When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

Why do we take our emotional well-being for granted? We talk a lot about “taking care of” it, but do we do as much about it as we talk? The phrase “mental hygiene” is apropos, but the premise of this metaphor conjures up a gross feeling, like, flossing teeth or basic grooming (yet, what’s wrong with doing these acts?!). (The phrase also belittles the complexity of our mind, as if it could be cleaned in a quick ritual act after each meal.) Of course, someone’s emotional/mental mess may be something easily shrugged off in another person. I think that’s part of the problem; the yardstick against which we evaluate our emotional situation and mental state is a fluid measure. When do we know we really need to do some serious mental flossing? When can we get away with a little tooth-picking? Gross…well, we’d better deal with it.


Thanks to a friend who sent me a link to an Invisibilia” episode in which the focus was on suppressed emotions and forced “positive” attitude. According to the program’s website, “Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotion.” The two stories in this episode explored whether it’s possible to change habits of an entire group of men and to alter a deeply-rooted cultural behavior. The former story took place on a Shell’s deep-water oil drilling rig, Ursa, the size of about two football fields. The latter took place in the first McDonald’s in Moscow.

Most of us are probably ignorant of the nature and degree of danger for oil rig workers. Seeing deaths of colleagues is not uncommon, while physical challenge and injury are common. The culture among oil rig workers is one of ultimate stoicism and hypermasculinity. No show of emotions, even upon witnessing a death; keeping the work process uninterrupted is the key. Most men carry the same bottled-up emotional practice at home as well. Would the practice for regular oil rigs work just as well for an unprecedented deep water drill? In 1997, the first deep water drilling, 4,000 ft deep, even for the experienced oil workers was “like going from Earth to Mars.” The typical 20-person crew for a regular rig would swell to more than a hundred for Ursa, with all the potential hazards and dangers increasing exponentially.ursa-1_custom-8358af5fba589f61d21864036b6ce4551c33fa4b-s900-c85

The main character in the oil rig story, Rick, was put in charge of Ursa. “He was stressed at home, barely able to speak to a son who was about to leave for college. He was stressed at work, in charge of a giant, really complicated venture that he didn’t know how to tackle. Things felt like they were spinning out of control.” Rick’s saving grace was that deep down he suspected and sensed that something was out of kilter and that he didn’t know what to do.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Out of blue, a “crazy one-eye lady” made a cold call to Rick and offered to work with him on leadership issues. Claire Nuer, now deceased, heard about Ursa and thought that she could offer something useful. Rick accepted a meeting and they talked, through an interpreter mostly since Nuer spoke little English; her native language was French. Rick began the meeting with the typical business of scheduling, planning, production, etc. Claire cut him off with “…if you just don’t tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” That caught Rick’s attention. One can bottle up one’s emotions, fears in this case, only for so long. It would work well…only for so long. One might even coast along on another smaller rig, the old familiar environment…only for so long. When all emotions have no outlet for relief, something has to give. At home, Rick was risking losing his emotional ties with his family, and at work, the risks wouldn’t just be Rick’s “incompetence” in managing, but the potential injuries and/or deaths of some colleagues.

So, who was Claire Nuer? She was a leadership coach, founder of Learning As Leadership. Based on new age Est’s method, popular in the 70s and draconian to many, digging deep into one’s emotions to lay the foundation for healing and emotional well-being. The typical Est experience was a day-long encounter (well into 10 or 11PM) that often made grownups cry (by itself, there is nothing wrong with that). Claire and her husband fashioned something similar in their business, mostly breaking down business executives.

Eventually, Rick joined Claire’s sessions, usually conducted through translation. Since Rick’s motivation was largely his broken tie with his son, he even persuaded his son to join him for an encounter session. That session lead to a 180-degree turn for Rick and his son. That was enough for Rick to get his men from the rig involved.

Now, when a boss wants you to do something outside of work, in this case personal development for the better productivity of the team, even when the offer is on a voluntary basis, you take it, however reluctant and dubious you may feel. So, most of the rig workers went; a few refused to do some of the exercises, and remained skeptical. However, those who were more willing to participate ultimately learned to show their vulnerability, and couldn’t say enough good things about the outcomes, not just about work, but more so about their personal lives. Most of these sessions took place while they were waiting for the completion of the rig construction that took 18 months.

During the few long days of sessions (from 6AM – 11PM on some days), these super macho tough guys gradually broke down, cried, shared their stories and feelings… Even the ones who thought “I’ll just reveal a little…” couldn’t stop once they began the process. I understand these principles, but it did creep me out a bit when I read that they eventually managed to overcome revulsion and massaged each other’s feet, demonstrating deep trust. (Author’s note: In many of these intense workshops, participants are required to do things they would normally eschew. Breaking down old boundaries is an important foundation. While I am not totally against some of these exercises, I always find it obnoxious that participants have to behave according to the program’s demands. I mean, there have to be other ways of showing trust. Yes?)

The efforts and money paid off. The accident rate at Shell fell by 84%, and the productivity exceeded the previous industry record. The energy that formerly preserved the hyper masculine norm was now invested in working together, sharing technical information. Instead of fearing to show lack of knowledge or admitting mistakes, the new refrain of “I need help” made the work process much smoother.

All the converts to the new culture openly admitted that as they become more themselves, they like themselves better. “The old way is no fun.”

Darn it, when it comes to story telling, I just cannot economize and fit all the themes and nuances in one post. I will conclude in the next post the changing cultural habits for some Russians who wanted to work for McDonald’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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On “Doubt”…This time, doubt was addressed with evidence

The second crime story of the “Anatomy of Doubt”  of This American Life took place in Colorado in 2011, two years after the crime against Marie of Lynwood, a suburb of Seattle (see previous post). In Colorado, there was a series of three rapes, which took place in three locations in close proximity. The lead detectives of at least two of the three cases were female and a crime analyst providing one piece of key (in retrospect) information was also a female.

I highlight the female part because I think it’s relevant in rape cases. In addition, one of these two female detectives, Stacy Galbraith, had handled at least 50 rape cases by the time of this story.


The latest victim of Galbraith’s case was unusual; the young graduate student didn’t show much emotion while being interviewed right after the assault. She also managed to notice quite a few striking features of the perpetrator, partly because she chatted up with him afterwards: He traveled a lot; he spoke at least four languages; he talked about math, he had no problem finding girlfriends but disliked the consensual relationships; and most importantly, he has a birthmark of a size and shape of an egg on his leg. In addition, she noticed his height and weight, the pink Sony camera, and described him “gentleman, calm, and mannered,” even though she was raped at gunpoint, and was told to take a shower afterwards to wash off the DNA.

Detective Galbraith didn’t always understand her rape victims, some were more hysterical than others. However, the victims’ manner was never part of her investigation. When she discussed the case with her husband, a policeman, he mentioned the similarity to another case in his district. So, Galbraith contacted the other detective, also female, and their comparison of the cases revealed a large degree of overlap, with one notable difference, the other detective’s case had a theft component: A pink camera was stolen. Further, the other detective mentioned yet another similar case, in a neighboring county.  huntington 2

Five weeks into Galbraith’s latest rape case, there was a meeting of lead detectives of recent rape cases, officials from Federal, state, and local levels, and a crime analyst who presented information of suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of an attempted rape. When she showed a picture of a Mazda pickup, it caught Galbraith’s attention. Galbraith had seen only a fuzzy image of a pickup truck in a surveillance tape some time ago, but the coincidence struck her. Since this analyst had the pickup’s license plate — it belonged to a Marc O’Leary – it was their first break in the cases.

With FBI’s assistance, agents were sent to trail O’Leary while others went to his apartment to collect a DNA sample. What the team didn’t realize was that they had been trailing Marc’s brother, of similar build and appearance. When they thought Marc was out of the apartment, they knocked on the door before going in. The agents were taken aback by the person answering the door, the very Marc O’Leary who was supposed to be out. The agents quickly made up a convincing story: They were canvassing the neighborhood for a suspect, and even produced a photo of the person of interest.

In the meantime, the agents who were following Marc’s brother managed to collect the brother’s DNA from his meal at a diner. The DNA results showed that one of the two brothers committed these crimes, but was not conclusive. The birthmark would help.

Two days later, Galbraith and her team went to O’Leary’s place again, with a search warrant. While inside the apartment, she patted down Marc, and it just so happened that he was wearing a cargo pants. She could lift up his pant legs, and saw the egg-size birthmark.

Afterwards, Galbraith processed the gathered evidence; she encountered many images of his victims on a thumb drive. Most of these victims were from Colorado. And then, Galbraith saw a woman, gagged and bound, with a Washington driver’s license on her chest. It was Marie.

Marc O’Leary was convicted of five rapes, including the one in Washington, 2 months after Marie’s case, and 20 other felonies, and was sentenced to 300 years in prison.

Lynwood’s police chief personally went to visit Marie and apologized. Marie described,” They were just like, we’re sorry. We’re deeply sorry, you know, about what had happened to you. But it didn’t mean much to me at all.” Marie demanded a personal apology from her case investigator and she received it. She was reimbursed the $500 court fee (no interest?) and her record was wiped clean. She sued the Lynwood police and settled for $150,000. No one at the Lynwood police was disciplined.

Her apartment management? “Our hearts go out to Marie and her family. We strongly believe that Cocoon House and its employees acted appropriately on behalf of the client [Marie].” Wow. They were also sued and settled out of court.

Marie forgave both Shannon and Peggy, her foster parents, and remains friends with them. Shannon still cannot quite forgive herself. After the case was closed for Marie, Peggy, the one who reported her “doubt” to the lead detective in Marie’s case, said, “OK, now this is going to sound really bad, like I’m blaming the victim. But some of the way that she [Marie] was acting was part of the reason why it had the outcome that it did. And I am not the only person that didn’t believe her.” Wow!


When doubt becomes certainty, it shouldn’t be considered “doubt” any more. By the time Peggy called Marie’s case detective, she was hoping someone could confirm her doubt. Voicing her “doubt” to someone, especially a figure of authority was a strong symbol for her; the doubt was off her chest and now became real. When the detective pursued Marie based on Peggy’s statement, he had no doubt in his mind about Marie’s guilt, and proceeded accordingly. When all hell broke loose on Marie, there did not seem to be any trace of doubt left in Peggy’s mind…hence her last words still put the onerous burden on Marie.

Doubt, a form of uncertainty, makes us uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s in our nature to minimize or erase doubt. There are gaps of information associated with doubt and uncertainty. In those moments, we tend to fill in the gaps with certain assumptions to generate a more-or-less complete story to ease our doubt. Since the assumptions come from our own worldview, lens, or logic, we usually are satisfied with the story we come up with, and feel little need to check those assumptions. What’s more interesting is that even when we want to check our assumptions, we tend to check with a third party rather than with the source of our doubt. So, Peggy called Shannon and they two commiserated with each other’s doubt; Peggy never checked with Marie directly.

I will get into a more full-bodied analysis next time. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Using Self As An Instrument

In my brief bio, I mentioned an important keystone of my methodology: that I see myself as “part of the instrument from which to gain quality data.” A few readers have found the statement puzzling. Let me explain. What I presented last week on my immigrant’s view of inter-racial issues was an example. I wasn’t going to just write a personal journey; there is purpose in such a seemingly self-indulgent method. The “using self as an instrument” is particularly crucial for conducting qualitative studies in social science. And it also has a bearing on management.

For my PhD dissertation, I started with a different topic on cross-cultural issues, and considered the usual questionnaire-survey for data collection. In the end, my desire for deep knowledge won over statistical breadth of cross-cultural comparisons, and I ended up doing a case study on “The Role of Culture in Business Networking,” focusing on entrepreneurs. I paired Americans and immigrant Chinese in two industries, cafes and fashion design.

The main driver for doing the case study was my thirst for understanding how culture influences the cross-cultural interactions in business decisions and operations. While many cross-cultural studies have taught me the importance of different cultural values, I found captures of the interaction between people of different cultures wanting. Memorizing all the cultural dos and don’ts feels limiting and exhausting. Knowing that Chinese are more collectively oriented than Americans, who are more individualistic, doesn’t address how to work with these differences. So, into the deep I went.

sky on fire

The traditional survey questionnaire provides a veneer of “objectivity;” researchers keep the subjects at arm’s length for fear of the intrusion of biases, from both the researchers and the subjects. But as my friend and professor, Kewyn Smith, pointed out, the very term “subject” is denigrating. It’s as if the subjects are some simple vessels from which we, the researchers, just extract needed information. To really understand the perspectives of the researched, or the respondents, the researchers need to first establish relationships, where there is give and take. Otherwise, why would perfect strangers reveal their deeper reflections?

My first lesson on cross-cultural differences between American entrepreneurs and Chinese entrepreneurs (who had been in the States anywhere from less than 10 years to more than 20 years…I interviewed some 20 people in my pre-case study phase) was that that Americans were a lot more willing to participate in my study than Chinese. Americans were also more ready to reveal their business operations and principles than Chinese. With Americans, the quality of my relationship with them was an important factor in but not necessary for the case studies, while with Chinese, the nature and the quality of my relationship with them were both important and essential for case study access.

I was also keenly aware that I was a lot more comfortable with interacting with Americans than with Chinese, having been in this country for more than a decade by then.ElenaY_003

Knowing my own “biases” helped me understand how to better approach the potential Chinese respondents as their levels of comfort with American (and Chinese) cultures varied widely. Some found my American-ness refreshing, and others were wary of my relative indifference to the Chinese norms. To navigate through these cross-cultural currents, I had to be sharply and constantly aware of my own thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

If I found my American interviewee/respondent too “chatty and revealing,” I asked myself if my judgment came from my Chinese tendency to be reserved or whether I should be suspicious of the interviewee “spinning” the information. If my Chinese respondent seemed hesitant or to put up a wall, I wondered if being more American on my part would make it better or worse. Doing this qualitative study was a lot more challenging than designing questionnaires, inputting the numbers, and conducting statistical analysis –by which, I am not implying that doing quantitative study is easy; it’s just that by then, I had done plenty such quantitative surveys in my career.   (This is one of the reasons why I have written frequently in this space arguing the difficulties of handling “soft” dimensions at workplace, and the relative ease with which to absorb measurable features.)

In addition to use of “self as an instrument,” an equally important tool to minimize the biases in gathering and analyzing qualitative data is triangulation. As a researcher, when I interview a respondent, I am bound to have some internal emotional reactions, whether it’s about culture, educational background, gender, or any other topics. If I find myself siding with one particular respondent’s point of view, I need to keep finding other respondents with different perspectives till I no longer feel more vested in one particular respondent’s view than in another’s. That’s as objective as I can get.

How does this relate to management? In a sense, it’s what I have always argued: That each manager needs to be highly self-aware in his relationship with each and every one of his direct report, colleagues, and higher-ups. A manager cannot assume that she is always fair and objective to everyone around her. Robots can; humans can’t.


So, how can managers develop self-awareness?

For example, of all the management  education courses I have been involved in (teaching and/or observing), I think the experiential type is generally the most powerful and sustaining in the lessons learned. So, I would propose a course in which participating managers are required to conduct interviews on a certain topic, say, “performance evaluation.” Have them collect data on people’s reactions on this topic, and record their own emotions, reactions, and judgment… I’ll bet that the data on the topic would be enlightening, and the data on “self” would be revealing.

I hope this essay has clarified my methodology. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Some Intangibles Lead to Solid Successes

In the previous Post, I related a story of how a Google’s team leader’s revelation of his terminal cancer opened up a doorway for his teammates to share their respective vulnerabilities. This ultimately made the team more cohesive than it might have been otherwise. The risk of stepping out of one’s comfort zone is a crucial part of quality leadership – the risk lies in the uncertainty whether one’s opening up would be reciprocated or dismissed as weakness – and is one of the key elements of building trust.

But what is “trust?” It’s one of those soft features that is amorphous, difficult-to-impossible to measure, and awfully subjective. It’s kind of “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” Yet, the concept is often talked about and frequently demanded in organizational life. I think one of the best ways to appreciate trust is through its manifestations. There are examples galore, such as, when an orchestra performs beyond precision and captures the heart and soul of the audience; it’s a sign that the orchestra members trust their conductor, and the audience trusts the orchestra. Or, when members of a military unit gave the leader their precious rationed food while under siege because that very leader always let his men eat first in the field (often, with nothing left for that leader). Or, during the economic downturn, an owner or a CEO would share the pain of cutbacks with everyone, instead of laying off people, per “Standard Operation Procedure.” You can hear all of these in the TED Radio Hour, episode “Trust and Consequences.”

sea fans 2

Most of the time, “trusting someone” doesn’t always involve weighty acts or actions that lead to momentous outcomes. Managers and leaders have to take time to gradually build up trust with their direct reports, such as the situation for orchestra conductor. This is especially true in ordinary organizational life, where most activities and events are mundane, typically not requiring dramatic trustworthy gestures on the manager’s part. Further, since establishing causality in the social world is terribly difficult, many mangers may not view trust as a big deal. Yet, during crisis – time of drama – it’s the managers/leaders with a small trust fund who have difficulties navigating the troubled waters. And these are the managers who constantly face crises.

The precursor of trust is feeling safe. Feeling safe with colleagues, with supervisors, with direct reports may manifest differently depending on the issues, but usually they touch upon our vulnerability. In order for innovation to occur, employees need to feel safe experimenting with ideas, even (especially?) ideas that are revealed to be “failures.” In combat, soldiers need to know they have each other’s backs. Even in the mundane family setting, we like to feel safe in that our families would accept us regardless of whether they understand us. So long as our mistakes are not colossally stupid – what John Cleese describes as, “spelling rabbit with three ‘M’s” – we shouldn’t be judged “incompetent” immediately upon making some mistakes.

Of course, I am speaking in general terms. I am sure there are volumes written on these topics.

abstract1I recently learned about this story: In a lunch concert with the Amsterdam Concertgebouworkest conducted by Riccardo Chailly, pianist Maria João Pires experienced a couple of minutes of “shock, denial, anger, depression, and finally acceptance.”  (check out the “Performance Today” Facebook, June 28th, 2016…for some reasons, I couldn’t get the link work)  Pires prepared for a Mozart piano concerto which turned out not to be what the orchestra started playing. Fortunately (if one could even use such a word), the concerto the orchestra was playing (#20 by Mozart) has a 2½ minute lead time before the piano kicks in. I can only imagine what Ms. Pires’ internal turmoil must have been like. She had a couple of whispered exchanges with the conductor during that lead time, to the effect, “This isn’t what I prepared for.” Conductor: “Yes, you can do it.” Ms. Pires even put her face in her hands a couple of times. Oh, the despair.

Yet…yet, when the time came for the entrance for the piano, Ms. Pires hit the first few notes tentatively, then seamlessly, and went on to finish the whole concert “beautifully,” as Fred Child related the story in a “Performance Today” episode.

When I watched the video (viral on YouTube), even knowing the happy ending of the story, my breaths were shallow and I felt the pounding of my heart. The closest scenario for my profession might be standing at the podium to begin a seminar when the first slide indicates a different topic. But that’s nowhere near the live-or-die career-facing moment that Ms. Pires went through.

While the drama was all shown in Ms. Pires’ body language, the subtle yet equally critical execution lay with the manager-leader, the conductor Chailly. The managerial decision was whether to go on with what the orchestra was playing, or, interrupt and address the “mistake.” If the latter, what then? Hope that the orchestra knows the piece for which Ms. Pires had practiced? The leadership decision by Chailly was to inspire Ms. Pires to go on with the concerto in progress, and to trust her repertoire and her talent. Should Ms. Pires have failed, Chailly would have worn egg on his face for quite some time.abstract 2

An above-average manager makes “good” decisions of which the beneficial outcomes spread widely, internally as well as externally. And clearly, we can only judge the quality of the “outcomes” in hindsight. This is where management’s track record comes into play. That record is bound to show some mistakes here and there…but usually not of the colossal type (e.g. not spelling rabbit with three ‘M’s). An excellent manager works to so inspire people that during a crisis, and/or when a decision leads into an uncertain exercise, her people will have developed enough trust in her to rally behind her. Thus a good manager who can inspire his people becomes a trustworthy leader.

In light of yet another horrible, terrible, no good, and very bad week of killings, the eroding trust between law enforcement officers and citizens is laid bare for the world to witness. In such an atmosphere my musings on trust almost seem trite and pedestrian. However, in everyday organizational life, we must keep the lights on. So, perhaps, this is the period during which we should be even more attentive to keep sowing the seeds of trust.


May we all attain that peace of mind. Till next time,

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Lessons From Google’s Group Dynamics

I might have given this example before, so please forgive me for repeating it. However, the lesson is worth repeating. Decades ago, someone did this experiment: He assembled a team of top engineers from across the globe, gave them the assignment of assembling the world’s best car, by taking best parts of the best automobiles. The result? The car didn’t even drive.

The same principle applies to team composition. Assigning the best people (by what criteria?) in an organization and putting them in a team almost guarantees a mediocre-performing team at best, or a losing team at worst. How to assemble a good-to-great team has bedeviled many practitioners as well as academics. I think one of the traps is our thinking that if we gather a bunch of talented people, they ought to work things out for the best…forgetting that team dynamics is not static. Ever. Hence, “dynamics.” Even the best-forming team can only hum along on a project for so long before something throws them off. And different projects evoke different emotional responses from members.

Sometimes it's fun to single out one cat for weird composition.

Sometimes it’s fun to single out one cat for weird composition.

It turned out Google also fell into the above erroneous assumption, “building the best teams by combining the best people.” However, being data-driven Google, they plunked down enough resources to learn about team, starting from researching the existing literature, consulting with internal and external experts, to gathering data on hundreds of teams among the 57,000 employees. The project was called “Project Aristotle” (PA).

As skilled in detecting patterns as Google is, the PA team didn’t see patterns emerging from the massive amount of data. It mattered little whether people shared similar values, similar professional backgrounds, or similar interests. The teammates of effective teams might socialize outside work, or they might not. Teams of almost identical make-up (“identical” on paper, in other words, in measurable features) would have very different levels of performance. The group comprising “smart” ones might work more efficiently than others, but the group of “average” employees seemed to know how to make the best out of everyone and create “sum larger than the parts” synergy.

Group dynamics have a way of messing with our heads…and emotions. And emotions play an important role.

When the Project Aristotle team dug deeper into the data, what they first tentatively grasped was that “norm” seemed to be the glue for group, regardless of the group performance. Norm is the unwritten, taken-for-granted rules that naturally emerge as a group coalesces around its identity. Another way of understanding norm is by breaking it, or imagining breaking it. The PA team leader wanted to push further and tried to understand what norms would guide a group toward a more synergistic whole and perform better than others, especially over time. The PA team finally hit the sweet spot of a good-performing team: When everyone in the team had a fairly equal opportunity to speak up, the team thrived. When someone, or a smaller subset of members, dominated the conversations – however brilliant their ideas might be – the group ultimately suffered.

An astute leader who could help the group navigate the conversation flow was a plus. And such leadership role didn’t have to reside with one person only. Situational leadership means that everyone can undertake the leadership role depending on the task at hand. For instance, during the task’s creation stage, someone who’s more comfortable with generating thoughts and ideas can take the lead role, and when the task moves into the execution stage, perhaps another person with better organization skills can step in.

All this hinges on the individual’s ability to “read” others’ emotions, mood, or temperament. This is the essence of emotional intelligence (EI) With little EI, group members might not feel comfortable stepping into the various leadership roles. To divvy up tasks for efficiency is relatively easier than to negotiate different roles without stepping into each others’ domains. Ultimately, though, a group’s manager needs to assume the emotional leader’s responsibility to know if the group is coherent, if it has a common goal, which group members might need more nurturing, and when to leave people alone.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

One of the dramatic examples concerning Google’s search for creating the best team involved a team’s leader revealing his terminal cancer. When the group heard the news in a retreat, the members began to share with each other their own vulnerability. Obviously, everyone’s vulnerability is different. The point is that when a leader shows hers, she’s signaling that she’s willing to take the risk and trust her team. Not everyone is comfortable with such a tactic, but then, that’s how a leader demonstrates leadership qualities.

While Google’s efforts were admirable, most organizations don’t have the resources to expend on essentially experiential learning. On the other hand, experiential learning doesn’t need to be costly. On the fifth hand, not trying, not learning, not opening up would be costly…for individuals as well for organizations.

Enjoy your July 4th weekend. And be safe. I will resume after July 10th. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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A Random Walk …to relieve some stress

Years ago, feeling like a lifetime ago, during one day of a salary negotiation, I could feel the churn in my stomach, literally and physically. By the end of the day, I got the salary I wanted. And really, at no point during the negotiation was I in disadvantaged position. I was proud of myself for standing firm, but the bile accumulated during the day almost made me throw up. That began my long journey of stomach issues. Undoubtedly, the root cause of my stomach ailment might have been dormant for years and this stressful event just provided the right stimulus for the problem to manifest. My point is that stress affects our physical well-being, and both temporary and prolonged stress hurts us in manners that we can’t usually predict.

Of course what stresses me might be an easy task for another person, and we each have our breaking point, as I presented in my article, “Stress is both Subjective and Objective.”  Often, when people are so accustomed to living in a constantly stressful situation they take their stress for granted and don’t notice it mentally…except their bodies do. By now, most of us are fairly familiar with the theory of body-mind connection. When the mind is over stressed, the resulting consequences range from a weakened immune system to a heart attack or stroke or other serious physical ailment.

After writing the above paragraphs, I stalled. I thought about getting into the science of body-mind connection and tying it to organizational issues, but it’s complicated. Facing a possible, yet another, three-post series on neurons, hormones, memories…just stressed me out. I ended up veering into writing on other types of writing for a couple of weeks. I even got into left-handed painting (I am usually right handed) and discovered that I probably would have been a left-handed person if not “corrected” when I was young. It was both exciting and stressful (what have I missed?). I cleaned the house, a definitive sign of stress for me.   Made desserts; fortunately, I don’t care for eating much of them…still… Basically, I’d do anything but continue writing on this topic.

ducks under tiger

A right-handed painting in my fusion series (watercolor)

I could drop the topic and move on. Yet, I like a challenge. Eventually, I decided to do a random walk to get around this “stress.”

During this period, I found some commiseration with others’ stories of stress.

Story 1: Tom had a long and not terribly good day. Arriving home late that evening, seeing his son by the table with a birthday cake on it, Tom said dejectedly, “Oh, son, I am so sorry; I forgot it’s your birthday. I didn’t even get you a gift.” His son said, “Dad, it’s your birthday!”

Story 2: A friend forgot her twin’s birthday one year.

Story 3…well, it’s more like a saying: A male friend’s comment, “’Suck it up’ at work ultimately gets you a hernia.” Oy!

An organization can be over-stressed too. I think this election cycle has really put our country under a lot of stress. What would be the tangible manifestations of prolonged organizational, or societal, stress?

While I find the scientific body-mind connection fascinating, I think how to manage stress is the million-dollar challenge. If you can manage/relieve stress bit by bit over a period, how would you know that you have prevented any bad physical symptoms? To be able to prevent — the absence of negative – doesn’t naturally or automatically bring comfort. It’s not as if one day you wake up and realize, “Yay, I kicked the habit of stressing myself out.” While there are plenty of stories about heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, etc., resulting from stress, we don’t usually know when to separate ourselves from those little stressors…till strokes or heart attacks take place. While one can celebrate a successful recovery from a heart attack or stroke, how do you celebrate not having them in the first place? I know a few people who get stressed over preparing for vacation, or over the disagreements with their mates on the vacation, and over the post-vacation bills.

A dear friend who is as sweet as he can be, nevertheless blows up at people, including his loved ones because he would not let any external disagreement, or whatever he deems unreasonable, stress him. I wish I could do even 5% of that! Yet his relief often is the cause for others’ stress.


I don’t know the answer. We each have to define and locate our stress points, and we each have to monitor our own environments and our own physical signs for stress. Recently, I found myself worrying myself sick about and fuming over an event that I dread attending. Eventually I filled myself with venomous energy that made me even more unhappy with myself. Happily I stopped; worrying about it would get me nowhere and fuming about it makes me an ugly person. Self-awareness helped. How do you develop that? Methodically, with practice, and with loved ones who can remind you and nudge you toward finding relief…but you need to listen to their suggestions.

Probably equally often, we find ourselves in situations where we can only choose the lesser of evils. So, we are still stressed, just not as much? Is that supposed to be comforting? Yet, I am afraid that least-stressful choices dominate modern life in our organizations and in our society. In the end, I think all we can do is to be aware, to find relief however we can, whenever, and wherever.

Well, I do feel much better now. I hope you have better ways to deal with stress than I do… please share. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Wishful Thinking; Magical Thinking; Idealism; Reality: We seem to lose our ability to distinguish these categories

I try; I’ve really tried, and I truly want to hold onto appreciative mode of thinking. But these days reality frequently bites me with reminders of why so many people in our society, or for that matter, in the rest of the world, have become cynical.

Last week, Ted Cruz chose Carly Fiorina as his VP running mate in the GOP presidential campaign.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Professor Jeff Pfeffer, of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, once described Fiorina succinctly, “[even] people who have presided over catastrophes suffer no negative consequences. On the contrary, Ms Fiorina, who by any objective measure was a horrible CEO, is running for president on her business record. I love it! . . . You can’t make this stuff up — it’s too good!” Perhaps Mr. Cruz thinks that Ms. Fiorina could help other businesses understand how not to fail?!

Oh, what am I thinking? That would require a degree of humility to acknowledge one’s mistakes. Humility in today’s leadership? either in organizations or in politics?!

The aforementioned Professor Pfeffer is one of the prominent scholars in the management field. He’s studied countless organizations and leaders/managers. He and his colleague, Robert Sutton, have written many books that are good reading for both academics and practitioners, of which “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense” was the basis for several of my earlier posts (here & here). Pfeffer’s latest book is titled, “Leadership BS.” According to the Financial Times writeup, even some of Pfeffer’s colleagues think that he has become too cynical, focusing too much on the “scorpions, spiders and cockroaches” of D- or F-rated leaders. Hmmmm…first, let’s not call these D/F-rated managers or politicians “leaders.” Second, only the cockroach should be used as the reference; the other species actually serve a purpose in the ecosystem. Pfeffer’s defense is: He relates what the data inform him.

In Professor Pfeffer’s view, we want to imbue inspirational qualities in the images of ideal leaders, qualities such as authenticity, consideration, humility, etc. But the majority of the managers in his studies do not live up to this inspirational image. This doesn’t negate the existence of a few truly inspirational leaders with abundant humility. Pfeffer himself has named a few inspirational leaders in his years of studying leadership. Jim Collins’ books, for example “From Good to Great,” illustrate some of the quiet type of leaders; yet, Mr. Collins has highlighted many charismatic, pseudo-inspirational leaders who focus on their own satisfaction rather than serve the good of the people in their organizations. Nonetheless, I take Pfeffer’s point that genuinely inspirational leaders are few and far between. By building up the “shoulds” in the leadership attributes while neglecting the reality, we (who like to write about or teach these topics) do a disservice for our audience and help create the disenchantment that’s been festering in our society. It is but one source for the loss of our collective trust in our management and leadership.

Another strand of criticism laid against Professor Pfeffer is that by focusing on the narcissistic leaders/managers, he is essentially condoning those who hoard power. Pfeffer argues that there are always those who hunger for power; we cannot ever eliminate that; it’s part of human nature. Nor can we wish it away by only focusing on the few inspirational leaders. We may try to contain the abuse of power, but hierarchy is part of our DNA where power is a tool. What his research has done is to help us understand how people acquire and keep power. Pfeffer uses the examples of President Lincoln and Nelson Mandela to illustrate that even true leaders have to lie and manipulate in order to achieve what they perceive as “higher” purposes.   As for how to use power for better purposes, for the greater good of the public, answers lie in our upbringing, our philosophical leaning, the kind of peer and social circles we have, etc.

Snake or twig?

Snake or twig?

And oh, by the way, just because someone can lie and manipulate masterfully, or even seemingly so, doesn’t make that person a shining example of a “leader.” Especially if at the end of the lying and manipulating, there is little evidence of accomplishment for anyone but him/herself…that’s simply someone drunk on power; it’s called “being Voldemort.”

Ultimately, what we look for in leadership is judgment exhibited in the track record. It isn’t just successes we want, but also the quality of these successes…as well as the nature and circumstances of failures. Making tough decisions is not the relevant metric; if (say) three out of five tough decisions lead to impressive failures then “the ability to make tough decisions” is hardly a bragging point – a tossed coin could have done better. Tanking a Fortune 500 company might be worth, say, five-fold failure.

According to Professor Pfeffer’s research, the data on the quality of leadership do not back up what the business schools teach or what the leadership industry advises. Should we give up? Of course not, but a healthy dose of realistic examination would be valuable. In fact, Pfeffer and Sutton have another book calling for such practice, “Evidence-Based Management Principles.

Robert Townsend in his book “Up The Organization,” offers an easier and much less costly method of assessing a good leader. “How do you spot a leader? They come in all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions. Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright. One clue: since most people per se are mediocre, the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.(Highlight mine)

A genteel dog in real life.

A genteel dog in real life.

Regardless of the method we choose to assess leaders, the evidence clearly demonstrates that some of the business operators who attempt to enter into politics do not possess a good track record. Yet because they themselves have not suffered terribly in the business world, their narcissism leads them to think they know better. Hence the public cynicism. It seems there are no consequences for executives’ bad behavior and decisions. Ms. Fiorina was fired, but enjoyed a golden parachute of millions in compensation and stock options. Mr. Trump has filed four bankruptcies, but is touted as successful billionaire. As many have pointed out, had Mr. Trump just sat on his inheritance, he’d accrued more asset than what he currently claims to possess. In addition, having 1,300 lawsuits involving Trump and/or his companies since 2000 isn’t exactly a positive reflection on the quality of his business, is it?

Still, many keep arguing for a business operator to run the largest government on this planet. The assumptions for such a wish are fallacious. I will address these assumptions in the next post. Till then,

Staying Sane (and Calm) and Charging Ahead.

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