Leadership Caffeine™—Giving Thanks for Those Who Taught Us Grit

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveGrit is a good word. It’s an even better trait.

You know what grit is when you see it. It’s that grind-it-out sticktoitiveness in the face of adversity displayed by individuals long on character and short on “I can’t”

Grit is my mother facing her cancer with courage and resolve.

Grit is my father’s unceasing help with my mother until the disease prevailed.

Grit is the father-in-law I lost earlier this year, who spent a few years sleeping in a freezing tent while getting shot at in Korea sixty years ago.

Grit is my father, climbing from one rung below low man at his company and retiring 42 years later as the firm’s president. Everything I know about grit I learned from him.

Grit is my father-in-law’s father who lived a life that almost sounds fictional. It’s all real. He navigated the Great Depression and beyond in careers that involved running booze in Chicago, examining banks, assembling cars, serving as a journalist and ultimately running drug interdiction flights over the Gulf of Mexico. During World War II, physical ailments kept him out of active duty service, so he founded the Illinois Chapter of the Civil Air Patrol. There’s more than a few retired officers and at least one retired general who owes his career to this man.

Grit is every active duty serviceman or woman and every veteran I’ve ever met.

You find grit in business, and while the stakes are often not life or death, they are livelihoods and careers.

Grit is the management team who stared down being relegated to the ash heap of corporate history by investing it all on a vision during a period of economic upheaval. It worked and 400 families won.

Grit is every manager who’s ever backed an underdog because she saw something in this person and she invested her care and capital in the individual.

Grit is every leader who recognizes that it’s his/her job to serve, not to dictate. It takes courage to be humble.

Grit is every entrepreneur who ignored Conventional Wisdom to pursue a dream. I wish this character, Conventional Wisdom, would go away.

Grit is the leader who in times of adversity shoulders the burden and refuses to quit and refuses to let her people quit. Remember, individuals with grit are short on “I can’t.”

Grit is the teacher who sticks to it because she knows that there’s one or more in every class that may change the world for the better.

Grit is my friend the marathon runner who won’t stop; the bodybuilder who won’t be denied, the writer who writes every day, even when there’s nothing to write about.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For those who’ve taught me what grit looks like, I give thanks.

See more posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.



Leadership Caffeine™—Seeing and Observing

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeve

The Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

A dialog between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The famous author Saul Bellow coined the phrase, “first class noticer” and the late Warren Bennis as well as Harvard’s Max Bazerman both implore(d) us to strengthen our powers of noticing.

”I’ve never seen the world before. Now I was seeing it, and it’s a beautiful, marvelous gift. Enchanting reality! –Saul Bellow

In my discussions with senior leaders, I ask a few simple but not simplistic questions:

  • What’s new that will change everything for your firm?
  • Who are the people on your team that see the future?
  • What are you doing to change the game for the better for your customers?

As you might imagine, the answers to all three of the questions are often…light.

Too many of us view our world through glasses that both narrow the vision and shrink the focal point to a point just a short distance (and time) from the here and now.

We spend an incredible amount of time immersed in a world of our own fabrication—the world as it feels and looks and acts from inside our organization’s walls. It’s not the culture that will kill you, it’s the view. It’s time to change it.

Take off the blinders and look up and out further. Extend your focal point.

Changing the View and Becoming First Class Noticers:

A marketing executive I hold in high regard did this with her team.

She had grown tired of the endless debates about what to do and where to go that were anchored firmly by the view and biases of the people in her firm.

She sent her team out into the field to attend industry events and talk with customers. They parroted what they heard: “faster horses” (more of the same…incremental changes) from the customers, and the same tired industry gossip and scuttlebutt about new features, functions and releases from competitors. She had long been convinced that the only thing that changed at the annual industry trade-shows were the company names on the badges of the same people.

She did something her team viewed initially as odd. She cut the budgets for travel to industry events and she signed people up and sent them out to events and conferences and summits in markets and for technologies far removed from her firm’s industry.

The team was confused.

She sent them out with bewildered looks on their faces, armed with two requirements:

  1. Listen and observe. Pay attention to this environment. What’s happening? What’s new? What’s driving and changing everything? How are the change leaders impacting the incumbents?
  2. Be prepared to come home and share your ideas (no matter how wild) on how what you observed might apply to our industry and customers?

While people were tentative at first, they quickly embraced the idea of listening and learning and observing in these very foreign environments. They met with industry leaders. They lingered at the booths of unfamiliar companies and asked questions. They asked a lot of questions. And then they returned home to share.

Some of their ideas connecting developments two or three degrees away from their industry sounded like science fiction. She was pleased.

They logged the ideas and made them visible in open space area. She encouraged people to return to them and refine and jump and build on the ideas…on their own or in small groups. She encouraged people who developed a belief in a vector to research and experiment. They did.

Over the two years following the start of this program, the company added two of the ideas from this adventure to their long range investment horizon. Two other ideas translated to near-term revenues based on new partnerships uncovered in these pursuits. Her team is now talking with their customers about opportunities to grow and adapt and partner in new ways with new technologies and ideas.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The team in this example extended and broadened their view of the world to their firm’s benefit. They became “first-class noticers” who translated what they observed into ideas and in some cases actions. If your firm is preoccupied in the world that exists inside the walls of your firm, it’s time to push out and open your collective eyes and look around and notice. There’s a lot going on out there. As Bellow says, “Enchanting Reality!”

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.



Leadership Caffeine™—The Power of Simple Gestures

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

There’s the factory manager who walked around the plant every morning greeting co-workers by name in his non-native language.

And the CEO who visited the production facilities in a foreign country twice in one year. During his second trip, he walked around the office and factory and greeted the 40 employees by name. He’s still a legend in that facility.

In my own case, it was the senior executive who would meet with me once a quarter over an early breakfast at Bob Evans near the office. I was three years removed from college and his care and feeding of my enthusiasm for my work and his support of my education and development set an early example for me. I’ve tried to repay his gift to me by mentoring others for the past three decades.

It’s the manager who took a chance and hired or promoted you into a role that you were arguably too inexperienced to occupy. Chances are you moved mountains to repay this belief in you.

There was the manager who when learning of a spouse’s medical challenges, provided extraordinary schedule flexibility. In a true act of selflessness, he picked up the slack himself instead of distributing the burden across other team members.

Another manager, concerned over how hard she was pushing her team, sent gift cards for weekend getaways to the spouses/significant others. She understood the critical importance of our support network and she went to the source.

There was the airline flight attendant who learned of an individual flying home after his retirement party. She gathered some quick facts and made an announcement to the entire plane. The applause brought tears to the new retiree’s eyes.

And while airlines get a bad rap, there was the pilot who personally briefed the passengers every twenty minutes on the progress of mechanical repairs. As lunchtime approached, he grabbed a few crew members and purchased sandwiches in the terminal for the entire plane.

There’s every manager who takes the time to listen and observe and then coach an employee. This shouldn’t be the exception in our world, but sadly, it appears to be the case. These managers are worth their weight in platinum.

There are literally dozens of opportunities every day for you to make a difference. From the fundamental act of paying focused attention to a coworker, to offering a personal morning greeting or engaging in the acts of management such as: providing encouragement or delivering respectful, constructive feedback, these simple gestures have a big impact on the people and environment.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Too many managers spend a small fortune attending leadership classes and untold hours consuming the latest and greatest books looking for ideas that will give them an edge. In reality, the answer is in front of you. Put down your device, push away from the keyboard and offer your attention and courtesy and support and wisdom one encounter at a time.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


Leadership Caffeine™—Navigating Overload, Ambiguity and Conflict

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

Harvard Business School Professor, Linda Hill’s, description of context faced by everyone in a leadership role in this era: “overload, ambiguity and conflict” is spot on. It is a much more articulate labeling of what I describe as, “the leadership blender.” And it reflects the state of existence of a large percentage of leaders as they strive to do more with less, faster, and with more impact.

You could not ask for three more challenging contextual sets of circumstances than overload, ambiguity and conflict. Our typical responses to these environmental characteristics practically guarantee mistakes and sub-optimizing.

Overload generates physical and psychological stress as we struggle to prioritize and substitute in half-baked attempts to multi-task. The results often reflect the lack of focus and the rushed plans to navigate issues. We sense and respond, where often, sense and think and then respond reflects the more appropriate sequence of events.

Ambiguity tends to freeze the action as we struggle to gain a contextual toe-hold on something new and different. Instead of creating our own contextual boundaries through a series of experiments, we pause, waiting for conditions to clear up enough for us to comfortably move forward. By the time things become clear, more agile leaders and competitors have already staked out their own boundaries in what was formerly an ambiguous environment. Their context defines not only the rules of the game but the playing field.

Conflict is much about prioritization and navigating competing interests for resources. When faced with conflicting priorities in an environment demanding speed, the default call is often to say, “yes” to everything, expecting those that are right or effective to rise to the top. In reality, this approach dilutes precious resources and blurs the lines of importance. People are left to wonder where the boundaries are.

What’s a Leader to Do?

The effective leaders I’ve observed in environments characterized by overload, ambiguity and conflict all have their own approaches and techniques, however, they share a common trait: they have control over what I term, their “inner game of leading.”

They are hyper-aware of their role in parsing the noise and helping their team members learn to navigate forward through the fog. They operate with a focus on creating a marketplace of often, conflicting ideas, where people are challenged to both diverge and ultimately converge in their thinking and actions.

They understand the need in fast-paced circumstances to insert occasional pauses—in musical notation, to place the fermata over the caesura—to allow people to consider and rethink. And they understand how to come out of a pause and promote deliberate, quick experiments that facilitate learning and improved decision-making. They manage the game-clock to the circumstances striving for the right level of urgency at the right time.

They rush towards ambiguity, comfortable in their discomfort with the lack of a clear way forward. These effective leaders understand that the winner today is the firm or team who connects external events and systemic or structural changes in markets and industries to new solutions and approaches. They strive to be the disruptor, rather than defend against disruption.

And while these behaviors characteristics may paint the picture of some super-being—an uber-leader, all-knowing in the face of adversity—it’s not that. These individuals often defy categorization in their styles. They aren’t uniquely servant leader or throwbacks to the “great person” theory of leadership. They’re just individuals attuned to their role in helping others move forward. They understand how to apply the tools of group problem-solving and decision-making. And they have an internal orientation system—a leadership g.p.s. that guides them—along with a spirit and energy for adventure that proves infectious in group settings.

Their command of the inner-game helps them fight through the paralyzing potential of self-doubt and the debilitating effects of hubris and arrogance. They are uniquely and distinctly attuned to their role in setting the stage and adjusting the lights and creating the environment for the real actors to do their best work.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m not certain when the world of work began to resemble today’s most advanced video games, where sensory overload, extreme ambiguity and conflict define the environment, but it has happened. The timeless behaviors of leadership are still relevant, but everything about the context has changed. Surviving and leveling-up require you to cultivate a very clear and self-guiding inner game of leading.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Leadership Caffeine™—Role Models from Dangerous Situations

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

I had the great honor of delivering two leadership workshops at the Alabama Jail Association Annual Conference recently, and the experience was for me, fascinating, humbling and incredibly educational. (Yes, teachers do learn from students and instructors from participants!)

I wasn’t certain what to expect from this audience heading into the program. I didn’t know this crowd. In fact, as I remarked to the group, I had successfully managed to avoid meeting them my entire life. Also, beyond a few corporate settings that felt like war zones, I had not spent a great deal of time with individuals immersed daily in dangerous settings.

As it turned out, the audiences in the two programs were fantastic! They were hungry for ideas and insights on strengthening as leaders and they were more active and engaged than most corporate groups I’ve worked with over the years. They worked hard on the cases and activities and they generously shared the challenges of their environment as we discussed ideas and approaches to strengthening leadership effectiveness.

Early in the program, we ran a breakout activity where I asked the participants to share stories in small groups about the individual they point to as the leadership role models in their lives. Digging deeper, I asked them to discuss what it was their role model did that had such a profound influence on them and others. I requested they pick one story from their small group to share with the larger audience. And to a group, they shared stories with identical themes.

The role models were either current or former senior officers from the corrections environment. They inspired by leading by example, living and working by a clear code of values, holding themselves and others accountable for fairness and excellence and to a person, caring deeply about their team members.

One example of a number of the officers turned out to be the mother of another participant in the workshop. To listen to others describe the impact she had as a leader on so many present was visibly humbling for the son.

I listened and soaked up the great stories, and as the participants described the realities of their difficult working environment, it was clear to me that the great skill of effective leaders in dangerous settings was the ability to create a leadership and performance environment that transcended the physical setting and dangerous circumstances.

As part of my preparation for the program, I spent a good deal of time catching up on the leadership studies and stories from dangerous settings. Sadly, we have all too much recent data on this topic, mostly beginning with the reporting of the heroics of the law and fire officials during 9/11 and certainly from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The studies showcase consistent behaviors that define effective leadership in dangerous settings, including:

  • Caring at a personal level
  • Credibility earned by backing words with actions
  • Competence displayed…physically and cognitively, particularly via decision-making
  • Trust given
  • Purpose front and center
  • Accountability uniformly and fairly enforced

The consistent display of these behaviors contributes to forming a working environment that transcends the physical setting. While the audience was quick to highlight the flaws and challenges in their workplaces, they were visibly proud of their membership and of their team members. For all of us operating in the relative safety of corporate walls, there’s more than a few powerful lessons on leading we can gain from those operating in harm’s way. The first lesson is humility.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Effective leaders create the environment for success regardless of physical surroundings. Their behaviors transcend the dangers, and the tough circumstances create the bonds that build trust and loyalty and promote performance. And yet again, we hear that the impact of an effective leader has a ripple effect that transcends the years and generations. If you’re looking for a leadership example to model your own behaviors, perhaps it’s time to look to those leading in harm’s way for a meaningful example.