ACCORDING TO ALEXA
As a founder, or any other leader, or even just a human your ego * is your “good news, bad news.” The good news is that your ego is your best friend, biggest cheerleader, and president of your fan club. It is the thing in your head that says, “you can do it, you are the best, you’ve got this.” It is the most articulate of positive self-talk.
For founders, specifically, it is the force that encouraged us to go out on a limb and pursue our business brainchild despite high risk and no guarantee of success or reward. Going after big, brave, ambitious things would be impossible without the ego and in this way the ego serves us. Thank you, ego.
The bad news is that your ego (probably with the best of intentions – to protect you and keep you safe) gets you into all sorts of skirmishes – mostly with other egos. It is the ego at the wheel when we say / feel things like “I was disrespected, she offended me, can you believe how this person talked to me” and the like. That storyline is a byproduct of a scared little ego in a huff. And, in this way, the ego opposes us.
For founders, and most everyone else, this ego is a saboteur, a time suck, a resource waster, a talent loser – it is our Achilles’ heel and puts us in impossible situations. In this way, the ego stymies us. Thankfully, when the ego takes this tack, it gives itself away with negative “me, me, me” self-talk, nasty emails, short tempers, drama, and triangulation and thus can easily be avoided. As leaders, when that ego shows up, we should say, “No thanks. Not today.”
*When I talk about ego here, I don’t mean it in the traditional way that ego is used. This is not ego as in “he has a big ego” which translates as he is arrogant type of thing. Here I use ego as a synonym of “me.” Ego is the voice inside your head, it is the thing at play when you say ‘I.” It is self.
Amazing Begins Where Comfortable Ends
I recently found myself in Raleigh. Well, that’s what it felt like anyhow. I swear I looked up and said, “WOW I am in Raleigh.” I called home and told my husband, “I am not sure how I got here.” Well, of course I knew how I got there. I bought tickets, I boarded a plane, I checked myself into the hotel. I willingly planned a trip to North Carolina. But I went for reasons that didn’t exist once I arrived and it was very disorienting.
I had made this gross miscalculation and ended up somewhere I didn’t need to be. I wasn’t happy about it. I may have even Googled flights home. I was uncomfortable – away from home, separated from Charlie and half of my kids, in a city that was unfamiliar to me with no good reason for being there and nothing clear to do with my time.
I wanted to go home. I was in real pain. I wanted to escape from my Holiday Inn hotel room and the view of endless gray unfolding outside my window. I longed for familiar comfortable surroundings and for South Florida wide-open blue sky. And then it hit me. “Sit tight, Alexa. Something cool is about to happen. A truth is going to be revealed.”
And all of that ended up being true. I went to Raleigh for one reason and ended up being there for another. I got to see who I was when I was out of my element, I understood things about myself that just weren’t possible going through my day-to-day at home – how much more confident I am in cities that I know, how much more complete I feel with my husband by my side, how I prefer the noise of my kids to the loneliness of my own thoughts, and how my mood depends on the light in the sky. Finally, I could see that I just don’t have my act together in the way I like to believe.
And it was a blessing to appreciate these truths. A blessing that is only bestowed when we are unsteady. These cracks and ugly places are only exposed when we are thrown off. I can see how that may not be appealing. Who wants to be cracked and ugly? But the problem is that when we stay pretty and composed and together and strong and safe, we don’t grow a bit. The result is that you get to live the rest of your life just as you are in this exact moment. Or maybe it’s more honest to say: you get to live the rest of your life limited to just as you are in this exact moment.
The growth only happens when the ground is shaky. So, the next time you find yourself asking, “What the heck am I doing in Raleigh?” don’t resist, don’t try to control it, let go of your footing. Lean into the experience, let it knock you off your feet because that it is when something important happens.
Find Comfort in the Dark Places
One of my Founders came to me this week looking to expand upon how he had supported an employee who was struggling with low morale. Primarily, I was so proud of my Founder. He had done so many things right: (1) picking up on the fact that his colleague was feeling discouraged, (2) caring that his colleague was feeling discouraged, (3) doing his best to support his colleague, and (4) coming to me to see if his approach could be improved upon.
Nonetheless, despite his best efforts, he had gotten the whole support thing wrong. I don’t say this with judgment or superiority or anything other than real love and compassion. The mistake my Founder made is one I have made a million times, it is super common, odds are you do it too. We are just humans after all. We do our silly, sloppy, misguided human things.
By now, you are surely thinking “Get to it Alexa.” So, I will. What did my Founder do? Well, he tried to talk his colleague out of his funk. You know, help him shake off that bad mood. My Founder did what we all so often do when someone comes to us with a problem, he gave a pep talk, said look on the bright side, get some perspective, and appreciate what you have. On one hand, it is totally appropriate. It isn’t mean, or uncaring, or unreasonable. But the problem is, as all of us who have ever felt what my cousin calls “growly” know, that stuff doesn’t work.
When we are having a rough go of it, we simply can’t be talked out of that. We feel what we feel, if we could feel differently, we would, but sometimes life just feels rotten. Feeling that way is not what we want, but it is what we get. Now this isn’t to say we just let those we care for suffer in their misery. There is still something we can do for others. Dark places suck, but they suck a lot less when you are not alone in them. No, we can’t talk people out of their feelings or convince them of something other than their lived truth. But what we can do is say, “you are not alone, I am here, talk to me, I won’t let you go.”
Someone did as much for me this week. I was blue for a million reasons and for none at all. And I lost it a little. It all bubbled up and spilled over. It was a real ugly cry. And my person just sat there, held on to me when it happened, and once it was over, I went on my way. She didn’t say much while I was unraveling and yet somehow when it was all over, I was okay again. And I am honored to say I did the same for someone very dear to me this week. He lost it. There was crying and pain. It went on for a while. I did a fair amount of saying his name and telling him I know. And eventually the soul-sucking hurt stopped. And lo and behold, all was okay. The earth hadn’t swallowed us up. We were still standing. His abyss turned out not to be permanent and my visit there left me unscathed.
But the thing is, we don’t like the dark places. We will do anything to avoid them. They feel lousy, we are scared. Heck, we don’t even like being with other people in their own dark places, dark places that have nothing to do with us, because even that, even seeing the sadness of others scares us half to death. So, we talk folks out of those moods because the sooner our people leave those places, the sooner we can get out of there too.
But none of that helps them. It doesn’t help us either. We must build our tolerance for the low times because they are a rich part of life too. We need to build that muscle for others and maybe mostly for ourselves. If you can’t stand the dark places, you aren’t really living. You are limited and closed off. We need a full spectrum of emotion to be fully human.
So, while nontraditional, here is my “see you later 2021” wish for you: Have courage. Sit with other people in their dark places. Know that in those moments your company is enough. Believe that waiting it out is the only real help you can give to those you care about. Trust that letting the darkness wash over you is what you need as well.
Before You Speak or Do, THINK
For a long time now I have told my CEOs, “Everything you need to know about successful leadership you learned in kindergarten.”
Don’t cut the line, wait your turn, take turns, share, use nice words, don’t be a pig, don’t interrupt, raise your hand, do your best, give everything 100%, say sorry, don’t run in the halls, and wash your hands after you pee. Up until now, this theory of leadership of mine has been intuitive and cobbled together. While knowing it to be true, I haven’t had anything to point to – to offer up as proof. That is, until today.
This morning, like every morning (even Saturday and Sunday) the Hartleys were in “hair on fire” mode trying to get out the door. In the midst of the tumult, I needed to clean out my 6 year old’s take-home folder. In doing so, without meaning to, I stumbled upon evidence showing that it is indeed true that the most important leadership lessons are disseminated in elementary school – wisely, still on paper and still in pencil.
We say it all the time, “Think Before You Speak.” But we don’t do it. We are moving a mile a minute and the whole thinking thing slows us down. We lack discipline and self-control and blurting out requires neither and feels so good too. We love the sounds of our voices and nothing is wiser than the wisdom rolling and rolling off our tongue. All of those words make us feel so smart.
I like my son’s handout because it goes beyond the traditional wisdom of thinking before talking and provides an actionable framework for how to go about it. It gives concrete pointers and by doing so, the message lands more fully and is harder to forget. I have some favorites on this list of five items and I bet you do too (be sure to ping me and let me know).
For me, helpful, necessary, and kind are the stars. Helpful because there is a ton we can and do say but does any of it actually help anything? In my experience, once the dust settles a lot of what is said doesn’t do a single productive thing. It fills space, passes time, fluffs some ego, creates the illusion of getting things done, but isn’t particularly helpful. It doesn’t solve problems, it doesn’t boost people up, it doesn’t generate awesome solutions and, it doesn’t bring us closer together. The thing is said, the mouth is run, the damage is done, and then status quo.
Necessary is great because it gets to the talking for the sake of talking. Yes, you spoke, you added to the conversation but did you make a measurable contribution? Would the world have kept turning without you chiming in and adding your two cents? If the answer is yes, don’t say it. Skip it. You can even say it to yourself if you can’t keep the gem to yourself. For the second transactional flaw, coach to the CEO stars, Marshall Goldsmith lists “Adding too much value.” Basically, what Dr. Goldsmith is categorizing as a no-no is chiming in when it’s not necessary.
When I was little, when you were little, you were told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” When did we lose sight of that? At what point did that become wrong? Irrelevant? At what age did saying not nice things become OK? When did mean become an effective leadership style? For leaders who need to voice hard truths, I concede that revision is appropriate. The mantra should be something more like, “If you have something not nice to say, have the maturity, decency, and creativity to find a way to say it with kindness.” And here is the thing, if you can’t do that, maybe you aren’t qualified to run a company.
Here is why True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind is so important for leaders – not only will it save your butt when it matters, but it will be your life vest and your parachute when you are about to do more harm than good, like pissing off the talent so bad that they walk out the door, demotivating your team in the middle of a critical deadline, or silencing your most creative contributor when innovation is what is going to make the company.
We all lack EQ and when we couple an EQ deficit with speaking without thinking we get disaster. No one is going to tell you that you suck at EQ especially if you are the boss or control the other person’s livelihood in some way. So we bumble along with our poor EQ, speaking without thinking creating inefficiencies, missing opportunities, and burning bridges along the way.
But there is hope. I know because my son, Madsen, brought the cheat sheet home from school. Take a moment. Ask yourself five questions and if you say yes to all, feel free to talk away. But my guess is that more often than not the words about to be released into the universe are either not truthful, helpful, inspiring, necessary, or kind and are better left unsaid. It will be better for you, better for your company, and better for every single person around you.
HT Dr. Lexande for doing such powerful work with my boy and to my neighbor Vince for talking through these ideas with me and for being the embodiment of THINK, especially the kind piece.
You Are the Problem; You Are the Opportunity
“OMG it has been a week, hasn’t it?!?”, my client Brandon wrote in an email earlier this month. I had sick kid trouble a day or two before and he was working through car trouble the day of his message. I smiled when I saw his words in my inbox – they summed up the whole mess perfectly. It had been a week…
As I muddled through my day yesterday, I unconsciously started thinking about it in terms of Brandon’s artful descriptor. It had been a day for sure. One where I had decided the world was against me. No one was doing life right and I was paying the price for their ineptitude.
One of my client’s misunderstood me and took something small and innocent that I wrote and blew it way out of proportion. This in turn upset some of her direct reports who got emotional and defensive and took that out on me. They sent me into a tizzy making me write and send some emails that were dead on but would probably be taken out of context and used against me. And don’t get me started about my kids.
Despite my best efforts to raise them right, it became apparent that they were not only selfish but lazy too. I could continue with the school’s slow-as-molasses assistant and my friend’s seating preference at lunch, but you see it right? Understandably, by the time I clawed my way over the finish line I was left depleted, baffled, and wondering, “What was everyone’s problem, and what the heck did a good girl like myself do to deserve all their drama?” Again, like Brandon wisely coined, it had been a day, but for none of the reasons I thought.
Like always, the type of day it had been was 100% on me.
My client’s interpretation was accurate, her direct reports’ reaction was appropriate, the emails were indelicate, and my kids were being normal. There was a problem though, that’s for sure. But the problem was me and I had done plenty. I had chosen my words badly, I had created undeserved tumult, I had written the emails and I was being an unreasonable and demanding mom.
But here is the cool thing. Yesterday also opened a doorway to opportunity, and that opportunity is all mine too. If I am the problem, then I get to be the solution. If someone else is the problem, there isn’t a darn thing I can do about it. I am at their mercy, waiting for them to address the issue, and until they do life will continue to go in every direction but the one I want.
As you know, I am a religious atheist. And like any good religious atheist, there is this prayer that I recently have been considering deeply, the Mi Shebeirach. I heard it for probably the millionth time when I was with my kids this past weekend at Sunday school. Funny how you can listen to something your entire life and never really hear it. But for some reason on this Sunday, it got to me. The entire prayer is short and well worth reading, but the words that landed with me are, “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” Notice it’s neither “help others find the courage to make their lives a blessing” nor “help others find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” The prayer is about us and the work we need to do in our own lives.
Typical and a little bit annoying. It is always about us. Always. We need to be mindful of this as people. And we need to be mindful of this as leaders. It is never about your employee’s deficiencies; it is always about whether you have the chops to connect with them. It is never about the investors not understanding you. It is about you not speaking understandably. It’s not about the problematic coworkers who don’t do their share, it’s not about people misunderstanding your genius, it’s not about the consultant who doesn’t know what he is talking about. Well, as you know, I can continue, but you see it right?
That reality, that you are the problem, is a scary thing to lean into. But it is exciting too because then you are the opportunity.
You have what it takes to reach every single person that works for you and inspire them to do their best. You have everything you need to speak in a way that investors are fanning dollars at you from the palms of their hands. As the Mi Shebeirach says, if we only can find the courage, then we can be a blessing, and it is only by acting as a blessing that all the outcomes we all so desperately desire can be ours.
The first act of courage is to take that finger we so often point straight ahead, outward, and turn it 180° so that it is square at our chest with our fingertip snuggly against our heart. If we truly don’t want to have a day or a week, or any of the multitudes of things that vex us then we must have the courage to do something about our own behaviors.
Leadership Without Goodness and Mercy Is a Ship Adrift
This morning I thought of something that my closest friend from college used to say, “Alexa, you are the most religious atheist I know.”
Kate’s words came back to me when I found myself thinking about leadership and its relationship to a line from, “We Bid You Goodnight,” a song I love. “We Bid You Goodnight” has been covered time and time again and everyone who does it adds their own special touch. But in all versions, it is a partial recitation of Psalm 23. Even if you are not a religious atheist like I am you likely know this Psalm as it is quite common not only in both Jewish and Christian liturgy but also in popular culture. No bells ringing yet? Well, let me throw you a bone, “Though I go walking through the valley of death.” Ah, yeah, that one.
Anyhow, it’s not that famous line that got me thinking about leadership, but one that appears later in the Psalm. In the version of the song I was listening to, Sam Amidon sings the line as what sounds like, “Goodness and mercy shall follow me over.” Admittedly, it is a little hard to make out and it is possible that what Amidon is singing is the exact line from the Psalm, “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
In either case, I got to wondering why goodness and mercy? Of all the nouns in the English language, why would these two be the ones to follow us into the afterlife (should there be one), or why this duo for all the days of our lives? Why not two of the other 46,000 nouns? Intelligence and charisma? Kindness and generosity? Power and money? Beauty and attention? Creativity and innovation? These seem pretty good to me. In fact, they are often the ones we strive for and the ones we value. Mercy? When was the last time you heard anyone discuss mercy at work? Mercy as a leadership quality? Crickets.
Is it that these other attributes are unimportant? All of a sudden money doesn’t matter? Does status not feel good? No, I think not. Premier Leadership Coaching without income is problematic and I like being president of this place. Further, not a lot of magic happens without intelligence. A world without beauty would be unbearable. We wouldn’t get far without creativity and innovation. So, it is not that these things are insignificant. It is simply that if the slate had to be wiped clean, if all else melted away, and there could only be two things – goodness and mercy are the way to go. I have heard that if lost in the woods a knife and water purification are the most important tools to have. A fire starter is a close third and food is nice too, but the essentials, the things you cannot manage without are a knife and purification. It goes this way too with goodness and mercy for all of us, but for leaders especially so. Stationed at the helm leaders chart the course and steer the ship thereby setting the tone for the entire organization and serving as custodian of the well-being of every single worker.
Goodness and mercy aren’t the only measures, but they are the final measure. They are the anchor, the mooring, the compass, and Polaris – the tools we use to navigate leadership. If we sacrifice goodness and mercy at the altar of money, power, status, or existence-changing creativity, all of us are lost.
Avoiding this type of failure is not a hard fix. The trick is to habitually assess your actions, regularly look at the contributions you are making, explore how you are leading your organizations, and chart your path in a direction where you can maximize the goodness with which you are acting and the mercy you are extending to others. It must be part of your reflection and journey. The same way you look at budget, strategy, staffing, cost, and customer service you must evaluate goodness and mercy too. If not, we will lose the way for everyone on the boat. For if we as leaders don’t “remember right well” and do right well, who will?