Understanding What You Have To Offer


I like to think of people as bottom-less reservoirs of unrealized potential. Sort of like Hermione's handbag in the Harry Potter stories. Her handbag is useful because literally everything can fit in it, from a complete camp site to a huge broad sword.

The reality is that most of us don't see ourselves this way ... as full of unrealized potential. 

We are not even sure we know what we can do well, much less the difference we can make every day.

In this post, we are going to change all that.

Do you have paper and pen handy?

You are going to want to write down some things as we go along.

Change and Transition

Change for most of us, today, is a way of life. It isn't always as we expect it either. In some cases, the change is just the slow decline of all that we thought was good and hopeful when we were younger.

You can see it when people talk about their work. It is something to endure. It is as if the job's purpose and their idealism left them a long time ago. They still get up every morning, drive to work, and go through the necessary activities to do the work. But, it isn't a happy picture of the good life for many people.

Add in a global recession that may become a way of life for many people, and it is easy to understand how we can lose touch with the things that matter. Especially the talent, the skills, the passion and the unrealized potential that is who we are. We carry them around inside of us everyday, just like the stuff in Hermione's handbag, that has the potential of enriching every place we touch,and every person we encounter every day.  

So what do you do when this is not your situation, like it happen to one of my friends, who found himself out of his dream job after 40 years, and is definitely not ready to retire?

These are two sides of the same coin. Both the person who has lost their passion and purpose for work, and the person whose work lost him, need to understand who they are, distinct enough from their workplace, so that a picture of their unrealized potential can begin to be drawn.

The first thing we need to determine is "What do I have to offer to the world?"

Say that to yourself.

What do I have to offer the world?

Say it out loud if you want, emphasizing the "doing" of the offer.

What do I have to offer the world?

Write the sentence down. Look at it again.Think of your hands open extended out in front of you. In your hands is what you have to offer. It is the gift that you give to people, organizations and places that makes a difference that matters.

Now imagine that every day you climb out of bed to offer to the world all the unrealized potential that you have been storing up in the Hermione's handbag of your life. 

We are, now, beginning see that our unrealized potential is not some abstract value, but something real that we have to offer. Something tangible that can make a real difference in the world. We are recognizing here that we have within our own abilities the power to bring change that creates goodness wherever I am, even at work.

To learn what we have to offer is a process of self-discovery. It leads to a realization of all that we have been storing away, out of sight, out of mind, down deep in Hermione's handbag all these years.  It is all we've learned, gained and developed in the way of knowledge and experience over the course of our lifetime.  The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide
Five Questions

, I sat down with my friend who lost his job and talked him through the Five Questions That Every Person Must Ask.

After 40 years of doing the same job, it is understandable that we don't know really know what we know, and we need help getting down into Hermione's handbag to find out what we have to offer.

To understand this is to see that we are not what we do.

We are what we desire to change, the impact that becomes the validation of who we are.

This is what we offer, our gifts, talents, wisdom and experience to make a difference that is an expression of the very best of who we are.

Now, let's answer the Five Questions.


The first question asks what has changed. If you are out of a job, then the answer is easy. If you are at a dead end in the work you are currently doing, then you need to reflect a bit more on how things got this way.

It is important to see that our lives are a long progression of changes that has an inner logic. To see the rationale behind the changes in our lives is to understand how we are always in transition from where we were to where are going to be.

Write down what helps you to understand what this sequence of change looks like. It is a reference point for understanding what you've been going through. Keep what you write down, and the benefit of seeing this transition will grow over time.

If you are in a hard spot right now, go back in time as far as it takes to that point when you were happy in your work. Because when you were, you were fulfilling some of the unrealized potential that you have. Remember fulfillment is happiness.


It is a simple question. What is my impact?

It may be the hard to answer because it forces us to look at the world differently.

So, think in terms of what is the impact that you'd like to create? Put yourself back in your old job or back when you were the happiest in your work, and then ask, What is the impact that I had then?

Don't be too analytical. Keep it simple.

Who are you impacting?

You need two lists of people.

Create a list of those people whom you believe were impacted by your work and relationship with them.

Contact them to discover what it was that made the difference.

Create a list of people whom you know who can provide you connections to people and fields of work that are currently not open to you.

Follow these steps.

Ask, who do I know?

Ask, who do they know that I don't know that I need to know?

Contact your list to set up a conversation.

Share with them the impact that you'd like to achieve.

Ask them, who do you know that you think I should know?

Ask, are you willing to make an introduction for me?

Go to see these people, repeat the process.


When you go talk to people, don't go looking for a job. Go looking for an opportunity to make a difference with the assets that you bring to the business.

Think ... I'm looking for opportunities to create impact.

Your opportunities are not limited to the work and occupations that you have had in the past. By understanding what you offer, you can demonstrate how they can be applied in many more situations than you can imagine.

Obstacles / Problems

Let's be honest with ourselves. Often the loss of a job is the product of our own failure to do what we needed to do to stay current in our field or demonstrate the value of the impact that we bring to the company.  As a result, there may be obstacles or problems that stand in your way of fulfilling the opportunity that you see before you.

Don't sit around paralyzed by guilt and regret. Neither will bring the next job or the good life. Get to work on resolving the issues that hold you back so that you are prepared for the next opportunity to make a difference.

The Offering

Knowing what we have to offer the world is an important step of bringing fulfillment to the unrealized potential that fills our Hermione's handbag. What we have to offer is our gift. When we give it, the impact is magnified because the spirit of the gift strengthens the environment of the relationship and organization.

Our offering of service to create impact distinguishes us from those who are simply looking for a job. By giving of ourselves, we create the conditions for goodness to be realized for the companies and clients we serve, and for our own sense of well-being to be fulfilled.

The steps above are simple. Believing that we have something to offer is hard. I hope that this process is helpful. If you need more specific help, just let me know.

The Moral Component

When we are young, the world is an open book.

There is nothing like being 11 years old with a vivid imagination and absolutely no sense of barriers in life. Then adolescence hits, and we realize that there are some limitations.  Some people are more popular, cooler, smarter; some more troubled and broken. Others are destined for success, happiness or a life of hardship and toil.

Then the hard work of finding just how open and limitless one's opportunities are begins. It may start at 15 or at 21. It may not become important until we are 30 or even 45, and when we do, we realize that our life needs to count for something. When we discover, not just our interest or passion, but our purpose, our destiny, then life changes. Forever.

When we discover the difference our lives should make, our options are immediately reduced, narrowed, defined. We find out that life has limitations, all of a sudden, there is an end point, way out there, when we can say, "I'm done."  At least, that is what we think.

At some point, we may also discover that the pursuit of our destiny is more than just achieving something, more than simply a destination. There is something embedded in the middle of that pursuit that when we were young we could not see, maybe only feel. It was always there, but it wasn't clear to us. Then at some moment, a line is crossed, and we discover that there is a moral component to this quest to fulfill our destiny. We realize that it is no longer about just about destiny, but the journey that leads there.

This moral component is not some abstract, philosophical concept that stands as a branded idea for your life. There are plenty of people who brand their morality, wearing it on their shirt sleeve, and capitalizing on it by capitalizing it.  That is not the moral component that I see.

This moral component is something simple, deep, and intangible. It is the quality or rather the virtue that makes a difference in how we live out our purpose. It is something about who we are as individuals, about our life, work and impact.

Martin Luther King had that moral component. So did Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Lincoln. Each of them was their own person, standing strong as the world around them went a different direction. That is the strength that comes from the moral component.  It isn't ego that made them strong, though they probably had strong egos.

The moral component is something else. It transcends our circumstances, our place in history and the singular importance of us as individuals. It is that indelible quality that links us with others through time, and gives our destiny and purpose its meaning, and the reason our commitment and resilience matters.

Even if I live another 40 years, given my family's genetics, I see that I have now passed some indecipherable midpoint in my career.  My options are fewer now than they were just five years ago. I see it, and find peace in that. It makes things more simple, and to an extent clearer.

When you are young, there is anxiety about what your life will become, and the difference you'll make, and whether it will truly count in the end.  There are thousands of options, choices, directions to go in. Everyone tells you that you can do anything you want. However, in the back of your mind, you know it isn't true. You just want to know what that one thing is that is your destiny.

I no longer worry about that. I find that as life proceeds, the moral component grows in importance because at the end of life, it is that which is our true legacy. 

A friend said during a group conversation that he wanted his legacy to be that he was a good man, a good husband and father, and ran his business well.  The moral component for him was becoming more clear, and knowing him well, I see it in the life choices that he has made over the years. 

Philosophers and historians speak of the moral component in many ways. One of those is the difference between a naive and reflective view of history.

A naive perspective refers to a lack of self-consciousness about the values that inform our lives. There is a sense of not seeing it at all because it is so much a part of one's life, like breathing air or water to fish, we don't notice it.  There is an innocence about this approach. This experience of the moral component in life is such that we see it as continuous through time, across the generations and the foundation upon which we understand the meaning of life. It is unself-conscious because we do not hold these moral values in any objective sense. They are highly subjective and personal, quite possibly never defined in any specific sense. Yet they exist, and we tend to begin to see them when they are under threat.  They are who we are in a real sense, and this even more so as we consistently live them out in a purposeful, intentional way.

A reflective approach stands apart from the moral component, and attempts to view it objectively. Yet this is impossible in any pure, scientific sense because what brings us to this relationship with the moral component is awareness of the connection between the idea and our own lives. We become aware that we lacked objectivity in our formerly naive view of life.  We may speak of this change of perspective as a loss of innocence or coming of age or quite possibly of becoming a cynic. We experience a disjunction or disconnection between our values and the social and organizational environments where we live and work, and stand apart viewing the moral component, trying to understand how it fits in the situation we are in. 

The moral component viewed from these two perspectives is a very complex phenomenon in our lives. We may find that we want to be both naive and reflective at the same time. We want to believe in our values, seeing them as universal, transcending time, space and culture, the way life ought to be, bring purpose, peace and fulfillment.  We may see that these values are rarely lived to their fullest, that some of the greatest proponents of these values were crooks and charlatans, and that there are other philosophies or perspectives that are compelling and valid in their own right.

Where this leads for some people is to confusion and for some to an abandonment of their hope for fulfillment of their destiny. For others, they embrace the moral component as a guide to create a life of goodness and difference that matters.

The people I mentioned earlier are these people. They held to their values in a changing world where their values were not normative. We remember them as much for their courage as for the values they believed in.

As I have reflected upon this picture over the past few months, I began to see that the moral component of life and leadership matters in ways that have been lost. For many people, their naive view of the way leaders should behave and function in their roles has experienced a loss of innocence. With that loss has come cynicism. And what must come next, is a recovery of a more sober, realistic understanding of the moral component in leadership being that which brings credibility and respect to them.

Making a difference that matters, making our lives count, creating a legacy of leadership and goodness comes from recognizing and developing the moral component in our life and work.

This means that we are aware of the values that matter to us, and that we must live according to them. To stand when everyone else is running away or in cynical denial of their own loss of innocence is to live by a moral code than is more than a brand or an inspiring-idea-of-the-month. In the end, this is what separates the moralists from those who truly lead.  This is the legacy that is possible for us all if we choose.

The Journey and The Guide

Chitral-Gilgit district border

Almost 30 years ago, I spent a summer with other students traveling the back roads of the NorthWest Frontier Province of Pakistan working with a refugee relief agency. The best times for our journey came with the interaction with people when we were on foot, walking, where time and proximity brought us together. Sometimes it was to share a meal, sometimes just a chat over a cup of tea, sometimes just to ask directions.  Especially along roads like the one here, we asked, what's up ahead? How far to Mastuj?  Where's a good place for a meal in Chitral?

I share this because it informs me about what we mean when we talk about life and work being a journey. 

It is a common thought that life is a journey, not a destination.

We say this because life has ceased to be predictable, certain and secure. It is much more a process of discovering what we need to know right now, every day.

Everyday, traveling along an unknown trail, means that the skills and knowledge we need are quite different than if we never left our home and ventured into the unknown.

As my work has developed over the years, I've come to realize that while my work falls into the broad category of consulting and coaching, my real service to people and organizations as been as a guide along an unknown trail of life and work.

What does a guide do?

If life and work is a journey, then the guide ...

1. Establishes a plan for how to travel on this journey.

2. Provides tools and skills training to manage the challenges and meet the opportunities that come along.

3. Trains the team that travels together to be a group marked by a high level of collaboration, communication and coordination.

4. Travels along side as a guide along the unknown path to the future to celebrate success and stand with people during times of set back and confusion.

The journey to the future is an unknown one for most of us. We should not travel it alone.  

If you've been around me for the past decade, you'll know that the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition became a way for me to understand what is required of us as we approached an unknown future.  I saw in their story of friendship, collaboration, discipline and courage, a way of understanding what we all need. During the Expedition's Bicentennial years, I wrote about their leadership in my blog, Lewis & Clark for 21st Century Leaders.

Lemhi PC sign

To treat our lives and work as a journey means we make some choices about how we live and work. We look to discover who we are and what our potential is. We recognize that the people we encounter on our journey matter a great deal. These people matter because they bring wisdom and insight to what might just be ahead of us around the next bend. And it means that we travel lighter, with less baggage, both physical and emotional, so that we are freer to follow trails less traveled, yet with greater prospects for discovery.

In Stephen Ambrose's wonderful history of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, Undaunted Courage, he writes about Meriwether Lewis growing up in colonial era Charlottesville, Virgina.

From the west-facing window of the room in which Meriwether Lewis was born ... one could look out at Rockfish Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, an opening to the West that invited exploration. The Virginia Piedmont of 1774 was not the frontier ... but it wasn't far removed.

I don't think the idea of a journey is simply a literary device to describe an experience we may be having. Based on what I've experience during my life time, life is a journey. It is only a metaphor if you never walk out your back door to explore an unknown world beyond your back yard.

Today the frontier isn't geographic as in Lewis day. It is much more complex and unknown. It is still personal, social, organizational and cross-cultural. Judgment and clear-sightedness are still needed as decisions are made, and actions taken that test our ability to achieve what we envision.

It is here as a guide that I've found my clearest sense of value to people and their organizations.  If you find that the future, whether a month, a year or a lifetime, is unknown and daunting, then let us talk and see how we might travel the journey of life and work together.

After 15 years, this I've learned.

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide

Earlier this week, I quietly celebrated the 15th anniversary of the beginning my consulting business, Community of Leadership, LLC. There was no time for celebration or fanfare, just another day of trying to make a difference that matters.  However, a road trip this week gave me time to reflect on the past 15 years.

Here's some of what I've learned.

1. You don't know what you don't know, and if you did, you'd be so overwhelmed by it, you'd never act.

I was young and naive when I began my consulting practice in 1995. I started with a desire to help leaders develop their organizations and communities. That purpose still remains. What I didn't know then is just how ill-prepared I was to go into business on my own. If you remain open to learning, to trying new things and fixing what is broken, you can make it. But it isn't necessarily easy. The Five Questions That Everyone Must Ask that is a part of my Circle of Impact model developed from my experience and that of others, especially #5.

2. What you THINK you are doing, and what you ARE doing aren't always the same. The difference you think you are making, and the actual difference you are making are not always the same either.

Focus is a good thing. However, if it is practiced too rigidly, you can miss what is right in front of you. While relationships have always been important and central to what I do, I'm not really selling a relationship. Instead it is a process of discovery and development where the relationship is integral to that process. At the end of the day, real progress often comes from the conversation that takes place within relationship.

The actual project, while beneficial, is often a secondary benefit compared to what happens in the relationship. The project deals with an immediate or current need. The development of the relationship prepares us for the future. The lesson, therefore, is to realize that nothing is ever exactly like you think it is or want it to be. The task for us is to be aware of the peripheral or ancillary processes that are taking place, recognize their value and give them attention.

3. Work is a context for personal growth. As a result, everyday we can afflict ourselves on our loved ones because we are not the person whom we or they think we are, not always living up to what we say we believe or are committed to doing.

My family has lived through my many personal transitions over the past 25 years. It has not always been easy for them. The old joke of asking "... when is Dad going to grow up and get a real job" is a familiar refrain in many homes. There are two sides to this situation which are important to address with our loved ones.

If you remain the same person over the course of your lifetime, you may never reach your potential. Growth has it price, and often that price is in our relationships. If your family expects you to remain the same person you were when you married or before you began a dramatic growth curve, then there can be conflict.

What I've seen in too many situations are families where the structure of the family is what is important, and not the actual relationships. And when Dad or Mom begins to change, it creates conflict, because what we are used to, what is comfortable, secure and predictable, is no longer there. Ambiguity and change get thrust into an already volatile cultural social environment.  As a result, families grow apart, members go looking for support and intimacy in other places. So, if you are growing into being a new person with a new focus and purpose for your life, then know that it has its effects upon your loved ones and you need to address it openly and with genuine humility.

One of the ways that I've seen these situations addressed is an appeal to balance between life and work. I'm not sure that balance is achievable. It assumes that we can compartmentalize our lives into the personal and public or work and measure out our time and attention in proportion to our priorities. I've concluded that alignment is a better approach. We create alignment by elevating the importance of living out our purpose and values, and allowing for the social settings and organizational environments where we live and work to adapt to our core beliefs. In other words, be willing to change what you do so that you can become the person you are destined to be.  Again, this is not necessarily an easy path to take.

If your life's trajectory is taking you through many stages of personal growth so that you are becoming a different person at 40 than you were at 25, or different person at 55 than you were at 40, then it is very important that your family grow with you, and you with them. If your growth happens too dramatically, too radically, over too short of time, without their input or support, you'll find yourself becoming estranged from them. The lesson is that every transition we go through in our lives is filled with opportunity and challenge. How we meet both determines what comes next. As you change, care for the people who matter most to you. Keep them close, so they understand and can support you as change happens. If they genuinely love you, then you'll make it through the hardships of change.

4. After 15 years, my original purpose and the values that sustain the vision for my work remain the same. The structure of my work has constantly changed.

This is not just a good lesson for personal growth. It is a lesson for businesses and organizations develop. I find the reverse to be often the case, where the social and organizational structures dictate to us what our purpose and values are. Purpose and values are internal strengths. Structure is an external form that provides a context for living out our purpose and values. People whose security is in the external world of things and order, often find themselves frustrated because it is impossible to control their social and organizational contexts. Those who rely on the internal world of their purpose, values and a vision for impact, find these ideas provide them the strength to manage the chaos of change in the external world. As a result, when your personal strength is internal, you can move into a wide variety of contexts and make a difference that matters. You remain the same person regardless of who you are with, and what you are doing. This is what we mean by integrity and authenticity. This is why it so important to know what you purpose is and what you value. They are foundation of sustainability and opportunity in life and work.

5. Opportunities may abound. However, not all opportunities are equal. We usually don't know this until we are half way into the project. Then, we realize that it isn't going to work out or there is something better that we didn't initially see.

While I'm not an advocate for quitting, I have learned that ending something sooner than later is usually better. Know what you want from life and work. Know what you are committed to giving to a particular situation, and don't forget it. Often the reason why these opportunities don't work is that there is not sufficient follow through and effective execution of the plan. In addition, I've learned that what someone says is the opportunity or the problem is probably only part of the story. You'll find it out soon enough, and that is when you'll know whether you should increase your participation or quit.

Life will teach you lessons that you can then turn into growth and benefit for yourself and others. If you let it. Personally, I'm looking to another 15 years of work before I retire. I feel that everything up to this point is just preparing me for the main act which is coming. In other words, if you have a plan for your whole life, make sure that you leave open the possibilities of changing your plan so that at the end of your life your legacy is clear and secure. Your legacy may come in the last half of the last chapter. So, be committed to staying true to your purpose and values through the end of your life.

I look forward to collaborating with many of you in the future. All the best.  Thank you very much.

Conducting your own 2009 review

We are all approaching our end of a year of many transitions.Four Questsions - Life-Work Coaching  

In the past I've written about using my Four Questions that Every Leader Must Ask as a guide for an end-of-the-year review and a way to plan for the next. 

This year, I have been impacted by people who have helped me see beyond the organizational leadership work that I have been doing for a decade and a half.  The result is a reframing of this material for individuals who living on the thinning line of life and work, and the expansion of my consulting work to include a new coaching program. 

While we do look at the change of the year as a time of reflection and new beginnings, the reality is that we can do this year round. However, if you have not, then there is now time like the present to begin to think differently about yourself as the new year approaches.

Today, in my Weekly Leader column - Reviewing Your 2009 Impact - I present the first step in a process of review and planning that will conclude in next week's column. I've prepared an one page listing of the questions that I ask in the column. I suggest that you print the list and the column and spend a few moments over the next week reflecting on the past year to 18 months.

I've said many times over the past couple years that I believe we are in the midst of one of the most significant transitions in all of human history. This is bigger than President Obama, the IPhone, the recession and the combine effects of 9/11, Katrina and the Iraq/Afghanistan war. The transition is, regardless of what you see happening in Washington, is a shift towards individual responsibility and collaborative relationships that transcend the old bureaucratic structures that are no longer able to manage the complexity of life today.

In order to be at our best, for ourselves, our families, our co-workers, our communities and for the world at large, we each need to thinking clearly about what we believe and the difference we are committed to making today. A starting place is gaining perspective and understanding about where we are and what we need to focus on next year.

I invite you to read today's column and begin to answer for yourself the Life / Work planning questions and if you are so inclined, share them with me. I believe that as you go through this process of reflection, that you'll begin to discuss opportunities that were always there, but that the lack of clarity of insight blocked your vision of them. It is my hope that from this exercise you'll find new opportunities in life and work that will enable you to have an impact that is far beyond what you would have imagine a year ago, or even yesterday.

How much to quit?

Bill Taylor writes here and here about the Zappos offer to new hires. At a certain point during the training period, they make the offer to pay them for the time they have in, plus a $1000. Their rationale, that if you take them up on the offer, you weren't really committed to the company. Bill then shifts to telling about Jim Collins reflection as he prepared to publish Good To Great when he asked himself, "What price would I accept not to publish the book."

This takes me back to Seth Godin's marvelous little book, The Dip that I reviewed here. Seth's point is that in order to move forward, sometimes we have to stop doing things in order to do what we need to do. This is also the point Christian Kane made to me in an interview I did with her here.

The connection is the cost or price of commitment. It could be that the cost is too high for the impact we desire. Or the value to low for the effort that is required.

In a conversation that I had with Tom Morris today, we discussed how changing what we do is sometimes necessary. We can find ourselves in a pattern that is not pushing us beyond what is comfortable and predictable. So we need to change.  How hard is it to stop doing what you are used to doing in order to do something better. In Jim Collins parlance, the enemy of the great is the good.

This is very relevant for me as I have found myself doing well in two separate fields of work, one that I've been doing a long time, and another that has emerged over the past year. The conflict is that neither can succeed as long as the other one exists. There is too little time and energy to make that happen. As a result, the time to change is upon me.

Quick Takes: Animated numbers may not be the whole story.

This TED presentation by Hans Rosling shows the power of visual images to present information.
Watch it. Its 20 minutes long.  You'll wish it were longer.

I have a question about what he is showing.  If you have read The Black Swan, you'll know that Nassim Taleb challenges the value of Gaussian bell curves as accurate representations of certain kinds of data. Based on what I understand of his critique, the problem is the assumption that averaging data is meaningful.  The problem with it, according to Taleb, is that bell curves don't account for radical difference. 

If you remember, about 6.5 minutes into the presentation, he begins to talk about the worlds wealth.  Interesting topic of discussion.  His bell curve is set up to visualize the population of the world ranging from income of $1 per day to  $100 per day.  It would appear that this is a classic bell curve decision.

Taleb writes about the value of Powerlaw curves that Chris Anderson popularized in The Long Tail. So, what I want to know is what if he extended his graph to include those individuals who make $1000 and $1,000,000 per day.  What I believe we would see is a tall head of those who earn between $1 and$100 per day, and a long tail of those whose annual income is between 7 and 9 or even 10 figures.

Rosling's point is that there is no longer a difference between the global have's and have nots.  However, I'd suggest that today, there is still a gap, and that gap is growing.  I don't have those numbers, so my assumption is mostly anecdotal.

Here is why I think Taleb is on to some very important insight.  This isn't about numbers but more a philosophical outlook that affects us personally and socially.

The Gaussian bell curve is about finding the average in a data set. Powerlaws are looking for extremes.  The extremes of large numbers and the extremes of small ones. If this makes any sense, it will lead us to understand that the underlying assumption of the bell curve is that society is governed by what is average.  Here's Taleb addressing this issue.

The traditional Guassian way of looking at the world begins by focusing on the ordinary , and then deals with exceptions or so-called outliers as ancillaries.  But there is a second way, which takes the exceptional as a starting point and treats the ordinary as subordinate.

Taleb's point concerns probabilities and those rare events that catch people unawares. He believes that bell curve thinking excludes the possibility of these rare events for the sake of making what we know more certain.

Note once again the following principle: the rarer the event, the higher the error in our estimation of its probability - even when using the Gaussian ... the Gaussian bell curve sucks randomness out of life - which is why it is popular.  We like it because it allows for certainties! How? Through averaging ...

I interpret this to mean that we are conditioned to look at life from the vantage point of the average.  We look at people as to how they fit into some average norm or convention, rather than looking at each person as one with unique gifts, talents, personality and experience.  The former way was a conventional way of treating people when the work they performed did not require creative thought or interaction with others. 

As the world has become more complex, the development of people to perform at a higher level has made it necessary to look at talent recruitment, training and retention as a key strategic endeavor of corporations in the 21st century.  As a result, people development takes on a much more significant role in modern organizations.

This is what I saw twenty years ago, but didn't have the perspective to understand what I saw. It goes to the notion that a company needs to be a "community of leaders" (hence the name of my business, Community of Leadership) which means that each person has a responsibility to take personal initiative to act to forward the work of the organization. It means that the structure of the organization be such that people are free to be creative and to take initiative.

So, what I find in Rosling's animation is a clever distraction. We think we have seen the way the world really is when it really is quite different. There are extremes on both ends of the bell curve that are not factored into Rosling's animation.  How many times during school were our grades averaged by taking out the lowest and highest?  In essence, squeeze out the variability and you have something that is easily quantified and, something safe and secure, predictable and certain.

I'm with Taleb that life is far more random that we give it credit. If we see its randomness, then we see the extremes, and see the potential impact that those extremes can have on us.

What are you to do with these rambling thoughts?

First, read Taleb.  I have been slowly reading him all summer.  His perspective is validating and clarifying ideas that I've had for thirty years. This is not some shallow 10 points to success book. It takes time to think through a perspective that is so at odds with conventional wisdom.  And if it helps, read him, take notes, and think about how you can speak about what you see there.  When you do, share it with someone. If you have no one, send it to me, I'll post it.

Second, identify those talents that are uniquely yours, and begin to development them.  My guess is that connected to that talent is a passion for something that will be the guide to the talent.

Third, take the people who work with and for you, and begin to talk with them about how their work and contributions are a form of leadership.  If you need a tool to help you discuss this, then download my Leading in Times of Transition diagrams, and use the Circle of Impact chart (page 3) as a guide.  Simply put, leaders initiate in the dimensions of Ideas, Relationships and Organizational Structures.

Bottom line. Question numbers. Because someone has made a decision to limit their scope. That decision is based on assumptions. Test assumptions. Think for yourself. Help your people do the same. Look for the extremes, for at the extreme are opportunities that those committed to mediocrity will never find.

Work is the creation of value

Guy Kawasaki links to a sermon by Nancy Ortberg of the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church on the nature of leadership and work.

Go to the MPPC website and look for March 4, Jesus & Your Job, by Nancy Ortberg and click on the icon that looks like a video camera.

What Nancy is talking about is what led me twenty plus years ago to move out of a career as a typical parish minister in the Presbyterian church to focus on leadership. I found in the task of leadership development exactly what Nancy illustrates. The opportunity to do meaningful work and to do it in relationship with others. The opportunity to help others learn to lead.

It is where my Rule of Thumb comes from. Simply, people want their lives to be Personally Meaningful and Socially Fulfilled. People want to make a difference, to have an impact in the world.  They also want to do this with others in a social environment that we have come to call community.  Of course this involves more than work, but also vocation, calling, career and the professions.

Her reflection on The Nobility of Service is an important statement about leadership and work. Her illustration of this physician whose example early in her career influenced her understanding of leadership. 

I've always made it a practice to get to know the people who are the support team, not the upfront stars, but the people behind the scenes that no one notices, but are essential to success.  As a consultant, I feel like I am also one of those behind the scenes, invisible workers who rarely get the recognition, and when they do, are embarrassed by it.

For example, at my car dealership. I know the General Manager and his family well, and the sales person who has sold us two cars, knows us well. Because of my old Volvo, that finally died last spring after 317,000 miles, I used to spend a lot of time at the dealership having service work done. What surprises me are the people who know me by name, and always speak to me. 

Nancy makes the point that as leaders our relationships are to provide a place where people can be known.  It is about the inherent dignity that is their right as a person.  This is easy to lose sight of when we are in situations of crisis and chaos in an organizational setting.  But it is essential for the effective working on a team.

I love the work I do because it gives me as an intimate outsider the opportunity to know people who are often unknown, forgotten or taken for granted.  It provides me every day in Nancy Ortberg's words, "An opportunity to make a meaningful and significant contribution to the world."  This is why work is not something I will do until I stop to do something else. It is my life.

A week ago as I was leaving church, I had a brief conversation with a woman who is the parish associate for pastoral care at our church.  She happened to be my mother's roommate in college, and spent her "career" teaching at the collegiate level.  We chatted briefly about work, and how she, even now in her late 70s, cannot imagine not having significant work to do.  I feel the same way.  I'm working on my 30 plan that will carry me to my 80th year. This can only happen when you believe what Nancy is presenting. That work is good, that it creates value, that is lends dignity to life, and provides a context for people to learn to work in relationships of trust and respect.

I've reached the conclusion that if more people were to work and lead as Nancy Ortberg describes, that we'd have fewer people who would spend their days looking forward to quitting work, and more who would see work as the door through which the goodness of life can be found.

The secret is attitude and relationships.  If we understand that work is service to create value through relationships, then we'll mostly likely find that our lives are exhibits of that very philosophy.

Staying Focused and Balanced

Dave Gaddy at Imagine Art also thought that #83 of Tom Peter's 100 Ways to Succeed was particularly good.  TP writes:

I was talking with a young lawyer, Harvard trained, now putting in her time at a big firm. She allowed as how life was just a whirl of mostly trivial activities. On the one hand that's very normal, and part of the time-honored apprenticeship process. But it's also true that in the midst of all the BS, you often lose sight of why you followed this apparently hallowed path to begin with. I've heard doctors and other professionals say the same thing.   

Tom follows later in the posting with a little description of the ritual that he follows to keep himself focused and balanced.

I have a little ritual I follow to help get back on track. I take a moment or five and skim either In Search of Excellence or my Stanford dissertation—and remember what I aimed to do in the first place. And how far I have strayed; it helps me get centered, or re-centered.

I suggested to my newfound lawyer acquaintance that she invent some like ritual. And I suggest the same to you: "Why did I take this assignment, or choose this profession? Am I doing everything possible in my current project to hold to the principles that got me into all this? Is my time here up?" Or some such. It's the ritual review rather than its form that's important.

This is how the Four Questions developed.  Sitting at a table drinking coffee with a client, a colleagueFour_questions_diagram_1 or a friend, we'd inevitably talk about these sorts of questions.  Over the years, it became clear that these question can be reduced to four simple ones that help to focus not only one's purpose, but also frame one's understanding in a way that provides a larger perspective that leads to a more balanced view.

If we take Tom Peter's young lawyer friend as an example, then we can see how these questions work.

1. What should be the Impact of my life and career? Is it just to make money? No.  Is it just be a powerful person? No.  Is it to be an influential person? Possibly.  Is it to be a happy person?  Yes, I hope. 

So, what does it mean to live a happy, impactful life?  That is the question that is at the heart of every philosophy and religion known to humanity.

So, if she could answer this question, then she can go to the next question.

2.  Whom am I to Impact?  Some of this is obvious, and some of it is not.  We all have immediate relationships with family, friends, colleagues and clients.  But how about the wider world of relationships.  If we use a relationship network perspective, we see that not only can she impact individuals, but also social groups.  So, who does she want to impact?

3. If she was to have this happy, Impact-filled life, what opportunities would this bring her that she does not presently have? What I love about this question is that it gives people a perspective of hope and purpose that is concrete and aspirational.  So, what if she decides that her happy, impact life is not about the money, but about service.  She decides that her service is to homeless children in Africa. What then are the opportunities that she now has?  Or, what opportunities could she have with some basic changes in her life. Which leads to the last question.

4. What obstacles to having a happy, Impact-filled life does she have that she must address in order to fulfill the opportunities that she has identified? Maybe it is additional education or skills training? Maybe it is a relocation to a place where there are people focused on serving homeless African children.  Maybe there is education debt, or some other impediment. Whatever the problem, this provides her a place to begin to act to develop the happy, Impact-filled life that she envisions.

Now, quite possibly, she is already in the place of impact that she has desired. So, the Four Questions then become a way to stay focused and balanced.  So, here is how they can be asked in a very quick manner.

1. Over the last six months, what has been my Impact?

2. Who have I Impacted during this time?

3. What opportunities do I now have that I didn't six months ago?

4. What problems have I created for myself that I must address right away?

It is fairly simple to stay focused as long as you ask the right questions.  Try these on for size. See if they fit, and leave a comment so others can learn from your example.