(In)Attention to Details

Are we losing the ability to mind the details?  I don’t think so, but maybe!


Chalk this one up to amusement, but I ran across an article today that explains how the state of Oklahoma recently adopted “loser pays” for attorney fees in all civil suits.

That’s a big deal.  A really big deal.

But it was “unintentional.”

Yes, no kidding.  A bill was voted on, passed, and signed into law by a state legislative body and executive. And, its effects were unintentionally broad.  Here’s an article on this doozy.  The key quote:

The amendment, written by state Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, was intended to apply only to civil cases involving child sex-abuse.

But the amendment had a broader impact, according to the Senate author of the bill, state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City. “Upon a closer reading of the amendment, it seems evident that it makes all civil cases … loser pays,” Holt told the World. “But nobody caught that.”

But nobody caught that…

We are talking about a massive change in liability for legal fees.  And the response is, essentially, “oops.”

Well, luckily the Oklahoma legislature can change it.

But it raises the question: Are we suffering from a societal migration away from what one of my favorite coaches used to call “attention to detail?”

When a legislature can pass a bill through multiple steps and have such a big miss, imagine what details are being missed in your company or in daily life.  You need look no more than your web browser to see the effect of lowering standards for attention to detail.  Today’s news media are a caricature of the phenomenon, where we are constantly barraged with half truths and partial lies, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum.

In most pursuits, details matter.  In critical ones, they matter a lot.  When you are acquiring a company or putting together the biggest sale of your life, it’s rarely ok to say “let’s let the lawyers handle that.”   In Oklahoma’s case, the law can be changed.  That’s not so when you forget to vet the representations and warranties in your purchase agreement!

Nirvana on attention to detail is challenging.  I’ve known many people consumed by the details.  The trick, I find, is to combine the accountant’s eye for detail with the artist’s eye for completeness.  You have to get the details right, but also be able to notice what’s missing.  You have to see the forest and the trees, as it were.

The best strategists that I know are able to master this art.

Can you?




What Poor Days Teach Us

Our poorest days help us appreciate our best ones.


Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch my mother cook a large pot of soup for my kids and me while my wife was out of town visiting friends. Always the creative cook, my mother essentially concocted a vegetable soup out of a motley assortment of aging-but-good vegetables, leftovers, and other ingredients scavenged from our pantry and refrigerator.

It was excellent.  It was creative. The kids even liked it.

But, something she said to me while cooking it struck a nerve for me.  

As she combined ingredients that I suspect I and many of my contemporaries would not have envisioned as fitting together (the soup included approximately 5 different kinds of beans, but wasn’t a bean soup, folks…) she looked up at me and said:

“You only appreciate this kind of soup after living through some poor days.”

While we both chuckled at the comment, it had the weight of reality.  I won’t go into gory detail, but will say that the poor days referenced were real, and that yes, they do make you appreciate even the little creative things in life.

And, I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

We all have poor days.  Yours might not be financially poor days, but they might be emotionally poor, spiritually poor, or poor in other ways.  Maybe bad weather is as poor as you have ever experienced, but you’ve still experienced it.

In our professional lives, we have days where people let us down.

Days where customers call in angry.

Days where our boss or our board doesn’t get it.

Days where people are hurt on the job on our watch.

Days where we have to fire people, or we get fired.

Days where sales aren’t where they need to be, and neither are margins.

Days where it’s time to shut the whole operation down…and we do.

In other words, we live through poor days…All of us. Still, the poor days can lend rich experience.  They can enhance your sense of goodness, and your sense of performance.

When I sit and think about the best days I’ve had as a professional, I know for a fact that they were the best days because I went through some bad days to get there.

Just as I wouldn’t appreciate the taste of my mother’s soup if I didn’t understand the creativity–borne out of a few episodes of deep necessity–that brought it to life, we all have to use our poor days to improve our ability to perceive our best days.

 I don’t (and won’t) go so far as to say poor days are a blessing.  I will say that the experience and perspective poor days provide very much is.

Now, it’s your turn… If you’ve made it this far, take a moment to leave your mark here by leaving a comment.  What do you think? 

The Art of the Self Scout

You have to know your tendencies to improve yourself, so learn the art of the self scout.


How often do you really stop and look in the mirror?

No, I don’t mean literally.  I mean figuratively.  How often do you look at your performance, your style, your language, your approach to life and assess it?

Such an assessment isn’t easy.  Most of us would rather watch the latest rerun of Modern Family than have a moment of self reflection.

But…You know what?  It’s the only way to get better.

In sports, the art of the self scout is practically sacrosanct. In most major sports, teams at higher levels of competition spend a lot of time scouting their own approaches to playing the game.  They treat themselves just as their competitors would. They break down their tendencies, their tells, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  They have to, because their competition will.

Might as well find the problems first.

At the most elite levels of American football–the sport I have the most intimate experience within–self scouting goes all the way to the individual level, and then even to the situational level.  So, players not only evaluate themselves on how they play; but also how they play while facing 3rd and long against Tampa 2 press coverage.

Professionals go deep into how they play the game.  They watch film of themselves, seek guidance from coaches (who in the elite ranks are as much counselors and performance monitors as they are true coaches), and they adjust.

Did you get that?  They adjust.  They fix their tendencies and gaps.  Either that, or they get exposed by competitors who find the gaps.

Deliberate self reflection–self scouting–is a useful mindset for professionals of all sorts.

Go ahead, fire yourself…

One of the best examples of self scouting leading to action comes from the earlier days of Intel Corporation.  Mired in a price war with non-U.S. memory chip makers, Intel leaders Andy Grove and Gordon Moore engaged in an interesting conversation.  As recounted by Andy Grove, it went like this:

I looked out the window at the Ferris wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?

They had the presence of mind and just enough ability to subvert their egos to step outside themselves and evaluate what they were doing…And change it.

How you do it

There are many ways to self scout.  You can ask for feedback from others on behaviors and performance.  You can look back at your body of work and critique it as if it were the other guy’s.  You can engage in the Andy Grove experiment and simply fire yourself.  Walk into your job one day as if you were new to it, and think about what you need to shake up first.

That last point might be the most powerful.  In my practice, when we talk about helping new executives get up to speed or digesting an acquisition, we use the tried and true (and maybe a bit trite) concept of the 100 day plan.  A 100 day plan is a way of galvanizing action against a vision of what needs to happen to quickly re-form and re-direct a role or company under new leadership.

The question I’ll ask you is this:  Why does it take turnover for a person to form a 100 day plan?  Why do you have to wait until the other guy has your role before you acknowledge the gaps in performance?

Why not self scout and close the gaps yourself?

Try it… Starting today, try forming your 100 day agenda as if you were new to your job.  I’m betting you’ll find something of value.



5 Experiences You Need

My career has been shaped by 5 core experience types. Perhaps those just starting out can get something out of these reflections.

I’m fortunate to have held many jobs over my lifetime (actually, growing up, I was “encouraged” to earn money). Fact is, things like shoes and gas cost money. I’ve held the following jobs in my short life (things that the Social Security Administration would know I’ve done…):

Farm worker (corn picker, potato grader, possibly not-so-legal farm truck driver)

Lawn mower

Roadside watermelon salesman

Retail sales associate

Ice delivery boy




Material handler

Loan processor

Investment analyst

Professional athlete

Production planner

Financial advisor

Cold caller



Venture capital analyst

Management consultant

Corporate strategist

It’s a lot.

Now, before you say what a friend of mine said last weekend—”You sure have kicked around a lot in your career,” you must understand that necessity is the mother of work. I grew up with a healthy ambition to play sports coupled with limited sources of funds. The seasonal reality of the sports I played meant that I would cycle through work and sports in a periodic manner—finding a new job every few months through high school and during the summers in college to keep money in my pockets.

I’m blessed because of it; it gave me perspective. So I figured I’d share a reflection on what I think are the best experiences I’ve had from that long litany. I don’t mean the best in terms of my resume—I mean the best in terms of roles that taught me how to want to be a better professional.

I’d argue that these are 5 experiences that you need in order to grow as an effective but empathetic professional.  This is all, of course, one man’s perspective.  They are:

1. Sales. Any kind of sales

You haven’t really lived until you’ve cold called. As a relative introvert (when it comes to work style), I absolutely hated the notion of reaching out to people by phone or door to door, but  I also got a lot out of having had to do so. Once you have called on people and endured a healthy, consistent stream of rejection, you learn that being an A student really isn’t worth much in the real world. The real world is messy.

It’s also healthy to have had to sell things that are easy to sell. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to sell watermelons roadside during part of one summer in my teen years. It was a product that sold itself (although it never hurt to break open a melon and give people a taste).

As you get older and/or as selling gets more intricate and complex, the experience you gain from selling early on—the experience of influencing and dealing—becomes valuable in every environment. I’ve never seen a truly effective CEO who had no sales in his DNA. Do it. Sell something.

2. Personal service of any kind

Waiting tables is an example of a formative experience that anyone should have. When you provide a service in real time that people will reflect on, assess, and compensate in real time, you become attuned to other people in ways that I’m not sure you can find elsewhere.

There are all kinds of personal service jobs that fit here, ranging from the elite (concierge) to the important but more menial (shining shoes). What they have in common is the need to live up to another person’s standard at least once in your life. The value of that empathy, even if it’s merely learned and not intrinsic, is exceptional.

3. Work with a deadline

Having to work until the wee hours or through significant pain to deliver on a deadline is a formative experience. Learning to manage around deadlines as a writer, analyst, consultant, or delivery boy means learning how to assess a situation in terms of resource needs, capacity, timing, and costs.

Deadline work also teaches you to manage pain. Nothing taught me that better than football games. When you play ball, the game kicks off not matter what state your body is in, so you get ready, and you deal with the pain.  I always appreciated what I recall famous football coach Bobby Bowden once said about an injured player of his:

“He’ll be in pain, but we have a ballgame, and pain don’t matter.”

Deadlines can be tough.  Learning to answer the call regardless of pain is valuable.

I’m learning as I age that there are generational differences with respect to deadlines. I’d go so far as to say that there are some age cohorts in the workforce (ahem…millennials) who have, as a stereotype, significantly less appreciation for the urgency and precision that deadlines can demand. When those people mix with others that are more delivery oriented…they lose. Understanding what deadlines are and how to commit to and manage around them comes from critical experience.

4. Work that requires you to write

I first became a published author when I wrote an article entitled “Venture Capital in the Not-So-New Economy” while moonlighting for a consulting firm in 2001. I was volunteered to write a series of blogs (under deadline, surprisingly enough) for BusinessWeek Online while in graduate school, and now I write for fun. I have always found the absolutely necessary habit of stopping, structuring, and thinking when writing to be instrumental to my later career. Clarity of thought is a rare thing—I always strive for it, and sometimes I achieve it. Writing as a job and as a hobby is a fantastic developmental pursuit.

5. Work where there is no safety net

I still have in my file cabinet (somewhere) a two-year contract with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. There is likely no more pure meritocracy in the for-profit world than an NFL roster. You either produce, or you are cut. You tend to know where you stand right away, and  I certainly did—I lasted a few preseason games, and I was cut. I “failed.”

But that failure has made the rest of my career a cakewalk.

I spent more than 7 years as a client service staffer (that is, on the tip of the spear) at the world’s most renowned professional services firm. That firm is known as much for its brand and talent as for its “up or out” career development policy. There was, once again, a distinct feel that you either perform or you will be cut. While the environment was more humane than the NFL, this model was high pressure. It was a social contract understood by all. It made you sharp, and it created focus.

Once you’ve worked without a safety net woven out of bureaucracy, cronies, and obfuscation, you realize and recognize more and more of the bad behaviors that come from rent seekers and moochers. You also notice the really bad ones—the ones who tell everyone else that it’s a meritocracy while really just politically and financially feathering their nests. Their safety nets start to entangle their morals.

I’ve had the joy of diversity in the work that I’ve done. I’m so thankful that my life circumstances have afforded me the opportunity to work everywhere from a tractor to a delivery truck to a storeroom to a boardroom. I’m truly lucky.

I hope my perspective can be of help to you.

When Jazz is Your Leadership Style…Leave the Symphony!

If you lead like a jazz artist, then trying to conform to a leadership culture that runs like a symphony might not be the best thing for you or the organization.

I was reminded last night of a fantastically prescient article written by John Clarkeson, former CEO and Chairman of The Boston Consulting Group.  It might be useful to you.

Here’s the link.

Written in 1990 and entitled Jazz vs. Symphony, the article starts with an ominous set of questions…

Is there a leadership crisis? Are we really lacking executives to lead our organizations into the twenty-first century? Or are the specifications for the job changing: should we reexamine what kinds of leaders our organizations need?

Clarkeson then goes on to compare, with compelling anecdote and imagery, the leadership styles of the past (the symphony conductor) with what he poses as the leadership style of the future (the jazz ensemble leader).

He states–in 1990 no less–that the accelerating pace of change will make room for creative leaders who don’t have all the answers and who understand the quirks, nits, and foibles of their teams without demanding that their team be functional robots.

His outline of the “Jazzy” leader and their impact on teams is excellent.  He writes:

Leaders will be in the flow, not remote. Teamwork and cooperation will increase at the expense of individual competition. Cooperative support will moderate anxiety and encourage risk-taking. Talented people will be attracted by the ability to see and influence the whole process, to learn from other knowledgeable people, and by the opportunity to create and grow.

More importantly, he gets at what leaders really must do in order to embrace the Jazz metaphor.

Leadership will flow to those whose vision can inspire the members of the team to put their best abilities at the service of the team. These leaders will create rather than demand loyalty; the best people will want to work with them. They will communicate effectively with a variety of people, and use the conflict among diverse points of view to reach new insights. They will exert influence by the values they choose to reinforce. They will make leaders of their team members.

Note those concepts:

“Leadership will flow to those whose vision can inspire…”   It doesn’t flow to those who see it as a matter of position.

“Leaders will create rather than demand loyalty…”  Loyalty is a two way street.

“They will exert influence by the values they choose to reinforce.”  In other words, stated values flow less and less from a company and from textual artifacts and more and more from the actions of its leaders (even behind closed doors).

“They will make leaders of their team members.”  Leadership comes with an imperative to develop people as much as to direct them.

Clarkeson’s concepts hit home for me because they get at the most basic question of a person’s fit within a given organization’s leadership culture.  To be sure, 25 years after the publication of this delightful article, there are still a LOT of symphonies out there.

The imperative for you and for me is to know the difference between joining a symphony and joining a jazz ensemble.   Specifically, it gets at the question of whether one can be a Jazz musician in the symphony.

And, I’m not sure.

I suspect that Duke Ellington–the giant of jazz that Clarkeson cites–could have held his own riffing with any given philharmonic orchestra. But, I doubt he would have been special.  His lasting impact on music comes from his ability to adjust, cajole, entertain, grow, and create… Not to conform.

In Clarkeson’s words:

…he would offer up a scrap of an idea, suggest in general what he wanted, and then rely on his players to take cues from each other and to fill in their parts as they thought best.

His players were good but not without equal. He knew their quirks, their gifts, their problems, and he encouraged them to learn to do things they didn’t think they could do. Some players came and went, but many stayed for years. They developed through their membership in the group, and they learned from each other. Most of all, their capacity for innovation grew as they built on their cumulative experience.

I suspect that the moment a hypothetical symphony conductor attempted to stuff Duke in a chair and cut off his avenues of creation, he would have voted with his feet.

There, my friends, is the message.  If you and I aspire to play in a symphony, so be it.  Find a symphony.  Many, many leadership cultures still look to a single conductor for “truth” and bear the scars of such approaches in terms of wasted talent and difficulty adapting to change.

If we, instead, hope to play in a jazz ensemble; then let’s find one.

I suspect there is great pain and frustration awaiting a person with a jazz philosophy who chooses to play in the symphony.  In fact, I’ll bet that when such a thing happens…It’s all about the money.

Perhaps we should reflect on two implications of Clarkeson’s article for us as individuals:

First, the article was written 25 years ago, and there are still plenty of symphony conductors out there in leadership. Change toward a jazz style is slow and you likely won’t make it happen unless you are the key leader.

Second, which follows from the first: When jazz is your thing…leave the symphony behind.

Just for fun, and in case you never had a sense of what jazz can do; I’ll leave you with a short Duke Ellington piece.


Bill Gross: Debt Binge Worthy of Future Scorn

Bill Gross says future generations will view the global debt run-up of the past 6 years like we now view smoking on airplanes…misguided or just plain stupid.

Janus’ Bill Gross released an investment outlook today that is a painfully good read.

Your Link

His thesis:  That future generations are going to look at this one and say “How could they do that?” when it comes to running up debts the way we have in the past several years.

For those scoring at home, the U.S. National Debt stands above $18 Trillion as of today.  That, of course, looks trifling in the face of the U.S.’s $115 Trillion in unfunded liabilities.  Regardless of what you call them, they are promises to pay; and they are big ones.

An always interesting link is the U.S. Debt Clock.  Try it out; but keep a bucket handy.

The U.S., of course, isn’t alone; and that is what makes Gross’ read so interesting.  There may be no place left to hide soon.

In his outlook, Gross lodges multiple protests.  He states that while debt fueled recoveries from debt caused recessions are possible, they must have three preconditions to be so…

1. A non-fatal structural starting point (that is, countries can’t be insolvent at the start…)

2. Alignment of monetary and fiscal policies (especially that fiscal policy should take advantage of loose money to invest in accretive infrastructure)

3. Willing participation by private investors (they have to stay in the market even as yields are driven down and asset prices up beyond any realistic point of further appreciation).

It’s clear that all preconditions are/were not present in all countries pursuing the “borrow or monetize your way to freedom” strategy.  At the end of the day, fiscal, monetary, and investment indicators have to point toward kickstarting consumption and investment in the real economy.  It’s not clear to Gross (or me) that this has happened. If anything, Gross points to massive inconsistencies in political and market sentiments.

This is a fantastic read.  One that is well worth your time.

The implication?  Well, I posted last week about lower energy prices being a wake up call for business leaders to re-set scenarios for the future.  In this case, Gross is essentially saying that financial investors might do well to get out of markets sooner rather than later.  His quote:

Markets are reaching the point of low return and diminishing liquidity. Investors may want to begin to take some chips off the table: raise asset quality, reduce duration, and prepare for at least a halt of asset appreciation engineered upon a false central bank premise of artificial yields, QE and the trickling down of faux wealth to the working class.

Ouch.  That’s the implication.  Bursting of high valuations by investors fleeing to quality and going short could very much signal a period of deflation; then who knows what…?

Photo credit: Lendingmemo

Click Here if You Know How to Read

If you enjoy connecting the dots and thinking critically about the world around you, read on.

Below is a list and some discussion on ten books every executive should know.

Some of the books I’ve listed are all about how to “play offense” (that is, to build and execute on a philosophy of leadership effectiveness). Some, however, are very much about how to play defense (that is, to understand some disordered twists on philosophies and personalities that you might want to avoid).

Two things before the list:

First, I use the term “know” as opposed to “read,” since simply reading a book is not sufficient. Lots of people “read” (past tense) Animal Farm back in junior high or high school. Few can really internalize the implications at that age.

I’d argue it’s important to know these books’ content at a practical level. Many people will tell you they’ve read one of these books, and then go on to bastardize the philosophy. In fact, several items below are in the list because they are popularly twisted (hello, Hayek!).

I may even do the same thing in my notes below.

You’ll never know unless you know the books. I encourage you to know what you believe.

Second, this is a list of books that take on politics, philosophy, economics, change leadership, and human nature.

What you don’t see in the list is a set of business books.

I’d much rather encourage the world to think critically about their situation than to look at books that encourage them to emulate others’ situations. True, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but it’s good to know whether a wheel is what you really need.

That’s where critical thinking comes in.

But, I digress…Onward.

Ten Books Every Executive Should Know

1. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

What it is: A rambling screed of a novel written against statism, cronyism, and bureaucracy everywhere. Atlas Shrugged has stood the test of time. Sadly, it is, in the end, a caricature of philosophy and good writing all at the same time. Still, after reading Rand, the next time you are in a meeting with a bureaucratic leader who dissembles with vision-less imprecision, you’ll ask yourself “Who is John Galt?” with warm self confidence.

Why read it: Because Rand is every 25-year-old budding executive’s favorite author; and unfortunately between the ages of 25 and 45, few budding executives read very much.

Know this: Befriend anyone who embraces Rand’s fundamental premise (essentially, you can’t conjure individual well being out of thin air or by force and theft / can’t have your cake and eat it too). Beware anyone who thinks “Shrugged” is great literature or airtight philosophy (they are more likely to be one of Rand’s “moochers” or “mystics” than they will ever realize).

Extra Credit: Read Rand’s The Fountainhead for a better read and a more concise understanding of Rand’s super-individualist point of view.

2. Animal Farm, by George Orwell

What it is: An anti-communist allegory. It has great messages for leaders everywhere, particularly in organizations undergoing transformational change (watch out for those animals who grab power for themselves and deceive others). Ultimately, it’s a dark story, but it’s also a warning relevant to many leaders and groups.

Why read it: Because too often Orwell’s little book is ascribed solely to political systems when it really can be applied to organizational systems as well. As a leader, you should know your constituencies well. Pigs who espouse equality, transparency, and performance but who are just ever-so-slightly more equal than others exist in every organization.

Know this: Too often, it’s the “Boxers” (the hardworking, loyal draft horse in Animal Farm) in your organization that make it go. Get to know your Boxers. Keep in mind the anecdote of the cat “re-educating” the sparrows to perch on the cat’s paw next time you think you can fool people into changing their behavior when your own behavior doesn’t engender the trust necessary for them to change.

3. The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek

What it is: Hayek’s classic warning of the perils of central planning and actions that obscure price.

Why read it: Because you probably have read some Smith, Keynes, and Friedman, but you’ve probably only heard second hand regurgitations of Hayek. Go to the source. It’s applicable to you as a leader in an organization. The more you confuse your people as to who has what incentives and as to what actions have what costs, the more you push your organization down the road to serfdom…

Know this: The favorite poster child of Libertarians everywhere was a proponent of social services and safety nets in wealthy societies.

4. Better, by Atul Gawande

What it is: A collection of essays on improvement in surgery and medicine, written with a heartfelt focus on both incremental and tansformational improvement. As a book, it’s as close to a safe haven of reflection for change leaders that I have found.

Why read it: Gawande’s essays, centered on three virtues of diligence, doing right, and ingenuity, are useful to any leader who really wants his organization to do…better.

Know this: Getting better in any pursuit does require diligence, values, and ingenuity. Gawande’s book is a good set of examples.

5. Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty

What it is: If you don’t know at least the caricature of the book, you must not read the news much. Depending on your point of view, The book is either about how Piketty wants world governments to confiscate and redistribute all wealth OR how he wants to save capitalism from its own structural instability. My read is that Piketty has posed an intellectually honest and largely fact-based outline of real structural deficiences of “run rate” capitalism (read that: Capitalism without world wars or other significant dislocations of capital holdings), with a probably-right-but-probably-impractical taxation scheme as the cure.

Why read it: Because so few people with opinions on Piketty’s writing have actually read Piketty’s writing; and Piketty’s writings are relevant to global economics and politics.

Know this: As popular as an economist can get, Piketty has pricked the finger of capitalism in ways that few writers have since early in the 20th century. You’d best know what his premise is (Fundamentally: That economic growth cannot over the long run outrun return on capital, leading to capital structurally accumulating in fewer and fewer hands without intervention) so you don’t get misled by people who think they know what it is (“he’s a raging socialist” is my favorite ad hominem).

6. The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver

What it is: A engrossing but dense read on managing through the noise and moving forward in the face of ambiguity. Silver’s experience predicting elections is extrapolated to many different arenas (including poker).

Why read it: Applying Silver’s (essentially Bayesian) approaches to management takes “decision making” from a once a year budgeting process to a constantly updated, probabilistic approach to “leadership.”

Know this: Even if you are right, you might be wrong (and vice versa). Randomness can still beat you. But, there are methods that can help minimize the risk. Silver’s book outlines how.

7. The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout

What it is: Stout’s treatise on the prevalence and malevolence of disordered personalities in your community and the workplace.

Why read it: While Stout’s estimates of the population prevalence of sociopaths (~4%) are higher than other experts’, the fact that these personalities self select into and thrive within corporate environments means her estimates are probably conservative when applied to your office. The next time someone stabs you in the back and then takes you out to lunch and asks you to pity them for the situation that made them stab you, this book will ring a bell.

Know this: People who lack conscience are out there. They are dangerous to you if you espouse a values set of any sort. And, they thrive in political organizations. Know, especially, how to spot them over time (Silver’s Bayesian approaches are helpful). Try to inoculate yourself as a leader from the charms and methods of these particular animals above and below you in the organization. If you don’t know they are there, others around you do and are feeling the pain of their machinations.

8. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer

What it is: A story of the May 1996 disaster on Everest. It’s also a gripping read with lots of action.

Why read it: Under the surface of this popular nonfiction narrative is an amazing web of case studies and lessons on decision making. The pressure to succeed, whether it comes from within an individuals (“my life goal is to summit Everest”) or from commercial interests (the guides made a lot of bad decisions with a lot of money on the line), has to be managed.

Know this: In rare environments, it takes rare skill to evaluate one’s circumstances effectively and make the right decisions. Executives who are confronted with deal fever (“let’s just get this thing closed”) should go back and re-read this book. Sometimes, when you are 100 feet from the summit, it’s the right answer to turn around and go home.

9. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

What it is: A deep, logical dive into the notion that we are all just carriers for our genes.

Why read it: Because ideas travel like genes, and Dawkins was one of the first to realize and discuss it. He invented the notion of the Meme. As leaders, you and I trade in ideas.

Know this: Dawkins’ summaries of population genetics, memetics, and game theory (his “Evolutionarily Stable Strategy” concept still fascinates) have amazing applicability to change leaders everywhere. Unless you understand why people behave in an organization they way they do and what it takes to change, you can never really effect change as a leader.

10. Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales

What it is: A scorching examination of why and how people survive in many different life threatening circumstances.

Why read it: As with so many things in life, the art of survival is sometimes counter intuitive. Gonzales provides a view of extremely valuable traits that you might otherwise overlook. He boils down survival to a set of guidelines that are directly applicable to the life of any reader: Stay calm, be humble, don’t rush, have a plan but don’t fall in love with the plan, enjoy nature, do it for others. If you and I did these things every day, we would be much more effective than we are.

Know this: Gonzales’ examination brings into question what traits we really need in people who are leading themselves and others through harrowing circumstances. The next time you are looking for a prototypical talent, think about the survivors in Gonzales’ book and look again. Sometimes the best survivor isn’t the endurance athlete, it’s the pudgy guy who moves slow and continually examines the world around him.

There you have it.

This is just a list of ten books. I could make a list of 5 or 20 and it would be equally incomplete. There are insights everywhere. Go find them.

I’d love for you to add your “must know” books to the comments section. I (and other readers) might learn something.


Success Can Be a Problem, Too…

Sometimes, learning from your successes can be the hardest learning of all.


“History is written by the victors.”

– Winston Churchill

The most difficult leadership disease to overcome is one that springs from success. A victory—whether it be in business, war, or sports—is a victory. A win is a win. The disease I write on here is what I’ll call the “blind man’s bullseye” disease or BMB disease for short—the ability that leaders have during time of success to recast a win…any win… as intentional and well planned. We read a lot about how business and political leaders have learned from “adversity” or from failure. It is less common to hear how these leaders learn from their lucky breaks, particularly if they are in an environment that doesn’t respect luck.

BMB disease—this tendency to recast luck as acumen and to avoid learning from it—kills agility and learning; and it does so when the organization just might have the most to gain from being more agile and focused on learning. In its most extreme form, this disease destroys trust and implants a ticking time bomb of false confidence that will trigger when tough times hit.

Why the name? I use the analogy of a blind man’s bullseye because this leadership affliction is akin to a blind man firing an arrow from a bow and then painting the bullseye around the arrow—no matter where it hits—after the fact to match the hit. Apost hoc fitting of strategy to results vs. measuring results and adjusting strategy.


In reality, this concept is an offshoot of well-known cognitive biases outlined by Daniel Kahneman and others. In particular, BMB is a type of survivorship bias—it’s a way of promoting success at the expense of learning from failure. It is a cousin of the “Texas Sharpshooter” logical fallacy that derives from a similar, but different, projectile analogy.

So where does the affliction come from?

A true irony of the information age is that spin has become easier than ever. The availability of data, networks, relationships, and ostensible transparency ought to result in an environment where escaping hard truths is increasingly difficult. It’s logical, right? Give me enough information about any problem, and I should know the truth.

It’s just not so.

Today, leaders of all stripes have tremendous power to form, propagate, and change messages at any given time. At its best, this power allows for obvious flexibility in moving an organization forward—influential control of a mission-based approach. At its worst, it forms the basis for the meanest sort of revisionism at both a personal and organizational level—Orwell’s memory hole writ large. “I meant to do that” becomes not only a means of self-promotion, but also of self-defense and self-delusion.

Where might we see this in the business world? Here are a few examples from my experience:

The Strategic Management BMB:

I had the opportunity to spend my early career in the venture capital space during the rise and fall of the dot com. During that era, many corporations got into the game of venture capital investing in the name of it being “strategic,” particularly while it was profitable, only to find that the game is not only difficult but also highly volatile. Many companies who accumulated large venture capital portfolios on their balance sheets ended up with a bucket full of write offs when the market turned. Incentives being what they are, we tend to define as “strategic” that which is immediately profitable versus that which is sustainably profitable.

This is going on in your office today, and it is a natural bias—In fact, you may be mining a highly profitable small account today (bullseye!) at the expense of a more difficult but potentially much larger account your strategic aims say you should be mining. We paint the bullseye on the things in our portfolio that pay off now, and downplay the risk-adjusted strategic approach that may have been our target in the first place.

The Talent Management BMB:

One of the more malicious aspects of the BMB is its tendency to drive out diversity of thought and experience. In the run-up to the sub-prime lending crisis, most anyone who had the gall to question lending standards or the lunacy of some securitizations ran the risk of being squarely ostracized. Many people who were bearish on the securitized debt market as a whole spent years and a tremendous amount of capital convincing others that it was overvalued. A few of them made a killing in the subsequent turmoil. The reality is that understanding the value of “minority reports” in an organization or market sector is a key leadership trait. If we spin our success as intentional, we will push these thoughtful perspectives to the side and drive them out of our organization.

In your own organization, there are people who think differently about your success. They should be embraced for their diversity and not ostracized because they “don’t get it.” We paint the bullseye (mark them as “successful,” that is) on the employees who are immediately productive—or, in the worst case, simply sycophants and acolytes—in the current environment vs. those whose points of view, talent, and mindsets will move the organization forward in different states of the world. In times of plenty, people who have a cost and risk discipline are valuable counterweights; just as people who are entrepreneurial, creative, and growth-oriented are in times of cost control and retrenching.

The Thought Leadership BMB:

Perhaps the most egregious use of the BMB in existence is in business literature. Every business school case study and almost every business book in existence takes what was almost certainly an ambiguous, amorphous circumstance that resulted in success and attributes it to structured planning, vision, and “good business thinking” that can be summarized in 10 bullet points or fewer. The success of an organization can be written into a tidy story suitable for consumption by a business school class or an aspiring professional; but the ambiguity of actually muddling through a difficult business environment—the many shifts, turns, decisions, and blind alleys—almost never get displayed for consumption.

Storytellers being as common as they are, the thought leadership BMB is likely right under your nose—it may even be your own work product. Internal case studies and after action reports often exhibit BMB disease because they fail to confront the lessons learned that will make the organization better the next time around. “We brought the project in on time and on budget” sounds a lot better and cleaner than “we brought the project in on time and on budget but we burned-out 5 of our best professionals and alienated our two most strategic business partners in the sector.” We paint the bulls-eye on the end state of “great” companies, businesses, or projects but rarely examine the structural, cultural, or risk-taking advantages they had—along with the real failures they endured—along the way.

So what?

These are all examples where valuable learning opportunities are papered over in the interest of the promotion of success. In some instances, such papering over implants a ticking time bomb in the organization. In the first two instances, the time bomb was the future profitability or organizational health of the company. In the third, the ticking time bomb is that we imbue young business leaders with a view of business success as somehow formulaic and simple vs. ambiguous, random, and hard won.

Overcoming this disease is hard. You and I have incentives to promote success and minimize failure. Those incentives are as basic as dollars or as ephemeral as ego. Recognizing that you, as a leader, have both the motive and, increasingly, the opportunity to spin your way to a dangerously revised view of success is prerequisite to solving this problem.

The best leaders I have had the opportunity to work with and around do a few things better than others to avoid the BMB disease. In times of success, they (1) acknowledge when their arrows have landed randomly, (2) evaluate and understand why they landed randomly and why they were successful, (3) celebrate the win and the intent—the what and the why—but own and fix the process—the how, (4) seek objective counsel, and (5) aggressively eliminate spin and the habits that propagate it in the organization.

Step 1–admitting it–is the hardest for most leaders, but without it the other steps never happen.

Enlightened leaders pursue a learning mindset, a learning team, and learning organization. The leader has the power either to succumb to BMB disease or to overcome it. But, the leader has to have the discipline to assess component failures within grand successes in order to lower the probability of grand failure in the future.

One warning: Don’t take this article as an indictment of risky or random wins. Seizing on emergent opportunities is important. A win is a win, even an ugly one. As leaders, we have to embrace and bask in the joy of what John Madden called the “no-no-go-go” where a risky, unorthodox, or simply bad decision becomes a great one. We never need to scoff at off-strategy wins; we just need to know whether they are sustainable. Blind Man’s Bullseye disease is manifest in “spinning” or moving the organization’s bullseye to the organization’s results without a sound rationale to do so—fitting the strategy to the result, vs. assessing results and adjusting strategy.

As we write the history of our victories, may we all have the humility to admit when we were lucky, and to grow from the experience.

I invite you to share examples of this affliction from your own experience if any come to mind…