Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pain and Paint Guns


In the Boulder edition of Craigslist last week was an ad for an actor with the capacity to withstand physical pain. Why would an actor need to withstand pain in a role? Because this actor will be portraying an investment banker. If that’s not enough to bring the wrath of the audience on the actor, there will also be paint guns – fully loaded and aimed at the actor.

The actor will have protective gear of course (which is more than the investment bankers from the major banks living on life-support right now had given to those of us now holding incredibly shrinking 401-Ks) but in this art performance piece is sure to take on some of the overflowing anger we feel at our shrinking economy.

How did common sense fail the executives of some of our biggest companies? How could they not see the folly in insuring your own losses, in attaching derivatives and poor mortgage risks and over-leveraged assets to their books without any plan for risk control when the cycle trended down? 

Did they even factor in a down trend? We all should have seen the housing bubble bursting – it had been predicted prominently many places. What goes up MUST come down, with gravity AND with capitalism. Free market or not (and isn’t it interesting how so many free market economists have become practically socialistic in their grab for bail out money?)

High performance leaders keep an eye on risk at all times. Optimistic leaders know in their hearts (and in their minds) that every opportunity includes risks, and how you handle those risks determines the reach of your opportunity. If you go down in flames, will you take others with you? Will you take down the whole team, the whole division, the whole company, the whole economy? 

Leadership requires a realistic clarity around future scenarios. Every strategic decision includes risks and effective leaders regard that risk with respect and a healthy dose of fear. Leaders need courage, but unless they balance their courage (and fearlessness) with clarity they are doomed to devastating surprises in their results. 

I once had a boss who said “give me anything, but don’t ever surprise me.” Maybe those words had more meaning than I’d ever imagined. 
Leadership Questions 
  • What are you doing to assess your strategic risks with real clarity?

  • As a leader, what are you developing right now that will help your team recover from previous mistakes?

  • What is your strategy for dealing with mistakes?

  • How do you define clarity?

-- Douglas Brent Smith

(The paint gun goggle's image comes from the online catalogue at Paintball Discounters.)


Monday, February 16, 2009

How Developing Leadership Is Like Learning To Fight Fires

Developing leadership skills has similarities to training to be a fire fighter. You need a combination of study, direction, and experiential application. But the experiential part of the training should build according to your skill level. A first day fire fighter trainee for instance never sees any real fire – they could easily get hurt or hurt someone else. The really difficult tasks must build on skills that have been learned before. Knowledge must be internalized and feel fully integrated before you apply it on a dangerous ground – and leading others can often be dangerous ground. 

Leadership develops in scalable stages

I’ve been both a fire fighter and a manager and so I can find many similarities in the development process. You can be a novice and inexperienced fire fighter and still contribute to the effort of the crew, provided that you are surrounded with more experienced, patient, and yes even insistent fire fighters who will be assertive and courageous enough to keep you out of trouble.  Who would you trust to go into a burning building with, knowing that your life may depend on the reliability, courage, clarity, and even creativity of that person? And who would you want to have rely on you for the same strengths and presence of mind? 

When I first started responding to fire calls, even though I had nearly 200 hours of fire fighter training behind me, my authority and assignments were limited. I could connect and activate the fire hydrant but was not permitted to enter the burning structure. My job was important (you can’t really fight a big fire without water) but my level of danger (to myself and others) was limited. Plus, there was usually another person there to help if I stumbled at connecting the hydrant (you’d be surprised how tough that can be in the winter when connections are frozen and you’re in a neighboring township with unfamiliar hydrant fittings). Believe me, if you’re slow to connect a hydrant you get some immediate and passionate feedback about your abilities! 

Leadership is a tapestry of core skills 

Leadership is more than taking command. It’s more than voicing your vision and rallying followers to a cause. Leadership is a tapestry of core skills that you must draw out, balance, and utilize on a heartbeats notices. And, just as in fire fighting (or gymnastics, swimming, singing, acting, biking, or any major skill) in order to have your full capacity at your disposal on a hear beat’s  notice takes hundreds of hours of scalable practice and application. 

Effective, courageous, creative, clear, and compassionate leaders expose themselves to practice and application, hundreds of times from the smallest least significant acts of leadership to the most controversial and dangerous.  To master the difficult requires a studied history of mastering the increasingly more difficult tasks of leadership.

Our sense of learning is like a muscle we must exercise to prevent it from complacency and laziness. We must flex our learning by trying new things. We must develop our leadership skills by taking on new leadership projects and ideas. We must expose ourselves to the unknown and collaborate on new solutions to stubborn problems and situations. Leaders must grow or they lose their edge. Leaders must grow or they decay. 

Leadership develops through dialogue and reflection 

It’s a mysterious but true possibility that two or more people can experience exactly the same circumstance and learn absolutely different things. Some people can experience trauma or adventure and emerge with new wisdom, new skills, and new ways of seeing and operating in the world. Other people can experience the exact same even and fail to grow much at all. They haven’t internalized, processed, or reflected on their learning. 

Developing leadership skills becomes more effective and useful when the developing leaders take the time to reflect on what it is that they are learning and how they can use it in the next opportunity. And, the sooner that opportunity comes that they can apply those reflections and that learning, the more likely it is that they will experience success. 

That’s why after a major fire (what we call a job) fire fighters debrief the experience. They review what went right and they review what could have been improved. They take full stock on the mistakes that they made and they plan for how to avoid making them in the future. They go over assignments, tasks, dangers and damage in razor sharp detail from every possible angle to get as full and complete a perspective on the event as they can. 

We can all see things differently, so imagine how your perspective can be altered in 900 degree heat, falling debris, and smoke so thick that you can not see anything, even the hand in front of your face. When you’re that deep into a fire you need help. When leaders get that deep into a leadership situation, they need help. Once you’ve emerged from the risk and the noise, taking the time to reflect on what you’ve collectively experienced makes all of that knowledge available for improved application. It’s a strong way to learn, and essential for improving your leaderships development.  

You may never walk into a burning building carrying 50 pounds of equipment, but there is still much to be learned about urgency, importance, and preparation from the fire service.

Questions for reflection

Do you take the time to define urgency?

Do you prioritize importance into your schedule, regardless of the level of urgency?

Are you prepared for your next fire?



Thursday, February 12, 2009

Front Range Leadership Launched

It's official!  Front Range Leadership, LLC has been launched to develop leadership skills through highly interactive in-person workshops and sharply focused leadership teleclasses. We also work with clients through coaching and consulting to help them develop their leadership skills.

Here's today's press release:

Front Range Leadership is a metro-Denver area training and development company. For more information:




Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Developing Relationships Through Facebook

How should leaders approach Facebook? Should you use it to find out more about your people? Can you effectively use it to develop your relationships?

Realizing that some organizations still resist supporting networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, in a world where a whole generation of people take these sites for granted, it is worth considering how as leaders we make use of the tools.

I had an interesting moment this week in my Advanced Film Acting Class in Denver when I realized that most of the class were also my Facebook friends. I learned so much about each of the between classes that it felt as if we'd seen each other on a daily basis. Now, it is also true that there are times when people share a little too much information (I imagine no one really wants to know how often their employees go to bars...) but still I've come to enjoy the additional sense of knowing the people I work with. It's a short cut to faster and deeper communication and makes collaborating, even under stress, much more productive. 

How many Facebook friends do you have? Who among your closest associates would you like to know better? Maybe, just maybe, you could be online friends, too.

As a leader, are you encouraging your people to bring their whole selves to work? Can you be productive and personal?

Can you communicate acceptance for who a person is while still holding them to your expectations of what you want to achieve? 

-- Douglas Brent Smith

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Leadership Movies

Many films present provocative and sometimes inspiring views of leadership. The models are often deeply flawed (it is drama, afterall) but sometimes insightful and incredibly useful for creating dialogue. To generate a deep conversation about leadership, or just to reflect on what leadership means to you and how you operate as a leader in comparison, try any of the following movies:

  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Airforce One
  • Apollo 13
  • The Apostle
  • Batman Begins
  • Bridge On The River Kwai
  • Chariots of Fire
  • Charlie Wilson's War
  • Citizen Kane
  • The Color Purple
  • Crimson Tide
  • The Dark Knight
  • Dead Poets Society
  • The Doctor
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Drumline
  • Erin Brockovich
  • Fail Safe
  • Field of Dreams
  • Ghandi
  • Glengarry Glen Ross
  • Glory
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  • Henry V.
  • Hoosiers
  • It's A Wonderful Life
  • Jerry Maguire
  • Karate Kid
  • The Kingdom
  • Ladder 49
  • The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit
  • The Manchurian Candidate
  • Master and Commander
  • Mr. Holland's Opus
  • My Fair Lady
  • Norma Rae
  • October Sky
  • Office Space
  • Patch Adams
  • Phenomenon
  • Pygmalian
  • Regarding Henry
  • Remember the Titans
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Schindler's List
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Simon Birch
  • Stand and Deliver
  • Titanic
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Wall Street
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Working Girl
  • X-Men


Each film on the list provides its own insights into leadership. And, this is just a partial start at the list of movies with something to say about leadership,


What movies would you add to the list?