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Hard Lessons of Leadership

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

I’ve been put in leadership positions many times throughout my life, starting in the U.S. Navy over 30 years ago. Throughout my career, I have made many mistakes in learning to become an effective leader and am still learning. One of my mentors taught me that “you’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting.” When I start to get ripe, someone generally tells me and hopefully I listen before I start to stink. 😊

I’d like to share some of the basic principles I’ve learned as they may help others.

1. Admit it when you make mistakes – I used to avoid admitting mistakes simply because I didn’t know how to effectively process my emotions. Learning how to FEEL the emotional energy of Embarrassment and process it allowed me to more freely admit mistakes and gain wisdom rather than repeating the same lesson over and over again.

Many leaders try to “spin” a mistake into either a positive or double down on their position to try to save face. Most people can feel it when you’re not being authentic with them and it erodes your credibility whether you realize it or not. Just admit your mistake, feel the emotion as uncomfortable as it feels in your body, accept the wisdom from the experience and move forward. Trust me; you’re the only one who believes you have to be perfect. It is normal to expect mistakes and growth, not perfection.

2. Ask for help – I used to sit in C-Suite level meetings for many years and one of the most important lessons I learned was to hear our CEO say that most people didn’t understand that Executive Leadership was there to help them achieve their business goals. They did not expect their team to have all of the answers. They wanted their Program Managers and Functional Leads to come to ask for help.

Asking for help used to be very difficult for me having been raised to be independent and self-sufficient from an early age. My father was a Marine and drilled this into me, but I think he later regretted it because he told me he loved it when I asked for help because of the feeling he got when he could help me. As a parent, I enjoy it when my daughter asks for help and as a leader, I enjoy helping others when I can. What good is all of this experience if it can’t be shared? Quite often, the feeling of giving help to others is every bit as gratifying as receiving something desired.

Asking for help should be 2a of this point and not taking no for an answer should be 2b. What I learned in the C-Suite is that many times when leaders did come ask for help, they were told “No” and then they never came back.

When you are told “No,” it means you haven’t presented a solid enough business case. If you ask for something and haven’t considered all of the impacts and are putting that onus on leadership to do that for you, you may hear “No” a lot.

Put together a business case that compares the cost of what you’re asking along with the cost benefits, risks, opportunities and challenges. Provide as much hard data as possible and often leadership will be impressed that you thought about the things they care about.

Remember that in all publicly traded companies, they answer to someone as well and they have to be able to support their decisions.

In my role as the Director of Quality, I realized that we weren’t getting the job done with the number of people we had. I knew the COO was going to press me to prove why I was asking for 3 people all of a sudden. I put together the best business case I could with the limited amount of data I had at the time.

I presented to him how many hours my people were working already and not achieving the results needed. I told him what roles the new resources would fill that weren’t being filled at the time and what benefits the company would see from these additions.

He didn’t give me approval for 3 people, but he gave me permission to hire 2 and told me he appreciated that I had thought about this from not just what I wanted and why, but what he needed to support the decision.

Executive leadership is there to help you. Use them, but use them effectively.

3. Teach your employees to challenge you – This is a core principle I have used for the past 10 years. In 2012, I was promoted to the Director of Quality position at my company and while I had some good ideas about how to do things more proactively, I knew that most of my team members had much more specialized knowledge than I did. I tried early on to get them to challenge me by telling them the same lesson one of my leaders had taught me many years before by telling me that “he didn’t pay me to nod my head and agree with what he thought but to tell him what I thought.

What worked better for me was to tell my team that I had a beautiful wife, daughter and three female dogs at home. I live in a sea of estrogen. At home, I am only right about 25% of the time, so there is no way by virtue of my going through the company’s front door in the morning that I become a savant. All I have are ideas based on my experience and perspective. Just because I’m the “leader” doesn’t mean my ideas are the best way to move forward. I made it a point to hire people I thought would challenge me with different perspectives and diverse experiences and perceptions. It didn’t always mean I took their suggestions because in some cases, I might have had a broader perspective based on a corporate strategy or later when I was a Program Manager, I had more knowledge of customer preferences or budget considerations, but having their perspectives always helped me to make an informed decision.

4. Learn the Art of Validation – My wife and I taught a class for many years called Spiritual Relationships primarily aimed at marital relationships, but I have been successfully using this skill for many years and it bailed me out of a big problem I had in 2018. My company had a program that had been performing poorly and the customer was about to terminate our contract. They sent us an embarrassingly awful customer scorecard with a 3-page vent of their dissatisfaction. To the credit of my leadership team, they didn’t push back or try to spin it. They owned the failure, added some necessary resources and plugged me in as the Program Manager. I was familiar with the customer having been directly involved with this customer team about 5 years prior in another role. In our first couple of teleconferences, the Product Manager was literally yelling at us. I had known this guy for a long time and also knew why he was so upset. We had worked together on another contract and he had lobbied for us to win this contract. When we did, but didn’t perform well, he felt embarrassed and betrayed because he’d stuck his neck out for us.

After one of the calls, I wrote him an email and stated that I knew he had lobbied for us because he’d told me that at the Post Award Conference. I told him that I was embarrassed that we had performed so poorly. I validated his frustration and offered a mea culpa, promising to turn the program around. But I also asked for his help. I told him I needed their team to collaborate with us and if they did it, I felt we could recover the program to his satisfaction. We had been kind of throwing problems over the wall and I vowed to stop that, schedule calls with his engineering team, and ensure they agreed with a change before just submitting a deviation.

Lastly, I knew he had recently had a serious health issue and genuinely inquired about that with support to do all I could to lower his stress level. He sent me a reply back noting he was humbled by my note and promised to collaborate with us and appreciated the honesty of my communication.

While it may seem like a small thing to many, it was a turning point in the customer relationship and things started improving from there. I took that same strategy when I spoke to each supplier in listening, validating their feelings about any frustrations they had, and committing to help move the process forward in a spirit of collaboration. I never tried to spin a situation and I was likely more transparent with my customer than most Program Managers they’d dealt with before. My goal was to face any risk and challenge head-on and share that with the customer as they often were able to help me with a resource or direction from their team.

All of this created immeasurable trust and collaboration. The result is that we not only recovered the current contract but won the follow-on one as well.

5. Let go of the Blame, Shame, Victim Game – I have seen projects get bogged down or fail to make measurable progress many times because when problems occur (and they will), teams start pointing fingers at each other instead of dealing with the challenges. From a metaphysical perspective, whatever we focus on grows stronger. So, if we focus on what we don’t like about someone, our minds will start collecting more evidence of that and we will talk with other people who see the same things we do. While this is a fairly normal human response, it can also be a team killer. Having read Jim Collins’ book “From Good to Great,” I am a believer in getting the right people on the bus, getting the wrong people off the bus and getting the right people in the right seats. However, there is no reason to waste a lot of time getting the wrong people off the bus. I think leaders have to spend more time evaluating the strengths of people to get them in the right seats and/or evaluate why they aren’t performing. I’ve seen people who get put into positions they didn’t want and then fail to put forth their best effort. When we have a weak team member, it brings down the morale of the entire team because others either have to pick up the slack or critical tasks just don’t get done. When faced with these situations on my team, I have an honest discussion with the team member and give them the space to honestly express what’s happening. I don’t let them spin it or avoid the stark reality everyone else can see. It may be uncomfortable to face, but we aren’t helping anything by allowing stagnation. Far too often, I’ve seen companies fail to address poor performance and then work their best people harder to make up for it. Companies try to avoid the cost of replacing their poor-performing employees only to have to face the cost of replacing their best-performing employees which is a worse scenario.

The poor performing team members also know they aren’t doing their best, but rationalize (rational lie) what they’re doing or not doing to justify their behavior (blame/victim).

As Jim Collins said, “If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we'll figure out how to take it someplace great.”

We have to own whatever our current situation is and realize we created what that situation is. Once we accept it fully, we can then work to address what needs to be changed, even if it’s hard. If we avoid the hard things, it will inevitably get worse. It is easier to feel the very pain we are avoiding intensely for a little while than to suffer over a long period of time, feeling like a victim of our circumstances.

Own your own reality as your creation and realize that by owning it, if you unconsciously created a mess, then you can consciously create success.



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Jeff Scholl is a Certified Spiritual Life Coach through Holistic Learning Centers and a Board-Certified Holistic Health Practitioner through the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. He is also an Executive Contributor to Brainz Magazine.


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