We Are All Difficult - So Build a Heart to Take the High Road

Every leader, every day, deals with difficult people.  And yes, you as a leader are also at times difficult to deal with.  Let’s face it, we are all very complex creatures - we have egos, we have blind spots, and we do things that will inevitably annoy others.  For some, developing the heart to deal with complexity in ourselves and others is an energizing life journey.  For others, it is demotivating, accompanied by painful memories of remorse, self-doubt, and denial.  As a leader, you can build and condition your heart to take the high road in handling adversity in relationships.  I suggest three critical mindsets to take you to a higher order of thinking and acting.

Mindset One:  Integrate, don’t split.  Peter Drucker said the job of a manager is to, “identify the strengths of the people you lead and focus on these.”  Rarely is a person the complete embodiment of “jerkiness.”  If you think someone is completely messed up, that leads to arrogance and anger on your part, and you fail to see any short comings in yourself…it’s always the other person’s fault.  Cultivate the mindset of asking,  “What is the core strength of this individual?”  “How can I appreciate and leverage these strengths?” 

Integrate the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses, into one whole view of a person.  For instance, I’ve done a great deal of work with entrepreneurs.  Many of them have been over confident, have high drives to be in control, appear wonderful when you first meet them, and as time goes by, they are fearful of sharing, want to remain in control, and lack insight into their own idealized views of who they are. In other words, they can be really hard to deal with.  If I focus on the negatives, I will make no progress in being of help.  If I focus on their positives, such as the willingness to take risk, a relentless drive to never say die, and a great ability to cast a positive vision that others want to follow, then I can bring awareness to the entrepreneurs of what they are missing in key situations.  If the leaders don’t know I appreciate their strengths, they will never trust me with their weaknesses. 

Mindset Two:  Don’t condemn differences in personality style —  affirm these differences.  As I  like to say in coaching situations, “Opposites attract, they just don’t always get along.”  A principle in human relations is that the greater the difference, the greater the probability the relationship will go sideways.  In fact, extreme opposites often find that their relationships become debilitating, both in marriage and in work.  For instance,  if you are a high control, direct, and high goal oriented individual dealing with a more impulsive “cat like” personality that loves independence, there is a high probability each of you will begin seeing the “negative” traits of the other.  At this point it’s easy to become judgmental and describe behaviors as “dysfunctional” and “counter productive”.  Learning to affirm your differences in style is critical.  Your relationships become what you can see in others and build up, not tear down.  I co-authored  an instrument called Your Style of Influence, which has helped countless teams understand vast differences in style.  The assessment often creates the “big  aha” - people see why they are fighting, and can then transform conflict into a productive exchange of complimentary strengths.  

The third mindset is the most critical and I will take it up in my next leadership post coming out early next week.  

Please - write your comments below if you want to add some color to what I’ve said here.  It’s always appreciated by me and by others.   

Our Purpose: The Thread that Binds Us All

Flawless execution, focus on the customer, leading with values, knowing your mission, partnering with stakeholders: all pieces of the cloth critical to the success of any organization. With these, a leadership team can build an excellent company. Today though, it may not be enough. There’s one more element that can raise performance a significant notch higher: an integrating thread of purpose woven among many pieces.  Why are we doing what we are doing?  How does what we are doing bring meaning to our work on a daily basis?  How do I as a leader take our purpose and empower others to express it through channels no one might have dreamed?  


Here’s an example. Larry Webb, my long time friend, is the CEO of New Home Company, which just went public on January 31st.  New Home builds beautiful production housing and is known for extremely happy buyers who love not only their home but the experience they had in buying it. In the CNBC interview on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Larry said, “We build homes, and for each of us at New Home Company we see it as a noble purpose. To provide a new home for a person is to provide a future of wonderful experiences.” I spoke with Larry after the interview and he said, “Many builders try to push flawless execution or operational excellence, but you can only push this so far. I’ve found that if we talk about a higher purpose in our work, people bring more meaning to their job.  They know they can’t do shoddy work and if they do, it will defeat the noble purpose of what we are about. Our people really believe we are doing something important and they evaluate their decision making based on this.”  

Larry understands the power of purpose. As my friend, Dick Gochnauer, the former CEO of United Stationers, a Fortune 500 business products wholesaler says, “A leader’s role is to to weave all of the pieces together under a broader purpose. A leader shows people how the purpose can create alignment with all of the other elements. Purpose plays an incredible role in creating motivation.”

Larry Webb

Larry Webb

Here’s another example. Last week Satya Nadella was appointed the new Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, replacing Steve Ballmer. Satya wrote a memo that went out to 100,000 employees. The memo did not focus on the need to work harder, be more creative, or execute more carefully. Instead, it outlined the purpose Microsoft serves in the world and why, through this purpose, employees can drive the values and ideas necessary to support a dramatic shift at Microsoft. Here are some excerpts of what Satya said:

Why am I here?

I am here for the same reason I think most people join Microsoft — to change the world through technology that empowers people to do amazing things.


“To paraphrase a quote from Oscar Wilde — we need to believe in the impossible and remove the improbable.  This starts with clarity of purpose and sense of mission that will lead us to imagine the impossible and deliver it.”


“We need to prioritize innovation that is centered on our core value of empowering users and organizations to ‘do more.’ ” 


“Finally, I truly believe that each of us must find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know that it's not just work, but something that will improve other people's lives. This is the opportunity that drives each of us at this company.”  

Satya Nadella gets it! Frankly, with this kind of leadership Microsoft may reassert a leadership role in mobile and the cloud.  With Satya’s leadership, we may see massive value added to the company. Financial value creation is the result of a clear and powerful purpose. In other words, the power of leadership, by weaving purpose into everything you do, can accomplish amazing things.  

So what is your company’s purpose? You may already have it down clearly and now it’s a matter of finding ways to express this purpose through your team’s behaviors and attitudes. If you are still pondering your purpose, I suggest you don’t rush in quickly with an answer. The question is complicated. Purpose needs to link to your strategy, your mission, your values, and your tactics.  Purpose supports strategic execution. Here are some questions and suggestions to help you along the way:

1.  What do you do that contributes to a better world?  

2.  If you are successful, who will benefit and why?  

3.  Write down 10 things you do that benefit others. Is there an integrating theme here?

4.  If you are successful in your efforts, how will all of your stakeholders benefit?  What do you see as the underlying purpose here?  

5.  Test out ideas. Don’t jump the gun too quickly. Form an idea, get a dialogue going, and then enhance the idea. You will be surprised at what you learn.  

I’ll be giving more examples of companies who lead through a well defined, inspiring purpose statement. Why? Because purpose is at the roots of leadership. It involves moral judgements. Purpose is aspirational and inspirational. It focuses on the future and what role a leader plays in that future. If purpose is defined clearly from a moral foundation, it can redirect an entire company and for that matter, an entire world.


* Picture of Larry Webb courtesy of Bay Area BIA