Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Wallenda Factor

During my leadership seminars, I pose a thought challenge to my groups:
I have laid down on the floor a 10-foot long board that is very thick and about 8 inches wide. Can you walk across it? While some people think about trying to see if there is some trick in the question, the answer from everyone is always, “Yes.” Next, I’m going to raise it on some solid blocks about six inches off the ground. Can you walk across it? Again, some people look for the trick, but the answer is yes. Okay, now I’m going to raise it two feet off the ground. Can you walk across it? Now, there is hesitation. A one or two may say they’re afraid of heights. Most everyone says yes.

Now, I’m going to raise the board to six feet. This time, about half say they would not cross the board. When I say I’m raising it to ten feet, the group willing to cross gets smaller. At 20 feet, only one or two says yes. At 30 feet, I rarely get volunteers.

I ask the group, what’s the difference whether you walk the board at two inches or 20 feet? Isn’t it the same? The difference is the Wallenda Factor.

The Wallendas were a family of circus performers known for performing amazing feats on the tightrope without a net. Karl Wallenda, the founder, was once interviewed about what it took to become a tightrope walker. He said they start out training on a rope on the ground and eventually raise it as they get better. As you go higher, Wallenda said, you have to work a little harder, pay attention to more details. You have to take greater care, especially when doing an act that involves other people, as the Wallendas did with one that involved up to seven of them.

According to Karl Wallenda, the only real difference between walking the tightrope a foot off the ground and 20 stories off the ground from one building to another is the risk to you and those working with you. The skills and techniques are pretty much the same, regardless of the height – with some added focus and greater attention.

I use this thought challenge when a group or individual gets to the point where they face a decision about taking on a major project, going for a promotion, taking the plunge and going out on their own to start a business or any number of other challenges they might face.

When you are facing that decision, to take the plunge or not, it is the risk that often holds us back. If you have successfully implemented a project, led a team, managed a department, or even run a small business, then you have the basic skills to move up to another challenge.

It is one thing to know that you still need to build up your skills to take on a challenge and try to work at getting better. Don’t let fear and risk be what controls you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Take your tools and build

Woodworking, mechanics, and all those other tinkering past-times are often learned best at the feet (or hands) of someone who knows more than you. If you have ever picked up a saw, a torch or a socket wrench, you probably watched somebody else do it first and learned from them.

Most men learned auto-mechanics and woodworking from a father, an uncle, a grandfather or the shop teacher. I learned my mechanics skills from my older brother, Sabino. We worked on his blue on white 1955 Chevy when I was still in junior high. I read the repair manuals, read about the overhaul procedures, went over the timing specs, and tried to decipher the wiring diagram.

He is still passionate about cars. He still tinkers with them, adjusting this or that. I can’t say that I have the same passion, but at least I can make some of my own repairs. A true care lover, though, goes beyond just repairing things. They make them better. Of course, it used to be easier before computers and the emissions systems clogged up the motor.

My brother —- though he probably wasn’t trying to -— taught me about making things better. He could have stayed with the standard equipment the car had, but he wanted something better, something that would make the car go faster, something that would work better. He would adjust the timing, the spark gap, the gas mixture, adjust and adjust and adjust again. It could always be better, he thought.

For me, it was Mr. Soriente, my junior high shop teacher, who got me started on woodworking. For two years, I worked on simple projects. The culmination was a small cabinet that I still have, some 35 years later. I learned about dado joints, butt joints, and rabbit joints.

From Mr. Soriente, I learned the value of using the best wood you can afford, of building something without nails or screws, and of helping someone else build their project.

I can build shelves, tables, cabinets, cases and a host of things. Granted, they generally aren’t square or plum or level. The doors don’t close correctly. The cuts are crooked. The finish is not quite right. The drawers stick, and it takes me forever to finish a project.

I don’t care that I am a bad woodworker. I enjoy it. I like the smell of cut wood. I like the feel of smooth wood. I linger over the tools in catalogs and online. I look at furniture and wonder how it was made. I work at being a better woodworker. I look at the work others do and see what I can learn from them.

Every one has their passion. Each passion generally requires some essential tools. And each passion has its own lessons. It’s the good leader who can take those lessons and apply them elsewhere in their, their family’s, their profession’s, and their community’s life.

What is your passion? What tools and skills does that require? What lessons have your learned? How can you apply all of them to other parts of your life? How can you use that be a better leader?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

That's motivation

In my leadership training work, there are always questions that keep coming up over and over again. One of these questions concerns motivation and enthusiasm. It comes from business executives, teachers, elected officials, government staff, church volunteers ... that is to say, from virtually everyone. "How can I maintain my enthusiasm and motivation, day in and day out, when I keep running into obstacles and problems?"

It is a serious question. But my response is always the same. "Look to a successful model," I suggest. Having a good role model can be incredibly helpful. I add that we need to see how some people manage to maintain their motivation and enthusiasm every day without letting obstacles and setbacks drain their joy. And this is what I tell them:

Let me start by telling you that I know of one group of people who consistently show incredible enthusiasm every single day of the year. They wake up with smiles on their faces. They're ready to go from the moment they open their eyes. They take on the day as if it were a race. They want to get started where they left off the night before.

If you try to distract them from their goals for the day, it can irritate them, but not for long. They bounce back from setbacks with incredible resiliency. And they do it with a smile.

You don't believe that there's anyone like that? Let me assure you there is.
These people don't know the meaning of the word "no." They believe in "now." No door can remain closed to them for very long, if at all.

They celebrate everything. And they celebrate everything every day! When they succeed, their celebrations can make the Super Bowl look like a tea party.
Although they are dynamos individually, they are a virtual hurricane when they join as a team. They can overwhelm any office they might walk into.

If you thought Ronald Reagan was "the Great Communicator" or Barack Obama drew cameras like a magnet, you haven't seen this group show off their networking skills. If one of them were to walk into your morning staff meeting, all attention would be focused on her instantly. They have a way with words and can talk to anyone as if they were life-long friends. They ask any question that comes to mind and answer your questions with brutal honesty.

Unlike most of us, they have no real need to play phone tag or carry cell phones. They live for the face-to-face contact. They thrive on it.

At the end of the day, they fall asleep knowing they have done their absolute best. They never fret over unfinished lists of things-to-do. They never look to the end of the quarter. They measure success in very different terms than you and I.

I would urge you to go find them and study them. Given an opportunity to study the great leaders – Roosevelt, Churchill, Zapata, Gandhi, Caesar – you would probably want to just stand and watch them, hoping to catch a glimpse of what drove them, listening to their ideas, examining their sheer determination to overcome all challenges.

And so it is with the people I am telling you about. Given a chance, you should listen to them and study them. You will never find a better, clearer model of enthusiasm.

Yes, they do exist. The secret is finding them.

But it really isn't a secret. They meet in the same room every single day. But, I warn you, they will suck you right into their tornado of a world. No one walks into their meetings and leaves the same. Prepare to be taken by the hand, literally, and forced to find your own enthusiasm. It is a challenge some people are not up to. If you really want to learn to maintain your enthusiasm and motivation, go there ... if you dare.

Go look for them.

They're in kindergarten.