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On Leadership
Everywhere (well, Chicago actually)
THOMAS J. LEE is an authority on leadership and communication for organizational change and engagement in the workplace.
Interests: business, opera, classical music, public policy, chicago cubs, theater, food and wine, green bay packers, hiking, writing, blogging, politics, jazz, bicycling, canoeing and kayaking
Recent Activity
By Thomas J. Lee What is the value of people engagement? In terms of dollars and cents, what does it return? Those questions have long bedeviled organizations of all kinds and their leaders. We got the answer a couple of weeks ago, when Apple Inc. announced its quarterly results. Apple, as you know, is a company with deep people engagement. The answer is staggering. It is far, far more than any of us — including yours truly — had ever imagined. Far more. Imagine being able to raise your prices and then sell many more, a great many more, of whatever you're bringing to the marketplace. That's exactly what Apple is doing. It boosted the price of its iPhones by 10 percent — keep in mind, they were never cheap — and then proceeded to sell more than 61 million units in three months, for an increase of 40 percent from the year-earlier period. I hope you own some Apple stock. This torrid rate of sales is enabling Apple to boost its dividend by 11 percent and its stock buyback by $50 billion, from $90 billion to $140 billion. You read correctly. Such an incredible feat is possible because Apple is sitting on $193 billion in reserves. Now, pay attention. We're talking about illions with a B. We're not just talking about measly millions. Billions. Hundreds of billions of dollars of net income in the bank. You want to know how much $193 billion is? I'll tell you how much it is. According to the World Bank, the United States accounts for 27 percent of the world's economy, or about $17 trillion of goods and services per year. Our gross domestic product thus works out to roughly $50 billion per day. So the amount of Apple's cash on hand is... Continue reading
Posted May 15, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee I lost my temper yesterday. I shouldn't have, and I truly regret it. But the fact is I did. It is rare for me to go volcanic. It almost never happens. People who have known me for ten years, even fifteen or twenty years, will tell you the closest they have seen me approach it is mild irritation. Fortunately they were not at my side yesterday. The particulars are unimportant. Suffice to say my inbox overfloweth with emails. One of yesterday's emails, spam from a complete stranger who appeared to be the weakest volt on the Internet, was just the stupidest thing I had ever read. It was idiotic. Here was someone pretending to be wise who was emphatically insisting that reading literature was a waste of time. Apparently a STEM fanatic, he all but said literature was useless in today's world. Now, I like to read. As I write these words I am midway through War and Peace. I have learned a great deal from books over the course of my life, and I am convinced that the liberal arts are the best path to a lifetime of wisdom, depth, insight, relational health, and critical thought. You can imagine my ire on reading the email in question. I dashed off a suitable, polite note expressing a strong preference to be permanently removed from his distribution list. A minute later I received a surly reply. If there's one thing I don't want and don't need before my second cup of coffee it's surly. So I called the guy, and I let him know that he wasn't the only surly person in the world. Boy, did I ever. I got my point across, but I truly regret using some harsh language. (No, not profanity, which is a... Continue reading
Posted Apr 17, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee On any given day, the people you seek to lead may or may not hear, understand, believe, remember, or appreciate what you have to say. Nevertheless, you must speak your truth, and you must speak it often. On any given day, the people you seek to lead will always notice, observe and remember what you do and how you do it. Never forget that people are always watching you. They are constantly comparing what you do and what you neglect or decline to do with what you say and what you said. That's accountability, and you like accountability. Finally, on any given day, the people you seek to lead are determining for themselves whether to follow your lead. The decision is theirs and theirs alone. It is not yours. It will rest largely on whether they regard you as a person of noble purpose and integrity, as a person of principle, intellect, competence, high standards, and wisdom, and as a person who has their own best interests in mind and at heart. So speak up, and speak up often, about what matters most, and then be your own first follower. To show the way, you must first go the way, for leading is all about following first. © Copyright 2015 Arceil Leadership Ltd. All rights reserved. Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee When most people pause long enough to think about courage, their mind goes to physical acts of bravery. They may think of heroic soldiers in combat or cancer patients undergoing chemo. They may think of a tightrope walker or a circus acrobat. Or they may think of a famous person in history: Lawrence of Arabia on camelback in the desert, perhaps, or Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But courage takes many other forms. The presence or absence of courage is often as close as our lips and feet: it is our next word, our next step. It plays an important role in the success or failure in any endeavor, professional or personal. It can determine the health and vitality of our careers, our businesses, even our families. In addition to raw physical bravery, courage can show up in social, intellectual, and emotional ways. People can muster courage to make the right decision, or not; they can take the appropriate course of action, or not; and they can think the trusting thought rather than the cynical thought, or not. People can find the courage to speak up, to stand up, and to show up in big and noble ways, or not. They can have the courage to turn away from so-called humor masquerading as racism or sexism, or not. They can seize the courage to volunteer when no one else is volunteering, to ask a question on everybody's mind that nobody else is asking, to challenge the status quo and the assumptions everyone else is using—or not. Sometimes, courage is simply a matter of perseverance. Mary Ann Radmacher once observed that courage can be the refusal to abandon hope. "Courage doesn't always roar," she said. "Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end... Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee Think back to the last time you took the family out for a casual dinner. When it came to dessert, chances are the waiters didn't just bring you a simple printed menu. More likely, they either described the choices in colorful language or, even more likely, brought a dessert cart to show you (and especially your kids) what you could order. That wasn't by whim or accident. It was deliberate and carefully planned. By describing or illustrating the selections, the restaurant was expanding your possible options and, in the process, making it much more likely you would order that $9 slice of double-chocolate fudge cake. The same goes for buying a new car. The salesperson is likely to put you behind the wheel and let you take it for a spin. In a few minutes you will have felt what it would be like to own and drive it. The late Steve Jobs used to tell anyone who would listen, "You have to show people what's possible." Jobs, a masterful marketer, knew that, unless they saw what it could do, people would never buy an iPad. It wasn't something they could even think about, because it was unlike anything they had ever used. Further, he knew you had to talk to people in terms they could understand. It was one thing to tell people an iPod had so-many megabytes. It was something else entirely to tell them they could have 1,000 songs in their pocket. Leadership is like that. It's a lot about Show and Tell. You have to show people what's possible, and you have to tell them about it in words and phrases they will understand and remember. © Copyright 2015 Arceil Leadership Ltd. All rights reserved. Continue reading
Posted Mar 3, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee Anyone who watched the Academy Awards the other night — and 36 million people did — had to be struck by the courageous candor of Graham Moore, the 33-year-old writer who won an Oscar for The Imitation Game screenplay. The movie starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who is remembered today as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Turing did as much as anyone to win World War II for the Allies by cracking Enigma, the Third Reich's complex, mechanized process of encoding messages. In spite of his intellectual heroics, Turing was prosecuted for the crime of homosexuality in the early 1950s. He accepted chemical castration in lieu of imprisonment and died a year or two later of cyanide poisoning, apparently by his own hand. Moore, the young screenwriter, has something in common with Turing, and it isn't, as many people assumed, his sexual orientation. Rather it is a history of depression over self-perceived, felt differences from mainstream society, and an accompanying inclination toward suicide. After the envelope was opened and his name was read Sunday night, Moore acted on an impulse. He told himself he would rarely have such an opportunity. Staring into the bright lights and the little black circles of the television cameras, he decided to use his 45 seconds of airtime to "say something meaningful." That, he did. “When I was 16 years old," he declared, "I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. "And now I am standing here, and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. “Yes, you do.... Continue reading
Posted Feb 25, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee Readers of this blog have little in common with one another. You live all around the world. You're young and old. You're rich and poor, man and woman, black and white. But you do have a couple of things in common. One, you are interested in leadership and in the communication that enables and energizes it. Two, on the whole, you're a fairly bright bunch of people. But that last thing, that can be a problem. It's certainly a problem for anyone who aspires to lead people on a journey of change. Why? Simply because intelligence can get in the way of leading. Some of the worst listeners anywhere are really smart people. And because so many leaders are smart, they tend to be worse listeners. That's right. It may come as a shock, so I will repeat it for emphasis. Leaders, because they are so often smart, have particular difficulty listening to other people. Why are smart people in general, and smart leaders in particular, poor listeners? Well, by definition, intelligent people absorb information fast. Researchers have found that intelligent people think at the rate of 500 to 700 words per minute. Even fast talkers speak at only 175 to 200 words per minute. That's a lot of time—at least 36 of every 60 seconds—for smart people to be mentally doing other things while someone else leisurely finishes her own sentence. What are you doing for those 36-plus seconds of every minute? Lots of things. You're thinking about the agenda for tomorrow's meeting. You're sorting through candidates for the staff vacancy. You're remembering to get arugula at the fresh market. You're debating which movie to see tonight. You're wondering why this person is taking forever to make a simple point. Most of all, you're deciding... Continue reading
Posted Feb 23, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
Was Hitler a true leader? How about Stalin? Was he a real leader? And what would you say about Mao? Pol Pot? Idi Amin? Closer to home, is a CEO who rules by fear and terror a genuine leader? Where do respect, trust, and dignity — by the leader, for the led; and by the led, for their leader — come into play? Can a dictator ever be a leader? Where do you draw the line between tyranny and leadership? Where, if anywhere, does one begin and the other end? I teach leadership, both for bright university graduate students and for managers in business. Sooner or later, in almost every class, Hitler's name comes up. Then the other names: Stalin, Mao, ad nauseum. Continue reading
Posted Feb 12, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
I have been studying and teaching leadership for a long, long time, and if there is one thing I have learned it is this: Pay less attention to such ephermal things as appearances, magnetism, and charm. Especially beware charisma, for charismatic individuals can be, and alarmingly often are, seductive of their own willpower and character. Instead, pay more attention to discipline, ideas, strategies, resourcefulness, ability, integrity, experience—and to the soulful dimensions of leadership such as vulnerability, empathy, self-awareness, authenticity, respect, and decency. Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2015 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee Four score and seventy years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most famous speech in American history. In it he proved both his humility and his humanity, for, contrary to his prediction, the world immediately noted and long remembered what was said at Gettysburg, in commemoration of the sacrifices in battle the previous summer. Said Sen. Charles Sumner in Lincoln's eulogy eighteen months later: "The battle itself was less important than the speech." Let's take a moment to re-read Lincoln's 270-odd words and burn them into our heart, to remind ourselves both of the central meaning of the United States of America and of the central importance of words in the work of leadership: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which... Continue reading
Posted Nov 19, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
How often have you heard someone pay tribute to a business, or to any other organization, by calling it "a well-oiled machine"? Fairly often, I'm guessing. As metaphors go, it's an oldie but goodie. You hear it whenever costs come in under budget, whenever something is finished ahead of deadline, whenever a widget's quality clears a standard. But should that apply to all companies and all organizations? Should every enterprise be run like a machine? I'm not convinced. In fact, I have some serious doubts. Here's why. Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
It is an unfortunate fact of life that few companies are truly eager to do the work of nurturing the seeds of creative engagement, and that is especially true of passion, what we call the engagement of the heart. Most companies choose instead to snuff out the passion that new employees bring to the workplace. They subject new ideas to the deadly routine of "devil's advocate." They delay things so much that people tire of offering new suggestions and solutions. Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
While I cannot promise you riches, I can point you to an obvious common denominator among the companies that will be more successful tomorrow than they are today: They are looking for and finding new ways to grow organically. They are introducing new products, venturing into new markets, finding new customers. Doing that requires something that other companies—ordinary companies, average companies—don't have. It requires a culture of extraordinary curiosity. A culture of extraordinary curiosity values questions over answers. It places more stock in imagination than in knowledge. It prizes wonder-if over know-how. It is more preoccupied with what it doesn't know than with what it does. It is constantly, desperately, urgently seizing on the unknown thing. It is never satisfied with what it knows. Continue reading
Posted Sep 30, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee Regular readers may recall the story I first told in this blog several years ago, about my next-door neighbor who was a wide receiver in the National Football League. One night, while we were both cooking out, we got to talking. He told me what it was like to play football in front of 75,000 screaming fans. One thing he said during that conversation struck me dumb. I couldn't believe it, but he insisted it was true. Since then, I have confirmed it in conversations with several other professional football players. All of them told me the very same thing. The astounding thing that all these professional athletes said was this: During the execution of a play, they cannot hear the stadium crowd. They can hear the crowd in the huddle and on the line of scrimmage, indeed so much that the noise can make it difficult to hear the quarterback. But once the play begins, and especially if they have an instrumental role in the particular play, the crowd may as well be silent. It ceases to exist. My neighbor, the wide receiver, went further. He said that as he is running to catch a pass, and after he catches it and is running with the ball, he can hear his own heartbeat, he can hear his breathing, and he can hear his footsteps on the turf. He can also hear a tackler coming up behind him. He just can't hear the crowd. I found that absolutely phenomenal, and after sharing the story with a number of business executives, we all had the same reaction: Just imagine what a business could achieve with all its people at that level of focus. Certainly a great deal more than it is presently achieving. We do occasionally see... Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee Mention the subject of workplace engagement, and even smart business executives think in terms of employee retention or turnover, or of employee morale or satisfaction. These are the classic yardsticks of workplace mood or attitude. Few executives bother to differentiate between and among them. It's all good, and they have production and financing and sales to think about. For that matter, few distinguish between the real workhorses of alignment and engagement. Some even believe they can actually measuring engagement with a popular 12-question survey asking about friends at work. That is unfortunate. I'm not sure what the survey measures, if anything, but it certainly isn't engagement. Now I'm all in favor of retaining good employees and keeping them happy. But are retention and morale the stuff of engagement? Aren't we missing something big here? Yes, we are, and we can do better. We can do much better. The muddled state of thinking about engagement leaves so much out of reach, not even understood. By confusing and conflating key aspects about the workplace environment, a company loses sight of what is truly important. If you cannot manage what you cannot measure, companies are plainly unable to manage what they don’t even understand and haven’t begun to think about rigorously, let alone measure objectively. Let me tell you a little story. Years ago I worked for a Fortune 25 corporation that no longer exists. I had a terrific job, with a great deal of C-suite visibility, and I felt fully engaged. But so many of my peers were scarcely engaged at all. Perhaps you can relate. Employee retention was not an issue at this company. Everyone at the company was paid well. Those of us in the headquarters building, one of the world's tallest skyscrapers, had spectacular views.... Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
Nothing of much significance has ever been achieved, and nothing of much value has ever been created, that wasn't, at some time, the point of someone's single-minded focus, the object of someone's intense curiosity, the subject of someone's deep passion, and the product of someone's enduring courage. Continue reading
Posted Aug 30, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
Even for successful, well-run companies, annual employee surveys can turn up festering issues. I know of companies that celebrate their inclusion on lists of best places to work, but whose surveys show that employees are less than fully engaged. The litany of wake-up calls can be long: a lack of open and honest communication, managers who say one thing but do another, too much micromanaging and too little face-to-face dialogue, never-ending programs of the month, and more. In altogether too many companies, these alarms ring with yearly regularity. Year after year, the same issues come up. Management always frets and furrows its brow. Then the anxiety passes, and nothing changes. A year later, another survey goes out, and the same results come back. Continue reading
Posted Aug 27, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
To the extent any company tolerates these habits, it erodes its own shared vision and common purposes, it opens itself to turf wars and infighting, it becomes subject to cynicism and denial throughout the organization, and it can paralyze itself with fear. At best, people will just go through the motions, lacking any real commitment to the company's future. How many of them is your organization tolerating? What are you doing about it? Call us. We can help. The number is 650-464-1770. Continue reading
Posted Aug 22, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
I like to use the sun as a metaphor. It illustrates the duality of managing and leading that any successful leader embodies. You'll recall from fourth grade science class that the sun has a core much hotter than its corona, the visible cover. You can think of the internal core as the work of management and of the external corona as the work of leadership. Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
The arc of the technical universe is short, and it bends toward innovation. Continue reading
Posted Aug 20, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
Here's an important question: Does anyone really listen to what you say? Here's another question, even more important: Do you really listen to what other people say? Really, really listen? And here's how to answer that second question . . . Continue reading
Posted Aug 5, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
by Thomas J. Lee One balmy evening after dusk I was relaxing on the patio with my legs outstretched. Crickets had begun to sing, and Venus was slipping toward the western horizon. I had enjoyed another productive day. Everything was perfect. I wanted nothing to change. Just then I noticed a small animal of some sort off to the right. It was already dark, so I couldn't quite make out what it was. Slowly approaching me, the furry thing waddled right up to my shoes and stopped. You can imagine my horror when I realized the animal wasn't a feral cat, and it wasn't a squirrel. Nor was it a raccoon or a possum. It was a skunk, a polecat. I kid you not. For minutes that seemed like hours, it sat on its haunches just inches from my feet. I was never so perfectly still in my entire life. I didn't breathe. I didn't swallow. I didn't blink. In an instant I went from wanting nothing to change to wanting everything to change, immediately and radically. Yet I could do nothing. If I had so much as burped, this little beast would have fouled the entire neighborhood. Everything within a quarter mile would have stunk for days. I could only wait it out, in perfect stillness and utter silence. Eventually the skunk moved on, and I could exhale and blink again. Five minutes later I felt a sneeze coming on, and I prayerfully thanked the heavenly stars that I had not sneezed while my uninvited guest was sniffing at my feet. This incident occurred several years ago. I recalled it again this week when the subject of change came to mind. I've noticed that, for some people and some companies, the thought of change can bring about such anxiety... Continue reading
Posted Jun 20, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
By Thomas J. Lee You're familiar, I presume, with those two old chestnuts of workplace wisdom: "What gets measured is what gets done" and "You can't manage what you can't measure." Both pay tribute to the importance of measuring what we value in our work. And for the most part both have more than a faint ring of truth. The trouble is that measuring some things is not as simple and straightforward as it sounds. You need a clear conceptual foundation: an understanding and consensus as to what exactly you're measuring. Then you need a gauge or scale or metric that applies sensibly to the thing you're measuring. Then you need a reliable means of measurement. Some things can only be measured subjectively, by perception, and you need a way to measure the perceptions without tainting the results. That's just for starters. Of course, measurement is relatively easy if you know what you're measuring and how, and if everything is plainly apparent in the same way to everyone who looks. So if you're counting money in the till at the close of business, or taking an inventory of boxes on a shelf at the end of a quarter, it's a simple matter. On the other hand, if you're measuring something as ambiguous as, say, employee engagement, you have problems right from the start. People think they know what engagement is, but everyone has a slightly different notion. Moreover, it's hard to measure something we cannot tangibly count. We can only rely on perceptions, and perceptions are notoriously individualistic. What one person notices, another person can easily overlook or undervalue, and vice versa. Not only are perceptions individualistic, but they are highly sensitive to context and highly subject to hidden bias. The context is vulnerable to slight day-to-day variations in workplace... Continue reading
Posted May 15, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
Leaders may neglect or ignore communication outside and beyond the realm of formal messages. Two other voices—the semi-formal and the informal—account for well over half of all the messages that key stakeholders receive. These messages can wreak havoc if left unmanaged. Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership
Are you an introvert? Or are you, perhaps, somewhat more introverted than most people think you are? Or are you—don't laugh, the term is well-established—an ambivert, someone in the middle between an introvert and an extrovert? If you are any of these, and if your job or your aspiration calls on you to lead people to a better and brighter tomorrow, don't fall into the trap of denying yourself the opportunity to lead simply because of your quiet nature. Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2013 at Arceil on Leadership