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The Narratives of Columbus Day and Political Ads

Category: General

I believe people respond best to narratives, not statistics, and that is important for leaders to remember. Effective narratives often include stories and have a message that pushes people to act. Statistics by themselves, while interesting to people like me, rarely push us into action.

Christopher Columbus' Voyages Across te Atlantic

Columbus Day. I still wonder why Columbus Day is a federal holiday and not recognized by many businesses and organizations like ours. Heck, Columbus never actually set foot in what is now the United States yet we have a holiday for him. According to Wikipedia this is how Columbus Day was created, “In April 1934, as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and New York City Italian leader Generoso Pope, Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made October 12 a federal holiday under the name Columbus Day.”

Roosevelt knew we could not have a holiday that recognized one minority group because then we would need a holiday for every group and that would never end. But choosing Columbus, which had a great narrative most everyone could support, would work.

While Italian-Americans certainly developed a great “narrative” story about Columbus at that time, current knowledge undermines that narrative. For example, you don’t have to be a historian to know that America existed long before 1492. For example, we know Cahokia, a 10,000 inhabitant settlement, existed across the Mississippi River from St. Louis over 500 years before Columbus.

Also, as was published in Simon Winchester’s Atlantic, Leif Eriksson likely travelled to the Atlantic Provinces and perhaps New England shortly after 1000 AD. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson even signed a proclamation that declared October 9 to be Leif Eriksson Day in honor of the Viking explorer, his crew and the country’s Nordic-American heritage. Winchester also notes that Irish-Scottish missionaries allegedly travelled to the Maritime Provinces in the 550s.

I doubt this holiday or its name will ever be changed unless a more compelling October narrative emerges. Maybe we should “discover” one.

Political Ads. As always, there are hundreds of political ads running on television this month. There has been a great deal of research into what makes an effective political ad and that is likely why we see a wide use of narratives – stories about the good or bad things candidates have done. Successful candidates use different stories to reach different demographics.

And, wise candidates, use statistics as part of the narrative. For example, this morning for the first time I saw a very clever narrative ad using a young girl competing in a spelling bee. She was asked to spell “Shaheen.” She asked familiar questions of the judges – “Can you give me the definition? Can you use it in a sentence?” To which the adult judges could provide opposing or negative information about Senator Shaheen including the statistic, “Shaheen voted with Obama 99% of the time.”

I like to always challenge myself to create effective narratives. So next time you are trying to inspire a group of people to take action, think about your narrative.

October 15, 2014 19:39

Did You Know There is a U.S. Presidents Club?

Categories: Teamwork , Leadership and Management Lessons , Books

Only 43 men have known what it is like to be President of the United States. So when a person becomes President there are only a few living souls who really understand what the job entails, and that is where the Presidents Club comes in.

The Presidents Club Book

After finishing The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs (now the Editor of Time magazine) and Michael Duffy, I am amazed that anyone would want to be President and grateful this Club exists. The Presidents Club, a term actually coined by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover in 1953 when Dwight D. Eisenhower became President, is the group of living Presidents. Today the Club has five members – Carter, Clinton, the two Bushes, and Obama.

This 2012 book includes great anecdotes and describes in detail the tense and close relationships among all the Presidents since the Truman-Hoover relationship. Here are my favorite pieces shared in the book.

Truman-Hoover. Truman really invented the concept of the Presidents Club. When he became President after Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945 he knew very little about being President because Roosevelt had kept him in the dark. We know he had to deal with fighting a war on two fronts, and then after the war he had to deal with trying to (1) rebuild Europe so the Soviet Union would not take over and (2) re-structure the U.S. government during a post-war economy. Truman reached out to former President Hoover, a Republican, who had tremendous organizational skills. Hoover was honored to be consulted and proved to be Truman’s closest advisor and friend.

Kennedy-Eisenhower. As we learn in the book, every President who takes office does not believe they will need any advice from a former President. They are confident and believe they have what it takes to be the leader of the free world. Then, when they face a crisis, often international, they reach out to the Presidents Club for advice. And this is precisely what happened to John Kennedy. After Kennedy mishandled the Bay of Pigs incident shortly after he took office, he reached out to Eisenhower, who became a very close advisor and mentor for the remainder of Kennedy’s life. Eisenhower’s wisdom about dealing with Soviets was especially helpful to Kennedy as he worked through the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Nixon Likely Committed Treason. During the fall election of 1968 between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, President Lyndon Johnson was trying desperately to finish his term with a Vietnam peace agreement negotiated in Paris. He was keeping both candidates informed of the progress and believed completely that Richard Nixon was supporting his efforts and negotiations.

What he did not know then was that Nixon had developed a secret “back channel” communication link with Vietnamese officials. Nixon did not want a peace settlement before Election Day because he thought, probably correctly, that if peace happened before the election, Humphrey would win. Nixon was secretly promising a better deal for the Vietnamese if he became President and so the peace process stalled. What the authors tell us is that peace was very likely had Nixon not manipulated the situation behind the scenes. They write that when the war finally ended in 1975 the terms at the end were virtually the same that Johnson had on the table in the fall of 1968.

And, while Nixon later served the Presidents through Clinton very well as a gifted foreign policy advisor, Johnson and many scholars contend that what Nixon did in 1968 was treason.

Carter is Not Much of a Club Favorite. I think learning how Jimmy Carter behaved toward other Presidents after leaving office was the biggest surprise to me – and one can see why he is still not very popular among them. Besides numerous examples of being just plain mean, Carter often used his foreign missions on behalf of Presidents as moments for self-promotion. And this behavior breaks one of the rules of the Presidents Club, which is to serve the “office of the president”, not yourself.

Two examples where Cater was serving President Bill Clinton will help explain. The authors describe in detail the trip Carter made to North Korea in 1994 to try to reduce a chance of war threatened by North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. There was tension between Carter and Clinton on what the goals of the mission should be. Carter was successful and rather than have the White House announce the outcome, which is customary, he announced it on CNN just minutes after telling a Clinton official at the White House.

A few months later, this time working on a team with Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn, Carter helped negotiate a settlement of tensions in Haiti. Back in Washington it was agreed these three and Clinton would hold a joint news-conference at the White House. However, Carter went on CNN ahead of time and made the announcement. The authors suggest Carter’s behavior had more to do with trying to improve his historically weak presidential ranking and not caring about being a good Club member.

Clinton and the Bushes. Clinton, who really had no father guiding him as he grew-up, entered the office at a young 47. He wisely knew he needed mentorship and was unashamed to reach out to all members of The Club. The relationship that has really endured is the one he has with George Herbert Walker Bush, who comes through this book looking very good. The relationship is so close today that the Bush family considers Clinton part of their family.

In 2011 at a huge event honoring George H.W. Bush at the Kennedy Center, Clinton gave a very moving speech about the senior Bush. Backstage afterwards with everyone standing around, the Bush family got together for a family photograph. Suddenly Neil Bush said, “Bill! Bill! Brother of another mother! Get in here!”

As Clinton nudged his way into the back row for the picture he said, “The family’s black sheep. Every family’s got one.”

The Presidents Club – a wonderful American creation and I am grateful we have one.  

October 09, 2014 19:10

So, What is the Mason-Dixon Line?

Category: General

This past weekend when Patti and I drove to Virginia we passed a sign noting we were crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. Patti asked me how it got the name and wondered if it was named after someone related to the Civil War. She had always heard the term when people spoke about the North and South and free and slave states, so her assumptions were logical.

Mason-Dixon Line Map

But as I shared with her yet another one of “Steve’s stories,” it hit me this might be an interesting Blog.

Where is the Mason-Dixon Line? The Mason-Dixon Line is the wonderfully straight east-west border line between Pennsylvania and Maryland/West Virginia and the north-south border line between Maryland and Delaware. (See map.)

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. The line is named after the two British men who surveyed the line over four years between 1763 and 1767. Mason was a well-known astronomer and Dixon was an especially skilled surveyor. As you can read in Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything, they had previously gained fame working on scientific projects around the world wrestling with how large the Earth was and how much mass it had.

Why They Did the Survey. The survey was done to settle a border dispute between William Penn and his Pennsylvania Colony and the Calvert family and their Maryland Colony. If you read details about the disputes in the early 1700’s it reminds me of a civilized Hatfield and McCoy battle. Anyways, to make a long story short, a British judge ordered the survey to settle the dispute. The families chose Mason and Dixon because of their fame and skill and ability to work in difficult and challenging geographical conditions.

The Survey. One of the reasons there was a dispute was that when the King gave Maryland their grant it covered an area of land from the Potomac River north to the 40th parallel, which turns out is north of Philadelphia, a town William Penn had already settled. So among the agreed upon challenges the surveyors worked with was finding a new point to start the line that was 15 miles south of the most southern house in Philadelphia.

In any case, it took Mason and Dixon four years to finish first the north-south line between Delaware and Maryland and then the east-west line between Maryland and then Virginia (later in 1865 West Virginia). The biggest challenge they faced was dealing with Native Americans, so they hired Iroquois guides to help them. They actually had to stop at Dunkard Creek about 30 miles short of their western goal because their Iroquois guide would not go into enemy Lenape territory. That stretch of the line would not be finished until new surveyors, Rittenhouse and Ellicott, could finish in 1784.

Mason-Dixon Line Marker

Mason and Dixon marked every mile along the way with special stones from England. And, every five miles, they placed a “crownstone” monument like the one in this picture. On the south side of the marker is the Calvert family coat of arms and on the north side is the Penn family coat of arms. Apparently many of these monuments still exist and are protected by cages.

Several scientific advancements were learned during this survey that contributed to our understanding of the earth’s mass and the calculations of longitude.

The North and the South. Later on in the 1820’s the Mason-Dixon Line between Pennsylvania and Maryland became more famous as it was also used to separate free states and slave states. The line was specifically used as part of the Missouri Compromise and became part of what then became known as the “Missouri Compromise” line. If you remember, this Compromise was developed in Congress to make sure that as states were admitted to the Union there continued to be an equal balance of free and slave states.

I hope you enjoyed this little variance from my normal Blogs and trust you will now be able to tell people all about the Mason-Dixon line when it next (or never) comes up in conversations among your friends!

October 02, 2014 17:02

Effective Leaders Ask the Right Questions - Part 2

Category: Leadership and Management Lessons
Make Just One Change

How an organization finds solutions to problems says a great deal about its culture, and its leadership.

In Part 2 of this Blog about how effective leaders ask the right questions I’ll explore how leaders can ask questions in positive ways that inspire teams to find hopeful solutions. And then I’ll write about a technique outlined in the book Make Just One Change that teams can use to develop the right questions so they can work together more effectively toward getting the best results.

Problem vs. Solution-Based Questions. In an article Lead at Your Best published in the April 2014 McKinsey Quarterly by Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie, the authors describe for the reader how leaders need to balance fear and hope. While leaders may have to use fear to actually get people to change, so, too, they need to use hope to balance it. There is a time and place for both.

In the article Barsh and Lavoie take the reader through an exercise where they ask you to think about a problem at work and then have a partner ask these five questions of you:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What are the root causes?
  3. Who is responsible for this problem, who is to blame?
  4. What have you tried that hasn’t worked?
  5. Why haven’t you been able to fix the problem yet?

Then you stop and start over again. The partner asks you these questions instead:

  1. What would you like to see (and make) happen?
  2. Can you recall a time when the solution was present, at least in part? What made that possible?
  3. What are the smallest steps you could take that would make the biggest difference?
  4. What are you learning in this conversation so far?

As you can imagine, when you stop and de-brief after both sessions the feelings both the questioner and recipient feel are very different in each scenario. The first are problem-focused questions and work well for technical, linear issues that have “right” answers. The second are solution-focused questions and engage people in finding solutions and instills hope along the way.

Barsh and Lavoie wrote about one plant manager who placed cards with solution-focused questions on them around the plant. He encouraged his teams to use them every day as they searched for solutions to various issues. We can easily imagine the culture in that plant was very different from the culture in a plant where leaders used problem-based questions regularly. As Barsh and Lavoie wrote, “Look for problems and you’ll find them; look for solutions and people will offer them. By choosing our questions thoughtfully, we can shift our mind-set.”

Teach Groups to Ask Their Own Questions. Recently when reading A More Beautiful Question that I wrote about in Part 1 of this Blog I discovered a technique developed over many years by Dan Rothstein and Luz Sanatana, which they describe in their book Make Just One Change. These techniques are now used to teach students how to ask more effective questions and to teach other groups how to tackle problems. Here is their technique in six steps.

  1. Leader writes a problem statement on a whiteboard that is only a few words long.
  2. Within a time-limit, group then comes up with as many questions as possible that pertain to the statement. (Rules – questions must be written down, no debate or discussion about questions.)
  3. Group goes through questions and makes open-ended questions closed questions and vice versa. This teaches group how they can narrow-down some questions and expand others. Rothstein says that during this stage people learn “the way you ask a question yields different results and can lead you in different directions.”
  4. Group then prioritizes questions and chooses three questions they believe the answers to which can move toward finding the right solution.
  5. Group develops next steps for learning the answers to the three questions.
  6. Group discusses what they learned during the process.

Two things are for sure – it takes an open culture for leaders to practice any or all of these techniques and asking the right question can focus people on the right answer, which may very well surprise us.

September 23, 2014 12:07

Effective Leaders Ask the Right Questions - Part 1

Category: Leadership and Management Lessons
A More Beautiful Question

I am always learning how to ask the right questions. And while I love watching Billy on the Street ask questions, his type of questions and techniques won’t really fly in the workplace. Recently, I read three interesting books/pieces about asking questions and thought I’d share them in this two-part Blog.

A More Beautiful Question. I am loving the book A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. He really opens our minds to the art of asking questions. He reminds us of the story of how Edwin Land was inspired to invent the Polaroid instant camera in 1943. While on vacation in Santa Fe his three-year-old daughter asked, “Why can’t we see the picture you just took without having to wait?” This one question inspired him. Within a few short months he invented the instant camera. One question inspired him, and it was not from any expert.

Berger also wrote about Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, which designs new products and new ways to deliver healthcare. Brown says they almost always start with the question, “how might we?” Brown says that within that phrase each word plays a role. He said, “The ‘how’ part assumes there are solutions out there — it provides creative confidence. ‘Might’ says we can put ideas out there that might work or might not — either way, it’s OK. And the ‘we’ part says we’re going to do it together and build on each other’s ideas.”

I have read other work by Berger and love these two questions he shares from two people:

  1. How can we become the company that would put us out of business? (Danny Meyer)
  2. What is it like to work for me? (Robert Sutton)

Be Careful Not to Focus on Just What Bothers “Us”. I am a huge fan of Freakonomics and am really enjoying their new book Think Like a Freak. The authors, Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner, give us examples of how often when problems surface, we zoom in on the part of the problem that most bothers us or that we can get our teeth into most easily – and then fail to address the real problem.

One example they used was the decline of the U.S. education system. Much of the research and money has focused on improving the quality of teachers. Why? Because teachers are easy and familiar targets that everyone comes in contact with personally. They are easier to understand. Leavitt and Dubner point out that America is also likely focused on teachers because experts are trying to answer the question, "What's wrong with our schools?" And, while the quality of some teachers needs improvement, we are likely focused on the wrong question.

Leavitt and Dubner, however, suggest we will come-up with different solutions when we ask, “Why do American kids know less than kids from Estonia and Poland?” They go on to discuss the myriad of social and family issues in the U.S. that have a far greater impact on this question than teachers. Many of the lessons they teach in the book focus on asking, and thus researching, the right question.

In Part 2 of this Blog I will write about how leaders can ask questions in positive ways that inspire teams to find hopeful solutions. And, equally important, I'll write about how teams can learn to develop the right questions so they can work more effectively toward getting the best results.

September 15, 2014 18:03
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Steve Wood is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Leddy Group and Work Opportunities Unlimited Inc. (WOU). In addition, Steve provides strategic planning and organizational development consulting services to clients.


Prior to joining the company, Steve spent 17 years in the banking industry where he was promoted to Senior Vice President and Senior Commercial Loan Officer.



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