Trusting Me

Solving a problemI was chatting with a colleague about the nature of trust, and he made a statement that brought me up short. He said that most people overlook self trust as an extremely important concept in life.

I had to admit that in all my years of studying trust in people and organizations, I had not spent much time dealing with self trust. This article is an attempt to remedy that.

Self trust is kind of a spooky business. We tend to rationalize the things we do that may be marginal in terms of being right, either for us or for others.

If we do something that we know deep down is just wrong, we think about the reasons that drove us to do that and give ourselves a pass on the transaction.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how hard it really is to determine one’s…

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Classic Leadership Wisdom: Quote of the Week

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides gives an account of a famous negotiation between two Greek states. On one side, the Athenians, who have sailed their impressive fleet of warships to the island of Melos to demand surrender. On the other side, the Melians, current allies of Lacedaemon, aka Sparta (Athens’ chief enemy) and possessors of a not-so-impressive army.

The Athenians offer to let Melos alone to run their affairs in peace if they will come over to Athens’ side and pay a reasonable annual tribute. All the other small islands in the area have already acquiesced, but the Melians don’t think they should have to. They argue that a) their allies the Lacedaemonians will help them, and b) what the Athenians propose is unjust. What they don’t seem to grasp are some of the principles of negotiation with which many leaders are familiar today; they clearly haven’t, for example, figured out their BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement).

The exchange has become known as the “Melian Dialogue.” Here is one of the key passages:

Melians: “But we believe that [the Lacedaemonians] would be more likely to face even danger for our sake, and with more confidence than for others, as our nearness to the Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.”

Athenians: “Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to, is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others … it is only with numerous allies that they attack a neighbor; now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?”

Melians: “But they would have others to send …”

Athenians: ” …we are struck by the fact, that after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust to and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious.”


Nevertheless, the Melians refuse to bend. The Athenians leave, but eventually return; Lacedaemon does not, in fact, send help; and the Athenian force wipes the island out, slaughtering or enslaving all the inhabitants. Later that year Euripides, the Greek playwright, came out with his tragedy The Trojan Women — which, though it ostensibly portrays the brutal aftermath of the Greek conquest of Troy, was known by its audience to be a commentary on what happened to Melos.


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Stretching the Cube: Getting Leaders to Think Broader, Deeper, Higher


It seems a lot of leaders are sitting in tiny cubes.

In the past few months I’ve had conversations about leadership with  1) a VP of Learning and Development for a Fortune 100 company; 2) a consultant who designs leadership training programs for companies of all sizes; and 3) a CEO of a fast-growing midsize technology firm.

I asked each of them what leaders at their company (or client companies) needed to do in order to be more effective, prepare themselves for more senior roles, and contribute to the firm’s success. Their replies sounded like this:

“Most of these folks are too stuck in their own little areas. We need them to pick their heads up and take a larger view. We need them to think beyond their function or business unit, beyond the day-to-day details and firefighting, and beyond tactical issues to strategic issues.”

Of course, they each phrased it a bit differently. The Learning and Development VP talked about diversity of thought and expanded perspectives. The consultant talked about complexity and tolerance of ambiguity. The CEO talked about wanting his executive team to have “a 360-degree view, not 180 or 270.”

But these three experts, at bottom, have the same worry.

Leaders at all levels of their organization, they feel, are thinking too narrow, too shallow, and too low. It’s as if each leader is sitting cramped in a small box, and they want each one to—no, not think outside the box—but make the box bigger along three dimensions: broader, deeper, and higher.

The other thing I asked these three individuals was: What type of leadership education or training had their people received in the past, and why hadn’t it resulted in the kind of broader, deeper, and higher perspectives they were hoping for? They all said something like this:

“Some of our leaders have an MBA, but all that gives them is financial and basic business knowledge. A lot of them have gone through our own management training program(s), and they come out of there knowing our performance management process and maybe with some better coaching and feedback skills. And last year we did a whole big push around [insert name of latest business fad]; we brought in [insert name of hot business guru] to do a series of workshops.  It’s all been useful, but nobody really seems to be thinking differently.”

Here’s where most MBA and corporate leadership programs falter:  they don’t talk explicitly about the need to think bigger in three dimensions, let alone show leaders how to do it. True, you’ll emerge from such a program having encountered a number of new concepts and tools, maybe improved a skill or two, but your personal cube—your mindset and outlook as a leader—won’t have grown much larger.

Here’s the sort of learning leaders need if we want them to think broader, deeper, and higher:

  • Broader:  Situations in which they not only are exposed to the perspectives of different functions, regions, and roles, but also are asked to analyze and solve problems from those diverse points of view.
  • Deeper:  Opportunities for them to immerse in, discuss, and apply a range of essential leadership concepts—big ideas such as change, justice, dilemmas, competition, decisions, vision, and motivation.
  • Higher:  Instruction in the levels of leadership—not to be confused with rungs on the corporate ladder—so that they know exactly what it means and what it will take to increase their impact as leaders.

Think broader. Think deeper. Think higher. That’s what my three friends were trying to say to leaders in their organization.

In other words:  Stretch the cube.


Next time I’ll go into more detail on the three dimensions and how to expand each one. Right now, I’d love to know what you think: Are leaders in your organization sitting in too-small cubes? How would you describe the different kind of thinking that’s required? What does “broader, deeper, higher” mean to you?

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Classic Leadership Wisdom: Are Leaders Born or Made?

Are leaders born or made?

The question is at least two thousand years old and still being debated today. Plutarch, the first-century historian and biographer, came down firmly on the side of “made.” In his essay “On Education,” he argues persuasively that moral excellence–what today we might call leadership character–is about nurture more than nature, learning more than innate ability.

Learning to lead, however, is not the work of an hour or two. A drop of water will wear away a rock, but it takes ten years, twenty years … even a lifetime.  

“To speak generally, what we are wont to say about the arts and sciences is true of moral excellence, for to its perfect development three things must meet together: natural ability, theory, and practice. (By theory I mean training, and by practice working at one’s craft.) … Happy at any rate and dear to the gods is he to whom any deity has vouchsafed all these elements! But if anyone thinks that those who have not good natural ability cannot to some extent make up for the deficiencies of nature by right training and practice, let such a one know that he is very wide of the mark, if not out of it altogether … The wonderful efficacy and power of long and continuous labor you may see indeed every day in the world around you. Thus water continually dropping wears away rocks: and iron and steel are moulded by the hands of the artificer: and chariot wheels bent by strain can never recover their original symmetry: and the crooked staves of actors can never be made straight. But by toil, what is contrary to nature becomes stronger than even nature itself.”

-Plutarch, Moralia, “On Education”

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On Ice Cream, Mushrooms, and the Three Ages of Leadership

Are you a new leader, a rising leader, or a tenured leader? And do you know what you should be focusing on at this stage of the game?

Check out my latest post on the Linked2Leadership blog to find out …


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Classic Leadership Wisdom: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

If I had to prescribe one novel for all leaders to read, it would probably be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

If you’re picturing the Hollywood movies of the same name, you’ll think it an odd choice. But Shelley’s book bears little relation to the films. Her “monster” (who is not named Frankenstein, by the way; that’s the name of the scientist who creates him) is an articulate and sensitive creature who wants to love and be loved. He teaches himself to speak, read, and write by observing a human family and, after waiting patiently for the right time, tries to make friends with them. It’s only when his overtures are viciously and violently rejected that he realizes the hopelessness of his situation and vows revenge on his creator.

Dr. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is merely a coward. Having brought his creature to life, he decides on the spot that he is a “fiend” and a “wretch,” abandons him, and flees the country. Perhaps like some leaders you know, Frankenstein talks big and has big ambitions, but when the time comes to take responsibility for what he has put in motion, he’s not up to it. When he finds he can’t control the thing he’s brought to life, he has a choice: to try to understand and care for it anyway, or to shun it and hope it disappears. He chooses the latter.

When Frankenstein meets up with his creation a year later, he is surprised to find that what the creature desires above all is not to kill him, but to tell his story. The “fiend” importunes Frankenstein with the following words, a cry from the heart for understanding:

“Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me. The guilty are allowed by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defense before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder, and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature … Yet I ask you not to spare me; listen to me, and then, if you can, and if you will, destroy the work of your hands.”

–Frankenstein, by Mary W. Shelley

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When to Turn Back (Hint: Before You Plummet Over a Cliff)

“What does that sign say?”

I could hear the tension in my mother’s voice as she peered through the windshield of our tiny car at the large road sign, written in Spanish and framed by a fringe of icicles that glittered in the sun.

“It says we’re supposed to have chains on the tires if we’re going any farther up the mountain,” said my uncle. “But don’t worry about it, it doesn’t mean anything.” He pressed the accelerator and the car moved slowly forward, tires crunching in the snow.

I was ten years old. I sat with knees touching the back of the passenger seat, trying not to bump my mother and make her even more annoyed than she clearly was already. I was wearing the red-and-black poncho we’d bought at an outdoor market in Frijiliana, the village where my Uncle Michael lived. My mother and I were visiting him for a few weeks over Spring break.

Frijiliana is on the southern coast of Spain. It had been warm there, but it was unseasonably cold toward the center of the country, where we were that day. Uncle Michael was taking us on a car trip to the interior, where he wanted us to see, among other things, a famous mountain peak that offered spectacular views. I don’t remember the name of the place, but I remember the grownups exclaiming over the snow that still blanketed the ground in early May.

“Are you sure?” my mother asked. She gripped the dashboard as the car skidded a bit.

“Oh yes, yes, it’s no problem at all,” said Uncle Michael. “Anyway, we’ve already paid to go up. We shouldn’t turn back now.”

The snow was maybe four inches deep on the twisty, narrow road. There were no guard rails. There were no other cars. I remember thinking, “Mummy doesn’t like this.”

We drove for about fifteen minutes up and around several switchbacks before the car came to a stop, tires spinning in a hump of snow.

“We should go back,” said my mother.

“No, come on, everyone out, it just needs a little push,” said Uncle Michael.

We got out. He walked around to the back and pushed. My mother stood with me in the middle of the road.

He stopped, puffing cloudy breaths. “Well, we can just wait for a bit. Someone will be along soon to give us a push, and then we can keep going. In the meantime, let’s take a picture! Look at this view!”

He herded us over to the edge of the road, a 200-foot drop behind us, and snapped the picture, which remains in my mother’s photo album today: it shows an unsmiling woman in sunglasses and navy-blue trench coat and an unsmiling girl in red-and-black poncho, standing in front of a truly spectacular view.

Directly after the taking of the snapshot, things began to happen. I remember the car suddenly sliding gently backward, my uncle running after it, feet skittering on the snow, putting his hands on the side door in a vain attempt to arrest the slide, my mother saying “Jesus,” the car moving faster, faster, heading for the edge, then slowing, then coming to a stop about six feet from the cliff.

I don’t remember what my mother said next. Whatever it was, Uncle Michael was absolutely quiet and compliant from then on. He got into the car, started it, and turned it around. Then my mother and I got in, and we all drove very slowly down the mountain, past the You Must Have Chains on Your Tires sign, and back to our hotel.


Much advice for leaders and entrepreneurs today boils down to “Persevere.” Success lies, they say, in forging ahead no matter what. I quite like that advice; in fact, one of my favorite sayings is “Perseverance and audacity generally win” (a quote from Dorothee DeLuzy, a French actress of the eighteenth century).

But let’s be honest: sometimes, turning back is the right thing to do. Many of my regrets in my career are connected to times I pressed onward when turning back would have been wiser (see my July 24 post on “No-Regrets Leadership”).

Some say we can only perceive this kind of mistake with hindsight. As I think about that mountain road in Spain, however, I’d say the universe typically gives us plenty of warning—I mean big, fat signs—when we’re headed down (or up) an inadvisable path. Unfortunately, we can be so caught up in our vision of success that, like Uncle Michael, we fail to pay attention.

Here are three signals that you ought to turn back:

  • You’re alone. Except for your direct reports, who have no choice in the matter, nobody is coming along on your exciting mission. When you ask people for support, or to come to your meetings, they’re too busy. When you want to talk about it, they’re not interested.
  • Your team is visibly unhappy. The people with you (the ones without a choice) don’t say much. They seem tense, maybe even anxious. When they do speak up, you don’t like what they have to say, so you talk over them and tell them to keep going.
  • You’re advised about danger ahead. It’s actually quite rare for someone to warn a colleague about political minefields. (Most people don’t want to put themselves at risk, so they stay silent.) That’s why a colleague’s warning, even if it’s just a mild hint or expression of concern, should always be treated as a giant, flashing red light.

The higher you go and the more compelling your vision, the more you should be alert for these signs. For no matter how spectacular the view, trust me: you won’t appreciate it as you’re plummeting over a cliff.

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