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Leadership Lessons Through the Lens of Laughter
Leadership Lessons Through the Lens of Laughter

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I find the best ideas don't always come from the typical mainstream business books.  These are not lessons learned from any boardroom, or business, but from getting in the deep water with 800 of my closest rivals.  If you are drowning in work, and you believe the only choice is to move faster work harder, "put in more laps", these ideas are for you.

I have been a "competent" swimmer most of my life.  When I was 35 I decided to enter my first triathlon.  It started with a 1,500-meter swim in beautiful Lake Coeur d'Alene.  The sun was shining, water smooth, the gun sounded and we were off.  The next ten minutes felt like a scene from jaws.  I was yanked under, kicked in the face, pushed down and climbed over.  I would have headed for shore but chose potential drowning over certain embarrassment.    I had trained hard but it was obvious there were people who knew a great deal more about swimming than I did.  The lessons here are not about moving more efficiently through the water but more effectively thorough your work day.

It has been more than twenty years since my first brush with the terrors of the "Tri".  I am still not a good swimmer but I no longer plow my way through either the water or the workday and I have a fellow failure to thank for the lessons.  Terry Laughlin was a championship swimmer.  He won all the trophies even coached winning teams until one day watching the soviet swimmers he realized he had failed to really learn how to swim.   More accurately he had learned how to swim the wrong way incredibly well.  He had been taught by like most swimmers of his era that the key to winning races was pool time. This is analogous to the believing that the key to office performance is desk time.  Neither is true.  We don't get more accomplished merely by spending more time at the desk.  The secret to great performance on the job or in the pool is not putting in more time but in learning to create less friction.  Once Terry learned this lesson he reduced the number of strokes required to reach the end of the pool from 24 to 14.  He was 40% more efficient.  What would you be willing to do to be 40% more efficient?  What would it be worth to be able to do everything you are dong right now with barely more than half the effort?

I thought it would be worth a hundred bucks and a Saturday morning so I signed up for a Total Immersion class at our local Y.  I was highly motivated, fully committed and ........I hated every minute.   My frustration had nothing to do with the teacher, although I secretly wanted to dunk her repeatedly.  My problem was that, like with most changes you have to be willing to be worse before you can enjoy getting better.   That is a price most of us are unwilling to pay. 

We would rather do the wrong things well than the right things poorly. 

The more I learned about the Total Immersion concepts the less it had to do swimming and the more it has to do with life. 

Applying these eight ideas to your life may not earn you trophies but you will spend a whole lot less time just stirring up the water.

1-Don't try and do it all at once.  We have taken a long time to get the way we are.  Be willing to slow down and not worry about getting to the proverbial "end of the pool" but relearn from the beginning. 

2-You are not alone.  Terry uses the first 70 pages not to tell you how to swim well, but to detail why we (and almost everybody else) have been doing it wrong all along.  Before we can learn something new we first have to be willing to let go of what we are comfortable doing already.  Practice doesn't make perfect it only makes permanent.

3-Reduce Resistance.  Only 30% of our success in the water is because of power; the other 70% is by reducing resistance.  Think about the things that cause friction in your workplace or personal life.  Slow down and make it a priority create a common flow.  Use turbulence as an opportunity to resolve misunderstanding and build stronger relationships.  Southwest Airlines is committed to reducing turbulence from their planes to their people.  New team members are selected for their ability to work together.  Conflicts are used to identify those people who value flow more than fight.  Those committed to making waves are given the opportunity to so elsewhere. 

4-Reach farther.  Don't just grab on and pull for all you're worth.  Reach for something bigger, more exciting.  Obstacles are all relative to the goal.  When the goals are big enough the obstacles are insignificant. 

5-Find your balance.  In the water it's about not kicking harder to raise your feet, but treating your body as a fulcrum.  By pressing one part down the other part automatically comes up.  When our life is out of balance, everything is a drag.  Take time to exercise, rest, play and renew yourself.  The demands of life don't keep us out of balance, we keep us out of balance.  Nothing will change until we change.
6-Change your orientation.  I always thought you swam on your stomach, but we are most efficient when we swim on our sides.  In the pool this forces you to see the sides, in life it allows you to see what is going on around you.  We are only as alone as we choose to be.  Instead of staring at the bottom of your pool of work look around for those pulling in the same direction.

7-Pull from your core.  In swimming it is about not using arm strength but the rotation of your hips to power your stroke.  In life it is about finding your passion.  What is it that you never tire of doing that doesn't require the effort of concentration but flows with fascination? 

8-When you are tired, get out of the pool.  To continue to effort at the wrong things only makes us more proficient at the unimportant.  If you believe that life is a struggle, it will be.  In his book Bringing Out the Best in Others, Thomas Connellan, Ph.D. shared the story of Herman Hollerith who in 1890 invented the first census machine.  He estimated a skilled operator could process 550 cards per day and sure enough those he trained (who had an awareness of those estimates) processed approximately that many.  Another group unaware of Mr. Hollerith's predictions went on to easily process more than 2,100.

If you feel like you are swimming upstream, it may be the current in your mind that is causing the most resistance.  If you want to reduce friction in either your swim or your life you must be willing to endure the awkward and relearn the process.

Be willing to consider that the problem you are having 
with (fill in the blank) may be you.
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The most common answer I hear to this question is “anytime I am not at work”, but is it work that makes us unhappy? A vast majority of the world’s population seems to think so. According to Gallup’s 142 country study on the State Of The Global Workplace “one in eight workers is psychologically committed to their jobs and likely committed to making positive contributions to the organization”.

Think about this contrast. We have roughly 13% of the world’s population engaged in their jobs while at the same time you have 22,587,713 wikipedians volunteering their time to work for something they get paid absolutely nothing for. Is it that there is something particularly pleasurable about investing hours of effort in the ensuring the accuracy of the almost 9000 words included in the article about toilet paper orientation? I was reassured as to the validity of my own preference, shared by 60-70% or people who prefer the over the front orientation. But the benefits are not in the activity itself but the attention.

It does not matter whether it is a video game, volunteer effort or even a day at the office we are most happy when our mind is focused and least when our mind is wandering.

Wandering may not be the best description because our natural tendency when not engaged is not to wander but to wallow. Our minds are evolutionarily predisposed to focus on fear. Of course our egos won’t allow us to call it fear. Fear comes in many disguises. Anger, resentment, anxiety, irritation and the cleverest deception of all planning.

Over the last two million years, which is merely a moment in our two hundred million year evolutionary history, the size of the human brain has tripled.[i] The largest area of growth is in the neocortex. The part of the brain that allows us to imagine. It is the ability of the brain to talk to itself to simulate possibilities and calculate outcomes. Realize this is a relatively recent upgrade in our mental management system and still highly influenced by our original fight or flight operating system.

The brain is kind of like a very old building that is continually remodeled on top of the old systems. It is because these more primitive systems are inseparable from our latest upgrades that a vast majority of our mental meandering is dedicated to simulating stress inducing outcomes. A majority of our day dreaming is not imagining the excitement of opportunities but the possibility of problems.

You might say well it is a good thing you have no time for such reckless rumination but somewhere between 50 and 80% of our brains magnificent ability is spent talking to unkindly to itself. We worry, regret and, if you are as unevolved as I am, plan the demise of our adversaries. Each time we play our internal simulation or share our stories with others we experience them as if they were real. Our bodies don’t know the difference between vividly imagined stories and our realities. If we imagine a conflict with our boss in our heads we experience it in our bellies.

The problem of course is that sometimes these little charades are helpful. We do anticipate a potential problem and plan just exactly the right solution. The challenge is not in stopping these internal plays but becoming aware that they are there and learning to reframe the scenes from unhelpful to helpful.

How do you know which of these mental musings are in need of your directorial attention? Don’t listen to your head. Be aware of your body. Our bodies are very smart while our brains are too attached to our egos. The best way to begin is not through action but awareness. Just learn to slow down and notice how you talk to you. Do your thoughts bring you peace or pain?

It may feel energizing to share the details of some inevitable altercation but then notice how you feel when the chemistry of conflict fades away. Do you feel uplifted or down trodden? Pain can be an immediate motivator in times of crises but as a habit of thought (or leadership) fear is like a fungus that grows by decomposing and absorbing the organic energy[ii] that is you. Keep the fun and get rid of the rest.

Replace the force or fear with the Power of Pull.

Notice conversations within and without. Surround yourself with people who add energy. The better we all understand the easier it is to take a stand. Everything is easier when we “share the load” with others. Habits are hard to change. It takes time, commitment, frequent failures, energizing epiphanies and the caring of community to help free us from what is familiar to rediscover what is fabulous. This short video is a sample of how sharing truth in an energizing and entertaining way can lead to both individual and organizational transformation.

[i] Reusable image source

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Goodbye Robin,
I grieve that we live in a world where we are so absorbed in our own illusions that we would rather pretend than be-a-friend. You made me laugh, cry and remember that conformity is a cancer, coercion caustic to our souls and the secret to freedom is in the audacity to understand ourselves. don Miguel Ruiz said; “we are at our best when we are children”. Thanks for showing us that a childlike nature has nothing to do with age.
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In one of the many memorials I have been bawling through after the tragic loss of Robin Williams the host quoted Robin as saying “I am afraid if I ever grow up I won’t be able to earn a living”.

I wonder if all those who have “grown up” found the “living” they were looking for. Is your circle of influence filled with people experiencing the joy, anticipation, curiosity, unabashed exhilaration they enjoyed as children?

Children laugh when they're happy cry when they’re sad and we love them no matter what. Don’t we ALL need more of that? Didn’t Robin?

This posting is response to a posting by my friend Robert Wright.  In his article Mental toughness is L-earned - your 5 point checklist

His last point centered around beginning each day loving, appreciating and forgiving yourself. The idea draws me into the emotional morass of trying to understand the pain that Robin Williams experienced much of his life.


We have more contacts but less connections, too much communication and too little conversation. We spend so much time pretending to be perfect that we have lost sight of the perfection of imperfection.


35 years ago the book that gently nudged me in the right direction was in the waiting room of my accountant’s office in Seattle. It was entitled “Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am” and written by a priest John Powell. Is that title even more resonant know?

I am just preparing for a board meeting with an intimidatingly intelligent group of people and the foundation of my message, as always is that; “ We are not thinking beings that have feelings but feeling beings that have thoughts”. Our emotions are far more powerful than the limited intellect we take such pride in.

I like and agree with all five steps Robert has recommended for improving our mental toughness and would add this little twist. Is it that we have to learn toughness or do we need to unlearn weakness.

Anyone with children (especially as many as you Robert has), knows that children are the strongest, most resilient, determined beings on the planet.

-They don’t even consider failure because everything is simply invaluable feedback in pursuit of a desired outcome.


What if we treated adults with the kind of encouragement we inundate children with?

What if we did not deceive children into believing that failure is a fault?

Failure is the ONLY way our brains create the required chemistry for learning.

In lesson two Robert delved into the importance of a holistic approach to health. You only need watch a small child to have the best life coach possible. They never stop moving, focus only on what is energizing and make it loud and clear when their physical needs are not being met.

#3 on the checklist examined the importance of creating a safe and nurturing place. The idea reminds me of how the most popular gifts around the holidays are often the boxes the gifts came in. The same is true of our cats.

#4 Is again already perfectly practiced by every small child. They see the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. They are not disoriented by the delusion of differences but find commonalities and create connections.

I agree with every lesson Robert has shared. We do earn learning through practice. And we do have to be tough but I think it is important that people realize that sometimes the toughest thing in the world to do is to be kind when it is undeserved, transparent when it is unpopular and vulnerable when it is unbecoming.

Authenticity is both admirable and ugly, agreeable and antagonistic, in control and…. at times entirely lost.

Thanks again to Robert Wright for helping each of us find our own strength in a world inclined to obsess over weakness.
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This article was written in response to another great HBR post from the July–August 2014 magazine entitled "It’s Time to Split HR". The post does a great job of delineating a new division of HR but I am not convinced that another ladder to climb is the solution sublime. Almost a decade ago Dan Pink foretold this exact evolution in A Whole New Mind published in 2006.

What is hard to understand is why so many HR professionals are ignoring the signs. I tried to publish a similar article from the Wall Street Journal to a LinkedIn HR group entitled The Next Evolution of HR. ( When I found it sitting in the pending postings after a month I sent a message to the president frustrated that I had 8 unapproved contributions. I said “you have plenty of time to promote picnics why is it that critical content like this is censored? Her comment was to ask me what it is that I wanted approved. I am not looking for approval but improvement through feedback from my peers. If HR exerts this kind of authoritarian control in a social network what does that say about the way those same professionals exercise their authority when they actually do have a level of positional power?

I think having a separate HR-LO department as suggested in the HBR article is an improvement. But doesn’t creating a “high potential” team just create another level of hierarchy?

Doesn’t every person have a passion when they are aligned with their purpose?

Do we really need another person with positional power or do we need to create a system that allows every employee to contribute, listen, learn, agree, disagree, lead, or follow? If a position is needed then I like Vineet Nayar’s approach to HR. He removed HR completely from any evaluative process and had them reporting not up the chain of command but accountable for supporting the “value adding” employees on the front line.

The secret I believe is not in adding titles but in increasing conversations. Two way, totally transparent, egos aside engagement.

Employees don’t want more communications they want deeper conversations. The tools for personal and professional development are beyond counting what is in short supply is a safe place try and fail, introduce and improve and disagree without retribution. Those solutions cannot come from an isolated position but an organizational awareness.
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Metrics Mitigate Misunderstanding
The commonality in all the recent books I have been studying recently is their counter conventional use of metrics.  Most people are highly adept at finding “facts” to support their preconceptions. Each of these authors does the opposite. They don’t begin with conclusions but use data to dispel our illusions.  Sal Khan didn’t follow the crowd, he followed the facts growing a nonprofit educational academy from an idea to 10 million unique users each month.  

The Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman is probably the most renowned for his discoveries and many of these authors use something from Kahneman’s research to tell their stories.  The problem is that even as an audio book Thinking Fast and Slow is 22 hours and very dry.  My point is they all require more than reading to become part of our awareness.  I debated with a book group about this and was censored by their seniority.  They are no longer in existence. 

The key is to break learning into small bits of information and large opportunities for practice. Understanding the uncontrollable influence of System One Thinking it helps to have lots of people pulling apart our illusory interpretations.   See a slideshow of the 100 biases and heuristics that distort our thinking.  This is why I promote the use of an internal collaborative tool to replace the email.  Read Death by Email.

Let me begin with David and Goliath.  About chapter seven you will find a great study about how the world’s foremost, post WWII, think tank the Rand Corporation got their understanding of the use of power totally wrong.  It applies to the three strikes laws, 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland and anyone who thinks that coercive power is real power.  Along the way you will learn why pushing your kids to get into the best schools may be one of your worst mistakes and how the Nazi 267 day aerial assault on London backfired by stimulating the “distant miss” resilience response. 

Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine and John Medina’s Brain Rules both use neuroscience to unravel our motivations.  Our NEED to be right is addictive, but according to Lehrer in How We Decide only half as addictive (habit forming) as our NEED not to be wrong.

The Power of Positive Deviance, The Starfish and the Spider both address the real understanding that lasting transformational does not come from the top down or inside out but from our peers.  In the same vein as Here Comes Everybody (audio) by Clay Shirky we learn that the lowered transactional cost of new forms of collaboration has shifted the balance of power away from spans of control to circles of influence.

The one person who has really put these ideas all together to revolutionize a heritage organization already growing at 30% is Vineet Nayar (wiki).  His Book Employees First Customers Second is the best first-hand account of the stages, impediments, successes and failures of inverting a 50,000 employee company.  He has not only received numerous International HR awards but is considered to be one of the greatest thinkers in modern management.  A short list of the results of his approach in his first 4 years as CEO:

    HCLT’s customer base grew  5 fold
    Employee attrition was cut by 50%
    Employee satisfaction increased by 70%
    HCLT tripled both revenues and operating income.

All of this after gathering all his top customers to tell them they were #2
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg will make you rethink why you do everything.  Why is the fruit in the front of the grocery store?  How does Target know what you want before you do?  Why casinos don’t just have a “house advantage” but they will stop at nothing to take your house.  Can you recognize addiction on an FMRI?  If so should those addicted be treated the same as those who are not?  Re-examining The King’s Cross subway station fire of 1987 (video) you realize the media had it all wrong.  This was not a natural disaster but that 27 people we killed by an organization that valued positional power over absolute honesty which brings me to Dan Ariely a professor in Behavioral Economics.

If you NEED to believe you are honest and forthright you should probably not read any of Dr. Ariely’s books by.  He’ll prove again and again that we are all liars and we lie all the time.   When you get to the most dishonest group of all you will never see your nonprofit board or beneficent organization the same way ever again.

The last book I shared was my own FREE eBook in progress Peer Powered Performance.  It is an ever evolving endeavor.  The more we engage others in the process the greater the benefits of application.  P3 started simply as a system for providing transformational training in short easily transferable bites.   The system uses a combination of education, collaboration and illustration to start conversations that lead to sustainable transformations. 

Stop the Coercive Cancer Consuming Your Team’s Creativity
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An Equation for Predicting Happiness
Based on a study by researchers at University College London there is actually an equation for predicting happiness.

Well now it is perfectly clear.
Get your pencils ready
Joy is practically hear.
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Know Less, Measure More
Google’s Golden Geese are not those with the highest GPA’s but proof again that purpose pays.  Known for their metric mastery Google uses their analytical expertise to separate the grain from chaff even in HR*.  Contrary to the brilliant founders expectations it is not intellect but autonomy that proves most predictive of high performance.  Combined with Dan Pink’s inclusion of Mastery and Purpose in the top three needs of outstanding individuals you have one more reason to read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. 

If you start by dis-believing all you have assumed
 you are on the right track to hiring those in-tuned

*Source: The Most Innovative Employees at Google Aren’t Stanford Grads with Perfect SATs

Stop the Coercive Cancer Consuming Your Team’s Creativity
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Based on a study by researchers at University College London there is actually an equation for predicting happiness. Well now it is perfectly clear.
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