Golden Rule and Golden Thread

2753816333_9c6d15e24c_oWhen I was running a large corporate sales organization I tried to draw the subtle but important distinction for my team between focusing on the customer and cultivating the focus of the customer. The former generally meant compiling information about a client. The latter, more difficult, was understanding the client’s circumstances and aspirations so thoroughly that we could then turn and view our own company through his eyes.  It was not just the acquisition of data but a complete change in our perspective; only the very best salespeople had the energy and empathy to do it.

In a weird juxtaposition, I have been forced to consider this distinction frequently in the last few weeks as I watched the no-indictment announcement in the Michael Brown case, also as I saw the video replays of Eric Garner’s choke-hold arrest and death, and yet again as I read the heated public debate and watched the protests that followed. It troubles me that I may very well have accumulated plenty of information about those events, but as a middle-aged, upper middle class white male I persist in understanding so little about my fellow citizens in Ferguson and Staten Island.

For many of us our first complex moral precept as children was the Golden Rule. In the Christian expression and in many other faith traditions it is often stated as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  It is a wonderful standard but it presupposes one very important precondition, that we are able to view the others’ circumstances empathetically from their perspective and within their circumstances. In practice that is quite difficult.

For instance, what I want “done unto me” is to have life’s game played fairly and by clear rules. Among the things I value are social order and propriety. Of course, I can afford to hold that viewpoint because, by virtue of my race, gender, family circumstances, social status, and upbringing, the game has been designed for me to continue winning. Law enforcement is therefore my natural partner, so in important visceral ways it is difficult for me to watch the national protests against the police.

I don’t hold to the illusion that society is always just, but I do firmly maintain two great assumptions. The first is what Lord Sankey famously called the Golden Thread of common law: the presumption of innocence. The second assumption is due process, that very American guarantee contained in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. My faith in these two conditions enables my confidence in the police and the justice system

But what if, through some unsanctioned racial practices of civic institutions, or just the repeated personal bigotries of individuals, I had reason to believe that neither the presumption of innocence nor due process were regularly extended to me, my race, or my class? How might I respond? How would I interpret a police cruiser coming down my street at night? What response would I have to a police stop and street interrogation if I felt barred from the generous constitutional protections that I now enjoy?

Those questions are not designed to somehow lionize Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the protestors, nor to demonize Darren Wilson or the Staten Island police. Nor do I want to rush to one side or the other in the political debate. In fact, I hope for joint insights from within the coalition of historical conservatives and classical liberals who share a common sensitivity to the tension between the extent of government reach and the regard for personal liberty.

But since my natural disposition is with law enforcement, I realize better than I have in a long while that I must train myself to look at society through the eyes of citizens who have no confidence in the civic protections that, by virtue of my own class and color, I can and do take for granted. Until I can accomplish that I pledge to resist bloviating on what is right or wrong about race relations in America today.


I Am Not The Thing I Was

flastaff george cruikshankI had just come from the division president’s office and was chatting with my peers about who might be filling the newly vacated vice president position in our team.

“Did you get any idea who he was going to get to fill the VP role?” one of my co-workers asked.

“Well, I did actually”, I responded, uncertain how to proceed.

“So who’s it going to be?”

“Uh, as a matter of fact…me.”

At that moment I saw a look that I have seen several times in my career. Former peers, now new subordinates, do instantaneous mental math weighing my glaring capability shortfalls (which they know all too well) against the value of having their friend in a position of greater influence. In most cases the calculation is so quick as to be unnoticeable but be assured it happens. Every time.

Unless you are a founder CEO of your own company or inherit a family business, you will probably advance by being promoted from one position to a more senior one. Each step has its challenges but the hardest? That’s easy. It is any promotion that makes you the new direct manager of your immediate former teammates. One lunchtime you are all out laughing about some dunderhead who is your boss and then the next morning you’ve become that dunderhead.

It is a difficult promotion because of how some on your team might respond. A few may initially display resentment and disappointment feeling that the position should have gone to them. Even a good decision can be frustrating to others. It is important not to apologize for your selection or even to try and make them feel better. Only time and performance can do that. Rather your goal should be to understand their disappointment but point toward their continued importance in your organization in a way that they can reflect back upon positively days or weeks later when they have finally reconciled themselves to your selection.

Far more challenging are those of your former peers who will be intrigued that their confidante and friend is now in a position to know juicy corporate gossip or influence their own advancement. I recall sitting in meetings where sensitive and interesting decisions were being discussed and the temptation to share this with my old team was intense. They, in turn, may press for information from you. It is critical to apply good judgment before sharing details with teammates and always defer toward discretion, even if doing so makes you look aloof and condescending to your buddies. “You’ve changed,” some may complain.

Hope they are right.

Change is a symptom of growth. Literature has given us a great example. Search for inspirational leaders and it won’t be long before you are presented with Shakespeare’s fictionalized King Henry V. During the depiction of the siege of Harfleur Henry rallied his English army against the French with one of the great leadership speeches of the English language. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” he urges:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot.

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry, ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’

And later, outnumbered at Agincourt, Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech inspires his tired army:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother…

These speeches deserve their place in popular leadership books. But in fact, the most intriguing suggestion of King Henry’s character is revealed long before, in a far quieter speech that is rarely remembered by leadership evangelists…but should be.

Before Henry was King, he was Prince Hal, whose public house comrade was old Jack Falstaff, dissipate, carouser and comic relief. Falstaff was Hal’s connection to revelry and irresponsibility. Yet once the crown came to Hal, he needed to lift himself from who he had been and become the King that England required. That meant he could not retain the same relationships in the same fashion as before. Everything had changed.

Upon hearing the news of Hal’s elevation, Falstaff rushes to the new King in hopes of exploiting their long friendship. “The laws of England are at my commandment,” he gloats. But upon meeting face to face Falstaff is stunned to hear his first words from his new monarch:

I know thee not, old man…

Presume not that I am the thing I was…

The speech that follows is both sad and cruel; in it old friend Falstaff is banished. But without it could there have been the later triumph at Agincourt? If not, then perhaps business leadership books might do well to make room among the famous military speeches in Henry V for this more poignant banishment speech at the end of Henry IV, Part 2, for it is the story of Hal’s own “promotion”.

True, most of us won’t lead teams into mortal combat. And most of our former teammates are not conniving old dissipates like John Falstaff, but rather hard working colleagues. Nonetheless, Henry’s example shows us that to become the vocal leader of the mountaintop you first begin by embracing the quiet disciplines of the desktop. Among those quiet disciplines are confidentiality, objectivity, judgment, and adjusting for the responsibility of each new position even if it means a transition in your old relationships.

At any promotion there is a temptation to imply to your team that “I will always be the same old Bob” or “Nothing’s changed. I’m still just Susan.” You aren’t. And whether they know it or not, they don’t really want the same old Prince Hal in a boss. They want and need the best of King Harry.

A Whitman Sampler for Election Day

Walt_WhitmanThere are times when music fits the mood exactly. We all have those songs we reserve for romantic evenings, for long distance runs, for studying or writing. Just because I don’t enjoy military marches sitting alone at home does not mean I want anything less than hearty, full Sousa at Independence Day parades.

Few of us are so literate as to have a similar playlist of poets for each occasion. I certainly do not. There are, however, certain days and certain poets who seem to go together. Tiny doses of Walt Whitman work best for me, but if there is ever a day to enjoy a full portion of the poet-priest of Americana it is on what he called, “America’s choosing day”, the day his beloved national community casts its votes. Just as belief must sometimes overcome priest and church to reunite with the divine, so willing citizens step into the polling booth confessional to reaffirm their faith not in a candidate or a party, but in the democratic process itself.

So here is a Walt Whitman sampler for Election Day, 2014, a gift to partisans on every side. The first two call into question easy obedience; the last reminds us that now, as at the end of the Civil War, a nation must grow through adversity. And sandwiched in between is Whitman’s hymn to Election Day, 1884.


To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.

THOUGHT (1860)

Of obedience, faith, adhesiveness;
As I stand aloof and look there is to me something profoundly affecting in large masses of men following the lead of those who do not believe in men.


If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing
and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—
Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.


Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and
prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing,
grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children
en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse
really are?)

Come in Early or Stay Late?


Once when I was very young executive I worked at a company where the CFO would routinely stay late at the office and complain about colleagues failing to work as long a day as he did. As a role model he would have been more impressive had I not witnessed him spending close to an hour each morning casually reading the newspaper at his desk. If the CFO had to work into the evening to get his job done, I thought, it was his own damn fault.

Of course, back then the work experience was tightly associated with the work place itself. Not so today when much knowledge work is done anywhere. Nonetheless, we all still have some idea of a “work day”, the daily allocation of time and effort devoted to our commercial endeavors. And sometimes there just isn’t enough of it to accomplish an urgent and important responsibility. That is when we have to decide: in order to get it all done do I come in early or stay late? Here is my suggestion:

Come in early.

I have been an early worker my whole life so for me increasing the day on the front end rather than the back end is natural and normal. Most experts suggest we are mentally sharpest 2.5 to 4 hours after waking. But waking and working earlier than normal only brings forward in the day your best mental acuity, it doesn’t necessarily increase it. So why come in early; why not just begin at the usual time and stay until all your work is done?

Many years ago Stan Richards, the legendary Dallas advertising pioneer was interviewed about his work habits and he claimed that flexibility in the work day should come at the start not the end. Whatever your normal work cadence, when you are required by the press of circumstances to add to it, do so at the front end, not the back end.

There are three reasons why:


This was the key for Stan Richards. So long as you believe you can extend your day to whatever length required to finish your work then there is little reason to prioritize the most urgent and important tasks. If the day’s end is indefinite, choosing which task to do next loses its criticality. That is bad.


Related to prioritization, a close-ended day encourages the best use of company human assets. If a senior leader knows that his work day is finite and he has prioritized his tasks well, then the least important of his tasks which absolutely have to be accomplished must be delegated to a presumably less expensive subordinate. Assuming that subordinate is performing the same daily examination of his time, each successive delegation insures through the organization that the most appropriate talent is being invested to each task and each worker is applying his talent only to its highest uses.


Most importantly, deciding in advance to start earlier presupposes an awareness of what must be accomplished during the upcoming work day. If the day can theoretically extend indefinitely beyond its normal close there is less requirement to think much about it beforehand. The fact that we’ve made a thoughtful assessment to start early suggests we’ve also been thoughtful about other components of success: assembling the appropriate resources, gathering required information ahead of time, etc.

Appearances have always rewarded the person who is last to leave the office well after closing time. I am sure that’s what my old CFO thought. But in practice it is a poor routine which mitigates our responsibility to prioritize, delegate and plan. Sometimes it is unavoidable to be sure, even in the best planned scenarios. But I have always been skeptical when I have seen a workplace or an individual manager in which extended workdays are routine.

Go home and have some fun. It is good for you and good for the business.

No Brag. Just Fact.


Everyone knows the boss from hell.

One of the common incarnations is the arrogant narcissist. Even if you haven’t had the misfortune of working for one, you can’t have missed him: Dabney Coleman in 9 to 5, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, any number of Dickens characters. He (or she) is the vain, self-centered manager whose exalted image of himself so misrepresents his limited capabilities as to be unrecognizable.

Recently, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer leveled the narcissist charge against Barack Obama. Such is the nature of our traditional American disdain for public self-love that condemning the President as egotist was itself important enough to engender heated debate from across the partisan spectrum. Narcissism is an “it” topic all of the sudden.

So most professionals strive to avoid behavior that might create the appearance of arrogance. Many choose self-deprecation as the means of doing so. On the surface it’s an attractive alternative particularly to those who, by position or personality, can be intimidating. It certainly smacks of humility. But a manager who is constantly and publicly calling into question his own judgment and performance is hardly more tolerable than the narcissist. I once heard an old Methodist preacher say that “humility is not talking badly about yourself; humility is not talking about yourself at all.” While we tire of the exorbitant, unmerited claims of the narcissist boss we don’t really want to replace it with repetitive self-loathing and self-doubt in our leaders.

What we really want is confidence.

Confidence is to arrogance what humility is to self-deprecation. They are the purer, higher forms of those distorted caricatures. Arrogance and self-deprecation simply cannot co-exist; confidence and humility can and should.

The problem is that it is easy for people who have long worked for narcissists to know. It is harder to recognize it in someone you’ve only recently met and neither is it easy for arrogant managers to spot it in themselves. So here are four telltale signs:

Confidence wants to be surrounded by smarter people; arrogance does not.

They say that if you are the smartest person in the room you are in the wrong room. The confident manager will agree. For him or her it is like playing tennis; you get the best game from playing someone slightly better than you are and you crave those opportunities.

Confidence appreciates dissent; arrogance despises it.

There’s an old adage that if two business colleagues always agree then one of them is unnecessary. When a thoughtful, well-intentioned objection is raised to his ideas the confident manager’s ears perk up; the arrogant manager’s defenses do.

Confidence attracts; arrogance repels.

It is no easy thing to tell a truly arrogant person that he is one, so if you are uncertain about yourself it is probably useless to ask your colleagues. Rather look at your employee retention rate and what interest you generate for positions reporting to you. People want to work around confidence.

Confidence views teaching and learning as two equal obligations.

This is the single surest sign of a truly confident person. He teaches and learns with equal enthusiasm. The confident leader knows that he has much to offer and it is his responsibility to provide insight and direction, but he also knows that he has much yet to learn and is eager for the knowledge and experience of his professional and personal community.

It comes down to the fact that a powerful leader is one who is not only capable, but whose self-image is aligned with that capability, not higher, and not lower. In the 1960’s crusty actor Walter Brennan starred in a short-lived cowboy series called “The Guns of Will Sonnett”. Brennan’s character was the patriarch of a family of accomplished gunslingers. Brennan would calmly insist he was the fastest gun of all with what became the show’s catchphrase:  “No brag. Just fact.”

That’s what we want in our boss, or parent, or leader of any sort. No brag. Just fact.

The Secretary Problem

Secretaries at work circa 1935It isn’t what you think.

The “secretary problem” in this case is the name of a very famous math conundrum originally conceptualized around the best method for hiring a secretary. It has also been called the “sultan’s dowry”, the “marriage problem” or simply the “optimal choice” problem. For the sake of political correctness and to be slightly more up to date, I will just call it…the “speed dating” problem.

Here is my version. Imagine you are engaged in a speed dating exercise with 50 potential matches. You meet each sequentially in random order and immediately after each individual conversation you must decide whether that person is your preferred match. Once you select a person the exercise ends and that is your final choice. Should you move past a candidate to the next suitor that candidate is no longer available to be selected. You can’t go back. So with every disqualification you reduce the remaining pool of potential mates and you cannot know whether there is someone better waiting or whether you are passing up the best available match.

How do you increase the probability of making the best possible selection?

Mathematicians have answered precisely that question with something called “optimal stopping” theory. Optimal stopping in this scenario requires automatically rejecting an initial number of potential dates and then selecting the very next candidate who is better than all the previous ones. Of course, how many potential dates should we initially pass over? Too small a group and we don’t see enough candidates to make a really good comparison, but too many and we may miss all the really hot dates and be left with a small number of only poor suitors at the end. So what is the right number? Mathematicians can easily calculate the stopping point which gives you the very best probabilities. In very large pools, for instance, the optimal stopping point arrives after you have seen approximately 37% of the total pool. Once there, your best odds result from selecting the very next candidate who is better than all the previous ones you have evaluated.

But here is the interesting bit….we don’t do it.

When behavioral scientists study how we actually make selections they have shown that people tend to decide things much too quickly. In a way it is not surprising. Science may coach us to invest more time in thinking, but that notion remains unrewarded in popular culture. Traditionally in business, sports, politics and elsewhere the heroic decision maker is one who chooses with speed and certainty. The more difficult the problem the more we crave the simple quick solution. The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report captured the sense with a recent headline parodying public frustration with America’s cautious response to complex global crises: “Growing Pressure on Obama to Do Something Stupid”.

The general perception is that our consideration aptitude, that willingness and ability to thoughtfully consider alternatives, even those alien to our own biases and instincts, is diminishing. I am constantly aware of the negative impact of my own confirmation bias as I scour the web, read articles and evaluate factual evidence. But what if, as humans, we compound the bias problem by consciously or unconsciously choosing not to invest the time and effort to be truly thoughtful? Like rearing children, nurturing good judgment takes both quality time and quantity time.

In the early 17th century, the German astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, confronted a variation of The Secretary Problem when he undertook the process of deciding on his second wife. His first wife, Barbara, had died of illness and Kepler chose to pursue the selection of a new wife with the same mathematical scrutiny that he had successfully used to plot planetary motion. Kepler selected 11 ladies and, over a two year period examined their suitability in succession.

Alas, even Kepler was not immune to process flaws. After selecting Candidate Five, Susanna Reuttinger, he was talked out of the engagement by friends and family who convinced him that Candidate Four was truly the better choice. Happily, it turns out, Four was, by that time, no longer available for marriage so Kepler returned his affections back to Susanna who, he said, won him over with love, loyalty economy and diligence. By all accounts it was a wonderfully happy marriage.

It is a good reminder. Too often our culture heralds the quick choices made by soft heads with hard hearts, those who think sloppily and cannot tolerate contradiction. Give me the Keplers, hard headed and soft hearted citizens, persons whose thoughts are disciplined, who give ample time to consideration, and who make space for their souls to be spoken to.

They will usually find their way to a good decision.



For those who better understand math, here is an interesting review of the history of The Secretary Problem: Thomas Ferguson’s 1969 article, “Who Solved the Secretary Problem?” in Statistical Science:

Stress Management for Dummies

marcks2At a recent visit to the National WWII Museum I came across a “Rupert’, the nickname given to the small decoys parachuted into France during the D-Day invasion to lure the Germans away from the actual landing sites. Ruperts were often simple molded forms or stuffed cloth figures, only around two feet tall. Some 500 of the paradummies were dropped into enemy territory at the time of the Normandy invasion and they are credited with at least briefly drawing key German units away from the real Allied landing zones.

Examining a Rupert close up in the museum I could only wonder how anyone would have been fooled by these unassuming miniature caricatures of real infantrymen. They looked more like rag dolls than soldiers. Yet experts suggest that observers on the ground who might see them dropping from planes at a distance would have no reference point in the bare sky with which to judge their actual size. Without some visual comparison to gauge them by, these two foot dummies could easily be confused with real six foot paratroopers or, for that matter, ten foot giants.

I thought about Ruperts just the other day as I was anxious over several simultaneous challenges at work. Were they full sized catastrophes in the making or really only two foot imposters? My answer required some rule by which to assess how tall a particular challenge might be, and whether it was life-sized at all.

Let me suggest a measuring stick that I often use.

During executive coaching, I often tell managers who are trying to prioritize their time to draw a 2×2 matrix diagram on a sheet of paper. On the x axis is a task’s degree of importance and on the Y axis is the degree of urgency. Then take your activities and plot them into one of the quadrants: urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent and those activities that may be neither important nor urgent. Now this in itself is a demanding and subtle exercise that forces us to continuously redefine “importance”. But the very act of placing the components of your “to-do” list within this context gives a sense of order to your planning.

But when problems from work, or children, or school or life in general are descending on you like enemy paratroopers there is even a tougher exercise that I often recommend.

Create another matrix diagram, only this time the X axis is degree of potential harm and the Y axis is degree of tractability. How bad are the possible consequences of a problem and how much of an impact can I have on it? The challenges and stress-inducing problems that you face each day can then be sent to one of the quadrants: harmful and unyielding, mostly harmless and unyielding, mostly harmless and yielding, and harmful and yielding. Those in the mostly harmless quadrants? They are your Ruperts and they are only two feet tall.

One common way to increase stress is to spend too much emotional energy on challenges that pose no real, long term danger. Doing so also deprives attention from truly serious problems that are less tractable and therefore require extended effort. When problems come in droves or when we are tired and worn down it is easy to be fooled into seeing giants everywhere.

There is no magic to using these little tools. Determining which problems are relatively more harmful and tractable than others is neither scientific nor does the exercise represent a complete inventory of prioritization criteria. It is very difficult indeed to truly know what is important and what isn’t. For example, how would you classify a decision that will likely never go wrong but if it did, the impact would be catastrophic? It is hard to do. Nonetheless we profit from the attempt, and the little matrix diagrams can become handy guides for where best to invest your energy.

Each mo15._ed._dummy_paratroopers__500_were_dropped_on_Calais_on_the_eve_of_D-Day_featurerning for decades I have taken a piece of paper and listed out all of my upcoming activities and tasks. Where I listed them on the page was roughly equivalent to which of the four quadrants of the first matrix they fell into. I was in effect, redoing my own personal task assessment every single morning.

And when it felt like the sky was full of enemy paratroopers, the second matrix was often just enough to keep me mindful of which concerns were full size threats and which were simply Ruperts drawing my attention from the real battle.

It was either learn that or just treat everything as a crisis. But who’d be the dummy then?

Goodbye Football

22526A few weeks ago a friend posed a thoughtful question along these lines: “what cultural practices are we engaged in now that, when we look back on them in a few decades, we will regret having taken part in?” It is difficult to conceive that slavery was once an accepted part of our community, and a century ago a majority of the population was content that women could not vote. What will we be similarly embarrassed about in coming decades? There are lots of large and small candidates.

My own vote was football.

I enjoy watching football; it is the only sport to which I routinely pay attention. The combination of strategy and execution in each game, even the various off-season moves capture me. I like the draft, the signings, the personalities, the controversies. But over the last few seasons I have been unable to escape the violence.

Football has always been about large fast objects changing the direction of other last fast objects to advance the ball. But recently, for me at least, the pure physics of the sport has surrendered to a growing brutality in its execution. Football today seems less like chess and more like assault. We appear to be on the cusp of a widespread diagnosis of lingering brain trauma among players whose bodies have been pummeled by larger men hitting them at greater speeds. Signs that these players may have been, and may still be, at risk must not be understated by the sport’s governors or, by extension, fans like me. It is sad that commentators now routinely suggest that it is not the best teams that have playoff or bowl success but rather the ones that have been least ravaged by serious injury during the season.

Off-field violence among players has appeared to increase raising concerns that the brute passion so useful within the field of play, is bursting the confines of the game and making its way into player domestic relationships, sports celebrity expectations, and popular culture itself.

The observation that football players are America’s gladiators is unoriginal. But ancient Rome had as complicated a relationship to its gladiators as America does with its quarterbacks and linebackers. The gladiatorial code spoke to bravery and honor, even in death, values the Empire largely revered, and the original contests were usually ceremonial and commemorative events.  But the gladiator spectacles gradually became costlier, more self-indulgent and cruel, no longer linked to a shared value but instead cynical political entertainment exploiting the bloodlust of the crowd until the advent of Christianity as the Empire’s state religion dulled the appeal of the contests in the 4th and early 5th centuries.

American football is not the same. It does not applaud cruelty. Not yet anyway. But it is now a costly, indulgent, powerful commercial spectacle increasingly associated with violence, on and off field, and unless the game itself can recover its soul we fans will demean ourselves when our passion as spectators requires these men and boys to forfeit their physical and mental health, shorten their lives, and restrict to the field of play that cultivated aggression without which they cannot achieve athletic success.

Perhaps I will discover that the incidence of domestic and other physical violence among football players is no higher than other similarly situated populations, and possibly we will learn that the rate of head trauma has been overstated and the game can be made safer than it currently appears. I hope so, because local sports loyalty is one of the few remaining unifying, democratic, non-partisan endeavors and football still rules local sports loyalty.

But I am not going to wait. This year I have chosen a tiny little private boycott. I will not watch the live broadcast of any professional game. This is not a moral crusade; I won’t avert my eyes from football reporting during the local sportscast, and I’m not recruiting for a big cultural movement. I’ll still read the NFL coverage every week and even give myself a free pass for the Super Bowl. But until then I deliberately refuse to watch a game live until I can convince myself that decades from now I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren, without shame, that I did so. I do this not because I don’t like football but rather because I like it very much.

As I related my intentions recently someone said “if the Cowboys are 6-2 at midpoint of the season we’ll see if you keep your promise.” It’s a good point.

But I just don’t think that’s a big risk this year….

1000 Donuts

originalOne of the best sales engagements I ever experienced was also one of the worst.

Every morning before work I visit a convenience store in the shopping center not far from my house to pick up a cup of coffee. Through fifteen years of visits this location, part of a large national convenience store chain, has always been a consistent, proficient, friendly place. And I love the coffee.

One morning a few years ago, shortly before Christmas, I was surprised by an unusual intensity of excitement among the regular Monday morning store staff. They roamed the aisles like eager press-gangs in search of new conscripts and before long one of the clerks had me cornered.

“We’re going for the record on Friday. Can you come in and buy a donut to help us?”

The record, as it was related to me by the eager young man, appeared to be some global achievement for one day single store donut sales. I was intrigued.

He went on to explain, “Apparently some mosque in Virginia did, like, 875 donuts in a single day, so corporate said we’re going to try and break the record.”

Now I was becoming a little skeptical. I doubted very much that the worldwide single day donut record was held by a mosque, however motivating that might be to American jingoists fearful of a confectionary jihad. If there were really such a record I think it more likely that it was set one Sunday morning by some lucky donut store next to a Baptist megachurch in Alabama. I was pretty sure my young salesman had either seriously misheard or was simply making stuff up.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday and Wednesday the store hubbub amplified.

“Don’t forget Friday; we’re going for the record; we need everyone to come in for donuts.”

Store staff hummed from one customer to another like bees pollinating new blossoms. Their mission was all encompassing and, I have to admit, it was becoming exciting. Despite the fact that I was very blurry on exactly what we were striving for, I found myself becoming emotionally committed to helping them make their goal. As I looked around I could tell my fellow regular customers were feeling the same way.

That night I told my wife that I needed her to drive to the convenience store on Friday and buy a donut.

By Thursday store activity was at a fever pitch but there was also some challenging new information.

“Corporate told us that they were wrong and the record was 1000 donuts not 875,” another clerk related, “so we’ve got to do 1000. Don’t forget to come in tomorrow. We’re going to need everyone to buy donuts.”

By this time I had no idea whether the contest goal had actually changed overnight, or whether the original challenge had simply gotten mangled as it worked its way down the increasingly passionate chain of employees on the shop floor.

No matter. We had to break the record.

Friday morning came and the store was packed. Boxes of donuts were stacked against the walls and regular customers who might normally purchase a single donut were buying dozens for all their co-workers. There were lines ten deep at each cash register and customers who might only come by once or twice a week made a special effort to show up that morning. We were all on the mission to buy 1000 donuts even though none of us knew exactly why.

In retrospect, of course, this was a terrible sales effort. These were not the best donuts in the country; heck, they were not even the best donuts in our neighborhood, nor were they the cheapest. The sales story surrounding the alleged “world record” was so riddled with misinformation it bordered on offensive. But here I was driving to work with not one but two blueberry cake donuts. Why?

For one thing, donuts are not complex and can be purchased with a small discretionary spend making them perfect for a spontaneous response to an emotional appeal; it was easy for me and the other regulars to participate. But with my two little carbohydrate mementos nestled on the seat beside me, I had to wonder if there was not something more to it.

Three possibilities came to mind:

Enthusiasm is contagious. It is no substitute for a good product or service, but genuine sales passion gives that good service special timbre in the ears of the customer.

History means something. I wanted my convenience store to succeed in large part because of their long history of treating me well as a customer. They earned it.

Everyone likes a mission. I like being involved in something bigger than myself and the store gave me a mission. It is no wonder that “movement marketing” is becoming so widespread; it taps a strong need within us to join a community in a greater endeavor.

In the end, as it turned out, there was no donut world record. The corporate challenge had, all along, been simply to exceed that chain’s single store record within the Dallas/Fort Worth region. That message had gotten bungled up in all the local fervor to over-achieve.

But I didn’t mind at all. Once again, life had offered up some wonderful lessons which I only hope I remember. Of course, how could I forget; each day when I step up to pay for my coffee I can look up at a bronze plaque on the wall behind the cashier which reads:



We did it.

Failure is Overrated

painting-phaethonSince there are not many sports that reward kids who are weak, slow and inattentive, I learned at an early age that my athletic aspirations had no future. That’s fine; it hurt but I accepted that and moved on to more rewarding activities.

It is probably just as well that as a school boy I did not have access to the innumerable failure- embracing books and magazine articles floating about today with titles like “What If The Secret To Success Is Failure?”, “Why Failure Is Good For Success”, “Celebrating Failure”, “Failing Forward” and so on. I am not sure what misapprehensions I might have drawn.

Individually, most of these articles are well-intentioned and helpful, suggesting that failure builds character and insight. Specifically in the entrepreneurial context failure is heralded as an inevitable marker of risk takers, which it certainly is. Of course, if that is the case then what we are really celebrating is risk-taking, not failure. Who wouldn’t prefer an employee who never failed as long as they continued to take risks? By comparison someone who always fails and still takes risks is commonly called foolhardy and shown the door.

But when taken all together, what is a little dangerous in this enthusiasm for screwing up is that these popular articles may cause us to misunderstand the distinction between failure’s helpful lessons and failure itself. In so doing we risk undermining the very consequences of underperformance so necessary for us to learn from it. The common complaint one hears from line managers in large organizations is that there is “no accountability” which is code for no one senior in the company routinely suffers adverse circumstances from lack of execution or poor decision-making. Like the no-score movement in youth sports, no one “loses”. An institutional indifference to personal execution is bad enough, but now add to it a misguided admiration for failure and we begin to create a perverse incentive.

A “perverse incentive” is an instance where you are actually rewarded for doing poorly. There are occasions where this serves a purpose. For example the NFL draft process is a perverse incentive. The teams with the worst records are rewarded with the opportunity to draft the best new players. It makes sense because the league requires long term competitive parity in order to remain attractive to its customers. But for most of us perverse incentives are just that, perverse, and we have to remind ourselves of that as we begin extolling grand failures.

Failing is simply not good, but if you do fail, then learn its lessons well. But the truly important lessons from failing require the experience of its negative consequences. The good part of failure is surviving it. Rob failure of its consequences, its sting, and you rob it of its ability to teach. If we discount the consequences of failure, we remove the necessity of wisdom in making good decisions. The Greek mythic character, Phaethon, boldly took the reins of the sun-chariot and drove it across the sky. But when he lost control Zeus obliterated him rather than allow the earth to be burned up by the unrestrained chariot of fire. Take away Zeus’ thunderbolt and we draw a distorted lesson from the story of Phaethon.

But when we talk of failure imprecisely we often diminish the thunderbolt. I suspect that we do so simply because, as experienced managers, colleagues, parents, friends, we recognize around us the oft-divorced connection between work and consequences. How often have we seen excellent efforts come to naught due to uncontrollable quirks of life or outside circumstances. How can we not recognize and applaud the struggle even if the outcome disappoints? So we diminish the taint of failure to accommodate the vagaries of modern cause and effect.

Can I suggest another solution?

Several years ago I was at a company event when I saw one particular manager who had spent months engaged in a complex and difficult pursuit with one of the world’s largest petroleum companies. We were supposed to hear the coming week whether our company was the successful bidder for this large book of new business. I nodded and greeted him as I walked past but then, I turned back and walked up to him.

“I think it is important for you to know that I believe you have done a fantastic job running this pursuit. I desperately hope we win, but I want you to know that whatever happens this week, I am proud to be associated with the kind of project you managed on our behalf.”

Rather than awkwardly accommodating unsuccessful results after the fact, congratulate your colleague on his noteworthy effort before the outcome is known. That way you avoid gratuitous consolation, you recognize the chasm between cause and effect, but you do not diminish the obvious and important consequences of failure. Rather you genuinely align yourself with your colleague and with those consequences, be what they may.


Application 1: Search for someone you know…an employee doing great work on a difficult project, a child finishing a hard school assignment or a friend or family member preparing for a physical or mental challenge. If their performance is outstanding, let them know before the outcome is clear, that you admire and appreciate the quality of their effort. Then allow the consequences themselves to teach the hard or easy lessons.

Application 2: Memorize a little Shakespeare:

Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon, wanting in the manage of unruly jades.”

This is King Richard II’s sorrowful exclamation as he faces usurpation and death. After a major putz-up, remembering it has helped me to place my own situation squarely in the great historical continuum of failures. Or, shock your colleagues and recite it aloud in your best Derek Jacobi voice to begin the meeting in which you have to explain a major screw-up. I haven’t tried that yet!