Leading in a Crisis with Resolve *and* Kindness

The corona virus crisis is showing us what leadership can look like and women the world over are rocking it.  Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand has been giving us a master class.  


Reading Time: 2.5 minutes (although if you click on the links, you might get a coffee and
settle in for a “wee while.”)


I am gobsmacked by Jacinda Ardern.  Friends are starting to roll their eyes when I mention her name and mouth “fan-girl.” to each other when they think I’m not looking. (At least I think that’s what their doing.  It can be hard to tell on Zoom.)   Ardern just keeps getting it right and – then, more right that she did before.  Here are the lessons in her masterclass:


On March 21, 2020, Ardern announced a four-level alert system and told New Zealanders that they were currently in Level Two of that system.  This may be the most brilliant thing she’s done.  The alert system gives government and citizens a framework within which to understand the new and baffling reality while making transparent the approach government is taking.

The genius of giving people a common way to make sense of something so changeable is the source of my gob-smackedness.  It is instantly grounding, provides a common language, and helps restore a sense of agency and control.  We may not know much else, but we have a common way to think about it,  talk about it, and understand our leader’s approach to it.  This is instantly calming.  Ardern and her government created the alert level system because it was needed.  She didn’t wait until she had it right according to science or popular opinion.  She  and her government made it up based on what they knew then.  I don’t know about New Zealanders, but it has definitely helped me.


In her March 23, 2020 address – a mere two days after announcing the four-level alert system – Ardern changed the lives of New Zealanders in a 14-minute speech.  In under 14 minutes, she elegantly communicated on all three levels of the transition curve: She gave facts that blasted through denial, offered support and acknowledgement, and inspired collective action for a common cause.   In under 14 minutes, she also hit all three aspects of motivational speech:  She wore her intentions on her sleeve, gave clear, unsparing direction about the actions she wanted taken, and made meaning of and acknowledged the difficulty of the sacrifice she was asking.  She did all three of these over and over, repeatedly braiding these three strands together.

What she didn’t do is just as important:  She didn’t infantalize anyone:  She never once expressed doubt about their ability to do this difficult thing.  She did not talk down to anyone, in fact she included herself in everything she laid out.  She did not hide difficult information, rather she shared the exact information she’d used to make her decision.


When your actions don’t match your words, it’s your words that are ignored.  In order for what you say to be heard and absorbed, your behavior must be absolutely, effortlessly congruent with them, even when no one is watching.  I love Ardern’s open, transparent face.  She is always genuine, present.  For her, the words and the music go together. She displays the full range of normal human emotions. I find this so refreshing.

The first two pictures above are Ardern moments before announced the upcoming self-isolation of New Zealand.  The third picture is her Facebook Live two days later when the isolation had started, checking in with people after she’d put her toddler to bed.  And that’s not all:  She gave a press conference just for children because she knew they were anxious.  She and her cabnite took a 20% paycut.  She fiercely defended the elderly, letting her fury show, when others suggested they should left to die.  She is not staged, fake, pretending, nor is she needy, blustering or combative.


In her March 23rd speech, Ardern ended by asking people to be kind to one another even though they were frightened.  She gave suggestions like checking on neighbors, setting up phone trees to stay in touch and the like.  She’d clearly thought about how self-isolation would feel and come up with practical suggestions.

It is possible to lead with resolve and kindness.  In a capable leader’s hands, they strengthen one other.  There are many, many world leaders in addition to Ardern who are demonstrating this, all of them women.


On Monday, April 20, 2020, Ardern announced that New Zealand would move to Level 3 on at midnight on April 27th.  She said that Google data showed that compliance with the restrictions had been high.

“NZ has done what few countries had managed to do and crush Covid-19.  The results of the lockdown “had all been achieved as a result of New Zealanders,”  Ardern said.

“We have a transmission rate of 0.48 per cent – one of the lowest in the world.  We have broken the chain (of community transmission),” she said.  “New Zealanders have proven themselves and they’ve done so in an incredible way.”

Ardern gave others credit for the results rather than take it for herself or her government.

(Master) Class dismissed.

Hold on tight! Transition Curve Ahead


Every change sets off a transition process.  This is why you’re having all these feelings during this unprecedented time in history.  Although our understanding about this new corona virus is changing daily, the way we respond to change – the transition process – is well-understood,  predictable, and you’ve been through it before.  You know how.  You’ve got this. And you will not always feel this nutso.

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Change or Transition?

© 2020 Liz Williams

In his book Transitions, psychologist William Bridges separates change – an event in time – from transition, which is the psycho-emotional process of adjusting to a change.  Every change triggers the transition process with its predictable and sometimes tempestuous trajectory.

Take getting married, for example.  You look forward to your life as a spouse, a part of a unit, and that distracts from the fact that things you loved about your single life are coming to an end.  You no longer make decisions alone.  You are not as free to do what you want when you want to do it.  There are conversations, negotiations, creative solutions.

==> Every change initiates a trip through the Transition Curve

If changes we look forward to trigger the transition process, what about those we don’t choose?  Like not being able to shake hands, or showing your love by staying six feet away?  Even small changes like these can put as into transition:  I think of myself as warm, friendly person and I’m acting like a hermit.  It’s confusing and awkward.  Understanding what to expect is a big help in navigating your way through the transition curve.

The Transition Curve

ENDING or, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

The transition process starts the moment you realize something has ended.  Denial is our instant response to this realization.  “Sure, we’re not in Kansas, but everything else is the same, right?  I mean, people still look like me and speak my language and….who are all those tiny people and why are they singing and…there’s a wizard?  Oh, c’mon.” Like Dorothy on the yellow brick road, your denial is peeled away, step-by-step, encounter by encounter.

As your denial ebbs, you become aware that you don’t know how to be anymore – you don’t know how to feel like yourself.  You don’t feel competent in the new reality, because you aren’t – it’s too new.  Although we don’t realize it, we get much of our sense of self from the way others respond to us.  When that response changes, it’s confusing and disorienting.  What used to work doesn’t anymore.   We can become confused about how we fit in to the new picture.  We can question our value.  Denial protects us from this questioning until we are ready to take it on.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Facts, information and clear boundaries are what you need to get past your denial and through the Ending phase of transition.  If you are going to go through the discomfort of shifting the way you are in the world, there better be a good reason.

Letting go of denial can be as simple as accepting you’re going to be late to work because you keep getting off at the wrong exit so you’d better set your alarm earlier. It can be as complicated as the identity reset you’ll need to become a husband, wife, or parent. It can be the moment you realize that your clients or employees will need something different from you, something you might not know how to provide.

When you’re ready to accept that your sense of certainty has come to an end, and your former way of being in the world may not be a fit, you’ve entered the next phase of this normal, predictable process of transition.


The neutral zone is like putting the transmission of your car in neutral – no matter how much hard you pump that gas pedal, you’re going nowhere.  The neutral zone is all about not knowing, which is unpleasant for most of us.  Being confronted with what we don’t know can be nerve-wracking.  We’ll do anything to get back in gear, to feel like ourselves again.  We’ll jump back into denial, deciding to simply do what we’ve always done, consequences be damned.  Or we’ll will ourselves into the future, deciding that we know exactly what to do.  No matter which of these you try, you will end up back in the rich soup of the neutral zone, unable to mover forward and not yet ready to.  But you are very busy adjusting to a new reality.  It takes the time it takes.


Your job is to simply to stay here in the zone of the unknown, getting all the support you need.  Maybe there is a routine or practice you find nurturing and maybe you want the support of others.  It’s OK to slow down, to feel a little lost and to reach out. It’s OK to get cranky.  It’s OK to enjoy the downtime too.  It’s normal to swing between these two.  Eventually, you may start to feel anxious about not knowing when the neutral zone ends. You may start wondering why other people are not reacting like you are.  You may think, “what is wrong with me?”

Absolutely nothing.

Do what you can.  Swing over to denial.  Try something new.  Take risks. Fail.  Try again.  It’s OK.

You are OK.  This won’t last forever. How can I help?

These are the kinds of things you need to hear in the neutral zone – kind, supportive murmurings, a warm smile, a friendly gesture, all taking the pressure off.  The neutral zone is like someone dumping a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor, then hiding the picture of what it should look like after kicking a few of the pieces under the couch.  The time for facts is over – you need support.


One day you’ll wake up and that nagging pain in your back will be gone.  Your optimism and focus are back, and you have more energy. You may feel calmer, more grounded, accepting.  You’ll find yourself humming as you get ready for the day, thinking how you’re looking forward to familiar routines or the adventure of trying something brand new.  You will once again feel like yourself.  And you’ll think, “This is great!    Can I keep it?”  Yes, you can.  It’s yours, or more accurately, it’s you.

Inspire me!

You are ready for inspiring talks fresh starts.  You’ve figured it out and gotten your mojo back.  Will you revisit the neutral zone?  Maybe.  While models like this one are linear, life isn’t.   It turns and swoops and curves back on itself before jumping ahead or pausing.  But you’ll be visiting those other phases, not living there.

What about my clients, employees, friends, family?

Everybody moves through a transition at their own pace.  Understanding where someone is helps you offer them what they need rather than offering them what you need.  For example, if you are struggling with the ending, you may share your denial or hammer others with facts.  If you are in the neutral zone needing support, you may offer support to others who are still in denial.  If you are all the way through the curve and offer inspiration when others need facts or support, you may sound like you’ve lost your mind.  This tendency, though natural,  is not helpful.

Listen, then meet others where they are

Just knowing about this transition curve will improve your communication and effectiveness 100-fold.  Listen to your clients, colleagues and employees.   Where might they be in the transition process?  Offer facts, support or inspiration, depending where they are, not where you need them to be.  It’s OK to be where you are too, and not heroically trying to inspire others when you are freaking out.   Consider telling your story, admitting what you don’t know and sharing your humanity with people.  Pause.  Wait for ideas about what to say or do to come.  They’ve never failed you before and they won’t now.  It just may take a minute longer.

How to change someone else

Reading Time:  45 seconds


There’s a elegant, simple way to do this and there’s the other way. The other way is to employ a variety of passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive techniques to get others to behave differently. Not only is this excruciating for everyone involved, it doesn’t work. It does give us a way to occupy our days, and something to complain about in the break room. Perhaps this explains its timeless appeal.

Or, you could use the approach that drops you right into the slipstream: Change your behavior.

Oh, no, no, you say – I’m right and they are wrong, wrong, wrong. They need to change, not me. I deserve better.

Exactly. I’m not arguing with you. I’m telling you how.

But Liz, they are the ones who need to change. I’m not changing for them – why should I? It’s just not possible – I can’t do it, it’s not who I am. Besides, it’s so hard.

And yet you expect them to change. You aren’t willing or able to change, but you expect them to?

A mother brought her overweight son to Ghandi so he could tell the son to stop eating sweets. Ghandi said “Come back next week.” When they returned, Ghandi told the son to stop eating sweets. When the mother asked about the intervening week, Ghandi said “I had to see if I could do it before I could ask someone else to.”

Leadership is going first.

Be a leader.  Go first.

CG #66 – “Smooth Seas Do Not Make Skillful Sailors.”

Do you ever feel like the universe is sending you a postcard?  When I came home last night, the title of this post was scrawled in chalk on the ramp to my dock.

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After the crisis-ridden day I’d had, I was happy to see those words.  As I stood there and let those words sink in deep, I thought about the difference between someone who learns to sail on the San Francisco Bay – a notoriously wild and windy place – and someone who learns on the Long Island Sound with its placid, protected waters. I know which Captain I want in charge of my boat.

Which got me thinking about resilience and the recent, compelling research about stress.  It’s not stress that harms you, it’s the belief that stress is harmful that harms you.  Believing stress is harmful is the 15th leading cause of death.

The physiology is straightforward:  Stress makes your heart pound.  Believing stress is harmful constricts your blood vessels, which increases your risk of death.  But when you see the stress as helpful, your blood vessels open. Increased blood flow in open veins is physically identical to states of exhilaration, courage and joy.  See stress as helpful and your body throws itself a little party right in the middle of the onslaught, rendering stress harmless.

But the news is even better than that:  Stress causes you to connect with others – it practically drives you into their arms.  You need help, advice, support, coaching,  These social connections bathe your body in oxytocin, which protects you from the effects of stress.   For caregivers, the healing effect of oxytocin seems to negate the wear and tear of caring for others.

Yes, you read that correctly:  Caring for others promotes a healing response in the caregiver that protects against the effects of stress.

This research means that rampant excuse for bad behavior, “I’m just really stressed out,” is about to leave the building, and good riddance to it.

Accept – Connect – Help is the formula, and the choice is yours to make.  The more I sit with this research, the more I see that what I’ve been calling stressful is simply strenuous, a signal to get moving.

Stress has one more gift for us:  Meaning.  Stress and adversity increase the chance of a meaningful life.  Seeking comfort has the opposite effect.

Which brings me to my 90-year-old Aunt Perina, a woman I’ve long admired, but not always understood.  Born between the World Wars, her generation came of age in a time of great deprivation.  Those early, difficult times hold her richest, most cherished memories, the ones that have sustained her through the death of all her siblings and most of her friends.  I did not understand the psychic alchemy that left her kinder and richer with each blow, until I saw this research.  I’m glad to get a glimmer of this this now, when I can still tell her she’s my role model for her courage, grit and unfailing sense of humor.

If you want to learn more, the book is called “The Upside of Stress,” by Kelly McGonigalHer TED talk gives a good overview of this topic.  If you don’t have 20 minutes right now, click here for my 1-page summary of that TED talk.

See you on the upside.

CG #62 – Don’t Let Fear Stop You

If a bank regulator for the Federal Reserve can’t ask uncomfortable questions without losing her job, what hope is there for the rest of us?

“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

–Franklin D Roosevelt in his first inaugural address.

Carmen Segarra knows about fear and the cost of  “converting retreat into advance.”  Carmen was a a Federal bank regulator assigned to regulate Goldman Sachs, a prominent investment bank.  She was fired for being too direct, for asking questions that were awkward for people at Goldman Sachs and her bosses at the Federal Reserve.

Carmen just wanted to do her job, which was to regulate.  Her bosses at the Fed wanted to do that too, but preferred an approach so subtle it was easy for Goldman Sachs to ignore.  They were afraid that asking direct questions would offend the people they were regulating and those people would withhold the information they needed to regulate them.

It would be funny if it weren’t so very dangerous.

Friendly or Captured?

Getting too close to those you are supposed to regulate is so common, it has a name: Regulatory Capture.  In the consulting world it’s called “going native.”  There is a thin line between having a friendly, harmonious relationship and being ineffective.  It’s impossible to know which side of the line you’re on, unless you are willing to test it.

“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear. What it comes down to…is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny…’  Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”

–Marilynne Robinson, author, “Housekeeping”, “Gilead

We destroy our effectiveness when we let fear run the show.  When we justify our ineffectiveness, we give fear far too much territory.  And, given an inch, fear will take a mile.  Don’t let it.  You can do the thing you need to do.

See Paris First

I quoted a poem I love in my online program for consultants, and I’m going to quote it here. When fear has ahold of us, it’s not skill we need, it’s courage.  The poem, “See Paris Fist,  by Marsha Truman Cooper gives me that courage:

*     *     *     *     *

Suppose that what you fear

could be trapped,

and held in Paris.

Then you would have

the courage to go

everywhere in the world.

All the directions of the compass

open to you,

except the degrees east or west

of true north

that lead to Paris.

Still, you wouldn’t dare

put your toes

smack dab on the city limit line.

You’re not really willing

to stand on a mountainside

miles away

and watch the Paris lights

come up at night.

Just to be on the safe side

you decide to stay completely

out of France.

But then danger

seems too close

even to those boundaries,

and you feel

the timid part of you

covering the whole globe again.

You need the kind of friend

who learns your secret and says,

“See Paris first.”

*     *     *     *     *

Let’s be that kind of friend for each other, shall we?

CG #54 – How to Get Happy and Stay that Way

If gratitude can counter depression faster than the “gold standard” of talk therapy combined with drugs, can it make me happy long term?  Yup.  But your negativity bias is going to fight back.

Word Count: 696

Reading Time: about 3 minutes

When I first heard about psychologist Martin Seligman’s gratitude research, I was skeptical.  According to the study, 15 days of gratitude practice created immediate improvements in severely depressed patients that lasted for 6 months.  How could a daily gratitude practice be as effective against depression as the best psychology had to offer and achieve this more quickly?   When Seligman’s subsequent research named gratitude as one of the 5 key strengths* that happiest people shared, I started to get more interested. (*The other 4 are zest, the ability to love and be loved, curiosity, and optimism.)

So, I tried it.  I wrote down three things I was grateful for every day:  this beautiful sunrise, this tea that I love, love, love, the beautiful watercolor E. sent me from her painting retreat.  It was fun and easy.  I started looking for things to write down which got me noticing how grateful I was.  I said “thank you” more, and to everyone.  I felt happier, lighter.

But it didn’t last. 

So I tried the things I usually do to establish a new habit:  I recruited friends to join me, first in an online journal, then in an email chain.  We all said how much we loved it, how fun it was to read what others were grateful for.

But that didn’t last either.  My inability to adhere to this anti-depression practice was beginning to get a little depressing.

I was experiencing the power of what psychologists call the Negativity Bias.  Simply put, our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative information than positive information.  We are always scanning for danger:  It’s a survival strategy that keeps us out of harm’s way.  Negative information is more contagious too, perhaps because communicating danger quickly is how the herd keeps its members safe.

But surviving is not the same as being happy.

I chucked the whole idea into the mystery column, my receptacle for the things that are currently beyond me, and got on with life.  Then a colleague mentioned the details of Seligman’s original study.   I’d gotten it completely wrong.  The specific instructions to the 50 severely depressed participants were to write down three things that had gone well each day and why they thought so.  Oops.  Not three things I was grateful for that had nothing to do with me, but three things I participated in that had gone well.  And why I thought so. 

Oh. This expression of gratitude was also a confirmation of personal agency.  It fought powerlessness.  No wonder it was so effective against depression.

That’s very different than writing about things outside me: “the tea I get from France, the way Cindy Cashdollar plays steel guitar, fluffy bunnies”, or the truncated, drive-by version I eventually adopted: “Puppies.”  Sunrise.  Afternoon cappuccino at Peet’s.”

So I tried it. Here’s my list from yesterday:

What went well:  Tax appointment was fast and easy and left no sticky residue. Why?  I decided to enjoy the experience with Carolyn rather than focus on the complications of filing as domestic partners.

What went well:  HYCS was easier to write and got immediate positive feedback.  Why?  Because I finally understood that what goes in the middle of my mind-map is what I want my readers to experience or do, not the “topic.”  D’oh.  And that happened because I have been doggedly wrestling with this for months and allowing myself to ask Daphne (my writing coach) really stupid questions.  In public, and online where they will live forever.

What went well: The leak in my houseboat’s hull didn’t keep me up all night.

Why?   Because I got a second opinion from my contractor neighbor even though it was 7:30 p.m. and I didn’t want to bother him.  His verdict:  It can wait.  (He was right – it’s still waiting, and I’m still floating.)

What a difference.  That was fun.  I wasn’t just feeling happier.  I was feeling the joy that comes from knowing what I do makes a difference.

Today I looked forward to making my list and seeing what it would show me.  I have no doubt my negativity bias will try to derail me again.  It’s a wily, worthy opponent.  I look forward to outwitting it.

CG #37 – How to Get Your Motivation Back

What if everything we know about motivation is wrong?

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It’s not the corner office, the parking place with your name on it, a high salary or the perks that motivate.

Motivation is making progress on what has meaning for you.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 3.32.30 PM

That’s what Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile found in her extensive study of people at work.  She published her results in a book called “The Progress Principle”

“Strive for progress, not perfection.”


How to Make Progress

It doesn’t matter how small your progress is.  Taking even a tiny step forward motivates, and motivation frees up energy and time.  Accountability is accepting responsibility for finding a way forward.  Here are two keys to making progress, even when the situation seems hopeless

1.    Find the tiniest steps and take them

When we are fixated on the big win, it’s hard to see that there might be another way forward.  And when the big win is out of our control, it’s tempting to stop and wait for help.    But not making progress saps our motivation.  Finding one small thing to do isn’t about the shouldering the whole burden for a project or changing the company.  It’s about keeping your motivation strong. There is no need to take on the world.  Instead, make it tiny.

I’ll give you a recent example.  A client was feeling discouraged about the lack of support for her department’s work.  “It doesn’t help that we have no CEO right now,” she said.  “With executive support, our partners would support these new marketing tactics.”

Ugh.  There was no way to speed up the CEO hiring process.  Her progress was blocked and her motivation was low.

We played with ideas until we came up with this:  “Our partners lack a convincing  business case for our new marketing approach.”  While not beautiful prose, it does suggest an action my client can take:  Rather than wait for the new CEO to be hired and hand down a business case for the tactics she’s itching to implement, she can look for ways to make that case herself.

Tiny ways.  Eensy, teensy ways.  Ways that keep her motivated and moving forward, no matter what the CEO does or doesn’t do.

2.   Remember what you want

“Discipline is remembering what you want.”

–Steve Chandler

I don’t know what meaningful work is, but I know what matters to me.

When I focus on what I care about most, I’m tireless.  When I lose that focus, I droop, then sputter to a halt.  Isn’t it lucky that where I place my attention is the one thing I can always control?

I care most about excellence.  It still feels like a privilege coach a person or a team that is already brilliant, and help them get better, or start something new.   I will turn myself inside out to help them.  I inconvenience myself.  I take risks and grow for them.  I commit to their success.

Situations where I am asked to remediate a person or situation, bore me to the point of madness.  Most are easy to spot:  The protestations of deep, deep commitment are not backed up with adequate funding, staffing, infrastructure or planning.

Remembering that I love working with high potential people and situations gives the discipline to say things like this:

“What is it you think my involvement will do for this situation?”

“You say you are committed to making this situation work, yet I see no evidence of that commitment. “

“What are you willing to do differently to make this situation a success?”

“If I say yes to this work and find out that the problem is something you’re doing, how will we handle that?”


How do you nurture your motivation?


CG #31 – Do You Use These Powerful Words?

If you’re stuck on the heroic treadmill, you might want to start using these two little words with clients and co-workers.

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When I step out of the train in New York’s Penn Station, I’m bowled over by the sensory overload of sights and sounds, and the rush of the crowd sweeps me along.  Everyone seems to know exactly where they are going, and they are moving fast.  Everyone, that is, except me.

No matter how often I make the trip in from Newark airport, I’m always lost in Penn Station.  I used to confidently join in the crowd and walk quickly to the first exit I saw, no matter how far it took me out of my way.

It felt important to me to look like I knew what I was doing.  If anyone noticed, I doubt they were fooled.

Lately, I’ve tried a different tack:  I stop dead and wait until I’m oriented.  If I can’t get oriented, I ask someone for help.  If I get lost, I change course immediately, even if it results in a dirty look.  Sometimes I say “oops.”

This non-heroic approach to Penn Station gets me to the right exit with an economy of movement so I can save my energy for what matters.    This non-heroic approach works for consultants and managers too.

 Two Powrful Leadership Words:  “Oops” and “Help”

I can’t remember who told me that showing my vulnerability is what enables people to love me.  Sure, everyone loves a winner, but we don’t always find winners easy to like.  My mentor, Jean Westcott, boiled vulnerability down to two words:  “Oops,” and “help.”  Without those two words, leadership becomes comically heroic.

In an episode of “Star Trek:  The Next Generation,” Captain Picard and the ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher, are escaping their captors on a strange planet.  They are lost, shackled together at the ankle and Dr. Crusher can read Picard’s thoughts.  When Captain Picard confidently points and says, “That way,” Crusher stops and says, “You have no idea which way to go, do you?  And you do this all the time!”  Picard admits that being a Captain means that people look to him for direction.  “Confidence helps them believe.”

That may be true.  And it may be something else.  Leadership may be something else.  At the very least, leadership in this moment may be something else.

If you are locked in to the heroic style of leadership, you may be spending the bulk of your energy looking like you know what you’re doing. 

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a consultant is to admit when I’m lost or I’ve made a mistake.  It has never failed to build a stronger partnership, even when my client has been initially disappointed or frustrated.

Not only does the heroic approach make it hard for people to join you, it may be leaving you too depleted for the thrill of discovery, the astonishment of contribution and the raw joy of being in it together.

Try this:

  • Use the words “oops” and “help” just one time this week.   Today, if you can.  Look for the thing you don’t know, the place you are unsure.  Once you allow yourself to start looking, these are easy to find.


You’ve got nothing to lose but your façade, and that can be such relief.



Fail at Organizational Change in 3 Easy Steps!

80% of all organizational change initiatives fail. Either they fail to get off the ground, or they work only superficially and then fade away.

I think we can do much, much better better than 80%.   Why not shoot for a 100% failure rate?  We’re so close.  Here is my top 3 list for failing at organizational change:


#3. Underfund the change, either in terms of time or money. The more severely you underfund, the more quickly the change will tank. Unfortunately, if you overfund it, you can also sink your change initiative.  Luckily, there’s a key to getting it wrong 100% of the time:  Don’t review your original assumptions.  Yes, it really is that simple!  Just stick unwaveringly to your original plans, ignoring new information.  Extra credit:  call people names when they disagree.

Overfunding and underfunding are two sides of the same coin. We underfund, because we are in denial about what it will take to get what we want. We overfund because the change feels big to us, so it must be big.  And, we do one of these because we’re keeping the change at arms distance. It’s not close enough to us to know it well. No need to fuss about which it is. If your project is sputtering from neglect or drowning in personnel without achieving commensurate results, take another look. It’s probably this second key to failing at Organizational Change:


#2. Fail to define goals for the change that are clear, specific and measurable.Instead, use words like “better,” more,” and “less.” Or, say “we’re going to implement this model and leave it up to each person to operationalize.”

This is a fine place to start exploration and change, not the place to leave it. It’s a cop-out not to push through to clarity, to the place where your simple, single-pointed message vibrates, it’s so alive. You’ll know you’ve got it when you can easily see how to measure it – both that it is happening (the behavior changes) and that it makes a difference (your business goals).

Pushing for clarity of what to measure is the number one way to find out what you really want out of this. Do it early. It will improve everything and chew your project down to size. If you don’t know how to measure it, or can’t find the time, what does that tell you about your commitment level? Exactly. Which leads us to the number 1 way to guarantee an organizational change initiative fails:

#1. Fail to change yourself. It’s the you-change-I-don’t-have-to model. Works like a hot knife through butter. If leadership isn’t changing, it telegraphs to the entire organization that it’s business as usual. No matter what else you do, people will follow your lead. Your behavioral lead. They’ll watch what you do, rather than listen to what you say. After all, you aren’t listening to you. Why should they?

I hear people bemoan the terrible communication in their organization. To which I say HA! Gossip is a fabulous communication system, always working, always free. Imitation is the same: always working, always free. It’s built in to the human organism through something called mirror neurons, and popularized in the phrase “monkey see, monkey do.” Employee see, employee do. It’s simple: If you ask them to make uncomfortable changes and you yourself stay in the comfortable tracks of habit and certainty, monkey see, monkey do. If the change isn’t taking hold, look at the face in the mirror and start there.

That’s why you go through the agony of #3 and #2. Because it changes you.

Er, I mean, that’s why you refuse to go through 2 and 3. So you can refuse to change. At all. So you can get to 100% failure.

The power of uncertainty

There it is: Your opposition. They look like a mountain – unapproachable, unassailable, undeniably powerful. You can feel yourself shrinking in response, unable to breathe, your mind a blank. The mountain might be your organization, looking back at you as you present your idea of that this year’s work should be, or your boss as you ask for 5 new positions, or the cop who is writing the traffic ticket you don’t deserve.

It may as well be a dementor, so thoroughly does it suck the hope and optimism from you.

They just seem so certain. So sure of themselves. Supremely confident, as though they have a corner on the truth. Naturally, we want to oppose them, and show how many holes there are in their thinking.

In the face of such certainty, our instinct is to expand ourselves. To make ourselves feel powerful, big enough to be a match for the mountain, even if that requires exaggeration or spin. Even if it requires anger. In the resulting clash of the titans, we lose. They’ve got more defensive capability at their disposal.

What about uncertainty?

I’m beginning to think that the most powerful thing to do in the face of certainty is to raise doubt. If the opposite of a great truth is another truth, might the best strategy be doubt? And not overpowering doubt, because that raises their considerable defenses. It’s the Wizard of Oz scene where Dorothy notices the great and powerful Oz is a small man behind a curtain making it up as he goes along.

There is always a little man. He is always susceptible to doubt. Perhaps this is a good way to to approach him.