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How Three Teachers Re-Defined Success for me

Image result for redefining success


Success is defined in many ways. Mostly, it is associated with money or fame or some individual grand act of courage.  What if we saw success as the power to change people’s lives?

It was high school and like many other students, I was trying to find my way and my place. Sports and music were the two big areas that people were attracted to, and I had no real talent for either, so I didn’t even try to get involved. Thanks to the efforts of some teachers, that changed.  They taught me how to define and re-define success.  They taught me how real leaders changes lives.

Hockey, Basketball, Band

First there was Mr. Dennis.  He was big hockey fan and started an intramural field hockey league for whoever wanted to join. Of course, I didn’t, but Mr. Dennis’s goal wasn’t to just start a league. He wanted to engage students. He knew I wasn’t an athlete.  He knew I would feel out of place in his project. Looking back, his strategy was simple. He asked me questions about what I was interested in and what I thought I might be good at. Then he approached me and asked for help! Would I be interested in helping to start a newspaper that would report on the hockey league? He explained what needed to be done and what he expected.  He encouraged me to take a chance! I still have copies of the “Goalie,” the paper we put out. Along the way he promoted me to assistant editor to editor.  He helped me celebrate my strengths.

Then there was Carl Tershak, the basketball coach. He knew I wanted to play basketball, but wasn’t good enough to make the team.  He talked to me and discussed why I was interested. What would I be willing to do? He arranged to have two players from the team, one of them the captain, to work with me every day on my skills.  Eventually, after a year of work, I tried out and made it on the team.  Now, let’s be clear, I was not good.  Carl put me on in recognition of what he said was my hard work and determination, not any real talent. For the next two years I pretty much sat on the bench—I used to joke I was wearing clothes underneath the warmups because there was no chance of me going in. But, I was part of the team and Carl always treated me as part of the team and in the culture he created all of the players did the same.

Finally, there was Blaise Perrillo, my biology teacher and the band leader. I love music. I love singing and wanted to learn how to play an instrument, but again that thing, talent, was the issue.  Blaise encouraged me to join the band. I wanted to play trumpet, but he told me I had trombone lips. He had an agenda.  I joined 2nd band.  There were four trombone players in 1st band. It was safe.  Well, all four left (I think Blaise knew that was going to happen) and I immediately became a member of the 1st band.  Blaise worked with me every day. He questioned me about my concerns, and my mistakes.  I was never really any good, but I played for the next three years.

What does all of this have to do with success? My definition of success was being the best or at least the top 3. If I couldn’t be the best, then I was too embarrassed to try.  All three of these teachers helped redefine success for myself and in doing so changed me.


What did they do?

All of these teachers--and good teachers are all leaders-- followed a similar course of action.

Recognized: They were aware of me and interested not only in what I was doing, but what I was capable of doing.  

Questioned: They asked questions and listened. They engaged me in conversations, not lectures. They were interested in not only learning about me, but helping me to learn about myself. They made me think.

Support: They provided a plan and support without micro-managing me.  I was allowed to make mistakes, while at the same time, offered timely and appropriate feedback that helped me learn and feel valuable and valued.

Encouraged: They provided consistent and sincere encouragement. They let me know they respected my growth and contributions. They helped me learn I could make a difference.

Celebrated: They celebrated my victories and taught me how to accept my failures. They recognized my contributions. They made me feel appreciated.


So what did it matter? What does it matter?

Except for this post, most likely no one will ever read about these people.  They didn’t go on to become millionaires or captains of industry, but they did change lives, mine included. They created a sense of loyalty that motivated me to do better because of their belief in me. It was an early leadership lesson: Success is not measured by how much money we make or even in how successful our team is. Success is measured by how many lives we change.

Successful leaders, real leaders, change lives.



Five Things I Learned in an Airport

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I need to be some place and I need to be there tonight and if I am not going to be there, YOU need to get me a room and a ticket first thing in the morning.”

It was a repeat of an exchange that had been going on for over an hour between the airline ticket agent and a long line of travelers--each traveler emphasizing THEIR needs and wants. Sentences filled with the pronoun “I.”

The representative repeated her litany: “There is a problem with the weather at the other airport and the airline is not responsible.” The exchange went back and forth, both parties repeating the same position, neither side seemingly listening to the other.

You could feel and see the frustration sweep through the line gaining momentum and force as time passed. The line inched forward as each person vented their feelings on the lone representative. Sometimes the interaction was loud and angry and sometimes it was passive and resigned—it was never positive. The trained smile of the representative started to wilt as traveler after traveler demanded that she do something and get them home.

Finally, I was standing in front of the rep, a forced and embattled smile pasted on her face. She looked at me approach the desk as she prepared herself for the next attack. We all have been in her position before and getting yelled at for something that was out of our control does nothing to make us feel any better or to prompt us to try and do anything about the situation.

I tried a different approach. I smiled at her—a real smile—and said, “This has to be a tough situation for you. We are all angry about not getting on our flight and even though you had nothing to do with creating this situation, people are yelling at you. You are doing such a great job of dealing with all of this anger and not losing your patience. I really admire you.”

Her eyes re-focused and a real smile began to sneak out: “Thank you. I really hate when this happens and I do feel personally responsible to try and fix things. I like my job and really enjoy making people happy by resolving problems, but tonight it just doesn’t look like it is going to happen.”

We spoke a little more, the conversation being drawn out a little as she savored this respite from anger. I never asked her for anything, but the discussion ended with Linda, that was her name, telling me quietly that she could not get me on a plane that night, but would arrange for a hotel room. I wasn’t going home, but I would be sleeping in a bed and not on an airport bench.

I quietly commented again on her display of patience, congratulated her on her professionalism and very quietly thanked her for the room. As I left, the next passenger was already kicking off a new tirade, but I like to think Linda faced it with a renewed sense of energy.


Five Lessons Learned

First: Keep the focus on the issue

When dealing with a problem, don’t make it about you or the other person— focus on the issue. When people only focus on what THEY want, the gap between problem and solution can grow. You tend to forget the problem you are trying to solve and concentrate on winning what you want.

Second: Build relationships

Empathy and just plain old fashion honest communication can be powerful tools to build a relationship. Related to the above point, don’t confuse the problem with the person. Even when there is disagreement, there is opportunity to build a relationship. The newly built relationship resulted in Linda doing her best to help me.

Third: Recognition

Linda received affirmation that her job was difficult; much of what she was dealing with was beyond her control, and she was doing as well as you could—she was trying. When her efforts were recognized, she felt valued. Regularly, recognizing people’s efforts and accomplishments builds a positive culture.

Four: Opportunity

Relationship building and recognition also provided Linda with opportunity--the opportunity to meet the expectations of a customer. Providing people with opportunities to excel sends a message of trust and confidence. It contributes to building a culture in which people try their best. They are willing to take calculated risks because they know mistakes are not punished, but examined for what can be learned.

Five: Gratitude

Linda was grateful someone had shown her some consideration and I was grateful for her hard work. The result was she felt a little better and I got a bed for the night. We both were winners. Gratitude creates winners. It is a powerful motivator—it generates satisfaction and loyalty.


Focus, relationship building, recognition, opportunity, and gratitude separately are effective tools for any leader. Used together on a consistent basis they contribute to a strong culture where people feel valued and respected. This breeds success!

What High School Physics Taught me about Leadership


Bro. Carl was my high school physics teacher and basketball coach.  For the record I was a much better physic student than basketball player (most of my career was on the bench). 

Leadership is often about moving people who may be stalled or stagnant toward one direction or to a certain goal, achieving something, making a change.  The challenge is finding what will move them.

Newton’s First Law of Motion reads: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an outside force.” This law is often called "the law of inertia.”

Leaders as a force for change

Often people and organizations (organizations at the core are just groups of people) can suffer from a kind of group “inertia.”  They can be stuck in a mental rut with “that is the way we have always done things” thinking or “this is the way it is and it can’t be changed” thinking.  And just as Newton tells us, to get them energized or moving in the right direction we need an outside force to get them moving in that right direction. Real Leaders must be that outside force, at least in the beginning.

In like manner, people and organizations can also suffer from a feeling of spinning out of control or experiencing a lot of movement, but going nowhere—or worse, moving in a direction of consistent failure.  Again, we turn to Newton—a body in motion remains in motion in the same direction unless acted upon by an outside force.  Again, Real Leaders must be that outside force.

Real Leaders

Leaders can act as a catalyst for change.  Real Leaders:

  • Need to have a vision of what they want their organization to look like and do
  • Need to work with their people to develop a plan with concrete and measurable objectives
  • Need to build relationships so staff can and do trust them
  • Need to create environment where staff can share knowledge
  • Need to “connect the dots” for the different members of their organization so everyone can have an appreciation for the big picture

What did I learn?

The passion and actions of leaders can provide the outside force needed to make positive changes within an organization and create a movement toward excellence. 

Five Lessons Learned from Shirley

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Several years ago I was visiting my mom at the nursing home.  It is great place to observe human behavior and interactions.  In many ways they are like children, free of inhibitions.  While waiting for my mom, I saw Shirley. A woman well into her 80’s Shirley sits slumped- her heavy frame in the wheelchair, looking very much like a mother hen on top of her nest. When she speaks her voices has a unique quiver that completes the image.  She spends most of her day traveling up and down the hallways stopping and interacting with residents and visitors alike with her daily greeting of “Heyyyyyy Misterrrr.” Everyone knows Shirley. 

The Revolt!

On this particular day, Shirley had stationed herself at the center of the day room.  Much like a mother hen trying to gather her chicks she spun herself in a small circle calling out to others in the room.

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

Her potential chicks blissfully went about what they were doing, ignoring Shirley and her call. The nurses and aides smiled and laughed, “It’s just Shirley.”   

Shirley continued her circling and calling, undaunted by the ignoring of her peers and the smiling dismissal of the staff: 

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

I watched from outside the room impressed by Shirley’s perseverance and disregard for the reaction of others. She was a lady with a mission and she was not going to give up.

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

And then it began, first one and then another and then another, looked up and began listening.  All of a sudden, Shirley went from mother hen to commanding general as she led her first few volunteer troops toward a door and freedom.  Her now strident battle cry was strong and clear supported by a chorus echoing her:  “Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

All of  sudden the staff wasn’t smiling anymore as this group of freedom fighters made their way to the closest exit.  Now they were scrambling and staff, too, began following Shirley out of necessity.

What had happened?

How did an elderly woman suffering from dementia transform into this active leader that was causing all of this commotion? Let’s take a look.

First: Shirley had a vision. She knew what she wanted. She wanted “to get of out of here.”  She wanted freedom. 

Second: Shirley had a vision or mission that tapped into the emotions of her target group—something with which they could identify: freedom. All of them wanted to get out of there and regain their freedom to varying degrees.

Third: There was a consistent message, something to which people could relate: "Follow me. Come on, follow me. Let's get out of here."

Fourth:Another important element was that Shirley had both a strong belief and the courage to stand by it.  She was not discouraged when people at first did not listen to her or take her seriously.  She persevered and continued in her attempts to engage people.

Fifth: And finally, at least for our purposes here, she had a plan of action for what to do once she did engage people. Have you ever gone to a meeting where someone is trying to get you involved, and once you agree and look for something to do, there is nothing for you to do?  It is one of the best ways to lose followers.  Shirley instinctively knew that and had a plan of action in place before she began her recruitment efforts.

The Revolution Fails, but Shirley does not give up

Shirley’s small revolution did not succeed.  There were challenges and obstacles she had not planned for—the power of the system that was in place, the need for preparing and supporting her following and what to do when these first efforts were not successful.  All of these elements underscore the importance of realizing, planning and accepting that the road to excellence is continuous and unending.  True to form, Shirley did not give up.  Subsequent visits saw a repeat performance.  She perseveres.  A great quality for a leader of change. 

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