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Archive for June, 2015

Authenticity1C. G. Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you are.” I can’t think of a better benefit of the ideal entrepreneurial journey. Indeed, I’ve been crying it from the rooftops for many years. More than almost any vocation I can think of, excepting that of artist, the entrepreneur has a unique opportunity to truly become herself.

That said, however, I have become uneasy of late with the growing unison of approbation for authenticity as the latest magical solution to our various business leadership conundrums. Like all fads, the current lemming-like chorus of hosannas around the purported alchemy of authenticity can lead us to some less than salutary results for the practical entrepreneur.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe passionately that corporate leadership must move increasingly toward an empathetic model very much grounded in authenticity and openness. I believe this and apply this each and every day in my own business and in my own life. But, like all truths, it can become a dangerous dogma, if not leavened with a few caveats.

The Merriam-Webster defines authenticity as “the quality of being real or genuine, not copied or false.” The problem with this for company leaders is that authenticity is not a goal we arrive at, but rather a process we try to embrace each day anew. It is an evolving inner truth that can feel quite precarious in a business world moving at the speed of light.

carl-jungEvolving authenticity requires daily attention to our own soul. Most of us feel comfortable with a definitive set of absolutes so we can say (like Martin Luther), “Here I stand.” I certainly do. But that is not how existential authenticity works in reality.

The greatest danger of committed authenticity is that it can become a backdoor, closeted way of rigidly holding onto what is comfortable.

The Harvard Business Review had an interesting piece in February titled, The Authenticity Paradox by Dr. Herminia Ibarra, who’s research indicates that a too-rigid definition of authenticity can undermine effective leadership. She points to three ways authenticity can mislead us.

  1. Being True To Yourself. The question is which self? We all have many selves depending on our various leadership roles at any given time. It ain’t one size fits all. A rigid authenticity may not fit all situations.
  2. Maintaining Strict Coherence Between What You Feel And What You Say Or Do. It is simply not appropriate or discreet or even kind to disclose everything you feel and think in all situations.
  3. Making Values-Based Choices. When we move into bigger business roles, our past authenticity may no longer be true on a larger palette.

Ibarra goes on to say, “Because going against our natural inclinations make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable.” She notes three other particular business issues that cause challenges for the authentic leader. First, the velocity of contemporary business militates more frequent and more radical changes in the way we handle the work we do. Second, in our increasingly globalized business environment, we must adjust to people who have cultural norms different from our own. Third, we have to consider our authenticity in the context of “ubiquitous connectivity” and social media transparency. It is a conundrum of managing the tension between projecting authenticity and welcoming approachability.

The rush to the authentic leader model emanates from a couple of factors in our current business atmosphere. First the contemporary opinion of business leaders is somewhat lower than whale shit. The Edelman Trust Barometer notes that in 2013 only 18% of people reported they trusted business leaders. And, secondly, according to Gallup, also in 2013, only one in eight workers is psychologically committed to his or her job.

Certainly committed authenticity and leader transparency can do much to alleviate the current popular low estimation of business leadership. And we, as business leaders, should welcome this new leadership style, if only for our own spiritual and moral health. A nuanced authenticity creates meaningful business at the intersection of success, struggle, values and purpose.

herminia_ibarraAfter all, as Oscar Wilde puts it so trenchantly, who wants to be a person who “does not think natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. Who’s virtues are not real to him. Who’s sins…are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part not written for him.” And here’s a wonderful call to arms for the entrepreneur from Jungian psychologist Dr. James Hollis: “We are not here to fit in, to be well-balanced, or provide exempla for for others. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being. As the gods intended, we are here to become more and more ourselves.”

Nevertheless, as Dr. Ibarras’ research reveals, an effective leadership style must be nuanced and prudent in its commitment to a new empathetic trope. Those of us who try to be true to ourselves must guard against using authenticity as an excuse for becoming too content in a too smug and too rigid comfort zone.

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og-mandino-books-and-stories-and-written-works-u3Sales writer and business aphorist Og Mandino once said, “It is those who concentrate on but one small thing at a time who advance in this life.”

I have always believed in the business efficacy of teeny, tiny things. While I have my five and ten year plans, I find little details and small daily accomplishments create dependable, steady growth in my business. These smallest of things are also where I create the trope of meaning for my everyday life. I find that both meaning and true success come out of the daily march of quotidian choices and actions, not from ecstatic moments, grandiose strategy, or epic deeds.

I am a great lover of Tolstoy. (Incidentally, in this vacation beach book season, may I recommend War and Peace. Except for a lot of unpronounceable Russian names, it is a page-burning, bodice-ripping, military melodrama of a narrative novel, not the intimidating tome it is often made out to be.) At the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy’s hero, Pierre, discards what he calls his “mental telescope” through which he has been seeing his world, to rather embrace “the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable, and infinite life of everyday existence”–a sort of one-day-at-a-time mantra.

In one of his later essays, Tolstoy tells the tale of Russian painter Karl Bryullov correcting one of his students’ sketches. The student exclaims, “Why, you only changed it a tiny bit!” Leo_Tolstoy,_portraitBryullov responds, “Art begins where that ‘tiny bit’ begins.” Tolstoy states: “That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the ‘tiny bit’ begins, where the infinitesimally small alterations of consciousness happen.”

So with business.

I remember attending a seminar at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. several years ago called “Get Motivated!” My general feeling about these sorts of massive, feel-good, inspirational gatherings is that they are a bunch of hooey. Not wrong in the stated insights, but just shallow and quite temporary in their efficacy. Kinda like a business pep rally. Talks by folks like Terry Bradshaw, Dan Rather, Steve Forbes, Rudy Giuliani, etc. Not my cup of tea.

However, I was caught by some business advice shared by General Colin Powell. His advice? Simply to be nice and particularly to be nice to the little people like the folks who clean your office and park your car. He also avers the value of small details. For instance, Powell reports writing thank you notes on personalized 4-by-6 inch card. “I write with a fountain pen. Never a Sharpie. Never a ball point pen. A fountain pen.”

It seems to me that Colin Powell is quite on to a real truth here. It’s the little things that set the tone for entrepreneurship–little considerations, little details. Focusing on the small decencies creates an ambiance of service and real carefulness in business dealings. It becomes reflected in the larger actions of a company. It creates culture.

3840f08To expand on General Powell’s concern for the small things, I always recommend to my clients at Corporate Rain International that any missive or serious communication they send out go on high-quality stationary and be sent by snail mail, ideally with a commemorative stamp. This is sometimes cause for eye-rolling impatience by some of my cutting-edge clients enamored of the wonders of tweeting, friending, and linking-in. But there is a method to my antediluvian madness. Yes, it takes extra time and money to communicate in such qualitative ways, but the very effort communicates care and valuation on a subconscious level. There is a sensual subconscious statement that is communicated by the very feel of high-quality stationary. It creates an aura of seriousness, reflecting both respect for your client and the general business process. Without words it says exactly the manner you would represent a client and effectively serve.

Educator and author Lauren Roedy Vaughn writes the following: “Little things, little things, are much more, more important than big things. Big things hit you in the face with their bigness and obscure the little, more important things that really define a life…” Thank you, Lauren.

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SamuraiJapanese Samurai warriors had a unique practice that undergirded their phenomenal success as soldiers from the 12th Century right up into the 20th century.  That concept was called “Dying before going into battle.”  This practice allowed a warrior to enter each combat event without fear of death.  He did this by simply taking himself through the acceptance of his own death in advance.  He psychologically became a “dead man walking” before the fight.  Thus, the Samurai was able to unconditionally commit to success in battle without worrying about survival.  This freedom allowed him to fight with such berserk fierceness and focus that he was very hard to defeat.  What did he have to lose?  He was already dead.

That’s how I like to begin my business days, too.  By giving up.  By dying before I go into battle.  By having no expectations for controlling the results of the multifarious tasks that await me in the day.  By being fully committed to my goals without feeling I have something to lose.  By becoming a modern day Samurai, if you will.

Do I succeed at this?  Of course not.  But it sure seems like a great way to try to begin each day—to let in creativity, spontaneity, luck, and God.  To die before I go into battle.

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell claims he has found success by simply giving up on success, from just not worrying about it.  Essentially Gladwell believes your rewards in life are inversely proportional to the time you spend trying to plan for success.  Or, as Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, bluntly puts it, “I succeeded by not giving a shit.”

11791573_91bde70979Much of my belief in this approach to business comes from studying the work of Tracy Goss, author of The Last Word On Power.  This magnificent book should be read by all serious executives and, particularly, by entrepreneurial leaders.  (I won’t insult Goss by superficially summing up her work here, but she talks about systematically achieving the impossible in life and as a leader.  Kinda like the entrepreneur, who commits to creating something out of nothing.  Impossible.)

Goss’ approach to the concept of “dying before going into battle” begins with accepting “the end of hope,” the end of your strategic control.  And accepting as a gift that very hopelessness.  She makes three foundational statements about life:

  1. Life does not turn out the way it “should.”
  2. Life does not turn out the way it “shouldn’t.”
  3. Life turns out the way it does.

She says you can’t control the outcome of your life.  In the end the outcome will be the same no matter what you do.  It will be what it is and then someone with a shovel will throw dirt over your face.  In the meantime, life will absolutely not follow the controls you try to place on it.    Man plans, God laughs.

Tracy Goss sees the acceptance of hopelessness as a gift.  By accepting that you don’t control life, you create space for real freedom, creativity, luck, and the “impossible.”  Her’s is a radical existential process, the goal of which is simply “getting to zero.”  That is, letting go of the illusion that you are in charge.  That you control.

Lao Tzu says, “By letting go it all gets done.  The world is won by those who let it go.”  I simply call this a practical process of daily surrender, of giving up each day before attempting the impossible.  Without expectation.  Without hope.  To me this is the heart of healthy entrepreneurship and makes the creation of something out of nothing (the entrepreneurial company) emotionally conceivable.

Here’s what Victor Frankl says about success in Man’s Search For Meaning:

“Don’t aim at success.  The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.  For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued: it most ensue, and it  only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.   Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success:  You have to let it happen by not caring about it.  I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do  and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge.  Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had  forgotten to think about it.”

Thank you, Dr. Frankl.

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Stephen_Sondheim_-_smokingIn her book Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest quotes composer Steven Sondheim on his friend and colleague Leonard Bernstein’s consistent failure to produce any significant music after his great masterpiece “West Side Story.” Sondheim says Bernstein developed “a bad case of importantitis.” That is, anything he touched, by self-definition, had to have the weight and portent of the great.

Like for Leonard Bernstein, importantitis can sure be a killer of creativity and corporate health for the entrepreneur, as well. I was reminded about this a few years ago by the dizzying fall from grace of Mark Hurd at Hewlett Packard–a man of achievement and power brought low by ethics violations and the apparent attitude that he was above the rules. (And who can forget Leona Helmsley’s famous statement that the rules apply only to “the little people.”)

Jonah Lehrer wrote an article on this in The Wall Street Journal  in 2010. Lehrer noted what psychologists call the “paradox of power.” That is, the very traits which help leaders rise to power disappear once they ascend. Instead of being courteous, honest, and outgoing, they often become impulsive, reckless, and rude–subject to hubristic overreach and Icarus-like arrogance. He quotes extensively from University of California, Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner’s scientific findings from studies of power and success. Dr. Keltner states, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” 1280px-Jonah_Lehrer_-_Pop!Tech_2009_-_Camden,_MEDr. Keltner goes on to compare the feeling of power to brain damage, stating that people with great power tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area essential for empathy and decision-making.

An entrepreneur is usually a boss. He is a person of power, if only in his own very small pond. As such, it is very important for her to be aware of the dangers of importantitis. At my outsourced executive sales firm, Corporate Rain International, I try to guard against this in several ways. One is I never stop some cold-calling. At this point I could have other people take over this task completely for me. But I want to experience what my associates and employees experience for clients each day, which includes a great deal of rejection. (Note the Greek philosopher Diogenes {412-323 B.C.}, who was once noticed begging from a statue. When asked the reason for his pointless action, he replied, “I am exercising the art of being rejected.”)

Yet, another way I keep perspective is that I genuinely try to never employ anyone who isn’t better than myself, and then I listen to their input. And often apply it.

pat-caddellIn a recent article, Patrick Caddell, a Democratic pollster, observes there is an increasing inability of executives to admit mistakes, even including both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and how poor a quality this is in an executive. He says, “As we’ve seen again and again over the past few years, admitting a mistake is almost constitutionally impossible for today’s corporate chiefs and even harder for politicians.”

Thomas Bailey Aldrich states in “Ponkapog Papers” (1903), “The possession of unlimited power will make a despot of almost any man. There is a possible Nero in the gentlest human creature that walks.” Thanks, Brother Thomas.

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9123123977_335d6bb5edDon Draper is coming to an end this year. Yup. AMC’s Mad Men gallops to its hard drinking, heavy smoking, sex addicted denouement at the close of this TV season. The last seven episodes started April 5th.

I’ve read several encomiums to the incipient death of this popular, highly-awarded series. One of these articles described Don Draper as numero uno of all time among “salesman, con artist, sweet-talkers, swindlers, and bullshitters.” Wow. That is quite a concatenation of villains and it says quite a lot about how salesmen are viewed in the contemporary culture.

The archetype of the salesman is the used-car salesman–winding back the speedometer and screaming, “Deals! Deals! Deals!” Or Don Draper, in the very first episode of Mad Men, proposing to save Lucky Strikes in the wake of the 1960s Readers Digest Report linking cancer to cigarettes. Draper, in his machiavellian brilliance, proposes differentiating Lucky Strikes with the phrase “It’s toasted.” When his client argues that all cigarettes are “toasted”, he states, “Everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous, Lucky Strikes are toasted.” A charming, brilliant con man indeed.

Yet isn’t every successful entrepreneur in large part a successful salesman? For that matter, aren’t all human beings, to one degree or another, salesmen. What makes a good salesman?

Believe it or not, I personally feel that what makes a good salesman is the same thing that makes a good minister, good teacher, or good social worker–someone who genuinely loves the world in which she lives and wants to improve it through offering a product or service to that end. That’s my view and I believe it is also the view of most really effective salesmen.

Unlike the cliches of popular culture, the juxtaposition and equivalency of salesmen, con artists, sweet-talkers, swindlers, and bullshitters is breathtaking. And yet it fully reflects the popular view of salesmen as somewhat lower than whale shit. The list includes such luminaries as Gordon Gekko (portrayed by Michael Douglas in Wall Street), Blake (portrayed by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross), Freddy Benson and  Lawrence Jamieson (portrayed by Steve Martin and Michael Caine, respectively, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Roy Waller (portrayed by Nicholas Cage in Matchstick Men), etc. You get the idea. A veritable litany of the villainous and the predatory.

Gordon_GekkoCertainly when I began my late-in-life adventure as a salesman and entrepreneur, my idealistic and somewhat bohemian family did not quite know what to say. They probably thought I had become apostate to all that was fine and good. A Faustian sellout to filthy lucre. A crazed lemming descending into the rat hole of venality.

But what makes a good salesman in reality is the opposite of the amoral knaves of popular myth. You simply don’t win in the long term by fooling people. You win through sincere care, concern, and communication. That is a naive but very real truth.

Unlike the popular cliches about salesmen, long-term sales success comes from focusing on service and candor in all aspects of the sales process. A liar and a villain is eventually known by his works. Gordon Gekko aside, you don’t successfully sell with deception and legerdemain.

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