Author: stoshdwalsh


In Whom Should We Invest?

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As I was perusing the forum board of a social media group today, I came across an interesting question from one of its members:

“What guidelines do you use in determining who you pour your life into?”

Pretty big question, right?  A potentially defining question, in fact.

Among the many thoughts this question prompted for me was that regardless of their positions, people often feel confusion, guilt, or uncertainty about the time or energy they invest in others.  Is it fair?  Is it enough?  Have I chosen correctly?  Am I making an impact?

Left unaddressed, these questions can continue for an entire career, if not a lifetime.  Unanswered, they can grow into self-doubt that affects other areas.  For example, if a person lacks the assurance that her efforts have helped others to grow, she might be less inclined to volunteer to train or coach others in the future.  If this is part of her role, she might be less enthusiastic, less willing to take risks, or further from the most innovative aspects of her profession.

For these reasons, feedback is critical.  How we spend our time, and with whom, can depend on several factors, but outcomes should always be among them.  Even qualitatively, a potential discerning question might be, “From what quarters does your most positive feedback come?”  Answering this question, and, importantly, owning the result, can help people allocate their investment in others wisely.  Everyone who coaches and mentors others has a sweet spot, an area of maximum effectiveness.  That is not to say anyone should not strive to be effective no matter who their audience happens to be, but each person will be better in some areas and with some people over others.  If someone receives more positive feedback and produces better outcomes from having invested in associates who have recently joined the organization than they do from working with those who are more tenured, then it is in everyone’s best interest (including the investor’s) to honor that.

A person’s own aspirations also provide an important filter in this discernment process.  For example, some people want to change the world one person at a time regardless of level or station in life, others want to influence only those who can influence others and maximize their potential impact. That filter will determine how one spends time not just in coaching, but in everything else as well.

A final word: Exceptions and missed opportunities will always exist.  Time spent worrying about them engenders guilt, and subtracts from gaining clarity about where to spend time investing.

Examine your feedback.  Own the result.  Consider your aspirations.  Move forward with confidence.


Defending Your People

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I didn’t get to watch much of the NCAA men’s basketball championship game last night, but I did see about 5 minutes of the post-game press conference, in which Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski appeared with 4 of his players.  Journalists took turns asking Coach K and the players questions, and then something very interesting happened.  One journalist asked Duke center Brian Zoubek a question about how it felt to finish his collegiate basketball career on top, and characterized Zoubek’s career as “up and down.”

Krzyzewski intervened before Zoubek had a chance to respond, telling the journalist that Zoubek had not had an up and down career; rather, that his career had been marred by injuries.  Coach K then made a joke about how the injuries precluded Zoubek from going up and down, saying, “He can’t jump.”

“Thanks, Coach,” Zoubek responded with a wry smile.

“Well, you are never going to play for me again, so…” came Coach K’s response.

“Does that mean I get to say something back?” Zoubek responded.

“No, because I can still get back at you,” and Coach K had the final word.

When Coach K first interrupted the question, it might have been easy for some to surmise that he was simply being pedantic, but it was more than that.  He was protecting his player, just as he had done for the previous 4 years of his career at Duke.  The playful banter that ensued between them demonstrated both the rapport they shared, as well as the respect with which Zoubek approaches his college coach.

Part of that respect obviously comes from the success Coach K has enjoyed over time, having won his 4th national championship at the same school last night.  More telling, though, it comes from the fact that Brian Zoubek, and probably all of Duke’s players, know that their coach, a formidable ally, is squarely in their corner–even in a matter so small as a journalist’s wording of a question.

Zoubek could have handled it himself, but Coach K was having none of that.  He did not want his player’s career referred to in any negative light–not on this night, and not on any other.  He was protecting his people.


“I Don’t Need a Mentor.”

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“I don’t have a mentor, and at this point in my career, I don’t think I need one.”

Professional decorum kept me from saying what I thought as I listened to a senior executive from a well known company talk about how dedicated he was to developing others and helping them be successful, but in the very next sentence spoke about how he’d accomplished enough to arrive in his dream position, and therefore no longer needed such help from others.

In truth, I hear this often. It always goes something like this: “I can be a mentor, but I don’t need one.”

But it doesn’t work that way. Knowingly or unknowingly, these individuals are taking the position that they have arrived, that they have nothing left to learn–a mistake both in practice and in perception.

Done being mentored=done learning, done growing, content to stay the same.

I concede the point that the higher level one attains, the more difficult it is to find adequate mentors, but is not having one what’s best for any leader, or any organization?


Boundaries and Cultures

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We’ve all heard that leaders should have boundaries, even distance, between themselves and their followers.

Total myth.

But as our influence grows, it is likely that we will have followers with whom we interact only occasionally, perhaps only indirectly.  As a result, distance exists, or can develop, even when we intentionally try to eliminate it (and we should).

But here’s a buoying thought: that distance can be closed by the culture we create.  It doesn’t have to close as a direct result of some overture we make one person at a time, though of course that is sometimes necessary.

I went to a Christian school when I was younger, and we would often have times where teachers would solicit prayer requests from students.  I remember very vividly the most popular prayer request when I was a young teen: “Unspoken,” which basically meant that the person had something about which they wanted prayer, but weren’t willing to expose the topic in the presence of others.

Some of this, of course, was the natural angst of adolescence.  But some of it was the environment, the culture.

And cultures are created by leaders.

And cultures always win.

Most leaders claim to have an “open door policy.”  So much so that the term has very little meaning anymore.  The question is not “Do you have an open door policy?”  The question is, “What are you doing, intentionally and consistently, to create a culture in which people feel that there is less and less distance between themselves and others (including you as a leader)?”

If we can act on that, the culture we create will do some of the work for us–people will feel comfortable going to each other, and coming to us.

How much “unspoken” exists between you and your followers?  Between your followers and others?  Within your organization?

How do you know? 

More importantly, when was the last time you did something intentional to eliminate boundaries and create a “spoken” culture?


An Open Letter to Fathers

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We are someone’s hero.

Though we feel as though we have failed in moments—even many of them—the fact remains.  We are the most important person in someone else’s life, someone who suffers without our countenance.

It is a heavy burden to bear, being a father.  It involves so much more than paternity; so much more than position.  We have an inheritance to give, a legacy to bequeath.  Our best intentions will not ensure it; only our actions will.  We cannot take for granted that position or presence will suffice.  No, those must be coupled with the hard work of attention.

Are we paying attention?

It is attention that determines our outcomes as a father.  We will be judged, almost exclusively, on whether or not we paid attention. 

And so much rides on whether or not we pay attention.  Others soar or crash with or without it.  We have experienced this, no doubt, ourselves; we know it to be true.  And yet, it is so easy to become distracted, distant, selfish.

But prioritization is the antidote for distraction.  It is well within our reach, but how often do we reach for it? 

It is the heavy burden to bear—being last—serving when we’d rather be served, sacrificing when we’d rather have our own way.  But that is the way of prioritization; that is the way of attention; that is the way of inheritance and legacy, even heroism.  It is the way of fatherhood.

And fatherhood, in its truest forms, extends even to those who are not related to us.  At our best, we pick up where others left off, or never began.  We embrace the burden, learn to love it, let it change us into something we could never have been on our own.

We become fathers.

We become heroes.

And it is never too late to become what we might have been.


Living (and leading) Differently

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If your family is anything like ours, you’ve probably received dozens of greeting cards, family updates, pictures and the ilk of late.

I read these dutifully, and enjoy hearing about what those I love but do not see often have been up to.  Honestly, though, they do seem to run together after I’ve read the first half dozen or so.  But I was reading the update of some friends of ours last night whose perspective on things was unusual.  It contained bad news as well as good news, joys as well as frustrations.  It was transparent.

This would have been uncommon enough, but it ended with this, a Kenyan prayer:
From the cowardice that dare not face new truths,
From the laziness that is contented with half truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver me.

I think that all of us, as leaders, have a tendency to be cowards, or lazy, or arrogant from time to time.  I would submit, though, that we are more often one than the others, evidenced by how we lead.  Do we make decisions too quickly?  Without enough information?  Do we turn a blind eye toward issues or harsh realities?  Do we expect others to follow without having to explain fully?

My friends have a clear sense of what they know, and of what they do not know.  They’ve reflected on what they’ve learned in 2008, and look forward to applying it in 2009 as they begin the process anew, hoping to gain a greater sense of the truth and continue to share it with others.

And that is good leadership. 


I need help. Do you?

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I am a good leader. Education, experiences and objective assessment would support that. (Yes, that is a confident opening statement, but that is another post for another day.)

None of that, however, precludes me from needing help.

It doesn’t matter what kind of talent or education or experience I have in leadership. I still need help.

Too many leaders, though, fail to recognize this, and even some who do fail to act on it.

I had a conversation with a mentee recently in which I offered to advocate for him in a given situation where I held some influence. To my surprise, he thanked me for the offer, but refused.

I was flabbergasted. I did not feel personally offended by his refusal, but I did wonder what was going through his mind.

Upon further reflection, though, he is a talented individual–very intelligent, charismatic and high-achieving.

This, however, is more than likely what made him think he doesn’t need my help, and probably not anyone else’s.

Counterintuitively, help is what will open doors for greater uses of his talent, and fulfillment of his capacities and potential.

As a leader, I need that kind of help whenever I can get it.

Do you?


Life (and Death)

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I learned today that a guy with whom I played soccer and attended class in high school took his own life this past weekend.  We weren’t really pals, hadn’t kept in touch except through Facebook, but it gave me pause to reflect nonetheless.

I thought about the loneliness he must have felt, and the drastic lows that must precipitate such a decision.  And then I thought about the people in my life, and how I care about them so fervently and hope so desperately that my relationships with them could withstand such storms, or afford them at least one outlet in the midst of their angst were they to encounter it.

But I know all too well that there are also other factors, most well beyond my capacity to control.

So I resolve again anew, as we all must, to play my part in strengthening bonds, in remaining current, intentional, even vulnerable. 

For there is no shame in knowing, nor in being known.

So speak, ask, listen, apologize, hug, smile, cry, admit, persist…  and create an environment in which it is possible for others to do the same.

Even the greatest among us falls when alone.



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Today was a day of setbacks.

I was supposed to run a 5k race today, but became very ill last night and chose not to attempt the run having had limited sleep from a terrible overnight.

I am not one who handles setbacks well.  Even when there is a legitimate reason, I do not forgive myself easily for failing at something–anything.  And though I am very self-aware about this, and know exactly how it affects me, still I have struggled for all of today to shake the awful feeling of having failed, either by choice or circumstance.

Thankfully, our family didn’t have much on the agenda today, and I had a very relaxing afternoon.  We went for a walk together tonight, though, and while it was pleasant, I became very irritated with my son for failing to listen to me when we returned home.  I was short with him and didn’t handle it very well–another setback.

As much as I would like to say otherwise, I encounter such setbacks regularly.  As I thought about how my leadership is reflected in how I address them, I came to a few conclusions:

First, I have extremely high expectations of myself and of others, some of which I fail to communicate effectively.  When this happens, it seems to the other party that my expectations have come from nowhere, because I have not done well to prepare them for what should be done.  This was the case, in part, with my son when we returned from our walk.

Second, my expectations of myself lead me to internalize setbacks.  I always think first about what I could have done differently.  I put little stock in what the outside world thinks of my setback, but my own microscopic lens on myself can be crippling if I do not focus it properly.

Third, the way I do this (especially as it pertains to a specific goal or accomplishment) is to ensure I overcome, or that I can achieve a better outcome, or make another attempt in short order.  In terms of the race I was set to run today, I regret having missed it, but I am signed up for another in just 3 weeks’ time, so it will not be long before I have a chance to redeem myself.

Finally, I think about how I might have been leaving something “on the table” in terms of my previous attempts.  For example, maybe I should be thinking about running a 10k instead of a 5k, and perhaps the setback I had these last 24 hours is just the impetus I need to do and become more, not less.

I have learned more in my life from my successes than my setbacks, but I am determined as a leader to use both to become better.

Stay tuned.


Pushing Them (and Pulling Them)

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I had the chance to facilitate with a dear colleague today, who provided an insight that gave me further clarity into the poem I referenced a few days ago. 

From my initial vantage point, I saw only the perspective of “pushing” others–challenging them to greater heights, better things, previously unexperienced outcomes.  This is my natural bent as a leader, but it is/was myopic.

My friend’s observations about pushing and pulling as leaders made me think about how we have to attract people to begin with, gain their trust and permission to lead before we can begin to push.

In the poem, the speaker (leader) calls twice for them to come to the edge.  He invites them, entices them, inspires them perhaps, but somehow he gains their following.  It is only after this pulling that he pushes, and they fly.

A concept we would do well to remember so as to avoid pushing those whose allegiance to us, trust in us, has not yet been confirmed.