Category Archives: Lee Ellis

Results vs. Relationships: Finding Your Balance on the Leadership Seesaw

By Lee EllisLee Ellis

As a child, riding a seesaw was fun, wasn’t it? Well, except when you didn’t have equal weight on both sides—then it was just out of balance and someone got stuck in mid-air. That bears the question—is your leadership out of balance? Most likely it is because statistically, more than 85% of the population tilts toward being strong at either Results or Relationships and weak at the other.

What’s wrong with being out of balance? The idea of balancing results and relationships is nothing new, but if we assume that character is the foundation of leadership, then there should be an inner motivation to accomplish the mission (get results) and take care of the people (build relationships). If you don’t get results, you can’t be truly successful in your work or justify your purpose and if you don’t take care of your people, some will quit and leave and some will quit and stay. In either case, it’s not a viable situation. So in the long run, balancing a concern for people with accomplishing the mission is crucial to success.

Identify your natural bent. How can you know and what can you do about it? Begin by examining the two columns below and deciding which list of behaviors best describes your “natural” talents. This indicates your natural leadership style and predicts the direction of your tilt as well as the area in which you need to work to improve your balance. If you can’t determine your natural bent, then ask someone who knows you well.

Results Oriented

  • Take charge, decisive
  • Introverted, focused
  • High standards, task oriented
  • Challenging, speaks directly
  • Logical, organized
  • Skeptical
Relationship Oriented

  • Encouraging, supportive
  • Trusting
  • Good listener
  • Gives positive feedback
  • Concerned and caring
  • Develops others

How do you gain a better balance? First, accept the fact that most of your strengths are natural—we are born with them and naturally out of balance. To get better, we have to change by learning some new personality talents (behaviors). You don’t need to give up who you are, what you have and you don’t need to reinvent yourself. Rather, you augment your strengths by adapting new behaviors that will make you more effective. The way you do this is to intentionally learn a few behaviors in your weaker area that bring you more in balance. The reason this is so hard is that it’s not natural, and therefore often feels very awkward, sometimes hokey and even phony.

Results-oriented leaders need to soften up. If this is your style, just the idea of softening seems anathema; but developing good interpersonal skills is what’s needed to make you a better leader. You know it—you just don’t want to go there. For example, learning to patiently listen, really understand, and then affirm the ideas of others can feel very scary. For some, the needed skill might be learning to give specific, positive feedback. These “soft” skills would be as easy as breathing for many relationship-oriented leaders; but for the tough rational results group, it can be terrifying—they feel out of control and way out of their comfort zone. It takes intentional courage for a thick-skinned, results-oriented person to be a good leader and do these “people” things that are so important.

Relationship-oriented leaders need to toughen up. If you’re someone whose style is naturally, highly relational you will need to identify a couple of behaviors on the results-oriented chart to work on. Quite often this is learning to be more decisive and more direct in giving guidance and setting standards. Casting a stretch vision and conducting difficult conversations is essential to keep the organization and individual team members moving ahead toward successful execution. It may be intimidating, so plan out what you are going to say and then courageously deliver your message; it’s the only way for you to gain a better balance and be the leader you want to be.

Small changes pay big returns. No matter which side of the balance scales you’re on, adapting new behaviors on your weak side even at small levels will lead to significant improvements. Over time they will become easier thus facilitating even further change for the leader.

It takes courage to change. You cannot become a better leader by reading books and going to workshops. These are great ways to learn but when it comes down to actual growth, you have to change your behaviors; there is no other way. You have to give up some of your old habits like dominating or withdrawing and engage others with a more balanced leadership style, and you have to do it under the daily pressures of life and work. That’s what it means to lead with honor—having the courage to do what you know you should do.

Take the first step. Well now that you’ve read this, you likely already know what you need to do to gain a better leadership balance and be the leader you want to be. What are you going to do differently? Who will you engage as your support team to encourage and support you in your growth? As you make progress balancing on the leadership seesaw, help others to gain a better balance, too.

Lee Ellis is a speaker and the author of “Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” in which he shares stories from his experiences as a Vietnam POW and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps.  As president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee has consulted in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, executive development, and succession planning for more than 15 years.  For more information, please visit www.freedomstarmedia.com.

In Tough Times, Treasure your Trials

By Lee EllisLee Ellis

Are you going through tough times?  It may be time to reflect on some who have been down that road before you.

For the POWs in the Vietnam War, facing serious trials became a way of life.  In that bleak existence locked up and isolated in a communist prison camp for five, six, seven and even eight years, every day had its challenges.  The POWs had to depend on their enemy for the meager food that kept them alive. The same sinister enemy used isolation, beatings, and torture in their attempts to exploit them and make them into propaganda pawns for the communist party.  The diet was pitiful and medical care was virtually non-existent.  Yet the POWs emerged stronger, becoming successful military leaders, congressmen, teachers, lawyers, doctors, counselors, businessmen, and even a Senator and Presidential candidate.  They learned to treasure the trials of their hardship.

Not many will have to contend with the tribulations of POW life, but everyone faces hardships and disappointments. For some it’s a work or career crisis. Layoffs and home foreclosures of recent years have cut deep, leaving many in a severe financial crisis that may worsen, with some experts saying that home prices will go down further before we see a slow recovery. For others it’s a health crisis or perhaps a struggling teen, or a relationship that has gone sour. At some point, we all face the pain of trials.  When you’re in dark times or caught up in the chaos of a battle, it isn’t easy to see the treasure in your trials.  Here are some tips to help you refocus toward not only your goals but the true gold found in trials.

Go Deep – Find Meaning and Make Changes: Adversity builds character by forcing us to face our deepest beliefs and values.  In the crucibles of life, when all the pretend stuff melts away it’s much easier to clarify what is really important and what is not. We have the opportunity to find meaning in our suffering and meaning is a treasure worth finding.

The transformation that we most need isn’t very inviting in good times, but in difficult times our pain can give us the energy and motivation to change our attitudes and behaviors.   As Victor Frankl put it, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”  The painful struggles that we would never choose often afford the greatest opportunity for personal growth, and personal growth is the only path to genuine leadership development.

Go Long – Gain Wisdom and Experience: Leadership research confirms that the experience of overcoming difficulties is not only transformational; making us stronger, but it also makes us wiser and better suited for the challenges of leadership.  Wisdom gained through the experience of hard times helps us better navigate future minefields.  Persevering through tough times also increases our confidence, preparing us for future challenges that will surely come.  On the other hand, leaders devoid of crucible experiences are likely to be overly confident about their ideas, and surprisingly more susceptible to fears. Courageously facing our fears in the difficult times gives us both humility and real confidence.  The wisdom garnered in hard times about ourselves and life becomes the wisdom that guides us into a better future.  Additionally, the difficult trials generate strong emotional memories that stay with us longer and are more easily accessed—gold that we don’t have to search so hard to find.

Don’t Go It Alone: When you are in a battle, you don’t want to be alone—you need supporters in your corner—people who care about you and have your back.  They can provide encouragement when your spirit is down and your hope is sagging.  Encouragement can provide vital energy for bouncing back and continuing to persevere. Sometimes a shared idea or a new perspective on a problem can make all the difference.  Just knowing someone is near—that you are not standing alone—can provide the needed inspiration, courage, and energy to persevere, even when everything in you is saying it’s too tough to keep going. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine knows it’s not good to fight alone. The same is true for all of us.  We must stay connected to be resilient and bounce back from trials. The lingering treasure is that when you have gone through the fire with someone, usually a bond is formed that brings a special relationship for a lifetime.

More than likely, you have already passed through some tough times in your life.  It may be helpful to look back and see the treasure that you gained from those past challenges.  What was the meaning you gained through those trials?  What did you learn about yourself that may be helpful now?  What changes did you make then?  Who walked with you?

You have a choice. You can let your trials bury you or you can dig for the treasure in them.  If you want to discover the gold in your current pit, then answer these questions: How can you find meaning in your current trial?  What are you learning about yourself?  What changes do you need to make now—in your attitude, mindset or behaviors? What wisdom points are you learning in your current situation that will help you in the future?  Who is walking with you through this fire to provide support?   If you follow these tips, someday, looking back, you will see enormous value in your trials.

Lee Ellis is a speaker and the author of “Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” in which he shares stories from his experiences as a Vietnam POW and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps.  As president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee has consulted in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, executive development, and succession planning for more than 15 years.  For more information, please visit www.freedomstarmedia.com.

You Know You’re Smart, But What About Your Emotional Intelligence?

By Lee EllisLee Ellis

The commercials on television today talk endlessly about treatments for low this and low that, but unfortunately, we don’t hear much about low Emotional Intelligence (EQ).  Here are some symptoms: You know you’re brilliant, yet you find yourself reacting with impatience and anger with others who just don’t get it.  You’ve noticed that others don’t seem to get your humor or your jokes or don’t seem so interested in your great stories. Maybe your feedback to a teammate failed to come across the way you had intended.  If as a leader at work, at home or in your community you have any of these symptoms, you’re possibly suffering from low Emotional Intelligence.

For most people, EQ limits a person’s career and influence more than IQ.  So what are we talking about here? What indicates good emotional intelligence?  It’s really about being aware of and responding effectively to emotions—our own and those of others.

In many ways, good EQ is similar to the common courtesies that were emphasized more in previous generations.  After all, the old saw about  “counting to ten” when we felt anger was about as scientific as you can get.  We now know that the emotional part of the brain (the Amygdala – /əˈmigdələ/) reacts four times faster than our cognitive quarterback in the pre-frontal cortex.  In simpler terms, learning to slow down our response to emotional situations can keep us out of trouble.

The Amygdala is part of the limbic system and is the source of our natural protective response for flight or fight.  For many who train regularly for combat – military, law enforcement, athletes—tapping into this source of high energy for a crisis response helps performance.  But away from the job, that same response can get you in trouble—hence the term “Amygdala Hijack.”  But to some degree, all of us use and misuse this natural instinct to fight or flee—to dominate or withdraw.

So, the key to good emotional intelligence is awareness.  Until we become aware of our emotions and predict where they will take us, we’re clueless as to how to manage them; and that’s what we really want to do.  Likewise, an awareness of the emotions of others helps us manage our response to facilitate the most effective interaction. Let’s walk through the four steps of emotional intelligence and you will get it quickly.

Recognize your own emotions. Awareness usually requires practice.  You’re in a meeting and Bob says something that you know is absolutely wrong— “how could anyone be that stupid,” you think.  Your first instinct is to call him out and show him how wrong he is.  But you’ve been down that road before and know that will only embarrass Bob and ultimately make you look small. Besides, you may not even know all the facts that are behind his opinion.  Fortunately, you recognize that you’re angry and you’ve learned to coach yourself to hold back on your response.  You slow it down and engage your cognitive quarterback to come up with a plan B.

Manage your emotions.  You’re a quick thinker and now your mind is running through options for an effective way of responding.  Your goal is to respond with honor and respect because that’s one of your personal values.  You remind yourself that Bob is a bright guy, too. Also, you’ve heard from your leadership coach that listening is a really good tool. One option you remember that might work is to say something like, “Gee Bob, I had not thought of it like that before. Can you explain the logic of how that would work?”  Of course, tone of voice and body language are very important to pulling this off because they are two of your strongest communicators of emotions.  Once Bob gives his explanation, more than likely you will see that he’s not stupid at all—just operating with a different perspective.  But in any case, you’ve managed your emotions and maintained your decorum—signs of a good EQ.

Recognize the emotions of others.  On the way back from the conference room, you run into Jane, one of your peers, who seems a bit down and overwhelmed.  You’re depending on her to deliver the data that you need for the next step of your project and the deadline is tomorrow. Your immediate fear is that it’s not going to happen. Now that you’ve been working to raise your EQ, you mentally push back on your fear and consider what your teammate is up against and how her confidence and energy are sagging.  It doesn’t take an EQ genius to realize that putting a guilt trip on her is probably not a good idea, but what can you do?

Respond appropriately/effectively to the emotions of others.  Because you’re not fear-motivated, you focus on encouraging Jane.  After all, she does good work and what she needs right now is an emotional boost.  So you choose to show her some empathy and encouragement, telling her that you understand things are difficult right now and asking if there are ways that you and your team can help.  You also offer to listen to her challenges and brainstorm with her on solutions. (By the way, this is one of the most helpful things you can do for an extrovert; they unusually need to talk to think effectively.) You close out by reminding her that she is a great teammate and that you have confidence in her judgment.

Having good EQ may sound somewhat soft, but it’s actually very powerful because it’s about being the most effective we can be.  It begins with awareness—we can’t manage what we don’t recognize—and then it’s about managing our own emotions and our response to others.  In the simplest terms, it’s about reading the situation and then acting in the most effective manner. It does get easier with practice, and it makes you the kind of leader that others want to follow. Try it and see for yourself.

Lee Ellis is a speaker and the author of “Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” in which he shares stories from his experiences as a Vietnam POW and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps.  As president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee has consulted in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, executive development, and succession planning for more than 15 years.  For more information, please visit www.freedomstarmedia.com.

Leading with Honor: Do You Have What It Takes?

By Lee EllisLee Ellis

Are you alarmed by the frequency of ethical scandals in recent years?  No doubt, you have seen the headlines about Wall Street greed, but ethical problems are just as prevalent on Main Street where bookkeepers, purchasing agents, and business owners violate the trust that others have placed in them.  Think of the headlines in recent months: a highly respected coach resigned for covering up NCAA violations by his players; a Congressman is convicted of accepting bribes; a religious leader cheated on his wife, another is accused of using his authority to fleece the flock; teachers changed students’ responses on standardized tests and administrators collaborated in cover-up; a college inflated the average SAT score of their students to improve its image. 

What is happening to our society?  Does anyone care about honorable leadership?  What can you do about it?  What have others done that might guide those of us who seek to turn the tide in this onslaught against character-based leadership?

It seems ironic that some of the best examples of leading with honor come from the POW camps of North Vietnam, an environment so life-threatening that one might expect to see frequent examples of self-centered, self-serving leadership.  But when life and limb were on the line, these brave leaders chose honor rather than comfort, humiliation rather than cooperation with the enemy.  Their courageous service can inspire and show us what is required to lead with honor. Let’s look at some of the lessons they offer to us today.

Know yourself: The POWs leaders were experienced and strong yet they had no choice but to be humble.  The enemy used torture and isolation to try to break their will and force them to cooperate in making propaganda. They were vulnerable, stripped to their core; they could not pose or pretend they were something they were not.  Fortunately, they were solid—healthy people with a strong character that enabled them to lead with honor through the most unimaginable humiliation. 

If you don’t know yourself and have a peace about who you are, your fears and insecurities will take you out.  Rather than pursuing your passion and purpose using your unique talents, style, and convictions, you will constantly be comparing yourself to others and trying to guide your life by someone else’s ways and standards.  Alternatively, when you know and accept yourself, you can be authentic, leading from your own true north.  Objectively knowing your strengths gives you confidence, while awareness of your weaknesses gives you humility.

Few will ever be POWs, but eventually we will all face situations that expose who we really are.  Spend time with yourself and go deep. Accept who you are, but realize there is always room for growth; work every day to build yourself strong so you can lead authentically, from the inside out. 

Clarify your values and standards and commit to them: The POWs had a uniform code of conduct that everyone knew and was charged with following.  It acted like signs along the road giving direction and providing a framework for decisions, choices, and behaviors, helping them stay on the right path even in the most difficult situations. 

Unfortunately, most people have only generic assumptions and a superficial understanding about their moral values and ethical commitments. Jeb Magruder, White House advisor who went to jail, said that he had been taught right but somewhere along the way he “lost his ethical compass.”  We are all cut from the same cloth as Magruder and without regularly clarifying our commitments, we will drift off course as well. 

Confront your doubts and fears: Fears and insecurities take out more leaders than anything else and they generally can be traced back to the first point above—your identity—knowing who you are and being comfortable with yourself.  Even the smartest, toughest, and best leaders face insecurities and fears. 

The POW leaders were tough warriors but they all struggled with fear.  Commander Jim Stockdale endured frequent physical abuse and more than four years in solitary confinement, so naturally, there were fears, but he did his duty and suffered the consequences. Great leaders know that fear is the norm, and they know they must lean into the pain of their fears to do what they know is right.  Courage does not mean that you are not afraid, but that you do what is right when it feels scary or unnatural. 

Connect with your support team: In your struggle to lead with honor, you are like any other warrior—it’s not good to fight alone.  That’s why the enemy tried so hard to isolate the POWs in North Vietnam and why the POWs risked everything to keep the communication lines open.  Even the toughest POWs relied on the counsel and encouragement of their teammates.  Authentic leaders realize they cannot see every situation objectively.  On the tough choices, you will usually need the perspective of someone who is outside the issue to help you evaluate the situation. Build a network of a few key advisors who can help you navigate the treacherous waters ahead. 

Our culture desperately needs men and women who will lead with honor. Don’t take it for granted that you will lead honorably. Engage in the battle required to guard your character. To be prepared, know yourself, clarify your values, standards, and commitments, confront your doubts and fears, and connect with your support team.  Then you are ready to face the giants and avoid the headlines of failure. 

Lee Ellis is a speaker and the author of “Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” in which he shares stories from his experiences as a Vietnam POW and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps.  As president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee has consulted in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, executive development, and succession planning for more than 15 years.  For more information, please visit www.freedomstarmedia.com.