the years of experience help prepare one for higher management positions but do not make anyone more knowledgeable about what all is going on around him or her. In fact, often the higher one is more insulated from the day-to-day reality he or she is. The second thing was to admit that to others. Others know you certainly do NOT know everything so in admitting it you empower them to help you especially when you ask for it and are receptive to it.

Making good decisions also highlights a good leader
. The key to making good decisions is having enough data to analyze, make interpretations and use sound judgment. Of course, having experience helps as well. Furthermore, experience is often better than enthusiasm or prestige when selecting leaders.  Experience often determines or guides judgment and learning to ask good questions determines whether you get enough of the right data. Almost always someone in your organization has the best way to do something, or the best idea to counter something, or even the best solution to a problem. The trick is how do you find them ⎯ how good are your questions ⎯ or how do they get to you ⎯ how accessible are you ⎯ and how receptive are you to listening to them ⎯ how open are you. Nothing frees up and empowers a good decision maker more than not caring who gets credit for the successes and accepting responsibility for failures.

How does a good leader sustain continuous success over time?
Perseverance with the lessons above practiced continually. Admitting that you don't know it all and remaining receptive to support by relying on a team you've formed and trust. And staying humble.

In summary:
  • The most important thing about being a good leader is to be trustworthy ⎯ always believe that every word you utter and every action you take will be observed and judged by others regardless of where you or what you are doing.
  • The most important role of being a good leader is to deliver success ⎯ ensure those you trust have the resources they need to get their parts of the job done and that you accept responsibility and accountability for their actions.
  • The most important characteristics of being a good leader are asking good questions, being a good listener, and being receptive to others' ideas ⎯ being open is a good way to enable making good decisions.
  • The most important advice to being a good leader is to assemble a good team ⎯ rarely can anyone do anything of substance or consequence alone; it requires support which requires dependence on others.
  • The most important way to be a consistently good leader over time is to build a record of sustained success one task or job at a time with teamwork, developing others, making good decisions, being ethical and giving credit.
Being a leader when things are going well is easy if not almost superfluous. But it becomes paramount when faced with having to deal with risk in decision making. And the reality of life is that leaders are always tested with challenges. So the value of leadership is being able to manage risk and turn challenges into opportunities. More about these to follow.

Dealing With Uncertainty


I was recently asked what is the best way to deal with uncertainty.  As I reflected before answering, it occurred to me that we all deal with uncertainty. All the time.

I certainly dealt with my share of it as a fighter pilot and admiral deployed overseas in hostile environs.  It is a reality of having to deal with something that is new or when conditions change we are not used to or had not anticipated.  It strikes a moment of fear due to risk of loss or failure.

At the moment of the question, my first thought was of the axiom 'don't worry about what we can't control' but I quickly discarded that because we have to deal with uncertainty--it's part of everyday living.  There is also the reality that there are those who are risk-averse and choose just not to deal with it.  You've seen it, not making a decision is in fact a decision.  But that's really just the fear of losing a fight and running from it--flight.

Examples of uncertainty we face all the time  

Do we invest in the stock market now?  
Should I quit this job I don't like...but in this economy?  
Do I chance making it to the next gas station?  
Should I open myself up to this other person who I'm interested in?  
Should I make this reinvestment in my company with the stakeholders' money?  
Should I have this surgery?  
Will my aircraft engines keep my jet climbing away from the water after a launch from the aircraft carrier (my favorite from my past career)?  

In a very simple example, dealing with uncertainty is like the first time we ventured out on the ice of a frozen pond to ice skate we hadn't been on yet.  We timidly stepped from solid footing onto the edge of the frozen water with one skate, most of our weight on the back skate until we felt a firm enough footing to transfer the weight forward.  Then we moved gingerly from the edge out listening for the cracking sound of ice about to give way.

We quickly gained confidence as we explored all the area we dared to, then gave in to enjoying the experience of skating.  Sometimes we saw others already out on the ice and had confidence from the get go.  Sometimes we had doubts because the others were less than half our size or weight.  But we cautiously took the risk in the beginning until our confidence grew.

Consciously or unconsciously we go through a mental routine of quick assessment before we launch into an endeavor with uncertainty.  Our brains quickly scan memory for what we know about this situation--what is familiar, or, the knowns.  Then, it hits what we don't know and compares them for similarities in other situations we've experienced or can recall-- the known unknowns.

What troubles us and introduces insecurity is either the fear of failure or not knowing what we don't know--the unknown unknowns.  It's a natural response and at the primal core it's what protects us from injury or pain.  But our brains can be programmed.

The process to deal with uncertainty is moving from what we know and feel comfortable with to the unknown and uncomfortable using a reach that can be recovered until we attain confidence we can reach further.  Said another way it's a matter of taking some risk, seeking feedback, building confidence, then taking more risk.

Consider the uncertainty:  NFL Players Case

Let's look at a real situation for its illustrations.  Imagine yourself as a professional football player in today's environment.

You've just finished your season and are watching those other lucky few who are now in the play-offs.  But looming ahead is the specter of a lock-out for the 2011 season because of differences between the owners of the teams and the players on those teams over a number of issues that include working conditions, long term health care, and value or profit sharing.  You want to play next season, you didn't foment these disagreements with the owners but they've been coming a long time, and the threat is being locked out of your locker room and not getting paid.  Do you side with those in your profession or those who sign your paychecks?  Forget about who's right or wrong or whether the issues have to be judged.  Just think about the huge amount of uncertainty either way.

In siding with your fellow players, you risk losing your paycheck and not doing what you love--playing football.  Further, if the negotiations between the mediators goes badly for your side, then you not only lose paychecks now but also future considerations for a lot more.  The reality is that for a professional football player, regardless of the public perception, is long hours and physical punishment for gobs of money...which does not make for a high quality of life, individually or for family.

In siding with your employers, you risk a shorter career* due to a longer season, more time away from home due to increased work demands (already more than half a year), the potential of increased long term health issues related to multiple concussions or worse, and receive less than the current share, as a percentage, of the profits generated by you.

*When I was a professional football player back in the 1970s the average career length was four years.  That was the reality due to younger, healthier players coming in all the time and four years at least qualified you for a co-paid pension after age 62.  Now the average career is less than four years due to the already lengthened seasons from 12 to 16 games and with an impending eighteen game regular season the career average is expected is to drop to just over two years.  That means on average a career is over while a person is in their early 20s with no future income until their 60s and no health coverage from this industry for these injuries in between.

This situation exposes a reality that hits every business and has come in vogue even in government--reduce overhead or inefficiencies, increase productivity, and maximize profits or service.  In other words, "do more with less."  In considering the value of these words there is nothing wrong with them but they do introduce uncertainty and while it has become a widely popular practice to do more with less it is really a penalty on workers due to poor management decisions of the past.  In our illustrative case, it was the NFL (owners) signing a bad collective bargaining agreement in 2006 and subsequently walking away from and some individual team general managers side-stepping the pay caps by signing a few rookies to outrageous guaranteed contracts.

So how do you deal with these uncertainties? 
  1. First, you have to deal with the knowns and accentuate the positives.

    The one thing you control is yourself...so start with that.  You as a player are the reason for the profession, not the owners.  You know what your worth is at a minimum.  The game cannot go on without your talents or those like yours.  You did not create the inequities the owners are arguing for.

    Have confidence you have a value that is recognized by the fans.  You want and are entitled to what is fair.

  2. Second, you have to consider the known unknowns and look for the opportunities.

    The owners have more money than the players collectively have so can they last longer without a season than you?  Do the owners consider you only a commodity instead of a valued asset?  What is your worth at the maximum?  Is risking your health worth the money?

    (*For many young people, the belief in invincibility is overpowering until reality sets in usually after harsh experience or with maturity.)

  3. Third, there's the amorphous list of unknown unknowns so just accept something unexpected will arise eventually.

    Don't be surprised that something pops up because it always does.

  4. Fourth, trust in what you know already and use that confidence as the foundation to take some risk, e.g. step into the unknown.

    -  Stay objective and don't give in to emotions.

    -  Have alternative positions under your belt so you aren't stepping out onto the ice with an all or nothing proposition where the winner takes it all and the loser gets nothing.

    -  Break down large uncertainty [big problems] into smaller more easily defined and solvable ones.  "The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time"--Anon.

    -  Find or develop ways to measure progress.  Do analysis.  Build confidence in small victories and work toward momentum for the larger uncertainties.

    -  Persevere.  Learn to have patience.  Hope for the best but plan for the worst by believing resolution will take time to come.

While the illustrations are about football, the lessons apply in any business or facet of life.  

The best way to deal with uncertainty is to stay positive, project confidence, don't over-project (take as much risk as you can afford), take things in small bites or shorter time frames (e.g. one day at a time), and work with or as a team.

Remember "...the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."  --Rudyard Kipling, The Law of the Jungle

Seeing is NOT Always Believing


The recent sighting of a suspected missile launched off southern California created a brief news sensation and brings up an interesting crisis management point to examine—seeing is not always believing.  On November 8, 2010 a Los Angeles based airborne helicopter news crew videotaped what appeared to be and was described as a missile plume and be object climbing in the late afternoon western sky.

Here's my initial reaction to it:  http://video.foxnews.com/v/4411459/

But was it really a missile? This unusual visual imagery captured by this excited crew caused many to believe a large missile was being fired up into the sky. When organizations, particularly US government agencies, began to deny any responsibility, awareness or confirmation of the event as a missile the news media and some of the public were more than doubtful. Conspiracy theories began to build because “seeing is believing”—a natural human condition.

But as facts became known it was finally described as an optical illusion created by the atmospherics that day of a high flying aircraft though not specifically confirmed due to inability by anyone to exactly pinpoint the time and location to correlate it to known flights. But by process of elimination it could not have been anything else.

How does this happen? The human body has a set of senses critical to its central nervous system. This sensory system is normally made up of vision, hearing, taste, smell, feel [touch], balance & acceleration, temperature, pain, direction, kinesthetic sense, and other inner senses. For most of us, sight is often the strongest of these senses in sending messages to our brains that make us believe what we see. We know we can be tricked in other ways so we sometimes hold a healthy skeptical view of what we hear or even read but seeing real life events happen before our eyes – even on video – almost always gives us an overpowering sense of believing it must be real. But optical illusions can and do happen in everything.

As a pilot, I was taught to trust my instruments when flying jet aircraft because the sensations in my inner ear can convince my brain of something untrue as well as visual references that make me think I know which way up is or where the horizon is when they are visual illusions. When there is no horizon for a pilot, as when it’s pitch black or inside clouds, we’re taught to focus on with a practiced “scan” and accept the readings of our instruments as fact—a sophisticated form of fact checking by believing your instruments instead of what your eyes and other senses might have your brain believe.  Sometimes it is a tough thing to do.

But this skill kept me alive many times over my years as an aviator. It also became evident to me that the same held true in much of life—you can’t always believe what you see. I now know this applies in business as well. Recognition of this phenomenon in business is equally important as situations develop rapidly and demand quick reactions. But it is imperative not to make snap judgments unless you believe in the “strategies of hope."

The object lesson is to realize, especially in stressful situations that arise in crises, one has to have a minimum of facts to verify what is seen to go beyond the ‘belief’ into the ‘actual.’ One has to take the time to get it right even if it means disregarding your strongest sense, sight. One of the things I learned many times as a senior military leader is the first report is invariably wrong—certainly not fully informed. Taking the time to verify even a few facts is critical to override the senses that tell the brain to believe what you see. Having enough data to base a decision is always important but one must be cognizant to demand facts before jumping to belief based only on sight.

Here are some tips that can help the manager faced with a case of “seeing is believing:”

1.    Intentionally under-react to a stressful situation – recognize the adrenaline rush under stress can cause snap judgment, e.g. “I saw it so it must be true.”

2.    Tell yourself that what you saw is just like the first report delivered from a subordinate – there must be more to the story than what met the eye.

3.    Ask good questions – even if you were the only one to have seen it [the event], somebody else knows something about it.

4.    Resist the natural temptation to jump on the conclusion your eyes [may have] tricked your brain into believing as fact.

Certainly initial impressions are important for an eye witness and should guide a line of questioning.  One cannot dismiss the apparent obvious but it must be verified with enough data to ensure your senses do not lead you to a wrong conclusion, decision, or belief.  Doing this will reduce the number of later regrets and make you a better manager, a better leader and a more successful executive.

What's the Message?


So here we are at the USA’s midterm elections, those between the national elections of presidents. The fever gripping American citizens over these political elections is altogether fascinating and exhausting. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Tea Partiers, Moderates, Activists…all are trying to capture the imagination of the electorate through popular issues. And due to the news cycles and marketing air time available, these messages are reduced to sound bites—reportedly just as we Americans like them. But what is the message?

I, for one, am having difficulty finding it, or recognizing it. Like others I can certainly see the various positions, e.g. government bigger or smaller, tax the rich or renew the tax breaks, universal health or not, pro-life/pro-choice, etc. But these are just issues and not a message that rings across the land or even overseas.

Who are we…what do we stand for?
I also hear and see a lot of the ‘what’ but not much of the ‘how.’ Assuming I represent the majority of Americans, e.g. not extreme in my views, I would love to hear how we are going to grow the economy, retire the debt and deficit, enable sustained job creation, and generally provide for the well being of our people. For sure we are witnessing and involved to some degree in the sausage making of democracy—we may not like watching it being made but we surely enjoy partaking in the product.

We the voters are being bombarded by a lot of stuff as incumbents and newcomers all vie to become everything to everyone. In NASCAR—“to finish first, first you have to finish.” In political parlance—you have to get elected before you can do any good. But what is missing from the discourse is the big message…what’s it all about?

Most in the political arena believe they are sworn to represent their constituents and do well by them. But I believe a bigger message is missed and the American people as a body are unsatisfied without it. Polls continue to measure our anger, frustrations, and anxieties about our elected officials are disconnected from us on the important things and that they are more responsive to party politics than to us. That is NOT a good message.

Regardless of the outcomes of our midterm Congressional and local elections, the one thing that is likely to be a given is we are not going to see that much change no matter who is elected. Some argue it’s likely because most Americans are centrists and, therefore, most politicians will govern generally towards that body whatever their party affiliation. Others argue our system of government itself is inherently designed to be obstructionist and extremes are checked in the process. Still others argue the seniority system within the halls of the Congress mandate only one way to get things done—“you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Some even argue it’s not the system, it’s who is drawn to politics in the first place, e.g. moths drawn to the flame, and are predictable how they act once near the centers of power.

All of this is true to some degree. But the one thing missing is the strategic message that should be guiding us instead of the actors.

In this arena, I confess I do not have the answer but I do have a strategic communications perspective. My view of this is that there should be a strategic vision of what this country should look like from our politicians.

Then a series of planned steps to get from where we are today to that vision where actions and words are matched along the way. Then, metrics (measures of effectiveness and their subordinate measures of performance) should be developed and utilized to report on how it is going to the public.

Like in football, a player can’t make substantial gains on the field unless he knows where he is at relative to the goal line, has a strategy to get there, makes a series of plays to execute advancement of the ball, can adjust to stiff opposition, and never gives up. Oh yeah, and we usually like it when there’s not excessive endzone celebration after a touchdown (subliminal message to some politicians).

So, what’s the message? 
What do we want our country to be? 
How do we want to fit into the international community? 
What are the most important principles in taking care of our people—all the people? 
Where do we want this nation to be in years hence?

I believe Americans want to know what the message is
. If we do not know what we want the future to be, how are we ever going to attain it? We want to have a vision for our kids and grandchildren, not to just make their lives better than ours but to deliver to them a world as an inheritance they can build on for future generations. Maybe the message should be given to politicians—and replayed back—something like this…

Desired End State
  • What we want our nation to be—a country that is always improving and leading the world in providing for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. 
  • A government that continuously provides security conditions to enable the people to attain these sovereign rights. 
  • And a people dedicated to the rights of individuals while guarantying the benefits to all.
Strategic Vision
  • How do we get there—that this state exists 10 years from now and forever more. 
  • That those who govern are dedicated to the people over party loyalties and naturally want and work to accomplish through compromise. 
  • That we become a nation that does what should be done instead of waiting until we are forced to do it.
A Plan
  • Steps from today to the desired tomorrow—citizens must continue to build depth of knowledge and passion as we are beginning to see now and raise the level of feedback to our officials. 
  • We need to get our neighbors involved through peer pressure in voting so the entirety of our citizenry votes. 
  • We need to be heard instead of our politicians so they respond to our needs and wants instead of money and votes.

I don’t believe there should be bi-partisan agreement on major issues but struggle that always results in compromise—just as our founding fathers intended. I also don’t care about the nature of politics, I care that those who govern deliver accomplishments for the benefit of us. We also need to grow beyond appearing to be satisfied with casting our votes for the best of the worst available which, if modern history is indicative or predictive, is really the worst of the best.

  • How we learn where we are in the progress of attaining our future.
  • We demand to be kept informed how the country is moving toward that goal through measurable effects with policies, laws, reports, and the press. 
  • We need to know just as business leaders in minding their companies do, where the country is, is it on track in meeting goals, and what are the obstacles to be dealt with.
Adapt and Overcome
  • We take responsibility for our happiness and not allow ourselves to be beholden to others for it.
  • As I head to the poll to pull the lever underwhelmed as to what I see, I am hearing a lot of stuff from politicians. 
  • But I am not hearing the message and I want to hear it from them. 

This is what I will be calling for as we head from this exercise in democracy into 2012...

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.
There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
                                                             — John Adams