November 25, 2009
The title is from the opening pages of the Cleveland Clinic’s Annual Report, which quotes Dr. Rene Favaloro: “the patient is not only an illness, he has a soul.” I came across the quote as I watched my colleague, Ananth Raman, teach a class in our Achieving Breakthrough Service executive education program at HBS. Ananth took the class through an incredible discussion of why a healthcare provider would need to remind employees that a patient has a soul. His larger point was that we can get so lost in the quest for operational excellence that we lose sight of the humanity of the people we’re serving.
Ananth titled his talk “Empathy and Execution.” One of the reasons it resonated so deeply with me is that it intersects with what I’ve been stressing in my work with executives, which is the need to set high standards for their people, but to do so with high empathy. Getting one right with out the other is much easier than getting both right, as I explored in a previous post.
Ananth convinced me that this frame is important for customers, too. In fact, I’m increasingly persuaded that one of the secrets to healthy organizations is a culture of compassion and excellence around all human interactions. These values benefit everyone in the system — managers, staff, suppliers, investors and, yes, customers. I’m finding they work for my toddler, too.
November 24, 2009
Antarctic explorers have discovered two crates of Scotch trapped in the ice, which Sir Ernest Shackleton abandoned during his disastrous attempt to cross the frozen continent in 1909. The bottles are appropriate artifacts of his exceptional leadership instincts.
The journey never should have been attempted, for all sorts of reasons, but Shackleton emerged as perhaps the greatest crisis leader the world has ever seen in action. I’ve written about Shackleton’s emotional leadership before, which I believe explains his success. As his men faced unspeakable odds, Shackleton stalked their despair relentlessly, snuffing it out in skillful and creative ways. He turned their fear into faith, rage into love.
Food and drink played a starring role in Shackleton’s management strategy. Ship cook was a high-status position in Shackletonia, and meal rituals were followed religiously, even as doubt began to threaten the team’s discipline. Rations were rarely cut, even when it wasn’t clear where the next meal would be found. And just when the team’s endurance was about to give out, just when exhaustion was about to prevail, a round of snacks and hot milk would magically appear.
Food was fuel, of course, but its emotional nourishment was often just as valuable. Shared meals affirmed the team’s interdependence and replaced unproductive animal spirits with reminders of everyone’s dignity and humanity. Shackleton’s men were absorbing unimaginable stress, and feeding them was a way to both honor and reduce it. Nothing says, “I feel your pain” like a glass of warm milk.
Shackleton has lots to teach us about leading in crises, and I’d put sharing a good meal at the top of the list. I fear this lesson is being lost as cost pressures rise in today’s economic uncertainty. That daily investment in coffee and donuts may seem like a painless thing to cut, but I think most organizations grossly underestimate the real value of feeding their people. Take it from Ernest. Wine and dine the team. They may even deserve a toast of well-chilled, 100-year-old Scotch.
November 15, 2009
Sarah Palin wants the option to run for president in 2012. Seven out of ten Americans think that’s a bad idea. Here’s my advice for starting to win them over on the book tour:
- Pivot from past to future relatively quickly.
- Voters are craving steady hands and a “buck stops here” approach to leadership. Keep the score settling to a minimum.
- Have a strategy for creating jobs.
- Explain your resignation in a way that reveals an interest in governing.
- Sarah v. The Staffers shouldn’t be a fair fight. The narrative that you got rolled by these slick, chain-smoking Washington types doesn’t position you well to lead a nation.
- The best version of you doesn’t take herself very seriously, but takes the fate of the nation seriously. Signal both.
- We’re exhausted by anxiety. Tap into our aspirations.
- Remind us that you’re the adult and Levi’s the child. Again, that shouldn’t be a fair fight.
- Take responsibility for some piece of McCain-Palin. In particular, own your interview missteps. You’re auditioning for Spokesperson-in-Chief.
- Your base won’t be the only ones buying tickets to the show. Talk to the rest of us, too, for at least part of the time.
- Wear incredible shoes (see #7).
November 9, 2009
Rev. Peter Gomes is the inspirational leader at the heart of Harvard’s Memorial Church, if not the university as a whole. As I was reminded yesterday in a service dedicated to Harvard veterans, he is among the most effective communicators alive today. Even in this Age of Obama, where our expectations for what happens at the podium are high and rising, Gomes towers over other messengers of truth and grace. He has a deep (and playful) appreciation for the weaknesses in the human condition — and a remarkable ability to demand our best, while making it seem like the only reasonable option.
His sermons can be heard live most Sundays, either in the pews of Memorial Church, on Boston’s local NPR station, or by listening to recordings on the Church’s website. He has also written a growing collection of best-selling books.
November 5, 2009
One of the most powerful acts of leadership is often the easiest to overlook: the decision to remain standing. As my obsession with Lincoln continues, I find that I’m most moved by his ability to simply endure. Lincoln revealed a pattern of political brilliance, but he often chose the wrong spaces on the moral and military chessboard. Those missteps arguably delayed a Union victory and weakened the movement to end slavery.
But the man showed up. He showed up even when he was crippled by despair, even on days when his army was routed, his soldiers were sacrificed by mediocre generals, his country was burning, his children were dying, his wife was descending into madness, his political future was doomed, his life was threatened (Booth was not the first one to take a shot at him), and his God had seemingly forsaken him.
Lincoln made it into the office. Sometimes it was on the emotional equivalent of his hands and knees, but he managed to get back up, and that choice saved the fact and idea of America. For all the talk of his strategic mind and silver tongue, Lincoln’s daily decision to stand may have been the one that made the difference.
These aren’t easy times. The burden of leadership is weighing heavily on many people right now. There are countless reasons to abandon the task, to retreat to a fetal position and fend for yourself. Lincoln gives us a model for resisting that call. He challenges us to simply show up. On many days that will be enough.