Three Lessons in Speaking Out

Anyone following the news in the past year or knows of Fiona Hill, the White House advisor for Eastern European affairs. She was called to testify before Congress as a “fact witness” related to the Trump Administration’s interactions with Russia and Ukraine. Her testimony was solid, and she gained positive recognition for her steadfast demeanor and professionalism.

We did not know that Fiona Hill was also acting—not dissembling but delivering her presentation in an ice-cold room. As she told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Hill had been given a heads up by a woman colleague who said that men in suits liked the room cold so they would not be seen sweating under the lights. That is cold comfort for women, of course. 

The backstory

Ms. Hill’s insights into the presentation, which come from her memoir, There Is Nothing for You Here, provides an inside look at the relations between Trump and Vladimir Putin and the Administration’s handling of the Ukraine issue.

Before she testified in public, she was subject to scrutiny. Immediately, the team of lawyers told her, ‘Well, we’ll need to have someone to do your hair and your makeup, and we’ll need to kind of figure out how you look on the day.’ And I felt, ‘Really? Do they do this for men as well?’” As she explained, she thought she had put such things behind her, but as she concluded, “I always thought when I was younger, like ‘God, I’m not going to be 14 forever, and eventually this won’t matter.’ And you get to be 54, and it still matters, particularly if you’re a woman.”

Years earlier, however, Hill’s undistinguished looks may have given her a front-row seat to history. It was 2004, and she was seated next to Vladimir Putin. Hill was told later that it was because she was not beautiful and would not draw attention to herself. A man, she was told, would be noticed and the subject to speculation about who he was. A woman in her late thirties who was dressed plainly would not.

Steel yourself to speak

These stories, and many more, illustrate the discrepancy between how women and men are treated in public settings. None of her stories are unusual, save for the backdrop of international affairs and history. What is remarkable is Fiona Hill’s strong sense of self. And for that reason, her insight into public presentation has relevance. 

Plan ahead. For presentations, know your audience. What do they expect from you, and what will you deliver? Ideally, you constantly tailor your presentation to the audience, but you may want to hold sensitive topics back until asked in certain situations. 

Know the terrain. Fiona Hill knew the room would be cold, and she took the advice of a woman colleague who told her to plant her feet firmly on the floor as a means of physically grounding herself against the chill. Such a stance also enabled Ms. Hill to stay calm and allow her adrenaline to kick in.

Believe in yourself. Self-awareness is essential to demeanor. What you know about yourself can give you the confidence to stand up to challenges, either verbal or career-wise. In addition, taking stock of your strengths will buttress the negative emotions that may arise in times of crisis.

Fiona Hill has served her adopted country for decades as an analyst and advisor.  When the light of history shone its brightest on her, she delivered a lesson in maintaining composure as well as credibility.

Adapted from 00.00.2021

Colin Powell: Legacy Matters

Listening to the comments of those he worked with, we come away with a picture of Colin Powell that is very much aligned with our impressions of him, but more so now that he has died.

A general. A warfighter. A peacemaker. A diplomat. A mentor. 

Retired admiral James Stavridisspeaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Powell’s sense of civility and grace. Our impression of generals is too often that of bold, brash and take charge. Powell did the latter well, but he did it with a worldview shaped by his background and his service as a frontline combat soldier. 

No one hates war more than soldiers do, Stravridis said, quoting William Tecumseh Sherman and applying it to Powell. Having seen the cost of war up close and personally in Vietnam, he sought to avoid it. But, if it were inevitable, as seen in the first Gulf War, it must be waged vigorously and with the end in sight. 

Sadly, no exit strategy was in sight, as Secretary of State in 2003 made a case for war in Iraq because it was believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, at least by the Bush administration. None were found. Powell advised President Bush against the war and later came to regret his role in it and admitted it publicly. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” Powell told Barbara Walters on ABC News, acknowledging that his presentation “will always be a part of my record.”

Working the system

Fortunately, Powell contributed much more. He was a pragmatist. As a diplomat, Powell understood how governments work and how governance needed to be in place. 

Powell was a people person. Richard Haass, a friend of more than 40 years who first worked with him at the Pentagon, recalls seeing then Col. Powell make phone calls every morning, something Powell referred to as checking the “trap lines.” Haass explained that Powell was seeking information. 

Information was a currency Powell could use to understand the bigger picture. And when used appropriately could lead to greater understanding between individuals and even government agencies. “Anybody who becomes a senior officer had better have some political instincts or you’re going to get ground up,” Powell told the New York Times. “We are a political nation. It is not a dirty word.”

Powell was proud of being the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black Secretary of State. Quite a leap for the son of immigrants from Jamaica. Yet, as John Meacham noted on Morning Joe, Powell said his race should not matter. What should matter is a commitment to service and the competency to do the job well.

A mentor to many

There is another side of Powell that amplifies his humanity. Powell was a mentor to many young women and men in the military and State Department. Stravridis recalls that when he was named the NATO Commander, the first person he went to see was Powell, who had once held that position. Stavridis told him to remember to do his job and remind himself that he was not Charlemagne. That is, keep humble and understand you can only do so much as an American general in Europe. 

Lloyd Austin, the current Secretary of Defense, said, “I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He always made time for me, and I could always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel. We will certainly miss him. I feel as if I have a hole in my heart.”

Colin Powell—soldier-statesman, mentor-leader—left a leadership legacy to remember.

First posted on 10.18.2021

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?


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 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 7/23/2021

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

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 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 12/18/2020

Going Back to the Office

Louis Carter and David Burkus, two colleagues of mine from Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches, have written about going back to the office. I quote them and their work in this new article for SmartBrief.

Here is an excerpt.

There is always a tension between the wishes of management and what employees are willing to do. The challenge is for those in authority to provide a means for employees to achieve the mission by following the organization’s strategic direction.

One such issue arising and worth of study right now, even before it happens, is the workplace’s future. According to a new survey by the Best Practice Institute (BPI), 83% of CEOs want their employees to come to work back in the office. Only 10% of employees are interested. Of those who responded, safety was the prime concern. “Over 60% of employees responded they wouldn’t be comfortable returning without trusting the company’s confidence in communicating co-worker illness, clear instructions on health and safety policies, and the option to work from home.”

Management wants a physical presence

Louis Carter, CEO of BPI, told me in an interview. “Research shows that any change, especially during a highly volatile time, will most likely cause a great deal of stress. People are already very concerned about their health and catching COVID (and rightly so), and going into work present a huge amount of potential for additional stress. Those who did indicate they would come into work gave us clear expectations of what they needed to make it easier for them to come back to work.”

David Burkus, Ph.D., organizational psychologist and author of Leading from Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams, says it is necessary “to recognize that it’s about way more than just where people work from during normal business hours. People had the opportunity to rework when and how they do their work as well. So even those who want to return to the office are unlikely to want to return for the standard, Monday to Friday from 9 to 5. There’s no way around a need for flexibility, so the best thing you can do is recognize that it’s not a binary choice. Most people will end up choosing a little bit of time at the office and a little bit of time at home. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s probably better.”

Read the full article first posted on SmartBrief 2/19/2021

Hymn to Inspire

I am seated at the piano because I am remembering my grandmother. She was a gifted piano player. She also taught music and played in her church.

Every morning before my grandfather went to work, she would sit down and play songs. And he would sing along. It was a great way for both to begin their day.

Part of my practice routine is playing hymns. While I was raised in a faith-based tradition, but I am not observant these days. But I do find comfort and solace in the hymns. They are timeless.

They also have an energy about them that gets us motivated.

And so today I want to play a hymn called “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”

When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met off the shore of Canada in summer of 1940, United States had not yet entered the War. Amid the talks, they found time to hold a Sunday service on the deck of a British warship.

“Eternal Father, Strong to Save” was one of the hymns that was played. It was a favorite of Churchill, but also of Roosevelt. I know such a hymn gave these statesmen solace just as it does us.

First posted on LinkedIn newsletter 2/28/2021