Lead With A Light Touch

There is a pervasive fear among inexperienced leaders: “I can’t trust my people.”

They never say it that way, of course. They may not even realize they feel that way. It comes out in more innocuous ways. It is the leader who is a borderline micro-manager (because people need direction), the person that resists delegating a task (because it has to be done “right”), or the time-watcher who judges their team’s commitment by what time each member’s day starts and finishes (rather than by the results they produced).

In other words, these people are heavy-handed leaders. They believe they have to be involved in everything, every step of the way. They worry if anyone else takes the wheel, that person will promptly drive the bus off a cliff.

I prefer to lead using cruise-control, adjusting course with a light touch, as needed. I grant my team a lot of authority and let them do things their way. In fact, one of the trade-offs of being a leader is you no longer get to decide what the “right way” to do something is. You give up having the only answers and trust people to reach the same results you would, but in their own way. In other words, I might show a team member how I perform a task but I do not expect them to do it the same way I showed them now and forever. I expect them to do it whatever way works best for them.

The way I see it, my job as a leader, has three primary functions:

1.  Teach my team to think for themselves and create their own ways of getting work done. Essentially, as long as we are doing nothing that is immoral, unethical, or illegal, we are on the right track.

2.  Stay out of their way. I provide their assignments and some direction. I am here for questions. Outside of that and asking for a regular update if I am not hearing from them (in case I have to update anyone), I trust them to do their work.

3.  Remove obstacles. The time when it is appropriate to step in as a leader is when your team hits a roadblock. Then, you jump in and clear that roadblock–whether it is to provide tools or  political cover or simply moral support–and then get back out-of-the-way.


Leading with a light touch helps your team rely on themselves, trust their decisions, and grow both personally and professionally. It helps you grow, too. When you learn to clear roadblocks instead of being a roadblock, you become an effective and trusted leader. You set the example for others and you end up determining the course of the whole organization, almost invisibly.

It is simple when you think about it. Just be someone you would want to work for.

Go. Lead.


How To Be A Leader In 3 Easy Steps

There are probably as many ways of being a leader as there are types of leaders. Here are three tips that work for me.


I have not always been known as a “Gets it done with excellence” person. I used to be mostly referred to as a “He seems like a good kid” person. Over my career, I have built a reputation as a strategic thinker and considerate leader who is fair, earns respect by maintaining a high level of integrity, and delivers results. (Of course, some people think I am an arrogant jerk with a bloated ego but I will never win everyone over… and that’s okay). Here are three things I know have helped me build character and become both a better person and a better leader over the course of my career:

1. Knowledge. Expanding my knowledge by studying the works of great thinkers, philosophers, and artists has easily had the most profound impact on me. The best way I know to do that is through reading. Reading forces me to slow down and think at a pace where I can pause, reflect, and process information in real-time.

The power of books might sound lofty to trashy horror and romance aficionados but I will say it does not really matter what you read as long as what you read challenges what you think about and how you think about it.

If you do not enjoy combing through boring books about entrepreneurship and self-help stories written by great leaders (who are not necessarily great writers), then comic books are great reading material! Learn about leadership by reading about heroes and villains, and thinking through their moral quandaries. Or read books by famous sports coaches if you enjoy sports. Just read something that offers more than a brainless story (those are fine, too, just not for self-development unless you are a very intuitive reader).

2. Humility. It took me a long time to realize I do not have to have all the answers and, in fact, if I think I am the smartest person in the room, then I need to find a different room.

If I am not surrounded by people who are smarter than me and see things I can not see, I have a problem. I am not being challenged, my thinking muscles are not being exercised, and my perceptions are going unquestioned. It feels good to be the top dog but it does not help me stay on top.

To be fair, I never hope to be the dumbest person in the room either because that means I am not contributing value or understanding the people around me.  I also do not have to necessarily surround myself with people who disagree with me. Just because there is disagreement does not mean there is a contribution to intellect.

I want to be around people who see clearer, further, or from different angles and know how to communicate respectfully, with patience, warmth, and by drawing logical conclusions. That way, we all learn to think better, and hopefully be better.

3. Trust. Before I could trust myself to lead others, I had to learn to trust myself. In other words, if I could not rely on myself to do what I said I would do by the time I said I would do it, then how could I expect others to keep their commitments to me?

I developed my “integrity” muscle, as it were, by making and keeping promises to myself. Over and over, if I told myself I would do something (like, say, wake up when my alarm went off without hitting the “snooze” button even once–just get up and go), then I would practice keeping that commitment until I consistently had it right. Over time, I could trust myself to do whatever I agreed to do with myself (like wake up before my alarm clock goes off–I can trust myself to do that now, just by reminding myself to wake up before X time).

The trick, after that, is to keep expanding the trust I have earned with myself, and then eventually, with my commitments to others (until they realize when I say I will do something it is as good as done), and finally by expecting their commitments to me to have equal integrity. No one wants to be less than their best, but until they see and believe they can transform (by watching you go first) they may not realize there is a higher standard to hold themselves to. In other words, lead by example, and expect those you are leading to do the same.


Knowledge, Humility, and Trust help me continue to develop myself and, I assert, are key elements among the most trusted and respected leaders. If you want to grow as a person or as a leader, I recommend starting there. Grab a book, read one page a week if that is all you can commit to now. But make that commitment to yourself and keep it. Then agree to do a little more with yourself. Then expand keeping your commitments with others until they trust your word the way they trust the law of gravity. It never fails them. Then, and only then, ask for that commitment back. Actually, you will probably never have to ask. Everybody tries to be like their hero.

Go. Lead.


Trust Your Instincts

Today’s Lesson: If you have a hunch about something, do not assume it is correct, but all other things being equal, go with your gut.


We had a scary moment in the bay with our Stand-Up Paddleboards (SUP’s). I know already that storms are a lot closer than they appear when we are playing in the ocean. At the first sign of lightning in the distance, we are out of the water and packing up for the day.

What I just learned, though, is that the wind can be way out in front of the storm. It was our second day with our new SUP’s (and only my fourth or fifth time using one) and we noticed the sky was overcast so we chose to stay close to shore. Despite the weather report (40% chance of light rain starting two hours later), I looked at the ominous sky and suggested we turn around. We thought we were playing it safe. We were lazily working our way around a small channel about 500 feet from the beach when the wind suddenly picked up.

Paddling against even a light wind, it turns out, is daunting and can exhaust you quickly, especially while trying to navigate choppy water. If you stop, even for a second, your board begins moving backward or turns around. There is a trick to making headway in this situation–drop to your knees and make small, short strokes–but the temptation is strong to “power” your way against the current before the real storm arrives and you find yourself stuck in the ocean. It is scary.

If we were on land, I could have trotted to shore in less than a minute, but after ten minutes of non-stop paddling, I still had a good 300 feet to go. The sky was darkening and the wind was increasing. This was not good.

It was shallow and I even hopped off my board to attempt walking it to shore. Not a chance. There was nothing but oyster beds and coral between me and the beach head. 2 steps and I knew there was no way I could do it without slicing and dicing my feet, not to mention chancing encounters with stingrays and other creatures who we know frequented the area. I hopped back on my board, paying a time precious penalty for my experiment.

I fell off 3 other times trying various ideas to cut the distance. That only made things worse.

Despite my size and strength advantage, Nicole is a stronger paddler than I am. She has more patience, better balance, and a stronger technique (not to mention more grace) than I do. She was easily 50 feet ahead of me and was slowing down to make sure I was going to make it to shore okay.

As she stepped onto shore, looking frantically behind her to see if I was moving forward, I finally got the hang of the board and figured out the other key to the small, short stroke method–make sure the strokes are not shallow. Once I had my paddle all the way in the water with each stroke, I really picked up momentum and lurched forward at a good clip.

We made it to shore before the storm and finished loading our SUP’s and gear as the rain started. There was a bit of stress and a bit of laughing, and then some hugging. Another adventure survived together.

Luckily, our caution served us well. I know next time, though, when faced with a quick decision, I will consider both the data (40% chance of light rain sometime in the next few hours) and my instincts (in retrospect: dark sky, still novices at paddling, the normally abundant wildlife absent in both the water and trees, “spider-sense” going off). I trusted my gut in this case, but I should have trusted it more.

Before it became our latest adventure story, it was just a damn scary moment in time.



It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

Today’s Lesson: Just because you are at a standstill does not mean you have to stand still.


Relationships and gratitude are powerful things and thanks to both, I have found a new opportunity I will share more about in later posts. For now, I want to share what I learned about problem-solving today.

Over the last couple weeks, I met with a great team of people I would be excited to work with. They are doing cool things with cool technology and they are on a mission to grow their business through leadership, innovative thinking, and building a truly unique and unconventional work culture.

It looked like we were not going to be able to figure a way to everyone’s needs and last week we decided to shake hands and part ways.

Still, it ate at me and the owners and we knew there was a middle ground that could make it work so we met for lunch again today, to see where the conversation might lead and come up with some possible ideas. I am happy to say we figured it out and I will be joining their team soon.

The point, though, is this: we shook hands and walked away. No bridges burned, no feelings hurt, just a professional departure with a hope to work together in the future. The future sometimes comes sooner than you expect and sometimes letting a complicated question work itself out in your subconscious while you focus on other things can bring surprising answers in a flash.

You may think an issue (good or bad) is at a dead stop and you might feel frustrated but in the back of your mind (or heart) you may still be working on a better answer. Trust that it will come, and it probably will.



How to Tactfully Challenge Your Boss (3 of 5)

From a former colleague: “Do you have a blog post on ‘How to tactfully challenge your leader or something like that?” Why, yes. Yes, I do. In fact, we have 5 now!


I have been there. My boss asks me to do something that seems bad for business or frankly just sounds like a bad idea. I want to speak out (and my peers are counting on me to) but I am not sure how to do it without the situation blowing up.

Every boss and every working relationship is different, of course, but I can offer five tips that help me keep the peace while challenging the status quo:

((Read part 1 and part 2.))

3 (of 5). Understand your boss might not necessarily agree with the instructions he or she is giving you either. If your boss is generally a bright person yet he is asking you to do something that seems counter to his personality or typical leadership style, he might be following directions, too. A good manager never lets his direct reports distinguish from the Company’s viewpoint and his own (because that is a sure-fire way to disenfranchise employees and pit them against their employer, as well as make the boss seem ineffective and powerless). Or he might understand how the Company is looking at it because he has information you are not yet privy to. That info might change your mind but he may not be at liberty to share it yet.

In all my years leading teams, I have never seen a strategy rolled out without the Company’s best interest in mind. Companies never come up with ideas to sabotage themselves (not intentionally). Front line workers and middle managers do not always see the big, long-term picture. Unfortunately, middle managers are stuck between both standing behind the Company and standing up for the Employee–it is a tough, unfair spot but that is why the best people in the company are usually there.


Today’s Lesson: Companies and bosses, like all people (which is what companies and bosses are made of) sometimes have to learn from their mistakes before they can grow again. You can challenge every decision you think is bad but remember you might not have all the information and you can always try trusting your boss first…

Tomorrow, I will give you a super-secret tip that will help you stand up in front of any crowd!


Why Did You Start Here?

Why did you take that job?


There is a popular saying among leaders: “People do not quit their jobs. They quit their managers.” When I look back at the jobs I have left, most of the time that was true for me.

Today, I learned the adverse is also true. Before I decided to move out-of-state, I hired a new manager for my team. Between the time I extended the offer and her first day working for me, I made the decision to leave the company. I sat down with her today and explained the situation, assuring her she would be in good hands and laying out the details of her next few weeks. It was important to me, to make sure she felt supported and knew she has been set-up for success regardless of my departure.

After our conversation, she said, “I am really excited for you but I am also sad to see you go. We didn’t get to work together and one of the biggest reasons I decided to jump ship was because I wanted to come here and work for you.”

I was humbled and a bit awe-struck by the statement, though in retrospect, it seems obvious. She chose to work at this company based on conversations with me and the experiences I shared during our initial interview. She chose to work here because she trusts me, not necessarily because of what she read on our website.

When I thought about that, I realized that I also made many of my job choices because I liked, trusted, or recognized I could learn a lot from the person who interviewed me. In fact, the person representing the company was probably the biggest factor in my deciding to work for a company.

I was surprised to realize I was on the other side of that equation today.


Today’s Lesson: People do not quit their jobs. They quit their bosses. But also, people do not choose their jobs. They choose their leaders. 



Today’s Lesson: Do You Trust Me Enough To Trust Me? [140911]

Sitting at dinner with the managers on my team, I asked what do we (the company’s leadership team) do that is just stupid? What do we do that gets in the way of helping our frontline people be effective?


The answer surprised me. They resoundingly said, “You don’t trust us to manage.”


They gave me a couple great examples, both having to do with email. The first example is when someone from upper management (including me) sends information that is easily and readily available, like an email with a snippet of a daily report every manager already reviews as part of their morning routine. I might as well send an email that says, “Look, Dummy–you didn’t sell enough stuff yesterday; did you notice that?” (YES, they noticed!).


An even better example is when the Area Director sends a message directly to our team (skipping the Region Manager, District Manager, and Store Manager). The Region Manager often forwards the same message to be sure it is read (the perception is he or she does not trust the frontline managers to understand the importance of the Area Director’s message or he does not trust the District Managers to deliver the message with the appropriate emphasis). On top of that, the District Manager forwards the Region Manager’s forwarded message (because the District Manager does not trust the Store Managers to understand the implications of either the Region Manager’s or the Area Director’s message or because the District Manager wants to show he is doing his job by making sure the message has additional impact from him).


Of course, the buck stopped at the Area Director’s message. If it came from him, it inherently has more authority and impact than it would from the Region, District, or Store Managers. There is no reason to forward it or add to it. The frontline team members end up receiving the same message 3 times in 3 ways from 3 people. Heaven help them if the owner of the company sends a message! It gets forwarded by EVERYBODY!


The result of this madness, it turns out, is a lot of damage. Obviously, it generates email clutter which detracts from the importance of the original message. It works in the same way spam clutters your personal email. Too many messages make it hard to find the relevant stuff. Worse, piggy-backing messages by re-forwarding them undermines not only the frontline Store Manager’s authority (because if something is really important, then her team knows it will come from her boss’s boss’s boss’s boss) but it also undermines the authority of the Store, District, and Region Manager. It works all the way down. If the District Manager forwards a message to his entire team from the Region Manager, but with slightly added verbiage, then he is undermining both his influence and the influence of the frontline Store Manager. He is in effect saying, “I don’t trust you to deliver this message to our team so I am going to break it down for your tiny brain to be sure you do it the right way, which, of course, is MY way.”


It was a powerful lesson for me and, honestly, it was hard to hear. I like to think I am adding value to a message when I forward it or that I am saying something is extra important when I skip my managers and take command of their teams. As usual, this lesson applies to more than just business, too. How many times a day do I subvert my authority or influence by trying to re-deliver an already obvious message? How many times do I try to cram a message down someone’s throat, unknowingly?


We all know the type, right? You have met the guy who says, “Your hair looked better the other way,” and then after you say thanks for letting you know his thoughts (which you probably did not ask for), he continues, “No, I mean, it really looks bad the way you have it now. You should go back to the other way.” Did you not get the message the first time?


I now have a commitment to send no more than 5 emails per day to my team (I might fail sometimes, but this is the general goal). I have also committed not to skip my managers to deliver a message to their team but rather hold the managers accountable for delivering my message their way (and helping clarify or back them up when needed)–as they so movingly reminded me at dinner, “We got this. We will fight for you. That’s our job.” (I actually choked up when they said that.)


Finally, I have committed not to forward (or re-forward) a message already sitting in their inbox. Hopefully, this will help reduce their email clutter and help streamline their day. There is another added benefit, here… this means on the rare occasion when I do have something important enough to say to every individual team member directly, they will listen intently because it is not just clutter. It is that important.


When was the last time you asked your team (or your family) what you (or your company) do that just needs to go away? What do you do that’s stupid? Give them the space to answer and you might just find some lessons for yourself…




Today’s Lesson: The Zen of Success [140829]

I am proud to have a team that regularly outperforms teams double its size in arguably better markets with more tenured staff. My team performs at a high level regardless of moving targets, staffing adjustments, market changes, or customer traffic patterns. I attribute much of our success to two things, and I was reminded of these today while speaking to a peer: Patience and Persistence. Here is how it works:

Patience: I distill information. It is rare for me to make a decision without analyzing available data and asking for input from my team leaders. Even when I am not directing a team, this is true. For example, I read lots of books on leadership but I throw most of the information out. It is not all relevant to my style of leadership and some of it is plain bad (one popular example is the idea of “servant leadership“–an oxymoron that makes great copy but is meritless as an actual principle). When a directive is delivered to me, I do not necessarily pass it on to my team untarnished. I examine the core value of the message, decide if it is right for us and how the team can best ingest it, and then act in alignment with our team values.

An easy way to kill team effectiveness is by delivering conflicting messages. That is why it is important to be a filter for the information coming in. I once worked for a company that had, as one of its core values, “Empower employees” yet required employees to complete a requisition form for the most basic office supplies, even Paper Mate cheap ball point pens–if you wanted one, you were “empowered” to fill out a form. Of course, the irony of that was lost on no one… except the head of HR.

Persistence: I take the long view. I have learned that everybody wants something and they want it now but that is almost never a path to sustainable success. In personal affairs or in business, we deal with agendas. Family, friends, coworkers, bosses, vendors, television news anchors, brands, even our pets have an agenda and they all want you to follow theirs.

Instead, I stick to my team’s agenda, deliver the results we are focused on despite distractions and requests coming at us (distill the information), and ensure we are operating within our team values and principles. If we understand the overall mission we have been charged with (which is usually closer to “grow the business” than it is to “we need to sell more widgets now, now, now!”), then it is easier to quiet the noise, take the long view, and follow our agenda.

In a more than 20-year old company, my team has quietly become the fifth most consistent performing team in only 3 years and we continue a quiet but steady rise. Sometimes we are recognized but usually we don’t make big splashes; we just continue to do well and try to improve day by day. We never seek magic bullets and we do not compromise our team values of Integrity, Honesty, and Trust.

If there is a secret Leadership club where all the popular leadership skills are passed out to every author basically re-writing the same book, I was not invited. I have figured out a few things, though, by simply being persistent and patient. It takes persistence to seek information, edit what does not fit and find those little nuggets that change everything. It takes patience to walk, not run, when others are screaming “fire!” and you know that keeping your team on task sometimes is the task.

Whether in business or personal success, I can tell you patience and persistence always pay off.



Today The Lesson I Learned Is: Follow The Signs (140809)

In his book, “The Alchemist”, Paulo Coelho points out that sometimes we should listen to what the universe is telling us and follow the signs…

This weekend, Nicole and I had plans to visit Torch Lake, one of the most pristine lakes in the world (which is only a few hours away from us). Our plans were foiled due to a shoulder injury (hers) and a back injury (mine), so we decided to spend the day touristing around Lansing (Michigan’s state capitol). That didn’t happen either, for a bunch of reasons not worth mentioning.

I was beginning to feel discouraged the weekend was not going our way, but then I decided to simply give up and give myself to the day. I went where the day took me. In so doing, we made $125 just by staying in town (which we promptly blew at a fancy restaurant), we had great vegan food all day, took one of the longest, best naps I think I have ever had, and enjoyed the day walking, talking, and shopping.

We did not fight traffic trying to get in and out of Lansing during rush hour, we did not go kayaking in cold water and we did not have to drive another 40 minutes to find a vegan-friendly place to eat (Northern Michigan is pretty, but also pretty backwards culturally), and we can visit Torch Lake or Lansing another day.

All in all, it was not a bad trade; we had a great day and I would gladly trade the trip for this weekend again. When the universe seems to fight your plans, maybe you should just trust it and take its advice.


Today The Lesson I Learned Is: To Be Number One, You Have To Have a Number One… (140808)

You ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation? Captain Picard often calls his Commanding Officer (Commander Riker) by the name, “Number One”, as in, “Number One, what is the status of the bridge repairs?”

“Number One”, as I understand it, is not an official designation or rank, it is just Captain Picard’s way of saying, “This is my number one team member, my first lieutenant–the person I count on to fill my shoes when I am away and someone who has earned something above and beyond his rank title with me.”

When you are leading a team, you need a Number One. It is the only way you can relax when you are on vacation or have to be away for extended periods. It is important to hand the reins to someone you know you can trust to lead the way you lead (or at least with a clear understanding of your motives, interests, goals, and character in mind).

Today, my Number One sent me a text, knowing I am off for the weekend:

“Enjoy your weekend, I’ll stay on top of the contest, too; you just relax and ignore us 🙂 “

It feels good to breathe easy knowing the team is in as good of hands as my own. It is both a testament to a job done well by a leader and a leader ready to do a job well.