jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: February, 2012

Reflections on Life: “Road Closed Ahead”

Like many stretches of interstate highway, the 150-mile strip between Birmingham, Alabama and the Tennessee State line isn’t particularly remarkable. It passes by several small towns and through rural North Alabama reaching towards the Music City. It’s a piece of highway I have driven many times and as such have reached the point where I don’t “see” most of the sights along the way. Routine and boredom have long since replaced any sense of “hey, look at that.” Recently, however, I was reminded that new adventures often come not so far off the beaten path when the good people from the Alabama Department of Transportation insisted “Road Closed Ahead” insisting I leave I-65 at Exit 328.

A yellow sign flashing its message to “Exit Here” is something I generally meet with frustration. My plans do not include sightseeing. I am on a schedule. Yet on this departure the 40-minute detour seemed less an imposition and more opportunity. On reflection, it seemed a great lesson for facing the detours and roadblocks of life and business. My ride through Sommerville and Priceville, Alabama reminded me to welcome uncertainty, that the people your “ride” with are more important than how fast you reach your destination, and the importance of preparation.

To welcome uncertainty is to recognize my sphere of concern is far greater than my sphere of control and that frustration is often the result of my perspective about road blocks, detours, and obstacles. My first sight of the detour of Northbound traffic came while I was headed Southbound. I saw the traffic being guided from the highway. In my mind it would all be cleared before my return North later in the day. Yet somehow the State Troopers and construction crews didn’t get the word. When I saw the signs I was tempted to become impatient, growl, even whine. Yet, I didn’t. I simply pulled my F-150 into the exit lane and waited. And waited. Somehow I released my temptation to find another way around the traffic. I felt no compulsion to ease into the oncoming traffic lanes and “see” what was ahead of me. (Well, only once.) I simply took in the sights. I had no paper map, no GPS, and apparently, along this stretch of rural Alabama, the good people at ATT don’t think 4, or even 3, “G” is all that important. No Google Maps.

As my bride and I rode along County Roads 26 and 67 we gave up control of our circumstances, recognizing there was little we could do to change things. Several hundred cars lined up just South of Sommerville to turn North at a 4-Way Stop sign. We looked at the variety of homes along the way, some large, some small, some “Mini Estate” pristine, and the others with the obligatory décor of rural Alabama e.g. “Role Tide” signs and old pick up trucks. Lord, I love the South. We chatted about nothing of great substance, solved none of the world’s problems. We just enjoyed the ride. Without expressing it, I realized how much I enjoyed the simple pleasure of time with my best friend. I laughed when she playfully shook her phone trying to active the internet connection, reminding me Andy Griffith in “No Time for Sargeants” when he suggested a radio could be fixed if you “spit in the back and give it a whomp!” Life and business are so much more fulfilling when you share the ride with the right people.

Our only anxiety along the rode arose from some sense we could have prepared a little better. At 6’7” and 245 pounds, it’s important for me to eat. Frequently. We had no snacks in the car and no hopes of stopping to find anything. And driving a truck that gets only about 17 miles per gallon, I shouldn’t risk the bell reminding me that there is only “22 miles ‘til empty” when I have no idea how far out of the way my detour will take me. A paper atlas or map would have been useful. Perhaps it would have provided some comfort. So next trip, I will fill up, pack a few snacks, and have purchased a map. They will go in the truck with the flashlight and jumper cables. We will be little better prepared the next time.

In the end, the trip will be something I hope my wife and I both remember. I hope it will be one of those rocking porch memories that only the two us will “get.” For the future, I’m hopeful it serves as a reminder that detours aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes they are meant to give us a little time to reflect and enjoy the ride. Sometimes they are there to teach us what is important and to enjoy the journey.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey with me and it may somehow inspire you to make sure you’re riding well prepared and with the right people…and maybe even realize the road is never really “closed ahead.”

Keep the faith.

Advertisements

Reflections on Life: “Road Closed Ahead”

Like many stretches of interstate highway, the 150-mile strip between Birmingham, Alabama and the Tennessee State line isn’t particularly remarkable. It passes by several small towns and through rural North Alabama reaching towards the Music City. It’s a piece of highway I have driven many times and as such have reached the point where I don’t “see” most of the sights along the way. Routine and boredom have long since replaced any sense of “hey, look at that.” Recently, however, I was reminded that new adventures often come not so far off the beaten path when the good people from the Alabama Department of Transportation insisted “Road Closed Ahead” insisting I leave I-65 at Exit 328.

A yellow sign flashing its message to “Exit Here” is something I generally meet with frustration. My plans do not include sightseeing. I am on a schedule. Yet on this departure the 40-minute detour seemed less an imposition and more opportunity. On reflection, it seemed a great lesson for facing the detours and roadblocks of life and business. My ride through Sommerville and Priceville, Alabama reminded me to welcome uncertainty, that the people your “ride” with are more important than how fast you reach your destination, and the importance of preparation.

To welcome uncertainty is to recognize my sphere of concern is far greater than my sphere of control and that frustration is often the result of my perspective about road blocks, detours, and obstacles. My first sight of the detour of Northbound traffic came while I was headed Southbound. I saw the traffic being guided from the highway. In my mind it would all be cleared before my return North later in the day. Yet somehow the State Troopers and construction crews didn’t get the word. When I saw the signs I was tempted to become impatient, growl, even whine. Yet, I didn’t. I simply pulled my F-150 into the exit lane and waited. And waited. Somehow I released my temptation to find another way around the traffic. I felt no compulsion to ease into the oncoming traffic lanes and “see” what was ahead of me. (Well, only once.) I simply took in the sights. I had no paper map, no GPS, and apparently, along this stretch of rural Alabama, the good people at ATT don’t think 4, or even 3, “G” is all that important. No Google Maps.

As my bride and I rode along County Roads 26 and 67 we gave up control of our circumstances, recognizing there was little we could do to change things. Several hundred cars lined up just South of Sommerville to turn North at a 4-Way Stop sign. We looked at the variety of homes along the way, some large, some small, some “Mini Estate” pristine, and the others with the obligatory décor of rural Alabama e.g. “Role Tide” signs and old pick up trucks. Lord, I love the South. We chatted about nothing of great substance, solved none of the world’s problems. We just enjoyed the ride. Without expressing it, I realized how much I enjoyed the simple pleasure of time with my best friend. I laughed when she playfully shook her phone trying to active the internet connection, reminding me Andy Griffith in “No Time for Sargeants” when he suggested a radio could be fixed if you “spit in the back and give it a whomp!” Life and business are so much more fulfilling when you share the ride with the right people.

Our only anxiety along the rode arose from some sense we could have prepared a little better. At 6’7” and 245 pounds, it’s important for me to eat. Frequently. We had no snacks in the car and no hopes of stopping to find anything. And driving a truck that gets only about 17 miles per gallon, I shouldn’t risk the bell reminding me that there is only “22 miles ‘til empty” when I have no idea how far out of the way my detour will take me. A paper atlas or map would have been useful. Perhaps it would have provided some comfort. So next trip, I will fill up, pack a few snacks, and have purchased a map. They will go in the truck with the flashlight and jumper cables. We will be little better prepared the next time.

In the end, the trip will be something I hope my wife and I both remember. I hope it will be one of those rocking porch memories that only the two us will “get.” For the future, I’m hopeful it serves as a reminder that detours aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes they are meant to give us a little time to reflect and enjoy the ride. Sometimes they are there to teach us what is important and to enjoy the journey.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey with me and it may somehow inspire you to make sure you’re riding well prepared and with the right people…and maybe even realize the road is never really “closed ahead.”

Keep the faith.

Reflections on Leadership: Resiliency—“Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”

Regardless of how one feels about Muhammad Ali’s religion or his politics, no one could suggest he was nothing short of a remarkable champion. Indeed, he will be ranked in boxing history as one of the best, if not “the Greatest” boxer of all time. Ali’s charisma, speed, and innovative style combined to make him a remarkable athlete. Yet it may have been his resiliency that truly set him apart from other fighters. Leaders, at work and in life, have much to learn from Ali’s resiliency and ability “to take a punch.” In these days of profound uncertainty, resiliency may be the greatest hallmark of leadership.

Since September 11, 2001 Americans, and much of the world, have lived with marked uncertainty. Several wars have been fought in the Middle East since then. Tsunamis have rocked both Indonesia and Japan. Financial markets have tumbled resulting in dramatic job losses and unemployment. So how does one avoid becoming overwhelmed by the challenges we face? How can leaders respond to the challenges in these times? They can do so by developing and drawing upon a sense of resiliency as they take the blows dealt them and their businesses, families, and communities.

Muhammad Ali knew every time he stepped in the ring he would likely get hit. He must have known taking blows was simply part of the game. He took blows from some of the other greatest fighters in history: Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and a long before he was the lovable “lean mean grillin’ machine” pitchman, a very scary young George Foreman. Ali lost several fights along the way to becoming the greatest. Yet he took the blows and kept fighting, sometimes developing unique approaches to dealing with his opponents. He rope-a-doped” and “shuffled” his way to victory against formidable opponents with a resiliency that will be remembered for generations. And while we may know what resiliency “looks like,” what is it made of? Somehow the substance of resiliency seems to include three things: patience, a sense of humor, and conviction.

Patience may be the foundation of resilience. Patience is what allows a man or woman to delay gratification, resist anger, and “live to fight another day.” It is the maturity to recognize time alone is often what is required to overcome an obstacle, defeat an opponent, heal a wound, or be recognized for one’s contribution. It is what allows great fighters and leaders to “pick their shots.” Patience is what sees leaders through times of disappointment and wounded pride.

If patience is the foundation of resilience then laughter is the “music” of the resilient leader and the product of his or her sense of humor. A sense of humor, paired with patience, allows the leader to avoid taking himself too seriously, accept set backs, and recognize he or she is sometimes simply wrong. A sense of humor is an inner ability to be realistic without lapsing into pessimism. It is what inspires others to stay the course, to dwell on the solution and not the problem.

Conviction is an unwavering belief in oneself, in others, and in the knowledge that the task will be accomplished, the mountain scaled, or the disease defeated. It is a sense of foolish hope that cannot be undermined by smaller men or women. It is the certainty that, in time, things will be set right, that victory will come. Conviction keeps “second team” athletes on the bench, waiting for the opportunity to show what they are capable of doing in the game. It is what fuels a “long walk in the same direction.”

As leaders, others watch you to see your response to the uncertainty they face with you. Like children watching their parents, they are far more interested in what you do than in what you say. As you absorb the blows of “being in the ring,” and respond with resiliency, so too will they. Leaders set the pace and tone of the fight. Their challenge is to let it include patience, a sense of humor, and conviction rather than to be distracted by fear, anger, or frustration. In doing so, perhaps you will “float like a butterfly and sting like a be” and become “the Greatest” to those you would lead.

Keep the Faith.

Reflections on Leadership: Clint Eastwood Made My Day

Super Bowl XLVI (that’s “46” for those of us who have forgotten our Roman Numerals) was memorable for many reasons. Tom Brady did not win a 4th Super Bowl. Eli Manning won his second, both at the expense of Brady. Budweiser, E Trade, and several other companies produced memorable Super Bowl commercials. And Madonna, with apologies to the “material girl,” showed maybe she should sing more and dance less at this point in her career. But of all the things people are still discussing several days after the game has ended, perhaps Chrysler’s commercial featuring Clint Eastwood’s is the most significant.

Some would suggest Eastwood and Chrysler were paying homage to a particular political party or individual. And while much of today’s meeting blurs the line between entertainment and political agendas (on both sides of every issue) that is not what this little essay is about. In truth, it really isn’t what people are buzzing about either. The buzz is merely a symptom of a much deeper issue, a hunger if you will. At the heart of the discussion is our concern over our present condition as individuals, as a nation, and our future. This concern resonates with everyone when Clint rasps “It’s halftime in America too” and points to our need for heroes who would lead us, who would somehow call us to something higher, someone who would challenge us to be more than we are now, and who reminds us what we are capable of achieving. That is what real leaders do.

Leaders are heroes who give us hope. FDR did it in the Thirties. Martin Luther King did it in the Sixties and Reagan did it in the Eighties. Churchill did it when the Nazis were bombing London. Ghandi did it in India. Heroes aren’t limited to a political philosophy, faith, or by geography. They are men and women, young and old. Heroes shatter our “mind set” and challenge us to believe. They are resolute. Courageous. Unwavering. They bear burdens under which many of us would buckle. They are charismatic, boring, micromanagers, and visionaries, humble and proud. They are profoundly human, these heroes. But they all call us to be more.

In 1984 the Welsh recording artist, Bonnie Tyler, released her version of “I Need a Hero. While essentially a love song, the lyrics that follow apply to us as individuals and as a nation.

“I need a hero. I’m holding out for a hero…He’s gotta be strong, He’s gotta be Fast, And He’s gotta be fresh from the fight….He’s gotta be sure. And it’s gotta be soon. And he’s gotta be larger than life.”

Hero’s are leaders who are strong. They are fast. They are larger than life. They are not just CEOs or Presidents. They are mothers and fathers who believe in their children; who see more in their children than they see in themselves. They are businessmen and women who make barely make payroll and forego a check for themselves. Heroes are Pastors and Rabbis that encourage people to hope even when they have lost family, businesses, and health. Heroes are teachers and coaches that keep cajoling and coaxing and challenging kids to be more. Even when it is “halftime in America” heroes make our day. Clint Eastwood “made” mine this past Sunday when he unknowingly challenged me to be a hero. Go ahead. Make someone’s day. Be a hero. Soon.

Keep the Faith.

Reflections on Leadership: A Sense of Urgency

While patience is indeed a virtue and required for effective leadership, so too is a sense of urgency. We must not confuse a sense of urgency with haste or recklessness. Rather it is compulsion to act now. When presented with an opportunity, or having defined a strategy, leaders call others to action. They have a strong sense of “impatient patience.” They know what can be done must be done as soon as it can be done. To delay is to allow undo suffering, rob shareholders, fail to right a wrong, and anathema to the leader.

Such urgency is not simply demonstrated by those who are “in charge.” It can and should be demonstrated by all those committed to a goal, whether it is to achieve financial goals, feed and clothe the poor, or construct a building. Leaders recognize the order of things that must occur to reach the goal and challenge others to cast aside the limits of conventional wisdom. They ask “why not? And “Why not now?” And “If not now, then when?”

Arrogance and selfish ambition can masquerade as a sense of urgency, or at the least, contaminate it. True leaders have a sense of realism that tempers their sense of urgency. They do not see people as a means to an end, nor do they overlook the sacrifices made by others. Leaders look for ways to instill that same sense of urgency in others who are not like them, yet never look upon them with disdain or pettiness. They may find themselves frustrated, puzzled and even angry when others fall short, yet leaders consider it their duty to win the “hearts” of others rather than simply win their “minds.”

In the end, the leader must balance the demands of his or her sense of urgency with the team’s ability, commitment, and needs. Such balance allows the leader to recognize that achieving a goal is often a “long walk in the same direction.” The leader, like the wise trainer or jockey, knows the thoroughbred’s ability. He know when to hold the reins, when to loosen them and how to release the power and ability of a champion. In the end, he finds the way a way to release the urge to victory rather than simply demand it.

Keep the faith.