Friday, December 30, 2011

December 2011: On Leadership

One of the key things in making this world work better is leadership. 
Everyone knows a great leader when they see one in action.  Great leaders are inspiring and charismatic.
People all have an opinion of what it takes to be a great leader.  The prescription is neither universal nor foolproof.  There are countless books, articles, and seminars on leadership and improving ones leadership skills.  Everyone has an opinion about what it takes but far fewer ever become a memorable leader.  There are many of us in leadership positions in varying capacities.  Just being in a position is no guarantee that the person in that position will be a good and effective leader.  There are countless examples of people who believe they are great leaders but no one in their organizations would agree. 
What then makes a good leader?  Is it an innate trait?  Or, can the skill be developed and honed?  While there are countless other attempts to answer these questions, I will attempt to answer these questions from my own perspective.  I am sure the attempt will be incomplete.  I am pretty certain because of the incompleteness that I will address it again in the future.
The Republican Candidates:  This month’s letter was motivated from thinking about the slate of Republican candidates for President of these United States.  There have been a lot of twists and turns in who is in the lead of this race since the summer.  As in the past several elections, I found myself asking "Is this the best we can do?"  I actually thought about making this letter about the dearth of leadership in this country.  But the more I wrote, it became an essay on leadership in general.
Before I get too deeply into this question, allow me to provide some background. 
I am not an avid follower of current events and politics.  The internet affords keeping up with breaking news in real time, so I kind of know what is going on.  I read a bit of op-ed here and there.  That is about it.  I am not addicted to CNN or Fox News.  I do not read every issue of any newspaper, magazine, or political blogs. 
This being said, I am fascinated with the topsy-turvy state of the constantly changing front runner.  In early December, it was reported that Newt Gingrich had a double digit lead over the field.  Now, at the end of December, it is being reported that Mr. Gingrich’s lead is waning.  It seems just a short few months ago, before the reports of sexual harassment, that Herman Cain was the front runner and a shoe in for the nomination.  Before Herman Cain, there was a whole lot of buzz when Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, entered the race until we found out he could not debate very well.  Michele Bachmann seemed to be the second coming of Sarah Palin for all the plusses and minuses that implies.  Ron Paul could also make a move as the primaries begin in January.
The odd thing about Gingrich is that he was one of the first to enter the race.  He had some early buzz and then his entire staff quite en masse in early June.  The sixteen in total that left claimed that the former Speaker of the House could not be convinced to run a focused, committed, and intense campaign.  At that point, Gingrich was left for dead and was more of joke than a serious candidate.  Look at him now.
Are the candidates fickle or is it the public?  I understand that the debates, the campaigning, and the primaries are for the public to get to know the candidates.  It is a time for the candidates to demonstrate that they can possibly function at the next level.
Mitt Romney perseveres.  He is the Steady Eddie in all of this.  He has been number one or number two to the revolving door of the other number ones for a day.  His fortunes rise and fall as the others cycle through this revolving door.  Perhaps he will be the nominee.  Perhaps, he will be the candidate because he will be the last man standing.  He certainly has poise and polish.  He is well spoken.  He is not an extremist candidate.  He is a centrist.  This can either help him or hurt him.  Perhaps, this is why the Tea Party Republicans are not enthusiastic supporters.  Mitt Romney is also Mormon.  While a man of faith, it is not the same as the "having accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior" majority of the party.
Part of the problem is that the front runner is in the cross hairs of the media and opponent strategists.  They will scour the front runner’s background for any newsworthy item.  The more controversial their findings, the bigger the headlines will be.  This is part of the vetting process.  I heard a talking head on NPR when Cain's alleged improprieties first came to light.  This expert on political campaigns basically said that the worst day on the campaign trail is like the best day of being President.  It was good for the public to see how our potential next Presidents react to the pressure and heat.  It weeds out those who can take it from those who can't.  It also helps us see who has good character and who lack this trait.
What amazes me is that people think they can run for President and sincerely believe that anything and everything they have ever done or even simply been accused of will not come to light.  Such people are either ridiculously naive or incredible ego maniacs to be so deluded.  Either way, I would not vote for such people for President.
I kind of liked Cain's candidacy and sort of hoped he got the nomination.  He had a fresh, tell it like it is, candor.  His 9-9-9 plan was clever and well crafted from a marketing point of view.  Whether it was the magic bullet to solve the woes of this country is entirely another matter.  But, the  major reason I liked Herman Cain and was hoping he would be the nominee would be to see how America would react to two black candidates.  It would have been pretty good theater.  How would they have played or not played the race card?   Would the race card just be irrelevant?   Would there have been a third party white candidate?
Early on in this section I posed a question:  Is this the best we can do?   I ask this in this Republican primary and I have asked in many of the past presidential elections.  Is this really the best we can do?  Where is the intelligence, the charisma, the game plan, and the track record of success?  Barack Obama is often referred to as the smartest guy in the room.  He has charisma.  Yet, many people do not like him for a complicated variety of reasons.  Does he get credit for not allowing the Great Recession to have become the Greatest Depression?  Or, rather, is he a socialist goat for blocking our path to full recovery?
The Leadership Conundrum:  Reagan and Clinton are now looked back at as great presidents.  They were both intelligent and had charisma.  They both presided over periods of emerging and growing prosperity.  That may be the necessary criteria to be a great president:  govern during a period of economic growth and staying out of the way.  Gee... maybe I am a TEA party guy after all if not an outright Libertarian.
I have asked this question, "Is this the best we can do," in several recent Presidential elections.  Great effective leaders are not commodities.  They are not necessarily even the best and brightest even though being bright is certainly an asset.  There are countless books written on leadership, what makes a good leader, and how to become one. 
The main problem is that it is impossible to predict who will be a good and effective leader.  Consider one of the great business leaders of the past twenty years:  Jack Welch.  He was obviously effective enough to be named CEO of General Electric but no one expected him to be so dynamic and as effective as he was.   Akio Morita was a great leader of Sony.  Steve Jobs was a great leader of Apple.
It is hard to predict who will become a good leader.  The skills and determination that served one to progress up the ladder do not necessarily translate to success at the top.  Great number twos may or may not make fantastic number ones.  It does not matter if the people are voting for the number one or if the outgoing number one gets to choose his successor. 
Think of football quarterbacks.  It is the single hardest position in football to predict success at the pro-level.  Great success at the college level is neither a necessary nor sufficient to guarantee success at the pro-level.  Why is that?  Even though there are numerous measures such as 40 yard dash time, throwing accuracy, interceptions, fumbles, yards offense, and so on, it is very hard to predict who will become a great pro quarterback.  Think Ryan Leaf.  Think of Tom Brady.  Ryan Leaf was predicted to be a great quarterback in the pros and Brady... not so much.  Circa the same incoming class was Peyton Manning.  He was great in college and he was able to transition that greatness to the NFL.
I have read that the biggest unknown factor in moving from college to the pros is the pace of the game.  The pro game is just that much faster.  A quarterback has to be able to make decisions faster while keeping his calm.  He has to be able to read defenses, adapt, and release the ball faster than he ever had to in college. There is no way to measure this until the quarterback is confronted with it.  Will he be Ryan Leaf or Tom Brady?
The same thing applies to politics and business.  The loneliness at the top, the gravity of decision making, the pace of decision making, and the ability to hold it all together are traits a President of the US and the President of GE both need.  It is hard to predict who will succeed, who will fail, and who will be so-so when they are first elected or promoted.  Much like the quarterback example, the speed of the game changes dramatically and not everyone can make the transition.
Hidden Agendas, Consistency, Constancy of Purpose and Authenticity:  One of the key set of attributes of being a great leader, at least to me, is what W. Edwards Deming called Constancy of Purpose.  What is the agenda of the leader?  What are his or her goals?  Are the goals clearly and consistently communicated to every that wants to or needs to know?  These are the cornerstones on which great leadership is built.
Part of this is not having any hidden agendas.  Hidden agendas are rarely one-off errors in judgment.  The leaders who have hidden agendas do so habitually.  Organizations with a culture of hidden agendas reward those potential leaders who are best at executing their hidden agendas.  Hidden agendas usually create an atmosphere of angst, rumors, intrigue, suspiciousness, and paranoia.  People sense something but they do not know what or where this is all coming from.  It can fill the organization with a sense of foreboding.
Another part of this is the consistency with which the leader acts and reacts to the same kinds of situations.  This even applies to a bad leader.  In the negative case, the people working with or for the leader can reliably adapt their behavior and navigate around the leader if need be.  The worst possible scenario is inconsistency.  This tends to paralyze the organization with fear.
Both foreboding and fear are brought about by poor leadership.  They cripple the effectiveness and potential of an organization.  It all begins with the tone and example set by the leader and the lieutenants he places around him.  If the leader is inconsistent or operating with hidden agendas these become the behaviors that will rise up and flourish in the organization be it industry or government. 
A great leader has a consistency and forthright constancy of purpose that excites everyone and creates a positive organizational tension.  That organizational tension brings the alignment and sense of urgency that makes people do more than they ever thought they were capable of.  This is what great leadership can do.  These are the memorable leaders who make a mark in our lives.  These are the leaders for which people with go above and beyond to get execute the strategies and tactics set forth by the leader.
There is best summed up in a word I learned from Clyde Lowstuter the principal of Robertson Lowstuter.  He calls it authenticity.  Here is a definition from their website section on Core Beliefs:

Authenticity is the single most important determinant for individual and leadership success.

Leaders are authentic when they
1) have consistent alignment of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors;
2) take complete responsibility for the unintended impact their behavior and words have on others;
3) have the confidence and boldness to ‘walk the talk’ and
4)  live their lives serving the greater organizational good.  

Constancy of Purpose and Consistency are both in this definition of Authenticity.  It is most definitely a necessary condition for great leadership.
Can a President get us to Go Above and Beyond?:  This is an interesting question.  The only context I have for this is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.   He was President of the United States during the Great Depression and most of World War II.  It was a dark and gloomy time in this country from what I have read and what I have been told.  During his term of leadership, he got us to pull together in way that is mythic from my perspective.  People were in a bad way from the Great Depression when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  The US was instantly in World War II and the country was in dire straits.  Roosevelt set a tone that the country followed.  He had us rationing.  He had us mobilized and volunteering to fight.
It might easily be argued that it is easy to lead in a time of crisis.  The Great Depression and World War II provided a crisis severe enough for the President to provide that Constancy of Purpose and generate the creative tension to pull us through, to persevere, and to win.  People were thirsting for leadership and he provided it.
We did not have the same unanimity during the recent Great Recession.  We needed and wanted leadership.  Either there was none or the leader we have was not able to convince of the sacrifices we collectively needed to make to right our ship.   We had that special unanimity after 9-11-01 but it did not last.  Crisis made George W. Bush a pretty good leader at that moment.  As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stalled and the economy began to crumble, it did not last.  We have yet to see Barack Obama provide much in this regard.  I am not sure any of the Republicans running will be any better.
Answering the questions:  I posed a few questions at the beginning of this meandering piece:

1.       What then makes a good leader? 
2.       Is it an innate trait? 
3.       Or, can the skill be developed and honed? 

I kind of answered the first.  As for the second, I truly believe that leadership has a significant innate core.  We have seen people that are just born with a natural charisma and the ability to get others to listen to and follow them.   We have seen people that simply command authority.
This being said, I also believe that leadership skills can be learned and improved upon.  I know several men and women who have nurtured their skills.  Leadership is definitely part art form and style.  Like most endeavors it is honed through practice and a desire for continuous improvement. 
Some Great Leaders I have reported to:  In thinking about my career, there are maybe three impressive bosses I have had:  Bob Adams, Bob Martin, Dale Dvorak, Mike Corbo, and Howard Heckes.  I reported to Bob Adams at Rockwell International.  The other Bob, Dale, and Mike were all from Colgate-Palmolive.  Howard Heckes was our division President I reported to at Newell Rubbermaid.  I wanted to acknowledge them in this letter On Leadership.  

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas 2011

Good morning.  Good Christmas morning to you and yours.  

This is the second year I am writing this Christmas morning letter.  I used to email my work colleagues for several years, simply wishing them well.  Last year I began a more formal and extensive greeting to a larger base of friends, family, and colleagues.  

Christmas is a festive and family time.  In these northern climes, it is cold outside and warm in our homes and hearts.  It can be a solemn time which is why I choose pre-dawn on Christmas morning to write and share these reflections.  I like starting the holiday this way with a hot cup of coffee in front of my laptop.  Well, having a hot cup of coffee and sitting in front of my laptop is something I do most everyday, today is different.  Today is different because I have nothing else on my mind except writing this greeting to all of you.

Christmas can also be a stressful and hectic time.  That stress and pace is due to two factors.  First, in order to have the twinkling lights inside and out and the festive foods that define and fuel the familial warmth, there is a lot of preparation.  I once had a boss that said, “I am not exactly sure of what I am in charge of at work, but at home I am clearly not in command.”  That statement resonated.  At this time of year, I am a reluctant decorator, a dutiful taxi driver, and upon occasions a maid.  It has to be done and we are busy with our work lives at full blast until we seem to enter holiday mode at full blast.

This year, my niece and Goddaughter, Melanie Mardoian married Kevork Chavoush Mesrobian on Thanksgiving Weekend.  It was a great wedding and a truly wonderful time.  The bride and groom glowed and the families and guests were full of joy that emanated from the bride and groom.  It was one of those five days of celebration events that will standout in our memories.  We used to read about Armenian weddings in days of yore that lasted for several days, it is still the way we do it in our family.  

For all that fun, it put us behind in Christmas planning.  Immediately after, Judy had to focus on writing a major paper for a masters degree she is working on.  I had to prepare and grade exams, projects, and final exams for the three courses I was teaching.  Holiday planning took a back seat until, well, a week before the big day.  We are usually rolling in this regard by the first week of December.  This just was not the case this year.  Hence the hectic feeling.  We did get it all together and the house looked great for last night’s Christmas Eve gathering.

Second, in case you have not noticed, there is a distinct commercial aspect to this holiday season.  With each passing year, and this may be the part of the holiday that offends me the most, we are bombarded around these parts with Christmas or holiday decorations, muzak, sales, discounts, free shipping, extended store hours, black friday, cyber monday, this, that, and the other thing for a full two months.  It really can be irritating.  I cannot imagine working in a retail establishment that is pumping out Holiday jingles, carols, hymns, and pop songs sung by every imaginable artist in every imaginable style.  It would drive me crazy after a few days.

Sure, I understand the commercial aspects of the holidays.  I do not begrudge anyone a living or the need to turn a profit.  I just do not like the “scope” or “schedule” creep of the whole thing.  It dilutes the beauty and warmth of the season and holiday in particular.  

But, I write this Christmas morning not to complain about household chores and the commercialization of the season.  I get up early because it is a beautifully quiet time to reflect on friends and family I will not be seeing today.  I will think about all of you, who I will not be able to knock on your door or ring your door bell and come in and give you Christmas hug and share a cup of Christmas cheer.  It is as quiet as it gets around here.  There is a slight whir of the laptop fan, the noise the furnace makes kicking on and off, the chiming of the clocks every fifteen minutes, and that is it.  I do not even play any music.

It would be great if I could magically be in Wilton, CT, Buenos Aires, Yerevan, Detroit, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Montevideo, Istanbul, Cali, New York, Fresno, Caracas, Ocala, and many other places. It would be great to see you all.  It would be Santa Claus like magic if that were possible.  Yet, in this modern world, this Internet age, I am kind of doing just that but in a more figurative way.  I am knocking on all your doors, I am sending a card to all of you, simultaneously.  It feels good to do so.  It feels right.  

This year my daughter, Armené, and her husband Michael are with us in Lake Forest.  My son, Aram, and his wife Anoush are with her parents in New York.  We were all together a month ago at Melanie’s wedding.  This is as it should be when not everyone lives in the same city where we could have our entire clan with us.  That would be one heck of a gathering.  We would probably have to rent a space.

My sister, Ani, and her husband, Jeff, have hosted Thanksgiving for the past several years.  The host my Mother’s side of the family who live mostly in Michigan and Jeff’s entire family.  That comes to 40-50 people.  They have a nice sized house but, as built, there was no where for everyone to sit together.  Jeff is a “car guy” and has been his whole life.  He has a body shop business and is always buying and selling cars.  His passion is Ford Mustangs and specifically the Shelby version there of.  So, he added on to his existing garage and built another to house his cars. The addition is heated, dry walled, and has a lovely floor.  It is more showroom than garage.  At Thanksgiving, he empties it of vehicles and sets up tables.  All the food is put on a buffet and we all sit down together in one room.  It is very nice and a great holiday memory.  Everyone brings something and it is a great festive feast.

Years ago on one of our Christmas visits to Lake Forest, we went to visit family friends:  the Derderians.  George Derderian was a life long friend of my Father In-Law, Harold.  George was a self made man.  He started, built-up, and sold at least two local banks.  He was always buying, renovating, and selling houses.  Houses is not quite accurate, I would call them mansions.  The time we went to visit him, he owned one of the primo estates on Lake Avenue over looking Lake Michigan.  He gave us a tour of what I am guessing was an 8,000+ square foot home.   I do not remember much of the house except for the third floor.  The entire third floor of this home was a ballroom.  Wow.  For some reason, this impressed me.  I would love to have my own ballroom; to have the luxury of having a home where a third of it existed solely to entertain on a large scale.  I thought about and think about still not hosting large dinners but serious music parties in such a space.  What a Christmas party we could have in such a space!

Our gathering on Christmas Eve was quite nice.  It is the traditional gathering of my wife’s Father’s family: the Mardoians. With the passing years, the group changes.  There is ebb and flow as to who can come and last night was no different.  We missed Judy’s cousins John, Dawn, and Dawn’s husband Doug.  They were in their home in La Quinta, California.  We missed John because for years he gave his own unique read of the “The Night Before Christmas.”  While the kids are mostly adults now, they would still beg him to read this.  We would have missed that tradition this year.  So, I bought one of read it and record it books of “The Night Before Christmas” and John recorded it a few months ago.  Everyone applauded when it was done and we called John to thank him!

Our parish priest Der Zareh, his wife, son, and daughter in-law joined us.  We were at his son, Levon, and their daughter in-law, Tina’s, wedding this past October in New York City.  It was very nice.  The Armenian tradition is for the parish priest to bless one’s home on Christmas Eve or shortly thereafter.  It is a tradition, like many, that has waned in this modern era.  We keep it alive.  He did the short service last night before we sat down to eat.  It was very nice and thus I am writing you all this morning from a freshly blessed house.  .

Early in the evening, my friend Andres called from Colonia, Uruguay.  He is such a good fellow.  I really appreciate his reaching out.  I knew who it was when the phone rang.  I had called my family in Detroit as well as my son and daughter in-law in New York earlier.  We will be on the phone with family in Boston and Los Angeles later today.  

Der Zareh had served as the parish priest for several years in Buenos Aires before coming to Chicago.  He and his family loved it there.  We spent part of the evening reminiscing about about the warmth we felt with the most Latin Americans.  We decided it was because Armenians and Latin Americans, look at family and friends in the same way.  We are simpatico in this regard.  That is probably why I started emailing my friends and work colleagues when most of them were in the various countries of Latin America.  That is why when I write a broader letter these days, my Latin friends are at the core of it all.  They are also the gang I am least likely to see over the holiday season.

This is  a longer letter than I had intended to write.  I must have gotten up even earlier and the coffee must be even tastier than last year.  Perhaps, I miss you all a bit more.  I close this letter the same way I did last year.  The sentiment is exactly the same with only the year updated..  I am delighted to reach out this very quiet moment to friends and family all over the United States and all over the world to convey our warm Christmas wishes to you and yours.  Even more so, I hope that 2012 is a year of health, happiness, and prosperity for you and yours.. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Old Westerns

In the past couple of days I have watched a few western themed movies. I am not sure why. It started when I was on my exercise bike. It is in the basement in front of a TV and while I was scrolling through the movie channels, I noticed that Encore Westerns was airing John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara's classic McLintock (1963). I remembered this movie from years back because of the on-screen magic of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Because of this and the fact there was nothing else really on the other several hundred channels, I started watching it. I enjoyed it and as a result watched a few others.

The last Western I had watched in a theater was the 2010 remake of True Grit starring Jeff Bridges. It was one of the best films I have ever seen. I can not attest to the accuracy but felt it to be very much so. I felt like I got a real glimpse into the hard lives of those times. I thought it was a great improvement over the 1969 John Wayne original. I had recollected that the John Wayne version was fluffier. That was until I saw it a few days ago. I was surprised and found the original truer and grittier then I had been thinking.

My first recollections of Westerns was from my maternal grandfather, Levon Merian.  We called him Babo, our own or his own version of the Armenian Baba. He loved Westerns. He watched them in black and white for most of his life. He like Gene Autry, the Cisco Kid, and Roy Rogers. He loved Gunsmoke and Bonanza. But, he liked any kind of Western made in the classic tradition.

It was easy and pleasant as a youngster to join Babo in watching these shows. He liked the company. When I knew him, he was a very simple and calm man. He was a man of few words. He would never say much but would chuckle when the good guys got the comeuppance on the bad guys. I do believe he liked the genre because it was quite clear who was good and who was bad. The best part was that the good guys always won. Given all the turmoil and tragedy in his early life having experienced at the hand of the Turk, this was just the prescription for my grandfather.

I am sure this recent interest in Westerns has something to do with the memory of joining my Babo on the couch and watching those old movies with him. It was amazing, there were only four channels on his TV. Yet, there always seemed to be a cowboy movie or show on the TV. Now there is an entire channel, the aforementioned Encore Westerns, dedicated to the genre.

I would have certainly enjoyed watching McClintock or maybe Destry Rides Again with my Babo.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mis-Matched Shoes

This afternoon I arrived at The College of Lake County at about 1:30.  My plan was to print off and duplicate the fourteen page final exam I was giving to my Elementary Statistics class later in the afternoon.  I had emailed the exam to myself so I could retrieve it on campus.  I have done this over a hundred times with no issue, until today.  The exam document was nowhere to be found on either of the two email addresses I use for such.  I was perplexed as I was absolutely certain that I had emailed it on Saturday.  Sadly, I must not have.

What had been plenty of time suddenly became a tight time frame as I had to return home to retrieve the exam and get back to campus and duplicate the exam.  So, I jumped in my car took off.  En route, I took a phone call from a good friend.  She called to tell me that I could not imagine what she had done.  I could not imagine at all especially since I was preoccupied with my own idiocy.  She related that she got to her workplace this morning and realized that she had two different shoes on.  They were both black.  One was zippered and the other was laced.  We laughed.  I told her of my predicament and we laughed some more.  I joked and told her that she had a matching pair of mis-matches waiting for her at home.

Having done what seems like more than my fair share of bone headed boo-boos.  I cannot recall ever having worn two different shoes.  I like to think that I somehow picked up two different shoes, I would probably notice as I put them on.  If not, I would for sure have noticed after taking a step or three.  The feel or thickness of the soles should be detectable.  The key to prevent wearing two different style shoes is to store the shoes in pairs.

Then I began to think, always a scary proposition, why it was that mis-matching shoes never became a fashion statement.  The avant-garde and the youth are always looking for the new new.  They want to be the first on the block to blaze a new trend.  Amazing matches and mis-matches of colors, plaids atop of stripes, really expensive jeans with holes in them, body piercings to the extreme, and tattoos have all come and gone and come into fashion again over my lifetime.  Hair has gone from WWII neat and trim to Brylcreamed slick, from duck tails to mullets, from Beatles to shaggy dog to shaved bald.  Women have dyed their hair henna color you can imagine including purple and pink.  Anything you can imagine has had its moment in the sun or maybe longer.    

Amid all the whirlwind of fashion, shoes have always matched in color and style.  The only difference tolerated was that mirror image between left and right.  They could be outrageous platforms, sequined high top basketball shoes, ultra-spiked stilettos, and even wearing flip-flops in a blizzard.   Yet, no matter the extremes in design and fashion, shoes have always matched.  Why has this not happened?  It cannot possibly be that I am the first to dream up this fashion innovation.  Can it?

If mis-matched shoes becomes all the rage in the next few years, remember you heard it hear first.