Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

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What script are you reading from?

conflict-in-recruitment“What did he say?” Bill (not his real name) was eager to find out what his partner had talked to me about. Bill and Abe (not his real name) were in the middle of a fight that threatened the productivity of their employees and gave the whole company and uncomfortable edge – even their customers had picked up on the tension.
“He is open to an engagement to facilitate your board meetings” I responded.
Bill and I had been introduced by his attorney because the attorney could not get these two partners talking and he knew that I did facilitation work. In the weeks preceding my conversation with Abe, Bill and I talked about the power of facilitation and the way it could help he and his board overcome the gridlock they were in. Bill had been consistently open and optimistic about the potential of facilitation – that is until I reported on the results of my conversation with Abe.
Bill jumped from calm and measured to intense and angry, “He’s not sincere – he will tell you anything you want to hear. It’s his pattern. I won’t continue this charade of change. I need to buy him out and get on with things.”
“Bill,” I queried, “Abe sounded pretty sincere to me. He asked probing questions, wanted to know how facilitation had worked in other organizations and expressed his own frustration with the gridlock. Why don’t we engage a face to face and define what facilitation looks like for your company and what objectives we need to hit?”
Bill continued his tirade about Abe. What I didn’t tell Bill was that Abe had spent the first forty-five minutes of our conversation expressing his frustration with Bill. These two men fell into the same pattern of offense, accusation, counter-accusation, and rejection in every conversation they engaged. I wondered what had started this down-spiraling pattern that now held each of them prisoner to their own silence about what they needed. In fact, it was their silence about their need that was most astonishing to me in the face of their loud protests about the suspected motives of the other.
Is there a way out of a toxic conversational pattern? The answer is yes, but with some significant conditions.
First, will you stop and recognize that the pattern that emerges in every conversation is predictable and toxic? Employees in Bill and Abe’s company told me that they could predict each board meeting’s conversational pattern. They actually had a pool on the side that predicted when the conversation would go off the rails and they could recite the “script” that Bill and Abe used on each other when the meeting decayed into hostility. It was the same script every time with very little alteration. People “addicted” to anger and one-up-man-ship, like an alcoholic, must first admit they have a problem. Once a person is willing to see that the toxic communication pattern is their problem, not the problem of their nemesis they take the first healthy step – they break the pattern.
Second, will you be vulnerable enough to talk about what you need from the conversation? It’s interesting to me that Abe insisted that he told Bill in every meeting that he needed real numbers to make sound decisions. “Abe,” I responded, “may I give you some feedback on that?”
Abe looked at me askance for a moment and then agreed, “Ok” he said.
“You don’t ask for what you need, you accuse Bill of massaging his numbers to manipulate the decision,” I replied.
“Yea,” Abe retorted, “I can’t make strategic decisions with numbers that I know don’t include realistic sales forecasts. I need clear cost analysis and projected gross profit that takes into account our history and the current market conditions. I tell Bill in every meeting this is what I need.”
“Abe, do you see the difference between a request for specific parameters and an accusation that Bill is trying to manipulate the meeting?” I asked. “Listen to what you just said, you don’t tell Bill what you need you tell Bill his numbers are wrong. He defends his numbers, you show him your numbers and the conversation disintegrates from there.”
“Ah,” Abe reflected for a moment, “I think I see what you mean.”
“Abe is the problem the numbers or is the problem that you don’t feel Bill respects your expertise and perspective?” I asked.
“Geese Ray, where do you get that?” Abe responded.
“You told me that in our last lunch meeting,” I replied.
Abe’s eyes turned to the carpet and he grunted. “Humph, I hate talking with you.” He looked up, “I need to think about this.”
Third, exercise low-level inference rather than high-level inference listening skills. How much do you infer from the verbal and nonverbal communication you receive? Low-level inference doesn’t “read into” what is said, rather it asks for insight into the reasons something is said or done. High-level inference assumes an understanding of unstated motivations and intentions.  If a listener cannot listen to understand rather than listen to respond and if they assume they understand unstated motivations – the conversation rapidly disintegrates into a volley of accusations and counter accusations.
Will these three skills resolve embedded and toxic communication patterns?  No, but they are a significant first step to that end. When practiced they open the door past conflict to communication where the real work begins. Can toxic communication patterns change without these three skills and the decision to employ them?  No. Without these first steps, the organization will limp along toward its ultimate demise while it sheds its best talent and misses its best opportunities while the principals in the conflict continue their charade of power.

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Three questions successful people routinely ask themselves

successI had the pleasure of addressing the incoming class at Bethesda University in Anaheim, California this morning. They are a wonderfully diverse student body, many of whom are the first generation to enter college. In my time teaching there I was privileged to hear the stories of change, courage, and the desire to give back to their communities.  In thinking about what would both inspire and challenge them this morning I thought of three blunt and transformative encounters Jesus had with his disciples.

The narratives of these encounters are stacked up together in Luke 9:46-55.  In the first (v 46-48) Jesus addresses the idea of greatness. In the second (v 49-50) Jesus addresses the idea of synergy with others. In the third (v 51-56) Jesus addresses the subject of anger in the face of rejection.  These three encounters frame the questions I find successful people ask themselves to remain focused on the important rather than the urgent. This kind of focus helps them see opportunity others simply walk past. And, it is this ability to see that seems to drop new opportunity at their doors step regularly. So, let’s look at the questions and how they work to generate focus and new ways of seeing.

What is your ambition?

The disciples clearly had ambition (a drive toward a new future and a trajectory away from a past). However, their ambition had gone down the road of power acquisition and prestige. Somewhere along the way, they began to run to the goal of dominance rather than destiny.  This detour along the way doesn’t take a person toward their future – rather it reasserts the past as a diminishment to be avoided rather than a foundation on which to build a future.  Those who are running from their past have not yet made peace with their past and end up running into an ever increasing intensity of shame and denial.

Jesus redirected the disciple’s debate by pointing to a child and asking them to receive or relate to the child. I think of my grandchildren who don’t care about the fact I have an earned doctorate, or that I own a successful company, or that I am recognized as an effect adjunct professor. All they know is that I engage them at their level with attentiveness, love, and a desire to see them succeed.

Jesus reduced the question about who is the greatest to a willingness to engage life like one engages a child.  This generates a posture of learning v showmanship, curiosity v arrogance, and vulnerable v defensiveness. Refine your ambition – dream big AND do it as a learner, not an expert.

How do you see others?

Small minded people interpret knowledge as power and the means for exclusivity. Jesus redirected the disciples who shut down the effective efforts of some unnamed person flourishing in the works of God simply because that person wasn’t part of their “in-group.”

Jesus’ response had two parts. First, DON’T HINDER HIM. The success of others is not a threat – it is a point of potential synergy! If you view the success of others as a threat to your own power/prestige then you will never achieve the greatest part of your ambition. You won’t be a change agent you will be a toxic tyrant.

Second, Jesus’ lesson is powerful, listen to it. WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST YOU IS FOR YOU! This is a significant shift in perspective and will keep you from being so afraid of loss that you fail to see friends. Highly successful people have large networks of highly successful friends. Why? They don’t view the success of others as a threat rather; they see the success of others as a potential point of synergy and momentum to their own ambition.

If you are proud about getting rid of others who threatened your own prominence, then competitors are about to eat your lunch. You got rid of the very people who would both accelerate and help sustain your own ambition.

What do you do with anger?

James and John were furious at the way the Samaritans refused to help them. They wanted revenge for the rejection and betrayal they felt.  The reality is that in life rejection and betrayal happen. The question isn’t whether one has face rejection or betrayal it is whether they will engage in the ruinous circle of revenge or the virtuous circle of forgiveness. The cycle of anger and revenge is what destroys many communities and organizations and holds them in poverty and mediocrity.

You can choose to break the cycle of revenge and anger and be a healing force in your community or organization.  If you want to transform your community or organization you won’t do it through anger and revenge – you will do it through forgiveness

Forgiveness is a process (or the result of a process) that involves a change in emotion and
attitude regarding an offender. Most scholars view this as an intentional and voluntary process, driven by a deliberate decision to forgive.  Forgiveness possesses behavioral corollaries i.e., reductions in revenge and avoidance motivations and an increased ability to wish the offender well impact behavioral intention without obliging reconciliation. Forgiveness can be a one-sided process. Johnson defines forgiveness as “A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her…” (Craig E. Johnson. Ethics in the Workplace: Tools and Tactics for Organizational Transformation, 2007, 116).


So, what are the three questions highly successful people often ask themselves?

  • What is my ambition?
  • How do I see others?
  • What will I do with anger?

How do you answer these questions?


Winning the Mind Game

mind-map“As a man thinks in his heart so is he.” Proverbs 23:7.  Does the way a person think about life and events actually create their success or failure?  Does a winning mindset impact performance? The question is critical for leaders in any field of endeavor.

Popular thinking has often asserted that we attract what we secretly think about.  The idea is more than a moralist warning against the idea one can assume a public persona that defies their innermost desires. It appears that people actually set themselves up for success or failure based on how they think about themselves and their environment.   Empirical studies verify the connection between how one views him or her self and their situation to the outcomes they produce.  Specifically depressed people tend to view life pessimistically and actually seem to attract negative events. Happy people view life with more hope and actually attract positive events. The impact of this insight for leaders is both personal and professional.

In his work on suffering and stress psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman found that some people actually learn to be helpless.  They view themselves as victims of circumstance beyond their control. The result of this learned helplessness is that thinking determines behavior or outlook determines outcome.  Said another way, an outlook anticipating success determines success in outcomes.  An outlook anticipating failure actually determines failure, rejection, defeat, and etcetera in outcomes.  The reality is that some leaders torpedo their success by the way they think.  Seligman found that individuals who think about life pessimistically produced thought processes that help produce learned helplessness in three ways.

First, they personalized the explanation of their distress in other words they blamed themselves rather than external factors.  For example: “I must be stupid because I can’t figure this out.” Or “I must be getting old because this problem is too overwhelming.” Notice that in each instance the person assumes responsibility for what is entirely outside their control thus adding to a sense of helplessness.

Second, pessimistic perspectives tend to extrapolate problems as pervasive rather than particular. If problems are pervasive they seem unconquerable – even normal or unavoidable. Statements like; “No one agrees with this decision” or “The Company always hoses the successful” indicate that learned helplessness is at work.

Third, pessimistic perspectives lead to the belief that problems are permanent instead of temporary.  If a person believes that a difficult or uncomfortable situation will not change they tend to condemn themselves and others to a perpetual state of loss.  Statements like; “they will not change” or “this will never work” indicate that such a belief is at work.

The reverse of pessimism or happiness actually leverage success in life by producing benefits like better health, frequent success, or more social engagement.  The causal efficacy runs both ways which is to say that pessimism may lead to poorer health, less social engagement and infrequent success.

The unavoidable reality is that successful leaders set a course in life that anticipates and engenders success.  Consider the characteristics of a happy person as defined in a study by Peterson & Seligman (2004).

Table 1: Virtues and their Corresponding Character Strengths

Virtue Strengths and Definition
Wisdom and knowledge Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge characterized in:

  • Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways of doing things
  • Curiosity: Taking an interest in all of ongoing experience
  • Open-mindedness: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides
  • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics and bodies of knowledge
  • Perspective: Able to provide wise counsel to others
Courage Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of internal or external opposition

  • Authenticity: speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way
  • Bravery: not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
  • Persistence: Finishing what one starts
  • Zest: Approaching life with excitement and energy
Humanity Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others

  • Kindness: Doing favors and good deeds for others
  • Love: Valuing close relations with others
  • Social intelligence: Being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others
Justice Civic strengths that protect against excess

  • Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
  • Leadership: Organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
  • Teamwork: Working well as a member of a group or team
Temperance Strengths that protect against excess

  • Forgiveness: forgiving those who have done wrong
  • Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
  • Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that might be regretted later
  • Self-regulation: Regulating what one feels and does
Transcendence Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skills performance in all domains of life
  • Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
  • Hope: Expecting the best and working to achieve it
  • Humor: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people
  • Spirituality: Having coherent beliefs about higher purpose and meaning of life

The successful are happy but here is the kicker, success did not generate happiness rather happiness generates (is causal to) success. Why? Happy people are people who pursue life with characteristically (a) positive emotion and pleasure; (b) engagement socially and emotionally and (c) a defined sense of meaning.  The good news is that a pattern of learned helplessness is reversible.

How can a leader reverse the feeling of helplessness or help others in their charge reverse these feelings?  Start with self awareness.  Look at the characteristics in Table 1; do your inner thought patterns/beliefs differ from these characteristics?  To the degree that one’s perception differs from these characteristics there is room to honestly assess why this is so and to see where mis-beliefs may actually be hindering success.  So, how have researchers determined to apply these insights to help people move from a self-defeating pessimism to success building happiness?  Employ one or more of the following exercises or coach your followers to employ them for at least a week and map what happens when you do.

  1. Use your signature strengths in a new way.  Review Table 1 and determine which of the 24 character strengths best describe you.  Now use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.  Keep a log of how you used your strength. What were the results?
  2. Three good things. Write down three things that go well each day.  Write down the causes, why did these things go well?  Do this every evening at the end of the day for at least one week?  At the end of the first week reflect on all the good things that happened the week before.  What do you see or what can you learn?
  3. Exercise gratitude. Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been especially kind to you but who you have not properly thanked.  Once the letter is written deliver it personally to the addressee.  After you have completed this take a few moments to write out what happened.  What insight did you gain or what can you learn from this experience?

Research verifies that interventions such as those outlined above provide a measurable change in how a person views life.    Regardless of whether you are hoping for success or looking for ways to be more successful using these exercises can go a long way leading to a greater sense of positive emotion, social/emotional engagement in life and a growing sense of meaning that becomes contagious to you and to those you are around.   You can learn to be successful…or more successful!


Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.” American Psychologist (July-August 2005, Vol. 60, No. 5), 410-421.

Nansook Park and Martin E. P. Seligman. “Strengths of Character and Well-being.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-19.

Tony Baron. The Art of Servant Leadership (Tuscan, AZ: Wheatmark, 2010), 13-14.