Tag: leadership Page 1 of 4

As a leader, it’s important you understand your life story

leadership life story

If you have studied great leaders you will discover that their life story shaped who they became. They can describe an event, person or influence that helped set them on a path to leadership. In a recent article by Bernie Swain, Successful Leaders know what made them who they are, many well-known leaders all describe defining moments in their lives.

Understanding our life story is crucial to having good self-awareness and being authentic. These are two important traits for leaders. In Bill George’s book “Discover your True North”, he writes: “The journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding yourself: your life stories, crucibles and setbacks. This knowledge gives you the self-awareness to discover your True North” (George, 2007).

For me, my defining moment came back in 2005 when I moved to Minnesota from my home town of New Jersey. It was a challenging time. I began a completely new chapter in my life in an unfamiliar location and without the comfort of family near by.  It was a humbling experience, but I now can recognize that it was a growth phase and a defining moment.

What I learned back in 2005 was that if you put in the work, have faith, and surround yourself with the right people, great things will happen. To this day I surround myself with people who posses core values that align with mine and have qualities that I admire. Another way of putting it, I hang out with people who I want to be like.

I will always have that experience took look back and draw strength. It is what fuels me as a leader and gives me the motivation to grow and develop others.

Going through a challenging time is not required though to develop as a leader. Some had an event or person that helped set them on a course of leadership.

How has your life story shaped your leadership? Do you have a defining moment?

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What does leadership mean to you?

When I think about leadership, I think about the ability to influence others to achieve a common goal. I’ve taken many courses and read many books on the topic of leadership. If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m a big fan of the topic. Yet, through all my studies, leadership is still somewhat of a mystery. There is no specific blueprint to follow when it comes to leadership development.

The good news is that we know we can develop leadership skills. The “Great Man” theory, which believed great leaders had to be born, was wrong. Yes, you need a certain level of intelligence, but you can develop leadership skills. We now know that social and emotional intelligence is a big part of leadership. Perhaps the greatest trait of top performing leaders is self-awareness.

Leadership development aside, when I look back upon my life story, I had three leaders who influenced me. They weren’t CEOs, battle field generals, or presidents,  yet they had something special. They motivated me to improve.

So who were these great leaders? They were a high school football coach, a grammar school teacher, and a manager.

Below are three traits these leaders had in common:

  1. Integrity and Courage – They were not afraid to stand up for what was right, even if it went against a group. It takes tremendous courage to do the right thing when it’s not popular. Remember, courage is not the absence of fear, it is doing the right thing in the face of fear.
  2. Caring –  They cared about people and wanted to help others. They were not self-centered. They were about others and a higher purpose, not about themselves.
  3. Toughness –  They were tough and showed great resilience and persistence when faced with challenges.

What has your experience been like? What does leadership mean to you?

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Leadership is relational and emotional

One of my favorite experts on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, explains why leadership is relational and emotional. The mood and social behavior of the leader has a big impact on the team and their performance.


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Want awesome team dynamics? Never try to be like the Beatles

Team dynamics

Team dynamics, why do some teams excel while others, perhaps of equal talent, suck? Take for example, the Beatles. I consider the Beatles to be the greatest band of all time. Their music is timeless. The quality of the song writing, the harmonies, the brilliant guitar work and percussion. They were the full package and they appealed to the masses.

The Beatles were somewhat of an anomaly. Unlike most bands, where each member plays a specific role, each member of the Beatles were multi-talented. Every member could sing, write songs and play an instrument. This unusual multi-talented dynamic enable the Beatles to become, well, the Beatles.

Most teams, be it technology teams or sports teams, do not have a multi-talented dynamic like the Beatles. When teams try to operate as if they were multi-talented, they run into trouble. This happens because you have team members working outside of their strengths.

My recommendation is to let team members operate within their strengths. Not only will this bring them more satisfaction, it benefits team performance as a whole. In cross functional teams, each member has a unique talent. Let that talent shine. This doesn’t mean you can’t cross train and help each other out. It just means that teams operate best when each individual brings their top strength to the table.

Just like in sports, great teams consist of players who focus on becoming the best at their position. Jerry Rice wouldn’t waste any time practicing hand offs or kicking field goals. Instead, he worked at running routes and catching passes. His talent combined with his focus to develop as a receiver, enabled  him to become great and his team to win championships.

So when it comes to team dynamics, don’t try to be the Beatles. For optimal performance, let each team member work within their strengths. When each team member is operating in their sweet spot, the team will rock.

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5 reasons you need a mentor to improve your leadership


Whether you are a seasoned professional or just starting out in your career, having a good mentor can provide enormous benefits. Particularly  with improving your leadership capabilities, mentors can help guide you along your journey. Below are 5 reasons you need a mentor to improve your leadership:

  1. They provide a clearer picture of reality – We often have difficulty seeing a clear picture of reality. When we speak to a mentor, they help us bring things into focus. Our natural tendency is to think the world is out to get us. A good mentor can help put things in perspective. This is crucial when you need to make a big decision.
  2. They have the experience -What’s more helpful than someone telling you how they think you should solve your problem? Someone who actually faced the same problem as you, and found a solution. Why not take advantage of your mentors experience and learn from that? Whenever faced with a difficult challenge where you need to make a decision, run it by a trusted mentor. Chances are, they’ve gone through something similar.
  3. They give it to you straight – A good mentor will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. It’s important not to surround ourselves with people who will only tell us what we want to hear. You need to hear the truth, even if it’s painful. Having a mentor who will give it to you straight will also help instill humility.
  4. They keep your ego in check – The enemy of good leadership is your pride and ego. As you become more successful in your career, you’ll want to start taking more credit. A good mentor will keep your ego in check by reminding you that leadership is about the success of others.
  5. They help you see through a different lens – Sometimes when dealing with a problem, we need to take a step back. When doing this, a mentor can help you think about things differently. Particularly if you spend a lot of time on an issue, a mentor can provide an outside the box idea.

If you don’t have one, I suggest asking someone to be your mentor. You can reach out to someone you admire and ask if they would be willing to meet for coffee. I’ve done this several times and to my pleasant surprise, I’ve always had a good response. I meet with my mentor, usually at Starbucks, almost weekly. Aside from receiving helpful advice, what’s better than getting caffeinated and discussing leadership?

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Creating a sense of urgency throughout the project

sense of urgency

I am sitting at the table with my new project team. The project was in mid-flight when I took over as the project manager. As the new guy, I know it will take some time before I can build up trust among the team. Careful not to start out on the wrong foot, I’m doing more listening than talking.

The team is discussing a major issue that is causing a risk to the project. On top of the issue are fast approaching deadlines to complete development and testing. As the discussion begins to end, the team decides the best action is to schedule a meeting the next week.

I couldn’t stay silent any longer.  I had a meeting scheduled the next morning, inviting all the key players. I set the meeting was with high importance, and I created visibility with the leadership team.

What I was doing was creating a sense of urgency. As project managers, it is our responsibility to create a sense of urgency. We have to do this all throughout our projects. In a traditional waterfall SDLC, this is especially true in the delivery phase.  Even with the best planning and preparations, QA and UAT will always be a challenge. If the team is lackadaisical going into testing, you are in for big trouble.

Now, this doesn’t mean we (as PMs) should always be sounding the fire alarm every time a problem arises. We have to treat the team well and give them space to do their best work. We don’t want to micromanage or cause unnecessary stress. This is somewhat of an art form.

Here’s the key. Over half of IT projects fail. As project managers, we need to provide the leadership required for project success. This means, creating a sense of urgency all throughout the project.

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Project Management – Why technical skill alone is not enough

Project Management – Why technical skill alone is not enough.

Project Management

Today’s changing business environment is becoming more and more complex. The global competitive economy is less predictable than ever. Organizations need project managers who have skills that support long-term strategy. For this reason, technical skills alone are not enough for project managers. PMI’s 2016 pulse of the profession report underscored this fact.

The report showed that business and leadership skills are in high demand. These skills, combined with technical skills, represent the PMI talent triangle (pic shown above). The ideal expertise areas are technical, leadership, and strategic and business management. “When organizations focus on all three skill sets, 40 percent more of their projects meet goals and original business intent.”

Companies should recognize the importance of business and leadership skills, and provide training. Many companies split roles to be either a “Business PM” or a “Technical PM”.  In my opinion this is a mistake. Instead of having two separate types of project managers, why not have just one that’s good in technology, business and leadership?

For new project managers, I suggest studying the three areas of the PMI talent triangle. Many good schools now offer flexible MBA programs with concentrations on leadership and strategy. I had the good fortune of going through the MBA program at Bethel University in St Paul Minnesota.  The program had a heavy concentration on leadership. As someone with a background in technology, the MBA helped me to become a better-rounded project manager.

For “technical” project managers like me, gaining business and leadership skills is crucial.  As the global economy continues to drive up complexity, the PMI talent triangle skills will be more in demand.

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Change leaders – Why we all need to be one

Change leaders, what do you think is their most important characteristic? For me, I say vision. Great leaders need the ability to see into the future and steer the organization on the right course. They should always be thinking about what’s around the corner.

change leaders

Although vision may be the most important trait of a change leader, vision alone is not enough. Leader’s need to instill their vision into others. For their vision to become a reality, they need to motivate people.

I have worked with some brilliant people who had great ideas and visions, but couldn’t sell their ideas. This is why persuasion and influence are also important characteristics of a change leader. It doesn’t matter how great your idea is, if you can’t give a good presentation, you will fall flat.

For change to happen, people need to become motivated and excited. Let’s face it, change is difficult. People don’t like to change. Even when we know we have to change, we prefer to stick with what’s familiar and comfortable. But change is necessary. It’s necessary in our personal lives, and in our organizations.

We cannot become stagnate. We should always be improving, growing, and challenging ourselves. We cannot settle. I once heard someone say –  “There is no end to better”. This is true when we have vision and continue to change.

If you don’t have a vision for the future, you’re heading for trouble. Just ask Radio Shack and Sports Authority. Aside from vision, we all need to be change leaders.

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Empathic leadership – Understanding the biology of empathy

Empathic leadership

My mother, an MSW and retired therapist, has an uncanny ability to recognize ones emotional intelligence. I recall when I was younger her saying things like “that person is all left brain” or “that person is all right brain”. At the time I didn’t understand the details of how the brain worked, but I had a general idea of what she was saying. She was saying that there were two types of minds, one is rational and one is emotional.

Do you know someone who is highly intelligent, yet shows a lack of emotional connection and empathy? Or do you know someone who can’t grasp basic algebra, yet has a strong ability to connect with others? The reason for this relates to the human brain and the biology of empathy. Thanks to science, we now understand that emotional and rational minds are semi-independent and interconnected facilities within the brain.

Below is a description of the three central areas of the human brain that are at work when we are using empathy. They are the neocortex, the visual cortex, and the amygdala:

  • The neocortex – The neocortex is the part of our brain that handles our thinking and logic. In humans, the neocortex is the biggest part of the cerebral cortex.  The human neocortex is  bigger than any other species and the evolution of the neocortex has given us the ability to survive. The neocortex enables us to have thoughts and feelings. It serves as the center for higher functions of the brain that enable vision, hearing, touch, and all other cognition.
  • The visual cortex – The visual cortex is part of the cerebral cortex and it handles processing visual information. When we see something happening, the visual cortex starts processing information about what we are seeing. It then sends signals to other areas of the brain to process and respond. If the visual cortex processes information you see as emotional, it send signals to the amygdala, which handles the emotional centers of the brain.
  • The amygdala – The amygdala is what gives us the ability to have feelings and emotions. There are two amygdala in the human brain, one on each side. They are shaped like almonds and they sit just above the brainstem. The amygdala is interconnected with the neocortex and the two work together. They allow us to have feelings and make decisions. Daniel Goleman, expert on emotional intelligence, writes: “If the amygdala is severed from the rest of the brain, the result is a striking inability to gauge the emotional significance of events; this condition is sometimes called “affective blindness” (Goleman, 1995).

We know that the circuitry between the neocortex, visual cortex, and the  amygdala are hard at work when we are having an emotional response. If we felt physically threatened, the amygdala is telling us have an either flight or flight response. While the amygdala is telling us to fight or flight, the neocortex allow us to think about the decision before taking any action.

When we think through consequences before acting, like going to jail if we were to attack someone, we have the neocortex to thank.

To understand what life would be like without empathy, we need to look no further than our prisons. Our prisons are filled with violent criminals who have the inability to feel their victim’s pain. Rapists, molesters and murders have a common trait, most of them are incapable of empathy.

Prison systems now use programs to try to instill empathy. They do this by forcing the inmates to feel and understand the pain of their victims. The most extreme violent criminal is the sociopath. Sociopath’s are completely incapable of feeling empathy or compassion. They are untreatable.

It is now common knowledge that emotional intelligence is important for leadership and success. Most of the successful people I know didn’t have through the roof IQs. Instead, they had a strong ability to connect with others. The good news is that we can improve our emotional intelligence. The key to improvement is self commitment, and feedback from others. For more on EQ development, see Daniel Goleman’s post here.

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References: Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional Intelligence, 1995,  New York, NY, Bantam Books

Work life balance – What does “success” mean to you?

work life balance

“You have to grind if you want to be successful”. This means, out working everyone else, and getting little sleep. “Rise and grind”. By out working everyone, all areas of your life will improve. If you want to become rich, you have to grind!

The above statements have become a popular belief in American culture. Motivational speakers like Eric Thomas motivate people to grind and become “a beast”.

Here’s the problem. While I’m all for hard work (see my post on the topic here), this idea that always grinding will make you successful is completely misguided.

Let’s start with the word success. Webster defines the word success as “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame”. Now, achieving wealth, respect or fame is great, but should these really be the things we want most out of life? If you do achieve “success” by Webster’s definition, at the sacrifice of your family and your health, are you really a success?

I contend that someone who is a true “success” will devote proper time to their health, physical and spiritual, and to their family. When I look back on my life, I hope to be remembered as someone who cared for others and had strong core values. I’d rather be remembered for that than someone who accumulated wealth at the sacrifice of his family.

Here are my two main points about this idea of “always grinding” to become successful:

  1. Even if all you want out of life is to become wealthy or famous, working all the time is not the path to get there. We have enough scientific evidence that proves this. People who get enough sleep and have good work life balance are more successful in their careers. Pick any Harvard Business Review article you’d like here for the data to back this up.
  2. By keeping your family and health a top priority, you will be a success.

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