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So my buddy Tyler passed this on to me over the weekend, and it stirred a little brain sauce I felt I should share with you. In the piece, Kivi Leroux shares some of the complaints she’s been receiving from some of her NFP friends about patterns of incompetence that they run into at work. Here are some examples:

[…] what I do find a little surprising is how often I will meet a program or policy director, or even an executive director, for the first time, and upon learning what I do for a living, they will say, “Ugh. Our communications director is a complete idiot.”

[…] When I probe a bit further, here are the more specific complaints I hear.

“She knows zero about what we do. She is always asking really stupid questions.”

“She edits the articles I submit for the newsletter, and she dumbs it down so much or cuts it back so far that what we are left with is factually incorrect, and therefore embarrassing.”

“She wants to know about my day, because she says she needs to tweet it. WTF?”

“It’s her job to update the website and write the newsletter. So why is she constantly bugging me to write stuff for her?”

Okay, look…yes, people can be annoying, and yes, sometimes it takes them a while to figure out how to operate in an organization they just joined, especially if some of the staff has taken a dislike to them out of principle. But in ever one of the instances mentioned in the piece, there is also obviously a leadership problem within the organization. Here’s a quick overview:

Poor hiring practices. (Why did they hire this clown?)

An absence of employee development. (How does he still not know how to do his job?)

Lousy internal communications. (Why does she never seem to know what anyone is doing?)

Zero team work or esprit de corps. (Why do those Marketing people have to be so annoying?)

An absence of clearly defined goals. (Okay, I’ve allocated our budget. Now what?)

Not a whole lot of discernible guidance or supervision. (See everything above.)

Did I miss anything?

By the way, here are some of the comments I picked up from sharing the article on Facebook so far:

6/10 times the problem is poor training, leadership, or general communication. Another 2-3/10 can be poor job fits, in which case you should have open discussions with that employee about finding a different niche in your organization, or another job. That misplaced employee might recruit and train their replacement while looking for a new job. Then there is always the 1-2 rotten egg. […]  One of the strongest determinants of employee engagement is leadership. Are you, as a leader, communicating, rather than coercing, coaching rather than criticising, taking the time to set expectations, rather than assuming they should know? – Cherie Turner

Part of the problem is that when someone does their job very well it looks easy. What’s more a lack of understanding of what any job entails means that people can think something is very simple to do in short order. — On the other hand, I’ve also seen people in various job functions who refuse to keep up with the changes in their field. Or, worse, think they are and are just trying to overlay something new on the old ways of doing things. — That said, communication only works if both sides want it to work. Contempt for the other person’s work has a way of shutting down a person’s hearing and understanding of what is being requested of them. – Brenda Young

Yeah, I was thinking before I read the post … Ummm if you’re captain of that boat and your crew are all incompetent ( or if you think they are) what does that make you? – Joseph Allen Gier

So let’s talk about leadership for a second, because incompetent employees, crap internal communications and an absence of clearly defined organizational goals don’t happen when an organization is being properly led.

A note to managers, officers, business owners and corporate executives:

If all of your employees are competent, great. Keep on focusing on ways to translate that into growing market-share, designing the best products in your industry, making your customers rave about you, or whatever other criteria your business uses to define success.

But if some of your employees no longer are competent, then you have two choices: a) Train them properly, or b) replace them with someone who is. That’s it. Those are your only two choices. There is no c) option: look the other way and hope things work out.

As a business owner or manager, part of your job is to make sure that incompetent employees (and managers) don’t become a drain on your resources and overall morale.  It is your responsibility to make sure that everyone on your staff is the best possible person for the job that you can afford. You’re in charge. So if you have people like this on your payroll, what you need to do is basically this: fix your shit.

How to fix your shit in 5 simple steps:

1. Be competent.

I know this seems really basic, but if everyone observed this rule, our economy wouldn’t be in the crapper, unemployment rates wouldn’t be what they are.  So let’s talk about it.

Competence begins and ends with you. If you’re going to be in charge of something, you need to really know your shit.  And if you don’t, you at least have to be 100% committed to getting there as quickly and thoroughly as possible. That requires a “perpetually in beta” mindset. (Great leaders tend to operate in this mode. It is one of the most conspicuous distinctions between business leaders and mere managers, by the way.) There is no getting around this. The alternative is to be an incompetent boss. How do you think that’ll work out?

Every winning organization in history has had at its head a supremely competent leader. Disney, Jobs, Ford, Chanel, Patton, Cousteau, Ferrari, Candler, Alexander, etc.  You don’t get to safely send astronauts to the moon and back by just being okay at math. You don’t get to turn a company you started in your garage to become a Fortune 500 in under 20 years by being kind of clueless about your market or industry. It just doesn’t happen.

Julius Caesar knew his shit. When he took on the conquest of Gaul (and later fought his rival Pompey for control of Rome), good old Jules wasn’t looking to sort of tell his legions to walk north, hang back and look forward to a fat payday. We’re not talking about a guy who sat around and delegated strategy to agencies, intelligence to research firms, and the fighting to cheap foreign labor. There wasn’t a damn thing he didn’t know about soldiering, about campaign logistics, about siege warfare, about politics and geography and morale. The guy lived for one purpose: to be the most capable and accomplished general on the planet. His legacy of success was so great that today, his name is synonymous with “leader.” Czar and Kaiser are variations of his last name. There’s a reason for that. (He eventually overreached and paid for that, but that’s Caesar the emperor, not Caesar the general.)

Every time I run into a manager, director, vice-president, CMO or even CEO who hasn’t bothered to remain informed about and fluent in the developments that have driven his or her field forward in the last 20, 10, 5, even 2 years, all I see is someone who has given up on being competent. I don’t care if the reason for that decision is laziness, being too busy, being distracted, or whatever the excuse happens to be. The end-result is the same: that person no longer has the appropriate set of competencies required to be effective at their jobs. Period. I’m sorry, but if you’re the least knowledgeable person in the room, you aren’t fit to lead. And if you’ve allowed your competencies to fall ten years behind the times, you need to go fix that shit because otherwise, all you are now is a liability to your organization.

Here’s something I have a difficult time understanding: for some bizarre reason, we don’t accept incompetence from brain surgeons, restaurant chefs, military officers, FEMA administrators, football coaches, and first responders, but we give business managers and corporate executives a pass. Why? Because it’s no big deal if a CEO or a CMO doesn’t know his shit? Well… actually, it matters. It matters to the 10,000 people who just got laid off because their boss just invested $150,000,000 in worthless acquisitions and ineffectual media spends. It matters to every employee of Circuit City and Blockbuster, neither of which should have gone belly-up for something as dumb as not being able to adapt to obvious market changes. It matters to all the folks at Microsoft advertising who lost their jobs this year, folks at RIM, who ten years ago thought they owned enterprise mobility, and everyone at Yahoo who is probably wondering if 3 CEOs in 12 months is a sign that they should update their CVs. It also matters to the folks at GM, the Olympic Games, the NFL and hundreds of other organizations who depend on their bosses to eventually (sometime this decade) figure out how to properly leverage Social Media and finally step into the 21st century. (It isn’t complicated, guys. Really. This is what I am talking about.)

As a leader, the success of your organization, whether it is a multinational corporation, a small team of developers or a small clothing retailer, is your responsibility. It’s a lot of pressure, I know. That’s leadership for you. It isn’t all titles, prestige and fat paychecks. Responsibility is worry that you won’t be as good as you hoped you would be. Responsibility is shame when you let your employees down. Responsibility is making sure that your organization comes before your ego, your swag and your golf swing. It means that you have to devote yourself to being the best possible leader that you can be. It demands it. That begins with being competent. Not only competent but ridiculously competent. So competent that if someone were to put you in a room with the world’s top 100 people with the exact same job as yours, you could kick all of their asses with how awesome you are at your job. You should want to be so competent that they all want to be you. If you aren’t that guy, then fix your shit and become that guy. Don’t start tomorrow or next week. Start right now. I shouldn’t even have to tell you this.

2. Surround yourself with competent people. 

We’ve already touched on this, but here are the basics:

Hire the best people possible. If you can’t convince the best people to come work for you, figure out why and then fix your shit.

If you can’t afford to hire top talent, then recruit young talent before it gets expensive. This isn’t difficult. It just takes work. You know… It really is as simple as building a network that you can leverage to identify and approach young talent for you. Be involved enough in your industry (or other industries that might breed the types of folks you want working for you) and key universities that you are constantly aware of either rising stars or kids still studying to become someone you might want to mold into an executive someday. The three rules here are these: Be there. Do your research. Invest early.

Once you’ve recruited your diamonds in the rough, train them. Develop them. Mold them. If they leave after a few years, it’s okay. People leave. So what? I guarantee that if your company becomes known as the place where top talent goes early in their careers before moving on to Apple, Nike, Disney or Ogilvy, that won’t exactly hurt your brand or your HR department. If you really want to keep those junior champions from leaving, just figure out what it is they’re walking away from, and fix. your. shit.

By the way, that training, developing and molding thing, it only happens if done by competent people. If the managers and execs doing the developing are incompetent dumbasses, all you’ll manage to accomplish is turn perfectly promissing young professionals into messes of confusion and frustration. Competence breed competence. Discipline breeds discipline. Incompetent dumbasses breed incompetent dumbasses. (It’s just science.) Shape your organization accordingly.

3. For the love of puppies, start hiring outside of your industry.

Stop hiring the same 500 fucking people. Seriously. Stop it. I know their CV looks awesome, but look… ten years ago, they were director of whatever for competitor A. Seven years ago, they were VP of Business Development for competitor B. Five years ago, they were SVP of communications for competitor C. They’re just going round and round the same circle of crap, and all you are is the next stop. If they ever had great ideas, they’re gone. They’ve been sucked out of them by your competitors already. Now, these hires are only working for you because their last boss wouldn’t give them a raise. Worse yet, they’re only working in your industry because they’re too chicken-shit to go try something else. They’ve stopped being interested in learning anything new. They’re just looking to move up in the world and use you to give their career a 6.3% annual boost. I know these people. I can smell them down the hall the moment I walk into your offices. Stop hiring your competitor’s hand-me-downs. You’re hiring yourself into a cycle of failure and you need to snap out of it.

You know what works? When a designer who spent ten years working on sailboats goes to work for a race bike manufacturer. Or when a product manager from the pet toy industry goes to work for a faucet manufacturer. That designer from Pixar you met at the Pivot Conference or FusionMEx, she’s the missing ingredient in your medical imaging group’s patient UX team. It’s at the intersection of those worlds that cool stuff happens. Where it doesn’t happen, ever, is in a conference room filled with ten guys who have worked at the same jobs for the same kinds of companies for the last 35 years. Think.

So please, cut out the industry inbreeding, and start fixing your shit once and for all by making it a habit to inject your company with fresh DNA.

4. Communicate better.

Your employees’ job isn’t to “do their job.” It’s to do their job so that the company can become… (enter answer here). You have to figure out what that blank is, and you also have to figure out how to communicate that to your employees (and customers, for that matter). Just so we’re clear, I am not talking about mission statements.

Note: nobody cares about your mission statement. The only asshole who ever did was the consultant you overpaid to help you come up with it in the first place, and he sure as shit doesn’t care about it now.

No, what I mean is your purpose. Your raison d’etre. Your actual mission, without the statement. Even if it’s just for this month or this quarter or this year, figure out what it is.

What your purpose it is not: “To establish a global leadership position in the ball-bearing polishing industry.”

What it could be: Become #1 in customer satisfaction for our industry, starting at 10:04 this morning. Consistently be 18 months ahead of our competitors in terms of product innovation. Become the most highly recommended resort destination on the French Riviera. Earn a third Michelin star this year. Make the coolest looking purses in the world. Make the most comfortable toilet seats known to man. Etc. Get it? Start there. So what’s your company about? What do you want it to be? Clarify that simple vision. Strip it down to the core. Then communicate it to everybody you know, starting with your employees.

Once your organization knows what you want (and they also know the role they are to play in getting there,) good things will start to happen. People in your org will become mission-aligned. Silo walls will start to erode bit by bit. People will start to feel like they are working towards a common goal. If someone isn’t up to speed on something, the team will naturally help them get caught up. Good shit will happen.

But if all you do is give your employees individual or departmental goals month after month after month, or worse, expect them to carry on with little more than their job description and an endless stream of vaguely connected projects, all you’ll end up with is an organization that spends all day spinning its hundreds of stupid little self-serving wheels with nothing to show for it. Your best talent will get frustrated and leave, and before long, all you’ll be left with are people who only stick around for the paycheck and the benefits. Oh what wonders will you accomplish with a building-full of those highly-motivated overachievers!

If that last paragraph sounds like a horrible plan, fix your shit and learn to communicate better.

5. Say no to excuses.

Kill excuses. All of them. Ruthlessly exterminate those little fuckers. Why? because if you don’t, failure will spread like a bad case of herpes across your entire organization and infect everyone. Before you know it, rationalizing failure every time you fall short of reaching your goals will become your corporate culture’s very own little brand of crotch rot.

Just for entertainment purposes, here are a few of the excuses I’ve actually heard in meetings these past few years:

“We already tried that. It doesn’t work.” (No, you didn’t. And it does.)

“We’ve already committed to another solution.” (Yeah. It isn’t working. Change it.)

“It’s what we’re already doing.” (No, it most certainly isn’t.)

“That isn’t my job.” (Yes it is.)

“It isn’t in my budget.” (Yes it is.)

“It’s the economy.” (No, it isn’t.)

“Our competitors can afford to spend a lot more money on that than we do.” (So what?)

“That isn’t one of our core competencies.” (Why not?)

“We’ve just hired someone to do that.” (So why isn’t it being done?)

“Actually, we thought it was a huge success.” (Really? Are you serious?)

“We’re not in the video streaming business.” (No? Are you in the “staying in business” business?)

“I don’t know. Our digital agency handles that for us.” (Are you sure they know that?)

“Our IT manager doesn’t want us to do that.” (Oh? Is he your boss?)

“Legal won’t let us.” (Legal won’t let you? What are you, six years old?)

“We can’t compete against Chinese imports on price.” (So compete on something else.)

“There’s just no demand right now.” (Really? See below.)

No demand? Okay. Tell that to luxury car manufacturers. Lexus saw a 99.7% growth in June 2012 over June 2011. Acura saw a 76.5% increase in sales for the same months. Infinity: 66.1%. BMW sold almost 22,000 cars in June 2012 alone, just shy of the number of cars sold by Mercedes-Benz in May. Tell that to Kate Spade, whose direct-to-consumer sales were up 74% last year. Tell that to Fortune’s Top performing companies for 2011.

Here are some growth stats for you, just in case you haven’t kicked your organization’s dependence on excuses in the nads yet:

Oh, but the odds are stacked against you? Unfair competition and all that? Tell me all about how the world is unfair. Please. I’m all ears. Meanwhile, companies with a fraction of your resources are well on their way to kicking your ass and eventually displacing today’s Fortune 500 companies. It might take them five years, maybe even 10 or 20, but they’re not letting that get in their way. They’re figuring it out and pressing on. What are you doing?

Start to think of excuses as tiny little ball bearings that make it easier for you to fail a little more every day. That’s what they are.Excuses give you permission to fail. You didn’t get it done this month? Let’s walk over here to the wheel of excuses and spin it. Let’s see what the reason was this time… (Does it matter?) You can’t seem to retain your top talent? Spin that wheel. Your tablet can’t compete against Apple’s? Spin it. Your TV show was reviewed poorly? Spin it. Your Facebook ads aren’t converting? Spin that shiny wheel. You aren’t happy with where your company, your marketing, your product penetration or your career is going? That really sucks. So what are you going to do about it? Truth is, you have two choices: a) spin the wheel of lame excuses again, or b) figure out what didn’t work and fix your shit.

In closing… fix your shit. No, I’m kidding. (But not really.)

There’s no cosmic force at work here. Whether your company becomes an incompetent dumbass factory (or not) is up to you. Whether your company is drowning in idiotic silos (or not) is up to you. Whether your company falls out of the Fortune 500 club (or not) is up to you. None of this is rocket science.

All you really need to do is make a decision not to settle for mediocre bullshit, and then follow that impulse all the way through: be competent, surround yourself with competent people, look for ideas outside your professional bubble, communicate better and stop accepting excuses. There’s more, but if you follow these five basic little rules, you’ll be a lot better off this time next year and then we can talk about the next five.

So this week, please, instead of perpetuating the same droning routine of meetings, emails, presentations and more meetings that haven’t really gotten you anywhere these last few years, take a step back from the quick-sand of everyday busy-work, and take concrete action to start fixing your shit.

Cheers,

Olivier

*          *          *

Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your Organizationisn’t a social media book. It’s a business management book, and it focuses on social media program strategy, management, measurement and reporting. If your boss doesn’t yet have a copy, time to fix that. If everyone on your team doesn’t yet have their own copy, what are you waiting for? (Now available in several languages including German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

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Part 2: Fear, career potholes and the weight of social shame.

“I’m afraid to tell people that I am closing my business because I’m afraid of what they’ll think,” was one admission from a panelist.

“My identity was so tied to my job/title that now that I am on my own, I’m not sure how to handle that,” was another.

One acquaintance in the audience seemed a little hesitant when he told me that he had jumped back into the corporate world – as if I might think that was a bad thing because… I might see it as a failure on his part, somehow. (Why would I? People change jobs all the time. people open and close businesses too. It’s a natural cycle.)

Weird how all these different situations had one thing in common: Fear. There was far more angst in that room than I had anticipated. Lots of private thoughts along the lines of “what will people think?” and uneasiness about the stigma that comes from having perhaps failed at something. Lots of people not quite comfortable with lying about it but not quite comfortable admitting it either.

Why? The term social shame comes to mind. Almost everyone in the room seemed traumatized by having been fired, laid off or having failed at building a successful business.

More than a few people in that room worried about what admitting to having failed (or being fired or downsized) might do to their personal brand too. That’s a hell of a burden to carry around, and an unnecessary one at that.

And you know what? I get it. Most of us have been there or are there or will be there at some point. Case in point: In almost 20 years of being an adult, I’ve been fired twice. Not laid off: Fired. For a long time, I was ashamed to admit it. I thought people would hold it against me, that they would assume I sucked at my job or had done something horrible to lose my job. I assumed it would be a double black mark on my employment record. Then one day I realized that was ridiculous. The failures were not my own.

The first time I was fired was a simple case of a CEO being a bully. Dignity and self-respect won. The job lost. As much as I enjoyed the steady paycheck and the job itself, it was an easy choice to make. The loser in that short conflict was the company, not me. (I went on to better and greater things. They didn’t.)

The second time was because my boss wanted me to sign off on fraudulent invoices and bonus manipulation, among other things. I refused to take part in it. The choice was again simple for me: I didn’t need a paycheck that badly. (I’m not going to federal prison for any employer. Not my idea of a good career move.) I was fired within days of refusing to join the scheme. Again, guess who was the loser in that instance? For the second time in my career, I went on to better and greater thing. They didn’t.

As it turns out, getting fired was a great move for me: None of the jobs I had until I went off on my own involved flying to Sydney or Amsterdam or Dubai for business. None of them gave me the opportunity to speak in front of big crowds or meet so many interesting professionals from all over the world. None of those jobs ever gave me the flexibility to spend 2 months in France in the summer with my wife and kids (and dogs) and work from there if I wanted to. None of them would have allowed my life-long dream of publishing a book (and now there are more on the way). I don’t have to work with assholes or shady people if I don’t want to. I don’t have to kiss anyone’s ass to get a promotion. I don’t have to deal with back-stabbers or mean, jealous petty people anymore. Nobody micromanages me. I don’t have to lie to anyone. I have the freedom to succeed or fail on my own terms. There’s also the risk of failure. I have to live with that, but it’s worth it. I love what I do. I love my freedom, however short-lived it may be.

None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t been fired. Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to my professional career. I was lucky that it’s happened to me not once but twice. The fact that I only get fired once per decade tells me I’m still playing it way too safe. Imagine if I had been fired more often: I would have gotten to this point in my career a lot sooner. What I wouldn’t give for that. (This might be a good place to point out that both of these jobs were in South Carolina – a “right to work state” – where anyone can be fired for pretty much anything at any time for any reason with complete impunity.)

The folks at IDEO are right: Fail early and often. The faster you fail, the faster you work out the bugs. It’s a process. If there’s anything I wish I knew how to do better, it’s this: Quitting. If I knew how to quit, how to walk away, I would save myself the trouble of getting fired at all. (I’m still working on that.)

The thing is, I know this will fail too. What I am doing now won’t last forever. I’ll eventually fire myself or fail outright. Maybe I’ll take a job with an agency or with a company on the client side. Or maybe I’ll just decide to go open up an adventure-racing school in South Africa or a photo studio in Antibes. Why not? Life is an adventure. Don’t fight it. Roll with the punches. Go with the flow. See where the currents take you.

So here I was in this room, surrounded by people who felt pretty bad about having been fired or having (at least in their minds) failed in some way. Some were visibly ashamed. Others were mostly just confused about whether or not they should share what happened to them. Many were scared to some extent about what it meant, about what people might think, about how it would hurt their image or their chances of landing another good job in the future. I’ve been there too, and it’s not a great place to be in your life. No matter how clear your conscience may be, you still feel small, vulnerable and dejected.

For many of us, it goes far beyond fear and shame. There’s anger too: You feel betrayed by the people you served. You gave so much of yourself and made so many sacrifices for them – missing your kids’ soccer games, working late, often dealing with abuse or harassment, enduring ever-shrinking benefits and the annual insult commonly referred to as the annual “raise” because it was the right thing to do, because your believed it would eventually be worth it. You thought that if you could endure it long enough and jump through enough hoops, you would eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel, maybe even make a real difference. Well, that didn’t happen. Someone pulled out the rug from under you. All of the time, energy, love and hope you invested in that company, in your job, it all just evaporated. It’s an awful feeling. It’s traumatic. There’s no way to walk away from that unscathed. I guess the first thing to realize is that even though it’s happening to you, it isn’t just happening to you. It happens to pretty much everybody. It’s a lot easier to handle that kind of trauma and disappointment when you realize it happens to almost everyone. In fact, it happens to the best of us.

I wanted to make a point so I asked everyone in the room to raise their hands if they had ever been fired or laid off from a job. Almost everyone (including the panel) raised their hand. It was fascinating to see the looks of surprise on some people’s faces at the sight of all of those hands in the air. You could literally see the stress melt from a few of them just from knowing they weren’t alone. It helped, I think. At least I’d like to think so. You have to start somewhere.

Now… People in transition (moving back into the corporate world or moving out of it) could focus on personal branding and Klout score optimization. They could focus their energy on trying to become gurus and experts and ninjas, on raising their professional profiles by speaking at events and writing e-books… But none of that will really free them from the fear that will always hold them, their careers and their lives hostage. They’ll just be trading one prison for another, one dysfunctional professional path for another. And because that fear of social shame will be 1000x greater now that their career is “public” than when it was behind the corporate firewall, every potential failure along the way will carry with it a much greater burden. If you think that’s smart, go for it. If that sounds not so smart, you’re right. There’s more important inner work that needs to be done before launching into campaigns of self-promotion. Ask any political candidates whose campaign imploded about that. Ask any rock star or actor in rehab about it too. Ask any banker or accountant in federal prison the same question: How did you get here? Why did this happen? If they’ve given it any thought, they’ll all have the same answer. We’ll probably talk about that in Part 3.

What I want to focus on today though is fear: The fear of not only failing but admitting that you did. Now that I see how much damage and pain that kind of fear causes, I feel like sharing a few insights that our panel touched on with the rest of you. Some may apply to you. Others may not. You may disagree and that’s fine. I just hope that they will help somebody. Anybody.

So if you’re feeling bad about closing up shop or leaving a job, don’t. And if you know someone who’s having a really hard time with this right now, feel free to share this with them.

Here are a few takeaways from our panel on career transitions:

1. If you haven’t been fired at least once or twice in your career, you might not be doing it right. And if you haven’t failed once or twice at making a business successful, you probably aren’t thinking big enough. Go for failure #3 as soon as you can. Look, unless you’re insanely lucky, failure is part of the success equation. If you haven’t known any yet, chances are that you’re coloring inside the lines maybe a little too well. You might have even stopped moving forward and testing the limits of what you could do. If you’re 100% happy with that, great. If not, getting fired from a job that wasn’t right for you or not biting off more than you could chew with a big idea might not be the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Sometimes, life has a weird and painful way of doing you favors. Try, fail, repeat. Try, succeed, repeat. Don’t ever stop. No matter what.

You might have heard it a thousand times already, but here’s the name I always think about when people wonder if they (or their spouse) can take one more failure: Thomas Edison. The guy tried and tried and tried to make his light bulb idea work until it did. Imagine if he had quit after 3 tries? 10 tries? 100? here’s what he had to say about when asked about his successive failures:

Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.

Try again. It doesn’t matter how many attempts it takes. Don’t quit just because it’s hard or people look at you funny. What have they ever done? You’ll never regret having tried and failed. I guarantee though that you will regret having quit or given up on a dream. There’s no question about it. Failure is necessary. Failure is good. It teaches you everything you didn’t think to ask.

It’s okay.

2. If you’ve been fired or downsized, if your business has ever failed or run its course, you aren’t alone. It isn’t just happening to you. People get fired and laid off all the time. Companies fail or just get stuck. It happens. Every job ends. Companies close their doors. Departments lose their funding. Assholes who hate you get promoted and fire you just out of spite or fear or jealousy. Learn whatever you can from each experience and move on. As painful and embarrassing as failure of any kind it may be, it is never truly a failure if you’ve derived a valuable insight from it and try again. Dust yourself off and try again. Every pioneer went through the same thing. What put them in the history books is this: Where others would have given up, they didn’t.  If you’re going to fail (and you will), you’re just like everyone else. If you want to get better results than everyone else, make every failure count.

3. Failures in your career hurt as much as failures in love. But pain is just pain. It wears off. Get a head start on the healing. Getting fired is like getting dumped by your boyfriend or girlfriend. It stings. It makes you feel like an asshole. It puts your self-worth in question. We’re just wired that way. If you feel bad about getting canned or laid off, welcome to being human. It’s healthy. Mourn, take a week off. Then get going again. Don’t take any of it personally. See #2.

4. This one is important as it relates to social shame: Nobody holds it against you that you’ve “failed” at anything. Seriously. Nobody is going to talk about you behind your back and peg you a failure. (Okay… perhaps your enemies will, but who cares what they think? They’re assholes anyway.) People in your community will never hold it against you if you’ve lost your job or if your startup failed. No one will ever peg you a loser or damaged goods or a liability as long as you learn from the experience and move on.

Think about it: Do you sit around and make fun of people who’ve been laid off? When Apple fired Steve Jobs back in the day, did we all have secret parties to make fun of him? No. If we even cared, we wondered what he was going to build next. It was exciting. And you know what, if he hadn’t been fired from Apple when he was, Apple might not have become what it is today. Worst case scenario: People are indifferent to your successes or failures. They’re just too busy with their own lives to notice or care about yours as much as you think they do. The rest of us want the best for everyone around us. We want people to succeed and be happy. So… if you’re feeling bad about where you are, chin up: A lot of us are rooting for you.

This whole notion of social shame in regards to failure is an illusion. Don’t fall for it. Your bakery or web design company failed after 14 months? That’s too bad. You’re still everyone’s hero for trying. People will miss that bakery or web design firm, sure, but they’ll only care about one thing: Now what? If you took a job at XYZ Manufacturing, people will be glad you did. If you’re launching a startup in the spring with a few investors, they’ll be thrilled too. Everyone wants you to do well. No one will ever hold it against you if you tried and fail as long as you keep trying. Chin up, kid. You don’t have to apologize. You don’t need to spin it or put on airs. Everybody runs into hurdles. Nothing to be ashamed of. Ever. Don’t do that to yourself. It’s a waste of energy anyway.

5. To quote Tyler Durden, “you are not your job.” You can say that you are your profession, sure, but you are not your job.

For starters, being a brand manager isn’t the same as being VP of Brand Communications at SCB Telecom*. If some douchebag at SCB Telecom gave you the pink slip because you didn’t support his horrible program three years ago and now he can get even with you, go be a brand manager somewhere else. (Hopefully somewhere that will value your contributions a little more than SCB Telecom did.) Being a designer is more important than just being the lead glove designer at Gucci or Chanel. You’re a designer no matter who you work for or what you design. If your company fails, if your label gets sold off, if your boss chases half your team away, it doesn’t change what or who you are.

Whenever a job ends, your profession doesn’t. Hop to another island. It may take six months to find one. It may take ten years of island-hopping to find the right one. You might not ever be happy until you discover your very own island. It doesn’t matter. What island you live on doesn’t change what you are. A job is just a job, no matter how cool it is.

* (Made-up company.)

More than that, you are more than just your profession. You’re also a lot of other things: A parent, a brother or sister, someone’s child, friend and neighbor, a sports fan, a foodie, an artist, a runner, a kite surfer, an equestrian… whatever your interests are. You aren’t just your job. You’re also your interests, your hobbies, your passions, your relationships, your life experiences and more still. Chances are that who you are is far more rooted in all of these things than to your job. So does your value as a human being.

Remember those 5 most common regrets people talk about on their deathbeds? That.

6. Don’t take failure so seriously. In fact, don’t take yourself so seriously either. Relax so you can learn. Learn so you can solve. Solve so you can adapt. Adapt so you can overcome.

Fear is the enemy of innovation. It’s the enemy of design, the enemy of progress. Fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of rejection: They’re all working against you. Whenever fear tells you to back off from an idea or a goal, that’s when you know you’re onto something.

One way to kill fear of failure dead is to not worry so much about the shame and embarrassment that you’ve attached to that fear. Laugh more. Have more fun with what you’re doing. Don’t let stress get in the way. Whether you’re winning or losing, have fun. Ever listened to an 80-year old tell an embarrassing story from their youth? As mortified as they may have been then, they can look back on it now and laugh. That doesn’t suck.

If you’re going to crash and burn, do it with style. Don’t slink away. Crash, burn, get up, take a bow, then go laugh it off. If you can ever learn to laugh at failure and carry on, no one and nothing will ever be able to break your will. Ever.

Look around. Almost everyone around you has failed at something. They may hide it well, but they have.

7. Put it all in perspective: Nobody is shooting at you. You aren’t being targeted by enemy artillery. You didn’t just lose a leg or an arm in a roadside I.E.D. attack. You don’t have cancer. There’s no giant tidal wave about to crush and drown you, no nuclear power plant a mile away about to melt down. That shit is bad. Losing your job or closing down your company isn’t. Get over the fear and embarrassment. They’re a waste of energy. You’re going to be fine. Okay? This is small stuff.

8. Every job has a beginning and an end. Period. One way or another, the job you have today will end someday. Could be tomorrow. Could be next week. Could be in twenty years. How it ends or why might not even matter. What matters is that the inevitable is… well, inevitable.

If you’ve never seen The Kingdom, there’s a great scene in which FBI Director James Grace (played by the always brilliant Richard Jenkins) is being pressured to act against his conscience by the Attorney General (his boss). It’s clear in the scene that the AG won’t take no for an answer. James Grace knows if he doesn’t play nice, his career at the FBI is over. Instead of caving to pressure just to save his own ass, he shares with the AG what he learned long ago about the nature of jobs. After a brief pause, this is his answer to the threat:

You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you wanna go out: On your feet or on your knees.

I bring that lesson to this job. I act, knowing that someday this job will end, no matter what. You should do the same. 

There’s a lot of wisdom in that answer. A lot of courage too, but a lot of wisdom. Heed it.

Every company runs its course. Every job ends. When you remember that you are far more than your job, that life is about more than the title on a business card, the necessary failures you’ll encounter along the way won’t seem so big anymore.

Do the best you can. If you trip and fall or life punches you in the face, get back up. Lean on your family and friends. Banish embarrassment to the curb. Don’t bear the burden of fear, shame or sadness alone. Do whatever you have to do to get back on your feet as fast as possible and just start putting one foot in front of the other again.

Someday, when you’re on your deathbed too, you will regret every minute you wasted feeling sorry for yourself. You’ll wish you had a way to erase every day that you “waited” to try again and do them all over again.

I’ve rambled long enough. Stay tuned for Part 3. We’ll be talking about the danger and ultimate price of bullshit. In the meantime, put your own work aside and go help someone kick ass today. You’ll be amazed how rewarding that feels.

Cheers,

Olivier

*          *          *

The social business building textbook for executives. Now available everywhere:

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

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In case you missed it last week, Gary Vaynerchuck, LearnVest CEO Alexa Von Tobel, “4-hour workweek” author Tim Ferriss, fellow triathlete Mitch Thrower and I participated in Honda’s “Failure: The Secret To Success” project, which basically consisted of shining a light on the (necessary) role that failure plays in success. The concept was simple enough: Shoot short videos in which we talked about our own experience with failure. Read more about it here (Facebook link).

For Mitch’s video, click here.

For Tim’s video, click here.

For Alexa’s crowdsourced contribution, click here.

For Gary’s video, click here.

And for mine (in case the embedded vid doesn’t work for you), click here.

And yes, my office is full of art, weapons and booze. Long story.

Disclosure: I have no affiliation or material connection with Honda. My participation in this project was entirely voluntary.

 

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“I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him.”

– Xeones, speaking about Leonidas, king of Sparta, after the battle of Thermopylae – From “Gates of Fire,” by Steven Pressfield

All of the precepts of leadership are listed above. Embrace this ethos, and your organization will be on its way to doing great things. Reject it, and the road ahead will be strewn with disappointment and strife. Before we tackle this specific point, let’s take a step back and get our bearings.

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how and why organizations fail. We talked about myths of success and cultures of failure. We talked a bit about troubled leadership and “fisher kings,” who poison their organizations from the top down by infusing their culture with their own dysfunctions.

Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about what motivates people to excel, and in the absence of motivation or drive, what sets them up to fail.

I am so full of proverbs and sayings and clichés, right now, I don’t even know where to begin.

Alexander, Richard Branson and your boss: A tale of love and leadership

“There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.” – Navy SEAL saying

I just started reading the The Virtues of War, by Steven Pressfield. (Yes, the guy who wrote Gates of Fire, which I quoted at the beginning of this post.) It tells the story of Alexander the Great, from his childhood to the end of his campaigns, a man who conquered most of the known world before his thirty-third birthday. I am only forty pages into it, but already, it’s fascinating to consider that at only 16, he led 1/3 of his father’s army into battle, his squadron facing Greece’s fiercest warriors (who crushed even the Spartans), and won the day against men better equipped, better trained and just as valorous as Leonidas’ famous 300.

At 16, I couldn’t have led a street gang, much less generals and an army. So aside from being the son of a king, how did he do it? How did he get these men to trust him, to have faith in him, to surge into battle with him and fight until the day was won, instead of simply letting him ride along and take credit for his generals’ work?

One of the answers the book explores is the fact that – aside from being charismatic, clever as hell and already a master tactician before hitting puberty – his men loved him. From his generals to the rank and file, they just loved him. They respected him. Had faith in him. They followed him into battle because they trusted his genius, admired his courage, and felt elevated to be at his back.

Think about your favorite person in the world. Someone you admire above all. A politician, a military commander, an artist, a CEO, an agency principal… Whatever. Whomever. Think about the person you would kill to work for or serve under.

Apple’s Steve Jobs?

Virgin’s Richard Branson?

President Obama?

Ford’s Scott Monty?

Steven Spielberg?

Insert blank here.

Imagine your first day. How it would feel waking up that morning. How it would feel at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when things suddenly quieted down for a few minutes and you had time to reflect on where you are, living the dream, actually BEING there. How it would feel that evening, sitting at home, thinking back on your day. The smile on your face. The excitement pulling at every fiber in your body.

Now imagine your hundredth day. Your 500th. Your 1000th, still working for the one person you admire the most in the world. Someone whose trust and respect you’ve earned by now. Someone who seeks your advice and opinion, who puts your ideas and insights forward. Someone who inspires you to be the best that you can be, and makes you feel like your work is important and valuable. Every day.

Imagine waking up every morning filled with a sense of purpose as warm to the soul as a sunny spring afternoon.

An organization filled with people who feel that way cannot fail. Morale, not technology, not tools, not training, wins the day. Morale is everything.

Morale creates the difference between good boat crews and bad boat crews during BUDs (a weeks-long grueling SEAL selection process), and as we now know, “there are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.”

Now imagine working for someone you dislike. Someone who doesn’t inspire you. Someone who wouldn’t miss you if you were laid off tomorrow. I am not even talking about being forced to work for a sociopath, here. Just someone who doesn’t really care about his or her staff all that much. Someone who would be hard-pressed to inspire loyalty from anyone under their authority.

Imagine your 1000th day working for this person. Imagine the quality of work you and the rest of the staff would be in the habit of producing.

If there’s a clue in this discussion, it is this: You are the same person regardless of your boss. Same personality. Same upbringing. Same skills and wants and needs. It could even be the exact same job in the same office at the same desk. The only thing that changes is the boat leader. Your boss. Your captain. Consider the difference in both motivation and effect between the leader who inspires you, and the one who does not. The one you could be loyal to, and the other.

Consider then, the importance of love in the equation, and furthermore, the importance of certain key human qualities – of human virtues – in leadership. I’m not kidding. Pause. Sit back. Take a few minutes.

Now consider the reasons why you selected your hypothetical dream boss at the beginning of this discussion. What qualities do you admire in them? What draws you to their legend? What makes you love them enough to name them as your ideal boss?

The virtues of leadership, mind you, don’t always include kindness.

The young officer and the veterans

I “earned” my lieutenant’s bars at 21, and on the first day of my very first command, standing before an assembly of curious petty officers, I swiftly arrived at the conclusion that didn’t know shit. This was my first practical management experience: Being the new acting XO for a company of Fusiliers Marins (French Navy Marines), whose rank and file all knew their jobs much better than I did.

Which wasn’t hard, since I was fresh out of OCS.

So here I was, my bags yet unpacked and still in my dress uniform, addressing a group of grizzled, rotten bastards who were there at least as much out of sordid curiosity as professional courtesy. To them, I was new meat. Nothing more. They stood there, sizing me up, wondering who among them would do the honors of explaining how things really worked. The “No offence, Lieutenant, but…”

I knew the score.

It occurred to me, as I was about to address this assembly of cutthroats, that nothing in my training had prepared me for this. Nothing. Crawling in the mud, sure. Shooting at paper targets, definitely. Driving attack boats at high speed, boarding ships in the dark, fast-roping out of helicopters, blowing up tank carcasses and storming fake towns, absolutely. But I had no idea how to get these guys to respect me, to trust me, to work for me for any other reason than that they had to. They weren’t going to make it easy for me. These men were mostly there because they were head cases. Discipline flunkies. All decorated veterans, brave men with more guts than sense, but too clever and independent and difficult to manage even for a corps like the FUSCOS. This was the assignment I had requested, out of misplaced bravado and contempt for some of my glory-chasing classmates, and the full reality of it now stood before me, smirking like two dozen hungry hyenas in on a private joke. I was, as they say, fuckered.

So here’s what I did. I sat down and invited them to sit too. I introduced myself, and asked them to introduce themselves as well. We went around the room, and then I told them something very close to this:

“J’ai tout a apprendre…” Oh, hang on. Let’s do this in English.

“I have everything to learn, and I came here specifically to learn it from you.” I pointed to my beautiful new épaulettes adorned with my brand new gold bars. Some scoffed. I nodded. “I’ve been an officer for less than a day. The reality of the thing is that I won’t truly be an officer until you’ve made me one.  All of you.” I paused and looked around the room. “I won’t be an officer until you, to a man, have made me your Lieutenant. I came here because you’re the biggest assholes in the Navy, and if I can’t get you lot to make me into a half way decent officer, then I’m beyond help.” I looked around the room to see their reactions.  “Any questions?”

They were stunned. Many of them laughed. I even saw in the eyes of a few of them a glimmer of what might have been acknowledgment and respect. I only won over a few of them that day, but that was more than I needed. It was a start.

Without getting too far into my little war stories, here’s what I learned during my time as a young officer: The men who loved me went the extra mile. They excelled because they wanted to. Those who didn’t went nowhere. This was a lesson well learned, and one we will revisit before we’re done here today.

Beyond this, the facts of my service as an officer were this: Reenlistments doubled. Aptitude scores skyrocketed. We began to be invited to train with elements of the Foreign Legion’s 4th Regiment, which was no small feat. I was reprimanded by my superiors both within the FUSCO and the larger base itself more often than I can recall for all sorts of shenanigans. I constantly broke the rules – or at least stretched them. My direct superior’s assessment was that I was too close to my men. The base commander’s general assessment was that I was a pain his ass… but that I had the virtue of being interesting. In spite of our difference of rank, we became good friends. Even with all this turmoil, I managed to find myself decorated in the summer of 1993, less than a year into my military service for what the Navy called “exceptional service,” though to this day, I have no idea what I did to deserve that medal except cause trouble.

Case in point: I had a petty officer under my command quietly removed from my unit. A guy with twenty years of service. A veteran of Lebanon and countless campaigns in Africa. A war hero, once. But (there’s always a “but”) he had a temper and abused his men. My men. Whatever kind of man he had been in the past had been replaced by something else altogether. I suppose peace can be hard on a man who lives only for war. Good warriors don’t always make good leaders. There is more to the business of soldiering than courage under fire and a propensity for violence. For months, I tried to steer him in a different direction. I failed. We had an altercation. He moved on. There’s a lesson in this too, one of humility and resignation, and we’ll also revisit this story before the end of this post.

But the story I want to tell you now, is how on a sunny summer day, because I hadn’t yet done enough to distinguish myself as complete screw-up, I told off a full-bird colonel, because  like my troubled petty officer, he was taking a dump on my men. And that, my friends, was not okay with me. The honor of being a pain in their rumps fell to me and me alone. (Don’t worry, there’s a lesson in this too. A big one.) Here’s what happened:

The barracks incident

The colonel wanted to move his reservists into our barracks and make my men sleep in tents. We were about to begin two weeks of maneuvers with a reserve unit from the Army, guys who in time of war would be called upon to put on a uniform, gather around the base to defend it, and then surrender at the first sign of the enemy.

Let me clarify a few things before I go on, so you don’t think I was being insolent for the sake of being difficult. My men could have slept in tents for a week without trouble, (they were all used to far worse) but it was the principle of the thing: The colonel didn’t understand how territorial men in a military unit can be. He came in on their turf (our turf) and treated very well trained men like rabble. What he did showed a dangerous and insulting absence of respect for men who were not even under his command. Although his rank far exceeded mine and his operational authority overlapped my own chain of command, his “insult” couldn’t go unanswered. I set him straight. It was as simple as that. But the consequences of this act, as witnessed by my men, proved to be of some importance.

Back to our story.

The reservists – there by law, mostly against their will – were a problem. They clearly didn’t want to be there, did not enjoy military life, and had a vicious disposition towards my men, other naval personnel on base, and especially women in uniform. My men were under strict orders from me to avoid any and all confrontations. To ignore insults and taunts, to back away from challenges, and to be as cordial to each and every reservist as if they were foreign dignitaries. It was difficult given that my men were proud and intolerant of disrespect, but this, they did. For me.

The reservists, actually, were more than just “a problem”. They were hooligans of the worst sort: Weak of mind and body, petty, rude and completely undisciplined. Those among them who might have been okay fell in pace with the agitators among them: The loud-mouthed jokers who know how to seize the attention of impressionable men looking to be included in a pack. It didn’t help that the Army officers in charge of managing them were afraid of inciting a mutiny by enforcing proper discipline. We treated the reservists like brothers, in spite of everything. We trained and drilled with them all day. We took them on night patrols to teach them the ropes. We slowly but surely started to make them into soldiers again. As much as we could anyway. By the end of the two weeks, we had started to form bonds with them. The animosity, the negativity, the lack of respect… All of it had been replaced with the seeds of camaraderie, professionalism and what the Greeks called dynamis: The will to fight, or the fighting spirit. We might have made warriors out of them yet. (A few months with us, and who knows?)

(There is a story within the story about the final exercise in which a small detachment of my men and I fought against these two companies of reservists and half of my Marines, in which I got in pretty serious trouble for kidnapping the base commander in the middle of the night and scaring his wife half to death. I won the exercise and received the biggest arse chewing of my career, but that is a tale for another day.)

A week before the exercise, half way through the reservists’ training, arrived a colonel who oversaw the deployment and command of every reserve unit in the Army’s Mediterranean theater. This was the man I would offend.

Half way through the afternoon of his arrival, I noticed my men moving all of their gear from our barracks and into the reservists’ field tents. Confused, I asked one of my squad leaders to tell me what was going on. He explained that he and the other petty-officers had been ordered by the colonel himself to swap bunks with the reservists. They were to take over the tents and surrender their barracks to the colonel’s pet monkeys. No one was particularly happy about it, but orders were orders. I told him to order the men to grab their gear and put it back where it belonged: In their barracks. There would be an inspection before shift change. He stared at me in silence, not daring to say anything. I knew what he was thinking. I repeated my order. He nodded and relayed the order to the rest of the men, who stopped and stared at him, then me. I called to one of my men, a K9 specialist who was on duty that day to fetch the colonel.

Moments later, the man emerged from the officers’ mess and greeted me with all the contempt he could muster: Me, a mere lieutenant. What could I possibly want? I saluted him and nodded towards the tents of the reservists, where my men were now busy removing their belongings and his were busy moving back in. I let him take in the sight, and asked him what he saw. He answered that he could see my men disobeying his orders. He was furious. I calmly watched my men and his, busy setting things right, and told him he was wrong.

“What you are seeing is my men obeying my orders,” I explained.

He turned beet red with rage.

I calmly explained that my men, unlike his, had a mission to perform, that our unit and the base itself were operational (one of only two naval bases in France, in fact, with such a high level of security and strategic priority), and that under no circumstances would their mission be jeopardized by his reservists because they were too soft to sleep in tents. I went on to remind him that, charged as I was with this mission, that because it superseded all else and we were not under his authority, with all due respect to his rank, my men, under my orders, would not sleep in his piece of crap army tents while his miscreants slept in comfortable beds they hadn’t yet earned.

Sensing that something was happening, my men edged towards us to try and hear what we were talking about, but a stern look in their direction made them keep their distance.

The colonel started yelling. He gave me very mean looks and flailed his arms about while he went on about ending my career and having me dragged before the President himself. I crossed my arms and listened until he was done. I then told him that if he wanted to discuss it further, he could take it up with the base commander whose authority I was actually under.

He did.

Within the hour, I was summoned. Phone calls had been made to Headquarters. Someone at the Ministry of Defense had even called from Paris to find out what was going on. You think old women spread gossip fast? You haven’t seen anything until you’ve been in the Navy. Our little tent and barracks incident was the talk of the fleet.

The dressing-down that followed was epic. The base commander, shadowed by his XO – the Marine Company commander, my boss – spent a good fifteen minutes yelling at me in his office. I stood there and took it, as was expected. Fifteen minutes was somewhat of a record for him. I started rooting for him after about ten or eleven. I am sure his clerks outside were keeping track of the time as I was, only grinning ear to ear from the safety of their offices.

Finally, he couldn’t keep a straight face anymore and broke into laughter. He told me he thought the colonel was a prick too. So did half the Navy. I wasn’t in trouble at all. He just wanted to see me sweat it out.

The colonel was gone by the time I returned to my men. Back to his headquarters he returned, no doubt bent on having my head delivered to him on a platter. (It remained, to his chagrin, very much attached.) The reservists were quiet. My men, smirking, saluted me with a little more zest than usual. I told them to cut it out. It didn’t help. The damage was done. To mark the occasion and ensure there wouldn’t be too much resentment over the incident, I took them all on a night march, Marines and reservists, explaining that this whole adventure had all been for naught since no one would be sleeping in barracks or a tent that night anyway. They didn’t seem to mind.

Things changed after that day. Not because I was a great officer (I was actually a pretty lackluster officer), not because I was a badass warrior (I was a wuss) or the best shot or the fastest runner or the most charismatic guy on base. I was none of these things. All I had done was stand up for them in a way that perhaps no one ever had, and that I had done so for something as insignificant as beds and a roof over their heads didn’t hurt.

Imagine your boss standing up for you the way I stood up for them. Imagine how you would feel about him the next day, when he smiled at you and asked you how you were doing. Imagine how much you would be willing to give when he next asked something of you.

Now imagine that to top it all off, your father, assuming you had even grown up knowing him, had never stood up for you either. (Most of my men were under the age of 20, and at least half came from broken homes.)

But this isn’t the lesson yet. This story isn’t about me. I am just the one telling it. There’s more.

The wisdom of old warriors, and the secret of leadership

A month and a half later, the commander of the naval special forces (COFUSMA), during a surprise inspection of our unit, took me aside and asked me how I had managed to turn the unit around. I told him I hadn’t done anything except train the men as ordered.

He grinned and told me I was full of shit.

His right hand man, a guy who without his uniform and his rows of decorations would have looked more like a Belgian antiques dealer than the badass super soldier he was, later invited me to walk with him. For once, I didn’t disobey a direct order, he noted. I was making progress. There may be hope for me yet. All of those commando old-timers were smartasses.

We chatted for a while. He asked me where I was from, what I wanted to do with my life, the countries I wanted to visit… It went on for a while. At one point, when he was satisfied that we were well beyond the need for small talk, he stopped and turned to me, and asked me the same question COFUSMA had asked me before: How had I managed to turn the unit around? A year before, it had been a dump for discipline cases. It had the lowest morale scores in the Navy. The least amount of reenlistments. Interventions and readiness scores were mediocre. Yet on this day, before COFUSMA and his staff, the unit had been tested and retested, and our scores exceeded those of the top Marine units in the country. Morale was higher than in any other unit he had visited so far that year. More of my men were returning to commando units than from any other Marine unit unit in the Navy. How had I managed to turn things around? A rookie. A 21-year-old kid with a cracker-jack bar on his shoulder, no command experience whatsoever and a knack for getting in trouble.

What I wanted to say – and what I still firmly believe – was “luck?”

He stared at me for a long time and smiled. As it turns out, he knew the answer to the question even if I didn’t. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “Every other guy who comes here to do this job, for as long as I can remember, he goes to Lorient, he gets his bars, he comes here, he leaves, another one comes and takes his place. That’s it. You too. But the difference is this: You care about them more than you care about you. And about these.” He gestured to my bars.

I protested. I told him that wasn’t the case. He put his hand on my shoulder to quiet me and continued. “Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But when it matters. When it matters, you put yourself last. And they notice.”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt like a fraud. The reason why I wasn’t afraid for my job was because I knew I wasn’t in for good. This wasn’t going to be my career. I didn’t care if I never got promoted. Besides, I still had my share of enemies on base, people rooting against me, hoping to see me fail. He told me he knew all that. That all of my predecessors had been in the same boat (forgive the pun).

“Your men aren’t indifferent to you, Olivier. They don’t mock or resent you, the way they mock and resent other officers from the EOR program. They love you. Not all of them and not all of the time, you aren’t that good, but enough of them and when it matters. That’s the bond you have with them. They’ll always be loyal to you because you’re loyal to them. And just like you only show them that loyalty when it counts, so do they only show you theirs when it counts. They know they can depend on you, and that’s rare. That’s how it works. Leadership is a handshake. It’s a quid pro quo of respect, empathy and honesty. You give and they give back in kind. That‘s the secret of leadership.”

Then he said this: “What you probably don’t see, however, and something you should be careful about, is that you crave their approval the same way they crave yours. It’s a double-edged sword.” With this, he taught me temperance. He reminded me that there is a line between leadership and friendship. That seeking the approval of your men, of your staff, can be dangerous.

I thought back to my first day with the petty officers.  The speech I gave them. He knew where my mind was at that moment. He had come up in the ranks with several of them. They stayed in touch. Some of my closest allies on base had turned out to be lifelong friends of his. He knew everything I had done since taking my command.

I asked then what I should do. He grinned and clapped me on the shoulder. He told me to keep doing what I was doing. And that was that.

I left military life behind at the end of my tour some months later. Part of me always regretted it, and it’s fair to say that I still miss it every day, but I don’t think I was meant for military life. Not in France, anyway. Too many generals and not enough action. Never a good combination.

At any rate, 18 years later, here I am, finding the same lessons spelled out in Steven Pressfield’s books about Leonidas and Alexander, and suddenly compelled  to write these long ass posts.

The lessons then, and what this has to do with the psychology of failure

And now, the lessons:

(I know. You could have just scrolled down to this paragraph. Sorry. I forgot to mention that.)

Leadership is love.

That’s it.

Okay, but seriously?

Yes. Seriously. And here’s what’s else:

The way you engineer a culture of failure is by doing the exact opposite of everything I wrote about in this post. Here’s how it’s done. This is how it starts (Sorry, SP, I took the liberty of turning one of your paragraphs into the opposite of what it actually states):

I will tell His Majesty what a fool is. A fool abides within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A fool dines while his men go hungry and sleeps when they stand at watch upon the wall. A fool commands his men’s loyalty through fear and purchases it with gold; he never earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a fool assigns others to lift in his stead. A fool requires service of those he leads without ever providing it to them. They serve him, not he them.

– (What Xeones might have said if asked to speak about the exact opposite of a good leader.)

Leadership is not an entitlement. Cultures of failure, the psychology of failure in organization begins with the opposite of love: It begins with fear and selfishness. It begins with the word my.

My bonus.

My promotion.

My project.

My office.

My job, and no, you can’t have it.

What is mine, I can lose. It can be taken away from me. This puts me at odds with everyone else because it puts my self interest above everyone else’s. My brothers now become a threat. I begin to regard everyone with suspicion. Silos emerge. Whips appear.  The illusion of control replaces dynamism. Before you know it, the organization begins to turn against itself from within.

I am reminded of a group VP I once worked for, who before every quarter-end would fire staff if her P&L showed she came shy of her bonus.

This is poison.

When leadership ceases to be about entitlement and perks, about bigger salaries and nicer offices, when it becomes service instead of power, it returns to its pure and effective form. Not that any of these things need to be removed from the equation, mind you. It’s just that they don’t matter. They’re the surface, not the substance.

Another thing I learned during my time in uniform, and what was later confirmed in every position I’ve held since is this: People will shine if you give them a reason to. And everyone, yes everyone can shine.

In the same way, people will fail if you give them a reason to. It goes both ways.

There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.

Two last little bits, and I’ll let you go.

1. The first is this: If I sometimes shone as an officer – and not everyone was of the opinion that I did – it wasn’t because I was wise enough to be popular with my men, whether by accident or design. The truth is that I looked up to several of the petty officers I met on that first day. How could I not? I was 21 and they were in their late thirties. They were badasses: Confident, experienced, great at their jobs, they were everything I wanted to be. After my little speech, a group of them took me under their wing. They mentored me. They blessed me with the courtesy of their respect and exemplary behavior before their men, putting aside pride and personal feelings of scorn for an officer so young, and treated me as if I were worthy of their best salutes… which I wasn’t.

There are lazy salutes and there are snappy ones. You learn to know the difference. These guys snapped to as if I had been Charles De Gaulle himself. That, more than any other thing, inspired me to be the officer they thought I could be. It set the tone for the rest of the unit to give me a chance to serve them with the gratitude and awe they deserved.

It was them. It was always them.

And it didn’t hurt that the base commander himself, by granting me his affection and protecting me as he did, gave me license to be the officer my unit needed in order to get back on its feet.

The more I gave, the more it gave back. The more it gave back, the more I found myself compelled to dig even deeper and give more.

Leadership is a trust.

2. Here’s the last one, and it speaks directly to failure. My failure. It deals with the petty officer who left my command under what could best be described as unfortunate circumstances. He had been a good man once. Probably. At least a good soldier. As a section leader in my company though, he had become poison. It had begun long before my time, but as an officer, his officer, I failed him. There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.

For months, I tried to reason with him. He scorned me. The man had no more respect for me than he did for his men. He wasn’t alone in his dislike for me, but he was the only one who expressed it openly. Nothing I tried worked. I simply couldn’t get through to him. I spoke to his peers and asked for their advice. They tried to settle things among themselves, which failed as well. He was a bully. He was angry with everything. He didn’t want to be there. As the entire unit fell into place, he made himself a wedge and pushed back. He taunted me. At every turn, he challenged me. My men didn’t have to say what they thought. I knew that I couldn’t let it go on: My authority was at stake. My very ability to command. If I allowed him to defy me any longer, I would lose their respect and loyalty, no matter how much they liked me. No matter how many colonels I stood up to. And there was the other issue: That it was my job to protect them, and if I couldn’t do that, what good was I?  At only 21, I didn’t know what to do. I eventually ran out of options and it came to a confrontation. It’s what he wanted and it’s what he got.

The outcome was this: He left. I stayed. By morning, workers had already patched up the walls of my office and repaired the broken glass of the windows. The desks and chairs were returned to their proper place. It was as if nothing had happened. No one spoke of it openly outside of the official inquiry, which was itself swift. He was transfered, then offered early retirement. I made sure his record wasn’t tarnished by his undistinguished final years in uniform. A man’s life work shouldn’t be invalidated by only a fraction of it.

The immediate problems of morale, abuse and my ability to command were solved that day, and his departure was as if a weight had been lifted from the entire unit’s shoulders. His friends did not become my enemies. I was told I had done the right thing. My mentors offered to buy me a round of drinks. But I never saw it as a win. Neither did my superiors, who expressed their disappointment in me. The culture of the Fusiliers was such, though, that in the absence of a better course of action, only this one remained: A good old duel. Two rams locking horns. The dumbest form of problem solving on the face of the earth. In the end, it came down to that, but I wish it hadn’t. This also is not a great way to resolve management problems in the civilian world, by the way (though there, transferring or firing people can be a bit easier).

Cultures of failure are resilient. They grab hold of the ground like a weed and don’t let go. If you allow them to take root inside an organization, they grow and eventually take over. In the best of worlds, you find the wisdom not to fight them, not to defeat them, not to allow them to brace themselves against you and become an enemy. In the best of worlds, you can inspire them to turn themselves around, you can win them over with reason and affection and virtue. Sometimes though, as I found out in this instance, no such luck. But you still have to do what you have to do. Leadership is also about having to make hard decisions in impossible conditions, about having to choose between two bad solutions when no good one is available. Sometimes, leadership is as much about minimizing failure as it is engineering wins. It isn’t for everybody. It’s tough on the nerves and hard on the soul, but for those who want it, it’s there, at once beautiful and terrible, elating and terrifying, infinitely rewarding yet relentlessly unforgiving. You never quite figure it all out, but as long as you press on, the wind tends to stay mostly at your back.

Thanks for sticking around to the end. I felt like telling stories today.

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