Maxwell Friday: Cultivating Leaders

“Can your leadership be reproduced in someone else?”

          –     Paraphrase of John C. Maxwell’s litmus test, citing the greatest leader ever

Unapologetically, Faith is at the center of everything good I’ve ever done, and the closer I stay to it, the more good things occur.  Maxwell is a pastor first, and a leadership expert second.  He cites a certain Jewish Carpenter in this lesson on consciously cultivating next-generation leaders.

The opportunity is here every day for us to cultivate our own next-generation.


Great leaders find next-generation leaders in their everyday world.

We probably don’t walk by many people collecting taxes or fishing with nets off wooden boats — yet we are surrounded by people in accounts payable, client services, HR, building maintenance, cashiers and technicians.  Great leaders look at the person, not the role, and they find the elements in every person that should be complimented / rewarded, and that could be cultivated.

Great leaders hand-pick next-generation leaders.

It’s not enough to “hope Jim or Mary understand their leadership potential.”  We owe it to them to call it (and them) out by name, and ask them to follow us.  We owe it to them to help them invest in, develop and learn more about themselves, even if they choose not to pursue formal leadership titles.

Great leaders call others to lead.

They don’t imply.  They don’t dangle suppositions and wonder if the next-generation will pick up on the hint.  They call them to lead.  In 1989, a mentor said to me, “I am sending you to Ft. Dodge, and I need you to fix things there.”  I said, “Roger, how the heck am I supposed to do that?  Where the heck do I start?”  He said, “That’s why I’m sending you.  You’ll figure it out.”  My mission was clear, as was my understanding that he believed I could get it done — and I also knew he was a phone call away at any time.

Great leaders use language next-generation leaders understand.

Great leaders don’t refer to the “synergistic strategy of aggregating data, developing insights and conducting A/B testing on a variety of possible engagement models.”  Great leaders say, “I am sending you to Ft. Dodge, and I need you to fix things there.”  They say, “In order for us to be successful, we need more activity in the market.”  They say, “Our deal volume and win rate are down this quarter.  Figure out why and let’s talk about your ideas to correct it.”

Great leaders take next-generation leaders on a journey and demonstrate their leadership.

Hy-Vee is a legendary retailer in my home state, local grocery stores that promoted a “helpful smile in every aisle.”  You can tell the first-generation Hy-Vee managers.  They don’t answer “Where’s the Maytag Bleu Cheese crumbles,” with words.  They say, “Great choice!  Let me show you!”  And then they walk you to the Maytag Bleu Cheese crumbles.  Great leaders show the way, not by saying “here’s what you do,” but by doing things in a way that invites follower-ship, and by creating an environment where next-generation leaders can be measured by their progress, not punished for their stumbles.

Leadership is influence.  Titles don’t make leaders.  Leaders are consciously cultivated by the leaders that came before them.  Leaders make a difference.







Leadership Is Influence

“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.”

         –    Leadership “proverb”

On a production line, the foreman of Tiger Team yells to “hurry it up,” the parts get made faster, safety suffers, and quality drops off.  The line workers have five or six ideas for how to improve speed without sacrificing quality (or body parts) but the manager says, “No!  Just do what I told you to do faster!  I’m the top-ranked manager in the factory, and we want to stay on top!”

The line is so-well managed, the guys upstairs can’t understand why all the recalls are coming from Tiger Team.  The members of Tiger Team can’t figure out why their manager keeps getting plaques for his wall.  Tiger Team, by some measures might be well-managed, but it’s poorly-led.

RearView Technologies Board of Directors has engaged ReallySmart Consulting to quantify market trends and propose strategies for changes in the market.  Their work is extremely thorough and contains tons of competitive intel that is “sure thing” sourced.

“That’s some OK work,” says the CFO to the consultants, “but there’s no way that competitor could afford to structure the deal that way.  We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing, thank you very much.  Buh-bye.”  In this case, RearView Technologies is both poorly-managed and poorly-led.

Whether we’re tasked with overseeing part of a production line or an entire company, the sooner we understand the connection between leadership and influence, the more fingers our line workers will keep, and the more relevant our company will be.  It’s about personal influence instead of position power, and managing from position power is a race to irrelevance, because good people will leave.

Leading via influence, on the other hand, will make a difference in good markets and bad, large companies and small.  Leading via influence spans blue collar, white collar, multi-national and super-micro-market companies.

Leadership, it turns out, is influence.  (And vice versa!)


The Rule of Empty Boxes

“I don’t want to use the word reorganization.  Reorganization to me is shuffling boxes, moving boxes around.  Transformation means that you’re really fundamentally changing the way the organization thinks, the way it responds, the way it leads.  It’s a lot more than just playing with boxes.”

–     Lou Gerstner (b. 1942), legendary CEO of IBM, leading it’s turnaround in the 1990’s

The Rule of Empty Boxes (REB) is a guiding light for companies trying to decide whether to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic or steer the ship to hazard-free waters.  REB dictates that in a re-org, re-alignment or transformation, senior leaders are required to draw up a functional org chart with empty boxes.  The people that got us here, now, aren’t always the ones to get us there, next.

Most companies, sadly, end up setting their compass for iceberg-infested waters, by putting the same old names in boxes and then aligning functions under those names.

“Well, he’s been here 28 years,” the CEO says.  “It’ll kill him if we change his paradigm.”

“Pat is such a fixture here,” says the HR manager, “why not give Pat a little more responsibility and see how it goes?”

Here’s how REB works:

  1. Resist the temptation to fill the chart from the top down.  Put the “perfect fits” in place first regardless of the tier.  Leave your own boxes blank, too.  Powerful, powerful opportunity to lead by example.
  2. Focus on skills, experiences, leadership qualities and the ability to embrace change — regardless of prior departmental alignment.
  3. Be prepared for names to remain on your draft board and boxes to remain empty.  Even names that have been on the roster for 28 years or names that people really like.
  4. Use the “could-do / can’t do / could learn / can’t learn” filtering system to determine if less-than-perfect fits can be molded to the new role.
  5. Conduct the entire first draft of the exercise with a “Why wouldn’t we…?” mindset, and avoid, at all costs, the mindset that says, “That would never work…”
  6. Blank boxes represent your most compelling opportunity to move the company forward.
  7. Undrafted team-members represent your most compelling opportunities to grow people, or to honor their accomplishments and set them on a different course.

A couple of other considerations:

Know why you’re making the change and be prepared to explain why this approach is your best path forward.  Your best people will want to know why.

Your best people also know who your weakest people are, at every level of the company.  If you’re expecting your best people to work for your weakest people, hang on to the Amazon Prime boxes that come to your house.  They’ll come in handy when you have to cart all your stuff home.  And, your best people will ramp up their loyalty and commitment when you have the courage to cut your weakest people loose.

Your best people will have great ideas on how to build the beast.  Invite them to the conversation early.  But if they see you huddled up with your weakest people, and your “re-org” gets done to them, not with them or for them, those Amazon Prime boxes will come in handy when your best people pack up and leave you.




Winning and Losing

“It’s only in failure that you learn to win.”

–     Unattributed

Not only is it an unattributed quote, I don’t buy it.  Not for a second.

That said, we’re called to learn, win or lose.  And the only way to do that is to assess, honestly, openly, candidly why we won or lost.

The easiest trap for a leader to fall into is, “Well, let’s look back and see why we lost that (game, deal, client, friend…).”  The review is absolutely important when we suffer a loss, and it’s no less important when we get it just right.

How did we get it just right?  What did we do in preparation, in presentation, in follow-up?  Did we listen differently?  Did we ask better questions?

A long-held cornerstone of The Heston Group philosophy is if we don’t know why, we don’t know much.

It’s really not always (often?) about winning and losing.  It’s about understanding why we won or lost, and getting better every day because of the lessons we learn.

Which Makes Which?

“It’s not the position that makes the leader; it’s the leader that makes the position.”

–     Stanley Huffty, as quoted by John C. Maxwell in “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership…”

Mark was holding his newborn daughter, Abbie.  Her mother was watching them, taking in the instant bond between Daddy and Daughter.  Two days later, Mark was holding Abbie again, buckling her car seat in and driving very safely home.  Waving from the hospital carport were the birth ward nurses and interns, who, by all accounts had done a splendid job of managing Mark and his wife through the birth of their child.

As they settled into their home, Mark listened as his wife said, “What did you think of the team at the hospital?” she asked.

Mark replied, “I think they should all be arrested and charged with child neglect!”

Abbie’s mom, perhaps with some hormonal hangover from the birth 48-hours previous, lit into him.  “Mark!  How could you say that?  They were amazing.  They told us what to expect and treated us like we were having the baby at the Four Seasons!  Why, on earth, would you say they should be charged with child neglect?” she finished.

“It’s easy,” Mark replied, calmly, still holding his new daughter.  “They sent this poor, defenseless child home with us and we have no idea what we’re doing!”

Ok, Heston, this is one of those days when we’re dying to say, “What’s the point.”

Just as the birth of a child makes us a mother or a father, it doesn’t make us a parent, a promotion for manager to director doesn’t make us a leader.

The point is leading is what makes us a leader.

Ever work for a title that had no influence?  Ever work for someone who was so giddy to be the boss, they forgot about the work that had to be done for the boss to look remotely in charge. They wanted to “boss” not “lead.”  Even at senior levels, even if we’re the CEO — the best way to determine if we’re leading is how many people are clamoring to get behind us.  I know a place where the “leaders” could walk alone for days, “leading.”  And then, there’s the company wherein 100 or so of the team uses the term “LOL” in many of their communications.  The “boss” probably thinks they’re validating his awesome-boss-ness!  Except “LOL” has become shorthand for “lack-of-leadership!”

Your title means bupkus to anyone that matters.  Your leadership or lack thereof is all that matters to them.  Some ways to gut-check where you fall on the manager – leader spectrum:

Is every meeting you have in “your” office or “your” conference-room?  Position over influence, a yellow-light on a leader’s report card.  You are, at best, being a manager.  Get out of your desk.  Use the calendar to force it, take a “walk-about” get out of the detachedness of an Executive Suite and go build connections with the people doing the work.  Go see them on their field.  Go see them doing what they do, and remind them of how it connects to that thing you’re responsible for doing. Help them feel what they do in the grander context of the outcome.

Lead them to a vision that makes the company’s vision better.


So, just lead, huh?

No, not exactly.  That’s a good set up for Friday’s Daily Difference.  With Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to come in between…





“Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness.  If a person’s leadership is strong, the organization’s lid is high.  But if it’s not, then the organization is limited.”

–     John C. Maxwell (b. 1947) in “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership:  Follow Them and People Will Follow You

Every Friday morning, I have the great privilege of gathering with a handful of other leaders in Ed’s Basement. We’re spending 2020 diving deeply into this book, and the principles upon which it is based.

OK, so why is the title of this post “Lids?”

“The Law of The Lid” is the first of Maxwell’s 21 laws.

We all have lids, and Maxwell’s point isn’t that they are ceilings, glass or otherwise.  His point is that our lids can be raised — by completely dedicating ourselves to the study and practice of leadership.  Long-time subscribers know that I’m not a big fan of “management.”  It’s not that managing doesn’t have a place (it does, of course), it’s just that it’s a relatively finite pursuit.  For example, in “The Infinite Game,” Simon Sinek describes a “just cause” as the true north of infinite businesses.  In other words, simple terms like growth, profits, earnings, winning — they’re all finite in nature.  In the infinite game, and in Maxwell’s land of leadership, getting better every day is the point. (Editor’s Note:  Getting better every day tends to drag growth, profits, earnings, etc along with it….)

So, what to do with our lids?

First, we have to identify them.  Maxwell has excellent tools in his book, but I’m not trying to sell his book.  (You really should buy it, though.  Just sayin’…)  Conducting a self-inventory of the areas we’re strong and the areas we need to develop, and then asking some of those closest to us to measure us on the same topics is one way of beginning to identify our lids.  Be ready, though, because they change.  As we grow, as we regress, as we gain experience or encounter difficult situations (and even great success), our lids ebb and flow.  That’s reason enough to invest time in identifying them, right there!

Second, we have to develop leadership ability more consistently and more quickly than we do our “success dedication.”  For me, this is the “Why?” and the “Why?” is almost all that matters to me.  Yet, it’s still easy to struggle in our effort to keep our eye on the bigger picture — our legacy as leaders.

Finally (and there are 20 more laws, so “finally” is a relative term) we have to expose ourselves and commit ourselves to be near and learn from great leaders.  I’ve been blessed to work for some of the best, and, regrettably, a couple who occupy the opposite end of the spectrum.  There are wisdom, knowledge, and growth to be gleaned from both — the former kind is just a lot more fun to model than the latter are to overcome.

Is that it?

When the Tallest of The Three was almost three years old, we attended a very cool but very long 4th of July drum and bugle core performance.  He liked it a lot.  For about an hour.  (C’mon!  Cut him some slack, he was three!)  After each song, he’d look at his Grammy Pat and he’d say, “Is that it?”  Grammy Pat would say, “Just one more, I think, Buddy…”  He’d take a deep breath, settle back in and say, “One more, and then that’s it!”  It happened about 11 times before even the three-year-old figured out he was being messed with!

Of course the Law of The Lid isn’t “it.”  If it was, leadership would be easy, and everyone would be really good at it.  (Ok, wait a second….technically, I know a couple dudes that wouldn’t be good at it even if it were easy, but you get my point.)

Influence, Process, Navigation, Addition….aw, heck, just buy the book — there is a great deal of education, self-study, Faith, focus, effort and dedication that goes into being an infinite leader.  Here’s to hoping the payback is as cool as we think it’s gonna be.

Make it a great day.



Put Some PIT in The Calendar

“Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much can be done if we are always doing.”

          –     Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), 3rd President of The United States

“Don’t just do something!  Stand there!”

–     Dick Heston (1933 – 2002), my dad, a farmer, factory-worker and brilliant business leadership mind

Wow.  Turns out Dad was smarter than Thomas Jefferson.

I like most of what Jefferson said and I’m forever thankful for the impact he had on our country — as much as you can be in an election year where stupid runs rampant at every TV timeout in whatever game I’m watching….but I digress…

A quick check of the calendar today shows only two meetings, one of which is ten minutes long.  This is an absolute gift.  I’ll be able to leverage effectiveness instead of getting my butt kicked by busy-ness today!  Busy-ness is a dangerous addiction, and it’s one of those things that snowballs on us, in a not-building-a-snowman-with-the-kids sort of way.

Getting Time in The PIT

See, Dad knew that it’s not idle time that hamstrings us, it’s an idle mind.  Difference makers set aside time in The PIT.  To focus.  To figure out what to do next, and to reflect on what we’ve done prior.  Even during harvest and planting, Dad would make time to lean on the gate, watch the calves eat their feed and willingly step into “The PIT.”

“The PIT” is the key to a productive calendar.  Purposeful time to Plan, Ideate and Think will make a difference for us, for those with whom we work, and especially for those who count on us for leadership.


Plans are the maps that let us know if we’re on track, if we’re moving and in what direction.

Ideas are the currency of Difference Makers.  Ideas begin with “what if…”, “I wonder why…” and “if I had a magic wand…”

Thinking might seem the simplest of the three, yet context matters, or we can be susceptible to analysis paralysis.  Thinking is spending time in consideration, assessing, projecting and self-challenging.  Thinking is not reacting.  Reacting is superimposing the sum of our experiences and biases in a hair-trigger flash and jumping, based on the way we’ve always jumped before.

Thinking takes time to go a couple layers deeper than a packed calendar permits.  Thinking may well involve a blank piece of paper (ideally Levenger paper), a “feels-right-in-our-hand” pen or pencil and a willingness to shut off the phone, kill the computer and, one topic at a time — go deeper in our brain.

Finding Time To Lean on The Gate

To Jefferson’s credit, idle hands might well be the devil’s workshop, and to Dad’s credit, we can keep the devil at bay if we’re occasionally leaning on the gate, focused on the right things for the future.  I’d combine the two approaches and state my claim; an idle mind might be worth avoiding, but calming our hands and feet so our mind can engage with focus — that’s a calling worth heeding.

Today, I’m gonna do some gate-leaning in Dad’s name.  Got my Levenger paper and my comfy pen and pencil, and a whole lotta things that deserve my PIT time…

Make it a great day…


Teamwork, Teamwork

“What’s gonna work?  Teamwork!”

–     Lyric from a song in the Wonderpets kids’ show

No, I don’t know if Wonderpets is still on, but it’s like the Disney movies that came out between 1999 – 2007.  I may not have seen them, but I heard them over and over again on the DVD player in our SUV, as we did early training on electronic screen fixation with our kids…

Where was I?

Oh, yeah, teamwork.

I saw it play out twice yesterday.

First, I spent 7 hours on a spreadsheet — a really important one that will help completely revamp a B2B Sales Coverage model.  It.  Was. A. Thing o’ Beauty!  I saved it every 4-5 minutes.  I showed it to three stakeholders, who were almost as giddy as was I.  I completed it about 40 minutes before I needed to head out to The Tallest of The Three’s basketball game.  I clicked “save” yet again.

And then…it was gone.  Dead.  Not there.  Had there been bourbon and sharp objects near my computer, both would have been in play.  And then, suddenly, teamwork broke out.  In a modest panic, (controlled, mature, extremely professional panic, of course…) I checked with the smart people; the tech-help team.  43 minutes later, 75% of the work was restored.  Instead of killing another day, I’ll chug through a couple hours – and we’re back on track.  The guys who were good at the thing they’re supposed to be good at got me back to being good at the thing I’m supposed to be good at.

So, off to the game we go.  Not just the game.  The game.  Against a rival that I have disliked deeply for 41 years.  (Holding a grudge is a very ugly thing, and I should be over it, but I’m not, so deal with it…)  The Tallest’s team is quite good.  Ranked #1 in the state, with two ginormous studly D1 prospects leading the way.  Except that last night, The Tallest stepped up.  3.  Another 3.  A traditional 2 & 1 three…  9 of our first 14 and 15 of our first 24.  Then, The Freshman stepped up.  Then The Sole Senior.  Only then did the two ginormous studs need to chip in, because the other team was clueless as to who was going to hit them next.  It ended well, our most complete team victory of our 11-straight to start the season.  The two ginormous studs had 25 and 19.  The Tallest of the Three had those 15.  The Freshman, 14.  Teamwork.  The competition knew what hit them, they just couldn’t do anything about it.

In both cases, and in most cases when teamwork works its’ best — everyone does what they do best in concert with the rest of the team, most of whom are, intentionally, good at other things.

What’s gonna work?  Teamwork.  In the gym.  In the Boardroom.  At the client.  With the vendor.

Excuse me now.  I have to do the 25% of the work remaining on top of the 75% that was saved from the ashes by my teammates.  By teamwork.

Make it a great day.


“A jug fills drop-by-drop.”

–     Buddha 

Two disclaimers.

One, I’m not sure hyphens were a thing in Buddah’s day, but Grammarly says so.  Two, yes, I know I don’t often quote Buddah, but bear with me, please.

Consistency matters.

I had a boss once who was a wacky dude.  A short-trigger and a quick tongue, high intellect and low patience.  He was also extraordinarily committed and consistent.  We literally knew when something was hitting him wrong and we’d re-direct.  We loved him and he loved us.  He’d have taken a bullet for any of us, and we for him.  Because he was consistent.  Consistently excellent, sure, but consistent first.

“No surprises” is a decent way to approach a business day.  When we set high expectations with our clients and meet them, consistently, relationships deepen and commerce grows.  When we show up every day, our co-worker across the hall or across the country begins to know that they can count on us, and when we see / talk to them every day, we grow into the trust that we can count on them.  If our boss keeps giving us more to do, or asking our input on different topics, consistency is probably at play.  She knows she can count on us to think, weigh in and not succumb to the allure of emotion or be reactive or irrational.

Consistency isn’t perfection, it’s predictability.  It’s establishing credibility in a way that combines experience, empathy, EQ and curiosity.

How consistent can we be today and every day?  How much of a difference will that make?




Holding Back The Flood of Fear

“We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”

–     The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 – 1968)

It’s probably the most cited concept in The Daily Difference.  Change will only occur when the fear of change is overcome by the pain of remaining the same. (Dr. Tom Graff)

Monday of this week is a day set aside to honor Dr. King.  A theologian by training, King spoke often about fear and pain, about change and hope.  All are topics worthy of our attention, and all of them are worth committing energy and concerted effort, as well.

If fear is the flood, and the analogy works on so many levels — a flood can start as a trickle and then relentlessly rise until it swamps everything around us — it is, ultimately, a decision we make, at least in business.  We acknowledge the challenges and have to decide if we’re going to be afraid and defensive, or whether we’re going to build something that holds back the flood.  Courage is what makes us build the dike, and hope is what sees us through the construction.  It’s a conscious process that moves us away from the paralysis of fear and uncertainty.  It’s a concrete attempt to create a better outcome.

What is it that we’re afraid of today?  What is the tomorrow to which we aspire, and what is keeping us from building it?  Spending time on these questions and their answers will help us build difference-making plans and will spread our influence to those around us that refuse to be overtaken by the waters.