Category Archives: Leadership

Photo essay: Breaking the Dam


Underneath the dreamy pleasure of sunny freeze-thaw icicles trimming a snow-laden roof, there lays the nightmarish pain of ice dams and massive interior water damage.


Sharp, sparkling rows of glass stalactites may look ornate and perfect, but to be managed well, they require a firm hand. The dam must be broken.



Dam –  n. – A large reservoir of stuff trapped inside a person’s psyche: ideas, energy, and aspirations; concerns, criteria and conditions; wants, desires and passions. Normally these feed in and flow out reliably. However from time to time the floodgate gets frozen shut and a self-reinforcing build-up occurs. As the blockage persists, intervention becomes increasingly necessary.


The first rule of being an Ice Dam Master (or Mistress):  At first, you will fail.  You will not completely subdue the ice dam. You will also cause physical damage to the building and possibly to yourself as the intervener.


This does not diminish you – in fact it provides you with the starting point of your credibility. Know that the vast majority of people won’t even step up and try their hand. They’ll call you crazy, but pay them no heed. The title ‘Master’ is one that is continually earned, continually improved upon.


There is a difference between being ‘dominant’ and being ‘domineering.’   The icy core of confidence is a deep sense of humility and fearlessness. True confidence is a big part of that difference.

There is also the critical difference of having compassion and a purpose that is greater than yourself. A compassionate, purposeful focus on others makes (almost) all the difference.


As you sculpt the ice and strip away its unnecessary blockages,

know that it does those things for you, too.



Timing is anything

(#22 of 27, a collage and re-assembly of elements from a post from last year on the importance of choosing the right timing to make a strong effort, and the importance of a strong effort to making the timing right)

Yesterday I wrote about bluffing, bourbon and brotherly love. Today under the blanket of a blizzard I’ll briefly continue with the love theme, tie it back to the concept of time and add in a dash of mysticism…

Blizzard Window Triptych

Falling in love — love of any kind, being, thing, idea or person — is a conscious effort.*

The exertion of love creates something like a field of gravity or energy. When delivered with just the right amount of effort, it’s a force that seems to slow down time… and bend space.

Blizzard Sliding Door Glare 1

A strong effort driven by love will, all by itself, open up tiny windows of opportunity and turn them into doorways of fortune.

Blizzard Sliding Door Glare

It’s never too late and it’s never too early.  It’s just a matter of focusing the energy into those little blips of timing that keep presenting themselves.  Blip.  There goes one.  Blip. Nearly missed it.

Blizzard Window Horiz Blinds

By seeing the available window and leaping through it, the Wizard arrives precisely when he means to.

Surround Sound

Our experience of life is, for the most part, the result of the stories that we tell ourselves.

…and the mood of that story is colored by the soundtrack playing in the background, sung by the people surrounding us.

Situational MotivatorsThis post (#10 out of 27) revisits a quote from Winston Churchill about what to do when you’re going through hell. Recently, I positioned that quote just above the base camp of a metaphorical mountain, depicted here on the left.

When I originally posted the quote last June, it was during a particularly challenging time in my life. While I was experiencing some time-demanding Professional Bests, I was also experiencing some soul-testing Personal Worsts. Gritting my teeth and relaying that quote was pretty much all I could offer for blogging purposes. Beyond that, I went on a strict social media diet, deactivated Facebook and pretty much stopped reading the news. Looking back at it now, I see I was operating in pure survival / perseverance mode.

Half a year later, I find myself back online and back up at the Strong Performance (aka “Madonna Ciccone”) side of the metaphorical mountain both professionally and personally. Yet, I’m once again feeling like turning off Facebook and the news. Yeah, all it took was a few months.

Social Contagion

[*grumbles something about correlation not implying causation and too much Pharell*]

Our electronic media have gotten too good at creating a single instantaneous worldwide Hive Mind… and the emerging collective psyche is highly susceptible to infection… or hijacking. Loud voices of blame and punishment shout down the softer words of praise and encouragement, causing good people to waste their efforts on backwards-looking concerns.

As a single human being — a mere synapse among 7 billion others —  I want to protect my mental and emotional bandwidth and focus on more productive pursuits.

That said, I don’t want to check myself into a permanent Laughter Yoga retreat either. I still want to learn. I still want to be challenged. My friends post fascinating, inspiring and thought-provoking stuff on Facebook… from time to time. Once in a while (though more rarely), an interesting article will even show up in my news reader.

There’s an incentive for me to venture out into the din of negativity so that I can hear some wise voices. But then, why should the price for enjoying a few fleeting notes of a beautiful melody be a barrage of angry screeches which cannot be un-heard?

(Social media plug-in idea: Rose-tinted-lens Social Media Reader, kind of like an ad-blocker for negativity.  Yeah, yeah, I know… deeply Orwellian and would just lead to even further degradation of public discourse due to selective listening. Also, sort of already exists thanks to the balkanization of media publishing. Even still… it could be one more tool in the growing set of social media coping mechanisms, e.g. Social Media Cleanses, Facebook Friend Purges, Digital Sabbaths, and so on.)


Selecting our connections

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

-Jim Rohn


That quote from Jim Rohn — which provides a neat summary of Social Constructionist theory — holds especially (and exponentially) true in a world characterized by large quantities of social media exposure. Like it or not, the newsfeed on your mobile device counts as one of those five people… and as it scrolls past your thumb that ‘person’ is dragging down your average. 

Last night I had a wonderful non-social media (aka, “real world” or “meatspace”) experience that I’d like to have more often:  Hanging out with people who inspire me and who make me want to become a better version of myself.

Specifically, last night I was at a dinner event honoring two of my friends who are outstanding role models and community volunteers. They are wise, potent and ambitious individuals who inspire others to be the same.

In other words, they are exceptional leaders.

I’d like to listen to the soundtrack of exceptional leaders, more often. Exceptional coaches, too.

In conclusion, to revise the Churchill quote:

If the music is starting to suck, turn the dial and keep dancing. 

(Just not always the same song.)

A Mountain of Inspirational Quotations

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”
– Zig Ziglar

This post (#4 of 27) concisely and more elegantly revisits ideas laid out in a TL;DR-worthy post entitled: “Situational self-leadership: Raising the ceiling and floor of performance.”

In a nutshell:  The literature and practice of self-motivation consists of multiple and seemingly contradictory messages that we’re supposed to tell ourselves. While there is truth in all of these messages, there’s an art to knowing which message is most useful for any given situation.

In the last post I organized the different messages of motivation using a graph.  That was all right.

In this post I’m going to organize the different messages of motivation using a collage of famous people. This will be better.*

(* better for three reasons: more concise, more memorable, and doesn’t look like it’s pretending to be science.) 

Here’s the earlier graph:

Situational Self-Leadership and Motivation Model

Here’s the collage version:

Situational Motivators

What follows below is the names of the people in the image, along with some quotes from them.  These are people whose personas we can channel and whose message we can tell ourselves at different moments in our lives.

Identifying with an ideal vision: Muhammad Ali

“The person with no imagination has no wings.”

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Striving for a personal best: Oprah Winfrey

“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.”

Building on a strong performance: Madonna Ciccone

“I’m tough, ambitious, and I know exactly what I want.”

“One thing I’ve learned is that I’m not the owner of my talent; I’m the manager of it.”

Working through a mediocre moment: Paul Brown

“Football is a game of errors. The team that makes the fewest errors in a game usually wins.”

“When you win, say nothing. When you lose, say less.”

Overcoming a weak performance: Winston Churchill

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Persevering through a personal worst: Helen Keller

“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.”

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.”

Maintaining dignity, even at rock bottom: Viktor Frankl

“The last of human freedoms – the ability to chose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

In summary

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

– Lao Tzu

…and don’t forget…

“If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.”

– Katherine Hepburn

Dealing with Genghis Khan and other tough negotiators

(#3 of 27 revisited blog posts, “Potency, difference and diversity”)

There are two kinds of Negotiation Skills training experiences: The hardball-jerk kind, and the softball-wimp kind.

This guy.

This guy.

  • The 1st kind uses terms like “power” and “leverage.”
  • The 2nd kind talks about things like “win-lose” and “win-win.”

Soft skills training people like me tend to focus overly on the soft second kind of training. However in this post today I’m going to take a hard look at those who excel at the first kind of training.

Because while the term “win-win” is a cute concept, the desire for power and leverage is a real thing.

SIDE NOTE DISCLAIMER / SELF-PROMOTIONAL PLUG:  Did you know there’s also a 3rd and 4th kind of negotiation skills training? More about those in the comments section below.

Genghis Khan Quote 1

Re-introducing Genghis Khan

A couple of weeks ago I briefly mentioned the far-reaching genetic effects of two remarkable people — the Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages, and the Mongolian warlord/emperor Genghis Khan. What I didn’t mention in as much detail was the specific mechanics of their reproductive success: they were nasty, brutish and cut short the lives of many, many others.

Let’s talk a bit more about those jerks, Niall and Khan, and their hardball use of power and leverage.

Genghis Khan’s story is well documented and instructive on many levels. An appropriate place to start or review the lesson is this video at the Khan Academy.  Yeah, I know, Khan Academy, so ironic.

Khan’s lust for violence and destruction knew no bounds, and his well-trained horsemen brought an apocalypse upon a good chunk of the world.  Different cultures define a “deserving ruler” in different ways. For example, in many cultures when a ruler has a superior military technology, there’s an expectation that they will use their power and leverage to protect and stabilize their immediate territory and interests. However for Genghis Khan the power and leverage of his more advanced military was applied towards a goal of worldwide subjugation and devastation. No journalistic hyperbole or metaphor here.

Genghis Khan Quote 2

As for Niall, not a lot is known specifically about him as an individual, but the legends that surround paint a picture of nonstop raiding, plundering and conspiracy. The epithet, “of the Nine Hostages,” refers to the cruel strategy of exploiting other people’s concern for their loved ones in order to extract concessions and ultimately wipe them out.

For those who see kindness and compassion as ideal virtues to cultivate in human beings, Khan and Niall present a problem. As highly aggressive and competitive individuals, they managed to spread their genes (and associated lessons) further and wider than those of the kinder and gentler stock of humanity. More worrisome is the idea that they succeeded in evolutionary terms (as well as social terms) precisely because they seized a moment where the rest of the population was weak enough to get exploited, creating an evolutionary bottleneck that their chromosomes (and associated lessons) could pass through.

All of these violent and aggressive tendencies translate into a series of destructively heavy-handed negotiation tactics that show up in the board room, the sales desk, the auto dealership… and not to mention the world stage. Once one of those places is overrun with Genghis Khan types, its efficacy as a constructive forum drops to near-zero levels — it just costs too much to get anything useful done there.

Sons and daughters of Khan

No Asshole Rule by SuttonOkay, what have we learned so far?

It’s too easy to resist the example of Khan and Niall and say, “Yeah, but nowadays these aggressive traits don’t get selected, neither biologically nor socially” i.e. being a jerk doesn’t get you anywhere.

I completely disagree, for one fundamental reason:

There is a Genghis Khan in all of us.  

You don’t need to be a direct descendant of Khan. A moderate amount of testosterone will do… and yes, regardless of your gender there’s going to be some C19H28O2  in your bloodstream.

Furthermore, attempts to reduce testoterone often result (or are caused by) an increase in cortisol, the hormone of powerlessness, victimhood and Stockholm Syndrome. Khan wins again.

As for extending the No Asshole Rule as a social policy, it really only works within a given tribe… and even then, tribes have a tendency to eventually sub-divide and compete from within, especially as those tribes become larger and more variegated.

A drop of biologically-driven ambition is all it takes to upset a socially-engineered pool of pacifism.

The inevitable conclusion

There’s a whole lotta Khan out there.

Every single day, a would-be Khan makes a discovery that will help them become an even stronger Khan.

Every week, a mini-Khan gets some hardball negotiation skills training from a mega-Khan.

There’s no way to quash Khan, least of all through the mandatory application of the 2nd kind of negotiation skills training… that would just soften the landscape for Khan and provide an evolutionary filter for the non-Khans.

What to do about it, then?

  1. Recognize, protect against and discourage the emerging Genghis Khans on your negotiation landscape
  2. Rechannel your inner Genghis Khan to be passionate, creative, and ambitiously constructive

The rest, as they say, is mere commentary.  Now go and learn how to do that.

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