Leadership of the Mundane

What do these people have in common: Ernest Shackleton, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and Michael Flatley’s accountants? Regardless of your definition of leadership, most of you would agree that the first three individuals have demonstrated leadership qualities in their respective lives. But what do Michael Flatley’s accountants have to do with them? Yes, I’m referring to Michael Flatley of Lord of the Dance, and yes, I am talking about his accountants, not him. Continue reading

Instructions to Self


Have you ever gotten frustrated when a yoga teacher, a spiritual book or a song tells you to “find your way home”? I have been there many many times!  The message seems to be a crucial learning point, a big revelation, a destination toward which one grows after a long, soul-searching, self-improving process, and there might be some kind of nirvana waiting at home.  Yet, I didn’t have a clue what that meant or what to do to figure out the meaning, not until a reminder fell on my lap, literally.

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Do You Know the Way Home?


I recently trained a group of early childhood professionals on new standards designed to raise the quality of early childhood education.  At the start of the session I asked the attendees why they thought lawmakers were enacting these new standards or rules and someone quickly shouted out, “to drive us crazy!”   There was a knowing laugh among her colleagues, which led to a very passionate discussion about the divide between those who make the rules and those who are hired to follow them. Continue reading

Defined by Absence


“Go back to the definition,” my mom said to me.

That probably doesn’t sound like a typical instruction from a mother to her child, so here is the context. My mom was not only a high-school math teacher, but also a math education professor. She inspired generations of engineers, doctors, scientists, financial whizzes, and, of course, math teachers while I just tolerated math. So, you would think I was one of the luckiest kids in the world to have a math expert at my disposal. Nope. When I got stuck, my mom would send me back to the definition, and from there, we would solve the problem together. Continue reading

Leading by Thesaurus

The man is not wholly evil – he has a thesaurus in his cabin.

This quote is from J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” referring to Captain Hook. It is also the opening quote in Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s multi-award winning book, “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.” Peter Mark Roget (pronounced “Roh-Zhay”), best known for publishing, “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases” in 1852, is the subject of Bryant and Sweet’s book.

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Overlook the Diamonds: Learning to Stay Focused from Two Guys Who Like Chocolate Milk, Animal Cookies and Something Spectacular

The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.

~ William James

I came across an article about a 10-year-old musical prodigy named Ethan Loch from Bonnybridge, Scotland. Ethan had been admitted to St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, and to go to school, Ethan would need to board a train and cross two main roads. The commute to school would be more challenging for Ethan than for most children his age. Why? You see, Ethan is blind. Ethan would have to master echolocation in order to go to school. Continue reading

First the Leader

I experienced a profound leadership moment at community band rehearsal last night. The conductor stood at the podium, baton in hand, setting the time and tempo of the piece we were playing. We all knew our parts, yet together we were not quite achieving our goal of making music. The conductor stopped and started a few times, but he still wasn’t hearing music. He said his baton felt heavy with trying to pull together each of our parts. So he stopped and put down his baton. Then, Continue reading

Between Goal and Process

So-and-so is goal oriented.  So-and-so is results driven.  We have heard those statements, often as compliments.  So-and-so is detail oriented.  So-and-so focuses on processes.  We have also heard of those statements, often as criticism.  The general wisdom is that focusing on the detail and the process comes at a cost of losing sight of the goal or not getting to a goal fast enough.  Is that true?

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Year of the Mole

I’d like to declare 2016 the “Year of the Mole.”   No, this is not some new Chinese zodiac animal or a profound desire to hole up for the winter now that I’m living in freezing temperatures.  This declaration is my desire to celebrate those who dream, act, attend, practice, learn and perform, regardless of the size of the audience. The mole I’m talking about is one I discovered in David McPhail’s book, “Mole Music.”

Mole lived all alone underground, digging tunnels. In the evenings he would relax and eat dinner in front of the TV, then to bed. He had the feeling something was missing and one night he heard a man on television play the violin, making the most beautiful music. He decided he wanted to make beautiful music too. He sent away for a violin and everyday he checked his mailbox, waiting, until finally after nearly three weeks, it arrived. He picked up the bow and drew it across the strings, but instead of beautiful music, he just made horrible screeching sounds.


The illustrations begin to show the reaction above the ground as the sounds from below the ground waft through. As mole tries again, the birds recoil and fly away and the tree branches sulk with the horrible vibrations. But mole kept at it. He played one note, then another and after a month an entire scale. The birds are then seen flying back and the young sapling standing upright. As mole practiced, the birds are now feeding their baby as a bunny looks on. As years go by, the music continues, the tree grows strong, and mole got better and better.

Mole was happier than he’d ever been, he dug during the day and played music at night and was even better than the man he saw before.   He wonders what it would be like to play his music for people. As he plays and wonders, above the ground you see the tree lined with different kinds of birds and the ground surrounded by different kinds of people. As he imagines playing for presidents and queens, he also imagines his music could reach into people’s hearts and melt away their anger and sadness.

As he reaches for his violin that evening there are two warring armies gathering on the hilltops above the mole’s home.  They are pointing their weapons at one another, ready to charge.  The armies set off on horseback, dust billowing and birds scattering, but as they approached the tree and hear the music, they toss their weapons aside. As mole continues to play, the warring men are seen greeting one another by handshake instead of weapons, embracing one another as mole thinks how silly he is for thinking his music could change the world when no one has ever heard it. “Mole played one more song, then put down his violin and went to sleep. And dreamed beautiful, peaceful dreams.”

This beautifully simple story is about the universal language and power of music, but for leaders, this story can serve as a reminder of the power of listening.  Leaders have extraordinary power and responsibility to inspire others, to look for the way forward toward accomplishing goals and objectives. But in addition to looking, mole’s story serves as a reminder about the potential impacts of listening.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled, Three Ways Leaders Can Listen with More Empathy by Christine Riordan, she writes, “Slowing down, engaging with others rather than endlessly debating, taking the time to hear and learn from others, and asking brilliant questions are ultimately the keys to success.”  But there are numerous books, articles, and research about this power. So why is it so difficult for many leaders? In part, because listening takes time and the impacts are hard, if not impossible, to measure. We are living in extraordinarily fast paced times and most new leaders want to impact their organization in a positive fashion at breakneck speed in order to demonstrate value. In our era of big data and proven, measurable results, taking time to listen can feel hard to justify. Mole Music is a beautiful reminder that the impact of listening may not always be known or measurable, but the potential impact of listening can be profound, allowing for meaningful change.

Listen for the moles among us, they are there, they are working hard, they are practicing, playing, making music in their own way. If we choose to honor their vibrations, their practice, who knows, the many discordant vibrations of ugliness, cruelty, and callousness might just be interrupted enough so that beautiful vibrations can be heard.   At the end of the year a friend sent me a beautiful visual of the many moles among us. Be a leader who values the moles and the music they make.

  • Find resources for those looking to grow, to learn, to practice;
  • Make space for practice, be tolerant of mistakes, of horrible screeching sounds. Allow for correction, protect for correction, give time for each note to be practiced and put together.
  • Then stop and listen…

Imagine creating a better world, imagine creating a kinder world, imagine melting away anger and sadness.   If you have the power to celebrate the accomplishments of the moles in your midst, then gather an audience and listen, so 2016 can truly be the Year of the Mole.




Show Me Your Inner Little Mermaid

I am going to write about The Little Mermaid,

I told my friend on the phone.  “I’m talking about the Disney version, not the …,” and before I could finish the sentence with “not the Hans Christian Andersen version,” my friend groaned.  Many of the adults I know would groan, roll their eyes or sigh in exasperation at a mere mention of Disney princesses.  Don’t you?  Be honest.  I do.  I am a proud uncle who proactively “de-pinks” our nieces and introduces them to books like Jane Yolen’s Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, which ended up sitting on the bookshelf, collecting dust and being ignored by the little girls dressed in pink.  I don’t know what it is about the Disney princesses that make some of us squirm.  Yet, we all like Disney animations.  Admit it, you have your favorites, and so do I.  But maybe after hearing Let It Go a hundred times and seeing the princesses in unexpected places, like in the aisles at your grocery store, drugstore, and shopping mall, the magic wears off.  While we can debate the strengths and flaws of these princess characters, many actually portray admirable qualities and values.  What values do we find within these characters if we see beyond commercialization and let go of our judgment?  An event in my professional life gave me a chance to reexamine one of these princesses through one of my favorite songs, “Part of Your World,” from the Disney The Little Mermaid (1989).  After reading and rereading the lyrics a few times, I saw a new light in Ariel, the Little Mermaid.  I didn’t see her as a princess.  I saw her as leadership potential.

It all started with a thick binder that I had to read and lug around on my long subway commute.  I was invited to be on the selection committee for the high potential leadership program at a large organization.  The program attracted a lot of applicants, as evidenced by the thick binder with more than a few dozens of applications inside.  It was our job as the selection committee to read the resumes, essays, and letters of recommendations, score the applications, debate and select those we thought were leadership potential to participate in the program.

The applications came in a wide variety.  Many shined with stories of accomplishments, visions and aspirations, and moved me to be their advocate, while others left me unconvinced or even frustrated.  What is it that made some applications stronger than others?  How would an applicant signal to the decision makers that he or she was a potential leader?  In this case, I was a decision maker, so what moved me?  I didn’t realize that I had been mulling over these questions for so many days that they had seeped into my brain.

After another morning of reading applications on the subway, I started humming “Part of Your World” in my head.  The song stuck, and I decided to look up the lyrics online.  Reading a song gave a different perspective from singing it or listening to it.  Without the melody, I focused on the words themselves, and that was when I realized that the song was my answer to the questions about leadership potential.  In that song, Ariel describes a world beyond and her desire to get there.  The words read like a resume and a cover letter.  In my mind, really good ones.  If she had been in my binder, I would have picked her.

The song opens with Ariel’s description of her treasures, or, if you will, her assets, her human capital, her skills and experience.  Even though her human vocabulary is limited, she gives you specific details of what she has to offer, “gadgets,” “gizmos,” “whozits,” “whatzits,” and “thingamabobs.”  She also quantifies them like the twenty thingamabobs she has.  If you have done recruiting,  I’m sure you share my appreciation when reading a resume that gets specific with actions and impacts and does its best to quantify those achievements.

Then, she asks us a rhetorical but leading question:

Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I am the girl
The girl who has everything?

She makes you think that she has got it all as she asks “how many wonders can one cavern hold?”  Then, she reveals her drive as she bursts out,

But who cares? No big deal. I want more.

She proceeds to lay out her vision, what wanting more entails.  Her desired goals are specific.  She doesn’t tell us that she just wants to get out of the ocean to go somewhere vaguely defined as better or more exciting.  Instead, she helps us visualize specifically the end state: where she wants to go and what she will do when she gets there.  She wants to be where the people are and wants to see them dancing.  Her statement might sound simple to us humans, but for someone who hasn’t met a person or knows what a dance is, this vision is outside the box and yet specific at the same time.  For those of us who have written college or graduate school applications or read ones, how many of us have struggled answering essay questions like: Describe your career goals in 500 words.  Or, what do you want to get out of this program?  Save the world, you say.  But how strong is that statement if another applicant says, “I want to save the world, and here is how I envision the new world to look like and how I plan to get there”?

While Ariel’s vision is outside the box, it is grounded on reality.  Her exposure to the world above comes from trinkets and objects that her seagull friend has brought her.  They make her ask questions and spur her vision.  Ariel reminds me of some of the potential leaders that I have encountered in my life.  They might be young and inexperienced, but they have been exposed to other leaders, mentors or role models who have given them specific examples of what they want to have or whom they want to be in the future.

While her song is about aspiration, Ariel is humble and demonstrates her ability to self-reflect and identify skill gaps that she has yet to learn to fill.  She recognizes her own limitation where she is and the potential of doing more if she has an opportunity to be up on land.  She identifies what else she needs to accomplish what she wants to do:

Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing

She also recognizes that there are words and concepts she doesn’t know like street and legs.  She wants to ask questions, learn and know.  Her questions are specific like, “What is a fire and why does it … burn?”

She is saying: if I am given this opportunity, this is what I want to learn and this is what I can do.

Ariel sings this song with a tone of joy and hope.  Such a tone draws in listeners.  For those of us who know her story, she has just been reprimanded by her father right before she sings this song.  While she is frustrated, she only briefly verbalizes her frustration.  She does not linger on it, and turns that frustration into her positive driving force.  She moves on by saying:

       Bright young women sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand

This positive attitude reminds me of a piece of advice that someone shared with me.  She said that when you want to do something, do it from a position of assets and not deficits.  In other words, do not apply for a new job, a graduate school, or a training program because you are resentful with the status quo and want to get away.  Do it because you want it given what you have.  That is what Ariel is doing here.  She turns her frustration, her knowledge and her desire into a vision with positive forces behind her.

That is how I rediscovered Ariel – the Disney version – in a new light, with newfound respect.  If I had magical powers, I would give her legs, send her up to the shore, and even give her money for matches and dance lessons.  Even though I don’t have magical powers in the realm of merfolk, I still have non-magical influences in the realm of humans. I can be a strong advocate to those who convince me of their accomplishments, visions and aspirations and help them to a path to realize their dreams, as I did with those strong applicants.  And I can also say this: Girls (and boys and adults), wear pink if you want to.  What is more important is to show the world your inner Little Mermaid.  Paint a vision, be specific, be curious, dream big and be real, start your journey from a place of have and not a place of lack, and chase your dream with joy.