Balance, Coaching, Culture, Leadership, management, Mentoring, organizational leadership, organizational management, team building

One Key Leadership Behavior That Could Balance Your Life


If you’ve been the top dog in a company, department, professional association or just about any other organization of people, you know that being “in charge” is a big drain on your time and energy – at least it is if you’re doing it right.

An engaged leader will soon find their personal life interwoven with the cultural and social fabric of the organization. Basically, you’re “all-in” for the best interests of your company, its stakeholders and your team. The result is endless friction between the personal demands of being human and the professional demands of leading successfully.

Stop off and grab dinner with my spouse somewhere between our respective workplaces? Sure! … as long as I finish these agenda items for the next board meeting in the next half-hour or so.

I really hate that I’ll miss the kids’ cheer competition this Friday; but this association dinner’s been on the books for months now and they’re expecting me to represent the company.

Yeah, I’m sorry, but we’ll have to adjust those vacation dates a little to make room for this conference I need to attend.

‘Sound familiar? Your time and energy can get away from you in a hurry when the weight of responsibility rests on your shoulders!

But what’s to be done about it? I mean, this is my job, and the dedicated people in my organization deserve my best effort, right? Sure, but “I”, “me” and “my” can wear you out and limit your effectiveness to your organization. If only there were more of you!

Here’s the good news. There’s a time-tested leadership practice that will not only allow you to get your life back, but could also make you a more effective leader in the process – the art of empowered delegation.

The Leadership Case for Empowered Delegation

The mention of delegation may conjure up visions of “dropping the pack” because you’ve found a patsy to do that tough job. This behavior is, of course, antithetical to true empowered delegation.

The adjective “empowered” means you don’t just hand off the task; instead, you share a portion of your decision-making (and time investment) with a capable, willing teammate while staying engaged to a healthy degree. Like most things worth doing, it means accepting some risk; but not without the promise of significant reward.

The not-so-good news is that effective empowered delegation can be hard for some leaders to put into practice. Accountability for results can create a “control freak” bent in some leaders, especially when combined with even a small degree of professional insecurity. Leaders like this simply can’t fathom risking their professional reputation to the work of a subordinate.

Here’s the dirty little secret – we’ve ALL felt this bent to some degree. It’s natural in driven professionals to want to maximize their potential for success, but believing you can individually control outcomes in any complex organization is really just a mirage that almost never leads to satisfying results.

This simple comparison chart illustrates what I mean:

Comparison of Approaches

Leader Controls Outcome Leader Delegates and Empowers
Quality of Work Dependent on leader’s skill Shaped by layers of skill
Sustainability of Effort Effort must be expended to drive the team toward desired outcomes Shared ownership of processes and outcomes builds enduring commitment
Team Morale Effort must be expended by the leader to enhance “on the job” morale in a work environment Professional growth and achievement drive a higher level of team morale
Leader Morale Taxed through exhaustion Improved through balance

Sure, it’s not rocket science; but this little table does illustrate how letting loose of control is important to building enduring success in your professional life as a leader.

Consider that your team may not be getting your best effort now, because your calendar is filled to the brim every day and your availability to them is limited. In fact, even when you’re there, you’re really not – with the effect of round-the-clock activity and awareness robbing them of your attention and sharpness. In these situations, the payoff is huge once you convert from control to empowered delegation. You can read more about the positive organizational results of relinquishing control at Letting Go and Letting Grow, a recent Intrepidity post on this subject.

I believe professional and personal identities really aren’t two distinct lives; but rather two aspects of the same life – yours.

How you take care of yourself directly impacts how you relate to others and how you succeed in the crucible of leadership.

The Basics

The foundational building blocks of empowered delegation are bilateral trust and confidence. The magic comes when both are exchanged – freely and continuously – between the leader and the team.

  • The leader trusts the team and has confidence in their abilities.
  • The team is confident in the leader’s competence and trusts the leader’s integrity.
  • The leader is self-confident enough to let go of the need to exercise direct control over outcomes.
  • The team trusts the leader to “have their backs”, exercising patience and tolerating failure as a step toward success.
  • The leader trusts status reports to be accurate and transparent.
  • The team is confident they’ll receive required resources and get help in removing barriers to success.

… you get the idea. You can’t just start slicing off chunks of tasks you’re accountable for and divvying them out to your team. The “empowered” part is just as important as the “delegation” part! Empowering someone for success could be as simple as putting them in charge of key team meetings or as complex as providing training on advanced competencies like negotiation or conflict resolution. In all cases, though, empowering someone means sharing your authority with them.

Delegation involves shared responsibility and accountability, of course; but to empower people, delegation also requires the appropriate sharing of authority.

This is the part that takes guts and can test the commitment of even the most well-intentioned leader.

Some Perspective on Implementation

To some reading this, steps to make empowered delegation a reality in your organization are already pulsing through your brain. Others might appreciate some “next steps” to help get started. If you’re in the latter group, I offer the following observations from seeing successes and failures in a diverse collection of organizations.

  • Trust and confidence are symptoms of your work culture. Whether you like it or not, you’ve already established a level for both – good or bad.
  • It’s not too late to change that level, but it’ll require patience and intentionality.
  • Plan the intentional steps to build bilateral trust and confidence in your team first, then share them with a trusted colleague for feedback.
  • Remember, empowered delegation is a two-way street. Much will be expected of you by the team as their leader; but the team must also understand they’ll be expected to optimize the trust and resources you’ll bring to them for enhanced results.
  • Clearly and openly communicate mutual expectations. The team should not only hear your words, but also see your purpose and feel your humility.
  • Assume the role of “executive champion” for the cause. This keeps you associated with the effort and leaves the team feeling they can always count on you.
  • You can’t fake this, so don’t even try.

Balance is more than a “feel good” sentiment or a matter of your own personal mental health; it’s a catalyst of sustainable success at work and a lifetime of happiness.

… and who doesn’t want those?


Read more about the basics (and some “how to” stuff) of this concept in an earlier post
The Six Behaviors That Turn Delegation Into Empowerment” on Intrepidity!

C’mon back!

TD Smyers Leadership

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cross-functional leadership, Leadership, management, organizational leadership, organizational management, team building

What’s in the Trailblazer’s Pack?

dreamstime_xs_11938152“Pathways to Service” is the theme for a keynote I’ve been asked to deliver next month; probably because my own path to leadership in the social sector started as a branch off my first career in the US military – which is a different path than normal.

Or, at least it used to be. In today’s networked professional landscape, acts of service are increasingly shared across a broad spectrum of government, private and social interests. Public-private ventures and social entrepreneurs are blurring the lines between economic sectors for the collective good, and the mutual benefits inherent in “coopetition” are driving more social agencies to work together in the same space for joint successes; and why shouldn’t they?

If we’re really interested in curing social ills, why would we limit the pursuit of solutions to just the social sector? Shouldn’t all economic sectors invest in them?

With these cross-sector trends come new, non-traditional, pathways to service; like private companies that operate not only to make a profit, but also to “move the needle” on a significant social issue in their community. My friend Zach Freeman’s moving company Veterans Moving America is such an enterprise. Make no mistake, VMA is a for-profit business; but its first core value is “To support and encourage American Veterans”, which it does by exclusively hiring Vets “who are hardworking, team-oriented, and committed to redefining the way moving companies do business.”

There are many such innovative examples of cross-sector pathways to service; but you get the idea.

In figuring out how best to tackle a topic like “pathways to service” against such a dynamically changing backdrop, I dropped back to a concept I’ve been tossing around for a while now – expeditionary leadership, or the art of leading others through uncharted territory where rules have yet to be written. Leadership in a new environment means blazing trails, rather than simply guiding others down established paths.

Anyone can follow a path, but only a leader can blaze one.
– John Maxwell

So, what equips the expeditionary leader? What tools make their way into the pack of the effective “trailblazer”? Here’s at least a partial list I’ve come up with:

Map & Compass

Yes, you’re cutting a new swath through previously untrod terrain; but you’re trying to focus collective efforts toward a mutually desired destination. The walking, whacking, digging, swimming and damming done by team members is all directed toward a common destination – the vision set by the leader. Whatever meandering must be done in order to get around obstacles, the vision is the thing that must remain steadfast and constant.

Pull out the compass every now and then, slapping it on the map to keep your leadership aligned with your vision.


Contrary to its popular depiction in horror films, the machete is designed to be a tool, rather than a weapon. Properly wielded, it cuts through brush, roots and other growth that precludes passage.

One of the most valuable contributions an expeditionary leader can make to the work of a team is the removal of barriers and obstacles.

The sharpness and durability of your blade is a function of your professional reputation for integrity and achievement.


Blazing a trail means heavy lifting. You’ll encounter boulders, tree trunks, vermin and other challenges to progress; and you’ll have to choose between tackling these challenges directly or navigating around them. Either way, there will be risk. Confronting challenges can be exhausting, while moving to avoid them could add significantly to the length of your journey. Tough, durable gloves not only allow you to handle challenges easier, they also protect you from bites and stings from those unseen dangers that may lurk where you can’t see them!

Your gloves will be made from the risk tolerance you’ve fostered in the hearts of your team prior to the journey. They will weather much risk if you’ve won their trust and confidence.

Your gloves should be tough, but also as soft as possible. There may not be blood on your journey; but there certainly will be sweat, and there will probably be tears.


While you’ll plan the majority of you journey for the light of day, darkness and doubt will likely enter in, and not always when you would think.

Openness and transparency will illuminate both the map and the way when darkness besets your efforts.


Slugging through underbrush takes it’s toll, and the team will thirst.

Drinking from the well of patience will keep the team’s spirits refreshed and their minds supple.


It’ll be hard work cutting the trail, and the prospect of deserting the effort to follow an easier path will test the resolve of many teammates.

Purpose and inspiration feed the leader’s fire. Instead of a match or lighter, think of your fire as a live coal kept in a box, to be shared with the team for igniting fires of their own.

Trail Markers

Finally, it’s important to mark the way for others. After all, the work that goes into blazing a trail should only have to be done once if we’re heading to a destination intended for sharing with those who follow.

Knowledge shared through lessons-learned will help others follow more easily.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

What else should make it into the trailblazer’s pack?


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Culture, Leadership, management, organizational leadership, organizational management, team building

Letting Go and Letting Grow

Letting loose of control is key to getting a grip on success.

dreamstime_s_66351788You couldn’t have convinced me control wasn’t a critically important aspect of leadership when I was a young Navy Ensign trying not to look like an idiot amidst the more seasoned officers at Patrol Squadron Five. Advice from the “Mad Fox” brain trust included wisdom like “It’s not important anyone likes you; just that they respect you!”; “Your Sailors need to always see you in control!” and “Never apologize; it’s a sign of weakness!”

Clearly, I was expected to be “in control” in my daily duties, on the ground as well as in the air.

A P-3 Orion aircraft – the weapon system wielded by the Mad Foxes against adversary submarines and ships in those days – was a study in “command and control”. The efforts of twelve crew members were closely directed by a “Tactical Coordinator”, or TACCO, to produce a successful target “prosecution”; just as the play of orchestra musicians produces a symphony under the direction of a conductor. Being in control was paramount in the air.

On the ground, however, it seemed to me we had an opportunity to do things differently and achieve a different result. Without the urgency dictated by mission requirements; target movements and fuel supply, we could solve problems with more collaborative; comprehensive and enduring solutions. When we didn’t have to strictly remain in a narrow role, we could harness the collective wisdom of the group. When failure didn’t jeopardize national security, we could give teammates the opportunity to try … and fail … and try again … and succeed. Essentially, we could grow people as we were getting things done.

Allowing others the freedom to fail their way to success taught me I was almost never the smartest person in the room.

To be honest, trying to exert too much control really just seemed hard to me. How could I possibly know everything about everything we were doing? By insisting on control, wouldn’t I really just be slapping a limiter on my team’s potential?

Giving up control allowed other (very smart) people the opportunity to do things I would never have thought of … and we ALL WON! There was risk, but there was also reward.

Today, in my role as an executive with United Way, I grapple with the issue of control every day.

Traditionally, a community’s United Way supported the efforts of several partner agencies and, recently, a handful of other organizations aligned with its “impact” focus areas. Consequently, UW’s role in the community often resembled traditional command and control; like the “golden rule” perspective – whoever has the gold makes the rules.

Here in Tarrant County, though, we’re working under the philosophy that it’s much more beneficial for us to lead a collaboration in pursuit of solutions to social problems than it is to generate an internal program to address it. Since there are several agencies in our community who have spent years in pursuit of the answers; let’s convene a gathering of those agencies; resource their efforts and celebrate collaborative community success. In other words, let’s let go of the need to control the processes and outcomes, and lean on our strength as a cross-sector community leader to best support a community solution.

If all this sounds too risky for you, there’s good news! Here are some simple ways I’ve seen great leaders ease the angst of letting control go and step boldly into a world of better results through collaboration:

  1. Embrace your ignorance
  2. Don’t take yourself so seriously
  3. Spend time at hard play
  4. Follow up
  5. Be generous, but genuine, with credit and praise

Embrace Your Ignorance

You’re ignorant. You probably know a lot about a wide range of stuff, and have some advanced skills – that’s how you got the leadership job you’re in; but you’re still in possession of only a small amount of the corporate knowledge your group possesses. Instead of trying so hard not to be ignorant; embrace it and let others’ knowledge in to fill the void. This doesn’t mean to stop studying the work of your profession, it just means to accept the fact that you’re never going to have all the answers yourself.

(NOTE: Those of you who really ARE the smartest people in the room should probably stop reading here; pour yourselves a drink and revel in just being you.)

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously

Those leaders most successful at letting loose of control are able to do so because they are confident.

A leader comfortable in her own skin can more easily help people grow into theirs.

All confident leaders have something in common – they can all laugh at themselves; which is a healthy character trait … especially when everyone else is laughing at you anyway!

Spend Time at Hard Play

Get to know your team well, so you’ll know what they can handle and what you may still need to guide them through. I meet routinely with my key leaders out of the work environment. I drink coffee in the morning and beer or wine in the evening; which opens up lots of opportunities to meet up in a relaxed environment, but that only goes so far.

Teambuilding is something that can really help you get a handle on your team’s strengths and weaknesses; but teambuilding is much more than just spending time together.

Effective teambuilding includes opportunities to practice key team skills like problem solving and conflict resolution. It leverages challenges to build understanding and mutual trust

That’s why things like ropes courses; group hikes and non-profit volunteer work are all good teambuilding activities. Of course, you’ll need to take into account the physicality of your team before booking more extreme challenges. Just make sure what you do together includes growth opportunities that go beyond just visiting.

Follow Up

A Russian proverb, adopted by President Reagan and certain government agencies, translates “Trust, but verify”. This is good advice. Your team needs you to stay engaged, and you need to stay engaged to ensure you’re still accessible enough to help your team achieve good results. Effective leaders follow up with their team leaders on a regular basis for a number of good reasons:

  • To demonstrate they value the work being done
  • To stay informed on any barriers to success they may be able to remove
  • To mitigate any prospective mistakes before they happen
  • To enhance mentorship opportunities

Of course, there’s a fine line between monitoring and controlling; so the old adage that leadership is more art than science definitely applies here. Be careful to avoid placing too much control on the process with your engagement.

Be Generous, but Genuine, with Credit and Praise

The only thing worse than not giving credit where credit is due is giving vague, fluffy, meaningless credit. The best way to avoid the latter is to be factual with your praise. Give your team appropriate credit for specific accomplishments and NEVER take credit for their work. Don’t worry about how you’re perceived; the good work your team does always reflects well on their leader. There’s nothing you need to do to help that along.

In fact, when you cease to feel the need to draw praise to yourself; that’ll be a good indication you’ve learned to let go of control.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

– General George S. Patton


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Attitude, Balance, Culture, Health

The Call You Don’t Have To Make

20168737_lIt had been a pretty long week, and I was happy to be heading home to my wife and our regular evening bottle of wine.

With about 40 minutes of DFW rush hour ahead of me, I began mentally thumbing through phone calls I “had to make”. You know the drill – following up with folks I met earlier in the week and probably should’ve  gotten back to by now; answering people who had reached out to me for various reasons; collecting reports from teammates who had helped me multitask; getting updates from meetings I’d missed … like I said, calls I had to make.

It was April Fool’s Day … and I let out a sigh as my own foolishness struck me.

It was Friday, and I was on my way home. ‘Probably time to focus more on vacation than on vocation.

So, I decided to call someone I WANTED to call, and for whom I had absolutely NO agenda. Dialing an old friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, and to whom I talk with all too infrequently, I switched over to Bluetooth.

“Well, Mr. Smyers” laughed a familiar voice after the third ring, “I just had to pick up, so you could never accuse me of not answering your phone calls!”

Laughing reflectively myself, I responded “Yeah, I was just on my way home, running through calls I thought I had to make; and I just decided I’d make one I wanted to instead. You were the first one who came to mind. How’re you doin’, man?”

The reply was immediately gratifying. “Well, it’s funny you should call me today, of all times, I’ve just had one of those days …” and the conversation rolled on from there.

Over the next few minutes, we poked a little fun at common buddies; caught up on the lives of our spouses and kids; made reunion plans that had little chance of becoming reality and shared a few belly laughs over past misadventures. As the give and take ebbed and flowed, I listened a lot. In fact, I found myself cutting my stories short with rigorous brevity so I could find out more about what was new in my friend’s life. Our conversation was a technicolor event against a backdrop of olive drab; a moment that reclaimed who I was from who I “had to” be for a little while.

Only 10 or 12 minutes after I’d dialed, we both arrived at our respective destinations and negotiated the call’s end. With our most genuine expressions of appreciation, we expectantly committed to stay in better touch and hung up.

The weekend began with my perspective tuned; my spirit uplifted and my memory pleasantly refreshed … a perfect attitude with which to attack that waiting carafe.

The call I didn’t have to make was easily the best call of the day.


Author’s Proclaimer: Two or three Blue Zones Power 9 behaviors are represented in this story, so read Intrepidity and live longer!

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Original image by Barbara Berry, courtesy of Legacy Studios.
bureaucracy, Culture, Leadership, management, organizational leadership, organizational management

For Big Wins, Count on the Locals!

Original image by Barbara Berry, courtesy of Legacy Studios. legacystudiostexas.comSince the dawn of Deming, large organizations have sought after the golden “E” – efficiency. Reorganizing along functional lines to centralize processes and standardize operations is a popular route to get there; but it’s also a route that all too often depletes that other pretty important “E” – effectiveness.

I first discovered this paradox as a mid-grade naval officer assigned to my second operational aviation squadron. Having finally promoted to Lieutenant Commander (a story for another post) and now assigned as a squadron Department Head, I was selected to a premier job – Maintenance Officer. The “MO” is in charge of the largest body of specialists in the squadron – technicians and mechanics collectively known as the “maintainers”.

Pride in ownership

Proudly sporting the squadron patch on their coveralls, maintainers took special ownership of our six P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Currently being replaced by the modern P-8A Poseidon, the aging fleet of Orions provided plenty of opportunities for repair, removal and replacement in those days and maintainers were responsible for every aspect of the care and feeding of those legacy birds – from routine upkeep like fueling, lubrication and system updates to large-scale emergent requirements like changing out failed engines and repairing cracked wings.

Planes were considered “up” if they could fly and perform the mission. Each plane had a green “up” arrow or a red “down” arrow prominently displayed in Maintenance Control – the department’s nerve center. The collective “up” status of the squadron’s fleet was a matter of honor in a unit where each aircraft had the name of the “Plane Captain”, or maintenance lead, painted on the doors that encased the nose landing gear.

As a flyer, I could feel this pride every time I went down to review the aircraft status on the way to pre-flight for a mission. Repairing and maintaining the squadron’s fleet of aircraft was more than just the reason these pros came to work every day. Rewards, promotions, morale and discipline all emanated from the consistency of the aircraft status – it engendered a culture of pride, professionalism, performance … even joy.

It was true ownership; felt by US Navy aircraft maintainers on behalf of the American taxpayer.

The Introduction of Centralization

Shortly after I left operational flying for a couple of Pentagon tours, the Navy made a bold move to realize cost-savings in the maintenance of its aging maritime patrol fleet – creation of a central, shared maintenance group designed to provide aircraft to all squadrons located on a particular base. Each squadron would kick in some maintainers to the central Consolidated Maintenance Organization, or CMO, and the CMO would perform scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, keeping dozens of planes ready for aircrew to “check out” – like books from a library – to take on missions.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the resulting drop in aircraft readiness was immediately apparent. Crews would arrive at Maintenance Control to find the system status and general condition of the aircraft to be unacceptable. Planes were declined for missions; maintainer morale plummeted; aircrew morale plummeted; schedules got backed up and aircraft availability for missions was the leading factor underlying a decrease in mission readiness across the Fleet.

Pride of ownership had been sacrificed in the dogged pursuit of efficiency – an unsustainable situation. In the end, the centralized maintenance concept was a failure and – less than a year after being stood-up – CMOs were dissolved and the Navy returned to “organic” organizational maintenance at the squadron level.

What had the Navy’s maritime patrol leaders missed? In my opinion, they failed to acknowledge the value of local ownership in driving strong, enterprise-wide performance.

While centralized strategy can advance standardization and efficiency across an enterprise, localized execution lends the agility and ownership necessary for sustained success in a dynamic environment.

Centralization Extended

Of course, central control (and the associated bureaucracy) aren’t characteristics unique to government. Any large mission-driven organization is vulnerable to similar results when centralization goes viral and spreads to execution at the ground level. For example, I think we’re seeing the American Red Cross grapple with this today.

To be clear, I’m a fan of the Red Cross and the integrated corps of passionate volunteers and dedicated employees who perform its mission, having led the North Texas operation as Region Chief Executive for four years. While I think CEO Gail McGovern’s efforts to bring about standardization and efficiency probably saved the organization from careening off the edge in the last decade, a waning ownership culture has been an unintended consequence of unchecked centralization.

Despite a stated intent to enable field leadership at the local level, the Red Cross actually deepened and matured their bureaucracy in response to financial pressures and in pursuit of aggressive relevance initiatives. Enterprise-wide solutions, including tools like Salesforce and new client assistance software, were implemented to enhance top-level visibility of tactical operations in field; enabling – even encouraging – micro-management throughout multiple layers of the organization. I watched local pride and ownership decline, even as top executives enjoyed greater oversight and access to tactical-level detail.

As the bureaucracy evolved, time and resources were removed from locally unique missions, like special-needs transportation, in favor of nationally standardized initiatives like the “Home Fires” smoke alarm installation campaign. While certainly valuable as a means of making a national impact, Home Fires exemplified how the will of the national organization, propagated through centralized control and metrics, reigned supreme in governing Red Cross activity in the field – at the expense of local ownership and innovation.

Doin’ it right

So, how does an organization avoid these traps? Is it possible to realize the benefits of centralized efficiency while avoiding the pitfalls of totalitarian control? I think my current organization, the United Way, does a nice job of this.

United Way Worldwide (UWW) focuses their efforts on collective brand enhancement; shared knowledge management; standardized training and enabling the grass-roots work of local United Way agencies for collective success.

While most local United Way agencies have adopted UWW’s focus on three “Impact Areas” – education, income and health, many have modified them to suit local and regional needs. Some have even opted out completely, sticking with traditional models of collective work across a broader spectrum of needs. How best to engage the needs of a community is a decision left up to local UW leadership; and resources are made available for a wide range of possible solutions. Subsequently, the entire United Way network benefits from robust best-practices.

At a recent UW conference in Tampa, I had the opportunity to learn from a Virginia-based colleague how she had positioned the United Way as a “valued business partner” to a local hospital, assisting recently discharged patients with medications and follow-up in a way that helped decrease the hospital’s emergency room recidivism rates. The collective result was a good for the United Way; good for the hospital and good for the community – and it was a home-grown solution. National United Way leadership held the conference to showcase these kind of innovations for the benefit of other local UW organizations – local solutions to commonly shared issues.

Keepin’ it real

To balance centralization and localization in your organization, consider putting intentionality behind these  key behaviors:

  • Standardize strategy through a shared vision, mission and guiding principles.
  • Work risk-tolerance into your organization’s culture.
  • Give up on total control – you don’t have all the answers anyway.
  • Trust your hiring practices and believe in your people.
  • Enable local leaders with robust resources to execute the common strategy through custom solutions.
  • Embrace failure and reward rebounds with the same fervor as instant successes.



Notes: Special thanks to my Navy buddy Captain Scott “SparkJ” Fuller, Commanding Officer of Naval Air Facility Washington, DC, for his editorial support; and to my wife, Barbara Berry Smyers, of Legacy Studios for the cool imagery.

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The Disingenuous Jerk
Character, Leadership

Leadership Advice for the Disingenuous Jerk

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Dr. John C. Maxwell

The Disingenuous Jerk

The Disingenuous Jerk

I’ve learned much of the leadership craft by making mistakes and then having to fix them; but, for all the leadership lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way, caring for the members of my team and their work is something that’s always come naturally. Although I wasn’t born with the insight necessary or the skills needed to get the job done, I’ve always carried a gut-level affinity for my team and our work together. Consequently, I’ve been blessed to hear comments from teammates like:

“You’ve got this knack for telling someone they’re full of crap, but then they’re happy to know it and ready to do better!”

“I’ve had someone yell at me during counseling, and I KNOW they wouldn’t be yelling at you like that!”

“We all give our best because we just don’t want to disappoint you”

So I get asked quite a bit about how to engender this kind of following – “how do you teach that stuff?”

Well, I’m not sure you can.

I mean, If you do it, you’re probably doing it naturally – it’s just part of who you are. If you’re not doing it, you likely don’t have an aptitude for it … maybe you’re kind of a jerk … and trying to act the part will come off as phony and contrived. So, I guess the secret is just to genuinely … care.

But before we write off all the world’s jerks as leadership lost-causes, maybe there’s hope. If being genuine can’t be taught, maybe it can be developed. Maybe we can come up with some “dos and don’ts” for developing as a genuine and transparent leader. Here goes.

So, if you are a jerk, pay attention – this is for you. If you happen to know a jerk, you might consider forwarding this stuff.

Let’s start with what to avoid like the plague.

Don’t pretend

Pretending to be something you’re not may be the fastest way to discredit yourself. People close to you, whether your kids or your colleagues, can see through a fake leader like cellophane … and this isn’t the good kind of transparency! They can clearly see the hollow insides and desperation of someone who doesn’t genuinely care; but, instead, just pays them lip service while worrying mostly about themselves – their career reputation; their climb up the corporate ladder or the date this “team” stuff is delaying.

Before you ACT genuine, you’d best BE genuine.

Don’t create a veneer

One of the dumbest pieces of leadership advice I ever heard of was delivered to a Navy aviation friend and colleague of mine during an annual performance debrief with our Wing Commander. He asked my buddy what kind of “veneer” he would be choosing for himself as he prepared to take on the leadership of one of the Wing’s seven squadrons. When I heard the story, I found myself wondering What the …? I mean… “veneer” … really? Could there possibly be something more disingenuous and fake for a leader to do than adopt some kind of “veneer” to camouflage his true style? Geez.

The concepts of veneer and transparency are mutually exclusive, whether you’re talking about light or leadership.

OK, now let’s review some positive steps you can take to move from jerk to genuine.

Do assess your traits

Take a leadership assessment to find out, objectively, exactly who you are – what are your strengths and growth areas; where are your hot buttons; in which environments are you likely to thrive? There are quite a few of these, from the simple to the complex. In fact, your organization might pick up the tab to have this done; but if you’ve already burned too many bridges to engender support there … being a jerk and all … you can find a good one here for your own use.

Most jerks are pretty surprised at the results of a comprehensive leadership assessment, but a bruised ego is small fare to get your feet set on the road to honest leadership.

Do relax

Chill out. This is going to take a while.

The process is going to tax your arrogance patience, and it’ll be hard; but getting all defensive and hostile is, after all, just more of that jerk-like behavior you’re trying to shake.

Do get your butt into the field

The more time you spend with your team – peers and subordinates … not just the boss – the more you’ll be amazed at what they do and the more you’ll care about them, personally … no matter how big a jerk you are.

You’ll also care more about the team’s success at the work you do together. You’ve certainly been around enough to have heard the phrase “management by walking around”, or MBWA. This phrase describes the simple, but significant, role of presence in leadership.

You can’t shape a pot without touching the clay.

Do open yourself up to a different perspective

I won’t lie to you, this part is going to be hard if you’re a real hard-boiled jerk. You’ve spent your adult life with a selfISH perspective, and now your going to have to spend some time with a selfLESS one. Breaking out of the tunnel vision brought on my seeing things your own narrow way could involve painful processes like opening yourself up to potential criticism; slowing down to actually listen to what people are saying and not rolling your eyes at their (OMG!) “silly” comments.

If you manage to do just a little of this, you’ll start to get a handle on the real problem – this whole time you’ve misunderstood what your team was trying to tell you; erroneously completed their thoughts for them or curtly cut them off before they were finished. Point-of-view deficiency may be what’s causing your leadership anemia; but a transfusion of “we, not me” could be just what the doctor ordered to get your feet set on the path toward becoming a trusted leader.

If you serve only yourself, you’re on your own; but if you serve others, you have a whole team on your side.

Do get intentional about making change

Armed with information revealed by your leadership assessment and the new perspective you’ve gained by giving people the time of day, start making some changes to your daily routine. For example, slow down on the way to your shop or office and ask a colleague how their weekend went; read the company newsletter to see what co-workers are up to and what opportunities for cooperation are out there; write an award recommendation for someone who works with/for you … you get the idea.

Keep the momentum going by investing in real growth opportunities! Pick up a book on leadership; sign up for that leadership skills seminar they’re offering at work and look into signing up with a coach to gain more awareness and foster further growth.

When setting about becoming a leader, intentionality is the key difference between streams of success and dreams of success.

OK, that’s it! If you still don’t care, then give it up; you’re probably actually happy being a jerk, and the rest of the office needs someone to crack jokes about anyway. Hopefully, however, you’re well on your way to a happier life as a better leader … and a better human being.


TD Smyers LeadershipFollow Intrepidity to keep up with the latest posts;
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You can find all the rest at TD Smyers Leadership.

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Leadership beyond the rules is an expedition

Leadership – Rule Followers Need Not Apply

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.

– often attributed to Pablo Picasso

Leadership beyond the rules is an expedition

Leadership beyond the rules is an expedition

I’m seldom accused of being a rule follower.

That’s not to say I have a complete disregard for rules – I don’t. Every leader needs to be mindful of the governance, compliance and regulatory realities behind “the rules”. I do, however, tend to focus on the spirit and intent behind a rule or policy rather than the actual “letter of the law.”

There’s one situation, though, in which I’m more or less a rule follower – in the kitchen.

Barbara and I enjoy cooking together … most of the time. Sometimes … alright, frequently … she chides me for being “such a rule follower” because I stick pretty close to the recipe, measuring meticulously and carefully timing everything while she floats freely about the kitchen adding “some of this instead”; estimating amounts based on … nothing, really and joyfully exploring the culinary art-of-the-possible.

The difference between us is that I’m simply not experienced enough with the culinary arts to be comfortable freelancing much just yet. The recipe is my crutch – and my safe zone. In the kitchen, I’m bound by the rules. Barbara, on the other hand, has vast experience with recipes; she knows how and why they’re written, then she gloriously defies them to produce something better than intended; in fact, sometimes she produces things beyond what the recipe creator might’ve imagined.

In defense of the rules

There’s an old adage that “rules are made to be broken”, and I believe that’s basically true.

Clearly, rules – policies, procedures, doctrines, guidelines, codes, etc.- are important to the recurring function of most organizations.

Rules are generally forged from the blood, sweat and tears of those who pioneered “making stuff happen” before we got here.

Rules provide the framework by which managers govern the work of their teams; so leading is not always about breaking or bending the rules; but enduring leaders will, at some point, face the need to act decisively when the rules no longer point to the best outcome, or when situations arise for which no rule provides appropriate guidance.

Limits to the value of policy

Although important to the routine function of any organization, rules can quickly be “overcome by events” (OBE); out of touch with the latest industry trends; irrelevant or even dangerous, if not updated. Often, managers are stuck with the processes and policies they’re authorized to operate under; but effective leaders of a special kind can protect their organizations from the negative effects of too heavy a reliance on policy. In fact, policy has some real issues:

Policy predetermines a static course of action in a dynamic world. No policy can be written to apply to every possible situation, but policy institutionally defends the status quo.
Policy favors known outcomes over potential returns. Policy can help enable targeted outcomes, but routes to other more beneficial solutions may never even be considered when blindly following policy. Also, In some cases, a policy will carry with it hidden second and third order effects that could be detrimental to the organization’s success.
Policy can be flawed. When it is, it’s flaws are multiplied over and over again as the flawed policy is implemented throughout the organization.

When policy failed

Leaders who challenge rules when they see conflicts are essential to broad organizational health.

I’ve challenged many rules in my professional life; and when I did, one of two things happened:

1) I got schooled on exactly why the rule was a rule, broadening my professional horizon … after, perhaps, a little professional embarrassment, or
2) I exposed a flawed policy – an outdated or incomplete crack in the system that precluded optimum results.

Solely from a leadership perspective, I think the recent tragedy in Chattanooga is illustrative here.

Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been following developments in the wake of two recent attacks on a Military Recruiting Center and a Navy Operational Support Center/Marine Corps Reserve Center (NOSC) in Chattanooga, TN. An interesting situation, germane to this post, is developing around how the Navy handles the NOSC Commanding Officer’s reported use of a personal sidearm to return fire on his attackers when possession of such a weapon at the NOSC was against Department of Defense (DoD) policy.

To preclude this dialogue turning into a fiery exchange on the 2nd Amendment; domestic terrorism or anything else contentious, let me be clear this particular post is about leadership against the backdrop of written policy – just that.

Here are the basic facts, as we know them, that relate to our discussion:

– DoD policy prohibits non-law enforcement personnel from carrying firearms on domestic US military installations and facilities.
– Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Tim White, the NOSC Commanding Officer, along with Sailors and Marines stationed at the NOSC, were attacked by an active shooter.
– By most accounts, LCDR White returned fire on his attackers with a personal firearm.
– The US government is considering disciplinary action against White for violation of DoD policy.

On social media people are either supporting White or condemning his actions with statements like “rules are rules” or “policy is policy”. The relevant questions are

Do rules reign supreme in all situations?
Does policy trump people when the disaster strikes?

An Expeditionary Leader

I’m of the mind that a special kind of leader will be ready to act with courage and integrity when the rules don’t apply, and be willing to accept the consequences – armed with the righteousness of his actions and, optimally, a successful outcome (if you buck the rules, you’d best be right).

Again, while it’s important for a leader to know and understand the policies that govern his team’s work, the ultimately effective leader will also understand when something is happening outside the construct of those policies, and have the courage, confidence and intuition to act accordingly.

By commissioning him an officer in the US Navy, the President of the United States reposed “special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities” of Tim White, according to his written commission. In fact, all US military officer commissioning documents carry the same statement; but it’s in the Navy that this kind of autonomy and vested confidence has its strongest roots. In the days of “wooden ships and iron men”, the Navy sent vessels out to sea for years at a time. During these voyages the “Captain” exercised supreme authority; comprehensive responsibility and the stark burden of ultimate accountability. The legacy of this triad flavors Navy leadership even today, and is a chief enabler of the Navy and Marine Corps capability to wage “expeditionary warfare” – taking the fight to the enemy aggressively, far from established bases and supplies.

So, does “special trust and confidence” apply in this case? We’ll see. The concept has taken some hits following contemporary (and sensationalized) stories of military officers being fired from high positions, so there’s been a lot of public pressure put on this trust.

If what has been reported about LCDR White’s response is accurate, I believe he exercised decisive leadership under circumstances policy was not sufficient to cover – he may have even prevented the loss of additional lives. He knew the rules, but was prepared and willing to operate outside of them (‘break” them) if necessary to obtain the greater objective of force protection. His response is a solid example of the very leadership that enables deployed officers to fight expeditionary warfare. He’ll face consequences at the hands of the governing authority – the expeditionary leader must always be ready to – but it’s my hope he’ll return to duty and leadership.

Expeditionary Leadership – leading effectively in situations beyond the rules.

Everybody needs some

Expeditionary leadership is needed in the private and independent sectors as well.

In many large non-profits, for example, fundraisers – the independent sector’s sales force – can only solicit donations for mission requirements – stuff like trucks; lab equipment; communications gear; etc. – if the requirements is included in the current year’s budget, rendering the donation “budget relieving”. ‘Sounds sensible enough, right? It’s basically letting donors pay for something that would otherwise fall to the organization’s other limited financial resources to cover.

I saw a situation unfold in which a local community foundation decided to reach out and do something about a non-profit’s old, dilapidated building and earmarked a few million dollars for the project. Eager foundation reps approached the benefitting organization, fully expecting their generosity to be met with appreciative, outstretched hands. But with nothing in the current budget for a new facility, the donation couldn’t be accepted for that purpose. In fact, if the donation had been accepted, the local fundraising team would have to accept an INCREASE in their annual target to offset the unplanned donation hitting the books! Not only would credit be denied to the fundraiser who stewarded this relationship, the fundraising department, as a whole, would now be penalized with a larger target – all brought to them courtesy of “organizational policy”!

I can think of some policy changes that would help get around this problem – moving to a multi-year budget; creation of an annual opportunity fund or arranging for deferred credit, for example – but the only way to make one of these become a reality is for an expeditionary leader to deny that the rules reign supreme and blaze a new trail around them.

In this particular case, an expeditionary volunteer leader found a creative way to plan the project and account for the funding outside of the limiting policies, and the project is now back on the table.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

– George Bernard Shaw

If you’ve seen an innovative, courageous leader break some rules for the right reasons in your own business, industry or personal life; you’ve seen expeditionary leadership in action. Please take some time to join the dialogue and share a brief synopsis in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you!


TD Smyers LeadershipFollow Intrepidity to keep up with the latest posts;
then like us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to stay current on shared info and events.
You can find all the basics at TD Smyers Leadership.

Covers in Memorium

In memoriam – Fair winds and following seas.

Note: In the current set of posts, we’re exploring advanced leadership topics focused on developing the characteristics necessary to realize your potential as a servant leader; enable you to lead transformational change and prepare you for expeditionary leadership.

Come on back!

family, family portrait, memories, photography, portraiture

What will be Remembered?

Guest blogger Barbara Berry, M. Photog., CPP, takes over this edition of Intrepidity!

Barbara Berry, M. Photog., CPP

Barbara Berry, M. Photog., CPP



Recently, I took my teenage daughter and son to see Inside Out at the local movie house. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, it’s a fanciful look inside a little girl’s mind that ultimately changes the way you think about how people … well, think about people.

The little girl’s most important memories – “core memories” – are represented by glowing balls and are kept in a special place. These are lifetime memories, and the foundation of who she is. They are enduring … unless “Sadness” gets hold of them.

Inside Out made me reflect on my own “core” memories, as well as those of my children.

Earlier this summer, my son Dalton came home from his first year of college. It was the longest period of time he’s been away from home and now he’s back where he came from, but with a new perspective.

Dalton recently got a small cut on his finger and one of those “core” memories came out of his mouth.

Geez, I’ll never forget that we never had Band-Aids when we were growing up!

I’m astonished. Not because it wasn’t true (it was) but because, of all things, that’s what he remembers. Not the birthdays, chess duels, pool parties or football games … just my refusal to buy Band-Aids. Ugh.

I know I sound like a horrible mother. The truth is my daughter, Brooke, would use Band-Aids as a fix-all and would exhaust my entire supply as fast as I could purchase them. Every mosquito bite, bruise, or even headache, would demand the application of a Band-Aid. I eventually stopped buying them because I knew they wouldn’t be around when we needed them.

This was a core memory for my son. Ouch.

I realize now, as I photograph families, children, and women at every stage of life, that I am recording memories. Because of the visual, physical presentation of photos, they create an everlasting core memory – one that won’t be ruined or forgotten. It is literally a moment – otherwise lost – now frozen in time.

It is something that I remind my clients of every day, but rarely do people overcome the daily routine to get organized and get it done. I’m sure many who read this have had the same thought: “we need to get a family portrait made, we just haven’t gotten around to it”.

When a loved one dies, what is the first thing we do? We search for photos. Anything. Even if they are only in the background, suddenly that photograph is everything. We cherish them forever.

We are reminded of the moments that made up a life, and we want to share the memories with those too young to remember for themselves. They remind us where we came from; where our roots lie; of times gone by and places that brought us happiness. Through photos these experiences come rushing back with a hint of the smells, sounds and textures from times gone by.

None of us are going to last forever.

My friend Nancy is well aware of this point, as she demonstrated when she introduced me to her “funeral file”. As Nancy put it,

“Look Barbara, at your funeral your life is going to be reduced to just a few photos; and who are you gonna trust to pick those out, you or somebody else?”

As unsettling as it seemed to me at first, it made perfect sense!

I pray that my children outlive me by decades, but when I am gone I want to leave behind my dearest memories so they can be dear to them as well – so many festive memories like our trip to Belize where we all went scuba diving together for the first time; Dalton spearing a fish then getting caught in the ensuing hail storm; Brooke getting her first car on her 16th birthday and so many more.

I want photographs of ME before I am old and tired, ones my kids can show their own children and grandchildren.

These days the walls of our homes aren’t covered in photographs like they used to be. With the technology we have today, it’s too easy to just save our images to an iphone, tablet or computer – all of which are at risk of being lost to theft, damage, crashed hard drives or natural disasters. But step back in your mind to your grandparents homes, where there were photographs in every room! They brought us a sense of belonging – no matter how awkward the photograph!

Today we snap photos on our phone and they are never considered for printing. We run out of storage and delete photos from 6 months ago that don’t seem as important as the one you want to take “now”.

Our children will be the most photographed generation of all time, but we are deleting more images than we are printing. We are willing to throw most away.

I ask: which one of these technologies will your children be able to easily access in 20 years?

legacy studios, glamour photographyPrinted photographs are held close to our hearts. They adorn our chests of drawers and night stands. Their corners become worn and their colors fade; still, we see and remember the tiny toes our children once had; the places we visited; the laughter we shared … life.

We remember our grandparents – wishing we could see them one more time. No amount of tears or wishing will bring back what we miss, but the photographs we hold remind us of moments that once were – and leave us mindful of the tomorrow that isn’t promised.


See more of what Barbara Berry’s blogging about at

Legacy Studios Texas

Legacy Studios Texas

Note: Next week we’ll be back to exploring leadership characteristics necessary to realize your potential as a servant leader; enable you to lead transformational change and prepare you for expeditionary leadership. Come on back!

Coaching, Culture, Leadership, Mentoring

To Motivate Higher, Inspire the Fire!

Inspiration is the best way to motivate.

Inspiration is the best way to achieve motivation.

You’ve heard it plenty of times – someone referred to as a “motivational leader”. Maybe you’ve even been called one yourself.

As impressive as it may sound, the trouble with this complement is it just doesn’t convey much. In fact, It really says nothing at all about your effectiveness as a leader. Let me explain what I mean.

The mention of “motivating” people conjures up images of getting them to move on something – to elicit some kind of action from them. Of course, there are a number of ways to do this. When I want to motivate my teenager to wash the car for example, I offer him up the opportunity to drive it as a reward if he does a good job. When I was a first-year “Plebe” at the Naval Academy, my drill instructor motivated me to recite a decent marching cadence by threatening me with terrible acts of public humiliation should I fail to comply – and that was fairly effective at the time. In business, the threat to withhold a paycheck can be pretty darn motivational as well. While all of these tactics modify behavior, they do so only for a time and they result only in a limited response. They’re motivational, but they’re not inspirational.

In addition to the promise of a reward or the threat of dire consequences, there are many other ways to motivate people. You can motivate someone through guilt or a sense of duty – “if you were a real professional, you would blah blah”. In fact, you can motivate someone by just about any means that generates a response; but the results will still be only what you’ve bargained for – temporary and limited.

If, on the other hand, you find a way to motivate people by inspiring them – by sparking something in them that perpetuates … ah, now you’re talking about real influence and, consequently, real leadership. As a leader, you want to ignite in your team a “fire in the belly” that’ll move mountains!

Inspiration is what happens when you strike a spark and it ignites an eager will.

By far, the best source for motivation is inspiration. If properly inspired, powerful motivation will follow. There are at least 4 compelling reasons this is true.

Inspired motivation is strong and deep.

I remember one particular group of aircraft mechanics, or “mechs”, I worked with in the Navy when I led the “Broadarrows” of Patrol Squadron 62. The Broadarrows flew the P-3 Orion, a 12-crew anti-submarine warfare aircraft with four Allison T-56 turboprop engines. The mechs busted their knuckles daily on these engines to make sure our planes needed were fully ready to meet the day’s flight schedule. It was a tough job with long hours, and one that often didn’t get the appreciation it deserved. One particular afternoon, after the last flight of the day taxied out, our mechs had changed into civvies and were heading out of their shop. Just before they made the turn out of the hangar, the audible down-shifting hum of a P-3 engine failure reverberated throughout the ramp.

Had they been motivated only by the requirements of a job, they would have continued on their way, released by the shop supervisor, without much thought for how the engine failure might impact mission completion or who might get called in to do the repairs – as long as it wasn’t them. Instead, they turned to each other and, without so much as a word, reversed direction and headed back into the shop to don their coveralls and report back for duty. Why did these Sailors take such a different course of action than someone who just worked the clock? Because they were inspired – inspired by the mission of the Navy they served in; inspired by the role their squadron played in that mission and inspired by the leaders who made them feel ownership of the squadron’s success.

Commitment beyond expectation, as a characteristic of inspired motivation, is not unique to the military; it’s found in high performance organizations across industries and sectors.

Inspired motivation is satisfying to the team.

People smile more when they’re inspired. They also laugh louder; work together better; stay around longer; talk better about the organization; make more insightful recommendations; complain less; etc. People generally respond best to being inspired.

Inspired motivation takes less effort.

It’s true. Motivating workers through inspiration definitely takes more effort up front to get the ball rolling, but it requires much less effort to maintain that momentum over time than alternative means of motivation. In the previous example of the Broadarrow mechs, consider the time rescued from having to run through the phone tree, hoping to find reluctant workers who would pick up the phone after hours. None of this was necessary because the workforce was inspired and immediately reported in themselves. It simply take less time, in the long run, to lead an inspired cadre than it does to motivate them to performance any other way. The spark of inspiration ignites a fire more or less permanently, while motivation by other means must almost always be restarted, kicked and prodded to get the desired impact.

Inspired motivation endures.

Motivation derived from fear won’t survive beyond the point where the threat is credibly present; that’s why coercive management doesn’t work in the long run. Inspiration, on the other hand, feeds a type of motivation that continues long beyond the immediate.

Robert Earley is CEO of John Peter Smith (JPS) Health Network. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him for several years. A former state legislator and exceptional leader, Robert is building enduring motivation at JPS on the foundation of a set of very basic, yet inspirational, principles. Robert’s “rules” go well beyond a simple list of ideals. He has rendered them inspirational by making them universally identifiable; communicating them in plain language and pitching them with a very affable, human hand. He’s also generated sustained motivation for more than 7 years now – I’d call that enduring.

The JPS rules are simple:

  • Own it
  • Seek joy
  • Don’t be a jerk

Robert’s employees and volunteers, from those who work directly with patients to those who work the back office, are inspired by this set of rules they can identify with; easily understand and put into play every day. Motivation endures at JPS because the people who make that place work feel part of something larger than themselves. Their motivation is rooted in inspiration, and Robert Earley is leaving a legacy.


Note: In the next several posts, we’ll explore leadership characteristics necessary to realize your potential as a servant leader; enable you to lead transformational change and prepare you for expeditionary leadership. Come on back!

TD Smyers LeadershipFollow Intrepidity to keep up with the latest blog posts;
Like us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to stay current on shared info and events;
and find even more info at TD Smyers Leadership.

Attitude, Character, Leadership

3 Moves to Wrangle Risk and Rescue Innovation


The fact that I go by “TD” is not grounded in any riveting story of high school football heroics. I did play the game, though; I was a wide receiver with plenty of speed, but a bad case of “cement hands”, so my Friday night game time was primarily spent on the bench. In fact, the last time I slung on shoulder pads was the final game of my senior season.

I had tried my hand at every sport my high school competed in, which wasn’t many – small town Texas schools pretty much had football, basketball, baseball and track in those days. I did finally wind up finding some athletic success in track & field, so suiting up for all those tryouts left me with no regrets about missed opportunities. Except for one.

Friday Night Fear

Coach Horton was an assistant football coach at Boyd High School – a Class “1A” program at the time. A solidly built guy with a country boy swagger and a perpetual five o’clock shadow, Coach Horton also taught in the classroom and knew that I kept good grades and had a solid academic reputation among the faculty. One uncharacteristically cool afternoon, as I was hustling in from JV practice, I heard Coach Horton holler my name and turned to see him jogging my direction. He had a proposition.

“I’m looking for somebody smart who can remember the plays”

“To do what?”, I responded.

“To play quarterback.” Coach Horton revealed, smiling like he’d just handed me a gift and fully expected me to accept it.

Fear froze me in my tracks. I was much more self-conscious than self-confident in those days, and what should have been the opportunity of my young life turned into my first real regret. I told Coach Horton I’d think about it for a couple of days, but then turned him down just before practice the next day. He was very disappointed. So was I.

What on earth was I worried about? Just the possibility that I’d fail. I simply couldn’t stomach the risk of failure. I had handled my share of failure in the year prior, so fear hadn’t worried me much when I was trying out for every sport the school offered, but now I had tasted some success in track; academics and student government – now I had more to lose. Fear had slashed my risk tolerance to nothing, and fear had prevented me from taking a grab at that brass ring.

Of course, it’s not all about conquering fear. While this example illustrates the drawbacks of a fear-generated low risk tolerance, the risk I perceived was mostly of my own making – based in the insecurity of a teenage boy. In the real world, however, fear often makes us aware of very real threats that have to be taken into account before they take us down. The prudent leader considers these threats and finds ways to mitigate them.

Low “RT”

Risk is generally defined as exposure to the possibility of loss or injury. It manifests itself differently in various sectors and industries because the factors that expose a plan to risk vary widely across diverse businesses. In the worlds of finance and health care, for example, there are some overlapping risk factors but a great deal of different ones. A leader’s Risk tolerance, however, is frequently rooted in fear of failure and the resulting consequences.

Risk tolerance is often the measure of a leader’s capacity to handle uncertainty, control fear and preclude panic.

The thought of exposing their professional reputation to risk strikes fear into the hearts of many leaders, and understandably so. I mean, if you’re accountable for successful results, how much risk is it really prudent to take on?

But without taking responsible risk, there is limited or no reward.

On the front of my office desk at Red Cross regional HQ, I’ve placed a sign that reads “Innovation – the best way to predict the future is to create it.” While some clearly view innovation as something difficult to nurture in a large enterprise, my team and I have created pilot projects in a wide array of functions and processes as our organization underwent deep foundational change.  By approaching challenges with the attitude “the status quo was broken as soon as we got up this morning”, we’ve broken new ground in volunteer engagement; disaster client assistance; development prospecting and Veteran’s services.

We weren’t afraid to innovate in execution, even as the opportunity for strategic innovation was limited by standardization and centralized policy.

In fact, none of these initiatives happened without risk, and some suffered setbacks; but many of the results have shaped the national dialogue and all have started us immediately down a new road to better service delivery.

Low risk tolerance chokes opportunity because it drowns innovation.

Of course, I’m not advocating that you throw caution to the wind; cash in the trust fund and book a hotel on the Vegas strip. In my experience there are 3 keys to developing a healthy risk tolerance and getting on with successful innovation.

Know the threats

Threat identification isn’t something unique to organizations like Homeland Security or the Secret Service, it’s a vital part of leading your team through challenges; putting new processes in place and just about anything else you’re doing to affect future success. The process of identifying threats can be simple or complex – from brainstorming with your team over a working lunch to conducting a measured threat assessment, with colored matrices and the works. In fact, odds are you’ve participated in a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, or something similar, at some point in your career.

However you approach it, knowing the forces that could threaten success gives you the enhanced situational awareness you’ll need to effectively navigate your team through whatever challenges lie ahead. It’s “step one” to getting your head around risk. Although identifying risks can be daunting, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”.

Stack the deck

Smart risk tolerance is reasonable and prudent, anchored in proactive mitigation of threats rather than wanton abandonment of caution.

I view skeptically those signs on trucks rolling down the highway that declare “Safety is my #1 priority”. I can’t help but think “No it’s not! Getting that load of baked beans (or whatever) to Boise (or wherever) is your #1 priority – that’s why someone bought the truck and pays you to drive it!” So, in reality, that driver’s “#1 priority” is getting that load to its destination on time, efficiently, without related damage or injury.

What that trucker’s daily safety routine probably includes are very tactical steps like laying out his timeline for the next segment; finding the best fuel stops; factoring in rest; anticipating route delays – all focused on mitigating any risk brought on by an aggressive timeline; fatigue; traffic and road construction. Risk is handled on the road by identifying threats and figuring out work-arounds – that’s basically mitigation in a nutshell.

Now, lose the fear

You’ll almost always start on a new venture afraid. Fear is the unknown haunting you – with its potential ramifications. however, If you’ve gotten a handle on responsible risk management; taken the time to identify any potential threats – moving them from the unknown to the known; and put fixes in place to neutralize them, you’ve headed those threats off one-by-one. Ideally, you’ve raised your risk tolerance to match the what’s required to lead your team to success.

Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the denial of its grip – carrying on in the face of the threat.

Keep calm and Lead on.


Note: In the next several posts, we’ll explore leadership characteristics necessary to realize your potential as a servant leader; enable you to lead transformational change and prepare you for expeditionary leadership. Come on back!

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