Tag Archive for: leadership

Microphone at a presidential rally

Analyzing the Downstream and Upstream Actions of Secret Service Agents in Protecting Trump

Secret Service breakdown at Trump rally shows the importance of upstream thinking.

I’m appalled by the assassination attempt on former President Trump, and I cannot help but think the violent rhetoric that’s entered our political discourse played a role. I hope people think more carefully before characterizing their opponents in existential terms.

As we get some distance from the event, I wanted to highlight the bravery of the Secret Service agents who did as they trained and protected Trump with their lives. The following bullet, had it been fired, would have hit one of them, wounding or possibly killing them. Thank goodness that did not happen. 

Their actions in response to the event were classic examples of corrective (killing the assailant) and remedial action (protecting Trump). These are downstream actions – reactions to something that already occurred. 

How was someone able to climb up a nearby building with a firearm and set up a firing position without being challenged or interdicted before being able to shoot? People reportedly noticed the assailant and tried to warn authorities for many minutes beforehand.  

Upstream vs. Downstream Thinking

The event suggests the Secret Service’s upstream action was inadequate. Some upstream actions avert adverse events or provide contingencies, while others promote or exploit positive possibilities. 

Preventive action, for example, is designed to prevent something from happening, like providing people with steps to safeguard campfires so they don’t become forest fires. A simple line-of-site tool could show the places with direct sites to the podium so you could place security or surveillance up to a certain distance. Drones could patrol overhead, and counter-drones could keep out intruders. Having security personnel easily identifiable also provides deterrence. 

Contingent actions, which you use to generate options in case a shooter emerges, could include easy reporting protocols (like sports stadiums use for people to report bad behavior), information sharing, and quick reaction forces. I hope an investigation gets to the ground truth and the Secret Service uses the experience to prevent another such attempt.

The takeaway for your business is to create a habit of upstream thinking—crisis prevention is less dramatic than crisis response and almost always less expensive. 

Fortunately, upstream thinking is a learnable skill that I can help you develop. It positions you to reduce risks and exploit favorable opportunities, putting you a step ahead of everyone else. Book a call with me to discuss ways to use upstream thinking.

Chris Kolenda Leading with Dignity: Mandela's Lesson for Biden and Us All

Leading with Dignity: Mandela’s Lesson for Biden and Us All

Mandela’s leadership was about choosing dignity over power

I spent the past two weeks in South Africa, our final stop being the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on June 27th. Mandela’s wisdom and grace inspired me. He negotiated a peaceful transfer of power from the delegitimized apartheid government to one that represented all South Africans and launched the Truth and Reconciliation process that followed.

President Joe Biden’s disastrous debate occurred that evening. The contrast was striking. 

Unlike most developing world leaders who rewrite the rules to stay in control, Mandela stepped down after a single term. 

  1. Commitment to Democracy: Mandela believed sincerely in the principles of democracy and wanted to set a precedent for peaceful and democratic transitions of power in South Africa. By stepping down after one term, he reinforced the importance of constitutional democracy and term limits.
  2. Age and Health: Mandela was 80 years old when he stepped down. Significant factors were his age and desire to spend more time with his family after decades of political and personal struggles.
  3. Leadership Transition: Mandela was keen on ensuring a smooth transition of power. Thabo Mbeki, who had served as his Deputy President, was well-prepared to take over. Mandela supported Mbeki’s candidacy, ensuring continuity and stability for the nation.
  4. Continuing Legacy: After stepping down, Mandela remained active in various social and humanitarian causes. He focused on HIV/AIDS awareness and education through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

By stepping down, Nelson Mandela underscored his commitment to the principles he fought for and ensured that South Africa’s democracy would be robust and resilient in the years to come.

South Africa certainly has its issues today. The African National Congress has been running the country virtually unopposed since 1994 and has become disastrously corrupt. The problem is so bad that the ANC lost significant power in this year’s election, having to share power with the Democratic Alliance.

I’m grateful to President Biden. He visited my Afghanistan outpost in 2008, and in his speeches, he often refers to his visit to the Kunar River Valley. He even mentioned me and our unit in a 2010 speech at the VFW convention. 

Today, he’s stubbornly clinging to power. Aides and family members have systematically misled the public that everything’s fine and that we should not believe our own eyes that have watched the evident mental and physical decline. The debate showed a naked emperor.

He seems to have surrounded himself with people who will tell him what he wants to hear (you’re the only one who can save us) instead of what he needs to hear (it’s time to step down with a secure place in history and set up an appealing successor to win). 

Who benefits from egging him on?

What’s the upshot for you and me? You need trusted advisors who want what’s best for you and will tell you the truth, including when it’s time for another chapter

Departing the scene with dignity, whether by promotion, transfer, or retirement, while setting up your organization to thrive in your absence is among the most significant legacies you can bestow. 

Leaders like George Washington and Nelson Mandela show the way. 

Don’t let your leadership get to this point. Book a call with me so we can create a game plan.

What Surgery Taught Me About Rule- Breaking - Chris Kolenda

What Surgery Taught Me About Rule-Breaking

How often does rule-breaking occur in your business? Probably more than you’d care to admit.

Americans are avid rule-breakers. I think it’s in our DNA or the water or both. Many people came to America because they didn’t like their home country’s rules. Americans defy scolding self-appointed elites. Don’t tread on me.

We brought the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence, and a revolution that stirred other rule-breakers into action. During the Cold War, Soviet military officers feared the American military’s unpredictability: “The American military is so hard to understand because they have a doctrine, but they don’t follow it.”

Skepticism about OPR—Other People’s Rules—is pervasive and probably happens more often than you’d like in your business.

I had surgery recently to repair several nose injuries I suffered in the Army that impeded my breathing. (Cue the wisecracks about the lack of oxygen in my brain, which explains a lot.) 

A nurse called before the surgery, giving me all sorts of dos and don’ts: no eating, drinking, or smoking cigars after 9 p.m. the evening before, take a shower, do not apply facial or hair products, etc.

Which of these rules are really necessary? The nurses tend not to explain why, which invites people to push the boundaries. What happens if I take the last cigar puff at 10:30 pm (which I did)? What’s the magic behind fasting for 12 hours before surgery? Why isn’t it six or twenty-four? No water, seriously? Won’t dehydration undermine recovery? What happens if I resort to rule-breaking?

I woke up at 6:30 am, drank the 4 ounces of water left in a bottle, showered (out of respect for the surgeons and nurses), and otherwise maintained my fast.

After slipping on my hospital gown, the anesthesiologist arrived to let me know how they would put me under. He asked when I last had something to eat or drink. I had finished dinner at 7 pm yesterday and drank 4 ounces of water at 0630. 

The time was 8:30, and the doctor said, “Water takes about two hours to run through your system, so we are ok. Some people experience nausea under anesthesia, so we want to make sure your stomach is empty because you can die of suffocation if you vomit.” 

Now I get it. The doctor gave me vivid details on why patients should fast and for how long. If I ever have another surgery, I’ll be sure to stop eating 12 hours beforehand and not drink water two hours beforehand. 

I could deduce the logic behind most rules, but not all of them. People are more likely to skirt the rules when they don’t get the logic. Respect for the rules signals a healthy business, so you want people to follow your standards voluntarily. Buy–in makes accountability much more manageable.

Here’s how you can improve voluntary compliance with your standards:

  • Use the “X so that Y” formula to describe your standards. “Don’t drink water for two hours before your surgery so that you don’t choke on your own vomit from the anesthesia,” for example.
  • If you cannot describe a compelling Y for a given rule, you have good reason to discard or modify it. There’s no reason I couldn’t drink some water early that morning, even though the nurse said nothing after 9 pm. The rule seemed ludicrous, and it was. Resist the urge to add excessive safety buffers, or people will stop taking your rules seriously.
  • When it comes to adding or modifying standards, enlist the people most affected by them in co-creation. People tend not to design self-defeating rules, so that you will have automatic buy-in for co-created ones.
  • Encourage your employees to ask “why” about your standards, which is a good forcing function for you to ensure the Y part of “X so that Y” is compelling. 

When I started asking doctors and nurses the why behind their do’s and don’ts, I got better and more customized responses. 

The best leaders are humble about their rules. Just because you say a given rule is important does not mean people believe you, especially if you don’t obey the rule yourself. 

Make your rules explicit, make them count, and eliminate the ones that have outlived their usefulness.

If you are ready to take your culture to the next level, I have some excellent options. 

First, you can join my Building an Inspiring Culture® program in the self-directed or live-led versions. You’ll receive short, crisp videos, clear step-by-step processes, and implementation assignments to apply the lessons at work.

A workshop is a second option. In it, I will walk you through the tools that build an inspiring culture and help you apply them in ways that work for you and your business.

Finally, an off-site retreat can be a powerful experience for you and your team to strengthen trust, streamline communication, and create shared understanding. My clients love doing them outside at battlefields or national parks.

Manager getting burned out at work

The Problem with “Servant Leadership”

There are many reasons for increased manager burnout. I want to call attention to a particularly pernicious problem: servant leadership.

Like many people, especially in the military, I regarded “servant” as the highest form of leadership [selfless service is one of the Army’s values.]. 

After all, leading includes service to a higher purpose, the organization, and the people in it. Seventy percent of Fortune 500 companies reportedly say they practice servant leadership.

Well, servant leadership burned me out. 

I was wrong to advance an unexamined piece of conventional wisdom, and I encourage you to rethink it and focus simply on being a good leader.

Do you worry about burnout? You are not alone. According to Harvard Business Review, over 50% of managers feel burned out. 

Burned-out managers exhibit behaviors that degrade their performance, well-being, and the overall health of their teams and organizations. These include:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased irritability
  • Poor decisions
  • Self-neglect
  • Lower creativity
  • Less appreciation of employee efforts
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Poor communication

According to Merriam-Webster, a servant is “a person in the employ and subject to the direction or control of an individual or company.” A servant lacks agency. The implications are significant.

Ripe for Abuse. Almost anything goes when “the cause” is the highest good. 

“I want you to stay until 10 pm tonight to work on this presentation.” 

“But it’s my anniversary, and I promised to go to dinner with my wife.”

“I’m sorry about the timing. I really need you to work on this. You are a servant leader in this company, so you have to sacrifice for the greater good.”

Reliance on selfless service and servant leadership is a common way to cover up poor planning, sloppy time management, bullying, and other dysfunctional behaviors.

No Boundaries. As a selflessly serving servant, you have to be “on” at all times. Responsiveness is vital. When your boss texts you at 11 pm on Saturday night, you had better reply within minutes.

Dinner with your family? Storytime with your kids? Softball game? You’d better have your phone ready to answer your boss’s call.

When one of your employees is stressed out, you take on their emotional burdens and workload. You’ll do anything to serve your people.

Constantly prioritizing the needs of others emotionally and physically drains you. That’s what your company demands when they tell you to be a servant leader.

Denial of Self. There can be no self for those who serve selflessly. As a servant leader, you are expected to neglect your own well-being because everyone and everything else comes first. You need to go everywhere, do everything, be everyone for everyone. 

I’ve lived this life, and it costs me and my loved ones. I thought it was the price of being a leader. I tried not to pass on this mentality to my direct reports, encouraging them to set boundaries and take care of themselves, but my personal example sent mixed messages.

Yes, serving is part of leading, but so are requirements like making tough decisions, enforcing standards, and firing people. It can be exhausting, and you need to be vigilant about your capacity and energy to lead the way your company and people deserve and to be the kind of parent, sibling, friend, etc., that your loved ones deserve. 

Here’s What to do instead

Be a leader; forget the label. Use your judgment. Focus on being a good leader who inspires people to contribute their best to your organization’s success. Sometimes, the good of the organization comes first; other times, the needs of the individuals rise to the top. As I note in Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, Be trustworthy, treat people with respect, and be a good steward of your company.

Encourage the Gas Mask Principle. When facing a drop in cabin pressure or a chemical attack, apply your mask before attempting to help others. Otherwise, you put yourself and the person you are trying to help at greater risk. Spend time with your loved ones, sleep, eat right, exercise, and do important things outside of work. Encourage your employees to do the same.

Co-create boundaries that you and your direct reports respect. My mentor, Michèle Flournoy, explained how she and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did this together and its impact on her and her family. Gates famously left the office by 5:30 pm daily because he knew that staying late encouraged others to do so, even if they had little to do but be seen. 

Provide Perspective. Most matters can wait until the next morning or next week. If you have to write that email tonight to get it off your mind, time it to send tomorrow morning. By sending it tonight, you encourage people to respond tonight. You won’t sprint your way to completing a marathon.

Manage Exceptions. There are rare times when you need that late night. When you respect boundaries and encourage people to take care of themselves and have a life outside their work, they will rise to the occasion when a crisis hits, and you need all hands on deck.

Culture

Your Culture Doesn’t Eat Anything for Breakfast

The saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” attributed to Peter Drucker, suggests culture is your top priority. 

You know culture is important to cultivate, but where should it rank among your priorities in leading your organization and strengthening its purpose and direction? 

I love taking on popular nonsense, and this one needs addressing. 

Culture doesn’t eat breakfast, and it certainly doesn’t eat strategy.

Culture and Strategy are peers alongside Leadership, and you need all three working together to succeed.

These factors are interdependent and create a framework that supports growth, resilience, and competitive advantage. 

Leadership is the driving force behind an organization’s mission and objectives. It influences the strategic direction, sets the tone for culture, and motivates employees to perform at their best.

Apple’s Steve Jobs’ clear vision was critical in driving innovation and maintaining a competitive edge.

At Wells Fargo, the creation of fake customer accounts by employees was a direct result of toxic leadership behavior that prioritized sales targets over ethical behavior, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and demotivation.

Uber experienced high turnover rates and public scandals, which highlighted a failure to address workplace harassment and discrimination.

Culture embodies the values, norms, and practices that dictate how employees interact and work together. A positive culture fosters engagement, loyalty, and productivity, ensuring the collaborative pursuit of strategic goals.

Google’s emphasis on innovation and employee well-being has enabled it to attract top talent, drive continuous innovation, and maintain high employee satisfaction.

Enron collapsed from a culture of secrecy and poor internal communication, where unethical practices were hidden from employees and stakeholders.

Blockbuster’s resistance to change and innovation prevented it from adapting to the digital streaming revolution, resulting in its downfall.

The strategy involves setting the organization’s purpose and direction and inspiring plans to achieve them so you can navigate the competitive landscape and adapt to market changes.

Amazon’s strategic focus on customer obsession, operational efficiency, and innovation has allowed it to expand rapidly and dominate various markets.

Toys “R” Us failed to address the rise of e-commerce and changing consumer preferences.

Xerox invested heavily in its PARC research center without effectively commercializing the innovations, which led to missed opportunities in the technology market.

Each element—leadership, culture, and strategy—plays a unique and essential role in an organization’s success. The absence of any one of these factors can lead to specific challenges, even if the other two elements are strong. Recognizing these indicators can help organizations identify and address their weaknesses, ensuring a more balanced and effective approach to achieving their goals.

Here’s how you can identify when one of these elements is missing.

Stagnation indicates inadequate leadership. Employees may feel directionless despite having a supportive culture and clear strategies. There is no one to inspire them toward achieving strategic goals, and no one makes bold decisions, resulting in missed opportunities.

Low Morale and High Turnover suggest you need to strengthen your culture. Even with strong leadership and a clear strategy, a toxic or weak culture can lead to employee dissatisfaction and disengagement. People will vote with their feet, and those who remain struggle with execution and performance.

A lack of focus and direction indicates that strategy is missing. Despite having inspiring leaders and a positive culture, the organization may struggle with setting and achieving long-term goals, resulting in drift, confusion, and waste.

Here’s what happens when you have all three working together. 

  • Alignment: Leadership ensures that the strategy supports the organization’s vision and that the culture advances strategic initiatives.
  • Execution: Culture drives how strategy is executed. A positive culture promotes collaboration, innovation, and commitment, which are vital for successful strategy implementation.
  • Sustainable Growth: Leadership and culture together ensure that strategic initiatives are sustainable over the long term, adapting to changes and overcoming challenges effectively.

An organization needs strong leadership to set a vision and inspire action, a positive culture to create a supportive and engaging work environment, and a clear strategy to provide direction and prioritize efforts. The absence of any one of these elements weakens the whole structure, making it difficult to achieve and sustain success. The interplay among leadership, culture, and strategy creates a synergistic effect that drives performance and ensures long-term viability.

Happy people at work with high standards and excellent workplace values

Turn Your Workplace Values into Standards

Transforming workplace values into actionable standards is more important than you think.

According to a 2024 DDI study, 57% of employees quit their jobs because of their boss, and 37% have considered leaving for this reason. These numbers are not isolated incidents. For example, 50% of employees in a 2022 Gallup study said they left their jobs to escape their manager. 

Turnover costs your company between 50 and 200 percent of the employee’s annual salary. To simplify the math, losing ten employees with a $100k average salary means you are throwing away $500k to $2m.

Managers want to do a good job, and people want to work where they feel appreciated and fit in. What accounts for the gaps?

Your values fail to set standards.

It’s a harsh reality that most company values statements are feel-good slogans that fail to shape behavior. 

What happens in the halls and video calls shines so brightly that your employees cannot see what’s written on the walls. You promote what you permit.

Standards, unlike slogans, clearly define what ‘right’ looks like and what’s unacceptable. They shape behavior, empowering you to create a productive, respectful, and supportive work environment that benefits your company and your employees. 

Here’s a simple example using the value of Respect, which a company might define as “We foster a positive work environment because we value our employees.”

There’s nothing wrong with the definition itself, but it provides little clarity on how you want people to behave and why.

Here’s what to do next

Turn the value into a standard using the “X so that Y” formula. 

We foster a positive work environment so that our employees feel valued, speak their minds, treat each other well, and cooperate. A respectful workplace environment encourages people to flag problems, offer fresh ideas, and try new things.

Next, add your standards.

The dance floor can help because it’s a visual that you can co-create with your employees to set clear standards for treating people with respect and defining unacceptable behaviors. Here’s a very simple version:

Finally, provide examples of employees living the values so that people can see themselves meeting the standards.

Susan and Mark had opposing views on building the sales team’s capacity. Susan wanted to boost employee training, while Mark wanted more investment in technology and AI. Instead of bickering, they agreed on a common goal: to improve the sales team’s performance by 20%. Once they created a shared goal, they could examine the best combination of training and technology to boost performance. They co-created options and determined the best way forward, boosting the sales team’s marginal contributions by over 30%.

Standards attract the right-fit prospects and inspire your top talent to stay because people who share the same standards feel like they fit in. 

Imagine what happens when people do not share the same standards. If Susan is an in-your-face “radical candor” enthusiast while Mark prefers agreeable disagreement, one will feel out of place and probably vote with their feet.

If you want your company to soar to new heights, co-create standards for your values and expectations.

Setting standards is part of my latest trademarked program, Building an Inspiring Culture®, which you can take on your own, or we can organize a live-led program for you and your team. 

The program gives you a repeatable, step-by-step process for Building an Inspiring Culture so that you can focus on strategy and growth because your employees meet your standards voluntarily without you having to micromanage. 

You get the practical tools and explicit processes to learn, teach, evaluate, and improve.

Here’s what the program looks like:

  1. Smart Start: Define your Organization’s Common Good
  2. Set Standards: Clarify your Expectations and Values
  3. Gain Buy-in so that people do what’s right voluntarily
  4. Accountability that improves future performance
  5. Build Cognitive Diversity so you make sound decisions and position people for success
  6. Create Psychological Confidence so people flag problems quickly and try new things
  7. How to Address Toxic Behavior so you walk the talk and retain your top talent.

Get the self-directed version here with lifetime access for $997, or hit reply to discuss if a live-led program is a good fit for you and your team.

Chris Kolenda: Celebrating D-Day’s 80th anniversary

A D-Day Special: Encouraging Initiative Through History

Celebrating D-Day’s 80th anniversary

“Everyone waits for me to tell them what to do,” Jane told me. “How do I get people to take initiative?”

“Freelancing has burned us before, so I keep people on a tight leash,” Henry said. “We’re making fewer mistakes but too slow to recognize and seize opportunities.”

Jane and Henry show different sides of the challenge. Jane wants people to experiment and try new things, but they are afraid to do so. Henry had people go 100 miles per hour in the wrong direction, wasting time and resources, so he restricted their latitude and now they sit on their hands. He’s not sure how to strike the right balance.

Do you struggle with employee initiative, too? 

The secret is to promote disciplined initiative, and D-Day’s leader, General Dwight Eisenhower, shows how you can do it, too.

Disciplined initiative occurs when people act on their own accord while advancing your organization’s Common Good (your vision, mission, goals, and standards).

This balance enables them to solve problems, innovate, and seize opportunities without the risk of freelancing, wasting time and energy moving in the wrong direction, and creating more problems than they solve.

The D-Day landings entailed the largest amphibious and airborne assaults in history. Eisenhower had to figure out how to get millions of soldiers and their equipment ashore and sustain them for months as they attacked France toward the Nazi heartland.

Success required innovations like Mulberries (artificial harbors), PLUTO (an oil “pipeline under the ocean”), a massive deception operation to fool the Nazi high command (Operation Fortitude), and the RHINO (blades on tanks to cut through hedgerows). 

Eisenhower also needed leaders who could take situational initiative when plans broke down or new risks or opportunities arose. When the Utah beach landing craft went to the wrong site, Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. had to improvise a new plan. When the 29th division bogged down on Omaha Beach and pummeled by German fire, Brigadier General Norm Cota organized small teams to move out and destroy the bunkers. 

Lt. Gen George Patton’s unique ability to coordinate air support, tanks, infantry, and artillery overwhelmed German defenses and forced their hasty retreat out of France, probably saving Paris from destruction.

How did Eisenhower promote disciplined initiative? He followed the ABCs: Agency, Back-up, and focus on the Common Good.

First, Eisenhower was clear on the Common Good (defeating Nazi Germany) and the strategy to achieve it, which included the planning to achieve the D-Day objectives. He set and enforced explicit standards on matters like cooperation (he famously fired an American Colonel for calling an allied counterpart a “British S.O.B”) and respect (he relieved Patton for assaulting his own soldiers) as well as decision-making and risk. 

Second, he promoted agency by setting explicit boundaries on his subordinates’ authority. Within those boundaries, his generals were free to make decisions (as when Roosevelt improvised on Utah Beach) and innovate. When they got close to a boundary, Eisenhower expected them to report so he could provide more guidance or resources. He avoided second-guessing their decisions, even if he might have done something differently (he avoided micromanaging Montgomery as his operations bogged down near Caen).

Finally, he showed that he had his generals’ backs by taking responsibility for addressing problems and passing credit to his subordinates. When Montgomery’s operations bogged down, and people encouraged Eisenhower to relieve him, Eisenhower instead backed up his general. When pre-D-Day experiments and tests went awry, Eisenhower said he’d address the matters rather than throwing his subordinates under the bus. 

He gave General Bradley and Field Marshall Montgomery the credit for D-Day, even as he penned a letter accepting responsibility if the landings failed.

Encouraging the right behaviors rather than only rewarding success was vital. Toyota does the same thing when encouraging employees to stop the assembly line if they think something is wrong. If there’s nothing wrong, Toyota rewards the behavior rather than criticizing the employee for wasting time and resources. 

Contrast that thinking with how Boeing reportedly handled reports of assembly line problems.

All three elements must be in place for disciplined initiative. Without focusing on the Common Good, you risk freelancing and wasted energy (like Henry experienced). Without agency, people will sit on their hands (Jane had this challenge), and without backup, people will fear being thrown under the bus if a new idea doesn’t work. 

When all three work together, you have Trust, Empowerment, and Accountability. People will report problems, offer fresh ideas, and try new things. They will take action to address unforeseen risks and opportunities, solve problems rather than live with them, and act in ways that shorten the path to success. 

For more on Disciplined Initiative, see Chapter 5 in my book Leadership: The Warrior’s Art or schedule a time to meet. 

P.S. Is visiting the D-Day beaches on your bucket list? I’m hosting a trip for leaders and spouses there, October 11-14. Email or DM me for more information.

Chris Kolenda: The FDIC scandal shows that you promote what you permit in your work environment

The FDIC scandal shows that you promote what you permit in your work environment

How consciously do you assess your culture? 

Sometimes, leaders assume that what they say leads to the implementation they want, but they don’t have a sound process for checking. This fire-and-forget method of conveying expectations can create significant gaps in what you believe is happening versus what’s actually happening.

Other leaders lack awareness of how others see them. In such cases, you tend to see your own actions in the best possible light, while your employees see them much differently. Over time, resentment builds as you give yourself a pass for violating your own standards. This seems to be the case at the FDIC.

A Wall Street Journal investigation described a culture of bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), alleging Chairman Martin Gruenburg modeled much of that toxic behavior.

An independent investigator corroborated the WSJ report, and the House Financial Services Committee directed Gruenburg to testify about the work environment. A Senate Committee is doing the same.

Gruenburg resigned but said he’d stay in place until a successor was named. People reportedly fear a successor won’t be named and the resignation was a head fake to reduce the negative attention. 

Here’s how you can avoid this situation.

Leaders often unintentionally promote or permit toxic behavior. Poor emotional trigger management leading to outbursts is not uncommon, and leaders often dismiss their behavior as isolated incidents while their employees perceive a damaging pattern.  

Poor self-awareness creates significant disconnects between how you see yourself and how your employees see you.

Inadequate accountability turns isolated incidents into behavioral habits, as leaders look the other way and rationalize lousy behavior (he’s a jerk, but he gets results). Bullying, harassment, gaslighting, and other tactics become normal, creating a toxic work environment like the one reported at the FDIC.

Two simple measures can help you avoid the FDIC’s situation.

First, you need periodic, candid assessments of how people perceive you and their workplace so you can avoid blindsides, uncover festering issues, and take action. I encourage leaders to use a simple, 10-14-question tool like this one, which I can customize for you. 

Having a trusted agent conduct focus group discussions and individual interviews based on the survey results will get you as close to the ground truth as possible.

Your next step, which too many leaders miss, is to give feedback on the feedback. Discuss the results and what people urge you to sustain and improve. Decide what you will tackle, track progress, and keep people informed. 

Do this every 90 days, and your credibility will soar because people see you taking action. Their suggestions will be more detailed in future surveys because they know you take their feedback seriously.

Second, define your behavioral standards using a tool I call the dance floor. You want clarity on what’s right and what’s out of bounds. Here’s an example of Respect.

Too often, leaders are content with platitudes that offer little concrete guidance. The dance floor is a visual image you can use to nip bad behavior in the bud. 

Joe, did you know that you interrupted Susan three times during the meeting? What message does that behavior convey? Are we on the same page about mutual respect? 

You don’t have to be like the FDIC and get blindsided by an employee revolt or external investigation. These two steps will close gaps in perception and boost your ability to inspire people to contribute their best to your organization’s success.

How are these steps working for you? Email me to let me know.

Chris Kolenda: OMG Taylor Swift's dull album shows that you need candid advice

OMG Taylor Swift’s dull album shows that you need candid advice

I’m a die-hard Taylor Swift fan. 

My playlists are loaded with her songs. I love the beat, her depth, and the stories she tells. I’ve watched the Eras tour movie (my wife will go to her Warsaw concert), and I frequently insert her lyrics into stories and wisecracks. 

“This conference is like snow on the beach…” Swifties will know how to finish that sentence (comment and let me know). 

I have tunes like Archer, The Great War, and The Man on repeat. As someone bullied in high school, I find Mean a work of genius.

I wanted to love her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department, so much, especially after hearing its first release, Fortnight.

Alas, it’s not to be.

The 31-song album has flashes of Taylor brilliance sandwiched between a lot of … well … dullness, a case of more is less.

As a fan, I’m not a musician, so I can only speak for my personal taste. But I’m curious: do you think Taylor is pivoting into Lana del Rey (whom I also admire), or was this album an experiment that cleared away loads of built-up clutter?

Coming off arguably the greatest music tour in history, it’s possible that Taylor got a little sloppy, fell in love with unworkable ideas, and had advisers egging her on instead of challenging her thinking. 

It can happen to any of us. Ancient Greek tragedy is full of stories about hubris (overweening pride) preceding a fall. Many leaders, at the height of success, surround themselves with sycophants and enjoy the smell of their own gas as they go hurtling into ruin.

Trusted advisers are your antidote to the Tortured Poets problem. A good trusted adviser wants what’s best for you, can build your capacity, and is willing to tell you the truth. 

When was the last time someone challenged your thinking, helped you see things from a valuable perspective you hadn’t considered, and provided you with compelling insights?

If you do not have these conversations and lightbulb moments daily, you’ve outgrown your current support network and need to upgrade.

Chris Kolenda: Is it time to dismantle your DEI and ERG programs

Is it time to dismantle your DEI and ERG programs

Are your DEI and ERG programs serving their purpose, or is it time for a radical reevaluation?

How to turn discomfort into growth.

Valuing Discomfort 

One of the most transformative experiences of my professional life was attending graduate school at the University of Wisconsin as a U.S. Army captain before teaching at West Point. As the only active-duty officer in the student body, I was immersed in a very different environment than I’d experienced in the past. 

I grew up in a conservative household, attended West Point, and served in the mostly conservative military. Madison’s liberal faculty and student body took me outside my comfort zone, and initially, I felt like a fish out of water. 

One professor remarked, “We don’t teach military history,” as if I could not study anything else. 

Stepping out of my comfort zone, I found myself among people who engaged in agreeable disagreements on various topics. This experience of embracing viewpoint diversity expanded my intellectual horizons and challenged me to reevaluate ideas I had previously held without much thought. 

Along the way, I developed the ability to listen without judgment to someone’s point of view and ask open-ended questions that helped me understand where they were coming from. 

Doing so develops your empathy skills, which, years later, helped our unit motivate a large insurgent group in Afghanistan to stop fighting and become allies. 

Those skills proved vital when I participated in unofficial meetings with Taliban representatives in 2017-8, resulting in the group writing an open letter to the American people requesting peace talks.

I wonder how differently I would have developed had I accepted loads of unsolicited career advice to avoid teaching at West Point and do what everyone else was doing.  

Taking off the Body Armor

I worry about the trend where people seek safety by bubble-wrapping themselves in their comfort zones. 

Like attracts like, and people naturally gravitate toward others who look, think, and act like them, creating comfort zones that can become exclusionary, even hostile, echo chambers.

Listening to new ideas and ones you disagree with takes courage; screaming at people from inside your comfort zone does not. 

Building bridges with people who look, act, and think differently than you do takes courage; fortifying your bubble wrap does not.

Joey Hutto, a captain during our 2007-8 deployment to Afghanistan, exemplified courage when he accepted a dinner invitation from village elders who’d been supporting the insurgents. Joey removed his helmet and body armor, handed his weapons over to his patrol, and walked with his interpreter into the home.

We were new to the area. The elders told Joey why ninety-five percent of the people were fighting us: years of civilian casualties and government corruption convinced them that the insurgents were the lesser of two evils. 

Joey listened to their point of view and asked follow-up questions so they knew he understood their message. “We cannot change the past,” he said. “But we can find ways to fix these problems and work together for a better future.” 

And they did.

Transcending Comfort

Strengthening your self-awareness and committing to growth are a good places to start if you want to become an ever-better version of yourself.

Knowing yourself, learning how others see you, and understanding what others need from you helps you approach people and situations with an open mind. This allows you to combat comfort zones that limit your exposure to new ideas and experiences. 

Chris Kolenda: Is it time to dismantle your DEI and ERG programs

Self-aware people recognize that growth requires entering their discomfort zones. Having guides (mentors, coaches, advisers, friends, etc.) to help you through vulnerability turns your discomfort into your growth zone. 

That successful journey leads to your transcendent zone, creating a new comfort zone for growing beyond.

Are you transcending or entrenching your comfort zone? 

  • When was the last time someone disagreed with you? 
  • How did you respond?

If your direct reports do not flag problems, offer new ideas, and try new things several times per week, you’re probably sending signals that you don’t brook disagreement. 


Employees may believe you lack of curiosity, react poorly when someone disagrees with you, or punish those who take a risk and fall short. Either way, people will self-censor, and you and your company won’t grow to new heights.

What discomfort zone are you entering next? Email me to let me know.