The Perils of Competitive Conformity

StandOutIt’s amazing how often we try to stand out from everyone else by fitting in better than anyone else. The title of champion or victor is given to the one who does what many others do, just better or faster or more often. We want to show others that we’re like them by doing what they do and at the same time display our uniqueness by demonstrating our superior skills.

There’s a danger however with fitting in. Fitting in provides great soil for the seeds of mediocrity but poor conditions for true excellence to sprout. If you’re doing what others are doing simply for the sake of doing what others are doing then what you’re doing isn’t doing much even if you’re doing it better than all the others are doing. Okay, so you’re probably not counting to see if that sentence was 140 characters or less. (It’s 190 by the way and that’s without a hashtag or handle so save the Tweet.) Let me explain it another way.

It’s good to have a sense of belonging in a community but fitting in is not required. And doing well at what others are doing is perfectly fine if it provides the following.

  • Authenticity – Does what you are doing authentically reflect who you are? Life is first and foremost about who we are and what we do needs to flow from the best of who we are. When our actions give others a true sense of our identity it builds trust and relationship, which in turn helps to build leadership.
  • Growth – Does what you are doing help you to grow? Do you gain a clearer self understanding? Does it move you towards a personal vision? Is your focus not on being better than them but on becoming more than you were?
  • Service – Does what you are doing serve others? Does it help them to grow as individuals? Does it bring us together as a community? Rather than trying to best them are you working to better them?
  • Inspiration – Does what you are doing inspire others to do their best at what they do? Rather than simply challenging others to beat you are you challenging them to be authentic, grow, serve and inspire?

Now if your calling and purpose takes you down a whole new path, doing what no one else has done – AWESOME!  Don’t worry about fitting in. There’s one thing that nobody in this world can ever do better than you and that is to be you. Charge down the path, throw yourself into the fray and lead on!

There’s one other aspect I want to mention regarding standing out by fitting in.  This problem often shows up in typical performance review systems where everyone is graded on a standard set of criteria. The unintended but clear message is this – “Do what everyone else is doing but do it better than them.” Consider the effects of that message. What does that do for collaboration? What does that do for innovation? What does that do for bringing yourself to your work? Hmmm. Instead of trying to engage people in the organization by getting them to fit it, let’s engage the organization in the individual and let each person be there incredible, brilliant self.  Take the lead and show them how it’s done by working to express yourself rather trying to impress them.

Reach higher than superior mediocrity.
Stand out by standing strong in who you are and
living that out in day-to-day magnificence!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

So that …

May 28th is World Hunger Day, a day to raise awareness of hunger issues. Every day is a day to do something about it. An amazing organization that is doing incredible work to address world hunger is Feed My Starving Children, headquartered in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Over a million volunteers a year in the US pack meals that are sent around the world to feed starving children. This evening I participated in a packing event at the Coon Rapids facility. In an hour and a half about 100 of us packed 26,568 meals that are headed to Honduras.
In addition to having a huge impact on world hunger, Feed My Starving Children is also an outstanding model of servant leadership. One aspect in particular they demonstrate well is what it means to truly serve. Service is often spoken of as simply helping others or doing something nice for them, but service goes deeper than that. When someone grows as a person as a result of our authentic actions we are truly serving.

Helping a child provides them a meal. Serving a child also provides them hope.

One way to distinguish helping from serving is with two little words – “so that.” Those words can help assure that our actions are rooted in purpose, vision and mission.

Service feeds a hungry child so that …

  • … so that they can live.
  • … so that they can learn.
  • … so that they can grow and be productive.
  • … so that they can experience the beauty of their world.
  • … so that they can serve.
  • … so that they can lead.

The FMSC model also benefits the volunteers & staff who prepare and pack the meals.
Service provides opportunities to volunteers and staff so that…

  • … so that they gain a better understanding of who they are.
  • … so that they feel good about who they are.
  • … so that they gain more confidence in their ability to make a difference.
  • … so that they can grow as leaders.

Consider the work you do to serve. Are you simply helping or are you truly serving? If you are helping that’s great. I am definitely not saying that helping is wrong. Just be careful however that your helping isn’t actually a disservice. I do challenge you though to go deeper and truly serve. Be clear on your purpose. Take time to reflect on how you would finish this statement, “I am doing this so that …”

Feed My Starving Children is clear on their “so that.” And what a difference their service makes.

Service, Trust, Leadership and a Journey

EYLBook1 A significant goal was reached on April 20th. Sixteen of us in an amazing on-line collaboration published the new book –

Energize Your Leadership.
Discover. Ignite. Break through.

But more than a goal on a project, this was a milestone on a journey, a journey that began a little over two years ago for me. After we initially laid out a structure for the book each of us had a tentative topic for our own chapter. My topic was servant leadership. We were advised to not start writing until the structure was finalized and we had our official topics. But with my situation I felt a need to get a jump on the assignment and so I started to write.

The project hit a point where it needed to reboot.  After the book plan was restructured I had a new tentative topic – authenticity. Again we were told to wait, again I started to write.

Then the final assignments came out and my new topic was – trust. Ugh. Now we were given the go ahead to write but I struggled to see how trust energizes leadership. Trust doesn’t really energize leadership, it’s the very foundation of leadership. If you’re lacking trust you don’t have un-energized leadership, you have no leadership at all.

I completed my chapter on trust and submitted it to the core team. This group of five of the authors had the daunting task of making sure that all 16 chapters fit together as a cohesive book while retaining the unique nature of each chapter. To no surprise they came back to me with a number of suggested modifications to my chapter. I rewrote my chapter using their ideas and new ideas of my own, and I resubmitted it to the team.

Karin Hurt from the core team was the content coach for our section of the book and she was masterful at providing feedback with honesty and grace. In a wonderful conversation with her she told me that my chapter was better, but it still wasn’t working for her. She added, “What if you incorporate servant leadership into your chapter? I know you have a passion around servant leadership.” “Funny you should say that,” I told her, “that was my original topic.”

So again I began to rewrite my chapter, this time on the topic of trust in the context of servant leadership. As I was doing so there was a moment of epiphany. I have studied servant leadership for some time and have read the writings of Robert Greenleaf. I knew well that a servant leader is servant first and leadership flows from service. But I had struggled to fully understand exactly how it is that service connects to leadership. As I was writing it dawned on me that the key is trust.

Service builds trust. Trust builds leadership.

Now I understood. This is how service grows into energized leadership. We don’t need to muster up to high standards of expectations in order to become a leader. Rather it starts with bringing our unique self to the world in service to all. In authentic service we build trust. And then in trust we build leadership. This became my central message.

Once again I sent my chapter to the core team. It was accepted and passed along to the editor. When I received it back from the editor she suggested some small modifications. One change was the topic which now was simply servant leadership. Trust was still very much a part of the chapter but incorporating her suggestions and a couple small changes of my own the focus became servant leadership.

Though my topic ended up back where it started, had it not been for the journey that took me hither and yon and challenged me I would not have gained this insight and new understanding. The obstacles that threaten to drain us can actually energize us and become stepping stones to new heights.

What a journey it has been and continues to be. My gratitude goes to the marvelous leaders with whom I have traveled. A special thank you to the core team of LaRae Quy, Terri Klass, Karin Hurt, Alli Polin and Chery Gegelman.the16authorsI hesitate to say that publication of the book means the completion of our project, because our goal was never simply to write a book. We are joined in a concern for the lack of energy we see in leaders around us. We share a vision that people will discover the energy to lead, ignite the passion of their purpose and break through the challenges they face.  Whatever direction the project may take from here the journey definitely goes on.

If you are struggling to find the energy you need to lead with passion and purpose, find a copy of the book and c’mon in. Let us share with you the struggles we have faced and the lessons we learned. Each of the 16 chapters has its own topic, its own story, its own insights and I believe you will find a message that speaks to you.  For more information go to To obtain a copy go to, the link here in the United States is Stay energized & lead on!


Whoosh! Leadership lesson from a Hawk

Broad-winged_HawkWHOOSH! The message was to the point and fortunately without any sharp points.

Two hawks flew overhead as I was birding at a local nature center. One landed on a branch high above me and the other continued to call from somewhere. I wanted to confirm that this was indeed a Broad-Winged Hawk so I could add it to the list of birds I had seen that day. I used a bird app on my phone to play the sound of a Broad-Winged. Yes, this is what I was hearing.

I looked up with my binoculars at the perched hawk, hoping that he would take off so I could see his underside and tail. He did fly, but it wasn’t his belly I was looking at. My view was looking head-on at the bird, and he was getting bigger rapidly. For many rodents this view is the last thing they ever see. I lowered my binoculars and prepared for the imminent encounter. At the last second he banked slightly and passed within a couple feet of my head. Woosh.

I turned around to see where he went and discovered he was coming back at me. This time I didn’t see how close he came because I was crouched down in a ball with my arms over my head. It was unlikely that he would actually hit me, but I didn’t want to chance a minute navigational miscalculation.

The third delivery of the message came a few minutes later and I never saw it coming. WHOOSH!!! The sudden sound was directly behind my head as the hawk executed a precise sneak attack from the rear. It was clear I was not welcome. I left the park.

As I was driving to my next birding site it occurred to me that my experience with the hawk is similar to what can happen in an office environment. An insecure manager looks down from their perch and sees a subordinate studying leadership. The manager has the misguided idea that leadership is a job, THEIR job. And if someone from down in the rank and file is trying to be a leader that can only mean one thing – they’re after their job. WHOOSH! The attacks begin until the minion is curled up in their proper place, or just leaves.

I’ve been on the receiving end. I’ve heard the Whoosh in the office. As a recipient of the message you have options. You can counterattack which is totally futile, and is what I tried the first time it happened to me. You can hide. You can work with the manager to try to open communication and come to a better mutual understanding. But as you work to improve the environment, also be prepared for the option to leave because that may end up being your best choice.

And if you are a manager and see someone in your group working to become a better leader don’t feel threatened. If anything feel honored. Remember it is not your title that makes you a leader but rather it is your influence. Do all you can to influence this person to grow into the fullness of who they are meant to be.

Look around you. How many leaders can you find?

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders,
not more followers.”
Ralph Nader

Energize Your Leadership!

Energize Your Leadership!As a leader, are you feeling burnt out, done in, used up, worn down, spread too thin in the thick of it all? You are certainly not alone. A group of 16 of us became concerned by how many leaders are struggling to find the energy they need to lead, and we collaborated online to address the situation. We have written a book to share stories from our own leadership journeys, the struggles we have faced and the lessons we learned. Energize Your Leadership is now available on Amazon. For more information go to

Our hope is that in the book you will find a message you can relate to, and that you will be inspired and energized. But more importantly we have designed the book to help you find energy within yourself, for that is where your greatest source of energy lies.

For me personally the area of greatest concern is servant leadership. It saddens me to see servant leaders who think they’re supposed to be exhausted, that somehow this is a requirement for servant leadership. It’s not. No one becomes more from someone else becoming less. Servant leadership is enriching and ENERGIZING!

Whether you are seeking to energize your own leadership, want to help a friend who is feeling drained or are just looking to give your leadership a boost, I invite you to read the book. You can read it from beginning to end or you can select a topic of interest to you and start there, either way works. And if you have any thoughts to share we would love to hear from you. Be energized and lead on!

EYL AuthorsThe authors are LaRae Quy, Alli Polin, Carol Dougherty, Karin Hurt, Chery Gegelman, Terri Klass, Cynthia Bazin, John Thurlbeck, Jon Mertz, Lalita Raman, Hoda Maalouf, Susan Mazza, Barry Smith, Scott Mabry, Tony Vengrove, Daniel Buhr. It is an honor and a blessing to work with this group of outstanding leaders.

Finding GEMO

QuestionEvery question had an answer. Every problem had a solution. Success was knowing that one right answer or one correct solution. Failure was not knowing.

That was the mindset I had growing up. If I didn’t know the right answer I would often pretend that I did. It didn’t make sense to ask someone. That would be admitting that I didn’t know and at that point I had already failed. I learned a lot in my youth, but one thing I didn’t learn well was how to learn. It’s hard to identify the source of this mindset, whether it was culture or educational system or my own personality, or most likely a combination of all the above.

As I began to explore my role as a leader this became a challenge. If success was to know the answer then leaders must know the answer to every question. Leaders were those who always had the right solution and knew exactly how to proceed in any situation. And I knew this certainly wasn’t me.

Eventually though I came to see that leadership isn’t about knowing the right answers, it’s about asking better questions. Good leadership is about finding GEMO, realizing when the solution at hand is Good Enough, Move On. When I opened my mind to exploring the questions and opened my heart to the struggle, it was then that I could really begin to grow as a leader. Having questions and wrestling with options, now this I could relate to.

When as a leader you are able to honestly say to someone, “I don’t know. What do you think?” it opens doors. It’s a statement of authenticity and vulnerability, opening yourself for the other person to better see who you are. It creates connection and allows relationship to develop. It respectfully says to the other person, “I trust who you are and  I value your perspective.” You open yourself to the richness of insights others have. If you solicit input from others and honor their response you create buy in to the final outcome. And by the time you reach the point of finding GEMO, you will also find that something marvelous has already occurred.  You have already traveled far down the road in the leadership journey.

What do you think?

(Now at this point I could continue editing this post, over and over and over, till it is absolutely perfect and says exactly what I want to say. But I think I’ve found GEMO. Time to hit the button.)


“We do not grow by knowing all of the answers,
but rather by living with the questions.”

Max DePree


Image courtesy of Master isolated images at

Servant Leadership – Going Deeper

GroupJohn is the manager of a twenty person department.  He’s beyond exhausted, he’s burnt out.  And he feels great about that.

John works very hard to make sure that every single employee performs at a high level, in order to achieve the goals that were set in the strategic planning meetings the previous year.  It requires a great deal of effort on his part and long hours but that’s how he got to be “the leader,” he is the cream that rose to the top.

Productivity indicators for his department are down for the third straight quarter, however, and John feels the pressure to up his leadership game.  In a time of reflection one day, over a cold cup of coffee and half a bagel, he decides to try being a servant leader.  On the morning commute the next day he ponders how he could go the extra mile to do something nice for the people in his department.  Some day instead of having his administrative assistant go down to the cafe to get his coffee he will go and get his own.  And at their monthly meetings to review objectives he will take the minutes himself instead of asking someone else to do it.  And once the objectives are met he will take everyone out for lunch.  That should cover it.

When John tells the admin one morning that he will go get his own coffee, she is surprised by his offer.  John is surprised that she seems disappointed.  The coffee that John comes back with isn’t near as good as what he normally has, and it puts him in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

When John volunteers himself to take the minutes at the next department meeting it raises a few eyebrows around the table.  The week following the meeting is especially busy, and John struggles to find the extra time for the task, leaving him even more stressed and tired.  When he finally gets them out they’re not very good and don’t communicate well the outcomes of the meeting.

A few months later the results of various projects aren’t as good as John would like, but there’s a holiday coming up and his schedule is relatively open the day before the holiday.  He figures this is a good time to provide everyone a free lunch.  The task of setting up the lunch adds to John’s burdens and not many people show up for the lunch.

John’s efforts to be a servant leader met with mixed results.  But he’s sure that the department respects him more now for it.  And though it left him wearier than ever, John actually sees this as a good sign.  In the article he read on servant leadership it talked about sacrifice.  So if he feels worse as a result of being a servant leader than he must be doing something right.  Right?
GreenLineTom is also a manager of a twenty person department.  Tom is well aware of what is expected of his department, and his department has a history of exceeding expectations.  What’s first on Tom’s mind, however, is the welfare and growth of those who work in his department.  He knows that as they grow they will not only develop as persons but they will become better equipped for whatever challenges their department may face.

Jan, the administrative assistant to the department, is glad to go down to the cafe each morning to get a cup of coffee for Tom.  She usually adds a little something extra with it.  She knows that her task enables Tom to do better at his job each day.  This is her way of making a contribution.

Jan is also a trusted adviser to Tom.  By the nature of her job she has a good overall idea of what is going on.  Tom welcomes her feedback on the impact past decisions have had on people in the department.  And Tom often seeks out her insight on how future decisions might fit into the big picture.

Whenever an issue arises that has a broad impact across the department or needs the input of several diverse perspectives Tom calls a department meeting.  He usually has Ellen, a senior technical writer in the group, work with Andy to set up the meetings.  Ellen has a lot of experience in event planning from a previous job.  Event planning is a skill set that Andy wishes to develop.  By working together Andy is able to learn from Ellen, and Ellen’s busy schedule isn’t complicated by the details of setting up the meeting.

When it comes to taking minutes, Tom assigns the task to a newer employee in the group.  It gives them a chance to learn more about the workings of the department.  But since they may not be familiar with all the language and activities of the department, Tom also asks a longer-term employee to work with them.  They have a chance to learn from each other and often it even develops into a mentoring relationship.

Tom is careful however not to assign the task of note taker to Carmen.  In an open conversation between the two of them one day Tom learned that Carmen has a slight hearing loss.  Normally it doesn’t cause any problems for her, but in a meeting it can be harder for her to follow the conversation.  Note taking would be particularly difficult for Carmen.  And Tom is also careful to avoid holding meetings in the Grand View room.  The room is a spectacular setting, but the vaulted hardwood ceilings make for lousy acoustics.

After the department had worked extra hard to wrap up a key project, Tom thought it would be good to celebrate by taking the department out for lunch.  Instead he decided to ask everyone what they thought.  To his surprise they decided they wanted to do a potluck.  It gave everyone a chance to add their own personal touch to the celebration and it was a nice way to learn more about each other.   Ellen and Andy were more than happy to set it up.  And the Grand View Room made a wonderful setting for the occasion.

Tom recognizes that he’s a servant leader.  He’s committed to that and his own personal development is a priority, because he knows how important it is for each person, including himself, to give of their unique skills.  Tom also recognizes that it is not his position as manager that makes him the leader. He is a leader because he is willing to serve. Jan is a leader because she makes her own contribution.  Ellen, Andy, Carmen and every single person in the department recognizes that they each have the responsibility to serve in their own way.  And in their service they lead.  They work hard to get the job done and do it well.  But first and foremost they work hard to ensure that everyone involved is enriched and grows from the work.  It can be a lot of effort, but it brings them to life.  They are eager to get to work each day because they know they have a purpose there.  And they are eager to get back home because the day has left them better equipped to face the rest of life.
GreenLineIs John a servant leader?  Is John even a leader at all?  Who would you rather work for, John or Tom? How could an employee in John’s department be a servant leader? What could Tom do to be a better servant leader?

Servant Leadership isn’t a leader going the extra mile
to do something nice for others.
Servant Leadership is a servant going deeper
to be someone of significance to others.

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan at