December 2010

The developmental digest for emerging leader/managers devoted to growth and excellence

December 2010


Section 1 - Topical Topics

Wise Leadership

What’s Wisdom got to do with it? . . .

Recently, I had the opportunity to look at organizational leadership from a different perspective. I had the pleasure and privilege to lead a workshop on governance for the board directors in the public education sector in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a ‘tough’ job but someone has to do it!

The mandate required me to examine and present leading edge and best practices to an august group, many of whom were already at the top of their profession, who were now facing the daunting challenge of guiding their respective organizations into a volatile future. I sensed the need to make a clear differentiation between managing an organization and governing it since the majority of those participating were comfortably adept at the former while being relatively inexperienced at the latter.

Governance - providing oversight and direction - and management both involve leadership, but it isn’t the same. Management tends to be a convergent activity which focuses effort and resources to accomplish recognizable goals and standards. Governance is much more divergent, taking the enterprise forward into the unknowable future by setting effective strategic direction and by ensuring responsible risk management.

There are three essential differentiators where successful governance will distinguish itself relative to ongoing management practice. These include the ascendancy of wisdom over knowledge, a focus on the engagement of organizational (and individual) strengths, and a solutions / outcomes emphasis. Let’s look at each of these but particularly at the first.

A Personal Story . . .

It was the summer of my sixteenth year and I was attending boarding school. I’d had bronchitis that spring and wasn’t yet fully recovered. My sainted Scottish aunt had lost her husband, my uncle, the previous October and was still in a state of grief. So, my parents, in their wisdom, decided that I should spend the summer holidays with her at our ancestral home on the shores of Loch Dhu, near Inverness in the highlands of Scotland.

If you’re familiar with summer in the Scottish Highlands you’ll know that it rains, and this was the situation upon my arrival – and solidly for the next three days. There was little for me to do other than to explore the house. It’s a large and complex structure which has had innumerable additions and extensions over hundreds of years and so it’s crammed with nooks and crannies.

In my explorations I came across a package which had been sent to my uncle from a London department store the previous summer. Unfortunately, he’d become sick and died before he had opened it. With my aunt’s consent, I opened it and found a beautiful, state-of-the-art fishing rod complete with instruction manual.

Now, I knew very little about fishing then, and I don’t know much more now, but possessing the mind typical of fifteen year-olds, I absorbed everything in that instruction manual about the remarkable features of the rod, the fishing strategies where it would guarantee my fishing success and even something about the type of fish I could confidently expect to catch.

On the first fine day, promising my aunt that I’d be home with lunch, I was at the loch side, had assembled the rod and was practicing my casting. I wasn’t doing too badly, getting the hook into the water at least two times out of every five attempts, when suddenly I noticed a ‘presence’ at my elbow.

He was as old as the hills with a shock of snowy white hair, bushy eyebrows to match over piercing blue eyes, a hooked nose and chin that almost met and a thin lipless mouth. He said, "That’s an aw’fu’ fine rod ye’ve got there!”
Well, that was all the invitation I needed.

I immediately regurgitated everything I’d learned from the instruction manual – the composite material in the rod itself, the triple-plated stainless steel guide rings, the state-of-the-art reel, everything! From time to time he’d interject with "Och aye, is tha’ a fact!’ I later learned that this was highland speak for ‘BS’. Undaunted at the time, I continued to make my casts and he disappeared.

About twenty minutes later he reappeared. In his hands was a spectacular, eighteen inch lake trout – a good four pounder. He laid it gently on the creel or fishing basket and said, "Would this be what’ ye’re looking fer?’

My jaw dropped. I asked, "How did you do that? You don’t have a rod or even a net that I can see?” I later discovered how he’d done it and I’ll share that with you, but meanwhile he’d presented me with a dilemma – do I say nothing and let my aunt believe that I’d caught the fish, or do I confess and appear to be an idiot?

I’m still agonizing over the decision as I enter the summer kitchen where my aunt was preparing vegetables. She looks at the fish, she doesn’t even look at me, and she says "Oh, so ye’ve met Jamie, have you?’

Jamie was the estate ghillie or grounds man and he later explained how he’d caught the fish – by ‘tickling trout’. He went one step better and taught me how to do it.

When it has rained heavily, sediment is stirred up in the loch. Trout will find a shady place in the shallows, under the lee of the bank and out of direct sunlight where they can just sit and feed from the drifting waters. If you know where to find them, you can insert your hand very gently behind the fish and when it approximates water temperature, you slide it up under the fish’s belly, hooking your fingers at the pivotal moment, pulling it out of the water onto the bank. I know this works because I actually did it – just once!

Jamie taught me to tickle trout, but he taught me something even more valuable. He taught me the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I knew all there was to know about that fishing rod and I would have starved to death. Jamie knew nothing about the rod, but he did know fish!

What does this mean? . . .

A profound knowledge of strategy and technique (the rod) without a sensitive awareness of your target market with its intentions and realities (the fish) will get you nowhere. We can be knowledgeable and skilled, as unquestionably Jamie was, but above all we need to be wise in the ways of our business.

It is wisdom - a level of situational awareness and insightfulness - that allows us to understand what is possible and why. With such awareness and insight we will be able to set appropriate objectives and standards and not concern ourselves so much with the ‘hows’. I recall well that Jamie and I would take three to five day trips into the mountains carrying no shelter or provisions, knowing that we would be living off the land – and I never fared so well in my life.

Wisdom means living parallel with the natural order of things, in harmony with the unfolding future and being able to predict with substantial accuracy what is bound to emerge. It means being able to work from the future back to the present rather than being limited to working forward from the present into an unknown and unknowable future.

Governance must provide awareness and insight if it is to give direction and oversight. The management team can get by on straight-forward knowledge, skills and experience since it is primarily concerned with implementation and execution. Clearly though, both governance and management should collaborate to build consensus on the substance of the business and in this process the board will learn about management realities and management could acquire some wisdom.

An integral part of wisdom is the intelligent and responsible use of assets, the definition of outcomes and the welfare and well being of all involved. This will support the other two core ideas of strengths engagement and outcome focus, but both of these are fully and rightfully shared by the board and management. Wisdom though is a hard-earned commodity and a unique gift that directors are in a position to bestow upon the organization.

Strengths and Outcomes? . . .

If we can accept that there is an implicit natural order, wisdom greater than ourselves, we’re able to free ourselves from vain attempts to reinvent or to impose control over things that will generally defy our will. Our values-in-action - those ideas that we own, cherish and seek to perpetuate - become our passions in action as well as our guidelines for a satisfying life.

When values-in-action are assembled in convenient packages to deal with life’s experiences, we demonstrate our inherent strengths. They will rarely fail us since they are time tested and true to who we are. When we act contrary to these guidelines and desires we betray not only others, but our selves as well. "First to our own selves, be true!”

We all need to act with integrity and to be authentic and when we are offering leadership this is imperative. Directors of boards, acting in the governance role, are offering leadership to many and across broad areas of action. It follows then that such leadership must be particularly focused and clearly expressed and also that its intent should be as transparent as possible.

To contribute in coherent, consensual ways, specifically focused on explicit outcomes and objective standards, is the prime directive for board directors. Firstly, the task is to focus the desire for change that’s resident in others - the stakeholders – and then to offer direction, through defining outcomes and to assess related strategies and risks, and to facilitate the creation, through staff, of sustainable new realities to fulfill those desires.

Along the way, the board acts in concert to conserve and safeguard the assets of the organization and this is best achieved by setting appropriate and responsible goals and policies as well as by harnessing the inherent strengths of every stakeholder. Ultimately, we seek to unfold the desired future in ways that make optimal use of the resources available for the greater good of all.

The Bottom Line . . .

Leadership is a critically important board responsibility; together with oversight it is the ethical and legal mandate entrusted in every board of directors. More than most other expressions, this leadership has to be based in wisdom, a dimensional shift in the perspectives (the way we look at things) and perceptions (the values we attach to what it is that we see). We need to be independent of management, not an extension thereof, and this is the significant way to achieve this; we also need to collaborate with management in order to add substantial value.

Managers will always be focused primarily on the present – what is happening now and why. They tend to drive the organization with a great deal of attention to the rear-view mirror – past performance and metrics - as well as to the immediate future through the windshield.

Boards must concern themselves with the longer-term future, the destination and why we’re making the journey in the first place, together with the consequences of arriving or not arriving there and the impact the journey has for all concerned. The focus of the board has to be broad and also way down the road!

Leadership for all is a venture into the unknown and so it is complex beyond the wisdom of any particular individual. The board is best advised to ‘pool’ its wisdom so to discover the right direction and oversight. This is why those who are entrusted with the responsibility are very special people – wise beyond the norm.

Think about it!

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Timely Insights

  • Nine Ways to Build Engagement . . .

Brian Scudamore realized his company 1-800-GOT-JUNK? had developed a serious problem with employee passion and engagement. His team was no longer as focused, driven and happy as it used to be, and that was hurting business results. Here Scudamore reveals the nine steps he has taken over the past year to turn his firm back into a fun, engaged—and growing—workplace.. . .

  • Genghis Khan's leadership secrets . . .

We usually think of Genghis Khan as a bloodthirsty conqueror whose only legacy was slaughter and pillage. Yet the man who emerged from obscurity in 13th-century Mongolia to build the largest empire the world has ever seen was also one of the greatest leaders ever, contends British historian John Man. In The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan, Man identifies these practices that underpinned Khan’s stunning triumphs.

  • Facial Expressions Give Us Away . . .

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, our faces can express a wealth of information. The ability to communicate subtle emotions with a simple raised eyebrow or curl of the lip may be innate. Charles Darwin was one of the first to propose this theory in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1871, in which he wrote: "The young and the old of widely different races, both with man and animals, express the same state of mind by the same movements.”

Recent work supports Darwin’s theory that smiles, grimaces and more nuanced expressions are hardwired—an artifact of living in social groups. Because humans depend on one another for survival, we must communicate; facial expressions may have evolved as efficient ways to telegraph feelings and intentions. Read more . . .

  • Quotable Quotes . . .

The greatest sin lies in not developing your potential. When you do what you do best, the best way you can, you help not just yourself, you enrich the world.                   -- David E C Huggins

Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people -- your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way.                                                                                                      -- Barbara Bush

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.                                   -- Sun Tzu

A leader is a dealer in hope."                                                               -- Napole

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A Note to Our Readers

I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at

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Section 2 - Talk Back

Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

My job involves the supervision of a project team that has more than twenty people in various parts of the world. Last week I decided to send out an email which reviewed all the accomplishments of the past year, some expanded assignments for the coming year and my best wishes to all for the coming holiday season.

Most recipients responded well but the backlash from a few knocked me off my feet! They were really upset that I was "so insensitive and disrespectful of their feelings”. I had apparently "crossed the line”, in their impression, "and it’s going to be a long time before I will recover their trust”. What on earth did I do wrong here?

Ah, the ‘demon email’! We all know that it is a precarious tool for communication despite its many and significant advantages. In this particular case, Marshall McLuhan may well have hit the nail on the head when he said that the medium is the message. You have three different messages but used a single medium.

Real conversations (one, possibly two of your messages) rarely work in email format. It is especially dangerous for those conversations that are emotionally charged, complex, multi-phased and in other ways sensitive in content (like assigning work). Such conversations depend on the full spectrum of communication and happen best in real time.

Merhabian has demonstrated that just seven percent of any message is dependent on the words used, thirty-eight percent on the tone employed and the majority, fifty-five percent, on the associated body language. Email has all of the words, only a fraction of the tone and none of the body language so we’re behind the eight ball from the start.

There are many occasions when email will do the job very effectively: asking for a meeting; sending an invitation; confirming an event or situation; conveying information for later discussion; summarizing a discussion / affirming a course of action; etc, etc.

Only the first intention, reviewing the accomplishments of the past year, would possibly fall into this category. I might add here that if your intention was to convey more than a simple confirmation of previously-held discussions you could be on thin ice here too. In other words, if the first and only place I hear acknowledgment of my contributions is in this email, I could be justifiably ‘miffed’!

The second intention, to give news of ‘some expanded assignments for the coming year’, is even more provocative. If this is the first indication of incoming work and I’m already contributing to the point of life imbalance or if I feel that I’m not being respected for my unique abilities, I’m going to be wholly dissatisfied by this medium of communication. I’ll want my responses to be acknowledged and considered and if there’s no latitude for this, I’m going to be very frustrated and even incensed.

The email message appears to proceed relentlessly despite my objections and concerns and this makes you "insensitive and disrespectful” in my eyes. You do not detect or respond to my legitimate concerns, which you probably would have done had we been face-to-face, so I shall make assumptions of the worst kind which you, in your regrettable ignorance, will live down to.

I may compound this by pushing back, also by email (since it was, after all, your medium of choice). You are insensitive so I shall communicate with you at a level you will understand and, if I can, I’ll go one better. The situation deteriorates!

Now the crowning touch – it confirms everything I have just learned about you, completely overwhelming anything positive from the past. Your seasonal greetings are so superficial and obviously insincere that you can only spare a few seconds to tack them onto the end of another email! Why did you even bother?

You can see clearly how this great intention ran off the rails. In real-time, face–to-face contact, it would have been caught at the first non-verbal flicker in my face, but you are totally (email) blind. I always imagine that writing a complex email is akin to running full tilt into a dark room filled with heavy furniture; Why would I do it - other than as a last resort?

So, what could you do?

Don’t use email for sensitive issues like assigning work, reinforcing contributions, coaching and counselling, or dealing with personal or emotional issues unless there’s simply no other option. When you have to do it, proceed cautiously, one idea at a time, testing for feedback and responses as you go.

Recognizing the importance of non-verbal cues, use video conferencing if you have it, or the telephone if not. Listen carefully, especially if on the ‘phone, closing your eyes and imagining the other party from the audible clues; this can often alert you to problems as they emerge. Listen for pauses, hesitations, shifts in language, changes in tonality and most of all for silences; never assuming that silence means agreement!

Where you have to use email, break it down into ‘bite-sized pieces’ and gather agreement as you go forward. Check for others' assumptions and suspend – as in hang out for all to see – any assumptions you’re making. If you are challenged, stop and clarify completely – do not proceed until everyone is satisfied that they fully understand your point.

Use lots of reinforcement, affirmations, frequent summaries and open-ended questions along the way. Seek alternative interpretations, suggestions and expressions whenever you can, sharing the context (the ‘whys’ behind the ‘whats’) so that others can find their own reasons to buy into the proposed course of action.

Relationships take forever to build yet can be destroyed in seconds. A final analogy: when you find yourself on thin ice, move very cautiously and spread your message over the greatest possible area to minimize the danger of sudden breakthrough and the icy bath that follows.

I hope this helps.

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A Meaningful Christmas Gift . . .

As I was reflecting on the theme of Coach’s Corner for this issue I recalled the pivotal lessons I’ve learned, but not always applied, regarding the best practice for emails.

Everyone I know is snowed under and spends a minimum of thirty minutes every day dealing with fifty or more complex issues before they can even begin to create value-added work.

This is a noisy world; the amount of information that is transmitted daily is phenomenal. Consider that the sum total of information stored in the mind of an average seventeenth century man over a lifetime would be the same as that held within the pages of a weekend newspaper today! How do we find quietude in our spirits?

The wise men brought three immensely valuable gifts which everyone will recall as Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. What gift will be remembered two years after your departure, let alone two thousand years?

Christmas is a time of joy and goodwill; how much of this is contained within each one of your emails? Bill Gates signs off his emails with a smile because there are too many other emotions flying around the internet. Could we all not do at least as much?

So, here’s my gift to you which you are welcome to re-gift in as many ways as you can devise - five principles to spread peace on earth through taming emails:

  • Emails are primarily for sharing information and scheduling events (like real conversations);
  • Each email should deal with a single subject, with the main point expressed in the first sentence and should contain as few words as possible
  • Never send an email that has emotional content - unless it’s 100% positive - phone calls are more effective and efficient and visits are usually remembered;
  • Think twice about sending copies and then do so sparingly; don’t send blind copies, call instead;
  • Passing on email chains is the same as gossiping – is it worth the risk of association?

I cannot make the noise go away but I can remind you that the signal-to-noise ratio is within your control; you can always say "No” and perhaps you should, more often than you do.

Love is reflected in love. There’s no law that says you have to love your neighbour but it is a tenet of every major religion and expression of ethic; but then whoever said that legislators are infallible? Think about how much grief would simply disappear if we really cared about other people. They’d have to print good news in the newspapers!

The one great point about this Season is that it encourages ordinary folks to do extraordinary things – all in the name of goodwill. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could extend the practice through the other eleven months?

Next time you are writing an email, think on these things – honestly, it won’t hurt!

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Section 3 - On The Horizon

Is Your Glass Half Full or Half Empty

... Article by Jeff Haltrecht

Jeff Haltrecht is a principal Leadership Coach at the Polaris Learning Academy and the Facilitator of the Polaris Alumni; he is a regular contributor to Polaris Digest

If your manager asked for your team’s help in turning around a troubled division, would you see it as an opportunity for personal growth — approaching the situation with confidence — or would you think this probably can’t be done as others have tried before you with marginal success?

I most always find that when a glass is half full, it’s our wisdom driving our thinking, while if its half empty, it’s our knowledge holding us back. Framing situations is a result of past experiences, our self-awareness, and our comfort with the unknown.  A subconsciously learned fear of failure will often hold us back.

Driving this is a mix of early upbringing — how mom and dad helped us view the world — and how previous managers’ dealt with us when a mistake was made.  If we were taught to positively learn from our actions and apply this knowledge in a new and evolutionary way, we will have the confidence to look at what could be.

Being half full requires asking a few questions, starting with… ‘With adequate resources, what can we achieve?’  Here are a few others:

  • If we start from scratch, what would this look like when done right?
  • What would success feel like?
  • Where could we be in the future?
  • Who will be the key contributors?
  • What would contribute to the success of each one of us?

The key to this approach lies with our ability to assess the resources needed to accomplish the task.  First we define the success that we are seeking – we become ‘solutions-focused’ or ‘outcome-oriented’, then we concern ourselves with how we can best move forward.

While your manager does not expect you to know everything, he/she does expect you to balance your wisdom (What can be done?) with your knowledge (How can we accomplish this?).

By leveraging our past experiences, along with a good understanding of our strengths, we assess the time, money, and people required to be successful.  With that perspective in hand, we can now confidently say ‘My team would be honored to contribute to fixing the troubled division!’

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Your Development

Polaris Leadership Academy now accepting new participants

Now is the time to register for participation in the next Polaris program.  This is your opportunity to grow significantly as a leader and to become a key driver of your organization’s future.

  • Are you finding it difficult to engage and mobilize your people and/or peers?
  • Do your messages and points of view go unheard in the organization?
  • Do you struggle to build strong relationships?
  • Do you often feel like a voice in the wilderness?
  • Do you know deep down that you could do more?

If you answered ‘yes’ to even one of these questions, you will profit from Polaris.  Through insightful assessment, tutoring and constructive coaching, we identify, stimulate and develop positive and enduring leaders and managers, helping you to prepare for more substantial contributions, more significant roles and greater responsibilities.

Over a period of a full year we cover 9 strategies in depth through a series of interactive workouts and practicums shared with peer-level colleagues and augmented by one-on-one individual coaching.  You will gain greater self insights and awareness of personal strengths and competencies as well as learn how to leverage knowledge, skills, experience and relationships to secure enhanced results. Through this experience you become increasingly focused, self confident and resilient, contributing real value to the organization in practical, measurable ways.

A new program will be offered in the Spring of 2011.

Visit or call David at 416-254-4167 or Jeff at 905-601-0311 to find out more.

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