Follow by Example


Why do we use phrases like “if you’re not a leader, you’re a follower” and “be a leader, not a follower?” Why is being a follower so bad? Captain Kirk could never have boldly gone where no one had gone before without a team of talented, dedicated, and mindful individuals…or followers.

Read my Lead Change Group post Follow by Example for why I think we need to take back the term “follower,” how I think we should treat our followers, and what’s required to be an effective follower.

Lessons in Failure from a Success Icon

“Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”

~ Thomas Edison

Today is the one-year anniversary of the passing of a success icon, Steve Jobs.   Jobs is remembered for his innovation and changing forever the way we compute and consume information.  He left an indelible print on the world.

Arguably he was a hugely successful individual who died at the top of his game.  Because of Jobs, the letter “i” has a whole new meaning.  But it wasn’t always i-this and i-that for Jobs.  He had his fair share of the “f word”…failure that is.  Sure, we can learn a great deal from Jobs’ successes.  But that’s too easy.  What can we learn from his failures?

In a June 12, 2005 address to Stanford University graduates, Jobs reflected on his life lessons.  He talked about his early years when he founded Apple at 20 and how in the next 10 years, he and fellow co-founder Steve Wozniak grew the business from two people in a garage to a $2 billion company with 4,000 employees.  But that’s where it gets interesting.  When Jobs turned 30, he left Apple because of a failed product launch (remember Lisa? That’s okay – hardly anyone does) and a divergence in vision with his board of directors.  To quote Jobs, “So at 30, I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.”

But Jobs was going to be ok.  He went on to succeed again with Pixar which gave the world its first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story.  During that time, he also met his wife.  Jobs later returned to Apple and the rest is history.  Reflecting back, Jobs observed, “Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”

In an August 2011 article from, Nick Schulz explains further: “Jobs failed better than anyone else in Silicon Valley, maybe better than anyone in corporate America. By that I mean Jobs did what only the greatest entrepreneurs can do: learn from their failures.”

What can we learn from Jobs’ failure-to-success story? We waste some of the most important opportunities for individual and organizational growth when we fail to reflect on and learn from our own failures.  Perhaps not taking the time to do so impedes our growth trajectory.

In an April 2011 article from the Harvard Business Review, “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” Amy C. Edmonson offers up the following ideas:

Leaders need to recognize that failures occur on a spectrum from blameworthy to praiseworthy … Although learning from failures requires different strategies in different work settings, the goal should be to detect them early, analyze them deeply … But if the organization is ultimately to succeed, employees must feel safe admitting to and reporting failures.  Creating that environment takes strong leadership.

Jobs’ successes were made possible by failure after failure after failure and the lessons learned from those failures. What about you? Have you failed recently?  What about your team?  If so, avoid piling new failure on top of old by reflecting on the possible lesson lying there, just waiting to be learned.

Pick it up.  Correct it.  Learn from it.  Succeed.

Fours simple questions to help us learn from a failure:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • Could it have been prevented?  How?
  • What will I do differently the next time?

When have you failed?  What did you learn?

The Dark Side of Achievement

The Dark Side of Achievement

I took one of those self-assessments a few years back from the Gallup organization.  This one had something to do with discovering my strengths.  Once complete, it generated my top five strength themes.  Mine were Positivity, Intellection, Learner, Developer, and Achiever.

The report gave me a description of each of these themes and even offered some suggestions for how to leverage my strengths in work and in life.

More than any other, the Achiever description has stayed with me.  This is because I felt the definition was so incredibly accurate. I remember reacting out loud – even though I was alone – with something like “wow, that’s me!”  The Achiever theme describes a constant need for…well, achievement.  As described: I feel as if every day (even weekends) starts at zero and that by the end of the day I must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about myself.  I have an internal fire burning inside me that dwindles for a moment when I’ve accomplished something, but soon after rekindles itself, propelling me toward the next goal. This relentless need, it states, may not be logical…but it is always with me.

Yes, that’s me.  And, this trait has served me well over the years.  Since I was a child I have set and reached goals of which I am very proud.  I have accomplished a lot, and today my coworkers and leaders compliment me for my drive and ability to “cross the finish line” and to get others to do the same.  Sounds good, right?

But there is a dark side.  And for me it comes in three forms:

  • Inflexibility
  • Error
  • Perpetual Discontent


Picture a bicycler racing down a straightaway.  He is pedaling as fast as he can straight toward the finish line.  Now imagine a speed bump appears out of nowhere.  He hits that speed bump at full force.  The bike, and bicycler, flip three hundred and sixty degrees and then hit the ground…hard.  It hurts.  You assume the bicycler would have avoided this speed bump if given the choice, right?

Now picture me working on a task.  I am focused and in the zone.  Don’t try to stop me because I will probably object or even ignore you.  Reality is, if I stop while focused on finishing a task – large or small – it literally hurts.  I experience physical pains akin to the fast pedaling bicycler who hits the speed bump.   So, when I am objecting or ignoring someone this is actually me avoiding the speed bump.

This is a problem for me in both my personal life and at work.  My wife gives me a hard time for my inability to switch gears to something she thinks is more important.  At work, I have a hard time shifting my focus to someone else – a coworker, direct report or a customer – if my mental laser is set on something else.  This may result in tardiness, important things left undone, and others feeling marginalized.


Cars are more likely to crash if they are speeding, especially if all other cars are traveling at the normal speed limit.  Sometimes I work at a pace much faster than those around me.  My pace is quick because of my insatiable need to finish and check a box.  My boss calls me a “rate buster.”  This means I am speeding.  This puts me at great risk for error.

Perpetual Discontent

This is probably my darkest corner of the dark side.  Gallup puts it best when it cautions that I “must learn to live with this whisper of discontent.”

And this discontentment does not discriminate.  It rears its ugly head regardless of the size, complexity, or impact of the task.  I can complete a large project and receive accolades from everyone including the CEO and find myself seeking out the next target the very next day…or that afternoon.

Imagine having a pet that needs to be constantly fed.  That’s me.  I am always hungry for completion, and this makes for some anxiety-ridden moments.

– –

I know I am not alone.  I have met other “Achievers” who experience the same challenges, and I know there are more out there.  Over the years I have learned ways to shed a little light on the dark side so that it isn’t…well, so dark.  Here are some of my tricks.

Recognize and accept it.

When you have that empty feeling inside recognize this means the fire is burning again.  Being aware, and calling attention to – even if you can’t do anything about it – brings a little relief.

Write it down.

This one sounds very basic, but it works, and helps overcomes your inflexibility.  One thing you can always count on due to the pace of business these days is that someone is going to ask you to shift your focus.  Writing things down – like in the form of a list – helps you stay on task and brings you a modicum of relief when you find yourself required to switch gears. It is also great for people – like me – who have that constant thought bubble popping up in the middle of something else.  Write it down!

The best part is when you get to cross the item off your list.

Double and triple check.

I made a lot of errors early in my career due to my constant need to check a box.  That need never went away, but over time I have found ways to reduce my errors dramatically.  I double- and triple- check my work.

Before you hit send or call it complete, count to ten, take a deep breath and go over it again.  In some cases, step away for a few hours or even overnight.  Unless you’re up against an absolute deadline, take your time.

I also find it quite useful to consult with others before making any big decisions that can not be undone.

Gallup recommends that you partner with someone who has great discipline and focus.  They can help you use your energy as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Really enjoy the wins.

The perpetual discontent will never go away.  So you really need to focus on all the wins.  Call attention to it and really enjoy it.

Gallup recommends that you also count personal achievements in your scoring “system.”  I think this is good advice, and even pays dividends at home.  If you can apply some of that achiever spirit to your marriage, family, personal relationships, and home projects imagine what you can accomplish!

Schedule down time.

Even an achiever needs to take some time off to refresh and recharge.  But, that fire never stops burning.  So turn “down time” into something “to do.”  Plan it, write it down…call it whatever you need to call it…but turn it into something tangible that you can plan and complete.

This may not be as effective during long stretches of time like long weekends or vacations.  So, in those cases find something you can be responsible for and take ownership of.  Take charge of the itinerary.  Be the driver.  Learn about the local culture and history.  Or do something as simple as read a book.  Caution:  I don’t recommend taking work-work.  This negates the recharge/refresh goal.  And also, be careful that you don’t plan or schedule to the detriment of your vacation…and the other people who are with you.

Pet projects.

Finally, keep a list of dormant pet projects on the side.  This way when you have down time…and you start feeling that tug of discontent…you can put your energy and drive to work right away.  Encourage your spouse or family to contribute to that list.  That way it is a win-win.

What tips or tricks do you use?

“Professionalism” – what is it?!

Do we know it when we see it?

Have you ever heard or uttered these phrases?

“Joe is such a professional, isn’t he?”
“I want Sally off my team.  She’s not professional.”
“Nitesh, let’s discuss your lack of professionalism.”
“Sofia, I am impressed with how professionally you handled that situation.  Well done.”

How often do we use this term – professional?  I hear it every day.  Lately, I find myself asking “what does it mean exactly?”

Search the definition for this word and its variations, like profession and professionalism, and you’ll find they reference specific vocations like engineering, accounting, doctoring, and lawyering.  But, don’t we use these terms in a much broader sense in our day-to-day interactions?

The definitions aren’t a great help, so what if we take a different angle and explore what it looks like when someone is being professional?  For example, what exactly was Joe or Sofia doing that was so professional?

When I reflect back on people I thought were professional, I see those who really had their act together.  Those people knew how to manage themselves in any situation.  They were great with other people, one-on-one and in groups.  They carried the flag for their organizations, and even worked to make them better.

As I consider this, the more I feel that being professional is only partly about a vocation, and mostly about making good behavioral choices across three dimensions.

To me, the three-dimensional professional is self-effective, other-effective, and organization-effective. Let me explain.

To be ­self-effective is to be self-aware and a self-manager.  To be other-effective is to manage relationships and practice civility.  To be organization-effective is to be a good fit with, and a discretionary contributor for, an organization of choice.

My view of professionalism is informed by the work of experts in fields I have studied, such as emotional intelligence (Goleman, et al), civility (Post, et al), and organizational citizenship behavior (Organ, et al).  I draw on their work to describe simple behaviors I think are required for professionalism along three dimensions:

1st dimension: Self-effective

  • Knows one’s core attitudes, values and beliefs
  • Knows one’s strengths and limits
  • Identifies and interprets one’s internal cues

A Self Manager

  •  Channels emotions into making good choices
  • Acquires knowledge, skill, resources needed for a task
  • Has the right focus, and prioritizes one’s efforts

2nd dimension: Other-effective
A Relationship Manager

  • Employs effective communication skills
  • Builds and maintains mutually beneficial relationships
  • Extends trust and is trustworthy


  • Demonstrates good etiquette
  • Treats others with respect
  • Practices altruism

3rd dimension: Organization-effective
A Fit

  • Has the required knowledge and skills for the job
  • Believes in the mission and vision of the organization
  • Conforms to organization’s values, rules and norms

A Contributor

  • Delivers on stated objectives and goals
  • Demonstrates discretionary effort for company gain

In what organization do these behaviors apply?  I think the answer is easy.  All organizations need professionals.

Certainly, the achievement of success for any organization requires, in large part, members who know what they bring to the table and do, work well with others, and who contribute to the mission.  One definition from offers that an organization is “a group of persons organized for some end or work; association.”  To me, this puts an organization on a spectrum ranging from recreational sports team to multi-billion dollar corporation.

I don’t know if there is a dimensional hierarchy, but it seems intuitive that being professional begins with the first dimension and ends with the third.  It also seems likely that one could check all the boxes in the first two, but not the third, depending on the organization.  In the end, professionalism may look and feel different from one organization to the next.  For this reason, I believe that a three-dimensional view of professionalism may be useful in informing the practices for attracting and managing talent for an organization.  The first question to answer may be, what does professionalism look like for us?