A Nation of Suckers

In these days of fake news and intentional misinformation, it’s easy to wonder if anything we read or hear is true. Maybe even more alarming is our inability to know who to believe, who to trust. And of course, that is the point of fake news and misinformation. The goal is not so much to get us to believe false this or untrue that as it is to fuel mistrust and doubt: mistrust of our political leaders and doubt about the intentions and motivations that underpin our government and institutions.

In The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Carl Sagan was definitely on point when he counseled, “Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires intelligence, vigilance, dedication and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us — and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who comes along.”

It’s harsh but certainly self-evident that “If you don’t control your mind, someone else will.” John Allston points out the obvious, but it has gotten to where even the obvious is suspect. In testimony to this sad state of affairs, William Safire advises, “Never assume the obvious is true.” At the extreme, we get to where we mistrust what we hear, what we see, what we think; and if the insidious erosion of trust persists, we come to distrust our personal judgment and our self-confidence falters.

There is an antidote for this insidious erosion of trust, but I doubt that many would think it is an easy medicine to swallow. The first dose is to give up our reliance on group-think. “Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” I don’t know who said that first and doubt that it matters much. The value is in being reminded that we are responsible for what we think, what we believe, and just because lots of well-meaning folks have signed onto the trip does not make it okay for us to thoughtlessly follow. Anatole France assures us that “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” It’s also true that if fifty million people think or do a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. It’s up to us to guard against being just another one of the fools.

The second dose serving as an antidote for this insidious erosion of trust is to give up on our habitual reliance on simply accepting the perspectives, views and opinions of people with the loudest voices or the most followers. Let it suffice to remind us of Buddha’s advice, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it — even if I have said it — unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

The third dose is perhaps the hardest to swallow. Grace Hopper argued that “The most damaging phrase in the language is, it’s always been done that way.” Variations on the point are mental crutches such as “I’ve always thought…,” or “I’ve always believed…, ” or “Everyone knows….” The notion is that once I think or believe anything, that’s the way it is forever.

Granted, it’s being consistent; but as Bernard Berenson cautioned, “Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.” Or perhaps you prefer George Bernard Shaw’s take, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Even so, Glen Beaman has a point, “Stubbornness does have its helpful features. You always know what you are going to be thinking tomorrow.” Unless you are content being pulled along by others, there is nothing for it but to take your medicine – all three doses – the only antidote to insidious group-think.

Give In or Dig In

You’ve probably heard the advice that tells us that we have to go along to get along. Much of the time, if it’s not altogether true, it’s at least convenient. Christopher Morley puts it like this, “Lots of times you have to pretend to join a parade in which you’re not really interested in order to get where you’re going.”

We have our individual goals and agenda, but much of the time, prioritizing our personal interests requires too much effort or may actually be counterproductive. Michael Korda is on point when he advises, “The fastest way to succeed is to look as if you’re playing by other people’s rules, while quietly playing by your own.”

The truth here notwithstanding, there is a very real danger. On the one hand, we run the risk of becoming so accustomed to fitting in that we passively subordinate our goals and agenda to the will and wishes of others; or on the other hand, we are so intent on guarding our individuality that we become inappropriately rigid and inflexible. Finding the middle ground is difficult and staying on that middle ground is even more challenging.

Bill Veeck tells us what is needed, “I try not to break the rules, but merely to test their elasticity.” Nonetheless, for most of us, the trip from knowing to doing is frequently less than smooth. At this point, I think most of us either give up and go along or dig in and side with Bill Watterson’s choice, “From now on, I’ll connect the dots my own way.” As tempting as either alternative may be, experience tells me that the middle ground is still the place to be.

How do you think this works as a helpful way of understanding the middle ground between giving in and digging in? “I am not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations, nor do I feel that the world must live up to mine.” Fritz Perls’ perspective on the middle ground is one that I personally find helpful. I’m comfortable going along so long as I experience other people’s expectations as compatible with or at least not incompatible with mine. However, if I experience those expectations as incompatible, passively going along is no longer an option for me.

Saying this is easy but deciding to dig in and then doing it is not always easy and can be downright risky at times. Dr. SunWolf knows the truth of it, “Sooner or later, you will need the courage to be disliked,” or perhaps the courage to accept even more harsh consequences. There is a cost to giving in and going along, but perhaps an even higher cost to digging in. The dilemma is in understanding the cost and benefits of both choices and then living with your choice.

Just File Your Mistakes

There is a popular notion that advises that we can’t succeed without first failing. The idea is that we fail forward to success. There are other variations such as we learn best from our mistakes and this sweeping generalization from Herman Melville, “Failure is the true test of greatness.”

Since notions like “failure is a prerequisite to success” or “mistakes are prelude to positive outcomes” strike me as absurd, I think I will turn to Buddha for guidance. “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it — even if I have said it — unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” If you are reluctant to take this contrary thinking trip with me, let me remind you of Bertrand Russell’s take on contrary thinking. “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Or perhaps this from J K Galbraith, “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

Sure, I’ve made my share of mistakes and there have been a few times when “failure” is a fair characterization of an unwanted outcome. That likely doesn’t distinguish me from you or anyone else. But that is not the question here. The question is whether the mistakes and occasional failure were necessary pre-conditions to my subsequent success.

It may help to make what I think is an important clarification. A mistake is an action or set of actions that get an outcome different than expected. In turn, a failure is nothing more than a mistake that has unwanted consequences that persist. It’s a continuum from trying something that doesn’t work to trying something that results in a persistent mess. Where along the way you choose to designate the outcome as failure is your call. The point is that mistakes are nothing special or unusual; nor is occasional failure. The only real difference is that failure usually designates the point on the continuum where you stop trying.

Here is the conclusion I draw. Mistakes are likely inevitable, but I have no reason to think they are either necessary or useful. Better would be to get it right the first time, every time. For me, this is obvious. My experience teaches me that the mistakes I have made have little value other than to be put into the folder where I file mistakes under “things to avoid in the future.” In this case, I do subscribe to the old wisdom that teaches, “If I keep doing things like I’ve always done them, what I’ll get is what I’ve already got: mistakes.” Thus, mistakes are to be remembered only as a reminder not to repeat them.

I Believed

I am reluctantly considering the conclusion that much of what I have believed for as long as I have believed anything may represent far more hope than truth. Sure, I admit to taking it for granted that things actually are the way I have always thought they are, that my reality is valid and based on the true and factual, and that my sense of what’s real is correct and axiomatic. Naive? Simple-minded? Perhaps dangerous? Indeed. But nonetheless, I believed.

I take some comfort in knowing that a preference for belief over thoughtful consideration didn’t just start with me. The Roman philosopher Seneca observed that “Every man prefers belief to the exercise of judgment.” It’s likely that the “exercise” part of exercising judgment is the showstopper for many, if not most of us. For me at least, it has been easier to relax and believe.

Robert Brault got it right when he pointed out that “An old belief is like an old shoe. We so value its comfort that we fail to notice the hole in it.” To my surprise and disappointment, I am starting to notice cracks if not actual holes in some of my most trusted beliefs. The cause and solution may be as simple as E D Martin suggests, “It is easier to believe than to doubt.”

Laziness? Indifference? Bertrand Russell says it’s our inherent credulity. “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.” Perhaps I should add gullibility to lazy and naive. The picture is not looking good.

Advice and Attitudes

I’m tempted to initiate our conversation by saying, “There are two types of people: ….” Since my plan is to talk about advice and attitudes, I think it will suffice to simply remind us that there are people who ask for advice and those who actually follow it only when the advice we offer is an exact fit with what they wanted to hear. They are usually the same people. Hannah Whitall Smith understood the key to advice giving when she pointed out, “The true secret of giving advice is, after you have honestly given it, to be perfectly indifferent whether it is taken or not, and never persist in trying to set people right.”

If that adequately sets the stage for both of us, let me suggest that attitude matters, and quite often, attitude is all that actually matters. If you doubt the truth of this putative fact of life and living, let me share the perspectives of some other folks who have given a lot of thought to the notion. From there, you can and of course, will draw your own conclusion. In turn, I will remain perfectly indifferent to your personal conclusion and will not persist in trying to set you right.

The first point about attitude is that attitude is nothing more complicated than knowing that we always get to decide what our attitude is today. It’s just a state of mind that we impose on our current situation or circumstance. It works like this.

From Annie Gottlier, we get this. “It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to.”

Publius Terentius Afer puts it this way. “There is nothing so easy but that it becomes difficult when you do it reluctantly.”

Leland Val Van de Wall makes the same point like this. “You only have to do something until you want to do it, then you won’t have to do it any more.”

If You Only Learn One Leadership Lesson, This Is A Very Good Choice

alciccioli, Greg. The Enemies of Excellence: 7 Reasons Why We Sabotage Success. Crossroad: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2011.

Few people consider how to sustain their success because they’re too busy trying to achieve it.

Most leaders want to be the best people they can be and to lead with excellence. They want to thrive, and they want the people around them to thrive. They have the best of intentions.

Success is inherently unstable. The skills it took to establish success cannot sustain it.

A high-profile leader is surrounded by people who are hungry for the leader’s success. They want him to succeed, and if the price for that is to overlook a few red flags here and there, so be it. The greater the success, the greater the danger.

To deal the fatal blow to egotism, you must identify what you desire as the outcome of your life and leadership. You need to ask yourself: Are you striving to reach just another self-centered summit, or are you leading people and the organization you serve towards something higher?

…influence, more than intelligence, is the sign of the greatest leaders.

Have you noticed that work is always present and, like fire, is never satisfied?

The best way to build character is to define it, practice it, and defend it. Once you define your character so that you clearly understand it, you can practice it in everyday life and leadership. This increases your character competency and prepares you to defend it when you face the Enemy of Indulgence.

We need to invite the right people into our lives and grant them permission to review who we are and how we live. When we choose our own accountability partners, we gain people we can trust, and that trust leads to greater vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be open to correction and criticism.

The self-deception of many leaders begins with the Enemy of Egotism. A leader believes “I really know what is best for me, my team, and this organization.” Notice I say that he believes it, not that it is true.

Yet herein lies the problem. Most leaders who enjoy rapid success experience a serious gap. Because success has come so quickly, and character is slower to develop than talents and abilities, their character is inevitably less developed than their talents. Yet, like all of us, they need character to sustain success.

A leader in emergency mode is just trying to put out fires in his personal life. He is too tired to do things right and well, so he tries just to “get it done.” This approach inevitably can’t solve problems, breeds more Bad Habits, and merely fuels the leader’s failure.

You need to succeed, but in fact, we all need you to succeed.

Tweets vs. Action

According to KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, they believe actions speak louder than tweets. I don’t know the context for their mentioning this, but I definitely agree. How about you?

I will leave you to your own speculation about who or what comes to mind when the subject of tweets comes up. I only caution you to avoid conflating tweeting with doing, tweeting with thoughtful discourse, tweeting with reality.

Although tweets and tweeting are fairly recent innovations, the idea of communicating through compact pronouncements is not. Let’s try a few examples that would have worked quite well as tweets, had the option been available at the time. I have picked out examples that may have best been directed to today’s most prolific tweeters. May I suggest that you focus on a specific tweeter, if one comes to mind. That will help when considering the fit between tweets and action, as KLM suggested.

#JohnLocke “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.”

#BenjaminFranklin “Well done is better than well said.”

#AlfredAdler “Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not of words. Trust movement.”

#HenryJKaiser “If your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.”

#AndrewCarnegie “As I grow older I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”

#LewisCass “People may doubt what you say, but they will believe what you do.”

And of course, a good tweet session would hardly be complete without some old wisdom that comes from #Me “When all is said and done, don’t turn out to be the one for whom much is said but little is done.; for if your action can’t speak for its self, more tweets won’t do much to make your case.”

Too Smart to be That Dumb

There are many reasons why some of us succeed while others of us are only getting by. One of the more hidden reasons is directly related to how successful people – yes, all of them — communicate. They always have smart conversations. While others are having simple conversations, the successful are doing smart, without anyone noticing. Do you communicate for success? I doubt that you ever do otherwise. I am assuming that you are too smart to be that dumb. Listen and hear how it works.

Naturally Selected

an Vugt, Mark, and Anjana Ahuja. Naturally Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why It Matters. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2011.

If you’re concerned about the amount of time your underlings spend around the water cooler – don’t be. Gossip is an entirely natural and frankly ineradicable method of winkling out unsuitable managers, although you might not be so keen on office hydration if you’re an office ogre.

Still, the fact is that we are ancient brains trying to make our way in an ultra-modern world; when shiny new corporate ideas rub up against our creaking, millennia-old psyches, the clash can make us feel uneasy. … nobody wants workplaces to become havens of primitivism, but we do seem happiest when our working environments echo facets of ancestral tribal life – a close-knit structure governed loosely by trusted elders, in which every member was valued for his or her unique contribution to group living and survival.

Every human society that has ever been observed contains a minority who lead and a majority who follow, which suggests that this time-honoured way of organising human society is driven by an ancient imperative.

…we instinctively regard good talkers as being good leaders.

Tariff or Tax

The air is thick with tariffs, or is it? We hear about more and more tariffs and tougher and tougher negotiations. But is that the truth of it, the bottom line? I think not. I suspect the truer story is more and more taxes on each of us. That’s the real negotiating strategy. Press play and come to your own conclusion.

Being Your Own Person

Do you know someone who is proud of being his or her own person? By that, they mean that the social rules and customs that apply to most of us just don’t apply to them. They think that conforming and predictability are for everyone else but not for them. They are their own person and others will just have to deal with it. Let’s think about how that might work out over time. Press play and join me.

A Committed Relationship?

Do you see a committed relationship in your future or perhaps a renewed commitment to an ongoing relationship? If so, you may do well to listen and consider if you are actually ready to commit.

Creating Magic

ockerell, Lee. Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies From a Life at Disney. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Each of the fifty-nine thousand Cast Members is trained to treat each and every Guest with the utmost care and respect. And they do this consistently because they are treated exactly the same way by the Disney leadership: with the utmost care and respect.

…they fail to appreciate the critical difference between managing and leading. I learned the hard way that managerial skills are absolutely essential for getting results, but they are not enough to drive excellence. Excellence requires common sense leadership.

…all everyone wants is to feel special, to be treated with respect, and to be seen as an individual.

…leaders have to set the proper tone by staying cool, calm, and collected under pressure. No matter what’s going on, they have to focus single-mindedly on doing the best they can with what they have instead of blaming, whining, or wishing that things would change.

Just as great parents pay attention to everyone in their family, so great leaders pay attention to everyone in their organizations, bolstering his or her self-esteem and self-confidence at every step. If everyone feels recognized, appreciated, and listened to, everyone will want to take every opportunity to learn and grow.

Make me feel special. Treat me as an individual. Respect me. Make me knowledgeable.

How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter

iseman, Liz and Greg McKeown. Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2010.

It isn’t how much you know that matters. What matters is how much access you have to what other people know. It isn’t just how intelligent your team members are; it is how much of that intelligence you can draw out and put to use.

The Diminisher is an Empire Builder. The Multiplier is a Talent Magnet.

The Diminisher is a Tyrant. The Multiplier is a Liberator.

The Diminisher is a Know-It-All. The Multiplier is a Challenger.

The Diminisher is a Decision Maker. The Multiplier is a Debate Maker.

The Diminisher is a Micromanager. The Multiplier is an Investor.

Would your people describe you as someone who recognizes talented people, draws them in, and utilizes them at their fullest? Would they say they have grown more around you than any other manager they have worked for? Or would they describe you as someone who pulled them into your organization not as a talent to be developed, but more as a resource to be deployed and then left to languish?