I get it. I really do. I know you came up with that great resolution with every intent that this year would be different. Or maybe you were really intentional about goal setting using something like SMART Goals or even SMARTER Goals (thanks Michael Hyatt!). But you're one week into the year and realize that all of that has been left in the dust of life.
We live in a world overwhelmed by the constant "ding!" of email or texts. The phone won't stop ringing, and most of it is from telemarketers or scammers. You get invited to the third meeting today and aren't really clear why you're there. Maybe your boss or co-worker just dumped a project on you that she promises shouldn't take you long. Your car broke down, or you missed your train. You get the picture.
Some urgent tasks may even be good, but are they the best use of your time right now?
It's okay to say "no" to good things so you can say "yes" to better things.
All of those urgent things conspire together to pull us away from the things we planned, with the best intentions, but now we don't know if we'll ever get back to what's really important. Instead, we're consumed by what Charles Hummel called "The Tyranny of the Urgent."
It really is tyranny, isn't it?
Tyranny has sometimes been described as cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control. In this case, it's control over our time, energy and motivation by the petty tyrants of busyness and other peoples' priorities or supposed emergencies.
Then, if you work from home like I do, add in a needy dog who doesn't understand why you're upstairs working at your desk when you could be playing with him (my issue as I write this).
We can't or won't say "no" because we feel some obligation, all the while knowing that many of these things won't move us toward the important goals we've set.
So, how do you overthrow these tyrants?
You have to put together a solid plan and consistently execute it. One of the best ways is to ensure that you're starting out understanding what's most important to you, crafting goals around those things and having a system for keeping those goals in front of you.
The process, and each step, shouldn't be overly complex, or you'll never do it. Also, the goals you set should be limited to the vital few. Too many goals divide your attention and pull you back into the distraction that you're fighting to overcome.
A process that works for me includes:
Here's the power in all of this. First, as I've already said, writing them by hand. Second, frequent review. By having a system of quarterly, weekly and daily goals and tasks, you ensure that you regularly remind yourself of what's truly important. You protect your time around those tasks, and you commit to ensuring that, if you do nothing else that day, you at least do those Big 3.
While the overall goal may really stretch you, each of the Daily Big 3 tasks should be relatively easy, to ensure that you can complete them without feeling overwhelmed. A bite at a time, right?
Finally, frequent review allows you to keep tabs on how relative importance might change.
News Flash! You're allowed to change your goals if necessary, but YOU should be the one thoughtfully driving that process, NOT the Tyrants!
So, before I head downstairs to play with that needy puppy, I want to suggest a couple of resources that I've used to help me wrap my brain, processes and tools around the important things in life.
For the bigger picture, I recommend "Living Forward" by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy
For setting and achieving goals, one of the best best books I've found is "Your Best Year Ever" also by Michael Hyatt.
Building and executing a plan around the principles in these books will help ensure that you're able to listen to the whispers of the important and kick those shouting tyrants (not my dog!) to the curb.
Drop me a note in the comments. I'd love to hear about your successes (and your challenges) in this.
Until next time.... Ed O'Neal
I have a reminder pop up in my task manager (OmniFocus) every few days with this quote from John Lubbock:
"What we see depends mainly on what we look for."
I use this pop-up to remind me not to get trapped into a confirmation bias mode. What the heck is that?
Confirmation bias is when we interpret new information in light of previous assumptions, beliefs, biases, opinions or theories. Our interpretation may be accurate, but can often be wildly inaccurate.
Often, we build a "clever story" (thank you Crucial Conversations) around people (including ourselves) based on some preconceived notion about our own ideas about their motives, who they are, what they are. We then look for evidence to support those notions. While we may find that evidence, and seize on it, we often ignore the details that may give us a different view. The benefit of the doubt goes out the window. Once we settle on this view, it skews our whole view of people and situations, and sometimes induces us to irritation or even outrage.
Crucial Conversations introduces 3 such clever stories which "propel our emotions and help us justify our behavior."
Victim - I'm an innocent person in whatever's going on.
Villain - It's all them! They're just evil.
Helpless - Woe is me! There's nothing I can do!
The book (and workshop) suggests that, when we get stuck into the clever story mode, there are antidotes. We should ask ourselves:
I once worked with a very skilled and competent colleague who often would come to me with concerns about others on the team. Many times those were based around a series of perceived slights around which clever stories formed. Over time these built up and led to extremely strained relationships with others on the team, and harmed team effectiveness.
Through coaching, my colleague began to recognize when he began to tell himself a clever story about others on the team. He began to apply the antidotes above, which naturally led to better results. Assuming positive intent seemed to be the most powerful mindset shift.
Where are you or your team stuck? Are you only looking for things that confirm the story you've told yourself, or are you intentionally working to tell the rest of the story?
Want to know more? Need help building these skills, or want a leadership or communications workshop for your team? Let me know!
If you like what you heard about Crucial Conversations you can click on the picture below to order the book.
I just finished a fun call (with about 100 of my closest friends) with Patrick Lencioni.
He shared insights from his excellent book "The Motive - Why Do So Many Leaders Abdicate Their Most Important Responsibilities?" and several other topics.
One of the points that really stood out to me was the discussion around entitlement vs. stewardship in leadership. He said that he really doesn't like the term "Servant Leadership" because:
"Servant Leadership is the ONLY Kind of Leadership."
He then said that anything else really isn't leadership at all.
What a great perspective!
I'll still use the terms "Servant Leader" or "Serving Leader" but with a greater realization than any real leadership must, by default, acknowledge that all real leaders are servants first.
What do you say?
If you'd like to order Patrick's book, you can click below. "As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases."
I have long kept this quote from Chuck Swindoll where it would occasionally pop up as a reminder in my task management software. Words to live by that are especially useful when life is challenging;
"The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company … A church … a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past … we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude … I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you … we are in charge of our Attitude."
What are the circumstances you're facing today that can benefit from a change in perspective? A change in your reaction? A choice of your attitude?
Today I had the honor of being the first speaker of the 2020-2021 academic year at the Marion Military Institute / Anthony J. Rane Center for Leadership. This program is part of the Commandant’s Series.
This was the first time I’ve spoken in person to any group in several months. MMI has put together an impressive set of protocols to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19 for the cadets, faculty and staff. This both made my visit enjoyable and helped protect the health of all present. Kudos to MMI leadership for a disciplined and innovative program that both keeps everyone safe and allows MMI to continue to operate in an excellent manner in a very tough environment.
I’ve included links to two different messages given on the same day to cadets from two different year groups. Each message emphasizes a theme relevant to those particular classes, but which I hope is valuable to my readers.
I have had some wonderful opportunities in the last several years.
I’ve visited historical and archaeological sites, gardens, old city markets, and museums across the world.
I've watched the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (Look it up - It’s not what you think!). I've explored the haunts of C.S. Lewis in Oxford and climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
I’ve backpacked many trails in Alabama, in the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky and Tennessee, the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, Mount Ascutney in Vermont, and in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico. I’ve hiked in the Scottish Highlands, and walked and rode bikes in the countryside of the Peak District in England. Sometimes alone, more often with others.
I've trekked along beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and the South Pacific. I've dipped my toes in the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. I've sipped water from Gideon's Spring (I'll let you guess at whether I cupped my hand or lapped like a dog). I've done the same from many mountain creeks (with appropriate filtration or purification). I've had boat rides on the Sea of Galilee.
I’ve eaten a sanduiche de mortadela in the mercadão in São Paulo. Haggis in the old city of Edinburgh. Meat I couldn't identify, (explained in a language I couldn't understand) in Mexico. High tea in a grand hotel in Victoria, BC. Pub food, fish and chips and curry in England. A glorious assortment of olives at every meal in Jerusalem. I've even tried kangaroo sausage in Australia. My Aussie friends tell me they're the only country that eats their national symbol!
I’ve built deep connections through worship with believers in churches around the world. I’ve been invited into their homes and favorite gathering places to share meals and fellowship.
I’ve studied leadership and character by walking the fields of many great battles of history.
I’ve developed vibrant networks of friends and acquaintances through HR, safety, quality and leadership workshops - often in places where the accents are different but the desire to serve and lead is universal.
I’ve walked hundreds (maybe thousands) of miles along streets and through parks of dozens of cities around the U.S. and the world, avoiding transportation whenever possible, in favor of shoe leather. My desire was not to see these places from the protected cocoon of a taxi, bus, or Uber, or even a train, but up close and personal. Sometimes with a friend, sometimes solo and meeting new people along the way. I didn’t always know where I was going (and got nervous one or two times) but that was part of the adventure.
I have a wonderful family that has grown through the addition of 2 sons-in-law, 2 daughters-in-law, and a little boy who calls me “Poppy."
There is much more but perhaps you get a taste of some of the things I’ve been blessed to experience.
Through all of this, the recurring theme has been a wonder at God’s creation, a growing appreciation for the diversity of the world and its people, and a vital connection through personal (and in-person) relationships with those who have crossed my path.
Then there’s these last several months in 2020.
There had been a buzz in Australia mostly related to cruise ship passengers being trapped onboard for weeks, and later quarantined as the government first began to take stock of what would soon become a changed world.
It was very early in the morning when our Boeing 777 landed at LAX at the end of February, after a long trip across the Pacific Ocean. I had never seen a major international airport so quiet, even at this time of day. We waited to deplane for nearly an hour, for the customs teams to arrive.
Inside the terminal, the only people I saw were those who had been on my plane and a sparse airport staff. Restaurants and shops were closed. There were apparently new passenger screening protocols in effect to detect illness, but I saw no clear evidence of this. We processed quickly and I went to wait for my connecting flight.
Soon after I arrived home, the world, and our lives, began to rapidly change. We moved swiftly into COVID response.
February also marked 27 years working at the same company. This was my only job since leaving active duty in the Army after over ten years. At 60 years old, I had been with Progress Rail for almost half my life.
With so much time with one company, you might imagine that I made a lot of friends and acquaintances. That is very true. There have been many that I knew for my entire time at Progress Rail. I've also continued to make new friends, especially as I've traveled to our facilities or as some have traveled to Alabama. There are many who I've worked directly with on the various teams I've had the privilege to lead or to be a part of, and many who have participated in workshops I've helped lead.
While blessed with those relationships, they also made the last several months very difficult.
In April, when I tearfully told my little team that I was retiring, it was in a building that was already nearly empty. By then, most were working from home, I could go an entire day without seeing more than one or two other people, most from a distance. We were having to rapidly adjust to the "new normal" of remote work.
While I had been thinking about retiring sometime in the next few years, I hadn't really made any firm plans to do so.
The changes surrounding COVID encouraged me to speed up my timeline. With that came a cost I did not anticipate.
I cleaned out my office in late April, with the help of my dear assistant of many years, Julie. As I was filling the final few boxes, Julie and I paused for a goodbye. Since we were all nervous about the virus, I asked if she minded if I gave her a hug. We did, for a long moment, and I headed out.
That was the last, and only, in-person goodbye I had.
I am so grateful to Progress Rail, for the leadership who supported me, for my boss and the HR team who helped remotely though the administrative tasks of processing my retirement. But...
I missed that last in-person connection with those I care about. That grieves me.
Since then, there have only been a few opportunities to gather in person in any context - each time with a significant degree of nervousness. I've had one in-person speaking engagement. We've gone to church a few times, but we mostly watch it online. We went to a sweet wedding of two young people from our church. We also said goodbye at two family funerals...
Oh, I forgot. There were actually three funerals.
The Third was Mine
Or that's how it sometimes feels, when I consider the suddenness of my departure and the lack of opportunities to say goodbye to those who mean so much to me.
I'm not trying to minimize the finality of death by comparison, but simply point out that the emotions felt, when there is no closure, are similar.
High school students have faced these same emotions when half of their senior year was essentially canceled. Graduation, if it happened at all, became an uncomfortable exercise in social distancing. It should have been a time of joyful expectation and celebration with classmates and family with an abundance of hugs and handshakes.
Unlike the many retirement events and other farewells I've attended over the years, there was no time for cakes or lunches with co-workers. There was no opportunity to listen to speeches or testimonials, or just sit around and reminisce. No time for hugs and handshakes. It was just...over.
This was no one's fault and can only be blamed on an insidious disease and the inability of the world to understand how to handle it.
A few times a week people will ask me how I’m enjoying retirement. Honestly, there’s a lot I enjoy about it, but I always hesitate a little in my reply. That pause is because I’m still processing the open loop of missed farewells, all mixed up in the strange virus-laden malaise felt by the whole world.
We Need Transitions
In his book Get Your Life Back: Everyday Practices for a World Gone Mad, John Eldredge presents a compelling case for finding ways to build necessary transitions into our lives.
He talks about the world of jet travel and 24/7 connection through smart phones and social media, and about how we lose all sense of timing, as we rapidly shift to the next thing often without finishing what we're doing. We can't slow down long enough to appreciate the wonders of the world ...or each other, before we're sucked into distraction or the next big thing.
Eldredge contrasts our frenetic pace with that of Jesus and His disciples:
"I think it was Archibald Hart who pointed out that because we are so accustomed to moving pedal to the metal in our own world, the thing we overlook in the Gospels are all of the in-between times when Christ and his followers were walking from one town to another. When the record states, “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee” (John 1:43), we project our own pace upon it, not realizing it took the boys three days by foot to get there. Three days just strolling along, talking, or sharing the silent beauty; the pauses for lunch or a drink from a well; the campfires in the evening. Even as I write this, it sounds luxurious. Christ does not move immediately from one dramatic story to another; there was down time, transition time between those demands. Time to process what had happened (these are the moments you see the disciples asking questions; “what did you mean by . . . ?”). Time to catch their breath before the next encounter."
Eldredge, John. Get Your Life Back (p. 66). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
(I highly recommend this book. You need to slow down long enough to read it.)
I went from a face-paced world of big cities, international travel, daily interaction with people (one-on-one, groups, social events, sporting events and more) , to a world of Four Walls and Zoom calls.
It was like a door slammed behind me.
It's not that I'm out of contact, or that I haven't had many, many people wish me well.
I have great friends and I've felt the love.
While life has changed, in a lot of ways our pace and distraction has not. We're all still busy in many ways, but it's in a sterile, electronic dystopia. Many people feel as though their "busyness" is more evident than ever. This is heightened by the lack of clear lines between home and work.
In the world before, the wise among us always encouraged us to build authentic human relationships. We were encouraged, whenever possible, not to email, text, or even call, but, if at all possible to have real, face-to-face interaction.
Pre-COVID, real "Facetime" was not a videoconferencing app, but it was standing close enough to hear voices without having to ask if our microphones are working.
Now, the thought of standing close to someone, shaking a hand, or giving a hug sometimes seems frightening, uncaring or even unpatriotic. It's the rare person in the world who hasn't experienced such a big shift, even if the details vary.
We can't live like this forever.
We were made for relationships. With God and with each other.
The wonders of electronic communication, no matter how well images and sounds are reproduced, can never replace real faces, voices and the human touch.
I know that it may still be quite some time before "normal" returns, but it will return. I hope and pray that day will come soon.
Until then, don't miss an opportunity to connect with your co-workers, your friends, and those you love. Yes, I know it's not the same, but find ways to express genuine appreciation and care for those who mean so much to you.
Promise each other that, when this is over, you'll share a meal, throw a party, shake every hand in sight, give all the hugs you've been missing (and a few more). Let's all look forward to the days when we can see this season of life in the rear view mirror, not as we log onto Zoom, but as we zoom towards each other.
COVID hasn’t been the only major life change for me in the last several months. In the midst of that, I also left my long corporate career and embarked on my new adventure of coaching, writing, consulting and semi-retirement.
Both of those major transitions have caused me to re-evaluate lots of things, including my level of every day formality (see also my blog post about my purple shoes). I’ve decided that there’s a lot to like about being a little more laid back (within many contexts).
I often talk with leaders about how it’s important to consider both the person and the situation when choosing a leadership style.
The best leaders can draw on a whole repertoire of styles, depending on who they’re working with and the context in which they’re working.
Sometimes that requires flexibility and rapid shifts.
I’ve spent most of the last week in classes and conferences, including the last 3 days.
In the one I just finished, they asked us to keep our cameras on the whole time. The first 2 days I “dressed up” (relatively). This morning, after I got back from working out, I pretty much went straight into meetings, broken only by time for church (also virtual).
So, today was casual, and (as you can see in the picture), no shave. That’s all pretty radical for me.
When it was all over, I came down for dinner and my dear wife said:
“Why are you wearing that hat??”
I simply said “I didn’t want to have to wash my hair.” She laughed and laughed, and made comments about how fast and simple it was for me to wash my hair. Yeah, yeah….
Besides, this was my favorite Akubra Snowy River hat that I picked up in Brisbane earlier this year. I managed to scoot out of Australia right before the crazy virus shut the world down.
Anyway, since there were a lot of Aussies in this conference, I found it entirely appropriate. I also hoped that having a little fun helped us to connect. Not to mention that I was certain it was better I show off this excellent hat than my scary COVID hair.
Anyway, I’m afraid I’m starting to get into the retirement (semi) mode, and COVID hasn’t done much to encourage me to spit shine (at least on the weekends.). I’m okay with that.
Think about the times when you’ve had to rapidly adjust your leadership style to accommodate different people and different situations.
How’d you do with that? What worked? What didn’t? What will you do to better adjust in the future?
What’s your COVID, don’t care story?
For all of you great leaders out there, I need your ideas with one simple question:
How do great leaders build engaged, effective teams?
You don't need to write a lot. One sentence will do (but I'll take more if you give it).
Once I have a good list compiled, I'll put together a PDF summarizing the best ideas and themes from your responses. You'll be able to download a copy here.
Want to be an inspiring leader? There’s a simple checklist (pilots LOVE checklists):
I say more about this in the video link below.
In the middle of crises, and often in everyday life, we need to remember that we're all in this together. We can’t control all of our circumstances and we can’t expect to live a life of continuous ease and convenience.
Life and leadership sometimes require both creativity and patience.
In 1960, most automobiles had pretty limited options. Things that we consider standard today were often either non-existent, hard to find, or high priced add-ons. No GPS. No power windows or door locks. An AM radio was pretty common but not a guaranteed feature. Even air conditioning was a luxury.
Then there were seatbelts.
Today, seatbelts are standard on every car, along with other safety related crash restraints, such as shoulder belts, air bags and even computerized radar collision avoidance. Not so in a 1960 white Chevrolet station wagon.
I was number 3 out of 4 kids. It was challenging being a young boy, outnumbered by 3 sisters. Especially during the trips when all four of us sat in the back of that station wagon.
For Navy kids, long trips in the car were part of the deal. Later this included little jaunts from east coast to west coast or vice versa. We'd load up and ride, sometimes for a week at a time, taking in the sights along the way. In addition to the kids, we usually traveled with a dog (or 3!).
Dad was a Naval Aviator, but not just ANY Naval Aviator. He was an Experimental Test Pilot.
To this little boy, he was my hero. The World’s Greatest Living Naval Aviator. (This was a title which I jokingly co-opted for myself years later, substituting “Army” for “Naval.”)
Some of my earliest memories were at the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River Maryland. After working to extract himself from the boredom of P-3 Orion submarine patrols, Dad, an engineer, went to the Naval Test Pilot School (TPS). There he entered the "high speed, low drag" world of test and evaluation.
This was a heady world of fast movers, high flyers, the latest and greatest airplanes and systems. Those Pax River TPS circles even included some of the early astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. In the 1960s, this was the highest tech of high tech.
Why should it be any different at home?
When we got the station wagon, it did not come equipped with seat belts or air conditioning.
Chevrolet didn’t have seatbelts as standard equipment until the 1964 model year, and even then it was only in the front, outboard seats. They didn’t become standard in rear outboard seats until 1967, and in all forward facing seats in 1968.
Dad, being concerned about the safety of his "crew," realized that something had to be done.
In considering how to deal with this, he undoubtedly looked at a number of options, none of which included 4 unbuckled Navy Juniors in the back. As it turned out, the best solution was to talk to the riggers in the parachute loft and get the materials to fabricate the necessary restraints.
His first task was making two front seat belts.
Then he made a seatbelt for the back.
Notice I said "A seatbelt."
Not four seatbelts.
One seatbelt that stretched all the way across the back seat.
One seatbelt that strapped in all four kids.
One seatbelt that trapped me with 3 sisters.
What could possibly go wrong?
Then there was "the hump.”
In the days before front wheel drive, most cars had a hump that ran from front to back to accommodate the driveshaft. Sitting on the hump was the least desirable position. For one thing, it didn't provide much legroom. Being relatively small of stature helped but, given the choice, the hump was not preferred.
For short trips, with all of these issues, it was easy to grin and bear it. Even without modern distractions such as headphones, video games, cell phones, we managed to do just fine. We didn't know any better and had little choice.
Military family moves often take place in the summer to ensure not too much school is missed. So, crossing through superheated places like the southwestern deserts, mid-summer, was not uncommon and sometimes a real “adventure.”
Still, nerves might start to get worn during multiple days cross country, with sisters, a large dog, no A/C, the hump - and ONE seatbelt.
Memories of Irritations Fade
I guess there’s a limit to how many verses of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” you can sing or license plate games you can play before the frazzle becomes real. But my strongest memories are of the songs, the games and the sights - not the frazzle.
I don’t remember any arguments amongst my siblings and me related to either the hump or the seatbelt.
Faded memories may be a function of my age. My dad doesn't remember any arguments either. I haven’t talked to my sisters to ask what they remember.
I suspect we had some tiffs, but such irritants just went with the territory and were likely transitory for me. I guess that's true for my sisters too. They all still talk to me, so I assume all has been forgiven.
For me, those memories have been replaced by all of the other experiences our family had on these epic trips. And we saw some pretty cool things.
As far as any irritation of being strapped together in the back seat, it doesn't seem so bad in retrospect. We had nothing to compare it to. We certainly couldn’t measure our situation against the technological conveniences of 2020, nor against the modern penchant for complaining about the slightest inconvenience. We also didn't measure it against what our friends might experience in their family transportation.
We realized (maybe sub-consciously) that we had to make the best of our situation, and that complaining about minor discomfort or lack of control was pointless. And the fact is that (at least for me) the memories of those irritants are so fuzzy as to be almost non-existent.
There’s a lot to be said for patience and not sweating the small stuff.
As leaders or members of teams, how often to we get so wrapped up in the small stuff of life that we miss the fabulous sights along the way?
How many opportunities do we miss because our focus in on how much we’re inconvenienced by lack of resources or by a system that doesn’t do things “my way?”
How often do we become dysfunctional because we can’t figure out how to work together while strapped in with people who sometimes irritate us?
How often now do our trivial complaints and hyper-sensitivity turn into viral Facebook posts or videos shared with the entire world? Do those rants really solve anything?
What can you do to help your team get over the hump of comparison and entitlement?
How can you help shift the focus from personal inconvenience (and sometimes irritation at each other) to grabbing the opportunities afforded in the view out the window?
We all have places to go. How can we make it a more pleasant trip?
Please comment below on YOUR experience handling irritation or frustration.