Apologies 101: Make Things Right

You know you made the right decision. 

And the decision was well made.

The problem is the results were not.

So now you’re on the hot seat.

People are clamoring for your head.

What do you do?

Apologize!

Every good apology has three operative elements: acknowledgment, acceptance and amends.

Acknowledge the wrong. First, say you are sorry for what occurred. People may be suffering. Acknowledge the pain and the loss. Make it known you understand their pain. Demonstrate empathy by showing compassion.

Accept the consequences. Shoulder the blame. Make it known that you hold yourself accountable and will work to rectify the situation. In the wake of the failed invasion in the Bay of Pigs, President John Kennedy, just four months in office, said, “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.”

Make amends. People are disappointed, frustrated, and maybe even disillusioned. They don’t want speeches; they want actions. Talk about what you and your team will do immediately. Get working on the problems and take corrective measures.

No excuses!

Keep in mind an operative principle of apologies. It’s not about you. It’s about them. A leader who discusses everything he did to avoid the mistake may tell the truth, but those suffering do not want to hear it. Instead, they want to know that the person responsible for the error is focused on making things better.

Good apologies all contain one key element: no finger-pointing. A senior leader often makes an apology, even when she may not be directly responsible. But as the top person, it becomes your job to own the situation. So you don’t point fingers. Instead, you swallow your pride, and you take the heat.

Anyone can make excuses except those in charge. “Never ruin a good apology with an excuse,” said Ben Franklin.  You can provide the backstory, but when you do make it clear that you are not excusing yourself, you are merely giving context. Own the decision and its consequences.

Doing this will make people recognize that you have something we all want: a backbone. By making amends and correcting the situation, you create a path forward for your team, your organization, and maybe your reputation.

Move forward

No leader makes the right calls at the right time. But great leaders make things right when things go wrong. As Winston Churchill once quipped, “Success in life is the ability to move from one mistake to another without losing enthusiasm.” Defeat is not the end unless you let it define you. 

There are, of course, mistakes that require the leader to step down. But, in the grand scheme of things, those occasions are rare. When they involve moral transgression, removal from the position is a good thing. When they include mistakes in judgment, regard them as “teachable moments.”

Apologies are but the first step toward creating a better future. Forget this at your peril.

First posted on SmartBrief on 8.20.2021

How to Remember 2020

No one wants to relive 2020. It was a year of pandemic, racial strife, economic crisis and climate catastrophes. This year, 2021 promises to be better; people are being vaccinated, jobs are returning, and a degree of congregant life is returning. Social injustice remains a scourge, but there is an awakening and renewed need for and action with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Amid this hope, if we close our minds to 2020, we will be doing ourselves a disservice. We experienced a world turned genuinely upside-down. If we shut our minds to what we experienced, we will have missed a great lesson. It is a lesson forged in loss of proximity, jobs and health. We cannot forget, nor should we, what we experienced as a culture and as individuals.

Lessons to remember

And so, we need to grieve. Millions around the world have died. Many millions more have lost jobs. Some even their identities as people who work and contribute. We must commemorate these losses in our memories and keep the memories of loved ones close to our hearts.

We need to be resilient. Good news. We are. We did not endure the suffering of this past year by lying down. We stood tall as possible and continued working when possible, educating our children, and most of all, caring for the sick. We, as a people, answered the call. Our losses have transformed us. We are resilient.

We need to act with empathy. What occurred with disease and hardship was a discovery that viruses do not distinguish between rich and poor, though the latter are more at risk. We re-discovered our humanity, the very fabric that binds us together as humans. Caring for one another is innate.

And we need to celebrate. We have endured a year that was something unprecedented. We survived. We made it. That is no small accomplishment. Our joy in what comes next should not blind us to our losses. Instead, it should remind us of their sacrifice. 

Challenge for leaders

Leaders can serve as beacons of hope. Reminding us of the past but pointing toward a better future. The values we held in January 2020 will be the values that help us create the “new normal.” It will build upon what we have learned and is enriched by the sacrifices we have made.

In the final battle scene of Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), lying mortally wounded, pulls Private Ryan (Matt Damon) close and says, “Earn this.” It was the captain’s last order; make the sacrifice of war worth it in your future life.

Our challenge is the same. And we can earn it with our example. Let us work together to make our future more prosperous, more generous, more compassionate. That would be a fitting tribute to a year of trouble and tribulation. We have endured.

We suffer together. We persist together.

We will emerge, let’s hope, a better people.

But if we are, it will involve personal change.

Each of us is doing what we can.

Adapted from themes of Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World.

First posted on SmartBrief.com on 5/28/2021

John Baldoni: Grace Notes Promo

The Icemaker Died

The other day, right before the Fourth of July weekend, the ice maker in our refrigerator died. The weather was hot, and the gin and tonics were ill-suited to warmth. 

Days later I called a repair service, noting lightheartedly that not having an icemaker was hardly a big deal. The service rep lowered her voice, saying that I would be surprised at how many people regard having a broken icemaker as a catastrophe. “If not having an icemaker is the worst thing to happen to me this year,” I quipped, “then it will be a good year.” The service rep laughed in agreement. 

Too often, we get distracted, annoyed even when things, little things, don’t go our way. It’s easy to become frustrated, and in doing so, we forget just how fortunate we are. A flight delay. A missed dinner. A dying appliance. These annoy us, but in the grand scheme of life, they are trivial. In years to come, such inconveniences are not likely to be remembered.

Gain perspective

We must put life into perspective. Easy to say. Our irritation blinds us to reality.

We have endured a year and a half of disappointment and delusion—as well as exclusion and isolation. And we’re still here. The pandemic persists, but we are coming back slowly to a different form of life. Not the same, but different. In some ways, it is richer because of what we have experienced.

We have been tested, and we have survived. Not everyone did. More than 600,000 Americans died. Millions lost their jobs. Three million women exited the workforce. Those are tragedies. They are benchmarks of actual loss. Annoyances come and go. Losses live as scars in our memories.

A novel lesson

The novelist J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.” For him, this statement was true. Tolkien was a young officer in what his generation of Britons called The Great War. He fought at the Battle of the Somme. After the war, Tolkien returned taught medieval literature at Oxford. He also raised a family and told his sons stories that would become great novels of fantasy in time. Fires and dragons do die out, leaving in their wake the possibility of renewal. 

So, take a deep breath.

Exhale slowly.

Remind yourself of your blessings

Take another deep breath.

Exhale slowly. 

Smile in gratitude.

First posted on Forbes.com 7/23/2021

Two Faces of Courage

In his book, Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy, then a senator, wrote about three pressures that kept his fellow senators from acting with courage. that kept his fellow senators from acting with courage. 

While Kennedy wrote about what he called “political courage,” his insights apply beyond the legislative chambers. Anyone in leadership is prone to such pressures. 

The three pressures

“The first pressure to be mentioned,” wrote Kennedy, “is a form of pressure rarely recognized by the general public, Americans want to be liked – and Senators are no exception.” The same applies to many people in positions of authority. It is so much easier to get along with people if they like you. At the same time, if the price of being liked is to forgo hard decisions, the costs can be ruinous. The role of a leader is to make hard choices. Often those choices are not between right and wrong, but rather between two rights (whom to hire or whom to promote) or two “bad” (what people to let go).

Kennedy got to the root of political expediency with his next statement about pressure. “It is thinking of the next campaign – the desire to be re-elected – that provides the second pressure on the conscientious Senator.” Politicians run for office and want to stay there. Same for executives. Their campaigns for higher office are not in public, but they are long and arduous. They involve doing what it takes to move up the proverbial ladder. They may endure hardships in the form of long hours, time away from family, and even competition from rivals. Better to keep your head down and go with the flow than decide that while good, your boss is, in reality, bad for the team.

“The third and most significant source of pressures which discourage political courage in the conscientious Senator or Congressman,” Kennedy wrote, “is the pressure of his constituency, the interest groups, the organized letter writers, the economic blocs and even the average voter.” Outside pressure is nothing new to senior executives; no business operates in a vacuum, and it should be responsive to the needs of its stakeholders. At the same time, when what’s good for business is bad for the community, or what’s good for the community is bad for business, the executives must make the tough calls.

Courage is the ability to remain resolute in the face of crisis, show bravery and persevere in adversity. Doing so with grace under pressure is the mark of leadership, an example that encourages others to follow.

Adapted from Forbes.com 5/14/2021

Aim Low and Be Happier

Keep your expectations low.

That’s the “advice” a friend of mine and fellow golfer once received from a golf pro he had hired for lessons. That line has been the source of much teasing amongst us fellow golfers. “How cruel” and “How low,” we say as we laugh, knowing in our hearts that the advice applies to us hackers as much as it does to our friends.

On the surface, the comment is cutting. I mean, you pay for a guy to help you improve your game, and after watching you take a few swings, he insults you. Oooh, that hurts. Your pocketbook and your ego!

Viewed from a different perspective, the advice is precious. I recall reading that comedian Don Rickles, the king of insult comedy, learned to enjoy golf when he realized he was lousy at it and likely would always be lousy. And so, he began to enjoy the game for what it was. A game played with friends.

As a “high handicap golfer” (the correct term these days is “recreational golfer”), I take solace in Mr. Rickles. Whenever I struggle on the course, most of the time, I remind myself that golf is fun. It’s a game I do enjoy, despite my high scores. It is a game that keeps you humble. So whenever I hear the pros talk about being good one day and not the next, I shake my head. My golf prowess waxes and wanes from shot to shot.

Golf teaches humility. As my friend Stew says, “what the golf gods giveth, the golf gods taketh.” (Pretty sure that passage is in the King James Bible somewhere.) We usually invoke this “scripture” when one of us scores a double bogey after a previous birdie. Humility is essential to golf, and I dare say, life itself.

A more positive view

So, ‘keep your expectations low” is less a warning than a gift of enlightenment. When you keep your expectations low, you will be surprised at what you can accomplish. The sentiment is not about trying harder; it focuses on what you can do rather than what you cannot do.

This advice is not permission to slack off; instead, it’s a suggestion to throttle down your ambition. Ambition is necessary to achievement; without the will and the drive to succeed, you are adrift. Conversely, when personal industry is coupled with purpose, great things can occur.

Or not.

Relentless pursuit of what is not attainable is fruitless. Perfection in golf is impossible; only a relative handful, no more than a few hundred worldwide, have the opportunity to compete for serious money and recognition. The rest of us are pikers. That may doom us to obscurity golf-wise, but not in our own lives.

Being realistic about what you can is a demonstration of self-awareness. My colleague, Tasha Eurich, Ph.D. author of Insight, proves that self-awareness is often elusive in her research. Only a fraction of us—under 20%—are genuinely self-aware. So when we hear “keep your expectations low,” and accept it. We are acknowledging our limitations.

Live within your aims

Such a perception is no excuse for not pursuing our goals with full vigor and total commitment. Instead, it is merely an acknowledgment that we can only achieve so much, and we accept it. Acceptance, in psychological terms, is the first step toward realizing limitations. And in a world where we are bombarded by messages that urge us to aim high, higher and highest, this self-acknowledgment is a refreshing antidote.

So yes, keep your expectations low and your pursuit of satisfaction high.

First posted on Forbes.com 7/02/2021

On This Fourth of July


“United we stand” seems an odd notion

In our time of division.

We speak now more of what divides us

than what unites us. 

Division is what brought us to now.

We separated from an Empire to become a Republic.

We separated races so one could serve another.

We separated into North and South for Civil War.

Division has led to distrust, disharmony, and dispute

Always simmering, on the surface and below.

Division may be our heritage, but it is not our destiny.

We are a nation built upon an ideal.

That freedom is not an aspiration but a foundation.

We fought to preserve that foundation against threats, foreign and domestic.

Freedom earned is freedom preserved.

It, however, cannot flourish we deny the responsibilities freedom demands.

Respect. Justice. Liberty.

No country offers the bounty we have.

In terms of resources and opportunities.

Our motto is E pluribus unum.

“Out of many, one.”

Our strength lies not solely with our might.

It is rooted in our dreams, our duties, and our determination.

United we stand.

Happy Birthday, America! 

First posted on LinkedIn on July 4, 2021

Wither Wisdom?


Recognizing Wisdom

Recognizing wisdom is a matter of observation. Life is seldom tidy and learning occurs at the edges when we may least expect it. Learning often occurs when we least expect it: a defeat, an act of compassion, a note of love. 

Recognizing wisdom is a matter of choice. It comes from within us. We decide to keep our minds open so that we give it proper attention when we experience a learning moment. Easy to say, certainly, but hard to implement because we are so wrapped up in the bustle of our own lives that we ignore the obvious.

The sheltering our pandemic has induced has made it easier to pay attention. Our public lives are limited; we are closed off from the broader commerce of the world. We stay in touch via electronic media, but we remain rooted to our same location. That forced isolation creates an opportunity—not altogether welcome—to observe our surroundings. After all, there is not much else to do.

Smell the flowers, yes. But make time to breathe. Listen to the air going in. And out. Discipline yourself to notice what you have not seen before. Pause for effect, not just for others but for yourself.

Implementing wisdom

Implementing wisdom may be a harder nut for the reason that a good lesson requires change. As we so often hear, change is good, as long as it does not affect us personally. Adopting a new lesson is personal, a commitment to think differently, to do differently. Overcoming our shortcomings requires work to form new habits: physical (diet, exercise, rest), mental (modes of thought), and spiritual (purposeful reframing).

Acting on wisdom

How do we act on wisdom?

Work hard to understand yourself. 

Pay attention. 

Attend to what you have observed.

Do not fear your shortcomings.

Use them as your guides to move forward.

Take heart from your failures.

Gain lessons from your mistakes.

Forgive yourself so you can forgive others.

Demonstrate kindness to yourself as a means of expressing kindness to others.

Practice, practice, practice.

“A person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he values,” wrote Marcus Aurelius in Meditations. When you value learning and the company of others who share the same value, wisdom will accompany you. 

One step, one lesson, at a time.

Adapted from Forbes.com 4.22.2o21

Find Your Own Safe Space


When Ocean Vuong learned that his uncle had died, he took a long walk through the streets of New York City. His uncle whose death was a suicide was only three years older than Vuong; the two had been close. As Vuong walked, he noticed something, which he explained in an interview with Krista Tippet, host of NPR’s On Being.

“I kept seeing these fire escapes. And I said, what happens if we had that? What is the linguistic existence of a fire escape, that we can give ourselves permission to say, ‘Are you really OK? I know we’re talking, but, you want to step out on the fire escape, and you can tell me the truth?’”

Vuong, an author, poet, and MacArthur fellow, relates this concept to hide our sense of vulnerability. That is, if you are feeling low or depressed, you hide it rather than reveal it. “I think we’ve built shame into vulnerability, and we’ve sealed it off in our culture — ‘Not at the table. Not at the dinner table. Don’t say this here… This is not cocktail conversation.’” Vong adds, “We police access to ourselves. And the great loss is that we can move through our whole lives, picking up phones and talking to our most beloveds, and yet, still not know who they are. Our ‘how are you’ has failed us. And we have to find something else.”

Vuong, who immigrated from Vietnam as a child, is touching on a very private topic. Marshall Goldsmith, the world’s leading executive coach and best-selling author, speaks of the concept of being on stage, that is, always being upbeat. It is true for coaches with their clients as well as for executives being coached. We know how to put up a good front. As business people, this is fine; it is standard practice among professionals.

Isolation

At the same time, if we keep our vulnerability bottled inside and tell no one, we induce isolation. We cut ourselves off from sources of comfort, solace and counsel. We gradually withdraw into a kind of shelter of our own making. We may trick ourselves into believing we are protecting ourselves when in reality, we may be imprisoning our true selves.

My colleague Terry Jackson Ph.D., a change management consultant and executive coach, likes to say that we all need hope. Hope is foundational to our ability to look beyond our present circumstances. Without hope, there is only darkness. With hope, there can be light, even if it too may not be as bright as we would like it. If we shelter our inner selves from others too much, we also rob ourselves of finding hope, the kind that comes from knowing that we are not alone.

It is not easy to reveal one’s vulnerabilities. That’s why you need a “fire escape.” For Vuong, a writer, the fire escape is a linguist metaphor for “being off stage.” What is required is trust and bravery. You need to trust the person with whom you share your story. And you need to be brave about what you will share. 

Be of service

This sharing is an opportunity for others to serve us. As Terry Jackson says, service is our true purpose. While we think of helping others, we can expect the same from others. Give them a chance to serve us. In time we can do the same. Service enables us to fulfill the needs of others and at the same time fulfill our purpose.

And so, we must find our fire escapes, a place to be ourselves, openly, honestly, and hopefully.

Note: Ocean Vuong first described the fire escape metaphor in an essay for Rumpus titled “The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation.”

First posted on Forbes.com 3/17/21

Richard Feynman’s Lessons for Life (and Leaders)

Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965. 

Making the complex understandable was a specialty of Dr. Feynman. Even though seriously ill with cancer, Feynman signed on to the committee investigate the Challenge space shuttle explosion in 1986. In testimony before a congressional committee, 

Feynman dipped  O-ring composite material into a glass of ice water to demonstrate how cold makes rubber brittle. It was an O-ring failure that triggered the explosion.

Feynman was a brilliant scientist, yet unlike so many scientists, he was a gifted teacher and beloved by his students at the California Institute of Technology. In addition to physics, he shared life lessons. Here are eight classes he wrote that have become widely known and have implications for students of leadership. (Feynman’s words are in bold.)

Work hard. Discipline is essential to mastering your craft. It takes years to learn it.

What others think of you is none of your business. Don’t become distracted by opinion and hearsay. Focus on your job.

It’s OK not to have all the answers. Very important. Leaders are not know-it-alls. When you flout how much you know, you realize that no one cares. No one likes a show-off.

Experiment, Fail, Learn and Repeat. Leadership is often a matter of experimentation. Leaders base decisions on assumptions they believe are correct. If results do not equal expectations, it is important to try again.

Knowledge comes from experience. There is no shame in failing; shame comes from disregarding the lessons learned from failure.

Imagination is important. Leaders need to make it safe for people to think big. Encourage people to pursue ideas as a means of adding to the greater whole.

Do what interests you the most. Teams only move forward when the goals inspire them. The pursuit of big goals is true in sports as it is in life. Think big and act bigger.

Stay curious. Curiosity keeps a leader’s imagination fresh. A curious leader is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and its application to problems in need of a solution.

Two principles

Following these lessons apply not merely to nascent scientists but are sound principles for leaders to follow for two reasons. One, they keep the leader’s ego in check and remind her that failure is part of the human condition, humility is essential, and the pursuit of knowledge takes commitment. Two, they remind the leader that it is his responsibility to foster curiosity and enable people to try and try again. Failure comes from having put yourself out there. Organizations only grow when leaders and followers alike are willing, as Feynman encouraged, to “experiment, fail, learn and repeat.”

Leadership by nature is not a set of aphorisms. It is both practice and art, as well as an example. Rules such as those by Feynman and others remind us that it is also a quest, a journey that requires self-learning that applied well leads to self-knowledge and, ultimately, the self-confidence necessary to lead others.

Thank you, Dr. Feynman.

First posted on SmartBrief.com 3/26/21

Burnout Stops with Self-Care

“Employers need to be mindful of the pace of work demanded from their teams and the impact on the teams’ effectiveness,” said Dr. Millard Brown, senior vice president of medical affairs at Spring Health and a practicing psychiatrist by training, in an interview with me. “There are times when a hard push is necessary. Leaders need to balance the hard push times with other times to take a breath and catch up.”

Self-care for leaders sets the right example. “Leaders should actively encourage self-care by team members and lead by example,” Brown said. “Keep an eye out for employees who demonstrate a change in work engagement and proactively seek to understand and support any concerns.”

The problem with burnout is that it feeds on itself, particularly in crisis times, such as we are living in now. “Most of us likely need to spend more time with self-care, as we are often harder on ourselves than we are on those around us,” Brown said. “As burnout takes hold, we tend to neglect our self-care further.”

Company intervention

Companies can help prevent burnout from occuring. The challenge is to act promptly and proactively. “Once an employee reaches the complete burnout stage,” said Brown in the news release, “recovery can become a challenging and long-term process that significantly disrupts both the employee’s life and the organization’s efficacy.”

There should be no shame in burnout. “Do not judge me by my successes,” said Nelson Mandela. “Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” The ability to rise again is a form of resilience.

Getting back up again is not easy. It takes two forms of courage. One, to recognize that you are not as strong as you thought you are. Two, you are stronger than you think you are. This approach is not a mind game. Recognize we all have shortcomings, and by acknowledging them, you can forge a path forward.

Adapted from my post for SmartBrief.com 12/18/2020