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Dr. John Stahl-Wert http://johnstahlwert.com Author, Speaker, Coach Wed, 11 Mar 2015 15:30:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Great Leaders Carry the Right Keys http://johnstahlwert.com/great-leaders-carry-the-right-keys/ http://johnstahlwert.com/great-leaders-carry-the-right-keys/#comments Wed, 11 Mar 2015 13:32:14 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=1075 “I’ll tell you what the key is,” an elderly gentleman said to me, tugging downward on my coat sleeve to incline me a little closer to the message he wanted to speak up into my ear. “I always hired people a lot smarter than me!” There was a satisfied twinkle in his eye. He was summing up, in his words and experience, the talk I had just given to the 100 men who gathered very early this past Friday morning at the Tap House Grill in Palatine, IL.

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I was in the middle of speaking to four leadership groups over two days in the greater Chicago area, groups that were pulled together by my friends, Ace and Marge Mokry of Cru, Scott Beilke and Donna Brighton of Brighton Leadership Group, and Bob Schuldt of the Moody Business Network Distinguished Speaker’s Series. After each talk, there were quite a lot of sidebar conversations, and I paid very careful attention to what was on each leader’s mind.

My elderly friend wasn’t unique in his remark. In fact, the nature of my talks guided half a dozen leaders to say this very same thing to me. “The key is surrounding yourself with people who are better than yourself.” And, indeed, there is a great deal of truth in this “truism;” these leaders were pointing to a “key” that is, indeed, key. However, I believe each of these excellent gentlemen were selling themselves a tad short. Allow me to explain.

  • Great leaders hire great people.
    They know that the best way to position themselves for a strong future of growth is to hire fantastic people. “Smarter than me” and “better than me” is what a great leader is always looking for. This is a key, for sure, but the door to greatness has more than one lock.

    “Smarter than me” and “better than me” is what a great leader is always looking for.
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  • Great leaders grow great people.
    They know that their job is to make the people they hire smarter and better than them. Great leaders already hold a vast repository of treasure, including experience, relationships, trust, wisdom, humility, the capacity to weather storms, and much more. There is no “smart hire” that can best the great leader who has won the right, year over year, to be the one who gets to hire somebody who is smart. Here is where my Chicago friends were selling themselves short — Every single one of these beautiful and highly effective leaders had spent their careers growing the people that they hired, pouring themselves into their people so that their people could gain experience, relationships, trust, wisdom, humility, the capacity to weather storms, and much more.
  • Great leaders turn their work over to great followers.
    They know that their job is to hand over systematically the duties they carry, expertly placing those duties into the hands of those who follow. In one of my talks, I challenged the leaders to “Make yourself expendable far sooner than life will demand!” My point? Twofold: First, this world makes every single one of us expendable — It’s gonna happen! Second, it’s better to hurry up the process. The sooner your team doesn’t need you to do the great things you do, the sooner you can get to the task of doing even greater things. Free yourself from all the tasks for which you used to be “essential,” so that you can multiply your contribution by serving at a higher level. Move up so your people can move up, and teach them to do the same thing!

    Move up so your people can move up, and teach them to do the same thing!
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  • Great leaders live for purposes that are bigger than themselves.
    They know that their leadership isn’t about them and isn’t for them. Their leadership is for others, for purpose, for customers, for followers, for the world. They learn to stop clinging. They know the joy of investing in others. They are secure.

This is why I can’t accept that the key to great leadership is hiring people smarter than oneself. Terrible leaders can hire people who are smarter than them and reap a harvest of disaster. There’s nothing worse than a self-centered leader chasing glory by hiring someone super-smart — in all likelihood, another self-centered leader — and utterly failing to help that person grow in all the things that produce greatness. Such as integrity. Such as humility. Such as a readiness to invest in the growth of others.

Everything that’s important in this world has a “pass-it-on” aspect to it. Marriage. Parenthood. Leadership. Life itself. We must pass on the good we’ve received. Our treasures are to be shared, which is how we catalyze multiplication.

Share it, watch it blossom! Keep it, watch it die!

Poignantly, my friend, Margie Blanchard, shared about the art that she had created over the years. Let me be more precise — Margie shared about the art that was still in existence because she had given it away. When the beautiful home that she and Ken owned in Escondido burned to the ground in a wildfire in 2007, every piece of her own art that she had elected to keep, she lost. And what a treasure it was, she said, to realize that every piece of her own art that she had given away had been saved.

Give it away, save it! Hoard it up, lose it!

That’s the biggest key to great leadership. Give it away! Pass it down the line! Grow those below you! Teach them to follow your lead! Make yourself expendable! And reap the harvest of a life of incalculable worthiness!

Photo by Melissa Harman


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Blazing the Trail: Why Teaching and Removing Obstacles Matter in the Workplace http://johnstahlwert.com/blazing-the-trail-why-teaching-and-coaching-others-matter-in-the-workplace/ http://johnstahlwert.com/blazing-the-trail-why-teaching-and-coaching-others-matter-in-the-workplace/#comments Fri, 06 Mar 2015 13:50:54 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=1064 Many organizations struggle with identifying their “secret” to success. Often, founders are insufficiently clear about their own unique approach. They can do the job themselves, but they don’t know how to describe what makes them successful. Great organizations have identified their success factors and can teach others to replicate what has taken them to their current level of success.

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Be Clear About Your Success Factors
Identifying what the customer values requires great listening and questioning skills. The customers and the non-customers (those who are doing business with your competitors) can identify the Critical-to-Success factors that they value in your organization. Critical-to-Success factors are the product features, customer-supplier interactions, and other intangibles that cause customer loyalty and new customer acquisitions. Once the Critical-to-Success factors have been identified, they guide your business to increased revenue and profits.

Identifying what the customer values requires great listening and questioning skills.
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This is vital for a number of reasons. (1) Founders frequently fail to successfully pass their businesses on to another generation, and cannot, therefore, extract the value from the enterprise they’ve built. This happens because they didn’t prepare their team to know and to do what they themselves uniquely knew and did. And, (2) organizations seldom do an adequate job of teaching and coaching everybody to become masterful with “the secret sauce,” and little by little, what was special, unique, and highly valued slips away without anybody’s notice.

Teach and Coach for Success
“Great leaders are great teachers!” Noel Tichy, the management guru from University of Michigan, said this. Tichy pioneered the “leader as teacher” research, promoting the principle that all great leaders need clarity on what they are teaching —he called this their “teachable point of view.” And, of course, if you are going to have a “teachable point of view,” you need clarity about your business’s success factors.

The most important role of the serving leader is to teach and coach others. This is the most valuable service the leader can perform. People on the front lines cannot perform at the highest level if they do not have a clear understanding and commitment to the success factors. A self-serving leader is afraid to teach the things that produce success, because they are afraid that their people will end up being able to do their job. This is tragically ironic, since the very mark of great leadership is the ability to strengthen others.

The most important role of the serving leader is to teach and coach others.
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It is also important for the serving leader to know when to teach and when to coach. Teaching involves informing and demonstrating; it is needed when the person being taught does not know the success factors or has not learned the standard processes and measures for success. Coaching is used when the person has the knowledge but is struggling to perform at the expected level. Coaching is also the right approach when the problem being encountered can be handled with a variety of approaches.

Remove the Obstacles and Wasted Effort
Does this sound familiar? You wake up in the morning with the intent and desire to have a serene “quiet time” before the day hits you broadside. You walk into your study with an aromatic cup of tea or coffee in one hand, and your book of serene meditations in the other. You take your favorite seat at your desk…and spend the next 20 minutes trying to find a firm surface upon which to set your cup, shuffling down through the layers of memos, bills, half-completed work projects, and mail.

This, in short, is what “remove obstacles and wasted effort” addresses. Whether the clutter and extra steps are suffered at home or at work, they frustrate progress, rob results, and all importantly, discourage people.

A critical part of blazing the trail for those you serve is the importance of removing the obstacles and waste that are causing frustrations or extra efforts that increase costs or result in rework. The most effective way to apply this behavior is to prepare employees to identify obstacles and waste and then to take whatever actions are necessary to remove them. There are many process improvement methods being applied in great organizations, including Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma.

Whether using one of these methods, or the process we teach in The Serving Leader Development System, the critical completion step is to take action when a point of waste is identified. Why would a worker raise her hand and offer an idea to streamline or simplify everybody’s work if it isn’t clear that her idea will be acted upon?

Ultimately, it’s essential that leaders and managers work together to create a road map that is clear on their company’s “critical-to-success” factors, to teach and to coach their team in the mastery of these factors, and all importantly, to eliminate all the noise, waste, trip-points and distractions that frustrate people and put drag on productivity. Only then can you truly begin to blaze a trail with clear running room for a whole company to accelerate towards success.

Photo by Toni Kellar


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Three of Life’s Biggest Little Commands http://johnstahlwert.com/three-of-lifes-biggest-little-commands/ http://johnstahlwert.com/three-of-lifes-biggest-little-commands/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 18:12:22 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=1047 On Saturday evening, 300 men and women gathered in the landmark Grand Ballroom on the 17th floor of the Omni William Penn (built a century ago by Henry Clay Frick) to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of The Pittsburgh Experiment. The Pittsburgh Experiment was founded by the late Samuel Moor Shoemaker, an Episcopal Priest of renown who made an indelible impact on the world, not least of which when he guided Bill W. and Dr. Bob to sobriety and gave them the principles that they turned into the “12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

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There’s a great deal that I’d like to say about Sam Shoemaker – and a book I’m working on titled For: A True Story has much about Sam in it – but today I’m thinking about his life-long call to action. Wherever Sam went, he admonished the men and women he served to “Get Changed, Get Together, Get Going!” This admonition is well known in the “recovery community,” but it isn’t guidance for a drunk or a workaholic only. These three little commands have profound leverage in them for all of us, and are worthy of daily consideration.

Are you in a rut? Coasting? Stuck? Underperforming? Disappointed? Indecisive? Off course? Off pace? Off your game?

Getting dull? Drifting? Underutilized? Overextended? Fried? Wasted? Burned? Bored? Sorry? Discouraged? Down?

Are you any one of these? More than one of these? Is the way you are, like one of these – your life isn’t what you know it should be – but you use other words to describe it?

If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes!” then Sam’s three little commands are for you, just as Sam’s three little commands are for me.

Get Changed

Without a doubt, the starting line for renewal is the admission that renewal is even needed. Saying, “I’m just great!” has never catalyzed anything new. But saying, “I need help!” produces fantastic leverage points that give us the lift we need.

“I’m not okay!” “My life is off track!” “I’m off course!” Say it however you like, but if your life isn’t what you know it should be, then say it! And, admission is way more than half the battle; honest, penitent, taken-to-heart admission is very nearly the whole battle.

Shoemaker understood this about our human condition. We must come to the end of ourselves – to the end of our posturing, lying, hiding, defending, excusing, and justifying. We must come to the end of that part of our pride that is angry about the fact that we need help. Coming to the end of ourselves is a state of true softening, humility, and yieldedness. Things must change, and the first and biggest change that must occur is our willingness to admit that we must “Get Changed.”

Coming to the end of ourselves is a state of true softening, humility, and yieldedness.
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When Sam Shoemaker said, “Get Changed,” he was saying, “Hurry up and get to the end of yourself!” The “I Don’t Need Help!” that rides, proud and mighty, in the driver’s seat of your life must step down and allow another to climb behind the wheel. The “Nothing’s Wrong!” must stop its screaming and make space for the “Everything’s Wrong!” that has been desperately whispering from within. “I’ll Never Change!” needs to blush crimson red, grin the grin of the penitent, and finally admit that he doesn’t actually know where he’s going, let alone how to get there.

Get Together

Beautifully, the first thing we realize, when we “Get Changed” is that we need others. Companionship becomes immediately necessary, and also wonderfully possible. When we’ve come down off the high horse of “I Know What I’m Doing!” we’re prepared to start teaming up, reaching out, linking arms, and taking hands.

It turns out that the things we can’t handle, others can. One of my dearest friends, Rick Wellock, likes to say this: “We are essential to one another.” Indeed, we are. And when we realize (know) this by “Getting Changed,” we can realize (achieve) this by “Getting Together.” What we lack, we still lack, but in the company of others there is no lack. Completeness comes to us, as well as direction and purpose and meaning and satisfaction. It comes to us. It doesn’t come from us.

Get Going

Do you see what’s happening here? Can you understand what Sam understood? Are you catching the wisdom and natural progression of Sam Shoemaker’s masterful grasp of the rampant stuckness of the human condition, and of what causes our lives to shift from frozen to fruitful?

Once we’re with others, we can go someplace. We can do something. We can be someone. “Get Changed” opens up space. “Get Together” creates capacity. “Get Going” makes headway.

“Get Changed” opens up space. “Get Together” creates capacity. “Get Going” makes…
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Sam knew one more thing about “Get Going.” We have to! That is to say, the only thing that locks in the “Get Changed” and the “Get Together” is the “Get Going.” Everything unravels if we do the first and second part, but then sit back. Action locks all the gears in place, secures all the gains, and completes the transformation.

In my work with leaders, I’m often struck by the interior and very personal work that needs to be done. Yes, we leaders have a lot to learn about our exterior leadership, but we have inside work that must be done. From childhood, we must work on these human things – how to ask for help, how to play well with others, how to commit ourselves to a pathway and then to see it through. I’m still learning these things that Sam taught, and I’ve been on this learning journey from my very earliest memory.

One of my great joys has been serving for some years as the chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Pittsburgh Experiment, a service I completed at the end of 2014. I continue to serve this great organization as chair of their Advisory Board, and I do it to help the organization, to be sure. However, my deep motivation for this service rises out of my hunger to be close to this life-changing tradition, close to this fantastic energy and to the person and legacy of Sam Shoemaker. Rev. Shoemaker has been dead for half a century, but he’s very much alive in the transformational effect he continues to have worldwide, and also in me.

In the final talk we have recorded of Sam, he rounds in on the end of his speech with a question, asked in his energetic and tightly clipped cadence. “So what have I spent my lifetime telling you to do?” he asked.

The audience responded, “Get Changed!”

“And?” Sam prodded.

“Get Together!” everybody happily replied.


“Get Going!” they nearly shouted.

“Now, go do it!” Sam concluded, his command as crisp as a general.

My city was transformed by the work of the men and women who listened to these big, little commands. Enterprises were turned around. Lives were saved. Marriages and families renewed and the children caught in time. Count me among the beneficiaries of Sam Shoemaker’s transformational instruction. Count yourself in, too! You know what to do.


Photo by Toni Kellar


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Upending the Pyramid: Why Serving Others Matters in the Workplace http://johnstahlwert.com/upending-the-pyramid-why-serving-others-matters-in-the-workplace/ http://johnstahlwert.com/upending-the-pyramid-why-serving-others-matters-in-the-workplace/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 15:01:51 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=1031 While certainly not the author of the idea (or the practice, for that matter) of servant leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf catalyzed a modern “servant leadership movement” in management philosophy over the last 35 years. His famous question about the impact of a leader was this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

This is the right question to ask ourselves, whatever theory of leadership we hold. Do the people we lead—do the people we serve—become stronger, gain sharpness, grow in excellence and initiative, develop their own deep sense of worth and purpose as a result of our leadership? And just why is this the right question? It’s really quite simple: the people we lead (serve) do all the work. The more awesome they become, the more awesome their work—period. End of story.

Serve Others First

When Jim Collins went searching for the secret to company greatness, he told his researchers not to discover that the secret was leadership. He knew—and he was dead right about this—that greatness had to be the result of many people doing great things. There weren’t enough leaders in an enterprise to account for greatness. But Collins also discovered that he was dead wrong; leaders create the conditions for people to reach for greatness, or they create the opposite. Depending on your leadership, people will choose to give their all or they will choose to be miserly with their gifts.

The place for leaders to start is with a gut check. Do I want to serve others first? If the answer is “no,” there isn’t much I can do to help you, other than to encourage you toward a deep self-examination of what you want life to add up to. Serving yourself as a chief aim of life cannot lead to good things.

But if the answer is “yes”—that is, you choose to become a leader who will serve others first—I can help in very concrete and practical ways.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I know the people I am serving? Do I know what they value and what their goals are? What do they like and dislike about their jobs? We must explore these areas if we are to know our people well enough to serve them!
  2. Do I show an interest in the success of the people I serve?
  3. Am I providing the coaching and the feedback my people need to grow?
  4. Am I sharing the information that my people want and need.

Then, try this: Make a list of three people you serve—people that you lead. Commit yourself to learn much more about them; make a small list of questions you need to ask them, and then make a plan—with a deadline—of when you are going to take them to lunch or for coffee, and really begin to learn what you need to know.

Delegate Authority and Responsibility

Serving Leaders must delegate both authority and responsibility to the people who do the work. They know that the people on the front lines are closest to the customer, and knowing this, they provide their team members with the authority to take responsibility for the customer’s well-being.

Saying this, and becoming skilled at doing it, are two very different things. It is practically universal that the growth of a manager is most tested on the skill set of delegation. What work should be delegated? Who should do it? How do you gain the person’s commitment to accept and to handle the responsibility? What level of power does the follower need, and can they handle it?

Authority and responsibility are the left and right foot of effectuality. You’re empowered to do it, and you’re accountable to do it. A balanced gait between authority and responsibility is critical to great results. If you have one, but not the other, it isn’t pretty.

A balanced gait between authority and responsibility is critical to great results.
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If, for example, you have the authority, but not the responsibility…well, that’s just privilege run amok. Power must be harnessed to duty. “To whom much is given, much is required.” Power doesn’t exist for its own sake, and those with great authority are morally responsible to spend their power in service to causes bigger than themselves.

Conversely, and far more prevalent, is the problem of having the responsibility, but not the authority. This is misery! You must get the job done, but you haven’t been given what you need. Someone with authority gave you half of what success requires; you’re out on a limb, and the people in charge can watch how well you do, cut the limb off if you fail, and then protect themselves by pointing fingers at you from their safe perch in the tree.

Managers need a clear road-map to grow their workers’ capacity, gradually. Rather than handing over duties, watching for results, and then yanking everything back under their own control when things fail, managers should learn how to grow their people to step in and step up, responsibility by responsibility. This is how an organization builds leadership bench strength. This is how a business wows its customers. This is how an enterprise wins.

Allow Mistakes and Learning

In a 2006 interview for Human Resource Management, Ritz-Carlton Asia Pacific Vice President Mark DeCocinis talked about the issue of employee mistakes and learning. It’s impossible, DeCocinis declared, “to own and immediately resolve guest problems” without going out on a limb and risking being wrong. Exceptional customer service breaks down if an employee is afraid to make a mistake.

Why is that? Because holding a customer up while you check with the boss is already a bad customer service experience. The customer has suffered whatever went wrong, and now is being asked to wait around while permission is solicited to fix it! From the customer’s standpoint, that’s outrageous!

The same issue of employee mistakes and learning confronts the company that wants employees to accept hard assignments, test new ideas, or fix a longstanding problem. If the employee isn’t allowed to goof it up, the employee won’t ever do anything truly great for the company.

“It’s very important that when someone makes a mistake that they identify it so it can be resolved,” DeCocinis added. “Otherwise, the same mistakes may reoccur. So [we] recognize people for taking ownership of a problem and being part of the solution.”

This is the secret at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Employees are empowered to act without first getting manager sign-off. When an employee is empowered to act, there will be mistakes, which great companies see as part of the cost of doing great business. But in order for these mistakes to become learning opportunities, employees must know they are safe—even rewarded and recognized—for stepping up and saying, “My bad!”

A passionate leader will allow those they serve to take ownership of their mistakes and to become better workers because of them. Combined with attentively delegating both authority and responsibility, and working to truly know the hearts and ambitions of those you serve, these vital Serving Leader behaviors undoubtedly support, empower, and equip mature workers to gain ever-increasing mastery and confidence in the work they’ve been hired to accomplish.

A passionate leader will allow those they serve to take ownership of their mistakes and to become…
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In our Serving Leader Executive Cohorts, which are currently offered in Chicago (IL), Indianapolis (IN), Lancaster (PA), Rochester (NY), and Sugarcreek (OH)—with new cities coming soon—we spend a complete day doing action planning around these three behaviors. In the paragraphs above, I’m talking about the importance of these specific behaviors. The juice is in the doing! Nothing puts me over the moon more than seeing leaders implement specific, measurable action plans that upend the pyramid, equipping and empowering their people to step it up, become more, and deliver greater results.

Photo by Josh Newton


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3 Reasons Why Failure is a Gift http://johnstahlwert.com/3-reasons-why-failure-is-a-gift/ http://johnstahlwert.com/3-reasons-why-failure-is-a-gift/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 15:57:35 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=976 Last Thursday I was visiting with a client in Indianapolis, a young business owner who founded his company in his 20s and has grown it to include 30 or so skilled staff and a geographic reach of several states. We were talking about failures and setbacks, and about the fact that neither of us knew – when we were children and when we were in our teens – that life would be filled with such trips, falls, setbacks, and, yes, “failures.” I put “failures” in quotes, not because a failure isn’t a failure, but because a failure is also a gift. It is, if we do the right things when we fail.

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My client had just read Ten Thousand Horses, and he started the conversation by quoting a line from the book.

Innovate! Try the untried. Do the thing that ‘can’t be done.’ The worst that’ll happen is you’ll stumble and fall. While you’re down there, why don’t you roll over onto your back and look up at the mind-boggling stars for a minute. Then get back up!” - Mike Wilson, Graduation Address 2006, High Summit Ranch

Being a brand new grandfather, I’m thinking quite a lot about the growing up process. More to the point, I’m thinking about my grandson, and also about his new parents. I’m remembering my boyhood, and also my young venture into parenthood a quarter of a century back. “Failure” was unthinkable back then – when I was a young boy and a young dad. “Failure” was judgment, condemnation, no-second-chances, embarrassment, shame. I knew then that I had to get it right, or at least pretend that I had.

What I understand better now is that failure hurts, yes, and is disappointing, embarrassing, painful, and sobering. Failure really bruises my pride. My first-blush, each time I slip on a banana peel and land on my backside, is discouragement! That’s the natural, human side of failure, and I’m as determined at 56 years of age not to fail as I was at age 6, or 26.

But what I also understand is that failure is normal. It is an everyday occurrence. It is – here’s the real crux of the matter – necessary. Failure is a gift, a necessity for growth, a condition for maturity and greatness. We don’t ever get to accomplish something awesome unless we go along the pathway filled with trips, falls, failures, beat-red faces, and learning. It’s best if we make some peace with this fact sooner, rather than later.

Failure is a gift, a necessity for growth, a condition for maturity and greatness.
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Today, I’m not going to be reflecting on the harm we bring to ourselves when we deny failure and drive ourselves toward the impossible standard of perfection. I am very familiar with the harms that lie on that pathway, so it’s an article I’m equipped to write, and maybe I will one of these days. But, today, I want to talk about the reasons that a failure is a gift.

1. Learning demands failure.
I can’t say that I like that this is true, but what I like is usually not given a vote, where the governance of reality is concerned. If I cannot mess up, I cannot grow. If I must always be right, I cannot learn. If my project has to succeed, I cannot dare great things. Why is this the case? This is the case because the only way to get through life safe-guarded from failure is to get through life doing what you already know how to do. Which is to say, you cannot get through life.

In about nine months, I’m expecting my grandson, Clarence, to begin to work on his walking skills. Maybe sooner. Knowing his dad, I’m guessing he’ll be working to get himself onto his feet as early as possible. And here’s what I know about the skillful walker, then runner, that Clarence will become. He’s going to fall down 10,000 times. He will need to try to walk, yet unable to do so, if he wants to become a fantastic walker. Failure is demanded on the way to triumph.

And the rest of life is this same way. If I want to become better, then I must endeavor to do things that I haven’t done well before. In other words, I must risk failure. And what is the surest fact of risk? It cannot always turn out well, not if it is an actual risk.

2. Failure teaches lessons.
Space does not allow me to flesh out just how awesome a school failure is. Talk about a University! Failure hauls a universe of learnings into our daily classroom, like a generous teacher with steamer trunks of cool discoveries.For example, failure teaches us to try again. Falling down teaches us to get back up. Defeat teaches us to return to the field of battle. Fundamental to our character – the willingness to press forward – is forged in the furnace of failure.

Failure also shows us that we should not try again. That is to say, failure points out to us that the pathway we were taking was the wrong pathway. When we run straight off the cliff, like Wile E. Coyote failing to notice the hairpin turn that the Road Runner pulled at the very last moment, we discover in failure that we need to go another way. Get back up, yes! Keep going forward, sometimes. And other times? Take a look around and see if, perhaps, this failure was designed to get our attention, to stop us from going too far the wrong way so that we could notice that a better pathway was just off to our right or our left, or a treasure was under our feet, or an incredible vista above our head.

3. Failure deepens our discernment.
The observant reader will note the tension in the first two “gifts” above. Failure teaches us to get back up and press forward. Failure shows us that (after we get back up) we should not keep pressing forward. The gift of failure includes building the fortitude to never say die! And the gift of failure includes developing the humility to accept defeat, change course, and get onto our truer path.

And there is no better school for the development of wisdom, discernment, and the ability to listen, assess and, yes, wait. What should I learn from that last failure? Should I learn that I need to be more resolute, or that I need to change course?

And this may be failure’s greatest gift. Failure teaches us that we must learn how to learn. Two or three smacks to the forehead by a two-by-four can get our attention, and cause us to develop the capacity to wonder about things. In my own case, it takes 20 – 30 smacks (I’m being kind right here), but the universe is unbegrudging. Life is patient, and is willing to deliver exactly the number of smacks we need so that we can become the person we are created to become.

I will never make peace with failure. I don’t like it much, to put in mildly. But nothing of worth has come into my life that didn’t get there except for the room that was made for it by a prior failure. Failure carves out necessary spaces for the blessings to fill.

Failure carves out necessary spaces for the blessings to fill.
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One of the chief requirements of eldership – for those of us who are parenting, coaching, and mentoring others – is that we must understand all of the above. We are to be kind. Grace and understanding and forgiveness and space must be granted to those we love. And those we love need the same kind of room to grow that we need.

Even though I can’t make peace with failure, I must. I can’t spare myself the bumps and bruises I bring upon myself, and those I love deserve the chance to become the awesome human beings they are to become. Which is to say, those I love deserve the chance to learn how to stand, and then to walk, and in due course, to run like the cheetah.

Photo by Melissa Harman


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Raising the Bar: Why Values Matter in the Workplace http://johnstahlwert.com/raising-the-bar-why-values-matter-in-the-workplace/ http://johnstahlwert.com/raising-the-bar-why-values-matter-in-the-workplace/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2015 17:28:18 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=965 Values are the foundation of an organization’s culture. Where Great Purpose provides the source of energy and the answer to why we work, values guide how we work and make decisions. This guidance will be intentional, or it will be unintentional, because every organization has values. The question is: “Will we choose the values that will guide us, or will we allow ourselves to be pushed around by the riptides of opportunity and crisis?”

tall grasses

Identify and Define Your Values

The enterprise that says – “We don’t waste our time on things like values. We’ve got a business to run!” – is showing us their underlying values. Examine the pattern of decisions and you’ll know what their “values statement” would say.

The business that says it values integrity, but rewards the salesperson who brings in the most business (while cutting ethical corners), is displaying its true values. The stated values are not real, of course, but the company still has values. By their fruit, you will know!

Question: Why do identifying and defining a company’s core values, and then intentionally guiding the enterprise accordingly, attract and keep extraordinary people?

Answer: Human beings won’t give their discretionary effort – their imagination, heart, conviction, or honor – to a company that that doesn’t mean what it says. Human beings often stick with a company that snubs its nose at values in order to earn a needed paycheck. However, human beings won’t go the second or third (or tenth) mile for such an enterprise.

Question: What makes great companies great?

Answer: Human beings who go the second or third (or tenth) mile, without having to be told or asked.

Question: How do you get human beings like that?

Answer: You identify and define your values. Then you do two additional things, which we’ll dive into next.

Hire, Manage and Reward Based on Values

When Paul O’Neill became Chairman and CEO of Alcoa in 1987, he informed his board and upper management that worker safety was his number one priority. But for O’Neill, a declared value had to be translated into action, into how money got spent and how managers made decisions day by day. “In every organization, written values statements all say the same thing,” he remarked later to a group of Harvard University business students. “‘Our most important asset is our people.’ There’s [very] little evidence that it’s true in most organizations.”

Making values operational was O’Neill’s preoccupation, and for him that included planning, decision-making, hiring, and firing. It also included organization, supervision, employee evaluation, and rewarding success. In fact, the world’s breakaway companies hire for values; they look for the integrity, drive, humility, respect, honesty, capacity to accept feedback, humor, courage, etc. that the company values. “Really smart” does not cut it if ego runs roughshod over everyone. “Highly competent” is always replaceable.

When O’Neill took over the reins at Alcoa, revenue was $1.5 billion. When he retired 13 years later, revenue was $23 billion. In this same period, O’Neill improved the safety record within Alcoa’s workforce of 140,000 employees from 1.86 lost workday incidents per 100 employees per year, to 0.2 lost workday incidents per 100 employees per year. His goal throughout that period was to drive that number all the way to zero.

Hold Self and Others Accountable for the Values 

People and organizations are judged based on their behavior, not their words. Trust is established and sustained based on actions not promises. Therefore, making sure that values matter starts with the actions of the leader. Leaders must walk the talk and they must ask those around them to also be held accountable for modeling the values.

People and organizations are judged based on their behavior, not their words.
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In Managing By Values, by Ken Blanchard and Michael O’Connor, an organizational chart is depicted, looking very typical in many respects. The line-level workers are depicted at the bottom. Above them are mid-level managers and above them, the executive team, then the CEO. Above the CEO is a final box on the chart, occupied by “The Company’s Values.” In other words, everyone answers to the values.

One of the CEO’s I work with told his story: “When I took over, morale was terrible, there was no standard of behavior from team to team, and the culture was Darwinian. Fear ruled. When I first introduced the importance of values, everyone was skeptical, but I stuck to my guns. In time, I won believers, and the culture began to shift. People began to test me by doing what our values said. I praised them, including when it cost us money. Naturally, I began to win more and more believers.

“One day, I was on the plant floor talking to a maintenance man, and I made a little joke – a criticism, to be honest – at the expense of one of my managers. The maintenance man became very quiet, scuffed his feet on the floor, took a deep breath, and then looked me in the eye. ‘Boss,’ he said, ‘You’ve been talking about how we should respect each other. I beg your pardon, but I don’t think that was respectful.’

“That was the day I knew that we had broken through!” the CEO concluded. “A maintenance worker called me out on a values violation! It was one of the best days of my life!”

Again, I ask the question: What makes great companies great? If you take the time and steps necessary to identify and define your values, then hire, manage, and reward based upon those values, and ultimately hold yourself and others accountable for those values, you will have created a great company full of great people who will always go the extra mile for you. It all starts with leaders and managers who want to translate their “good intentions” to be people of high ethical standards into people who can be counted upon to live out those values in their organizations every day.


Photo by Melissa Harman


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Grandpa Reflects On The Growing-Up Process http://johnstahlwert.com/grandpa-reflects-on-the-growing-up-process/ http://johnstahlwert.com/grandpa-reflects-on-the-growing-up-process/#comments Wed, 18 Feb 2015 02:24:35 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=939 I’ve had the privilege of holding many titles over a lifetime, and each title has brought me insights, opportunities, and, as is true about everything in life, challenges.

I was, first of all, “son,” and then became “student” and in my early teens, “believer.” Soon enough I added “graduate,” and in due course, “employee.” At 22 years of age, I added “husband” to the list of titles, this one being of an entirely different magnitude than most. I could fill a library on the learning that has accompanied being “husband” over the past 35 years.

Soon after becoming “husband,” I added “pastor,” and then “founder,” “entrepreneur,” “author,” and then – oh my – “daddy.” With “daddy” would come a second library of discovery, learning, and growth.

For quite a while, the titles that have tacked themselves on have been of relative unimportance when compared to “son” and “believer” and “husband” and “daddy.” I did add “president,” “doctor,” “CEO,” and “chairman” to the list in due course, and probably a few more, if I really scratched my head.

But this week, my “title” took a very decisive turn; this week, I became “grandpa.” This week, I stood by, doing very little of actual use in the process, as my daughter promoted me to one of the most apt titles ever named. “Grand” it is, for sure, to be “grandpa.”

And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. The work I do with leaders to help them understand their obligations to the people they serve, is work I pray will be done in the life of my 3-day-old grandson. He needs what every person who works for one of the leaders that I serve, needs.

My grandson needs to discover his purpose. He needs to be told that his life has purpose, first of all, and then helped to see the connection points between his ordinary day-to-day activities and the “great purposes” for which he lives.

My grandson needs to be shown that he is of value, that he is beloved and worthwhile and a treasure. Beyond what he does, accomplishes, and creates, or how well he performs, he will need people who value him simply because of the being that he is.

My grandson needs to learn that there are trustworthy people in the world, that there are men and women who are as good as their word, who keep promises, and who are faithful. He will need to learn about integrity and character from others so that he can become a boy and a man of virtue.

And, my grandson needs to discover his mission and passion and gifting. He will need guides that don’t merely observe what tasks he can perform well, but who have the insight and sensitivity to encourage him in areas of great excitement and motivation. What he’s good at is one thing; what makes his heart sing is another.

What I’ve been thinking, as these observations wash over me, is that we get the chance in this life – by “we,” I mean all of us – to serve in some manner the growing-up process of the human beings we encounter. Every man or woman you meet is somewhere down the path from that moment when, like my grandson, they were ushered into the world. Can we look at them as I look upon my grandson, devoted to do our part in nurturing them along in their journey? Can we invest in those around us, even if our part may seem small, with the knowledge that they are precious and deserving of our very best?

“We get the chance in this life to serve the growing-up process of those we encounter.”
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“Leader” is one more title I’ve held in my life. And you hold this title, “leader,” too. Becoming a “grandpa” has added a dimension of urgency to this title “leader.” My grandson will need countless men and women in his life who help bring him along. He’ll need good leaders. And there are thousands of other “grandpas” and “grandmas,” “dads” and “moms,” who we can serve, whose prayers we can help answer, as we bring guidance and encouragement and growth to the people around us.

As you walk around this week inside your “leadership” title, look at the people you serve through the lens of “grandpa” or “grandma.” The people you lead are precious. They need tremendous input in their lives. And you have the opportunity to play a role, however small.

This reminds me of the great line by Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, paraphrased as follows: “I have an imagination that every encounter I have with another human being, however brief, holds within it the potentiality of changing the trajectory of that person’s life forever.” Cathy is right to imagine our human encounters in this way. We have an impact on those around us, and it matters. It is good for us to contemplate this, and to bring ourselves to bear upon those around us as positively as we can.

As a brand new “grandpa,” I’m counting on you to do just that!


Photo by Melissa Harman / Newton Consulting


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My New Adventure http://johnstahlwert.com/my-new-adventure/ http://johnstahlwert.com/my-new-adventure/#comments Fri, 13 Feb 2015 17:59:44 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=927

Dear friends and colleagues,

As part of my commitment to grow in service to you, I am proud and excited to share that I recently joined longstanding companions at Newton Consulting and that Serving Ventures has become the heart of Newton Institute’s Center for Serving Leadership. Allow me to share a few of the specifics, and then say a word about what this means for us all.

On January 6, 2015, I was named President of the Newton Institute (a subsidiary of Newton Consulting) and Director of the Center for Serving Leadership. Newton Consulting is a global consulting company that has systematically embedded The Serving Leader into its core operating principles, sharing our focus on values and on serving people and customers. I have felt deeply aligned with the company and with its founder Rick Newton, and recognized that together, we could do greater things. In this new role, I will continue to give leadership to our vision to spread the message and practice of Serving Leadership worldwide. The key impact of this change is the immense strength and deep values alignment we gain through the extraordinary team we have joined.

Our primary work – leading Serving Leader Cohorts in cities around the world, embedding Serving Leader Practices inside great companies, hosting the Annual Serving Leader Conference in Pittsburgh, Pa., and certifying Serving Leader Trainers – will be carried forward by the Center for Serving Leadership without interruption. In addition to these historical practices, the Center for Serving Leadership is now prepared to reach more cities with Serving Leader resources and to invest ourselves in more partners who share our passion for building a world-wide community of Serving Leader practitioners.

I look forward to hearing from you and to continuing our work together. Thank you so very much for the privilege of being your colleague!

Video image by Joe Shannon / Newton Consulting


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Little White Lies http://johnstahlwert.com/little-white-lies/ http://johnstahlwert.com/little-white-lies/#comments Tue, 10 Feb 2015 20:30:23 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=908 On Saturday I spent half a day with 100 resident advisers and resident directors at Grove City College, a Christian college located in western Pennsylvania. I work with this group each year as part of their leadership development program, offering stories and some teaching to encourage their growth and development in leadership (and life).


As I have written on this subject before, it strikes me as borderline unconscionable that our education system, from high school through college and into graduate school, aspires to produce top performers in various professions but does not prepare their students for the guaranteed result, namely, that graduates who distinguish themselves in their chosen profession will be promoted to leadership. And leadership is not what the school prepared them to know how to do.

You can read a bit more on this, if you like, in prior blogs such as THIS .

On Saturday, I focused half of my teaching time on the character requirements of leadership, and administered a little tool I developed several years ago called a “Personal Integrity Assessment.” Feel free to ask me about getting a copy of that. I will be glad to arrange a way to distribute it without charge.

I was struck, speaking to these bright and deeply committed senior classmen, by how mystifying integrity and ethics can be for us mere mortals as we venture into our lives and work. Two of these challenges are nearly always voiced when I help leaders get clearer on the imperative on integrity, and when I help them get stronger in their ethical constitution.

  1. We don’t know how to grow our personal ethicalness. I have heard is said many times that a person discovers what kind of ethical man or ethical woman they are in a moment of great crisis. This is fair enough, as great tests reveal a lot about us. In many situations, though, our moral fiber and ethical constitution does not get hard pressed under scrutiny, which causes us to think that we aren’t actually building our character in life’s ordinary events. A big challenge reveals what is there, to be sure.But it would be a terrific mistake to conclude that big ethical challenges create our ethical constitution. The opposite is the case, in fact. Our integrity, our virtue, our ethics – our character – are built up over time, small piece by small piece. We can grow our integrity with tremendous intentionality in ordinary day-to-day activities because our actual growth process depends upon everyday occurrences that we can learn to notice, reflect upon, and improve. The Personal Integrity Assessment works at these “fine motor skills” of human character, tuning and shaping a person’s conscientiousness in small things. When we are faithful in small things, we become prepared for faithfulness in larger things. There are no “little” white lies.
  2. We have what one might call “perverse norms” – things we believe but which just aren’t true (I call these things “ungodly beliefs”). A perverse norm that many adhere to is that doing the right thing is not always the most “responsible act.” I will not drag us into a philosophical conversation here, but there is a broad train of thought, even held by highly respected people, that being responsible and grown up requires a person, from time to time, to violate one’s code of ethics (regrettably, to be sure, but quite necessarily in any event). Given the fact that this philosophical train of thought is pervasive, questions always come up like this one; “In this case story the super star doctor was fired after months of being unsuccessfully coached by the CEO because of his violation of the hospital’s value of “Respect,” for coworkers. While it’s true that the doctor disrespected, belittled and demeaned the nurses and support staff of the hospital, and that this was a clear violation of the hospital’s values, what if firing that doctor had led to the hospital losing money because of the doctor’s fame, and what if the hospital losing money would have led to the hospital closing its doors? Isn’t there a greater good in accepting ethical violations if taking a stand for your ethics destroys the company or denies patients the health care they need?”I have heard a version of this question many, many times. It is said that there is only one reason to do the right thing, and that reason is that it is the right thing to do. This is incontrovertibly true. When we decide to calculate the results of our ethical choices verses our unethical choices, we move to a land of quicksand, high speculation, and impossible calculation. Who’s to know what will happen after we do the thing that we do? And given our penchant for the easy path and the self-serving path, we should be absolutely dubious of any clever calculation about whether, in this instance, we should or should not do what is right.

Subject for another time, the data from a world of leadership and decision-making is fantastically in favor of integrity. True enough, when we “do the right thing,” the results are not always what we want them to be. More often then not, though, doing the right thing is just plain smart.

“More often then not, though, doing the right thing is just plain smart.”
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Regardless, when it comes to ethical decision-making and given how little we understand and can predict, there is only one policy to live by. Do the right thing. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.

Our world is in desperate need of men and women who devote themselves to virtue, to morality, and to the tuning of their ethical compass! Our world is crying out for people who display the moral courage to do what’s right because it’s right. Of course, in a day of increasing moral relativism, everything I wrote in the paragraphs above is pure nonsense. Relativists grin at the idea that there is even a right thing that can be declared to be “right.” But you who are reading this are, I’m entirely confident, not of that particular crowd.


Photo by Toni Kellar


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Want to Win Some Gold Stars? http://johnstahlwert.com/want-to-win-some-gold-stars/ http://johnstahlwert.com/want-to-win-some-gold-stars/#comments Fri, 06 Feb 2015 17:47:38 +0000 admin http://johnstahlwert.com/?p=893 At the end of this year, Milonica and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. I’ve been reflecting on the learning experience these 35 years have been, and I notice that there are some parallels to our learning experience as members of organizational teams. Marriage is, obviously, a one-of-a-kind human institution – a sacrament – and it has unique dimensions that stand all on their own. But marriage also contains a treasure trove of learning that is directly useful to reflect upon for other areas of life.


One of the things that I’ve learned from my marriage to Milonica over these decades is that, well, people change. I am not writing today for the purpose of giving marriage counsel (or, for that matter, to address the subject of divorce) but I will say that perhaps the most lame excuse I have heard over the years for divorce is precisely this point. “I guess we just changed,” couples have said to me, to which I have replied, “well of course you did!” To be alive and aware and interesting – to merely be conscious – is to change. Blaming a broken marriage on change would be roughly analogous to explaining that you quit your job because it involved work.

About half a marriage ago I joked that I had already been married to 5 different women. Of course, the 5 women I had been married to by that point were all named Milonica. My point then, as my point now, is that the woman I married had changed. And then changed again. I don’t make that joke any more, as the count has gotten pretty large by now.

And, fair enough, I have changed too. In fact, if you had shown me a film, back when I was 22 years old and newly married, staring the 56-year-old self that I am today, I may have been both shocked and disturbed by the prospect that I would become what I have quite happily become.

We change. We learn. New things become possible that did not used to be even thinkable. We accumulate experience and hopefully gain perspective and even wisdom in the process.

A close look at the data on job satisfaction shows that a common reason great employees leave their work is that they want an opportunity to be stretched, to grow, and to become something new. Many leaders think of workers as hirelings who have solved a problem by fitting themselves into the workforce puzzle, thus filling a spot that needing filling. How wonderful to have someone who fills a spot! When we have such a person, we don’t have to worry anymore about that particular gap in our puzzle.

But this is a short-sighted view, and maybe cold-hearted, too. Sure enough, great employees are always providing relief by picking up the slack and taking care of things that the boss no longer needs to worry about. Great workers are a treasure because they pull their own weight and cover the bases and allow their leaders to focus elsewhere on the challenges and opportunities that must be addressed.

But a great worker is a human being in motion. That person is growing and changing and learning and adapting. A great worker will not remain the same, and a long employment “marriage” requires that we both make room for a person to change and indeed encourage it.

“a great worker is a human being in motion.”
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Marriages get in ruts. Managers also get in ruts. We get comfortable with the way things work. And if it’s working, then why fix it. Read these words through either the lens of marriage or the lens of management, and you’ll find use in them. It is important, when we stare across the breakfast table or the assembly line, that we make room to discover that the person staring back at us might have some surprises up her sleeve. And the courageous leader, like the courageous mate, leaves room in the relationship to discover new things, to change up the routines and expectations, and to gain new ground.

I am deeply thankful for the long learning journey of my marriage to Milonica. I did not say that I always like the learning that takes place, or that the journey is nice and smooth. I said, rather, that I am thankful, because the journey is good.

Here’s a fact of life, which is as true in intimate human relationships as it is in impactful organizational relationships. If the relationship is good and excellent and fruitful and vibrant, then change and learning and adaptation will be nearly continuous. We are given periods of time when we may catch our breath, certainly, times to rest at a place of achievement, moments of accomplishment when we can pause to look back with satisfaction and to celebrate. We are allowed such times, and indeed we must from time to time pause and rest and stand perfectly still.

But what we are not allowed to do is lock our breaks and dig our heals permanently into the ground, shouting, “No more change!” If it is good, it will keep changing.

Here’s a question to consider asking someone who is special or valuable to you. “In order for this (working) relationship to keep being great for you, is there anything that needs to change?” Extra gold stars to you if you ask that question, and mean it!


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