In the beginning there were ... Questions

Today marks the beginning of a writing adventure that has been one of the highlights of my life.

On June 27, 2004, my first Real Life Leadership column - Questions can put a business on the path greater things -  was published in the Asheville Citizen Times. My purpose was to write a leadership question and answer column, sort of a "Dear Abby for Leaders." I wrote in that first column,

Questions drive growth.  If we feel inadequate, we ask questions about why or how do I become more effective.  If an unexpected set back occurs, we ask, “What did I not see?  Where did this come from?  How do I recover?”  If we are presented with a new opportunity, we ask, “Is this the right step?  Am I ready for a change?  What do I need to do first?” 


Questions open up our minds to what is hidden and the possibilities for the future.  They enhance our communication with others.  They resolve conflict.

Five years later, here's what I've learned.

Questions are more important than the answers.

Acting on what we learn is the only way the answers matter.

Life is a journey of exploration, discovery, learning and aspiration fueled by the questions we ask.

We touch far more peoples' lives that we'll ever know.

Gratitude is the reward for making a difference.

Real Life Leadership reached the end of its life this past winter. Today, Leadership Q&A has begun at the online journal Weekly Leader to carry the RLL purpose to a wider audience with a different format.

Your questions and comments matter to me. I'm listening and will continue to try to discern the deeper issues that drive our quest to be the best leaders we can be. It is a coincidence that quest and question are from the same root. 

Thank you all very much for reading over the years.

Real Life Leadership: Showing Gratitude should be a Daily Practice

After a two month hiatus, my Real Life Leadership column is back and online.  This weeks' column - Showing gratitude should be a daily practice - is a message to people who have lost jobs during the recession. The most recent statistics show that unemployment is at 13.2 million people or 8.5% of the non-farm workforce.

I know a number of people who have lost their jobs. Each has taken the change as an opportunity to venture in new directions. Their ability to do this is partly do to an attitude of gratitude.

We each have a choice about how we handle adversity. We can feel self-pity, and become paralyzed from taking the actions we need to make,or we can pick ourselves off and get back in the game.

Precisely, what is an attitude of gratitude. Here are a few ways of understanding what I'm driving at.

1. Gratitude is appreciation for what you have, even if it is just a little.
My friend Meridith Elliott Powell told me about her trip to South Africa. She and her friend were doing mission work in one of the poorer districts of the country. She came home transformed by the people she met. As she recounted it to me, these people had nothing, yet they were happy, gracious people. She concluded that they had learned to appreciate whatever they had right now. They lived in the present, because the future didn't hold much hope for them. Appreciation for what we have helps to see that all that we have is a gift.

2. Gratitude is appreciation for people who matter to us. Recently, I realized the impact that my parents had had on me. Once when I was young, I took a pack of gum from the drug store. My father saw me chewing the gum in the back seat of our car as we drove home. Instead of flying off the handle, he turned the car around and took me to see the store manager. Any temptation toward shoplifting was squelched by my father's wise act. Several years later as a mischievious junior high school kid, a couple of friends and I were tossing firecrackers off a hill into the parking lot of a shopping center. My mistake we set the field where we were on fire, burning up a number of talk pine trees that bordered the parking of the center. We told the management of the grocery store, and then fled each to our homes. My mother's kind understanding of my embarassment, and recognition that I had learned a lesson show me what the nature of forgiveness and redemption truly means. Ironically, today, there is a fire station at the location of our brief pyromania career.  The wisdom of parents didn't hit me until I remembered these two incidents. I'm grateful for their kind treatment of their rebellious son.

3. Gratitude is appreciation for the opportunities in the past and the future.  When we lose our job, we are thrust into a situation of fear and ambiguity. We don't know what to do right away. So, we feel wronged, angry and victimized. It is important that we get over it as quickly as possible. Losing one's job may be the best gift one could receive. Being forced to look for a new job may just the impetus to start your own business or begin a whole new journey in your career. Appreciate the opportunities you have everyday, and make the most of them. Think that nothing is for certain or last forever, and remain open to new opportunities that come.

What do you appreciate? What are you grateful for? Sharing in the comments, or better join a group of us over at a social network site focused on the expression of gratitude called Say Thanks Every Day.

Real Life Leadership: Employees must learn leadership skills

My Real Life Leadership column shifts to Sundays beginning today. Expect to find the column every other Sunday.  Today's column - Employees must learn leadership skills - addresses how we are to manage getting through this recession.

I'm not surprised, nor disappointed by the impact of the recession on people's psyche. For many people and their businesses, they have never experienced anything like this. Their resilience to hardship and suffering has never been developed.  All they've known is good times. Until now.

It is perfectly understandable to see businesses just try to hunker down and wait out the storm. When the storm is over the landscape will have changed.  We must be prepared.

Take a page from what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, they are still rebuilding, and will be for another decade. Block after block, a mile after mile along the shore, gone. Drive around your town right now, block after block of empty business locations. Businesses gone, ill-prepared for hard times, and many cases legacy businesses whose loss is to the community.

What happened after Katrina was an outpouring of support from across the country. People picked up an moved to the coast,lived in a motor home, and did what was necessary to get life going again.

The lesson for us is that we can't wait to learn how to recover from this recession. We must act now as if the recession is moving to a close, and we are getting ourselves prepared for the next growing economy.

How do we do this? Take a page from this weeks' USAirways crash in New York. No lives lost. Remarkable speed and efficiency in getting people off the plane. The reason for this success? Training. The first responders train for the worst possible situations. Having spent a little time with these public servants over the years, you'll find that nothing causes them to feel like that can't handle it.

The lesson ... we need to train to be prepared for the worst. We need to learn new skills. We need to develop our capacity for dealing with volatile fluctuations in the business environment. It takes time and effort to do so. It is an investment in the future, not in the present. Out of training comes confidence. With confidence, creativity. With creativity, an ability to adapt to changing circumstances more quickly.

This is one of the reasons that a group of us here in Asheville / Hendersonville got together over a year ago to put together the first Lessons in Leadership event, and have planned our second one for this Tuesday, January 20 at the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa. It is both a training event and an inspirational one. It is specifically designed for small businesses, entrepreneurs and the supervisor/manager/director level of business. It is a charity event, costing $39 for both afternoon and evening sessions, including a boxed dinner from Frankie Bones.

If you are in the neighborhood, come join us for a fantastic day. Come early enough to the Grove Park Inn to watch President-elect Obama's innauguration. We'll have a great day together.

A hardcopy of today's column may be downloaded here

Real Life Leadership: The Four Questions helps start the new year

My first Real Life Leadership column for 2009 - 'The Four Questions' helps start the new year - is online.

The Four Questions is a tool to help think clearly about our decisions.  A helpful conversation guide entitled Galba Bright photo The Four Questions That Every Leader Must Ask. is available here.

In my column, I mention Galba Bright. He was a fine man who had a great impact upon the people who knew him.  He used the Four Questions to great effect in his business. It was through him that I began to see the real, hidden value of asking these questions.  I am very grateful to him, and will always remember him when I work with the Four Questions.

An additional word about their importance.  The Four Questions aren't just for your own analytical process. They are a conversation tool. They are intended as a guide to how to talk with people.

Try this. Gather three people together for lunch. Copy the Four Questions guide off for each of them. Then as you eat your lunch, ask each of the questions. Talk about them. Take notes and end your conversation by asking, "What should we do now?"

Do this and you'll find yourself, like Galba, being able to act more effectively each day. 

I wish you well in the New Year.  Galba, thank you for your life and leadership. Your presence in our world is missed.  May God grant you peace.

You can download a hard copy of my column here.

Quick Takes: Tom Taylor responds

Tom Taylor, the sales guru at BB Barns Garden Center in Asheville, responded to my column from yesterday, To keep your customers happy, treat them like guests.  He has two points worth hearing.

There is another side benefit treating as guests. They want show their appreciation, so we are getting baked goods from customers to share with the staff. The latest was some sort of chocolate (how appropriate) sheet cake, which was wonderful. So, while Hostmanship might be great for the business, it's not great for the belly.

This says something about the atmosphere that Barney, Ned, Tom and the whole BB Barns team has fostered. This is a busy retail establishment. Imagine your clients bringing food for your staff.

Tom also makes an important point about selling in a down market.

One other quick point, I have noticed more and more, in this challenging retail climate, that people want to know more about the benefits of a product; not just the features. How will it help me safe money? Time? Effort? What's the warranty? Is thisthe best and most durable you have?(Ego; saving money). More training on selling benefits, it seems to me, will go a long way to helping the bottom line in many retail businesses.You know the old saying: Features Tell; Benefits Sell.

What is a benefit?  How should we understand this concept.

It is none other than the difference the product or service will make. If you can't tell me the impact your product should make in my life, then why should I consider buying it?

Benefits, impact, difference ... these are the key ideas that we need to understand when selling to others.

Thanks, Tom for your great response.

Real Life Leadership: Maintaining a business in tough times requires creative thinking

Today's Real Life Leadership column - Maintaining a business in tough times requires creative thinking - is online.

Several years ago, I was privileged to participate in a day-long training session for law enforcement officers by Dave Grossman, one of the principals in the Warrior Science Group, as he spoke about the psychological and physiological effects of combat. Dave is the author/co-author of three books well worth reading -  Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, On Killing: the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, and his most recent, On Combat: the psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace.

Dave spoke about how physical fear raises heart rate. As the heart rate rises, the amount of blood that gets to the brain drops. There is a loss of perspective, peripheral vision and judgment.  As a result, in a gun-fight, law enforcement officers and combat soldiers need to control their heart rate in order to maintain good blood flow to the brain. Without good blood flow, brain functioning diminishes and the officer is in much greater danger of making mistakes or worse getting shot and killed. Dave teaches a breathing technique that allows for greater control of heart rate and one's emotions in a time of violent confrontation. Dave spends around three hundred days a year on the road conducting his training programs. There is no way to know how many lives he has saved by helping law enforcement and military personnel manage the physiological dimension of combat.

I want you to know about Dave Grossman because there is an analogy to how business and professional people can deal with economic hardships.

As I write in the column, there are many people who are afraid of losing their businesses or jobs because of the economic climate we are in. That fear is understandable, and motivates us to take action. Fear is not always a bad thing. It is how we handle it that makes the difference. To know more read Gavin de Becker's important book, The Gift of Fear.

The relevance to business people is that in order to deal with the fear of the unknown, of potential loss and the sense of being out of control, we need to keep a cool head and become more creative. This is what George Fleming wants us to understand in the comments I quote in the column.  Fear in this sense is often about the experience of losing control. George wrote me,

There is much that you can’t control – the market, the competition, whether a client ultimately buys, etc. But you can control how you respond to these events and conditions. Look at great leaders throughout history: most became great leaders because they responded as leaders during the toughest of times while others were throwing in the towel. Are you focused on what is going well – or what is not? Are you focused on what’s possible – or on why it won’t work? On the clients you have – or the ones you’ve lost?

Creativity requires the fullness of our minds and hearts to be engaged. I know when I'm tired, my brain doesn't work, and I feel less passion for what I'm doing at the moment. The same is true as we deal with economic crisis. We need to take care of ourselves, maintain our physical health so that when the most difficult decisions are to be made we can marshal our full resources of emotion and thought to the task.

On January 20, in Asheville, George Fleming, along with others including yours truly, will be presenting workshops especially designed to help people deal with the challenging times that we are in. It is an afternoon and evening with a boxed dinner that you'll not soon forget, and only for $39.  You can find out more and register for Lessons In Leadership at

You can download a printable version of the column here.

Real Life Leadership: Tough times can allow you to show your worth in sales

This week's Real Life Leadership column - Tough times can allow you to show your worth in sales - is online.

The question in this week's column emerged in conversation with Meridith Elliot Powell.  I asked her to respond to the question, and here's her full response.

Absolutely you can be successful as a salesperson and selling when credit is tight and everyone is holding  on to cash. 

Success in sales in this economy is all about getting back to the basics . I think right now is one of the most exciting times to be in sales.

During tough economic times customers really need you and your job is to help them understand why.   In sales, when you take the time to understand what you do, why you are doing it, and how to do it,  then you uncover the value you bring to the table and how, through sales, you can truly help people. It is important to learn early that sales is not about "talking people into" buying your product or service. It is about first understanding your customers' need and then helping them understand how you can add value.

Success in selling is simple, but it is not easy, like everything else in life long-term success takes consistency and work. Ever wonder why successful sales people have such a passion for what they do, why they are always so motivated and excited? Here's their secret, they have a personal sales strategy. One that is unique to them and their sales style. They've invested the time to first sit down and answer the right questions and prioritize the right actions that provide them with a systematic approach to the sales process. This focus and consistency minimizes stress and produces results explaining their motivation and enthusiasm.

To be successful in sales you need a strategy. You need to invest the time to uncover the answers to questions like: what differentiates you and why specifically should someone buy from you; what value and benefit does your  product or service offer to a customer; how do you communicate both of these concepts clearly and quickly so customers understand this early on in the sales process ; how do you find and connect with potential customers; what goes into a good sales call; how to really listen;  how to develop  follow-up plans and a healthy sales pipeline; and the list goes on.

Now, while this all sounds like a lot , investing time in building a personal sales strategy actually gives you more time to sell.  Taking this approach,  gives you a systematic way to consistently prioritize the right actions that keep you productive in sales rather than busy. It also gives you a sense of purpose, which will build your self- confidence and help tap into your motivation and enthusiasm.

Developing your personal sales strategy takes an initial investment of time, and the reward is more than worth the effort.

Meridith is directing her comments to my question. However, if you were to broaden this perspective to encompass all that we do in business, her strategic approach makes sense. Here are my take-a-ways.

1. Our customers need us now more than ever to help them work through the challenges that they are having.

2. To be successful we need a strategy. This strategic way of thinking goes beyond simply having some goals. Our strategies are how our goals will be met.

3. We need consistency, commitment, and hard work, as well as persistence, resilience and a no quit attitude.

I heard Meridith speak recently on relationship network stategies. I've been working with network theory for over a decade, and I found out that what I knew was way too abstract and impractical. I learned some new approaches to developing my networks that I've beginning to apply. 

If for all these reasons, I'm excited about Meridith being one of our workshop leaders for our 2009 Lessons in Leadership conference.  If you are anywhere close by Asheville, N.C. on January 20, sign up for this afternoon/evening event.  It will be worth the trip. I'm absolutely certain.

You can download a PDF copy of my column here. Thanks.

Real Life Leadership: If your managers are AWOL, leading from the middle becomes vital

My latest Real Life Leadership column - If your managers are AWOL, leading from the middle becomes vital - is now online.

This column, and the four that will follow over the next two plus months are previews of a presentation and four workshops that will be given during our second Lessons-In-Leadership conference here in Asheville, NC. The event will take place on Tuesday, January 20 (yes,Innaguration Day). You can find out all the information at the WNC Leaders website.

The simple idea captured by the phrase "leading from the middle" is that everyone is in a position to lead. His or her leadership will be different from the head of the company, but it is leadership in effect.

If you live within a couple hours of Asheville, it will well worth your time to come and participate in our Lessons in Leadership event this year. It will be both inspiring and practicial.  How many things can you say that about?

You can download a hard copy of my column here.

Real Life Leadership: When forming a partnership, make sure roles are clearly defined

My Real Life Leadership column for this week - When forming a partnership, make sure roles are clearly defined - is online.

Partnerships are like marriages. They require a great deal more sensitivity to the relationships that ordinary contractual arrangements do. Typically, in a partnership, the partners are dependent upon one another to make the partnership work.

I see this situations a lot, and most of the time they fall prey to poor communication, vague expectations, a lack of understand of what it means to be a partner, and, sadly, greed and selfishness.

Knowing the character of your partner is essential for long term success. Selfishness is a short-term strategy. It  is only countered by honesty, a clear vision of the long term up-side of the partnership, and a clear boundaries and expectations for the relationship. Someone has to take the lead to establsh these parameters. If not, they won't be there, and trouble awaits.

You can download a printable version of my column here.

Real Life Leadership: Addressing rumors in the workplace requires honesty, sensitivity

My latest Real Life Leadership column - Addressing rumors in the workplace requires honesty, sensitivity - is now online.

Recently, I met with the staff of an organization that has been going through a year long planning process. Some of the staff were unsettled about what was going on. There wasn't anything specific to tell them. Whatever might be said about potential future plans could be misleading. So, we talked about the context of their work, and how it contributes to putting the organization in the very best possible position to make decisions in the future.

When organizations go through dramatic change, employees often feel insecure. They don't know what is going to happen, so they react in ways that could be detrimental to their future. Leaders face the challenge of doing what is best for their business and for their employees. The two do not always work out that way.

The key is to build rapport with your staff that builds confidence and trust.  Do this and the future can be managed.

You can download a printer ready copy here.