Introduction - Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott

Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott (2009)


You are always practicing something. The question is: What are you practicing?


What Fresh Hell Is This?

When I was five and woke with my hair glued to my pillow because I’d fallen asleep with chewing gum in my mouth, and when our dog lifted its leg on the neighbors’ toddler, who ran to his mother screaming, “Dat doggy peed on me!” and when my brother’s forgotten Silly Putty melded forever with the fabric of our new sofa, and when my dad gave my mom a set of pots and pans for Christmas, we anticipated my mother’s trademark comment: “What fresh hell is this?” (Fencing foils went over much better the following year.)

I sometimes find myself muttering this same phrase as I sit in meetings with leaders who have apparently gone round the bend, given their latest mandate guaranteed to ensure fresh hell for all involved, taking the company in the opposite direction from where it wants and needs to go. Or when a comment—a throwaway for the person who made it—lands with an audible thud and now, well, now we’re into it.

This puzzles me, since the leaders I know are highly intelligent people with invaluable experience on the firing line, a decent amount of humility, a wicked sense of humor, and a strong desire to grow their companies and champion change. They are usually on the right track, and much of what they do works. Yet so many pour considerable time, intelligence, and cash into significant sinkholes—practices—with no good outcomes and, in fact, costly implications.

I would excuse the perps as “well meaning,” but that term is demeaning, as in: “She means well but is clearly in the late stages of mad cow.” It’s not that we’re trying to deliberately sabotage our careers or our companies; it’s just that we don’t always recognize the implications of our practices, because most of the time, those on the receiving end of our questionable ideas don’t bellow, “Are you nuts?!” Instead, most flinch, then shrug it off as life in a Dilbert world, to be expected, what can I do, I’ll lay low until this latest hell blows over.

What we need is “squid eye.”

Squid Eye

My friend Paul Lindbergh, an advanced aikido practitioner and killer jazz musician, moved to Hawaii as a teenager and soon began diving with native Hawaiians for squid, a highly prized catch that could be sold for a tidy sum or taken home and served for dinner. But after weeks of diving, despite the fact that the local guys always caught plenty, he had caught only one squid, which must have been stupid and unfortunate—the squid, not Paul.

When he expressed his frustration—”How come you guys catch squid and I don’t?”—the Hawaiians laughed and said, “You gotta have ‘squid eye.’”

“What the hell is squid eye?”

They explained.

Knock, knock, Mr. Squid. Are you home? Come to dinner tonight.

“It’s the ability to see the squid while he is blending into his natural environment. It’s the ability to see him just being himself. It is the ability to see him even when he doesn’t want you to see him, to see him even when he is hiding. Be advised he is very skilled. You must understand, he is there.” The Hawaiians began to tell Paul many things about the squid. For example, one might see a few small stones lying on the bottom of the ocean and understand that the squid put them there. When Paul saw those stones and maybe some shells, they told him to look for a small hole at the base. Knock, knock, Mr. Squid. Are you home? Come to dinner tonight.

It was tough to spot the first mound of stones, like looking for morel mushrooms. You can’t find any and then suddenly stumble across one. Once you know what you’re looking for, you realize you’re standing in a patch of them.

As Paul puts it:

Seeing squid means you see many things that others cannot and do not see. It means having sight in the presence of the blind. It means that you are a selective and efficient information gatherer. This is what “squid eye” really means, and when you apply it to other aspects of your life, you will have, metaphorically, more tuna in your net and fewer guppies and old rubber boots. And if you can see one “tell,” you automatically get others. It’s almost like beginning to understand the nature of a tell or the nature of signs left behind for our eyes and senses to use.

Once Paul learned the tells—like that mound of stones—he had no difficulty finding squid ever again. And then he learned the tells for lobster, kumu, papio, and other Hawaiian fish and thereafter began to eat extremely well.

Spotting the Tells

For Paul, tells signaled the presence of a potential feast, famine, even danger. My fishing reef has been the hallways and conference rooms of global companies. I’ve watched individuals, teams, whole organizations surf powerful waves all the way to the beach, and I’ve watched them get their legs stuck in giant clams! At the risk of sounding immodest, over time I developed squid eye and squid ear, learning the tells that predict the future more accurately and vividly than how the stock price is trending.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that even some of the most successful organizations fail to outlast a few generations of management because they are unable to see the threats they face and the imperative to change. And while there are threats we can do little about—a competitor’s amazing new gizmo, the price of oil, a housing-market crash, an economic downturn, mother nature, et cetera—there’s plenty going on right under our noses that we can do something about. But we don’t, because we can’t see the tells signaling that something we’re doing is not working, perhaps never did work, is in no danger of working and that, indeed, something is very, very wrong.

For many years, I’ve coached countless leaders at companies large and small on how to spot the tells in their organization and come up with better ways of doing things. And many of them were so pleased with the results, they asked me to capture my recommendations in a book they could share with colleagues. But over and over I would tell them, “What you and I are talking about is so fundamental that if I wrote another book, it would have to be titled The Complete Guide to the Fricking Obvious.” I tried to appease them with the following memo I’d written, inspired by Christopher Moore’s novel A Dirty Job. Like garlic around our necks, these rules could help protect our souls, keep us human.

Memo to Leaders

Congratulations. You are a leader. It’s a heavy load, but someone has to do it. The primary focus of your organization is growth. To help in this regard, it is your duty to lead change, manage, and motivate a multi-generational workforce and execute initiatives that impact the top line and the bottom line simultaneously, while delivering short-term results. You must demonstrate agility, speed, inclusiveness, strategic acumen, and innovation, manage uncertainty and risk, and mitigate the impacts of globalization, off-shoring, a recession, global warming, and the price of oil, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Some time ago, the beloved founders, who kept balance between order and chaos, cashed out, either by dying or by cashing in their chips. Since then, Forces of Darkness have been vying for the top spot. You are all that stands between them and the destruction of the collective organizational soul. If you fail, darkness will cover the earth, the stock value will plummet, and chaos will reign.

Hence, a few suggestions:

1. In order to hold off the Forces of Darkness, you will need to stay awake and locate your body parts.

2. Names and ideas will come to you. The ideas you should write down and act on immediately, or, if you don’t have the authority, fight for. The names are of people you need to make available to industry because they are sucking the joy and life out of everyone and everything they touch, or they are the people you should promote and to whom you should give heaping handfuls of freedom and encouragement to break the rules.

3. You will not single-handedly cause or prevent success. Surround yourself with people who model accountability, ferocious integrity, personal authenticity, the capacity to connect with others at a deep level, sheer courage, and a commitment to champion the common good over narrow self-interest.

4. Your central function is to engineer intelligent, spirited conversations that provide the basis for high levels of alignment, collaboration, and partnership at all levels throughout your organization and the healthier outcomes that go with them.

5. People may not wish you well, so pay attention to your emotional wake. You are not invincible. Be kind. Everyone is carrying a heavy load.

6. On the other hand, don’t suck up to anyone, ever, or you will turn into a lickspittle and your soul will refuse to accompany you into the building. Just keep describing reality from your perspective without laying blame and you’ll be fine.

7. Don’t even consider recommending a reorganization. Anyone who requires more than one reorganization over the life of his or her career will forfeit a year’s income (including bonuses and stock options) and possibly serve jail time.

8. Do not, under any circumstances, tell a lie—of either commission or omission. Do not stretch the truth, exaggerate, or make shit up to get out of trouble or make yourself look good, not only because that would be bad on many levels, but also because it will come back to bite you in the butt when you’re least expecting it, at the worst possible moment, with the biggest price tag attached, and possibly appear on YouTube.

9. Do not attempt to project different images depending on whom you’re with. People can spot inauthenticity from fifty paces. Show up as yourself consistently. Unless, of course, you are a jackass.

10. Bear in mind that while no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can. Take it one conversation at a time. Make them fierce.

A client e-mailed, “Stop stalling and write the damn thing!” I felt myself circling the book that had been circling me. A series of events finally drove me to my laptop. They included:

· Three days observing a sales-effectiveness training for an organization that claimed client centricity was key to its success and whose people wouldn’t recognize client centricity if it ran over them. This firm had operationalized dysfunction and arrogance.

· Two days with two hundred executives at a company meeting in which, during a panel on inclusion, a bunch of middle-aged white guys in identical suits rolled their eyes as a young man described how difficult it had been for him to come out as gay to his Catholic boss and an articulate woman described her treatment by her male counterparts as “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

· Several conversations with executives who were struggling to retain good people, in part because their leaders and managers were attempting to motivate Gen Xers, Gen Ys, and boomers with the same rewards. Like offering a dog bone to a cat and then scolding the cat for its lack of enthusiasm.

· A conversation with a CEO who labeled employees who questioned his thinking or pointed out problems as “troublemakers” who “just like to throw up obstacles.” Meanwhile, there was a fire smoldering in the attic, close to flash point.

· A survey concluding that executives see no competitive edge in graduates from MBA programs. Sure, they can analyze a case study, read a P&L statement, and build a really cool PowerPoint deck, none of which actually predict success. Which begs the question, what does predict success? I have strongly held views on that topic, so keep reading.

· Debriefs with the team at my company, Fierce Inc., about prospective clients who wanted to hire Fierce but were concerned that their leaders would be uncomfortable with the word fierce, and asked if we would mind using a different word, like powerful or honest or authentic, instead. You know who you are.

· My general contractor’s refusal to divulge the actual estimated costs of completing a tree-house getaway on a nearby island because I might be upset if he told me what the real numbers were. When he finally confessed that he needed four times the figure he had quoted me a month earlier, he became my ex-contractor.

· Newspapers full of stories about high-profile integrity outages, including outright lies, withheld information, scorn for the intelligence of the common man, CEO hubris, and flagrant corporate greed, that tanked the U.S. economy, causing thousands to lose their jobs and in some cases literally put lives at risk.

· A Roz Chast cartoon in the December 15, 2008, issue of The New Yorker that pretty much summed up the news. Beneath the heading “The All-Crisis Network,” timeslots were allocated to “The World in Crisis,” “America in Crisis,” “The Crisis in Our Schools,” “Cities in Crisis,” “Asia in Crisis,” “The Economy in Crisis,” “The Environment in Crisis,” “Religion in Crisis,” “Crisis: Housing,” “Washington in Crisis,” “The Crisis in Europe,” and “The Health-Care Crisis.”

This is an old list. By the time this book is published, there will be a new list. Watch the news. There is plenty of fresh hell to go around.

During these several months, unlike my usual easygoing, philosophical, quick-to-laugh, quick-to-recover self, I repeatedly found myself shocked, bewildered, sad, frustrated, irritated, and, regarding my contractor, suppressing homicidal impulses. And every time my sense of humor returned, there was another setback.

I found myself ranting! Why are “healthy” companies so sick? Why do we have such a long history of mistaking profitability and stock price as the sole predictors of success? Why have our efforts failed to create real impetus for change? Why are there so many problems within companies that have good people at the helm, none of whom woke up this morning with the thought: You know what would be really awesome today? To get it completely wrong! What a rush that would be!

Finally, my use of squid eye resulted in an apostrophe!

I should explain. Years ago, a young relative announced that she had just had an apostrophe—”you know, one of those ideas with shiny lights around it.” She meant epiphany, of course, but I liked the idea of having apostrophes, and my hope is that this book will provide you with an apostrophe, possibly even an exclamation point, or, at the very least, a semicolon of your own.

My “apostrophe” was the realization that for many people within organizations of all kinds, the major obstacles in making fierce conversations—conversations during which we come out from behind ourselves into our conversations and make them real—a way of life were several of the most prevalent, widely touted, and well-intentioned “best” practices of our times. That so many of these deeply entrenched, long-accepted practices not only fail to resolve the problems they’re meant to resolve or achieve the results they’re meant to achieve, but actually escalate problems, compromise results, derail effectiveness, weaken execution muscle, limit performance, and drive away talented employees and profitable customers. In other words, “best” practices were the problem!

A tongue-in-cheek website called MBA Jargon Watch (described as “where jargon goes to die”) says:

A widely used term promulgated by the arch-demons of business—management consultants—”best practices” is used to describe the “best” techniques or methods in use in a company, field, or industry. Unfortunately, companies often confuse latest or trendiest with best, and the best practices of one era are soon superseded by the evermore-ludicrous fads of the next.

At best, these “best” practices are ineffective. At worst, they are costing companies billions of dollars. Yet no one questions them.

The goal of this book is to do just that: To help individuals and organizations everywhere abandon those “best” practices that no longer (and perhaps never did) serve us and replace them with superior practices that get the job done. To show companies and their leaders how to implement these better practices and, as a result, differentiate themselves from everyone else out there, win the promotions, the clients, and the market share they want, attract the most talented employees and ideal customers—and wouldn’t it be nice if the stock price went up instead of down?

Here’s some really, really good news. You can do this. Whether you own a small business, work for a multinational corporation, or are employed by a school, a nonprofit, or the government, the antidotes to the worst “best” practices are at your fingertips—and they start with you. In essence, they require that you simply abandon costly practices and initiatives that aren’t working and practice something different. Even a subtle shift in one individual’s behavior can set large-scale transformation in progress. I’ve seen it time and time again.

It may help to imagine a kaleidoscope. When one piece shifts, the entire picture changes instantly, dramatically. Likewise, when we spot a tell or grasp a fundamental new truth (at least, new to us), we see things entirely differently, and we can never go back to the original picture, even if we want to, because we can’t unknow what we now know. This book will help you give your kaleidoscope a turn, so that you see more, see differently, and, given what you see at any point in time, are compelled to act.

Before diving into these “best” practices, let’s expand the notion of “practice.”

What Are You Practicing?

As the Japanese martial arts master known as the sensei suggests, we are always practicing something. The question is: What are we practicing? Taking a daily walk is a practice. Watching television is a practice. So is going to church or temple, wearing jeans on Friday, or holding daily staff meetings. At some point, what we’ve been practicing becomes habitual. I’ve come to think of “practice” as my way of life, not only what I do, not just the behavior visible to those observing me, but also the beliefs that drive that behavior.

I’ve come to think of “practice” as my way of life, not only what I do, not just the behavior visible to those observing me, but also the beliefs that drive that behavior.

Consider the following definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language—and examples from me (in italics).

Prac · tice (prkts)

Function: verb

1. To do or perform habitually or customarily; make a habit of:

✵ practice courtesy in social situations; make a practice of being punctual

practice (makes a habit of) withholding what one really thinks and feels

2. To do or perform (something) repeatedly in order to acquire or polish a skill:

✵ practice a dance step

practice blaming others for our poor results

3. To give lessons or repeated instructions to; drill:

✵ practice the students in handwriting

practice the team in overpromising and underdelivering

4. To work at, especially as a profession:

✵ practice law

practice law (Okay, so I have a bad attitude.)

5. To carry out in action; observe:

✵ practice a religion piously

practice self-promotion relentlessly

6. Archaic, obsolete: to intrigue, trick, scheme, or plot (something evil):

✵ practice witchcraft

practice putting the worst possible interpretation on e-mails from people one doesn’t like

The point is, whether we are practicing nonconformity, one-upmanship, cooperation, truth telling, lying, mentoring, gardening, shamanism, resistance, fluency in three-letter acronyms, fire drills, anonymous feedback, the bagpipe, optimism, cross-dressing, sucking up, giving thanks, giving advice, the tango, meditation, safe sex, recruiting people with pedigrees, complaining, or random acts of kindness, our practices have an impact on those around us.

Sit for a moment and reflect on your practices. Don’t restrict yourself to the practices flagged above. Are you practicing being happy, being sad? Telling the truth, telling lies? Being present, being distracted? Being stressed, being grounded? Seeing the best in people, seeing the worst? Doing what’s best for yourself, doing what’s best for your customer? And what are you practicing at home?

Taking a look at your practices from time to time will help you spot the tells—in other words, recognize your own role in creating or sustaining some of the very problems with which you struggle—and then do something about them.

So write down whatever comes to mind—the good, the bad, the ugly. There’s no wrong answer, except a dishonest one.

I am practicing _______________________________.

I am practicing _______________________________.

I am practicing _______________________________.

I am practicing _______________________________.

I am practicing _______________________________.

I am practicing _______________________________.

I am practicing _______________________________.

I am practicing _______________________________.

I am practicing _______________________________.

Any insights?

The Purpose of This Book

The goal of this book is to help you spot the practices that are holding you back, the practices that leave you crazy, cursing, and covered in cat hair, and replace them with practices that will significantly improve both your performance and your pleasure in everything you do and the results you generate.

During our conversation about squid eye, Paul said, “Sometimes I feel like a man who practices eating peas with a knife. I’m losing too many. I’m dying of starvation. I can either sit here shoveling peas as fast as I can, trying to stay alive, or use a spoon.”

Sometimes I feel like a man who practices eating peas with a knife. I’m losing too many. I’m dying of starvation. I can either sit here shoveling peas as fast as I can, trying to stay alive, or use a spoon.—Paul Lindbergh

Like eating peas with a knife, the worst “best practices” aren’t nourishing, don’t get us the results we want. But don’t worry, by the time you finish this book, you’ll have swapped your knife for a huge soupspoon.

You will find in these pages the practices I have defined for myself and for many clients on the path toward great leadership, fierce leadership. Practices to replace those overparsed, acronym-riddled, “best practices” that just don’t work. My goal is to help you toss out the Corporate Way and offer for your consideration a New and Unfamiliar Way.

Imagine practices that build execution muscle while enriching relationships with everyone around you. Imagine practices that move you and your team beyond the level playing field and into an entirely new level of competition. Practices that hone your faith in yourself and your company and expand your awareness of the riddle of leadership. Practices that help you map the terrain, the unpredictable landscape in which you retain the right to lead.

Imagine practices that are visible and felt whenever you walk into a room, attend a meeting, or talk with a colleague, boss, direct report, client, or vendor. Practices you’ll continue at home, in your community, wherever you are in the world.

The practices you’ll learn in these pages, the practices that must now take center stage, are for those who must move organizations from misguided notions of utopia to actually getting the work done. These practices are for people who would choose a fierce conversation (more about fierce in a moment), a fierce leader, a fierce colleague, a fierce customer, a fierce relationship, a fierce love, a fierce life over the alternative, any day. These practices are for those who are not interested in living a guarded, careful life and are quickly bored in the company of those who are.

Fierce leadership is a state of mind. A fierce leader doesn’t simply do the practices in this book like items on a to-do list. Fierce leadership itself is a practice, one that becomes woven throughout all that you do, wherever you are, in the same way that an aikido sensei or a Buddhist monk behaves according to core principles of his or her discipline at all times.

A bonus is that you’ll not only achieve better results in your career and in your organization, but you’ll become a better person, a happier person. It may seem presumptuous of me to suggest that you will become a better person—after all, who am I to judge?—but I’ll stick by that statement because that’s what people who’ve adopted the practice of fierce leadership, who’ve left the “dark arts” and gone toward the light (you gotta have a sense of humor here, people), have said: “I’m a better person.” People of all faiths and of no particular faith have told me this. And I believe them.

This book is simply organized. Each chapter will introduce a “best” practice, show you how to spot the tells that signal a need for change, and then explain the alternative fierce practice and how to start practicing it right away.

For those of you who have a death grip on a particular practice simply because you have championed it for years, please look at the phrase death grip and notice what word jumps out at you.

You can do better than this. We can all do better than this. And we truly must.

Start anywhere. Pick the chapter that interests you the most. Use what makes sense. Don’t loan this book to anybody. Tell them to get their own book. Write in this book. Do the exercises. Begin by writing your name in the front cover.