A Little Book with Big Ideas

Chess Not CheckersA review of Mark Miller’s book, Chess Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game

I have been a fan of Mark Miller’s ever since I heard him speak at a workshop many years ago in Florida. When I first heard him, I wished that his insightful content was available in book form. I heard him speak again several years later and was delighted to hear him say he was working on a book. That was five books ago. Each of his books has hit home with me and helped me grow as a leader. His latest offering, Chess Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game is no exception.

This book continues the fable style that is popular among business authors today. We ride along on Blake’s (a character from previous books) leadership journey as he accelerates his pace as a leader by taking over as the CEO of a small company. Blake soon finds that leadership at this level is more complex than it was in previous roles. The rest of the book describes four moves leaders need to make in order to up their leadership game. I won’t regurgitate the content here. There are other reviews that do that and I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book for yourself. It’s an easy read but has powerful principles that have big impact on how we lead.

Here is how the book impacted my leadership development:

  1. I will plan my departure from the organization my first day at the organization.

As a leader, one of my main jobs is to identify and invest in other leaders. The question that I ask myself is, “What do I want the leadership bench to look like when I leave?” If I have a hard time identifying leaders from day one, I have my work cut out for me. If I can identify a few key people with leadership potential, I can then devise ways of helping them tap into and refine their leadership skills. One principle in the book is, “Bet on Leadership.” For me, that means I need to invest in leadership by talking about leadership and offering resources to help people grow as leaders so that the day I leave the organization, another leader can easily step up and take the group where it needs to go.

  1. I will focus on WE not ME.

We are weary of hearing about selfish CEOs who command multi-million dollar contracts and ride around in corporate jets. It’s easy to get caught up in the perks and power of leadership and forget about the teams we are leading. Leadership is not about us. It’s about the people we lead. Our role is to serve the people under our care. Too often we have seen walls that are built between the leader and the team. In the book, the principle that counteracts this tendency is, “Act as One.” The people we lead need to see and believe that we are on the same side as them. As with most other things, it comes down to what we do rather than what we say. We’re all pulling on the same side of the rope.

  1. I will be humble enough to find a mentor who can help me at this stage of my growth.

The great thing about leadership is that we are never fully formed. There is always room to grow. In the book, Blake gets a new mentor who helps him in his current situation. I’ve found it a matter of Providence that the right mentors come into my life at the right time. There are mentors whom I no longer need because I have learned and gleaned all I possibly could from them at that stage. As my leadership growth needs change, so does my need for specific mentors. We can never believe that we have arrived as leaders, but instead are asking, “Who can I learn from at this stage of my growth?”

Chess Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game challenged me and I will be using it as a resource for many years to come both for myself and for those I lead. I am going to be sharing this book with every person on my leadership team.

promo_01Thank you, Mark for stirring up the potential in those of us whose task it is to continually elevate our leadership game!

 

You can check out a trailer for the book here:

 

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How Leaders are Like Video Game Designers

Image courtesy of Idea go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Idea go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It was a case of mistaken identity.

I walked into my local Papa John’s to pick up a carryout pizza. I’m too cheap to pay for delivery and tip the driver. My order was delivered to the counter quickly and I paid. As the well-intentioned young man behind the counter was handing me the receipt he said, “Thank you for your service.” I smiled and nodded, not knowing what he meant. It wasn’t until I got to the car that it dawned on me. He mistook the Dallas Cowboys star logo on my coat sleeve for a United States Air Force star. I live near a United States Air Force base so it is not uncommon to see our service men and women around town. Easy mistake.

I have to admit I felt guilty for getting praise I didn’t earn or deserve. I don’t want to take anything away from the brave men and women who volunteer to serve our country.

I was raised to believe that you strive to do your best because it is the right thing to do. Give your best effort as a matter of pride not as a matter of praise. Applause is something you earn for being exceptional.

Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I remember going through some old boxes with my father. Years earlier, he served in the United States Marines Corps and the box contained mementos of his military days. He did his basic training at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Several shiny items in the box caught my eye immediately. They were marksmanship qualification badges that he earned while enlisted. He reached the highest rank of expert and was rewarded for his skills.  I don’t recall seeing a medal just for showing up.

As leaders, we have some people on our teams, who think they deserve a medal just for showing up. They have been praised for doing the minimum or taught to believe everyone should get a ribbon. These low expectations work against us.

We fail as leaders when we allow low expectations to continue unchecked.

The art of leadership means finding the delicate balance between high and low expectations for our organization. If our expectations are too low, we can unwittingly impede their progress and allow them to be lazy. Our organization will suffer from mediocrity and our team members will quickly disengage from meaningful contribution.

On the other hand, if our expectations are unrealistically high, our organization will have little to celebrate and team members are in danger of becoming exhausted and discouraged also resulting in disengaged team members.

When our expectations are just right, we see a steady progression of growth in both the organization and the individual team members.

We have that in common with video game designers.  A game designer knows that if you make a game too easy, people are going to get bored and not play. If you make it too hard, people won’t continue to play because they don’t see progress. The key is making each level challenging enough to entice players to stay engaged so they can progress to the next level.

So how do we walk find this fine line?

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Here are a couple ideas:

  • Build relationships with people on your team, so you know what motivates them.
  • Set a baseline of minimum expectations and communicate them regularly.
  • Praise progress rather than low performance.
  • Reward people when they do an excellent job.
  • Find ways to help people step up.

People will rise to the level of our expectations.

What expectations do you have for your team members? Which team members are doing well and which ones are demonstrating an attitude of entitlement for just showing up? How long can you afford to allow low expectations to impede the progress of the team?

I would love to hear your thoughts on how you keep challenging your teams.

Monday Quick Tip ~ Make Peace

Glynn Archer 2Blessed are the peacemakers – Jesus, Matthew 5:9

We don’t have to look far to see the need for peace in our world.  Conflicts are ongoing in several parts of the world at this very moment. As leaders, we feel the conflicts closer to home, among our team members.

I was reminded recently that sometimes our role as a leader means being a peacemaker. I visited the Key West Cemetery where one of the best leaders I’ve ever known is buried.  His name is Glynn Archer, Jr.  He came along at a time in my life when I was still trying to get my head around the responsibilities of leadership.  He was a mentor to me.  He was involved in the local community and was especially helpful in the bringing together of three distinct churches as they merged into one. I watched as he masterfully heard each side’s point of view and distilled each group’s concerns down to the common elements.  Then he built relational bridges between the groups so that they could meet in the middle and work together.  He realized that working together was the only way forward.

It’s tough to be a peacemaker because each side in the conflict thinks they are right. I’ve enjoyed reading Ed Catmull’s fantastic book, Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Mr. Catmull is the President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation.  He describes one of his early meetings with the late Steve Jobs as they are trying to figure out if they could work together.  Catmull gently asks Jobs how he handles it when people disagreed with him. Jobs replies, “When I don’t see eye to eye with somebody, I just take the time to explain it better, so they understand the way it should be” ( Amazon Kindle, Location 743).

We all share Jobs approach at times.  Everybody else is wrong and we are right…right?

That’s why we need peacemakers. Leaders have to wade in where angels fear to tread and get messy with the conflict.  We risk being yelled at and misunderstood.  We have our motives questioned and are accused of playing favorites.

But when the conflict is resolved, there is nothing like the sweet sound of harmony as team members work together again.  The mission moves forward.

Buck up your courage; be a peacemaking leader.

The world needs you.

And so does your team.

Monday Quick Tip ~ Get Mad, but Don’t Get Even

Image courtesy of coward_lion/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of coward_lion/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. ~ 12th Century saying

Has another leader ever ticked you off?

I’ll go first.

YES!

It happened recently when I called the leader of another organization to ask for a little favor.  It was small in my mind, at least.

His negative reaction caught me by surprise.  He was unyielding, uncooperative and downright rude in his response. He was unwilling to work with me. I wanted to hang up on him.

I stewed about it and told others on my team what a jerk this leader was and that he was the cause of their inconvenience.  (Not my finest hour.)  I was frustrated for me and my team.  Fortunately, I calmed down and realized why I didn’t tell this leader where to stick it.

I didn’t because, for purely selfish reasons, I may need a bigger favor down the road.  In addition, this leader may need a favor from me down the road and I’ll have the upper hand at that point. (Both terrible reasons.)

But then I had a flash of insight that made sense.  As leaders, there are times when we have to take the high road for the good of our organization.  It is not fun, it’s not our first choice, but nevertheless, it is the road we walk as leaders.  The organization we lead comes first. Life has a way of turning the tables.  Circumstances change.  There may come a day when our two organizations will need to work together.  That time may come after I’m already gone.  I don’t want to be known as the leader who blew up the bridge between the two.

We’d all rather be known as leaders who built rather than destroyed.  So we restrain ourselves and take the high road.  Our nose will thank us… and so will our team.

Monday Quick Tip ~ Set the Pace

Richard Petty Rookie Exp

He who hesitates is lost. 

Adapted from Joseph Addison’s play Cato (1712):”The woman that deliberates is lost.” 

One of the most exhilarating experiences of my life was driving a race car around the Atlanta Motor Speedway in excess of 150 mph.  I was fortunate to take part in a morning session of the Richard Petty Driving Experience.  After a short instruction period, we were led to the track to take our place behind the wheel of a 600 horsepower speed machine.

In session one, I ran 8 laps before being brought in for some coaching by an instructor.  He told me, “You are getting too close to the pace car. Make sure you follow his lead and don’t get so close.”  I kept my distance and did better the second session.  My lap speeds by 10 miles per hour.

It’s been said many times, “Speed of the leader; speed of the team.” We, as leaders, set the pace for our team members.  This is where leadership becomes an art.

If we move too fast for our team, we run the risk of losing touch with those who are following.  Team members become tired from trying to keep up.  Eventually they become discouraged and quit.

If we move too slowly, top team members become bored.  Other members get distracted and have a hard time staying on track.  Petty squabbles and divisions soon cloud pursuit of the mission.

When we find the right balance of pace, the organization’s mission is accomplished in a way that energizes those who follow us.

Balance is the result of knowing ourselves as leaders.  Do we demand perfection or have expectations of our team members that are too high? Do we know the strengths and limitations of our team members?

As leaders, we set the proper pace so that our team members feel great about being a part of our team and accomplishing the organization’s mission.

What tips do you have for setting the right pace? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday Quick Tip – Count the Cost of Your Life

Image courtesy of digidreamgrafix/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digidreamgrafix/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Every man is his own greatest enemy, and as it were his own executioner. — Sir Thomas Browne

It all came together this week during my daily commute along a fast and busy highway.  One of those rare moments when the “university on wheels” curriculum matched what was going on outside of the car.  I was listening to Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes’ book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.  They posed a question that grabbed me and caused me to turn off the sound so I could reflect on it.  The question was, “Is the life you’re leading worth the price you’re paying to live it?” (The question is on page 26 in the printed version.)

As I traveled in the “slow lane” I noticed cars moving past on my left at high rates of speed. Then I saw a highway patrol officer in front of me, lights flashing.  The fast moving cars were about to pay a price for their excessive speed.  I silently wondered, “Is the price of a ticket and the hassle of getting it taken care of it worth a few minutes gained?”

As leaders, we want our team members and the people we lead to be healthy so that they can give their best energy for the good of the team.  Our followers require the same of us. They want leaders who are healthy and practice good self-care.  Rare is the person who will follow an unfit and unhealthy leader.

At the beginning of a new week, it is good to count the cost of the choices we are making.  Are we taking care of ourselves so that we can offer our best to the people we lead? Do we have time built into our day to simply enjoy ourselves?

Excessive speed will cost us.  Eventually we will slow down.

Can we do it before someone makes us and we have to pay a high price for it?

Monday Quick Tip ~ Think Beyond the Obvious

Image courtesy of Idea go/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Idea go/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A drowning man will clutch a straw. – 19th Century Proverb

We’ve heard it said often that “desperate times call for desperate measures.”  I’ve found in leadership that the default mode in stagnant organizations is “desperate times call for comfortable measures.”  We tend to do what has worked in the past without considering that times, people and conditions have changed. The familiar approach ends up becoming the straw that the proverbial man grasps while sinking.

A better approach is to think beyond the comfortable obvious.  Lately, this idea has smacked me in the face to wake me up.  Here’s what I mean:

  • In the movie Moneyball, Billy Beane (Played by Brad Pitt) argues with his scouts telling them that they can’t choose new players the same way they used to.  They have to think differently.  They have to define the real problem. To the scouts, the problem is obvious. But to Beane, it is something entirely different.
  • In the DIY television series, The Vanilla Ice Project (http://www.diynetwork.com/the-vanilla-ice-project/show/index.html), Rob, (A.K.A. Vanilla Ice) buys rundown Palm Beach mansions and renovates them. I enjoy watching the show because he is continually thinking beyond the ordinary to add what he calls the “wow factor.” It’s a way of thinking beyond the obvious.  Having seen firsthand, two of the homes he has redone, he has definitely succeeded.
  • In the late Randy Pausch’s book, The Last Lecture, he tells about an assignment he gave his Carnegie Melon students to virtual reality world. They could not use shooting violence or pornography.  Realizing the default mode for 19 year old males is to create a game with sex and violence, he required them to think differently. He was amazed at what they came up with when they thought beyond the obvious (“They Just Blew Me Away,” Pages 120-122).

As leaders we help define reality then help our team members think beyond the obvious.  If team members were already thinking that way, they wouldn’t need us.

Our challenge as leaders is to throw the life ring of extraordinary thinking so that clutching a straw becomes impossible.

How will you help your team members think creatively this week? I’d love to hear your thoughts!