My John Lewis story

John Lewis made his mark by getting into what he called “good trouble”. He sat in the front row when told to go to the back. He kept going forward when told to stop. He defied authority when that authority defied the promise of justice and equal opportunity. His boldness and courage in the pursuit of a more just society helped move our nation forward.

I first saw him in person in a crowded Congressional committee hearing room in 1987. He had just been elected to his first term in Congress and was the talk of Capitol Hill for his stunning upset victory over Julian Bond in the Democratic primary. Everyone expected Bond to win that seat. He was handsome and charismatic and was anointed as a rising political superstar by the pundits. During that campaign Lewis was rightly lauded as a civil rights hero, but he was considered unpolished and not telegenic enough for the hip political crowd. But he won and started a career in Congress that would span more than three decades.

I was a new Congressional Legislative Assistant that winter, working on the staff of another Georgia Congressman, Buddy Darden. Buddy was a great boss and became a mentor for me. He had entrusted me with managing his assignments on the House Interior Committee. That morning when I first saw Mr. Lewis I was seated behind my boss in the staff section of the National Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee hearing room.

I thought I was something. I was 22-years-old and had a Congressional staff ID. I could come and go throughout the Capitol complex and enter committee hearings through the restricted entrance with the members of Congress.

I don’t remember what issue the committee was taking up, but the hearing that day must have been a big deal because the room was packed. There was standing room only, with people jammed all the way against the door at the back. Shortly after the hearing had begun, Mr. Vento from Minnesota, the subcommittee chairman, stopped the proceedings after noticing that Mr. Lewis, the newest member of the subcommittee, was standing in the very back of the room behind the crowd of lobbyists and reporters who couldn’t get a seat.

Seeming a bit flummoxed to see a subcommittee member quietly standing with the overflow crowd in his own hearing room, Mr. Vento called to Mr. Lewis to come through the crowd and take his seat on the dais with the subcommittee. The people standing in the back, realizing what was going on, parted to make way for him to come through to the front to join the hearing.

It was clear that Mr. Lewis did not want to impose or intrude, to push through to his rightful place. He was new enough to not know to use the “Members Only” entrance behind the committee table. His reluctance to exert his authority and his obvious lack of self-importance was a bracing and refreshing contrast to what I had already noticed in so many members of Congress in my short time on the Hill.

This man who had famously defied authority for the sake of those without power, was now the one with power. But here he was, the epitome of humility and gentleness in a place that seems to run on the fuel of ego.

That moment in the hearing room has remained with me. Over the next four years of my time working on Capitol Hill I got to see Mr. Lewis in action frequently. He eventually discovered the members entrance, but he never ceased to be kind and never acted like the big deal everyone knew him to be.

(I got to drive him to the airport once when my boss found out he was going to take the subway there one Saturday, and my boss offered that I could take him instead. Mr. Lewis didn’t want to impose on any of his staff on the weekend, but I was thrilled to have the honor to drive him.)

Since his death last week, I have seen many similar stories shared about Mr. Lewis. His strength of character, his courage, and his boldness in noble causes mark him as a true American hero and convict me and challenge me to be better and do more. But his gentle way and humble kindness made just as much of an impression on me.

I’ve found much value in having icons of greatness to guide my thinking and actions. Lincoln was my first childhood hero, and I have favored biography and history in my reading to cull what wisdom I could from lives of distinction. It’s good to have your own Mt. Rushmore of noble men and women carved into your consciousness, to remind you of the kind of character you want to possess. That moment in the hearing room with John Lewis continues to remind me of the humility that marks the bearing of those who are truly great.

I am thankful for the brief, ennobling encounters I had with Mr. Lewis and for the large difference his life has made on our nation and in the cause of human decency everywhere.

Tell less, ask more

A haiku from the author Michael Bungay Stanier summarizing his book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way Your Lead Forever:

“Tell less and ask more.

Your advice is not as good

As you think it is.”

I need to print this and put it in a frame on my desk always in sight when I’m talking to people in my office. I’m prone to jump straight to what I think are solutions or helpful stories.

“That reminds me of a story…”

I’m becoming that guy.

Default to listening, not talking. Sit out the awkward gaps in conversation and wait.

Ask, “What’s on your mind?” Then keep at it by following up with “And what else?”

Leadership and friendship and human connection of any sort are all better served by sincere efforts to understand instead of attempting to be understood.

Conversations aren’t contests: Good listening is more than just waiting your turn to speak

Adam Grant recently tweeted a link to this Harvard Business Review article, What Great Listeners Actually Do. It’s based on research on what truly effective listeners consistently do.

Excellent listeners don’t just listen quietly, nod occasionally, and summarize what was just said. Instead, they engage and ask thoughtful, encouraging questions. The research suggests being a trampoline, not a sponge:

While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

It’s not about simply politely waiting your turn to speak while giving the impression that you’re trying to understand the other person.

I know I think I’m pretty good at nodding and seeming engaged while in my brain I’m crafting what I’m going to say when it’s my turn to talk.

I have the best conversations, though, when I’m genuinely present, when I listen to truly understand without much thought given to being understood myself.

Most of us probably think we are better listeners than we actually are. What most of us are good at, though, is appearing to be good listeners.

Listening takes effort and discipline. Next time you’re face to face with someone, ramp up your focus. Tune in as closely as you can to the other person. Ask excellent questions as you attempt to get at what they mean and where they’re coming from.

Be a trampoline that enhances the energy they’re giving you and takes you both to a higher level of understanding and connection.

 

Going for it on fourth down, every time

I’ve posted about maverick Arkansas high school football coach Kevin Kelley before, and now Andy Staples of SI writes about seeing his team, the Pulaski Academy Bruins, in person where they ended the opponent’s 84-game home winning streak.

Kelley’s team is famous for going for it on almost every 4th-down, opting for onsides kicks on every kickoff, and now building laterals into many of their passing plays. Here’s Staples’s take on why this is so successful:

The Bruins don’t win because they don’t punt or because they attempt onside kicks every time or because their receivers routinely lateral on plays that aren’t the last one of the game. They win because of the attitude Kelley’s approach instills on Pulaski Academy’s sideline and the mindset it instills on the other sideline. The Bruins always play as if they’re down 10 with 90 seconds to go. Think about all the points you’ve seen scored in that type of situation. The offense plays as if it has nothing to lose. The defense tightens, playing to protect the lead rather than to advance the cause. That’s every minute of every Pulaski Academy game.

Wouldn’t you love to play on a team with that kind of bold philosophy? Wouldn’t you love to work on a team with a disregard for convention, with an attitude of curiosity and boldness that defies the caution that restrains most organizations?

The safe thing is to do what everyone else does: Build a resume that looks like everyone else’s. Produce work like everyone else does. Avoid artistic risks and leaps of faith. Accept the conventional wisdom and common assumptions because they’re conventional and common and safe.

But caution is the devil.

What if you had the courage to go for it on fourth down regularly, to try the uncommon path, to follow your reason and your creativity in a different direction altogether?

There is a lot of elbow room out on the edges. Not many have the chutzpah to go there. The competition for average levels of success is way stiffer than it is for extraordinary success because so few aim that high. It seems counterintuitive, but it might be easier for you to achieve a crazy, scary dream than to achieve the safe, sanitized middle class American dream.

Even if you regularly fall short when you defy convention, you’ll have a lot more fun than if you had just followed along with the crowd. And you’ll be strengthening your courage muscles and making yourself even more willing to be bold.

Don’t punt. Go for it.

The guardian

Solid insight from @garrytan:

Steve Jobs was that guardian for Apple. He was ruthlessly protective of the experience Apple products provided for their customers. 

Walt Disney was all about “plussing” and relentlessly improving the Disney experience. 

This article about Stephen Colbert shows he’s personally overseeing even very small details about his reinvention of The Late Show. 

My friend Kevin was telling me today that Taylor Swift is like that with her concerts. 

Committees and bureaucracy are more likely to offer safe but unexceptional products and services. 

A singular and determined voice is usually generating and guiding the very best work. 

Tim Cook on Steve Jobs and the values that drive Apple

Fast Company has an exclusive interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook that is filled with quote-worthy insights.

Cook, an Auburn University graduate from Mobile, Alabama, has always come across to me as a genuinely good guy. Very smart and driven and hard-working, of course, but a regular, unassuming nice person who just happens to run the most impressive and wealthiest and coolest company in the world. As a fellow southerner and a delighted Apple customer, I especially enjoy hearing Cook’s southern drawl as the voice of a company that’s changing the world like few others ever have.

Cook earned his reputation at the company for his brilliant corralling of logistics and resources to build a staggeringly robust sytem for manufacturing all those iPods and iPhones and Macs. Steve Jobs was the product visionary and shaper of a uniquely innovative company culture, but it was Cook who was resonsible for making sure those dreams could be made and shipped.

Cook will never match Jobs as a cultural icon. But that doesn’t seem to be his aim.

Here’s Cook on lessons learned from Jobs:

Steve felt that most people live in a small box. They think they can’t influence or change things a lot. I think he would probably call that a limited life. And more than anybody I’ve ever met, Steve never accepted that.

He got each of us [his top executives] to reject that philosophy. If you can do that, then you can change things. If you embrace that the things that you can do are limitless, you can put your ding in the universe. You can change the world.

That was the huge arc of his life, the common thread. That’s what drove him to have big ideas. Through his actions, way more than any preaching, he embedded this nonacceptance of the status quo into the company.

That is great leadership. Clearly, Cook and those who worked with Jobs were infected by his approach, his “nonacceptance of the status quo”, his razor sharp focus on transformational ideas and products, and a relentless commitment to constant improvement.

And, with Apple, as with all great organizations, it keeps coming back to culture.

Here’s Cook’s response when asked about conveying the Apple culture within the company:

I don’t think of it as systematizing, but there are a number of things that we do, starting with employee orientation. Actually, it starts before that, in interviews. You’re trying to pick people that fit into the culture of the company. You want a very diverse group with very diverse life experiences looking at every problem. But you also want people to buy into the philosophy, not just buy in, but to deeply believe in it.

Then there’s employee orientation, which we do throughout the company all over the world. And then there’s Apple U., which takes things that happened in the past and dissects them in a way that helps people understand how decisions were made, why they were made, how successes occurred, and how failures occurred. All of these things help.

Ultimately, though, it’s on the company leaders to set the tone. Not only the CEO, but the leaders across the company. If you select them so carefully that they then hire the right people, it’s a nice self-fulfilling prophecy.

Apple recently has allowed the media more access to it’s top people than I can ever recall. The interview with Cook is thorough and interesting throughout and well worth reading whether you care about technology or not.

Pick a path and get moving

A thought worth considering from Donald Miller’s memoir about relationships, Scary Close:

“I wonder if what might help couples build great families is to pick a place for their family to go and then hit the gas, to work toward their vision and build it out. Relationships have a way of stabilizing when in motion. Until then, they just feel like a road trip to nowhere.”

A direction to go in and action to move you in that direction can invigorate not just a couple or a family, but an organization or an individual. Even if you’re not completely sure which direction to pursue, just start. Pick a path you wouldn’t mind pursuing and get moving. You can then course correct as necessary.

Just existing in a relationship or an organization or a life without direction and motion will suck the energy from everyone involved.

Band camp and intrinsic rewards

I was in the marching band in high school. Trumpet and French horn. I was no great musician, but I especially enjoyed the camaraderie. During the summer we all had to participate in band camp, where we learned the music and the show we would perform at football games and in competitions. (There was no actual camping, by the way. Not sure why it was called a camp.)

It was tedious and hot. Georgia-in-August hot. Putting the show in during the first days of camp took a lot of do-overs as everyone was learning where to go and when. After the band director would stop the show to correct something, we were then exhorted to hurry back to the sideline of the field to start over.

Well, it was hot. And tedious. And most teenagers in August who were waking up early maybe for the first time all summer are inclined to move slowly as they do this hard thing. And the director and the band officers would implore everyone to hurry, to run to get back to the starting point. It was mostly a futile effort getting a hundred high school students to run in the August heat across a dusty field.

I, however, was that kid who made a game out of it. I put a smile on my face and raced back across the field to the line every time, cheering and acting silly as I passed by many of my fellow band members. If I was going to have be out in the heat of an August day in Georgia doing this band practice, I might as well try to have fun.

If I’ve got a choice (and I do), I’m going to choose to be happy. And sprinting across the field at band camp while joking with friends made the tedium less tedious and added a dash of fun. I hoped to make someone else smile along the way as well. There were always a few of us who chose to make it fun.

Not many of my classmates, though, chose a similar response. Most dragged their feet and complained the whole way back to the line. Getting the band back in place to start over was a chore every time.

One day the director gathered the band up as practice was starting and offered a challenge. He would give fast food gift cards to those band members who showed the most spirit and energy running back to the line that day.

Well, every time we stopped and had to start over that day, the whole band went crazy, running back to the line with hyped up glee, yelling and cheering. One of my friends, who could have been the poster boy for the feet-dragging whiners previously, was all of a sudden Mr. Spirit, whooping and running each time we had a do-over.

Almost everyone seemed to be responding to this new motivational tactic. Except, it seemed to have the opposite effect on me. I hurried back, but not with my usual enthusiasm. Now, with a prize at stake, my motivation was gone. I didn’t want to be seen as faking it just to get some free food. And I did not win a spirit award that day. My friend, Mr. Spirit, did.

I remember feeling perplexed by my response. Why had I been bothered by the reward? Why was that enough to tone down my enthusiasm?

The reward for me previously had been an intrinsic one. It was the fun I had doing the thing. But when the reward was a free hamburger and being acknowledged in front of my peers, I put the brakes on. I didn’t understand the psychology then, but I now know that the extrinsic inducement sabotaged my motivation that day.

The next day at band camp there were no more gift cards to be awarded. And everyone went back to business as usual, with just the usual few choosing to delight in running back to the line just for the sake of it, not for any prizes. Those rewards had a very limited impact.

I know there is research now showing that extrinsic rewards turn out to have limited success and work primarily for tasks requiring a low level of mental and emotional investment. Bonuses and prizes and other external payoffs just don’t have the impact and staying power that everyone assumes.

Intrinsic rewards, though, are where the real juice is, especially for higher level work and organizational excellence. Finding how to tap those for yourself and those you lead can open possibilities for deep satisfaction and exceptional performance.

Check out Dan Pink’s TED Talk explaining what he discovered about the power of intrinsic motivation.

 

Unconventional wisdom

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” –Mark Twain

Running with the crowd may feel safe, but it shouldn’t make you feel comfortable.

The bold ideas, the original and courageous convictions, are most often at odds with popular opinion and conventional wisdom.

“When 99 percent of people doubt your ideas, you’re either completely wrong or about to make history.” –Scott Belsky

Shine for someone

I found this anecdote a while back:

“Maya Angelou was once asked what was her secret to being such a good writer and poet. Her response was, ‘Because when I was a little girl, every time I walked into a room my daddy’s eyes lit up.’”

I can’t trace it to an interview with Maya Angelou or verify it’s her story, but it rings true for me and seems to fit what I know of her. Every person is unique and has the gift of their never-to-be-duplicated presence to offer. But that sense of worth needs nurturing, and the potential for a truly radiant spirit and creative gift can be quashed without regular doses of encouragement and eye-shining love.

Whose eyes have shined for you? Who has given you the courage to be your best, to dare to be more than even you have imagined?

My parents, my grandmother, my sister. They all made me feel like I was special. My wife has the most amazing eyes of anyone I’ve ever seen, and I was smitten on our first date when she shined those gorgeous blue eyes on me with as much delight and focused attention as I’d ever known, as if I were, at that moment, the most interesting man in the world.

And when I’m giving a presentation, I live for those in the audience who smile back at me, who nod and engage from where they are. Who laugh at my humor, or fake it just to be kind. And I want to be that kind of person for someone else when I’m in an audience.

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people offer me encouragement throughout my life. Who do you need to appreciate for the encouragement you’ve received? Who have been your biggest fans?

And who gets the gift of your shining eyes? Who do you light up for? Whose fire can you warm yourself at?

I want to regularly light up for my wife and daughters and for the people I work with and for strangers who cross my path. It’s easy to take for granted the people we see often. But those closest to us deserve to be reminded that we are grateful for their presence.

It takes courage to express enthusiasm when “meh” is the prevailing sentiment.

Most human interactions are self-absorbed and monotonously sterile. Genuine enthusiasm and delight and focused attention seem shocking by comparison, and it takes courage to express enthusiasm when “meh” is the prevailing sentiment. But don’t you grow a little bigger inside when someone lights up at your presence?

Have the courage to be encouraging, to embolden those you encounter. Give your complete attention to the person in front of you. Genuinely connect with the random people you see and may never see again as well as with the people in your life every day. Be known for the energizing effect you have just for the delight you take in acknowledging the presence of others.

Get excited and allow your eyes to light up when others walk in the room. Shine for someone.

The elevator pitch, the tweet, and clarity of purpose

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 4.08.29 PM

Can you pitch your idea or make your point in the length of an elevator ride? That’s been a long-standing and effective thought experiment to help determine if you’ve thought clearly enough about your plan and can articulate it simply and quickly.

So, if you’re working on a speech or a business idea or a movie script or trying to start a movement to change the world, consider the elevator test.

Imagine you’re giving a talk at a conference. A fellow attendee gets on the elevator with you and sees the “Presenter” ribbon on your name badge. He lets you know he’s tempted to escape the conference during your session and go play golf or take a nap and asks what he would miss from your talk. What would be your response? What will your talk accomplish that would be of value to this wayward golfer? What will offer him enough value to make him delay his escape and stay for your presentation?

If you can’t come up with a short simple statement of your intended purpose and one that offers something of value to the prospective audience member, you need to go back to the beginning and rethink just why it is you’re doing this presentation. Or starting a business. Or writing a screenplay. Or starting a movement.

Or, instead of an elevator pitch, my 21st-century, connected friends, consider the challenge of tweeting, in 140 characters or less, your purpose, your mission, your goal. Can you say in just a few words, within the constraints of a tweet, what you hope to accomplish? If not, get busy asking “Why?” and hone and sharpen your thinking to come up with as clear and simple a statement as you can.

Here, for example, in tweet form (and exactly 140 characters thanks to the added hashtag and a stray space, because I’m just OCD enough), is my aim for a talk I’m giving this week to a couple of college classes:
Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 4.08.54 PM

So many companies and organizations have some committee created mission statement that is either unknown and ignored or is so unwieldy as to be meaningless. What if your mission statement was tweetable and so direct and clear that everyone in the organization knew it and connected with it?

Imagine tweeting your own life’s purpose or the values and goals of your family. Not that you need to actually get on Twitter and post these things, but the effort to zero in on a crystal clear statement on the key “Why’s” in your life potentially can lead you to unparalleled clarity and action.

Five C’s of leadership

Kevin and Melissa, two of the university students I work with, are taking a leadership class and were assigned to ask questions about leadership. They both had this question for me: “What are the characteristics of an effective leader?”

“Effective” is subject to interpretation. Gengis Khan was effective… in conquering, destroying, and subjugating, but he was a heck of a leader, as were many violent tyrants throughout history.

For this purpose, however, let’s assume effective has a threshold of moral propiety that makes no room for obvious bad behavior or world domination.

Leadership is not a topic I’ve explored with much intention. I’ve always felt like I’ve known it when I’ve seen it, and, more commonly, been very aware where it’s lacking. As I pondered this question from my students, though, some key attributes came to mind. (And after I thought of the first couple, I couldn’t resist continuing with alliteration. Hence, five “C’s”.)

Here’s what I see or hope to see in the most honorable and effective leaders:

Clarity – Effective leaders have a clear vision of the big picture and can communicate with clarity the “why” of an organization or business or movement. “Why?” comes first, and if a leader hasn’t asked and can’t answer that question about the endeavor they’re hoping to lead, they still may be leading effectively but in a completely wrong direction.

Caring – A good leader cares deeply about the mission and the people involved and all the “how’s” and “what’s” necessary for excellence. The leader cares about even small details, about the process as much as (if not more than) the outcome. The intrinsic rewards of a job well done, of creating something of value and quality, outweigh any extrinsic rewards.

Competence – Mastery inspires confidence. We will follow someone who is clearly competent in their abilities, who knows their stuff. Teammates will rally around someone who is committed to excellence and demonstrates extraordinary competence, even if that person has not been entrusted with any official leadership role.

Character – The authentic person of integrity, who treats everyone with fairness and is impeccable with their actions, that person is a leader I want to follow. A leader of character will be wholly themselves regardless of the circumstances or the people around them. And trust is the most valuable asset an effective leader has to offer.

Compassion – A leader I admire is one who is kind and compassionate and who treats everyone with respect regardless of position or title. She is quick to forgive, eager to reconcile, and open to listening to and understanding even, or especially, divergent viewpoints.

My favorite description of a master leader comes from the Tao te Ching, one of the most profound books of wisdom:

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”

You don’t need to be offered a promotion or run for office to be a leader. Be the CEO of your cubicle or your desk. Lead yourself. Act like you are who you want to be and embody the attributes that lead to an excellent life well lived.