Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Executive Assistants

Found out something new today from a workmate: Executive Assistants are a vastly different breed from Personal Assistants.

Executive Assistants are almost an understudy to the CEO, able to make decisions, participate in high-level discussions and be a sounding board to the CEO.

And we all (who were discussing this) agreed every CEO needs one.

You learn something new every day! Haven't got anything profound to add to that - yet.

Any comments?

Monday, November 29, 2004

Book Review: The Experts' Guide to 100 things everyone should know how to do

Whew, what a title! And, surprisingly, it lives up to it.

The Expert's Guide is a fantastic concept. It's like the finishing schools they used to send future aristocrats to, only small and blue. And it's the clever concept that's almost as gratifying as the good advice inside.

It's not comprehensive advice, just a few pages for each subject, but it's surprising how much you can glean. For instance:

  • How to give bad news
  • How to make a bed
  • How to shovel snow
  • How to wash your hands (what the?)
There's even a section on kissing. It's good to know I've been doing it right! ;)

Why mention this book in a leadership blog? Because why are these people experts? Why is it somehow reassuring to read about how to shake hands from Jackie Onassis' former secretary?

It's all about social proof. We live in perhaps the most individualistic society ever (generalising here, but I'd say all of us, American, Canadian, Danish and New Zealander share this) yet it really matters what "they" think and say.

And that's not a bad thing; not at all. Peer pressure can be positive. It can be neutral. Of course it can be bad, but it can be very helpful. Thankfully, in our society, we have the option to disagree.

The Experts' Guide to 100 things everyone should know how to do is written by Samantha Ettus and published by Allen & Unwin.

Movie Review: I, Robot

Starsky & Hutch meets Bicentennial Man. Honestly.

I'm not saying I didn't like it; Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan and Alan Tudyk did a great job, but I, Robot explores cliches that have been explored fully before.

The cop who has a troubled past, a secret. He has an attitude problem. His boss has to keep him on a tight leash. Finally he goes too far, gets fired and pursues the case on his own. Gets proved right, saves the day. How many cop shows?

The cyber-society where robots are slowly turning from automatons into sentient beings. There's searching, misunderstanding while humans feel threatened and robots discover how illogical humans are. Perhaps this aspect is the Matrix meets Data from Star Trek.

Leadership lessons? Not many. If any.

Perhaps one is from the deceased main character, Dr. Alfred Lanning. He was eccentric, yet had foresight enough to devise an elaborate warning scheme. In amongst the stereotypes, the character of Dr. Lanning is probably my favourite - and probably the one example of a leader in I, Robot.

Book Review: It's all a matter of attitude

This new book by Justin Herald is subtitled "Slogans to live your life by". It's as shallow as it sounds.

Justin is definitely an Achilles type personality (see my review on Troy). He believes leaders are born, not made, so if you're not a born leader, don't bother getting this book. It won't help.

Some of Justin's slogans are pretty cool. Like "When you control the ball you control the score", "I would rather be disliked for who I am rather than like for who I'm not", and "No one trains for second place".

But many of them show a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be human. "Just because I'm listening doesn't mean I care". This guy has no time for whiners. All power to him. "I don't have an attitude problem ... you have a perception problem" This guy is really, really arrogant.

Sure, that can be good. But as often as not, it can prevent you from getting where you need to go. (Not where you want to go, where you need to go)

It's all a matter of attitude is somewhat inspiring, but shortsighted. For all his willpower, Justin Herald doesn't understand what happens when you realise you can't control everything.

It's all a matter of attitude is published by Allen & Unwin

Movie Review: Troy

It got panned by the critics, but I found Troy an engaging watch. True, it didn't have the 'epic' feel you got from Lord of the Rings, but it opened to me - and probably to many others - a world that would otherwise remain locked up in archaic language in a dusty book.

To get the criticisms out of the way first, yes, it doesn't follow Homer's Iliad accurately. And yes, the character acting could be a bit better - a bit deeper.

Having said that, I think Brad Pitt (Achilles) and Eric Bana (Hector) did a great job portraying these legendary enemies. And from what I've read about the Iliad, the relationship between these two is faithful to Homer (d'oh!).

Relating this to leadership, the subject of our blog, let's look at the two mens' leadership styles:

Achilles - the charismatic leader. His passion is getting the job done with flair. Making history, and being in it. "Immortality - it's yours. Take it!"

The Achilles style of leadership inspires, sets an example, and pushes his men beyond their limits. It's thoroughly goal-oriented.

By its very nature the Achilles style is short term - yet it is encouraged especially in high-pressure industries, such as sales, where the structures are built for long-term.

This style is suited to quick-burst, project-based activity, yet often the Achilles type personality is milked until the person is exhausted and burnt out. Just think of the army vets who, outside of the system and routine - and inspiration - of the army, waste away.

Hector on the other hand is almost a reluctant leader. His heart is at home with his wife and son. He is responsible, cautious but courageous when he sees an opportunity.

One of his greatest pieces of advice in the movie was ignored when he warned the Trojans not to pursue the Greeks, because it was unnecessary. (Now's where I wish I'd paid more attention to the details!) The military lesson of knowing where to stop is an important one.

How many of us know when to stop, regroup and establish our position? This is especially important financially. This time last year I was suffering because I'd assumed the blessings of October and November would continue into December. They didn't - and I found myself out on a limb, and had to back down from expansion in my business.

Or take Donald Trump - in the early 90s he had it made, in every way. But by not knowing how to consolidate, he overextended his resources. One of his companies is now bankrupt.

In most ways, Hector seems to me to be the better leader of the two. But it was Achilles' passion that won out in the end. Perhaps there's something in that.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Respecting your Elders

Last night, I had the distinct honor to speak with a retired LAPD officer named Leon Mann. Quite the raconteur, he held court for several hours, sharing stories and dishing out advice. The lessons he had to impart to me and my friends about personal safety were many -- hard earned from his years as a cop, I'm sure. Later on, I thought back to how effortlessly and thoroughly he relayed his advice, and came to the conclusion that not only were those words spoken from experience, they were also words spoken with a fair amount of wisdom behind them -- something that can really only come with time and age.

Which is not to say that young people don't possess wisdom -- some are described as "wise beyond their years," and even at the relatively young and naive age of 24, I can already look back on my short life and say "if only I knew a few years ago what I know now -- what a difference that would have made." But I believe that only that roughhewn wisdom, that unshakable confidence and stance in life can only come simply through having truly lived. Through the mistakes, the heartaches, the low times -- those times that inspire the greatest amounts of reflection and soul-searching.

I would much rather be led by an old man who possesses dignity and wisdom than a young brash man (or woman) who simply knows how to say the right thing to come off well.

Unfortunately, I have very few people of this age in my life, save my parents (though, they're quite wise as well). If you're one lucky enough to have such great influences in your life, take advantage of them, respect them, cherish them. I hope when I'm that age (Lord willing), I'll be looked upon the same way.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Richard Donner - hard man but good

I accidentally got out two movies directed by Richard Donner. I'm glad I did.

Superman was an old favourite that we got out to see if it still had the same old magic - when Marie as a girl had a crush on Superman, and I as a boy wanted to be Superman.

It certainly did have that old magic - man, Chris Reeve was a great actor. But what really interested me even more than the movie itself was all the background material. From it I learned that a director does far more than 'see' the movie through the camera lens.

I already had an inkling that a director's job was to get the best out of the actors, but Dick Donner really gave me a new job description for a director.

He set the pace. He had enormous energy, which he summoned up from God knows where, because he knew if he let tiredness and the pressure of deadlines set in, it would spread through the cast and crew like wildfire. And in a movie about a flying man, you don't want that.

Before the technology that enabled Peter Jackson to film three movies at once, Donner directed two films in (I think) three locations. What a powerhouse!

Fastforward to 2003 and the next DVD we had to watch - Timeline. I was surprised to find it was the same director, so again I watched the background material. Had he changed?

No. Still irascible, demanding, pedantic but also with the abilities to choose the right people to work with. I think that's the best skill a leader has - choosing people to work with.

In both Superman and Timeline I saw a team of leaders, led by a leader. He gave them the latitude they needed to get the job done, but he also let them know what the standards were.

One thing had changed - in the time of Superman, Donner was fired before he could finish Superman 2. In the time of Timeline, Donner was, as Leonard Maltin says, "a one-man studio" who called all the shots, hired all the crew and experts, and functioned as a consultant.

So if you want some leadership lessons - and some exciting adventure - have a look at Superman and Timeline on DVD.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Squandered Gifts

Perhaps I've been thinking about this in the context of my own life lately, but...

What happens when a person doesn't use their gifts and talents to their fullest advantage? Who suffers more -- the individual, or those they could influence and inspire? I feel it's a matter of personal responsibility to not only discover what your gifts are, but to also cultivate and exercise them to their highest impact.

Imagine if some of the great impactors of even the 20th Century hadn't realized their potential? Some have even been discussed here recently -- Churchill, Reverend King...what about Einstein or Gandhi?

Granted, this is sometimes easier said than done (that and, we can't all be great world leaders, alas). Some gifts we innately recognize, and some are discovered along the way -- sometimes with the help and gentle prodding of others who care enough to take the time to pull them out of us. It can also be an incredibly exciting time -- shifting your self-perception as you find out who you're meant to become (maybe this is a patently mid-20s experience, hopefully I'm wrong).

This was inspired by "The Incredibles," and who would have guessed such a relevant lesson would come out of a family-friendly Disney movie?

In the film (which, from an animation standpoint, is sublime), the protagonist Bill, aka Mr. Incredible, must keep his super-human strength a secret. Because of this, he's miserable, he's not firing on all cylinders. He's bored at work, distracted at home -- there's something missing in his life and he knows what it is. When he gets a chance to exercise his might (literally), he comes alive. He's a brand new man, a loving husband and doting father. He knows he's doing what he ought to be -- fighting crime and saving lives.

It is clear to see, in the case of one fictional, animated life, that putting one's talents to use makes life that much more worth living. Seems to me like it probably works that way in reality, too.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Louis XIV and Donald Trump

Have just been reading Blenheim: Battle for Europe (by Charles Spencer, brother of Princess Diana) and, just a few chapters in, have discovered an intriguing character in Louis XIV.

We all know him as a bit of a bastard, an egomaniac who, like Napoleon and Hitler after him, wanted all of Europe under his control. This much is true indeed. But notwithstanding that, he had some smart management ideas.
  1. He knew how to delegate. Spencer writes: "The king needed to find men of quality to realise his military dreams. Even as a young man he had been adept at spotting potential in his subordinates, and then delegating. Sir Edward Creasy, the nineteenth-century historian, noted: 'One of the surest proofs of the genius of Louis was his skill in finding out genius in others, and his promptness in calling it into action.'"
  2. He connected rank with competence, not social standing. "Louvois (Louis' chief of army) wanted his professional troops led by the ablest, not merely the noblest, generals."
  3. He standardised and centralised for the sake of communication and economy. "Instead of haphazard camps, tents were to be erected in carefully ordered rows, away from the health hazards of human waste. In place of the white sash that had been the distinguishing feature of French troops in battle, regimental uniforms were ordered. Out went the cheap ragbag of firearms ordered by cost-cutting colonels, and in came standardised muskets: these were interchangeable, all subject to the same drill, all taking the same ammunition."

So far, so smart. But while Louis' professional army, under control of his trusted lieutenants, was the terror of Europe throughout the 1670s and 80s, Louis fell foul of a fatal error in entrepreneurial leaders - he overreached himself.

By the 1690s he had earned the wrath of all his traditional enemies, and some of his traditional friends. His trusted delegates had all but one died. He had overspent, and had to keep spending to maintain his army at sufficient levels. He was in big trouble.

Fast forward to the present. In the mid 1980s, Donald Trump had it made - just like King Louis in the mid 1680s. And that's where he should have stopped, counted his blessings, and planned for a more settled future.

But neither Louis nor the Donald did what good sense dictated. Instead, ego took over. Louis became the egomaniac that legends are made of. Men and women feared him. His smile could mean rapid promotion; his frown could mean big trouble.

Remind you of anything? Perhaps the 'you're fired' segment of The Apprentice? You know, when that show first came out, I thought, this is cool, maybe I'll learn something about the business world.

But so far, all I've learnt is that there are people with big ego problems who go on TV to make themselves feel better. Oh, and to pay off massive debt. Donald Trump is now gazillions of dollars in debt with his casinos, yet he appears as a very successful person financially on TV. Why? He has to. Otherwise the whole series doesn't make any sense at all.

In the end, Louis was laid low by his defeat at the battle of Blenheim. I hope for Trump's sake he doesn't meet his Blenheim in a painful way; rather a gentle waking up to the facts. But somehow, I don't think so.

Movie Review: The Gathering Storm

What with our discussion about Churchill recently I rented "The Gathering Storm" to get a view of the big man in his 'wilderness years'. Fascinating, and very well-made.

For such a dialogue-ridden film the two leads (Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave) did a remarkable job. Marie and I were transfixed through what could have been a long tale requiring much concentration.

But to leadership: what did I learn from this man's wilderness years?

Probably the most important lesson is 'be yourself'. Churchill had several mental illness 'issues', the biggest of which was his depression (The Black Dog).

Instead of trying to deny it and be 'normal', he acknowledged it, and lived around it. He realised that, while depression took him to the depths, it also gave him a perspective that helped him in his job. No, make that 'career'. Scratch that - 'destiny'.

In turn, his self-acceptance led to his acceptance of others as they were. On a surface level, he was tetchy and downright annoying to be around. He certainly didn't seem tolerant of others. But he inspired loyalty, even when he was considered an eccentric warmongering has-been.

That stayed with me. When you know who you are, warts and all, and are prepared to work with that, you can work with most anybody.

Fantastic illustration

At the PR firm where I've been working, we had a 'brand day' where we developed our shared values. Of course, 'integrity' was one of them.

To get the values into our workspace, we got the designer's six-year-old-daughter to paint pictures of the values.

How do you paint a picture of 'integrity'? She tackled it by introducing the concept of 'ownership' - and painting a little girl feeding a dog.

Fantastic! When you're responsible for something, it's day in, day out, just like feeding the dog.

Not only is the illustration great, it creates a good question to ask when you need to communicate clearly: "Could a six-year-old paint this?"