Leadership – the End of the Day with Randall Bell

What does a leader do habitually at the end of every day? What can I do the end of my day, to make myself a better leader?

Randall Bell suggests that a good business leader should document successes and failures every day.

You need to document the successes — take a moment to celebrate them

In his firm, Randall’s people share their failures — not to beat each other up, but to learn from the experiences that they’ve each had. That way they can avoid repeating each others’ mistakes.

We become better by documenting both the failures and successes. For successes, how do I do more of that? For failures, how do I stop doing that?

Randall recommends journaling as one way to document business results. He has an icon on his computer desktop that starts up his journal software, and he records things throughout the day.

In his book, Randall talks about Left Line, Right Line, and Bottom Line behaviors — where things on the left-hand side of the page represent too little of the desired behavior, and the right hand side represents too much. In the case of reflecting, the left side behaviors are forgetting, denying, or glossing over, and the right side behaviors are holding a grudge, or being unforgiving. In between these two extremes, are the moderate or Goldilocks behaviors that contribute to the bottom line of the organization. Here, you are adaptive, teachable, considerate, and so forth. Think of it as being like Aristotle’s Golden Mean.
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So, at the end of the day, Randall likes to look at the failures and the successes, and analyze them in terms of Left Line and Right Line mistakes — how was each failure caused by applying too little or too much of a good thing?

In the many disasters Randall works on, he sees a lot of denial. Denial is very common. And he also sees people who will not give it up, cannot be grateful, and will not leave it alone. We need to stay away from those extremes. He strongly believes that the middle ground between these particular extremes represents the path to happiness and success.

When we screw up, when we have a disaster, there is a strong psychological temptation to fall into denial. We want to let ourselves off the hook — both for our own conscience and to stave off the negative things others may do to us. Denial is so common, Randall expects it. Good, healthy, effective leaders embrace accountability — where they take ownership of their behavior, and they are able to be forgiving as well.

Consistently, Randall can trace the root causes of the disasters he investigates to either right line or left line behaviors. Universally, the good leaders are the ones who can bring things back to the Bottom Line behaviors of being understanding, learning lessons, being forgiving, and moving on intelligently.

A great example of bad leadership is seen in the official Russian reaction to the Chernobyl meltdown. Initially, the Russian leadership tried to publicly deny that there was any problem. In the process, they stopped or slowed down rescue efforts, mitigation efforts, and evacuation, and this denial unquestionably cost thousands of lives. It was also completely ineffective, because people around the world had instruments to measure the radiation, so absolutely nobody was fooled by the denial.

Denial all but guarantees the repeat your mistake. It also guarantees a continuing negative tension between the person who messed up, and the people who suffered from mistake. There can be an endless open wound because of that denial. The South African Truth Commissions or an attempt to balance those two impulses of denial and whitewashing versus revenge and grievance. People were offered amnesty, on the condition that they admit and detail the wrongs that they had done. People who did not want to admit their wrongdoing, were opened to prosecution. We see something similar with the attempt by some to demonize the Bush administration, and criminalize policy differences. We saw it in Northern Ireland, where for many years there was strife and revenge. It takes exceptional leadership to overcome the temptation to flee to one of these two extremes.

When we are able to strike that balance — to embrace accountability and forgiveness, and to learn — it can be an incredibly positive experience. Randall and his family just recently spent time with a Holocaust survivor, Erica, who is very upbeat, happy and pleasant. She personifies the strength that can come from avoiding either denial or vengeance.

Erica knows a lot of other people who went through the same experience she did, who became embittered by it, and that can be personally destructive. As Randall put it, embracing bitterness is like taking the poison yourself and expecting the rat to die. A lot of leaders can get into that mode. Erica has channeled her energy and is a positive things — she doesn’t forget, and she doesn’t obsess.

Strategy 360 is very real world — includes examination of both success and failure. It looks at both negligence and obsession as the two ways to get off balance. It may be the only business book that takes that perspective.

As we try to embrace accountability in our organizations, we can go too far. If we obsess on errors, study them endlessly, and talk about nothing else for an extended period, we can send the message that mistakes will not be tolerated. That can lead to an environment where people cover up their mistakes, or simply stop trying anything new for fear of making a mistake. In other words, we create an environment of low trust — where people are fearful.

As we try to embrace supportiveness and maintain high morale, as we avoid a culture of fear and try to build trust, we can go too far. We can end up saying “oh well, tomorrow is another day, so we will all try harder next time.” And then we don’t harvest any lessons, we don’t learn anything, we don’t improve, and we are doomed to repeat our mistake.

In almost every episode of Leadership Radio, we find the one of the attributes of a leader is reflectiveness. It seems to me that the end of the day is the ideal time to be reflective.

Randall has spent 20 years trying to create mind maps of leadership. After an uncounted number of unsatisfactory attempts, he settled on a matrix format, which encapsulates both good and bad behaviors across a spectrum. Reflectiveness can bring clarity, and clarity can bring energy to an organization.

Reflectiveness should lead to both celebrating successes and learning from mistakes.

Randall has spent a professional lifetime visiting disaster sites, and seeking to understand the causes of those disasters.

One myth that Randall would like to debunk is the phrase “forgive and forget” — forgiveness is great, but forgetting is the absence of learning. Randall would rather we “forgive and remember” or “forgive and learn”.

When you carry a grudge, you’re empowering the negative thing that happened to ruin your day, and ruin the next day, and keep on ruining your life. It’s more profitable to focus on what you can do differently. Even if the other person was 99% wrong, and you are one percent wrong, then think about — and journal about — what you can do differently next time, how you can avoid that one percent, how you can take ownership of your share of the blame. And by modeling that behavior, you make it easier for the other person to take ownership of their behavior. When you focus on what you can do differently next time, you are learning and improving.

That learning can take several forms. What will I do differently next time I’m in that same circumstance? What would I do if I were in the other person’s shoes? What precautions can I take in the future to avoid the circumstance? I can focus on what I can do differently, not what the other person should have done.

This redirects my attention to the things that are under my control. Anytime I focus on the things that are under my control, that is inherently empowering. Instead of seeing myself as a chip of wood floating in a storm tossed sea, I see myself as the captain of my fate.

People don’t always want to hear that, especially if they are caught up in their anger. We may have to go through a process to get to the place where we can learn.

The key word that Randall suggests is “gratitude” — and even in the worst disasters, we can find things to be grateful for. He has consulted on the World Trade Center, the site of the 9/11 attacks, and he points out that there is a great deal even in that event for us to be grateful about. The terrorists had intended to cause a much higher loss of life, and a much greater amount of property destruction. Due to a number of things going right, and to the bravery of the number of people, the potential damage was minimized.

Randall suggests that, if you make a list of things to be grateful for, it can help change your mindset for the better.

Randall believes that the number one positive trait of the leader is accountability. In terms of accountability, it comes down to balance. You don’t want to beat yourself a publicly too much, you simply take responsibility and learn lessons. You avoid the blame game.

(Listen to the interview here.)

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