Leaders Are Readers

As a student of my own job, I read a lot.  It’s become a rewarding habit.  That wasn’t always the case for me.  So I understand if reading is not a significant part of your life.

In August, 2007, the Washington Post published the results of an Associated Press—Ipsos poll that found one in four Americans had not read one book in the previous year.  The median number was four (half of poll respondents read more, half read fewer).

To me, these are astonishing and sad numbers.

You do not have to tell me how many books you have read in the past year, but, whatever the number is, as a leader you will need to read more, even if reading is not a love, or even a habit, with you now.

You will need to read more because leaders are after breakthrough results, and reading feeds the mind with the raw material needed to think better: more deeply, more expansively, more synthetically, more critically, more creatively, more actively, more curiously, and more understandingly.

What should you read?

Almost anything will do.

Read fiction to enliven your imagination.

Read what interests you to deepen your interest with the advice of experts.

Read what doesn’t interest you to figure out what in the world could possibly be interesting enough about the subject that someone would write an entire book (or an article, or a blog) about it.

Read what you’ve read before to rediscover why you loved it the first time.

Read what you’ve never read because that’s where you’ll find most of your new knowledge.

Read about people to learn more about the experiences of others.

Read history to learn what happened before you came into the world.

Read the cereal box and study the nutritional facts of your daily diet.

Sure, you could read books about business and leadership skills.  I do.  I find it a quick and easy way to benefit from the expertise of others.

Here are some reading tips I have developed along the way:

  • Don’t be afraid to read hard stuff.  It exercises the mind.  In fact, seek it out.
  • Don’t’ feel that you have to finish every book that you start.  This is not high school and no book report is due.  If you are not getting anything out of the book after giving it a fair chance, quit wasting your time.
  • Don’t feel that you have to read every…single…word…one…word…at…a…time…  Scan.  Look at tables, charts, pictures, diagrams, chapter titles, section headings, or chapter summaries.
  • Don’t feel that you have to read a book (or anything) in the order that it is presented to you.  Use guideposts such as the foreword or introduction, table of contents, index, lists of tables or illustrations, references, or bibliography.  Find what you’re after or what strikes you and start there.  Feel free to jump around.
  • Don’t limit yourself to familiar topics.  Intentionally read outside your interest zone.
  • Don’t feel that reading has to be a marathon effort requiring hours of undisturbed time.  Even five minutes a day will get you farther than no reading at all.  Make reading a part of your day, every day.
  • Let what you are reading point the way to something else.  Learn to follow your own curiosity.  A book is but a portal to a world of knowledge.
  • Put what you are reading to work immediately.   Find something―anything—that you can incorporate into your own thinking and actions.  The sooner the better.  Better yet, share your learning and interests with someone else.
  • Read multiple sources on a topic until it begins to sound repetitive.  This is a pretty good indication that you have a grip on the core of the material.  This is the first step toward becoming an expert, and anyone can become an expert.

Well, there’s probably more to say but I will conclude with this:  As a leader, you need to read.  Leaders do not achieve the breakthrough results with the status quo.  Whatever you are doing now got you where you are; extra effort is needed to take you farther.  And one area of extra effort is reading.

I promise you that your investment in reading will pay off many times over.

From time to time I will share with you what I am reading.  I would be happy if you shared your reading with me.

Now, if you have actually read this entire letter, then you are off to a good start!

Thank you, and Happy Reading!

Yours truly,

–Erik
Erik Jul

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Positive. Immediate. Certain.

31 August 2013

At today’s Toastmasters Leadership Institute, hosted by Division H, I spoke on “Leading a Volunteer Organization.”

The principles I highlighted apply to any group enterprise whether business, social, civic, volunteer, not-for-profit, or religious, to name a few.

One key principle is positive reinforcement.

We explored the following dimensions of reinforcement:

  • Polarity (positive or negative)
  • Temporality (immediate or future)
  • Certitude (certain or uncertain)

Reinforcement Dimensions

This is the reinforcement power zone: Positive/Immediate/Certain.

Practice recognizing the positive contributions of others by being certain to reward them with positive feedback as soon as possible.

Positive.  Immediate.  Certain.

Practice using this combination when teaching, coaching, and leading others and you will see firsthand a powerful impact on personal and organizational development.

What’s your experience?

–Erik @erikjul

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Truth or Consequences: Why What Happens Matters

The truth is, consequences govern behaviors.

Decades of psychological studies show convincingly that what happens after we do something significantly affects whether we repeat a certain behavior.

Simply put, consequence shapes behavior, and we tend to repeat behaviors that keep the rewards coming or the penalties at bay.

More recent research shows that, neurologically, repeated behavior shapes our brain.  Behavioral patterns and their underlying neuronal connections become habituated with repeated firing.  We create and reinforce neuronal networks by what we think and what we do, and further repeated thoughts and actions strengthen these networks.

Evolved over millennia, these fundamental and beneficial characteristics of habituated brain function increase brain efficiency (requires less energy), shorten response time (fight or flight responses), and increase the likelihood of similar responses to similar stimuli (learning).  Taken together, these qualities increased the likelihood of survival and, through natural section, were genetically transmitted over time.  You have them now!

Unfortunately, such self-reinforcing, habituated behavior can become a life strategy, the coping mechanism of choice in certain situations.  Subconsciously, or unconsciously, we begin to rely upon habits of thought and action over time.  Some instantaneous habits, such as looking both ways before crossing the street, have likely saved each of us more than once.

But what would explain the adoption, use, and perpetuation of thoughts and behaviors that seem deleterious to self or others?

The truth is (and science shows) that both positive and negative outcomes can stimulate or inhibit behaviors.  Understanding this explains many puzzling management practices.

For example, why would a boss manage others by using verbal threat or abuse?  It would seem silly or worse to manage this way, that is, until we recognize that such tactics work.

“Get the latest financials on my desk by 5:00 o’clock today or you’re fired!” barks the boss under duress.

What happens?  Almost always the report is delivered as demanded.

Why? The perceived threat of job loss or other imagined negative consequences was sufficiently real to motivate the desired behavior.

Sure, the employee feels poorly, but, hey, they work got done!

Herein lies the problem.  To the boss, this behavior appears to be successful and achieves the desired, positive result.   Remarkably, this is true even if the employee was not affected by the verbal abuse and simply produced the demanded report when requested as a matter of course.  Either way, the boss enjoys positive feedback (“the work got done on time,” or “now I can please my boss,” or “I avoided looking bad”) as a result of the otherwise damaging interaction with the employee.

This positive reinforcement, in the absence of any other governing force, reinforces the boss’ negative behavior and increases the likelihood that, in a similar situation, the boss will use the same verbally abusive approach to problem solving.

“It worked before.”

Yes, it works because, as research psychologists have shown, consequences that are immediate (by 5:00 o’clock today…), certain (you will be…), and negative (fired!) powerfully modify behavior.  The employee’s desire to avoid a certain, near-term, and unacceptable negative consequence overcomes all barriers, real and imagined, and the job gets done.

Now let’s consider other examples of negative reinforcement that do not work.

Attempting to reduce smoking and, by extension, reduce its social costs, governments and regulating agencies have waged a decades-long “war on tobacco” with mixed results.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chronicles governmental efforts to curb tobacco use in the report, History of the Surgeon General’s Reports on Smoking and Health.

“On January 11, 1964, Luther L. Terry, M.D., Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service, released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health.

“On the basis of more than 7,000 articles relating to smoking and disease already available at that time in the biomedical literature, the Advisory Committee concluded that cigarette smoking is—

  • A cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men
  • A probable cause of lung cancer in women
  • The most important cause of chronic bronchitis

“The release of the report was the first in a series of steps [emphasis mine], still being taken more than 40 years later, to diminish the impact of tobacco use on the health of the American people.”

First a report, then increasingly explicit warning messages on cigarette packs, then pictures and television advertisements showing diseased tissue and dying people.

Yet, smokers continue to smoke and, amazingly, nonsmokers continue to take up the habit.*

Why?

Behavioral psychology provides this answer: The power of negative consequences (“death  from disease related to tobacco use…”), if it is delayed (“some unknown number of years from now…”) and uncertain (“maybe, we can’t predict for any given individual”) are insufficient to overcome the perceived positive benefits, whatever they may be, of smoking.

Immediate satisfaction wins out over future, uncertain consequences.

But what if dire consequences were certain?

How many would smoke if cigarettes exploded with fatal consequences?  Answer: None.  Well, the real answer is probably some, but they would die instantly.  All others, believing the certainty of the consequences and choosing to avoid instant death, would stop smoking immediately or not take it up.

Thus, consequences that are negative/certain/immediate trump those that are negative/uncertain/future.

From this we can extrapolate the dimensions of consequence: (1) polarity (positive or negative), certitude (absolute to not at all), and time (immediate to infinitely distant).  And we can assign relative force to these combinations:

  • Negative, certain, immediate
  • Positive, certain, immediate
  • All other combinations are weaker

So, the intemperate boss of our story using habituated, abusive interactions experiences positive consequences in short order and, seeing that it worked once, repeats this behavior and discovers over time that this misguided approach to management is likely to succeed.

Positive. Immediate. Certain.

The behavior, regardless of its obvious damaging effects upon employee relations, becomes the boss’ preferred interpersonal style in certain circumstances where it is used instantaneously and unthinkingly.

And so the abusive boss (or spouse, or colleague, or corporate culture, or society) is born, but at least we can now understand what might be going on a little better.

Sound like anyone you know?  (No names, please.)

Next post, more truth about power of positive consequences.

Learn-Do-Teach-Lead.

–Erik

* The decline in the number of smokers is more directly attributable to economic and social factors: rising cost and social censure.

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The View From Here

The modern British Two Pound coin gives homage to the one-time Warden and later Master of the Royal Mint, Sir Isaac Newton, bearing on its edge an inscription, a snippet taken from a 1676 letter from Newton to Robert Hooke: “If I have seen further it is by STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS.”

In our infancy and youth, that giants precede us escapes our ken.  Our Ptolemaic universe, of which we are the center, has neither seen nor admitted the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, or Newton nor experienced a similar reorienting revolution.

We are undeveloped, physically, neurologically, psychologically, and, some would say, spiritually.  At an early age, we are unaware of our own ignorance.  How could we recognize, appreciate, and properly place giants in our lives or see from their shoulders?

Before Newton, 12th century theologian and author John of Salisbury wrote the following in his 1159 treatise, Metalogicon:

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

Twentieth-century American Sociologist Robert K. Merton traces this concept–a recognition of advancement based on the works of predecessors–finding some 26 notable examples.

For each of us, the day that we begin to realize the giants in our lives ought to be celebrated, and the realization itself should inform our present moments thereafter.

How slowly and dimly we sometimes realize, and how quickly we sometimes forget.

I think we do “stand on the shoulders of giants,” but to the giants I must also add the countless many over endless time whose common, everyday actions–for good or ill–have some culminating manifestation in this very moment.

Suddenly, “giants” drop away leaving only an awareness of my total interconnectedness to both (from my perspective) all past and all future.

With that in mind, the view from here changes dramatically.

Such awareness, when I am not separated from it, is enough to shake me awake, to put all time in the present moment, and to arouse a desire to fill that moment mindfully with my fullest presence and highest good.

Yes, giants can be our teachers;  so can be anyone, anything, anytime we are willing to learn.

This currency exchange calculator can tell you the current value of the British Two Pound coin, in consideration of which you, too, could carry this inscription with you: “STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS.”  Let it serve to remind or to cultivate your imagination, but let it all the more inform–transform–this present moment and illuminate the view from here.

You will see differently.

You will learn differently.

You will do differently.

You will lead differently.

Who or what are the giants in your life?

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

–Erik

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Hold That Thought!

“Hold that thought,” said the office administrator with outstretched hand, signalling a friendly “stop.”  I was in the middle of making a routine request for her assistance.

Hold that thought, an idiomatic was of saying, often by way of interruption, “Wait a second, I’ve got to do something else,” or maybe, “Good idea…for later.”

Let’s try another, more literal, meaning: Hold that thought.

Go ahead, whatever you are thinking now, hold it in mind.  Don’t shift thoughts.  Keep it!  Hold it.  That’s right.  No other thought.  Hold it now…

Impossible.

Why?

The brain does not work that way.  A conscious thought, while correlating, most likely, with an enormously complex electrochemical web of neuronal firing, is not a “thing” that can be held.  Certainly not literally, and not even figuratively. 

Thought is fleeting, evanescent, impermanent.  It’s phenomenology arises, crests, and dissipates in milliseconds like so many neurotransmitters in a synaptic dance. 

Now, hold *that* thought!

At best, with focused attention and awareness, you might observe a thought’s path–it’s arising, cresting, and dissipating–but you will not be able to hold it.

Remarkably, the inability to hold a thought is natural.  Understanding and exploiting this reality is beneficial and, when applied, potentially powerful.

Understanding the nature of thought–and no more evidence is required than our recent hold-that-thought experiment, although the body of neuroscientific evidence is large and growing rapidly–we can free ourselves from attributing to it characteristics such as permanence, reality, certainty, and truth.  

Setting aside these attributes does not diminish thought, but does tend to create greater mental “space,” to expand our ability to hold differing points of view simultaneously, and to soften our often vice-like grip on personal beliefs, points of view, and opinions.

Moreover, when, in nearly instantaneous response to stimuli our brain offers up a thought (and, often, a feeling), we can learn to recognize that the brain is just doing the best that it can, what it is designed to do, but we are not obligated to accept or to act on the first thing that the brain serves up.

There is space between thought and action, which we can first begin to realize then learn to lengthen.  And in that lengthened space, we can observe the thought (or feeling), recognize its insubstantial nature, and choose not to act or react thoughtlessly or from habit alone.

If we cannot hold that thought, perhaps we can learn to hold the space between them.  Acting from this still and quiet space can help us speak and act with mindful intention and greater authenticity.

The beginning, perhaps, of wisdom.

Hold that thought.

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

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Map Reading

Safely through a narrow channel, wind and waves at our back, the bows of our canoes pierced Little Batchewaung Bay in Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada.

A party of three in two canoes–I and my daughter in one, my son paddling his open 14-ft. boat solo–pressed on, the last of our 7-day wilderness paddle through the Canadian shield.  Our destination, the take-out on Nym Lake.

I glanced at the detailed topographic map snugly tucked, wrapped in plastic, between the stern thwart and the Hudson Bay pack in the belly of the boat.  Surveying the far side of the lake, I reckoned our course northeastward.  It was an easy paddle.

We found the Batchewaung Lake portage–800 meters–and made our way to the last lake of our journey.

On the other side of the portage, utter stillness.  Glass water merging infinitely with fog.  Calm quiet.  Undisturbed.  Nym Lake welcomed, embraced, ensconced us, but revealed little.

The sounds of our occasional strokes seemed content to hang in the air, invisible companions, like the lingering notes of a glass bell.

Little else in view but the map at my knees.

I took the moment to confirm our current location, and began scanning the near horizon.

In time, islands, a silent flotilla, arose from the water, like so many forested rafts.

Scanning the two-dimensional map, I attempted to match its lines to the ephemeral three-dimensional island ghosts, first in focus, then not.

Putting first an island on our port, then another, ahead–there it is!–on our starboard, we threaded our way.

We were never able to see much beyond the next little island, even as the ones we just passed threatened to disappear into the haze, but, by careful and frequent reckoning, we always knew where we were.

Such is the way of navigation.

As much as leaders, trainers, and coaches often, and rightly, focus on the goal ahead, real navigation rests in a thorough understanding of the present. The here.  The now.

We must know where we are; sometimes, as in my canoe trip, geographically.  More often, our path is less physical.  We wend our way through fears, skills, desires, needs, assets, time, demands, and opportunities.

Without clarity, however, without authentic self-awareness to anchor us as assuredly as latitude and longitude on a map, efforts to achieve our goals are feckless.

Of the two–knowing where I am and knowing where I’m going–I always take careful stock of the former.  This essential knowledge helps me to navigate, goal in mind.

And so, sun rising, fog lifting, islands parting, giving way to reveal the far shore, we set a course across the lake, paddling out.

Goal achieved, we packed out of Quetico a bit more skilled in, and appreciative of, the craft of map reading.

To get where you’re going, know where you are.

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

–Erik

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Chief Learner

A friend of several years has just stepped into a leadership position in his organization, and we chatted recently about his new role and its challenges.

We discussed his observations, goals, and near-term objectives.  He had good insights and ideas, and already has some awareness of potential obstacles to success and their resolution.

I listened mostly, asked a few questions, and interspersed a few comments. 

What I heard impressed me.

His intended, primary methods of influencing his organization and the individuals within it are twofold: (1) energizing learning and (2) leading by example.

Energizing learning requires, if not an awakening, at least a heightened recognition by each individual within an organization that learning is a desired, primary, required, daily, and ongoing activity necessary for the growth of individuals and the organization as a whole. 

Learning is not in addition to doing the job, it is part of doing the job.  Any job.  Every job.

Often, such perspectives do not exist within organizations, much less pervade it as part of the dominant culture.  While establishing the vision, setting the tone, and shaping the culture for a learning organization ideally start at the top, such initiatives can actually originate anywhere, including an individual workgroup member. 

Whether or not an organization has a Chief Learning Officer, each workgroup member must be or become a Chief Learner: self-actuated and self-motivated.  Ideally, the organization supports, recognizes, and rewards learning behaviors, but no-one dare wait for suggestions, directions, conditions, or rewards to take up the mantel of continuous, self-directed learning.

As the conversation with my friend, the new leader, drew near its conclusion, I had but one suggestion: become for your group the Chief Learner.  In other words, Learn-Do-Teach-Lead, which encompasses his two stated goals: (1) energizing learning and (2) leading by example.

How have you become an independent learner in the workplace or fostered a learning environment in your organization?

–Erik

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